Published: Feb. 1, 2004 By

“I sing sometimes for the war that I fight,
‘cause every tool is a weapon – if you hold it right.”
-Ani DiFranco, “My IQ”

“[We should] recognize that ‘fragmentation’ is neither an experience nor a theoretical construct peculiar to the postmodern moment. Indeed, the fragmentation of subjection is the very condition against which a modernist, well-placed citizen-subject could coalesce its own sense of wholeness.”
-Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (32)

[1] At first sight, the work of American feminist Chicana theorist Chela Sandoval and the texts by French theorist of new technologies Paul Virilio and others in his ‘school of thought’ appear to be widely disparate. Both scholars are writing at the end of the previous millennium and deal with issues concerning the proliferation of new technologies under postmodernity. However, Sandoval’s writings on Chicana knowledges and technologies, notably “New Sciences: Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed”, “US Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World” and Methodology of the Oppressed, breathe an air of optimism and hope, whereas Virilio’s astute analyses of the connections between the military and new technologies provide his readers with an image of certain doom. In this article, I will take a closer look at both Sandoval’s arguments and at the claims made in the ‘Virilio school of thought’ in order to create a fruitful crossing over of these feminist Chicana theories and ‘Virilian’ theories of new technologies. The purpose of this endeavour is to provide tools for a better grasp of some the problems and complexities at stake in theorising global power structures and liberating change within our highly technologised world. Moreover, this cross-fertilisation of these two seemingly disparate viewpoints aims more specifically at the dissolution of several disciplinary boundaries in today’s European and North-American academia. So far, Virilio’s work has regrettably been largely ignored by feminist theorists, while conversely many European-centred theories on new technologies equally fail to take on board a much-needed feminist and anti-racist perspective. This essay is an attempt to productively unravel and stage some of the polarising and paralysing recurring debates in these fields, which in my opinion are largely caused by the broader ongoing failure to settle the argument between anti-essentialist analyses and the historically urgent need for some sort of transcendental praxis from the margins, as I will show later on. As such, this essay will show that Sandoval’s and Virilio’s arguments in fact overlap in their mutual quest for thinking a way out of the current oppressions caused by the new information technologies.

[2] Virilio’s critical and pessimistic observations on the effects of the integration of new technologies into the social order could be placed into a longer history of European thinking about technologies since Martin Heidegger. His ideas also mark strong resemblances with more recent postmodern techno-critics like Jean Baudrillard. German philosopher Heidegger interestingly argued in “The Question Concerning Technology” that it is a dangerous misconception to uphold a simplistic utilitarian view of technologies, as if technologies are neutral tools at man’s disposal. Rather, Heidegger claimed, one should look at the never-neutral essence of technology and how human activity is organised within the technological realm. Such a critique potentially opens up an analysis of technologies as partly (re)producing hegemonic power relations within society. Furthermore, it points at how the embodied human subject is materially embedded in technologies and technological discourses. Such an analysis obviously has its merits for the kind of feminist enquiry that seeks to understand global and local gendered and raced oppressions and their relation with technologies in Western society.

[3] In contrast, Sandoval’s arguments are productively controversial in the light of current European theories of new technologies and poststructuralist frameworks that, as we will see later on, often seem to take an a priori stance against any attempt to invoke a utopian imaginary in relation to technological changes. This is due to the fact that these theories incorrectly assume that such utopianisms are by default transcendental and thus in favour of the hegemonies at hand. On the one hand, such an anti-utopian stance may be extremely helpful in pinpointing certain dominant ideological underpinnings of the discourses that surround the new technologies. On the other hand however, such a stance fails to acknowledge the possibility of any subversive utopian impetus in relation to feminist and subaltern struggles and experiences, which is a recurring theme in Sandoval’s writings. Texts like those of Sandoval make an explicit attempt to theorise postmodern conditions as closely related to historically persistent axes of domination. As I will show later, these texts therefore also implicitly make an important argument for a revalidation of standpoint theories in much current European and US feminist theory. This is important since the latter often misguidedly treats poststructuralism as the winner-successor of standpoint theories, as for instance the slightly belittling entry on ‘standpoint epistemologies’ in the widely used The Concise Glossary of Feminist Theory (211) shows. In this moment of reorientation within techno-studies after the dotcom crash, the way in which imaginative discourses around and qualities of the new technologies tie in with certain feminist and subaltern desires and struggles, still remains highly complex and not yet properly appreciated.

[4] Working towards this impulse for a more complex analysis of the gendered and raced issues at stake around new technologies, will in this case entail a sort of boomerang strategy from my side. First, I will provide a critical reading of Sandoval’s text through the lens of the method of dromology and critical technostudies, showing how some of her claims are quite problematic when assessed from this analytical perspective. Paul Virilio explains dromology as the ‘methodology that analyses the excessive logic of speed’ which holds as its basic tenet that current transformations in our world are induced by the logic of acceleration. Next, I will continue to critically examine several arguments and standpoints put up by the ‘Virilio school of thought’ and point out which aspects in my opinion need to be taken on board and which ones need to be strongly rejected from a feminist and anti-racist point of view. While dwelling briefly upon how the theme of techno-utopias has been taken up by contemporary Western cyberfeminist theorists, this examination will eventually urge me to reread Sandoval’s text in a different light. I will then create a new argument in defence – though now with caution – of several of Sandoval’s appropriations and assertions, by making a case for the urgency of new temporal technological imaginations and utopias. Also, I will elaborate a redefinition of humanism based on an ethics derived from the position of the marginalised, in this case ‘third world women’. As such, this essay will claim that Sandoval’s texts may eventually be more productive than Virilio’s analyses in actually encouraging feminist and anti-racist social change and in effectively reworking new technologies’ discursive and material properties.

Techniques and technologies for moving energy

[5] In her fascinating article, “New sciences: cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed”, Sandoval seeks to theorise means of resistance under the postmodern predicament. She does this through coining the heterogeneous notion of the ‘methodology of the oppressed’ as the crucial new location in our globalised and highly technologised world for the emergence of truthful knowledges. This methodology consists of several oppositional technologies of power, or techniques-for-moving-energy, which she claims originate primarily from both previous and present-day subaltern methods for survival under modern conditions. These subaltern knowledges, claims Sandoval, are now crucial for everyone living, acting and resisting under postmodern conditions. This is because these conditions – in interplay with the new media and communication technologies – result in a nomadisation, hybridisation and fragmentation of allsubjectivities; a condition, she states, previously experienced only by oppressed groups under colonialism and modernity.

[6] Sandoval calls special attention (Methodology of the Oppressed15-36) to the fact that postmodern conditions, insofar as these are brought about by late-capitalism and the dispersion of new media technologies, make the traditional dominant Western subject, with its illusions of coherence against any ‘other’, obsolete. These conditions therefore beg for new conceptualisation(s) of the subject based specifically on previously marginalised identities. The five vectors, or ‘expressions of influence’, that comprise her methodology of the oppressed, consist of the different material and textual techniques for survival and resistance under sexist, racist, modernist, colonial and capitalist conditions utilised by marginalised subjects at different historical and geographical moments (82). These vectors are semiology, deconstruction, meta-ideologising, democratics/morality and differential movement (or differential consciousness). The fifth vector and last in the list is dubbed ‘cyber-consciousness’. The term denotes the more recent strategy for subaltern survival underpostmodern conditions and involves the ability to shift instantly and effectively between the previous four vectors.

[7] Sandoval recognises the new technological and cultural conditions as a pre-eminent moment for subaltern subjectivities to proliferate and change the face of the world not only because of the partial challenge to grand narratives within the postmodern condition. She claims more specifically that cyberspace is a decolonising force insofar as it provides a “realm between and through meaning systems … a zone where meanings are only cursorily attached and thus capable of reattaching to others depending on the situation to be confronted” (135). Sandoval deduces that cyberspace’s processes are thus “closely linked with the processes of differential consciousness” (176).

[8] Sandoval agrees, together with Haraway, that this cyberspace of hyper-connectivity is potentially destructive as it results in an “unrelieved density and instantaneity of connection” (175). But where Virilio and many other European theorists, as I will discuss later, advocate a paranoid withdrawal out of its realms, Sandoval however identifies such speedy connectivity as an enormous opportunity for feminist and anti-racist knowledges and strategies to proliferate. This is due to the fact that the oppressed historically already inhabit and live the methodology or five necessary strategic vectors which will thrive on these partial and rapidly shifting connections across differences. This sense of opportunity Sandoval is trying to exploit here was already commented upon by, for instance, Chris Hables Gray in his analysis of cyborg discourses of war in “The cyborg soldier: The US military and the post-modern warrior”, although he does not provide any clues as how to seize such an opportunity.

[9] To summarise Sandoval’s argument, it turns out that several particularities which happen to be widely available under current postmodern and highly technologised conditions are in fact crucial for her methodology of the oppressed to be able to function properly. These main ingredients are differential movement, changeable velocities and overall speed of communication. Her vectors change over time in the socio-cultural landscape, while the final integrative vector of differential movement amounts to ongoing differential de- and reconnections in alliance building due to an appropriation of internally contradictory and fragmented subjects. Her implicit allusion of using the (mathematical) vector as a metaphor is that the higher the speed and connections of communications and interactions, the larger certain vectors potentially become. In the end of her book, Sandoval ambiguously calls this combination of oppositional vectors a “cyberspace of being that is analogous to the cyberspace of computers” (384). The various necessary velocities for this subversive and destabilising process are envisioned as made possible by the instantaneous interconnectedness of the new technologies and the related fragmentation of the subject under postmodernism and late-capitalism. These latter two properties then set in motion a manifold of temporal alliances that all aim at subversion of current Western neo-liberal patriarchal power structures. Surely such claims for subversion through new technologies, is music to many a feminist new media activist’s ear.

[10] Quite problematically though, Sandoval’s idea of ‘technology’ takes on various ambiguous meanings in her texts, which results eventually in her collapsing oppositional techniques and new media technologies. She suggests that the changes in these aforementioned vectors, which in fact bring about effective de- and re-territorialisations in the Deleuzian sense, get usefully and crucially speeded up due to the new information and communication technologies. Moreover, her texts seem to slip in and out of overlapping the new information and communication networks with a vaguely collective cyberspace of being, which is a rhetorical gesture that certainly calls for more critical reflection. She thus makes the idea of technology (in the broad sense of the word) as a subversive practice overlap with the actual new information technologies, problematically portraying these technologies as ultimately liberating tools. Such a portrayal of the function of cyberspace surely invokes a particular technological fantasy or utopia, since she simply assumes that her vectors somehow proportionately relate to the speed within the global communications network. I will explain later on, through taking up Virilio’s and similar analyses, how exactly her rhetoric gestures in fact partially reinforce current Western hegemony.

Problematising speed and neo-liberal discourses on technologies

[11] Techno-utopian arguments about the new technologies, like those of Sandoval, can be deconstructed by taking up a particular cluster of recent critiques put forward by several European techno-theorists, particularly Paul Virilio’s theory of dromology and subsequent notions derived from this analysis, like John Armitage’s ‘speed-elite’ and David Harvey’s ‘time-space compression’. These theories all aim at explaining and analysing the affiliations between speed, war and technology and their interrelated hegemonic effects on space and subjectivity in our present-day postmodern world. Virilio is a founder of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Peace Studies and Military Strategy and has lived through World War II and writing during the years of accumulating nuclear threat. He creates an interesting historiography and cartography of the connections between most of the slightly older (cinema, television) and newer technologies (satellites, the internet) and the military-industrial complex, in an attempt to show the often-ignored downside to current technological development. Virilio bases his arguments on the fact that the Internet and satellite technologies primarily find their origin in military endeavours on how to preserve instantaneous communication, even when part of the military communication network is shut down. Also, he shows how cyberspace and virtual reality has a direct history in military flight- and battle-simulation. The Internet, after all, found one of its major origins in the Arpanet, a computer communications network that was created by engineers from the US army and designed to survive nuclear attacks. This military history of technologies, and these technologies’ subsequent focus on obtaining ever more social and individual fragmentation and speed so as to exert ever more hierarchical aggressive power, leads him to claim that these technologies will – and in fact do already – destroy the physicality and spatial dimensions of our society. Claiming that our new technologies thus both inhabit and contain their histories and dominant uses of repression, Virilio states that “totalitarianism is already present in the technological object” (Oliveira). This statement means that oppressive masculine and militarised human agencies effectively have gotten and do get displaced into the new technologies. Partly then, Virilio makes an attempt to account for the patriarchal and fascist hierarchies within Western culture in which the new technologies were created, and points out crucially that technologies and (power structures in) society are inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforce each other; or rather almost, that technology is society and vice versa. This means that technologies should be analysed in the broad sense of the word, namely by taking on board that their discourses play a role in and constitute their effects. Virilio thus shows that the new technologies are not neutral at all, and that participating in its dominant discourses and uses in fact will reinstall the power structures the technology was initially intended to enforce.

[12] To illustrate how the idea that ‘totalitarianism is latent in technology’ may be useful for critiques of techno-power, it is useful to look at John Armitage’s arguments in “Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology: The Politics of Cyberculture in the Age of the Virtual Class”. Armitage correctly points out that the current mode of late-capitalism relies mainly on both the infrastructure and the neo-liberal discourse of the new information technologies. Furthermore, he perceptively states that this discourse is mainly concerned with legitimising the increasing prevalence of and consumerism around these new technologies. It does this through claiming falsely that new technologies are first and foremost tools of personal and public enhancement, liberation, entertainment and democratisation for everyone. Instead, Armitage notes, new technologies are first and foremost an expression of a Nietschean will to power of the privileged classes and societies, and are therefore inherently totalitarian. Technologies today only serve the interests of this virtual class whose power, wealth and control can thus be expanded (spatially) and instantiated (time-wise) beyond measure through these digital tools. The utopian myth that technologically endowed speed and instantaneity will bring mankind to ultimate liberation is further dismantled as a dystopia by Armitage and Joanne Roberts in their article “Chronotopia”. They show that these technologies will only enforce hierarchical power structures and compartmentalise and individualise society in favour of the global kinetic elite.

[13] Critiques on the military origins of the new technologies and their destructive results on ‘the’ human as specifically understood by Virilio since the early 1960s induced a lot of interesting techno-scholarship. Some of these critiques similarly may shed light on Sandoval’s problematic conflation of the realm of information technologies and the cyberspace of being. Even before the advent of the internet as we know it today, Ken Levidow and Kevin Robins in “Towards a military information society?” called attention to the increasing logic of control exerted through the technologies and discourses of computer sciences and cyborg fantasies in Western society. Such discourses are invoked through utopias of cybernetic liberation pushed forward by a society increasingly based on a military-cybernetic complex. David Harvey, in his extensive analysis The Condition of Postmodernity, convincingly shows the current entanglements of postmodernism, capitalism and aesthetics. He argues that late capitalism – in order to keep expanding its territory and modes of control – results in an all-encompassing destructive ‘time-space compression’ through the new information technologies (205, 240). This theme is recently taken up by theorists like Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri to indicate the presumably postmodern ‘suspension of history’. Harvey is rather supportive of modernism’s previously successful mission to unify all different societal groups under a singular perception of time and space (115, 202) even though he acknowledges that this entails a false naturalisation of time and space against the opposing experiences of various groups. He hence sees the new ‘pulverising’ effects of late-capitalism through the new technologies as the main cause of recent societal uprisings. In his eyes, time-space compression leads to increasing instantaneous exertion of (military and capitalist) power and “renders relations unstable” (239), creating a sense of all-encompassing anguish and insecurity.

[14] Such dromological analyses by Virilio, Harvey and Armitage serve as a useful and necessary antidote to much of the naïve and simplistic cyberhappy rhetoric in the numerous academic and popular texts surrounding us today. Many of these popular texts falsely portray new technologies as inherently democratising and liberating for all. Furthermore, these analyses point at how liberatory envisionings of new technologies may be part and parcel of these technologies’ overall initial militaristic and corporate goals. Virilio, Harvey and Armitage’s astute observations of the connections between speed, technologies, hegemonic power and late-capitalism certainly throw Sandoval’s ambiguous use of the term ’technologies’ and the allegedly subversive powers of speed and instantaneity, so central to her methodology, into question. Their analyses show that her assertions resonate suspiciously well with those problematic legitimising discourses of the virtual class and the speed-elite that seek to promote new technologies as inherently liberating. Furthermore, the idea that this cyberspace of being will directly result in Sandoval’s vision of renewed ‘love in a postmodern world’ (Methodology 379) through endowing new subversive alliances is quite questionable from the point of view of Harvey’s analysis of increasing social unease and unrest under new technological conditions. Indeed, these dromological critiques show the potential interrelatedness among institutionalised North-American late-twentieth century academia in which most of Sandoval’s writings could be situated, the military-industrial complex, and the dominant neo-liberal discourses of the new technologies as described by Levidow and Robins. From this point of view, the notion of the methodology of the oppressed and its appropriations of the new technologies as theorised by Sandoval could be rejected as expressions of oppressive power structures under today’s globalising conditions. Before we can finalise such a powerful critique of Sandoval’s techno-utopianism though, we should scrutinise more closely what flaws are inherent in the dromological analysis itself, and point out how Sandoval’s imaginative texts actually also contain a powerful critique on Virilian theories.

Nostalgia for modern unified Western man

“It is always flattering to read that you inhabit the ultimate moment in history, and that your own time witnesses the definitive crisis of civilisation.”
– Sean Cubitt, “Virilio and New Media” (127)

[15] Virilio, Harvey and Armitage’s analyses of the interplay of new technologies, the military and contemporary culture and society suffer – however valuable in providing a counter-narrative to simplistic cyber-utopian discourses and a call for more complex scrutiny on the current social-technological order – from a number of problematic allusions and aporias. These aporias result quite unfortunately in a hegemonic power move in itself which needs to be resisted especially from a feminist and anti-racist point of view. What is more, pointing out these aporias will lead to a much better understanding of the impulse and subversive potential of Sandoval’s arguments. At the same time, this will also illustrate how these aporias are complicit in reinstalling certain dominant discourses.

[16] Throughout his work, Virilio’s analyses of the present world-order are overwhelmingly cast in negatively connoted terms that have caused some critics to even call his work apocalyptic and technophobic. I do not agree that his work is merely apocalyptic or technophobic since I actually find Virilio’s fascination with and over-determination of the ‘shock and awe’ of war tools, as well as his connections made to modes of machinic representations, suggesting an almost perverse and worshipping relationship to war technologies. I do contend nonetheless that there is much problematic regressive teleological reasoning in his, Armitage and Harvey’s texts. More specifically, a recurring theme in Virilio’s work is the idea that the expanding sphere of virtual reality will lead to an increasing disorientation, individualisation and fragmentation of the human subject. This fragmentation is a direct result of the speed of information through the new technologies and the instantaneous interconnectedness of previously far-away places that also enforces military control and power. This in turn will result in a crisis of dimension and representation that Virilio claims to be ‘the biggest accident in the history of mankind’. Such an assessment causes him to exclaim for instance in the aforementioned interview with Wilson about virtual reality and cybersex: “It is a drama, a split of the (sic) human being!” (323). Also, in the interview with Carlos Oliveira, Virilio goes on to explain that “’to be’ used to mean to be somewhere, to be situated in the here and now, but the ‘situation’ of the essence of being is undermined by instantaneity” (paragraph 8). He goes on then to oppose virtuality and reality, making the former the pejorative pole of this opposition, and suggests that the body will be “torn apart and dissected” and that man will eventually even be “de-corporalised”. In his article “Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!” Virilio similarly depicts the catastrophic effects of new technologies resulting in a “loss of orientation” and a “non-situation” for the human being.

[17] It is important, in my opinion, to analyse effects of new technologies whereby the body becomes an object of strong control and vigilance. Virilio indeed shows that new technology’s main function is to invade our body and to dissect, fragment and disconnect. Together with Sandoval, I would nevertheless highlight that this kind of fragmentation, supposed ‘disorientation’ and subsequent reorganisation into other connections is not inherently bad or disempowering for everyone at all places. This is also to say that it is not simply ‘the ruling class’ that ‘profits’ from it. Instead, this reorganisation provides a potential opportunity for some of those knowledges that have been marginalised under modernist conditions, to re-stage themselves, as for instance the case of academic Chicana feminism shows. Furthermore, I think Virilio’s textual focus serves to reinforce the use of masculine military rhetoric in all lived technological realms which results in a mere repetition of this rhetoric that needs to be resisted from a feminist-discursive point of view. In fact, the aforementioned lament and discursive repetition put forward by Virilio seem to point more specifically at a contemporary crisis of the humanist, Cartesian and unified subject that is finally facing a mode of existence that indeed many subaltern subjects have been familiar with for centuries, though under different global and technological conditions.

[18] Therefore, when Virilio is talking about “the end of a world” (“Cyberwar, God and Television” 329), we need to look exactly atwhose world is to end and whose crisis this is. In this sense, his assertion that the crisis of dimensions due to speed is an accident formankind indeed holds sway when we recognise the historical enlightenment connections between Eurocentric rationality and masculinity that are apparently under threat. The drama of the subject he talks about can therefore be recognised as being the drama of the Western modernist, humanist and masculine subject and should be reflected upon and taken up as such by critical contemporary analysis on new technologies. The idea that we will get ‘de-corporalised’ because of the new technologies is thus merely the other side of the same coin of the rationalist Cartesian myth of transcendence. For historically subaltern subjects, like Gloria Anzaldua’s and Sandoval’s Mexican-American mestiza, the dromological loss of orientation and the fragmentation of a previously unified humanist subjectivity due to the new media technologies could then in fact mean a gain of empowerment and orientation for non-Western and non-masculine subjects under postmodern conditions. This is because it endows a becoming hybrid of this dominant subjectivity and potentially of all humanity in the Deleuzian sense; a truly subversive de- and re-territorialisation. This is exactly the potential on both the level of metaphor and of material effects of new technologies that Donna Haraway also carefully brings to the fore in her “A Cyborg Manifesto”. Importantly, she does this without loosing sight of the hegemonic and military uses of the new medical, information and visualisation technologies.

[19] Another problem related to Virilio’s nostalgia for the modern subject and pre-new-technology times is the technological determinism that informs many of his arguments. His statement that “totalitarianism is latent in technology”, which coins the idea of a displacement of statically oppressive agencies into technologies, draws the attention away from the specific local and temporal accountabilities for aggressive abuses by certain dominant groups. It does so by putting false agency purely and inertly within the technological object, which in turn fails to account for subversive and oppositional historiographies in the creation and uses of (new) technologies. Instead, technologies in my opinion are neither inherently liberating nor statically oppressive, and taking either side in this debate only brings about unsophisticated and un-contextualised analyses. Virilio’s view of technologies may thus be recognised as Adornoesque in that it constructs a mode of thinking that enhances the false dichotomy of the ‘passive, oppressed masses’ who are stupidly and unknowingly being ‘exploited by the (technological, virtual) elite’. This opposition hinges on an extreme simplification and false homogenisation of internally highly differentiated and contradictory present-day identities. Indeed, one may very well ask who this global kinetic elite really is, and how it intersects with axes like gender, ethnicity, geographical location and class.

[20] Similarly reinstalling a white masculine subject, Harvey starts off by recognising the different conceptions of time by various groups, but gradually slides into discussing “the shifting experience of space and time” (222-223, 240, 284, emphasis mine). He therefore presents a rather white masculine anxiety of loss of control and attack on the coherence of the subject as the universal point of view. Furthermore, besides the fact that his analysis hinges too much on a conventional Marxist base-superstructure model, thus already cancelling out any possibilities of resistance from the margins springing from any identity politics or from imaginative discursive intervention. His descriptions of societal unrest are cast in rather negative terms, which results in a nostalgic cry for the ‘safe days’ of modernism and Cartesianism quite similar to Virilio’s.

[21] John Armitage, in “Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology”, takes a similar path on the road to nostalgia and technological determinism that appears as the mirror image of the transcendental dream of ‘leaving the meat behind’ in cyberspace when he claims that the human will “disappear into the cybernetic machinery” (2). Moreover, using Hakim Bey’s ideas on immediacy, he argues that physical division between and in bodies will lead to these bodies being conquered and controlled. Also, he asserts that the ideal situation for nurturing one’s desires and obtaining freedom is ‘living together’ as in the earlier days before the invasion of technologies of travel and communication. Armitage here invokes a false notion of mankind being inherently better off in a mythical past when we were all free, close to each other and to nature. Such regressive invocations not only grossly misrepresent a historical past that was certainly not equally free for everyone, but also tend to conflate woman and nature in repeating an oedipal search for the ‘lost mother’. Armitage’s representation of (new) technologies as leading ‘mankind’ away from this mythical past, as well as Virilio’s mode of writing that relies on its authority by enunciating an universal humanist and modernist subject by way of nostalgia, results in a fatalism that is quite unproductive. Again, this mode of writing in my opinion eventually actually repeats the ‘shock and awe’ and the subsequent paralysing effects of certain military technologies.

[22] This underlying logic of such theories of technology thus result in a confusion of the useful notion of non-neutral essence of technology with catastrophic, destructive or oppressive tendencies. This fails to regard any technology and its discourses, uses and effects from a specific feminist and/or anti-racist situated and historically contextualised point of view away from Eurocentric fear of dissolution of Cartesian subjectivity. As a result, such Virilian arguments fail to theorise and imagine, in a properly effective and intricate way, oppositional subjectivity and agency through new technologies in the postmodern era. Therefore, I would want to argue against this form of technological determinism. As discourses, contexts and uses shift and multiply around technologies, so will their machinic functions and effects. The initial displacement of agencies may facilitate ends that were previously not meant or envisioned to be, as can be seen for instance with the recent success of the web-based Indymedia network in spreading alternative anti-militaristic and anti-corporate news. In turn, such effects may then affect the former material components since these are all strongly and dialectically intertwined. This latter view then allows the technology in question to be scrutinised even better in its socio-historical context, thus permitting agencies stemming from marginalised groups be accounted for, while not losing track of a technology’s hegemonic intentions.

[23] In critiquing and challenging one form of presentism, Armitage, Harvey and Virilio inevitably fall into the trap of another. This presentism is that of equating technologies with evil and taking the European masculine Cartesian subject as universal. My critique of the inclination towards universalising the subject of fatalistic reasoning in Virilio, Armitage and Harvey’s writings could be compared to the critique of the subject of cynical reason as expanded by Peter Sloterdijk in The Critique of Cynical Reason. Sloterdijk argues that cynical reason entails a specific European Enlightenment neurosis whose main effect or goal it is to “keep people at work” (7), and which provides an enlightenment consciousness that is nevertheless hopelessly alienated. Similarly, the kind of fatalistic reasoning put up by Virilio and Armitage can be claimed to conservatively and regressively keep a previously powerful but diminishing social order in place. It does so by virtue of its paralysing effects and its failure to imagine alternatives through de- and re-centring the subject of technology’s history and agency. This rhetoric and its lack of self-reflexivity about the exact power-games and -reversions in play in the shift away from the previous Gutenberg era to the postmodern information technology era will then only reinstall the status quo, if not followed by a subversive imaginative and utopian narrative. Such a narrative should envision a world in a flight diametrically away from today’s complex global power structures and should find an alternative ethical impulse from the previous margins. A crucial factor for future effects thus becomes myth-making and (utopian) imagination by oppressed groups, inserting narratives of subaltern interventions in the histories of technologies and appropriation on both the discursive and material level for subversive causes. It is these qualities that are amiss in dromology that I wish to take up and explore and show briefly in Sandoval’s texts.

Revisioning utopianism, reclaiming technologies

“It would be absurd to oppose desire and power. Desire is power; power is desire. What is at issue is what type of politics is pursued with regard to the different linguistic arrangements that exist.”
– Félix Guattari, Soft Subversions (20)

“The most effective strategy remains to use technology in order to disengage our collective imagination from the phallus and its accessory values: money, exclusion and domination, nationalism, iconic femininity and systematic violence.”
– Rosi Braidotti, “Cyberfeminism with a difference” (7)

“Utopian thinking is a practical-moral imperative.”
-Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self (229)

[24] A feminist Chicana theorist, who has recently commented upon the Cartesian split underlying bothpresent-day dominant techno-utopian fantasies and Eurocentric techno-critical discourses, is Michelle Kendrick. In “Cyberspace and the Technological Real”, she attempts to create a space for new imaginations of alternative subjectivities in conjunction with the rhetorics of cyberspace. She points at the distinction made in Western techno-studies between material and substantive theories of technology. Whereas material theories view technologies as neutral tools to be utilised at man’s will, substantive theories – in which we can recognise theorists like Heidegger and Virilio – attribute an autonomous disruptive force to any technology. She contends correctly that this distinction is a superficial one because they both depend on the reinstallation of a coherent humanist subject. This relates to my previous argument that the substantive techno-theoretical strand indeed seeks to reinstall the Eurocentric fantasy of the coherent humanist subject outside of or prior to the technological realm. In an effort to make way for other, more complex interrogations of socio-historical power structures and technologies, Kendrick claims that studies of cyberspace should take on a Humean notion of subjectivity as primarily embodied, thus overcoming the masculine dream of mental transcendence through new technologies. Such a partial reworking of subjectivity tries to insert the body in cyberspace from which concurrently a new conception of agency may be theorised. This gives us an initial idea as how to appreciate Sandoval’s politicised utopian argument in relation to questions of decentring European masculine subjectivity.

[25] The call for imaginative and utopian narratives in relation to new technologies may seem strange when I have previously argued for taking on board Virilio and Armitage’s critiques of present-day chrono- and cyber-utopias. Also, one could argue that some of the humanism I accused Virilio and Armitage of is also vaguely present in Sandoval’s three texts. However, I would like to claim that the utopian and the humanism in her texts attain a different quality, as these importantly aim at (re)connecting technologies to subaltern imaginations. Both the previously discussed Virilian observations on the co-existence of (discourses on) the military and new technologies, and the consecutive necessary feminist rejection of their nostalgia for the white European male modern subject, compels us then to elaborate a new conceptualisation of the utopia and the subversive uses of the imagination. This new conceptualisation would integrate it with the idea of situated knowledges as brought to the fore by for instance Donna Haraway in “Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” This notion of utopia differs from the one criticised by dromological analysis in its openness to dialogue and its taking on board a standpoint of the oppressed that contains a highly ethical and moral imperative. This imperative is grounded more specifically in present-day global oppressions along lines of gender and ethnicity, rather than vaguely presenting an idea of a speed-elite. It instead imagines a partial subversion of certain current dominant Western neo-liberal, imperial and patriarchal hegemonies.

[26] The discussion on theorising utopia is one of the main recurring sources of antagonism in recent writings on new technologies. This antagonism calls more and more for a partial synthesis of positions in order to effectuate technological analyses, especially since there seems to be an underlying gendered and raced problematic at work here. Thomas Foster illustrates this tension particularly well in “The Rhetoric of Cyberspace: Ideology or Utopia?” While reviewing both Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows’ well-known collectionCyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk and Robert Markley’s collectionVirtual Realities and Their Discontents, he contends that it is important to denounce versions of utopianism that reinstall Cartesian dualisms (which most of the essays in Markley’s compilation do). Simultaneously he is worried that such a mere denunciation may smother any voices that try to bring a subversive utopian vision into play. Interestingly, Featherstone and Burrows argue that their choice to include more utopian voices comes out of the unease with “the assumption that there are no more new moves in the game” (1). They link this attitude to current postmodern thought which closely connects to how Virilio, Armitage and Harvey basically produce yet another account of cynical reason. Foster calls attention to the fact that, at least in the reviewed collections, the editorial choice to include utopianisms results in a publication of more explicit feminist texts. There is an apparent need by feminist and subaltern groups for utopian or imaginative thought out of an oppressive situation. Such a need draws attention to the fact that it would be a mistake to dismiss all (collective) desires that invoke these imaginations around the machinic and technological restructuring of society as mere false consciousness. Rethinking the functions and origins of desire, as being both an effect of false consciousness and as potentially subversive, suggests that different forms of utopia often work together in any theoretical or activist imaginative text. It therefore becomes crucial for subaltern and feminist struggles to appreciate how these either reflect or subvert pervasive axes of oppression.

[27] The importance of formulating a situated feminist utopianism in relation to the current technological reconfigurations, and its implications for a potential re-evaluation of standpoint epistemologies, has been taken up by several feminists in the past. Often, these attempts implicitly showcase the tension between the usefulness of technological utopias for subaltern and feminist struggles and the critique of regressive and oppressive utopias around new technologies. This is also the case in many analyses of the both intriguingly imaginative and often rightly criticised Western cyberfeminisms. Jodey Castricano’s “A Modem of One’s Own: The Subject of Cyberfeminism” for instance makes an interesting case for a feminist identity politics informed by a denial of transcendental essentialisms as invoked by Haraway’s cyborg, by imaginatively transferring Virginia Woolf’s concept of ‘a room of one’s own’ towards the realm of cyberspace. However, it is not clear if Castricano’s spatial metaphor allows for an imaginary appropriation of the new communication technologies for any non-Western feminist subject. Castricano’s definition of (cyber)space remains again a largely fixed and Cartesian one, and is falsely imagined as totally neutral, an assertion that – as we saw with Virilio and Harvey – does not hold sway. In “Digital, Animal, Human, Plant: the Politics of Cyberfeminism?” Susanna Paasonen provides an excellent deconstructive critique of Sadie Plant’s work on the ideas of the cyberspace-matrix as essentially feminine. Paasonen shows how Plant relies on an overt essentialisation of the category of woman, thus effectively blocking out marginalised femininities. Although Paasonen’s analysis is admirable in pointing out the implicit racism and hetero-sexism of Plant’s texts, the essay at the same time seems at loss on how to appreciate the portion of Plant’s argument that tries to create a history of women as users and creators of technology in favour of a partially oppressed group.

[28] European philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari may provide us with an initial route out of such either/or analyses of techno-utopias. In What is Philosophy? and Soft Subversions, they seek to integrate imaginative arguments like Kendrick’s, Castricano’s and Plant’s with critical analyses of techno-power structures as suggested by Paasonen, Virilio and Harvey. Deleuze and Guattari resonate on many occasions with Sandoval’s aims of re-centring an alternative subject through their notion of ‘becoming minoritarian’. This is because they make an important and highly politicised case for the understanding of desire and imagination as functioning (partly) outside the symbolic and as not merely an effect of alienation. Individual and collective desires as such then can invoke the utopian insofar it ‘summons forth a new earth and a new people that does not yet exist’ (What is Philosophy? 180). The latter can result in de- and re-territorialisations, or a move away from the dominant machinic assemblages of society, with their regressive lack of imagination, in favour of subaltern subjects.

[29] Deleuze and Guattari’s work hinges on the utter rejection of any transcendental or authoritarian utopia. Yet, they see the utopian in its immanent, temporal and quasi-transcendental form as the crucial ingredient of any philosophy or theory that fosters libertarian change. Virilian analyses of how hegemonies intersect with technological inventions and discourses are important, but to view technology onlyas inherently oppressive would then effectively mean to deny any revolutionary moment as possible outside capitalist and militaristic phallogocentrism. Such a theory based on denial, according to Deleuze and Guattari, simply serves to perpetuate Eurocentric oppressions through its deplorable “lack of collective imagination in a world that has reached such a boiling point” (Soft Subversions 85). The idea of critical utopianisms and the revalidation of desire against Lacanian and poststructuralist negative notions of desire therefore provide a potential space for the insertion of previously marginalised or subaltern subjects. Such a decentring of the Cartesian subject would entail a move away from Eurocentric theories of technology, as well as a potential anti-racist re-territorialisation around “the South” (138). Such a stance also showcases the partial échec of poststructuralist analyses, in their failure to effectively revalidate and re-centre around previously marginalised knowledges and experiences, as a liberating feminist and anti-racist praxis. Also, it points at the recurring need for the integration of standpoint epistemologies with new theories of agency.

[30] Using Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of desire, Rosi Braidotti makes an interesting attempt to reconstruct techno-utopia for feminism in her article “Cyberfeminism with a difference”. She calls upon a utopian countermove against the imaginative misery that surrounds the discourses on cyberspace and new media technologies today. She explains the subversive strategic effect of an imaginative countermove against (technological) determinism, universalism and fatalism in Patterns of Dissonance where she claims together with Gilles Deleuze that “ideas are like projectiles launched into time” (125). Ideas therefore can have very materially disruptive consequences in the overall technological-cultural machinery of society. Braidotti then calls for a reinvention of utopia that should be carefully posed against the present-day neo-liberal cyberhappy utopians like those Armitage describes. However, I find that she bases this new utopianism in my opinion rather unfortunately upon an overly Western-oriented conceptual opposition of sexual difference as theorised within French psychoanalysis. This in turn keeps any inclusion of non-Western hybrid subjectivities at bay.

[31] I am therefore calling for a re-conceptualisation of the utopian that will account for subaltern embodied agencies plus the Deleuzo-Guattarian rejection of techno-authoritarian discourses and their call for techno-revolutionary imaginings from the margins. An effective instance of how to think this kind of utopianism can be found in Greg Johnson’s article “The situated self and utopian thinking.” Johnson contends that a postmodern critique of the utopian is desirable wherever it seeks to mystify dominant power relations, or whenever it projects an uncritical and universalised ideology into the future that ignores differences and heterogeneity. However, this postmodern critique will become extremely relativistic and insensitive to current power structures when it would denounce all forms of utopia. Such relativism is comparable to the de-politisation, suggested by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson in “Social criticism without philosophy: an encounter between feminism and postmodernism”, that inevitably occurs in a hierarchical society when all forms of identity politics and standpoint epistemologies are to be denounced in favour of a total postmodern censure of grand theories.

[32] In order to make the utopian tactically useful, and to prevent a sliding away into a-temporal universalisms that Virilio and Armitage seek to attack, Johnson invokes a concept of the utopian as both situated and embodied. He thus ties together both Deleuze and Guattari’s as well as Kendrick’s rewritings of the concept of the subject. Johnson does this by building on the idea of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in arguing that the body, through its temporal embedment in the socio-material context, is the source of the utopian because is can demand that “things be otherwise” (3). This allows for a situated utopianism which springs from the lived embodied experiences of oppression or dehumanisation on all axes of material and cultural existence. It is therefore (self-)reflexively subject to continuous exploration and re-exploration of the situation. Johnson integrates this conceptualisation of the utopian with the moral imperatives of mutual responsibility, dialogue and solidarity. These imperatives permit the utopian then to be both temporally normative and interactive so as to “give full voice to those who have witnessed the atrocities that constituted their existence” (12). Johnson’s acknowledgement of the subversive potential of the utopian thus resonates powerfully with Sandoval’s idea that the methodology of the oppressed allows for “love in a postmodern world” (Methodology 379), and for the reinstallation of notions like responsibility, sustainability, passion, accountability and partiality (191). Sandoval here is on par with Haraway’s reinstallation of such notions in “Situated Knowledges”. What is more, such a vision of the utopian, in its temporality and partiality, allows for the continuous creation and re-creation of affinities and alliances. These in turn can be a challenge to what Sandoval calls “the apartheid of theoretical domains” so pervasive in a Eurocentric academic context where epistemologies are thoroughly institutionalised (67-80). In short, this situated, self-reflexive and temporal form of utopia challenges specifically located hegemonic power relations. Furthermore, it seeks to subvert them, in being potentially open to any dialogue.

[33] This quest for subversion through situated and embodied utopian and imaginative rhetoric devices is then, in my opinion, exactly at work in Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed. Her use of an imaginative and utopian discourse on new technologies and her conflation of the techniques-for-moving-energy of the oppressed with certain new technologies should therefore best be understood as originating from an attempt to re-appropriate these technologies and discourses for the female US third world subaltern. This puts a creative hybrid feminist/anti-racist subject at the centre of the technological debate. Similarly, she creates a situated utopian vision of love in a postmodern world, where she reclaims the traditionally hetero-romantic concept of love for anti-racist feminist purposes. Where Kendrick’s text still remained within the register of European subjectivities, and Deleuze and Guattari are not clear about what the re-centring on a non-Eurocentric subject might look like, Sandoval thus vitally rewrites and re-imagines in “New Sciences”, “US Third World Feminism” and in  Methodology both feminist history and the history of new technologies. She does this in order to validate US third world feminist knowledges, so as to make this feminism an integral part of (previously white, Western) hegemonic feminism and of discourses on globalisation and new technologies. This appropriation of (new) technologies invokes new subjectivities that are hybrid in superseding previous modernist and humanist dichotomies of first versus third world, human versus machine, real versus virtual, culture versus nature and male versus female. Interestingly, Sandoval creates this double de- and reconstructive move, in which we can again recognise many arguments of Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”, through partially taking on board Fredric Jameson’s analyses on the postmodern late-capitalist condition, but vigorously rejecting his modernist Eurocentric nostalgia. Her biggest objection to Jameson is indeed the “limits of [his] imaginary” (19) which result eventually in a “Jamesonian eulogy” that merely seeks to reinstall certain modern hegemonic conditions, similar to Virilio’s lament. In this case then, only a taking on board of the astute analyses of present-day connections, combined with a situated imaginative rejection of this subject of modernism from the point of view of the marginalised, can provide us with the tools to overcome the structural power relations under attack. Such a strategy of technology coincides with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of technology as both conveying representational contents in line with its dominant choices and developments. It also contributes to, as they coin it, “new assemblages of enunciation” (Soft Subversions 133) through the desires of the oppressed.

[34] Virilio’s and Sandoval’s claims can actually be read as both partly arguing off the same base. They both seek to denounce current oppressive presentisms and hegemonic discourses surrounding new technologies. But Sandoval takes these critiques further by creating a situated utopian moment in her text which builds on feminist US third world knowledges. This strategy successfully resists falling into Virilio, Harvey and Armitage’s problematic fatalistic nostalgia and his subsequent reinstalling of the modern subject. Granted, Virilian analyses do not lack in certain moral imperatives, but the question is for whom this morality works. In this case, it appears to uphold the morality of a very limited Eurocentric masculine subject.

[35] Chela Sandoval creates an effective appropriation which crucially seeks to start from the knowledges of the historically subjugated. Without this move, hegemonic uses of new technologies and their related societal power structures can in my opinion not be rethought and subverted effectively. The time has clearly come to invoke counter-narratives that make current analyses more complex. At the same time, these narratives should resist dominant simplistic cyberhappy and cyber-fatalistic myths, be it material or metaphorical. However, – and this is where Virilio’s and Armitage’s critiques usefully come into play – Sandoval’s methodology is nevertheless still complicit in supporting a certain speed elite. This elite is closely related to US academic hegemonies and their entanglements with new technologies, and fails to reflect on this problematic component in its rhetoric. Sandoval’s imagined subversion remains therefore onlypartial as it does not pull through its situated utopian moment to inform all currently oppressed to the fullest, as Johnson suggests. Therefore, I would strongly want to point out that Sandoval’s utopianism should also set up a continuous and ongoing dialogue with theories like Virilio’s dromology – while practicing to the fullest the situated utopian call for self-reflexivity and alliance-building.

[36] I personally remain more sympathetic to Sandoval’s project, which is no doubt related to my own position in academic Women’s Studies and new media activist circles. But I also find that both rhetorical moves – the contextualised dromological and the situated utopian starting from the feminist anti-racist point of view – need each other in eventually constructing and combining proper situated analyses and consecutive utopian flights away from present-day differential oppressive structures. The crucial challenge remains still to carefully unravel, criticise, situate and re-imagine ever more how, where and whom exactly new technologies (might) empower and oppress. The fruitful integration of techno-critical Virilian analyses with highly temporal utopian projects like Sandoval’s, which are situated more clearly in the standpoints of the gendered and raced oppressed, might just provide us with a first glimpse of the required epistemological shifts.

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Ryan Bishop, Irina Aristarkhova, John William Phillips, Sandra Khor Manickam and the reviewers from Genders for their helpful comments.

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