Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy
Author: Zillah Eisenstein
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 1998
Review Published: September 2000
"Challenging Global Obscenities with the Language of Possibility"
Like the cyberspaces of which she writes in her new book, global obscenities: patriarchy, capitalism, and the lure of cyberfantasy, Zillah Eisenstein's prose leaves the reader awash in a flood of passionate, stylish, meticulously detailed "information," with few guideposts for sorting out the signal-to-noise ratio. This slim volume offers much in the way of exhaustive (exhausting -- four of the five short chapters have over 100 footnotes) scholarly and empirical research. It explores the devastating effects of global corporatism and the role hyperlinked technologies play in facilitating and obscuring its spread, and makes fervent pleas for a more just and democratic future. Although the work is revealing, useful, and often inspiring, the hopeful note which Eisenstein wishes to sound in one voice (the one which emulates netiquette in capitalizing the IMPORTANT parts FOR EMPHASIS), she often undermines in another (the one which refuses to capitalize the names of countries in order to highlight her argument that the nation-state as we have known it is disappearing into the black hole of globally technolinked capital). One is left with a sense of foreboding rather than optimism through much of the book, which the frequent use of Baudrillard-ish catch-verbs (theorize, interrogate, vision, imagine, confront) only exacerbates. The cautious reading the book demands is, however, an indirect object lesson in Eisenstein's central argument: information is not neutral, and its implication in cyberspace allows us to turn our attention away from the widespread demise of democracy, toward the sleek, consumer-friendly package that the desktop and modem offer to assuage the loss and even make us feel good about it.
The key notion of information is little scrutinized throughout global obscenities. There is a light, quasi-Marxist gloss on the concept in which we are reminded of information's relational (vestigial-seeming) ties to human labor (77), but one wishes that Eisenstein had made more extensive use of her excellent but all-too-brief insights into the nature of information as mental production, and had more consciously underscored the difficult tensions that permeate her discussion. She is quite correct to point out that ownership and control of access to information is more important than information itself, and that taking information to be equivalent to facts conceals its power and assumes that access is an unproblematic given. (She also re-exposes the mythicality of the "worldliness" of the Internet and World Wide Web in great detail. Her empirical claims about the globally dominant lack of access to information are not new, but as old claims gathered together and fired at the reader in staccato fashion, they gain new impact.)
Of course, we don't need another attempt to describe the difference between information and facts, or knowledge, or even wisdom. What we do need, in general and in order to give Eisenstein's utopian vision the full weight it deserves, is more explicit attention to stance, as well as a concrete, practical agenda for change. The absence of the second of these is the more pressing need both for the book and for our common future, but a few comments about stance are in order.
As critical as Eisenstein is about the faux-disembodiedness of digital information, and as vehement as she is in her demands for the construction of a progressive community with a more deliberative politics, the way in which she writes frequently risks reinscribing the very problems she wishes so heatedly to challenge. For example, much of the book is written in the passive voice. This would seem odd, perhaps even unconscionable, were it not for the fact that it works, albeit in a paradoxical manner. It is easy to identify the passages in which Eisenstein speaks in her own, optimistic yet troubled voice, not because she prefaces this voice with the usual "I think, I want, I believe" (although she does that, too), but in contrast to the passages written in the passive voice, in which the real agents of power and change are concealed. And while Eisenstein doesn't explicitly say, look, this ideologically loaded contrast is exactly the kind of thing you should watch out for when you're listening to politicians/watching tv/working-consuming under multinational capitalism/surfing the Web, her rhetorical strategy clearly shows this. Yet it takes the kind of attention that a reader dulled by sound-bite infotainment may not be willing/able to give to the text to work this strategy out. The fact that Eisenstein herself carefully documents the ways in which media-ted representations have brought about this indifference deepens the tension without dissolving it.
The concept of stance includes the notion of audience, and here Eisenstein develops a similar ambivalence. She clearly cannot be accused of preaching to the converted. One is compelled to wonder, however, whom she is preaching to or rather, whether anyone can effectively preach to so many different audiences at once. It seems obvious that "telecommunications technologies allow for newly excessive layers of deceit and new possibilities for knowing" (35), and that cyberspace both allows for new interactions and allows the "cyber-media-corporate complex" to mask its activities (70). But these paradoxes are dangerous as well as potentially liberatory, and it's not at all clear that the potential can be made to outweigh the risk, nor, more significantly, how.
Eisenstein tells us that "information does not inform or educate but rather distracts from the real" (37). She offers a robust, empirically grounded account of the myriad ways in which this distraction is brought about, but says less about by whom (no "conspiracies" here), and almost nothing regarding who is most affected. So which "real" is being overlooked? Yes, the internet population and those who profit from it are mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent, English-speaking, and based in the US or its favored democratic trading partner countries. And yes, those marginalized individuals who have the most to gain from access are still excluded from cyberspace. Who needs this "information" most? If a political demand for access to information is central to the struggle against transnational capital, as Eisenstein alleges (168), it actually works to her advantage that she says relatively little about the forms such a struggle could take and who the disputants are, because she can hold so many questions open by doing so.
Put simply, it is BOTH the excluded and marginalized AND those who enjoy the fullest access to and ownership of information technology who are misinformed, miseducated, and distracted on Eisenstein's account. She makes much use of the BOTH/AND construction throughout the work, and while it sometimes appears to conceal irreconcilable contradictions (how can something be both confining and freeing, virtual and real, deceitful and empowering?), this complex rhetorical/political stance is again noteworthy. Eisenstein does not take the easy path here and claim "affluent white male majority = bad/marginalized oppressed perspective = good." Such a move would be facile, and would re-infuse the stereotyped, "us against them" mentality that so limits progressive politics. Instead, Eisenstein's approach suggests that it is the owners/accessors who, because they are the least likely to notice their own distraction are also the most in need of a dose of reality. Once more, there is great risk here, but it is carefully crafted.
Eisenstein's rhetoric meets her practical agenda through what I think of as the language of the possible. For the most part, she confines her recommendations to very weak claims about what could happen if we "theorized" the Web (1), "read" power relations differently (2), "interrogated" transnational systems of power (2), "creatively invoked" new spaces (6), "confronted capitalism" with critique (12), "reconfigured" the public and private (20), "disciplined" capital (25), "thought our way ahead" to democratic forms of media (68), dreamt of "alternative worlds" (85), used the "radical potential" of the Web to undermine power and undo sexist, racist identities (92-3), "revisioned" the notion of government (128), "imagined" the possibility of challenging masculinist privilege (146), "articulated" a global vision, and "imaged" a liberatory democracy which includes women and girls (157). Such language strikes me as empty (and exclusionary), because we already have a surfeit of such imaginings and revisionings - Eisenstein herself has written some of the best of them . I don't wish to suggest that these creative reconfigurings have gotten us nowhere, but it is in no way obvious from the text how Eisenstein believes they are supposed to help. These stylish catch-verbs tend to encourage a naive voluntarism where to think of utopia is to bring it about. The empty language of the possible offers little in the way of specific guidance as to how "we" might make these possibilities probable. Yet paradoxically, in those few places where Eisenstein makes stronger claims that changes will take place, that hoped-for goals will be realized, her language seems too strong, empty possibilities are replaced with virtual inevitabilities.
"This could happen (but it might not)" is quite realistic but too deflationary, and "this will happen (but we're not sure how)" is completely unrealistic but somehow more encouraging. In neither case does a plan for action emerge. How can one strike a balance here? Can one do so? Eisenstein's approach is to re-conceive the notion of "public," as both process and place, verb and noun, attitude and location, imagined and real (6). Is this more of the same tension? Yes and no. When Eisenstein shows us explicitly what her revisioned public realm entails, she is concrete and persuasive, but as indirect as ever. She insists that her "public" directly challenges the cyber-media complex of global capital (20). It is clear from the subtext, however, that it is the directness of the challenge that matters, and not the conceptual hook on which it hangs. She points out that in order for progressive voices to be heard above the din of transnational capital, we need to engage in a struggle to democratize media and public life (65). But it is the struggle that counts, not the theory of public life under which it is subsumed. The primary value of democracy, she reminds us, is not freedom (the current banner for Internet politics), but equality (95), which is less comfortably reconciled with consumerism and enjoys no support from the cyber-media-corporate complex. It is therefore equality that is Eisenstein's real goal, and she should say so.
Cybertechnologies and new articulations of the public are just so much subterfuge, which divert us from the goal of equality. Unsurprisingly, Eisenstein grasps this challenge and the turmoil it engenders: "the relations of mind, body and machine are not wholly cybernew AND there is something unique to having these relations digitally wired" (87). Raising the consciousnesses of powerful cybercrats about the long-term, dispersed, and REAL effects of their power may give them the "information" they need to reconsolidate their global political, patriarchal, capitalist power base. Indeed, Eisenstein demonstrates that this has often happened in the past, and appears to have grown worse, not better, since 1989. AND giving the same "information" to the marginalized and disenfranchised may help them to escape from under that power and establish a community where equality is valued above freedom. BUT it can't do both. SO this tension, as richly suggestive as it is, must come to resolution in SOME way. How?
1. See, for example, Zillah Eisenstein, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (New York: Longman, 1981) and The Color of Gender: Reimaging Democracy (Berkeley: U California Press, 1994).
Edrie Sobstyl is an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research interests include feminism and science, science fiction, and environmentalism. She is currently working on a book combining science fiction with bioethics. She is also the book review editor for FEMSPEC, a journal for feminist science fiction, and welcomes inquiries about reviews and reviewing.
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