The New Inquiry

Particular Universals

Francis Tseng

Francis Tseng interviews Helen Hester of Laboria Cuboniks, the international feminist collective behind the Xenofeminist Manifesto

SILICON Valley's most powerful monopoly may be how we perceive technology. The prevalence of dystopian fiction, cynicism around disruption and innovation rhetoric, and tech tycoons with a literal dissociation from reality ("we live in a simulation") mean that the taste of technological progress is an increasingly bitter one. New services and products are seldom designed for those who need them. If anything, they end up expanding the myriad ways in which exploitation can occur.

Can technology be redeemed? What remains of its emancipatory potential?

The Xenofeminist Manifesto, published by the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks lays out a new framework for technology's role in social progress. "Why is there so little explicit, organized effort to repurpose technologies for progressive gender political ends?" the authors ask. "The real emancipatory potential of technology remains unrealized... the ultimate task lies in engineering technologies to combat unequal access to reproductive and pharmacological tools, environmental cataclysm, economic instability, as well as dangerous forms of unpaid/underpaid labor." This reframing of technology requires a politics that does not shy away from scale and complexity.

Technology as deployed under capitalism often has violent consequences, compelling anxieties and suspicions around it that can lead to withdrawal. Rather than retreating from the risks posed by such machinery, xenofeminism seeks to directly engage with them, urging feminists "to equip themselves with the skills to redeploy existing technologies and invent novel cognitive and material tools in the service of common ends."

For xenofeminism, one of technology's greatest possibilities is that it can undermine the rhetoric of the "natural": "Anyone who's been deemed 'unnatural' in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who's experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of 'nature' has nothing to offer us." Nothing is "natural" or "as it should be" when technoscience makes it so that nothing is "fixed, permanent, or 'given.'"

Xenofeminism is a corruption in the best sense of the term: "We understand that the problems we face are systemic and interlocking, and that any chance of global success depends on infecting myriad skills and contexts with the logic of XF... it is a transformation of deliberate construction, seeking to submerge the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in a sea of procedures that soften its shell and dismantle its defenses, so as to build a new world from the scraps."

It has only been a year since the manifesto's release, so this seeping is nascent. At the same time, the anxiety and politics around technology have reached a crescendo. In the following interview, Helen Hester of Laboria Cuboniks elaborates her perspective on the manifesto, its history, and where things could go from here.


Who constitutes Laboria Cuboniks? Where are you all coming from?

Laboria Cuboniks is a group of six women spread across five countries and three continents, united by our investment in developing a feminist politics fit for the twenty-first century. Our interests and backgrounds are quite diverse. I'm an academic specializing in gender and sexuality studies, technofeminism, and theories of work; we also have programmers, artists, poets, archeologists, electronic musicians, web designers, and logicians. We don't always agree on everything, but we share an orientation, and the process of negotiating between our various positions can be really productive.

The Xenofeminism manifesto was published a little over a year ago in June. What response and effects have you seen?

It's particularly gratifying to see people taking it up, applying it, extending it, and questioning it--this is what we were really hoping for, and why we framed the manifesto as an invitation rather than a blueprint.

We have also had some more wary, even hostile, responses to the text. A number of people have struggled with the idea of reclaiming universalism as a vector for an emancipatory gender politics, and I completely understand that. Previous attempts to articulate a universal have, as Rosi Braidotti astutely reminds us, been hampered by a willful failure to be properly representative: the universal subject is "implicitly assumed to be masculine, white, urbanized, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit, and a full citizen of a recognized polity." Critics argue that to emphasize the generic is to go against established intersectional practices, and that to engage with the universal is to ignore the significance of difference (including racial difference). We fully acknowledge that intersectional methods have significantly enhanced feminist theoretical approaches, demanding a sustained sensitivity to the possibility of compound privilege and discrimination, and indicating that single-axis frameworks fail to do justice to the full complexity of lived experience. Certainly, xenofeminism seeks to retain the myriad insights of this approach and to apply them to emerging technocultures, but it does not see the need to abandon the universal in order to do this.

Indeed, xenofeminism precisely aims for an intersectional universal--what we describe in the manifesto as a "politics assembled from the needs of every human, cutting across race, ability, economic standing, and geographical position." This is in direct opposition to the bloated particularity that has conventionally been passed off as the universal and which has largely cornered the market on popular understandings of the generic since the Enlightenment. The xenofeminist challenge is not simply to reject universality, which we view as having considerable political utility, but to contest for and to re-engineer the universal. This is why we seek to position the universal as a kind of "mutable architecture that, like open source software, remains available for perpetual modification and enhancement." Far from transcending the concerns of the social, the universal demands to be understood as the perpetually unfinished business of the political. But I can appreciate that we have a lot more to do in order to demonstrate this to some of our unconvinced allies.

What has changed in your thinking and perspective in the year since publishing?

I think that some of our ideas around anonymity have been revised, largely because we failed to commit to the idea early enough. We had originally sought to enact the idea of speaking as "no one in particular" by operating as an anonymous assemblage. Our name is an anagram of "Nicolas Bourbaki," the collective pseudonym used by a group of 20th century mathematicians, and we had intended to operate in this kind of spirit. But ever since we launched the manifesto via an in-person reading, this anonymity has been unraveling. In fact, anonymity has sometimes proved to be a bit of a hindrance anyway, as it can muddy the waters in terms of what we're advocating for. As Nina Power wrote recently: "What is the relationship between speaking 'as' no one and speaking from a marginalized position? Can we not do both? Feminist scientists and feminist philosophers of science are no less universalist or rationalist than other male scientists, but they do not pretend to be speaking from nowhere, and, indeed, it is their feminist commitments that often reveals precisely what has been overlooked in earlier research."

If technology is something which enables us to abandon archaic notions of what is "natural," or even to abandon the notion of "natural" altogether, what else falls under this label?

Certainly the potential to intervene within and disrupt the "natural" extends well beyond technoscience, even if the re-engineering of embodiment through everything from hormones to mobile phones is currently enjoying a particularly high profile. The home, for instance, is not only a naturalizing force--that is, a key site for generating a cultural sense of the "natural"--but is itself frequently naturalized. As we put it, "domestic space has been deemed impossible to disembed, where the home as norm has been conflated with home as fact, as an un-remakeable given." In other words, for many people the nuclear family and the small dwelling have become so commonplace and so widely accepted that it is nearly impossible to imagine wanting things any other way. This is just the way life should be organized--it's "natural"!

A certain version of the domestic becomes something we are all expected to aspire to, to the extent that for many of us, the possibility of other forms of social and spatial relations is not worth entertaining. Those of us living with roommates, for example, often view such arrangements as an undesirable necessity and remain oriented towards a different horizon--a roost that we can really rule. The success of this idea of the single family home is really quite remarkable when one considers its many limitations: it tends to be isolated, labor intensive, and energy inefficient; it's also riven with tensions, interpersonal animosities, and power asymmetries, which are often felt particularly acutely by queer youth. Of course, much of what makes the home oppressive stems from social relationships and structures--and political struggle on multiple fronts is a vital part of transforming these. As Shulamith Firestone notes in her work on reproductive technologies, sometimes it is productive to intervene within the sphere of the material as an early point in such a struggle, not least because the seemingly more mutable field of attitudes and ideologies has proved so infuriatingly tenacious when it comes to gender and sexuality. Our understandings of reproductive labor are shaped by the spaces in which this labor is enacted, and vice versa--the two are mutually constitutive. As such, the process of conceiving, planning, and building alternatives to atomized family space could be highly productive, and this is where artists and designers might have a significant role to play. As we put it in the manifesto: "Let us set sights on augmented homes of shared laboratories, of communal media and technical facilities. The home is ripe for spatial transformation as an integral component in any process of feminist futurity."

Do you have ideas for technological projects that would help realize xenofeminism?

I feel that you would probably get six very different answers to this question depending on which member of Laboria Cuboniks you asked. I am very interested in what a xenofeminist technology might look like, but many of the examples that come to my mind are historical--moments from the past that were co-opted, derailed, or never fully brought to fruition. I'm really interested in the potential of the Del-Em, for example, a menstrual extraction device developed by activists in the second wave feminist self-help movement. This technology is designed to suction the contents from a human uterus, using a flexible tube inserted into the cervix and a syringe to provide suction. The process takes between three and five minutes, and can be used both to regulate menstruation (by condensing the monthly bleed), and as a means of preventing the establishment of early term pregnancies. As such, it has become best known as a "DIY abortion technique." It was designed in California during the 1970s--not coincidentally a space and time of considerable innovation in software development. As Michelle Murphy notes, the emphasis on shareability associated with menstrual extraction "was analogous to modes of shared and circulated production that gave birth to software such as UNIX, and later LINUX, as well as the open-source patent," all of which are suggestive of the rise of a new exchange economy.

For reasons too complex to really get into here, then, I see the Del-Em as a partial, imperfect, but hopeful example of what a xenofeminist technology might look like. It is not simply its function which points to its gender-political possibilities, but also its immersion in discourses of scalability, its status as a tool of repurposing, its intersectional applicability (when viewed as one part of a broader reproductive justice framework), and its navigation of institutional gatekeepers.

Dystopian fiction is very popular now. We're inundated with projections of our present anxieties and inequalities into the future, feeding a cycle of cynicism and hopelessness. With an impending Trump presidency, Brexit, and similar events brewing elsewhere, these dystopias are realized for more and more people. What role, if any, do speculative and utopian thinking have in your project?

I have long sympathized with Firestone's comments about the risks and necessities associated with advancing a political blueprint. In The Dialectic of Sex, she recognizes the insistence upon concrete proposals as a "classic trap" and "a technique to deflect revolutionary anger and turn it against itself," and points out that a complete map for action cannot be provided in advance, for "any specific direction must arise organically out of the revolutionary action itself." She nevertheless goes on to outline what she calls her "dangerously utopian" concrete proposals, noting that the failure to articulate a positive thesis can be frustrating to readers, particularly those new to the debates and keen to start making change happen.

Pure critique demurs from getting its hands dirty with envisioning what a better world might actually look like. Utopian thinking is bolder, and there is a lot to be said for those forms of political discourse that allow the feminist left to reclaim the future as its rightful stomping ground.

The manifesto form might be conceived of as swaying between describing what's wrong with current conditions, declaring what one wants instead, and pointing towards how to obtain this. A manifesto attempts to be both diagnosis and (partial) prescription--the "what?" and the "what now?" In declaring a piece of work to be a manifesto, one takes the risk of declaring one's intentions and venturing a course of action. For me, the manifesto form gives one the freedom to explicitly want and to explicitly declare that the world can be other than it is. In this, it shares common ground with the utopian. It discourages hedging, fence-sitting, and trepidation, and (in small doses, in the right context) that can be very liberating--hopeful, even.

However, hope without ground can be as counterproductive as no hope at all. Without a sense of the commitments and effort required to make political transformation happen, without a sense of the need to organize and to strategize, it will be difficult to turn this hope into anything much at all. Indeed, hope itself will prove difficult to sustain. To write a manifesto is to participate in a tradition of making demands, and our text does that to some extent. I do think, however, that we might have done more to articulate the potential steps to be taken, to mitigate the text's less helpful utopian edge. As it stands, "Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation" is more of a provocation than anything else. As a relatively slight text of only 4,000 words or so, it offers only glimmers of concrete proposals for action. I'd like to think, however, that it at least takes its own desires and demands seriously (even those as seemingly far-fetched as the abolition of gender), while holding these open to potential revision and remaining alive to the various gains to be secured along the way.