Technophobes v. technomaniacs

Feminism and the Technological Fix
February 17, 1995

If it is a technological fix you are after, the transport cafe of today is a place where, over coffee, you can cruise the information superhighway at the computer monitor on your table. Stories about virtual reality, cyberpunk, gender bending on the Internet, and the femininisation of cyberspace now proliferate in popular culture. Aesthetic speculations about the role of technoscience in shaping our future are currently on display in an exhibition at the Institute of Cultural Anxiety (ICA). Having just returned from the exhibition, suffering from the "interpretational indigestion" it was supposed to induce, I picked up Carol Stabile's book and my first and lasting impression is that she too is suffering from this disorder.

The book is a polemic against feminism reduced to a "privileged avant-garde gesture". Stabile's concern is that feminist responses to technology in the United States have been inadequate, both theoretically and politically. Her explicitly socialist project is to "combine the positive aspects of a feminism based on anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic struggles with an historical-materialist analysis". It emerges that her main target is feminist post-modernism, especially Donna Haraway's work. The significance of this trend for feminist analyses of technology is increasingly being debated in the UK. As someone yet to be seduced by cyborg politics, I anticipated Stabile's critique with some relish.

The central premise of Stabile's thesis is that feminist approaches to technology have polarised into two equally problematic positions - "technophobia" and "technomania". Technophobia is the rejection of technology as inherently patriarchal. It involves a belief in theories based on essential gender difference that celebrate women's special connection to nature. Exploring feminist science fiction, Stabile writes fluently about the limitations of Utopian matriarchal visions that conjure up mythic versions of a pre-technological female natural world. Similarly, she discusses the idealised rural conceptions of the environment which are central to ecofeminist thinking. However the critique of essentialism presented here is now well-trodden ground.

I found other chapters more stimulating, particularly the discussion of the impact of foetal photography on the constuction of women's bodies. Stabile argues that the separation between mother and foetus, made possible by visual technologies, is historically unprecedented and has been effectively deployed by the New Right. Both this and the next chapter, on media representations of women during the Gulf War, demonstrate the strengths of a cultural studies analysis.

However it is also at this juncture that the partiality of Stabile's account becomes evident. She caricatures feminist responses to these technologies as either hostile, ignoring the ways in which technology has saved women's lives, or over-enthusiastic, forgetting how technologies have been used to control women. To categorise all feminist writing on technology in terms of either technophobia or technomania is a serious distortion.

Stabile is impatient with deconstructionist forms of cultural theory as providing little more than a post-modern joyride through hyperspace. She is locked into an overly abstract cultural theory of technology with the result that she can provide few signposts towards the socialist feminist project that she advocates. A very post-modern fix for a self-professed Marxist to find herself in!

Judy Wajcman is a principal research fellow at the Industrial Relations Research Unit, University of Warwick.

Feminism and the Technological Fix

Author - Carol A. Stabile
ISBN - 0 7190 44 7 and 45 5
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 184pp

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