“Xenofeminism is an affirmative creature on the offensive, fiercely insisting on the possibility of large-scale social change for all of our alien kin.”
Laboria Cuboniks knows; they know that the Internet is dead as we once knew it. It’s more volatile now than “the text-based, small scale Internet of the 90s.” In today’s Internet, new problems arise and old ones are extended. Bodies are cannibalized and spat out as images and information, circulating faster and faster with each news cycle. Every day, we watch each other duke it out over ideologies on the feed. Each of us is a slave to our own timeline.
Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation is a manifesto collectively penned by a group scattered across multiple timezones, working together under the pseudonym Laboria Cuboniks. Xenofeminism (XF) is a new feminism for a new reality that is defined by technological mediation and injected with – as LC writes in the manifesto’s opening – “abstraction, virtuality, and complexity.” The text hinges on an understanding that in the time since the millennium, the Internet itself has gone from a fresh-faced, hopeful youth to an embodiment of an angst-filled teenager. The overarching narrative of its patchwork of communities and ideologies might now be, “fuck off you’ll never understand.”
Laboria Cuboniks write for these communities, giving voice to the intense, at times inarticulable mindfuck that is the experience of being a person split, one foot in the digital and one firmly planted on the ground. “We are all alienated,” LC writes, “but have we ever been otherwise?” XF catches us up to the reality of our condition as digital subjects. We are alienated, fragmented, and yet embodied still. We now know that, as Jodi Dean wrote in Communicative Capitalism, the Internet as an “open, smooth, virtual world of endless and equal opportunity is a fantasy.”
In particular, the online curation of identity that most of us engage in – even those Facebook friends whose profiles embody an “anti-aesthetic” – is both freeing and shackling at once. Online queer and trans* subcultures show us, for instance, how powerful a network can be, allowing users to form solidarities in ways that “geographic dispersal previously made impossible.” This organizing has been “a source of strength for many,” LC notes, allowing individuals to not only possess more agency in their self-representation, but also to collectively curate a network of queer and trans* identities that are high-profile platforms for activism.
At the same time, one is forced to question the politics of visibility at play. Is visibility always empowering? To view the function of online identity formation and representation as only emancipatory fails to account for the “commodified and specularized cultures ” that the rise of the image and subordination of text within the digital environment bolsters. Laboria Cuboniks depart from popular readings of her Cyberfeminist predecessors in her attention to this shift; such figures as Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, and VNS Matrix are now brushed aside for their techno-utopian disregard for the body and belief in the fluidity of identity online. Laboria, while inheriting their “refusal to code the body as natural” and hopeful attitude toward technology as a tool for emancipation, rather acknowledges the digital’s role in deeply entrenching us in identity politics and peer policing. Users everywhere feel “pressure to maintain [their] image in a particular way, while being susceptible to constant threats of attack, harassment, or moral dogpiling.”
“If ‘cyberspace’ once offered the promise of escaping the strictures of essentialist identity categories, the climate of contemporary social media has swung forcefully in the other direction, and has become a theatre where these prostrations to identity are performed.”
Culturally, we seem to have reached an understanding of this evolution. Certain facets of the Art World would like to link this shift in consciousness to the proliferation of texts and artworks surrounding the phrase “post internet” starting around 2007. The Internet is as banal an aspect of existence as any other. At the risk of overhistoricization, it is interesting to look back upon these years, 2008 – 2013 roughly, as an ‘era’ obsessed with the project of hyper-aggressively naturalizing the Internet as a part of the fabric of everyday life. We, as post-financial crash and pre-Snowden political subjects, were mesmerized by the slick surface of the interface washing over everything in sight.
Laboria Cuboniks, however, articulates a more recent shift in our online engagement. They argue that, as things now stand, not only does the Internet provides a ‘natural’ venue for the basic functions of everyday life, but it also exacerbates and extends these relations – tempting one to employ toothless phrases like “post-post internet.” In “Too Much Screen: Is the Internet Dead?” Hito Steyrl uses the phrase “the Internet in 4D” to describe the extrusion of the Internet off of the screen and into daily life. The added 4th dimension in her description feels important and well-aligned with the claims of the Xenofeminist Manifesto. Where we might have previously believed that the Internet functions as a two-way mirror alongside the ‘physical’ world, it might benefit us to instead look at it as a series of funhouse mirrors distorting identifications and opinions. But it’s a funhouse that appears to have no exit.
Here, Laboria Cuboniks steps in to say that there is an exit strategy. It’s not a trap door; it’s not going off of the grid. The only way out is through. Our online “prostration to identity” has indeed alienated subjects from each other on the backdrop of an existing alienation from the technics of the very venue in which all of this plays out (an attitude of “idk it just works!” when talking about digital technology) as well as the geographic alienation of a networked public sphere. Concepts like ‘intersectionality’ serve – at times productively – to divide subjects into intensely local nodes within a large grid of identification. However such localized, bounded identities obscure the fact that most everyone is alienated from just about everyone else and in just about every way. LC argues then that:
Recognizing alienation as a universal condition among non-normative subjects – those of us who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual males -, is to LC, the key to changing the game. They suggest endorsing a new universalism and forging solidarities that cut across identities, creating intersectionality as a way to extend rather than limit. A Xenofeminist intersectionality is “not a morcellation of collectives into a static fuzz of cross-referenced identities, but a political orientation that slices through every particular, refusing the crass pigeonholing of bodies.”
While such a suggestion might not be so cutting edge – perhaps Xenofeminism is just a redressed cyberfeminism or Foucauldian biopolitics – the project still feels new. It resonates because it presents new options in the face of a discourse that feeds on inevitability. Xenofeminism successfully captures a glitchy panorama of the experience and problematics of the 21st century subject and proposes broad strategies for debugging the digital landscape.
This lack of clear programmatic thrust might leave the text vulnerable as it floats, seemingly untethered, in theory-land. Laboria Cuboniks writes loftily about identity and harnessing technology toward revolution, but for a self-proclaimed rationalist there is little reference to how exactly “a feminism at ease with computation” will alleviate the challenges of digital life. But on the flip side, this aids LC in her proposition of Xenofeminism as a platform, ”a mutable architecture that, like open source software, remains available for perpetual modification and enhancement.” The modularity expressed in the text – even in its structure – speaks to a desire for it to appeal to a variety of communities. Though it is hard to say whether such openness is fundamentally the achilles heel or the secret weapon of the project.
Regardless, this text feels like a saving grace amidst exhausted frameworks for emancipation. At times I feel that we’ve been locked into the same circular conversation around the Internet for the last three years or so. For instance, I think I’ll scream if I see just one more pretty, young female artist laud the selfie’s political power in the face the male gaze, and my head might explode if I hear another lecture about the crumbling state of ‘authenticity.’ Further, I will cry if I am asked to accept the fact that we still discuss images as the ultimate force of verification and rampant police brutality in the same breath. In recent months, it has become harder and harder to hide from ourselves that we are still subject to the realities of a non-digital world and that these realities are only enhanced at the hand of our machines.
Understanding this as the baseline, we can begin to ask the hard questions about where our desires and identifications come from, what it means when corporate platforms are in the mix, and how to harness these available tools toward “building the ‘right’ mythologies, reigniting the libido, reprogramming desire, and shifting the cultural imagination towards a future people want to live in.”
It’s something like that cheesy aphorism, “you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” We need a radical politics that understands where we’ve been; and where we’ve been for a while is an increasingly hybrid territory. Xenofeminism is built for this unprecedented complexity, for the world where the iPhone is both friend and foe, a world in which we have grown together with digital technology like parasites in love.