Writing the Feminist Internet: Reimagining Internet Sovereignty as Feminist Laissez-Faire

July 7th, 2021

This text responds to a collaborative performance Writing the Feminist Internet (2020) WtFI it suggests that these manifestations are a motif of fourth wave feminism. It probes at the edge of Internet dark spaces that are often occupied by those who point to complacency in engagement with networking systems by drawing auxiliary attention to the apparatus. Further examination sheds light on the valences and anarchy of technopolitics that transpired and reflects on the call for hybrid of feminist activist efforts by Emma A. Jane. The findings reveal that the potency of a feminist internet theory lies in its indeterminate stance. It is proposed that ambivalence and prominence in obscurity in such expansive ‘dark social spaces’ is where new meanings and enunciations can brew and be read as a source of critical and aesthetic ambiguity, amongst the highly revered principles of disarray, pandemonium and incompleteness.

What follows is text that contains some excerpts from a longer essay ‘Writing the Feminist Internet: A Chthonian Feminist Internet Theory for the Twenty First Century’ published Anglo style by Continuum Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. Edited by., A. Maddox, R. W .Gehl, T. Cinque for the issue on The Dark Social: Online Practices of Resistance, Motility and Power.


Detail: Screenshot Session 1 WtFI where colour play highlights represent the mélange of individual and collective participation. v.1 30 May 2020, 1400–1600 AEST. Image: Nancy Mauro-Flude.


Reimagining Internet Sovereignty as Feminist Laissez-Faire

Writing the Feminist Internet WtFI (2020) was a tryptic of two-hour experimental writing sessions that invited the public to engage in editing and expanding upon a draft set of ‘10 working points’. In collaboration with three festivals and symposiums each iteration of subsequent sessions intended to enfold all the ‘feminist waves *waves* \0\ \0/ /0/’ .

‘Next Wave Festival’ Version 1, 30 May 2020, 1400-1600 AEST

‘Hackers and Designers Amsterdam Summer School Academy’ Version 2. 25 July 2020, 18:00-20:00 AEST

‘Digital Intimacies 6 Connection in Crisis Symposium’ Version 3, 27 November 2020, 1600-1800 AEST

The working points were then provided as a springboard for participants to erase, contest, remap, reconfigure in the performative writing act of ontological positioning in relation to one another. Collaborators irreverently augmented the numeric stability of the 10 principles. For instance additions of ‘-1’ and ‘0 zero’. The principles were adapted from a pamphlet ‘10 working points for artists in the new divisions of labour’ in turn, yet another derivative – a zealous translation of Petty’s 1899 manuscript on the consignment of labour. Notably, one of main proponents of this laissez-faire theory of economy was Charles Babbage, the engineer who, assisted by Ada Lovelace, conceived an early version of a mechanical computer known as the Difference and Analytical Engine. An indication of Babbage obliviousness to the enormous density of this machine, Lovelace’s note’s observe, ‘just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves. Here, it seems to us, resides much more of originality than the Difference Engine can be fairly entitled to claim’. By now we all should be aware that erasure in the realm of writing and technopolitics is not apolitical, nor ahistorical. Elaborating upon the spurious nature of property, ownership and proprietary software, feminist historian Hanna Musial bears witness to ‘The forgotten female laborers, whose removal from that history is paralleled by the erasure of the work of ethnic or indigenous…coders… technology itself becomes a medium of critical theory… not only as a tool of “social dreaming” …but also as a vehicle for a radical critical… practice… often as a remedy to legal and political disempowerment. ‘Concentrating on gendered racial and socio-cultural inequalities, Bailey and Trudy ‘reflect how misogynoir functions in social and institutional settings’ They discuss racial injustice through lack of citational practice (and hence eradication), particularly in social media platforms such as Twitter by popular culture figures. In this spirit, a feminist internet theory is posed as a means of taking back, salvaging and recovering previously appropriated antidotes, anecdotes and other undetermined offerings by women that have been erroneously diminished.

Contributors of WtFI were invited to initially meet on Jitsi (an open-source video conferencing platform) which served as antechamber before ‘opting in’ to the performance. There was acknowledgment of those present via a speech with accompanying cue cards, ‘to the gests, hosts and ghosts – ancestors past, present and emerging. The space the feminist server sits on, and the spaces we are all occupying which are in themselves colonised, written, programmed and ruled by dominant other. Subsequently the hosts ushered the participants from the antechamber through to main stage, by the instruction to copy the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) that had been placed the chat element of the Jitsi, in their own browser address bar. To arrive at the location of the main event a purposely configured Ether pad, an open-source text editor for real time multiple authoring.

To facilitate the exploration of a cacophony of voices and decentring authorship through cross-over writing methods alongside the development of overlapping individual pieces  see related screen capture videos). Further clarification was made when more users start to edit in the document there may be many colours according to who is writing into the text, a process that enables the individual subject to be seen as part of the broader collective. Comments such as:

‘I just adjusted by colour to differentiate myself… weird…Unnecessary?’, ‘its so quiet but also frenetic’, ‘I got kicked off mid-sentence and can’t find where I was writing lol’,

substantiate how contributors were reflexive of their experience, as they simultaneously engaged with the ephemeral practise of reading and writing in communion (s ‘-1’ lime green, dark green, orange and purple); substantiating how beliefs are embedded in acts of writing and how language is implicated in behaviour. Just as I will not be writing ‘sic’ after “grammatical, spelling and syntax errors in cited electronic communications and online material in recognition of the informality and colloquialism commonly found in such contexts”. The default text background hue was the one chosen by the most recent participant configuration. Participants who self-allocated a colour also began to change their initial colour palate, causing the majority of individual statements to transmogrify into a collective transcription. Dislocated from its source, the text became awash with a chaotic bricolage of tints as a result of the performative encounter of writing – acts of editing, elaborating, correcting, challenging, echoing, repeating, expanding, clarifying, summarising, distilling, nuancing – all of which produced different hues that were anarchically braided around letters or lines of text. Contributors who by default (or by choice) selected the same author colour as another could resemble a form of Xenoglossia, which is analogous to the more commonly known form of  ventriloquy, for example, an intertextual weaving of thinking in relation to the infrastructures in and of colonisation. These examples contain a panoply of characteristics of dark social spaces by way of identity theft (ventriloquy), and also the misappropriation of working points as a kind of phishing act (imitation of institutions). Wilful collaborative acts of improvisation altered the working points, scrambling verity to be molten and authorship became kaleidoscopic, deranged, abundant and chthonian.

The performance events attracted an array of participants – writers of fiction and non-fiction, artists, poets, critics, curators, and transdisciplinary researchers who predominantly identified as womxn – from varied racial-socio-cultural backgrounds and different skill sets. ‘By participating in the spelling of ‘womxn’ feminists acknowledge the diverse identities of women that are not defined in relation to men’.

Individual details relating to the event were entwined with notions of feminist solidarity. Some partakers embraced a ‘peripatetic stance’ and others noted the profoundness of play within the limits a given system:

 … [child name redacted] started typing into the etherpad hahaha and i only added like 2 sentences as i just couldnt quite figure out what i wanted to say (also the original manifesto read rly well to me), but listened to the relaxing typing noises! (WtFI participant).'s a beautiful thing to create dynamic/organic flow within fairly rigid technological constraint (document formatting tech etc.). Lots of familiar faces (names) in there! (WtFI participant)

Among other participants, it is notable that the performance gathered different generations of cyberfeminists, the inception of the movement is described by the magnificent Linda Dement who writes how cyberfeminism ‘coagulated and sparked in the reject-outsider mutiny, trauma-jouissance and fast hard beat of queer punk. It found visible existence and a manifesto, through VNS Matrix in the (typical) Adelaide heat wave of 1991…Cyberfeminism, as blurred edge range, entangles carnality with code; machines, blood and bad language; poetry and disdain; executables, theft and creative fabrication. It incites and follows lines of flight powered by contradiction, relatedness, transgression, and misbehaviour. It simultaneously embraces logic and unreason, giving the finger to binaries as it ravishes them.’

Abandoning received, given a priori assumptions of neutrality raging against the complete neglect of specificity, sentiments like these move beyond the putative constraints of discursive, structural norms, corroded by stakeholder commerce. The provocative unruly punk tactics of cyberfeminism serve as a productive entry point into the analyses of contested terrains and provenance of computers and promiscuous computing such as chthonian social spaces. The act of writing as an entombed annotation, contrasted with the act of performing bound to an ephemeral shape is described by poet laureate and punk rocker Patti Smith:

‘I love writing because there are acoustic typewriters and electric ones. It’s a physical act but the word is still trapped on the page… performing … keeps the act of creation alive. I love the process of creation, although the end product is in itself a necessary evil. Still, I’m glad it’s there, otherwise I wouldn’t have …records, …Burroughs or Rimbaud books to enjoy’

peeped at the femnet cool you screencapped the process as it unfurled, perfect and yes, it's interesting the editing that we can do …we identity_runnerz … one reserves the right to be the sometimes conflicted about the rightness of that..but sheesh, u wanna be happy with the ballet in the poems/manifestos in the end..and that means some harsh cutting and sensitive line spacing

and i felt your rearranging today! think that's enough housework for the day! (WtFI participant).

Conferring to the subterranean ‘cut-and-paste’ nonlinear plots of Virginia Woolf, postmodern literary critic N. Katherine Hayles considers the inter/intrasubjective inscriptions from the typewriter to the computer, drawing upon imbroglios and intermediaries appealing for a counter narrative approach to remedy to techno-determinism: ‘amid the uncertainties, potentialities and dangers created by the Regime of Computation, simulations, computational and narrative- can serve as potent resources with which to explore and understand the entanglement of language with code… the potential to inspire another kind of narrative in which humans are not seen as subjects manipulating objects in the world.’

This reveals an acute need to conceive computing practices as dynamic forms and processes, and also to acknowledge the assemblage of networks and systems that perform around and act through us. In this way a chthonic feminist theory envisions the Internet as a ‘cauldron’ of happenings, a host for inexplicable asemic brews. Because asemic writing is often illegible, vivid and/or open ended, it has no fixed meaning (evidenced in concrete poetry), and where the reader as writer, as conjurer, is faced to think not of communication but rather performances with materialities and related knowledge production in collaboration with the paraphernalia of writerly technologies.

Chthonian feminist processes like these can not only delegitimate authorial authority but compost knowledge production. An exemplar of this is artistic research with datasets trained from conversational machine learning modelling agents by Linda Dement.  Contributing in WtFi she generated a text that responded to the prompts ‘A Feminist Internet…’.GPT-2 AI developed by Open AI. 

In the figure below we see how other participants (denoted by colour and syntax) began to riff upon the output from ‘The Feminist Internet is …’ above and below. Transfigure pluralities of ‘Feminists internets are…’;  ‘Feminists internets’ which ‘refuses, excels, connects, disseminates, is a bitch mutant, refuses, rejects, WILL EAT YOU’ and so on. The bedlam in the browser was in line with the errant, formidable and fecund characteristics of chthonic Stygian deities.

Typically, the definition of ‘Feminist Internet’ is motivated by the confluence of activism and artistic research in a bid to offer digital literacy and to spread awareness of alternative computation methods. One initial version of the ‘Feminist Internet’ manifested on 18 December 2017, during a residency ‘Doing Feminism / Sharing the World’ hosted by the Favour Economy and facilitated by yours truly. In a bid to acquaint a broader artistic community with feminist traditions of technical knowledge production, the starting point for the workshop was to discuss the ‘The Feminist Principles of the Internet 2014’, an evolving document that was developed by the Association for Progressive Communications a global Non-Government Organisation (NGO) largely active in South East Asia, Africa and South America. Proceeding this a draft Feminist Internet Lore Manifesto: 10 working points for the twenty-first century’ was published on -empire- a community who participates in monthly thematic discussions via an e-mail list active since 2002 (founded by Melinda Rackham an Australian cyberfeminist artist, curator, and writer) with the objective to trace ‘the emergence of new media theory, practice, and networked culture. Likewise, a ‘Feminist Internet manifesto’ was distributed 19 March 2018 by Feminist Internet, an arts activist collective who conduct public outreach and advocacy to foreground gender inequalities and programmed bias in digital environments mainly operating in the United Kingdom.

In the debate to widen the aperture of ‘affective temporality’ fourth wave feminist Prudence Chamberlain examines how the fundamental shifts of the principles of equality, to the beliefs and actions of autonomy have dismayed some feminists. In fact, the valences of technopolitics akin to the chthonic deities in antediluvian parables are capable of anything except unilateralism, are met with a call to arms of Jane to ‘forge hybrid activist strategies which involve temporary allegiances between various theories, tactics and feminist generations’. A candidness to the world of ideas, possibilities and experiences makes WtFI both resonant and contestable for its current moment – asking its own questions, re-examining its own past and envisaging other futures.

Shining a light on how a processual understanding of feminist computing methodologies is able to be more bountiful and wide-ranging, Rök Jóns enquires ‘is the 4th wave of feminism digital?’. Jóns further surmises that if it faithfully is to be so it ‘would have to be in part discursive and would require a restructuring of legal, institutional, educational, economic, social, religious, geographical, corporeal and cultural barriers…’ In this way WtFi was activated by low bandwidth, user friendly software from ‘The augmented homes of shared laboratories, of communal media and technical facilities’ incanting the words of founding member of the collaborative group Laboria Cuboniks and feminist writer Helen Hester who contribute to the fourth wave punctuated by their manifesto entitled Xenofeminism.

Xenofeminist’s describe themselves as ‘…a labour of bricolage, synthesizing cyberfeminism, posthumanism, accelerationism, neorationalism, materialist feminism and so on, in an attempt to forge a project suited to contemporary political conditions…a project for which the future remains open as a site of radical recomposition’.

Untangling the constructions of supremacy, gender, race, class, opinions’ that logically flatten the veracities of aesthetic properties where Ursula Le Guin recalls the ‘fog-shrouded literary minefields…full of barbed wire and stumps of dead’.

Intense debates propel the motivation for engaging in discourse that is consistently rendered to be equivocal. The energies of these feminist waves must ‘move forward with the kind of generosity and commitment to ambiguity…remembering the utopian thought and solidarity politics that allowed feminists of the past to think beyond gender, to a world of possibility’. Navigating over (and across) notional feminist waves and ‘e-bile’ audaciously the cyberfeminist floats over these commonplace issues, to retrieve what Ada Lovelace in 1842 envisioned for her engine – the infinite ability to weave new configurations – to remain adrift, so as not to become ensnared in the undercurrents.


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