Critical Essay—Candas Dorsey’s Loose Women: Anti-essentialism and Cyberfeminism in “(Learning About) Machine Sex”

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Dancy Mason, McGill University



This article will explore, through Candas Dorsey’s short story “(Learning About) Machine Sex,” both the potential empowerment and the potential danger anti-essentialism poses in its use in Cyberfeminism and Cyberpunk. Although anti-essentialist figures like the cyborg have been discussed by such theorists as Donna Haraway, and their disembodied feminism explored by Sidonie Smith, technology’s very anti-essentialism can leave it vulnerable to commodification by male-dominated institutions like those of the Cyberpunk genre. Angel, a female hacker, and Angel’s Machine Sex program toggle between both uses of anti-essentialism, representing at once the multivalent qualities of feminist anti-essentialism while being constituted as the commodities and property of the masculine economy of the Bronfmann Corp. This commodification of anti-essential femininity is, however, destructive to this economy, producing only narcissistic fantasies and male navel-gazing that extends to the Cyberpunk genre as a whole. The conclusion of this article will then take the concerns discussed above and relate them to current uses of technology while searching for any political efficacy for women possible in anti-essentialism.

Technology seems to be expanding ever outward in ways that cannot possibly be predicted, and so technology shapes our lives in ways that could not previously be imagined. If “The entire thrust of modern technology has been to move us away from solid objects and into information space (or cyberspace),” (Sirius 100), technology has then come to be seen as a non-essential, even anti-essential entity, one that is constantly changing and full of potential – and this potential, for many theorists, is empowering in the way that it blurs the boundaries of gender, class and/or race, among others, and is often used in cyberfeminism to move away from the idea of what Sidonie Smith calls woman’s “essential embodiment” (13). Through the lens of Candas Dorsey’s short story “(Learning about) Machine Sex,” which relays the sexual marginalization of a female hacker named Angel, this article takes a close look at the politics, theories and applications of technology, particularly concerning issues of gender, and problematizes the consequences of this anti-essentialism as it is represented in both fiction and reality.

As a comment on the dangers of anti-essentialism, Dorsey’s short story explores how once-empowering feminist anti-essentialist theory and technology can be commodified and misused by male-dominated institutions, both in the fiction itself and in the very real institutionalization of the narcissistic male-gaze in the cyberpunk genre – a genre that often features potentially anti-essentialist figures such as the cyborg. Interestingly, however, this misuse can also backfire and cause detriment to those institutions, and thus the story explores the layered uses and effects of anti-essentialism. Using the story as a through line, then, this essay will discuss the effects of using feminist anti-essentialism as a way to institutionally use and commodify women, as well as other applications of potentially anti-essential technology amidst these kinds of institutions – and the ways misuse might be avoided. Ultimately, Dorsey’s story creates a space to discuss both the theoretical and practical effects of anti-essentialism.

“(Learning about) Machine Sex” responds, not wholly positively, to both Donna Haraway’s anti-essentialist feminist cyborg and to male-dominated cyberpunk, citing the cyborg’s very anti-essentialism as a common issue for both.  Indeed, Austin Booth and Mary Flanagan argue that women’s cyber fiction, like Dorsey’s, can be read “against what has been an all-male canon of cyberpunk literature,” yet they do not do so by using theories of the feminist cyborg. Instead, women’s cyber fiction can also be read “against feminist postmodern critical theory ... and the destabilizing cultural effects of the hybridity of the female cyborg” (2). Since the anti-essentialism – not just non-essentialism, but also a critique of essentialism itself – of the feminist cyborg and cybersex necessarily has no stable meaning, this anti-essentialism can create a detrimental situation for women as much as it can empower them. In Dorsey’s story, Angel and Machine Sex operate as reminders of those dangerous aspects because, although both are anti-essential figures in potentially generative ways, they are also commodities in a capitalist exchange economy, and liable to become appropriated by the institutionalized, narcissistic male gaze.

 Ultimately, however, both operate as agents of resistance, as they wield this economy against the male and in so doing position men as consumer-commodities, thus critiquing both the abuse of women and the navel-gazing involved in male-dominated, institutionalized cyberpunk. Cyborgs, as unbound signs, can represent both aspects. Consequently, “(Learning about) Machine Sex” is realistic about and aware of the difficulties surrounding the feminist cyborg figure and the cyberpunk genre, and creates a space for new possibilities and perspectives within feminist cyberpunk and cyberfeminism, both within the fiction and in reality. In order to trace all this out within the story, the theories and uses of anti-essentialism must be discussed, both in the ways that feminists as well as male-dominated institutions and economies of exchange wield it. Once this foundation is built, Dorsey’s story, with its critiques of the dangers anti-essentialism, will be discussed in depth, before continuing with exactly how institutions appropriate anti-essentialism as well as how to prevent this.

Anti-essentialism is – of course – hard to pin down, and it is used more as a theoretical tool to evoke potential and possibility than a definition in and of itself. Indeed, its influence on and use in cyberfeminism makes it so that:

Cyberfeminism is neither a single theory nor a feminist movement with a clearly articulated political agenda. Rather, “cyberfeminism” refers to a range of theories, debates, and practices about the relationship between gender and digital culture (Flanagan and Booth 2002, 12), so it is perhaps more accurate to refer to the plural, ‘cyberfeminism(s)’. (Daniels 102)

It appears then that modern critical thought encourages modern citizens to view their technologies anti-essential: as gateways, as loci of reversal and possibility. Moreover, these ideals of possibility and open worlds are seen as empowering in themselves: they give the power to choose what one wants, to choose whom one wants to be, to choose the shape and direction of technology. The choice and the ambiguity of anti-essentialism, in many cases, is its empowerment, and cyberfeminism appropriates that kind of undefined empowerment. 

A specific example may be clearer: such theorists as Haraway, Sadie Plant and others attach anti-essentialism to the concept of a particularly female identity best represented through what I will call the feminist cyborg and through ideas of technology such as cyberspace. The respective hybridism and lack of physicality of the feminist cyborg and of cyberspace allows for an anti-essentialist identity: this identity has near-infinite potential, and is less held down by, if not wholly free, of bodily aspects of identity that might otherwise hinder it.  Indeed, the feminist cyborg challenges the body as a site of identity since it is “between organism and machine” (Haraway 66). The cyborg has “been designed to replicate” and “pass for the human body” (Gonzalez 549), but this replication can only ever be an uncanny performance. This body is deceptively not human and its “‘real’ identity lies beneath the camouflage ... of skin” (Gonzalez 549); the cyborg’s human body (or body parts) is only an appearance. This is not to say that the feminist cyborg denies all bodily identity, since it too is a bodily figure. Yet if cyborg bodies, as deceptive replications, look so much like humans, and perform the human so well, then the human body as a locus of identity is less stable.

Indeed, the destabilization of the body through anti-essentialism can empower women. As Sidonie Smith argues,

A conservative notion of woman coexisted with the notion of “man” ... man evolved into the individual whose metaphysical selfhood rested upon and reinscribed the specularization of woman. The ideological script of individualism makes her a not-man. Dependent to his independent ... embodied to his unembodied, woman has been, in the narcissistic gaze of metaphysical man, the Other to his One ... In that gaze every characteristic of her selfhood is traced back to ... her essential embodiment. (13)

Thus, in challenging the localization of identity in the body, the feminist cyborg, cyberspace and cybersex – all distinct but related aspects of cyber feminism – allow females and femininity to be loosened from this embodiment and the power relations and limitations, as described by Smith above, that this embodiment inscribes. Feminine identities are anti-essentialized in the trope of the feminist cyborg: they cannot be utterly defined by the body, and thus are free from these essentializing discourses that render woman only as an Other and adjunct to the man.1  Instead, women are given the opportunity in the feminist cyborg to experience this kind of “metaphysical selfhood,” as their identities are no longer pinned to their bodies.

However, in championing a “cyborg myth [that] is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities” (71), Haraway sees technology not as monolithic and dominant nor as utterly pliable, but multi-faceted and contradictory, and uses the trope of the cyborg to break away from any “‘essential unity’” (72) in feminism.2  Ultimately, this is the true nature of anti-essentialism, if it could be said to have one at all – its “dangerous possibilities” make technology a breeding ground for new ideas and identities as much as they make technology uncontrollable.

 It is here that I would like to shift to look at exactly how anti-essentialism is used to objectify women and possibly undo much of the empowerment described above. Plant, while still championing the bodiless empowerment cybersex and cyberspace provides, with  “an intensity uncoupled from genital sex and engaged only with the dismantling of selves” (463), nonetheless admits that “Cybersex ... throws the one-time individual into a pulsing network of switches which is neither climactic, clean, nor secure”(460). For all the generative possibilities that anti-essentialism affords the feminist cyborg and cyberspace, this same characteristic opens both up to misuse, as no stable meaning can be relied on.  The cyborg becomes, as Jennifer Gonzalez puts it, a “site of possible being” (540) rather than a stable signifier.

Indeed, Jerrold Hogle demonstrates the dark side of this anti-essentialism in his theory of the capitalist exchange economy of women, and it is an anti-essentialism that contributes to the continuing stronghold of the male gaze in cyberpunk, despite the genre’s feminist anti-essential potential. Centered on Jean Baudrillard’s theories, this economy works off non-essentialism and the arbitrariness of signs, but to the detriment of women who in fact become essentialized, interchangeable commodities. In capitalism and consumer society, Baudrillard argues,  “everywhere there is substitution, instead and in place of the real” (195); there is no “bound sign”.

With the essential, “bound sign” made obsolete, Hogle then traces how these signs then become hollowed out and counterfeited, as “Status and signs once associated with [the bound sign] have apparently become more transferable” and “now signs can serve both as partially emptied-out remnants of their former status-attachments“ as well as “markers of ‘natures’ that seem recoined, or simply covered over (counterfeited), by new displays of economic and social position” (“Ghost” 30). In other words, when the bourgeois class appropriates signs used by the aristocracy, the arbitrariness of these signs is made obvious as they no longer contain a stable link to that aristocracy.  As these same signs are re-used again and again throughout time, with no permanent link to the stable meaning they once seemed to have, they only signal to an already empty, obsolete meaning, and thus become counterfeits, containing no bound connotation but always pointing to a meaning that was hollow to begin with.

This counterfeiting has particularly detrimental consequences for women. As Hogle argues, with meanings now hollowed out and substituted, “all attendant guilts over the newer oppressions of women and the lower classes [are now relocated] into a world that seems to be long ago and far away. (“Ghost” 24) This relocation of guilts seems to be part of the dangerous side of Haraway and Plant’s anti-essentialism. In their theorizations, the trope of the feminist cyborg and cybersex work to empower women through their anti-essentialism and their possibility, and yet here Hogle’s similar non-essential sign hollows out and counterfeits rather than empowers the feminine, and makes the oppression of women in a patriarchal system lose all temporality and significance. If the feminist cyborg, as a repetition of the human, challenges bodily identity and thus empowers women, here the woman is a true counterfeit, only a derivative repetition, and loses subjectivity.

As a result, Hogle argues that women become “nearly bodiless, spectral object[s] of exchange” (“Frankenstein” 194) in an economy that pushes them to reproduce. They are constituted only as commodities, removed from their own individual lives, and “Woman” merely becomes a category of exchange and thus an interchangeable commodity. Hogle uses the example of Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, since both women are involved in marriage plots and are mistaken for one another in the novel; as Hogle notes, they have an “(in)famous interchangeability” (“Frankenstein” 181). He further argues that

these women are versions of each other less as names of ‘frailty’ – less as scapegoats for the inconsistency, concupiscence and deceptive appearances which men seek to transfer from themselves onto ‘woman’ – and more as commodity objects within a “traffic in women” … Matilda and Isabella have meaning outside themselves only as they are positioned and exchanged ‘between men’. (“Frankenstein” 181)

The anti-essentialism of the unbound sign is not generative here, but instead hollows out women and makes them interchangeable. This is also, moreover, an institutionalized force, created and influenced by the capitalist exchange economy – and it is mirrored, as we shall see, in the Bronfmann corporation that owns Angel’s program. The power dynamic of the male over the female that the feminist cyborg strives to make obsolete is then re-instated.3

It is a short jump from this detrimental non-essentialism easily used and abused by the male to the genre of cyberpunk that “(Learning About) Machine Sex” attempts to combat. Jennifer Gonzalez and Norah Campbell have both noted the tendency to see technology either as inherently suited to the female figure because of its use as a subservient tool, as with a wheel, a yoke, or, as mentioned above, a cyborg servant. On the other side, however, technology is seen as a dominant, masculine force, a force that often excluded women from such fields as mathematics and science (Bailey and Telford 247). As Jane Bailey and Adrienne Telford argue, “Technology was seen as a tool of power, a tool that lay almost exclusively in the hands of men. Women were socialized in feminine roles and were prevented from pursuing careers in the male-dominated disciplines of science and technology” (247). Consequently, either perspective objectifies the female in technology as a servant wholly excluded from power and seemingly naturalizes this move from anti-essentialism as empowering towards becoming a tool for male dominated institutions.  Moreover, this has everything to do with what I mean by using the word institution. Institutions, as seen in this essay, are the consolidation of these particularly male social forces that monopolize technology in the capitalist exchange economy – perhaps aided in part by predominantly male members; this will be borne out both in the fictional Bronfmann corporation and in the cyberpunk genre. There is, of course, the possibility for female-dominated institutions, or indeed for a male force that is not institutionalized, but it is the male-dominated institutions – corporations, publishing houses, or organizations that monopolize technology with a masculine mentality that makes the feminine subservient – that I focus my attention on.

Cyberpunk is indeed a part of this. As Flanagan notes, “’Woman’ in cyberculture is primarily created and represented by men” and women “are prone to rigid styles of representation based on men’s fantasies” (“Hyperbodies” 425). In a cyberpunk culture dominated by the male viewpoint, then, the idea of “Woman” – an essentialized figure – is created and controlled by men. Woman, as Amanda Fernbach argues, “operates as a fetish and prop for an imagined masculinity” (234). Woman becomes a prop for the male narcissistic gaze, reflecting his masculinity back, as in Smith’s theorizations. The Female becomes a commodity for the male, a category of exchange, while the female individual is hollowed out into a counterfeit, interchangeable with another Woman. As Dorsey will point out, a computer could even substitute for the female body, and all the better for “the male hacker figure” (Gillis 74), that master of computers, who is ubiquitous in cyberpunk as a whole.

As we shall shortly see, then, Angel and her Machine Sex program in “(Learning About) Machine Sex”, experience these very movements through non-essentialism, as they are simultaneously examples of a kind feminist anti-essentialism achieved through technology and hybridism, and examples of the female and feminine made non-essential and appropriated for male consumption, particularly through institutions. This can be extrapolated outward as a comment on the dangerous possibilities of the cyberpunk genre itself, once a potential paragon for feminist non-essentialism but now a bastion of male consumption.

Yet if the female is an essentialized commodity in this capitalist exchange economy and in cyberpunk, what is the male position? If women here are the interchangeable commodities, then men can be seen as the consumers, buying women and using them as possessions. This, however, is a problematic position. Rachel Bowlby suggests that “the consumer citizen is not so much possessor of as possessed by the commodities which one must have to be ... guaranteed as that of social individual”  (28). As much as consumers possess their commodities, their identities are also defined by and dependent on them. What results, Bowlby argues, is a narcissistic consumer, attracted by “an ideal image in which he sees nothing to threaten an unquestioning love” (29): consumers are pulled into commodities because they reflect themselves back to them and help to create their identities. This lines up well with the gender relations discussed above. As pointed to before, if the female commodity is a complement to the male and a marker of his identity, she presents a way for the male to gaze back at himself. But what kind of economy, what kind of institution, or what kind of genre does this really create or represent?

Thus, “(Learning About) Machine Sex” ultimately goes further than commenting on feminist anti-essentialism and the institutionalized male appropriation of the female in cyberpunk, and actually explores, again in fiction and in reality, the consequences of the dangers of anti-essentialism and the dangers of appropriating it. How do Angel’s experiences with non-essentialism and male-dominated institutions reflect those of the real world, like the cyberpunk genre? How do the detrimental effects of institutions appropriating anti-essentialism affect technology?  How can these institutions be combated or tempered and technology regained for the female? By tracing the way anti-essentialism is positioned in “(Learning About) Machine Sex” and then problematically appropriated by male-dominated institutions, I will then move outward from the fiction in order to answer, or at least contribute to, these questions.       

Dorsey’s text relates the story of Angel, a young tech prodigy, once embroiled in the fast-living underworld of the errant hacker, but soon employed by the Bronfmann MannComp corporation. It is there that Angel starts sleeping with Whitman, the president of the company, and it is Whitman who will own her bioware and eventually sell her, and her ideas, out. Seeking revenge, Angel ventures across the country and, in between flights of nostalgia, furiously and spitefully works on the Machine Sex program Whitman has already bought out. Her program turns the orgasm into a mere technological feat, evoking one with the press of a button.  However, while Angel herself feels objectified and debased, she attempts to make sure her product – for all its seeming objectification of women – is put in no such position.

    “(Learning about) Machine Sex” first responds to anti-essential feminism and its institutionalized appropriation by setting up and then problematizing the anti-essentialism of the feminist cyborg and cybersex. There are many aspects to Angel and the program she creates that constitute them as manifestations of these theories. Angel, as a manifestation of the feminist cyborg, is closely linked with her mind, rather than her body, throughout the text, and it is a mind intimately connected with technology. She compares sex to “trying to use an old MS-DOS disc to boot up one of her Mann lapboards with crystal RO/RAM” (468). Moreover, she is “A woman complete with her work. It was a measure of Angel that she never acted naked, even when she was. Perhaps especially when she was” (458). Her body, although present and even sexualized throughout the text, is largely immaterial to her identity, which has more to do with her work on technology. She is  “between organism and machine” (Haraway 66). She is also in many ways connected with feminist anti-essentialism, as Dorsey writes that,  “It is true that the subject is Angel ... she lives concurrently in another universe ... Trivalent, quadrivalent, multivalent” (460). Angel is individualized, a part of a universe that is “multivalent” like Haraway’s cyborg that represents all the potential of hybridism. As the subject of the text, she is not interchangeable, and as a multivalent figure she cannot be essentialized.

Moreover, Angel’s program, Machine Sex, exhibits many of the same qualities that Smith and Plant value as generative in cybersex. The bodiless nature of cybersex provides an opportunity to challenge the human body as the locus of identity and thus challenge the domination of the male. Angel knows that “human sex ... was as much cortical as genital, or more so ... Also easy, then, to produce cortical stimuli by programmed input” (471). There are no genitals here, and no opportunity for the male member to dominate. With her program, sex no longer needs to have anything to do with men and women or, as Plant argues, with the male domination of the female. When the subject is hooked into Machine Sex they leave their genitals, and the gender relations therein, behind, potentially creating generative, feminist anti-essential identities for themselves.

The anti-essential feminist cyborg and cybersex, and these kinds of interpretations, are problematized in the text by making Angel and Machine Sex a part of the capitalist exchange economy of women – and where anti-essentialism once empowered them, here it hurts them. Although living in this multivalent universe, Angel is still seen as a commodity to the men around her – men that are specifically tied to the Bronfmann MannComp institution. She admits “All I was was a program, they plugged into me and went through the motions and got their result” (475). She is interchangeable in this system, nothing more than a bodiless machine to them and a way into their own pleasure – she could be any woman. The story opens with “A naked woman working at a computer. Which attracts you most?” (459). Here, Angel immediately becomes the object of the gaze. This is particularly emphasized when Whitman – again, an executive member of Bronfmann MannComp – informs her, “‘I have the option on any of your bioware” (459). Just as her figure represents in part the feminist cyborg, she is also constituted as an interchangeable commodity to be used, abused and owned by the male and male-dominated institutions. As such, she is an example of Hogle’s counterfeit and an unbound sign, and non-essentialism no longer aids her.

Angel’s Machine Sex program also turns from a potential example of anti-essential cybersex into an exchange commodity. Although it has the potential to make sex genderless, Machine Sex is seen as a primarily female force made for the male, and plays right into the hands of the exchange economy as it is wholly designed to be bought and sold by the male-dominated MannComp institution. The text opens with: “A woman and a computer. Which attracts you most? Now you don’t have to choose. Angel has made the choice irrelevant” (475). The woman becomes the computer in a perfection of Hogle’s “(in)famous interchangeability” (“Frankenstein” 181). Since the program has achieved sex, it becomes just as good as a woman, a woman who is now utterly bodiless, voiceless and without volition. As Angel notes, men “don’t care who they fuck. Why not the computer in the den? Or the office system at lunch hour?” (472). Sex and the body are fashioned as non-essentialized, unbound signs, but in a detrimental way, and the computer simply becomes a counterfeit for the female to be profited off of by corporate executives like Whitman.

Since  “Nobody cares if the AI finds fulfillment running their damned data analyses. Nobody thinks about depressed and angry Mannboard ROMs. They just think about getting theirs” (475), the program is the perfect woman. Portable, bodiless, with a hollowed out femininity that allows consumers to “relocate all attendant guilts over the newer oppressions of women and the lower classes into a world that seems to be long ago and far away” (Hogle, “Ghost” 24). Since the program is not a real woman, but a hollowed out counterfeit, there is now no need to even pretend to care – and it makes Angel “a very rich and famous woman” (476), it is a success. Indeed, Angel makes sure that her program enters into this economy. She knows “there’s something about a world that sells [orgasms] over and over again. Sells the thought of pleasure as a commodity, sells the getting of it as if it were the getting of wisdom. And all these times I told you about, I saw other people get it through me” (475). Angel’s Machine Sex is profitable in this economy: her feminized program makes sex bodiless, but instead of being a generative shift, this renders the female interchangeable with a machine and even more essentialized; it is a perfect commodity for the capitalist exchange economy and its male-dominated institutions.

Thus, for all that the figures of “(Learning about) Machine Sex” showcase the liberating anti-essentialism of the feminist cyborg and cybersex, they also demonstrate much the same warning about non-essentialism that Haraway does. It is not a utopian ideal, but a dangerous possibility, and the meanings of anti-essential figures and identities cannot be controlled since they have no stable signification. The non-essentialism of Baudrillard’s unbound sign can render the female essential and interchangeable, making her a part of the capitalist exchange economy. Angel, although in some ways an anti-essential figure of the feminist cyborg, is still used like a program and like a commodity, and made into an unbound sign. Moreover, the anti-essentialism of the cybersex the program offers turns what is potentially generative and genderless into fodder for a capitalist exchange economy of women, and for the male-dominated Bronfmann MannComp institution.

However, if anti-essentialism is appropriated by male-dominated institutions, this appropriation is not necessarily successful – and so “(Learning About) Machine Sex” warns not only of the dangerous pliability of anti-essentialism, but the dangers it poses for institutions that might put it to use, or misuse – a commentary that extends all the way to the male-dominated cyberpunk genre itself. Angel and her program do not stay trapped in the female exchange economy, but rather render the male a part of that economy. In fact, the males hooked up to Machine Sex become commodities in this economy, objects of their own desire, and figures of consumer reproduction. By extension, the dominant male viewpoint of cyberpunk that imitates this economy is also shown to be narcissistic, limited, and trapped inside of its own navel-gazing. Although this reversal of the system is perhaps problematic and not generative, “(Learning about) Machine Sex” still creates a space for awareness within feminist cyberpunk.

Even though she is in some ways constituted as a commodity, Angel is the fountainhead and controller of the exchange economy surrounding her Machine Sex program, and she creates it not to perpetuate the system, but to get back at men. She creates it for the “People who made her those designer drugs, given in return for favors she never granted until after Whitman sold her like a used car” (471). Angel also says that after Whitman “had the option on all my bioware” (472), it is “Me against them from now on” (473). As such, Angel, and the feminine Machine Sex program she creates, cannot simply be seen as mere pawns in the exchange economy of “(Learning about) Machine Sex,” but are reactions to it. Moreover, the male figure is the target of her attacks, those men who “don’t care who they fuck” (472) and the hackers who “played with their computers more than they played with themselves,” naming their bootstrap “warm pussy” (468). These men, echoes of the masculine, institutionalized cyberpunk genre4, buy into this economy, encourage the interchangeability of women by making them no different than a sexualized computer, and they are ultimately her targets. Here “(Learning about) Machine Sex” draws attention to and critiques the same commodification of women that is ever-present in the male viewpoint of cyberpunk.

The text, however, goes further than this critique. Machine Sex inverts the system on men, and they become more commodities than consumers. When Whitman and Kozyk joke “’Why is a woman better than a Mannboard? Because you haven’t bought your sensory add on’” (476), Angel quips back “what’s better than a man? ... ‘Why, your MannComp touchpads, with two way input’” (476). Here, it is acutely clear that if the system makes women into interchangeable commodities, it can also do the same for men. When Angel sells the program, Whitman and Kozyk have “already tested the program themselves quite a lot; Angel knows because it’s company gossip, heard over the cubicle walls in the washrooms. The two men are so absorbed that they don’t notice her arrival” (476). This commodity of the exchange economy has absorbed them, and so in some ways it possesses them more than they possess it. At the moment Angel enters the room, they are one with their commodity; it is an extension of their identity that reflects themselves back to them.

As these commodities become extensions of their identities, the men become narcissistic consumers of Machine Sex, no longer possessing but possessed. In hooking up to Machine Sex, the men plug not into a woman, but into themselves and their own sexual desires. With the erasure of the female body and her individuality, there is no partner needed to reciprocate to, and instead Whitman and Kozyk, as male consumers, make their commodities appendages and extensions of their identities that only reflect their own desires back at them. As Bowlby argues, a consequence of this narcissistic consumerism is that  “The boundaries of subject and object ... break down in this endless reflexive interplay of consumer and consumed. One consequence is that the clear separation of masculine and feminine roles applied to the consumer/commodity relation cannot be maintained” (29). If Machine Sex, as a commodity, absorbs them and becomes an extension of their identity, then they too are commodities in this capitalist exchange economy and the power dynamic of male/feminine and consumer/commodity is disrupted.

Moreover, there are indications that it is the men, not women, who will reproduce, via this narcissistic consumerism, in this exchange economy – and this has far reaching effects for the patriarchal institution of cyberpunk implicit in these critiques. If the feminine Machine Sex does not quite fit into Hogle’s exchange economy because its machinery prevents any reproduction, then here it is the men of “(Learning about) Machine Sex” who satisfy the parallel by reproducing whatever Angel puts out.  When Angel walks into Kozyk’s office early in the story, “with that jury-rigged Mannboard tied into two black-box add-ons” with a bootstrap greeting that “sounded a lot like Goo” (462), the computer seems to stand in for a baby.

‘Congratulations,’ she said.
‘What for?’ he said; ‘you’re the genius.’
‘No, congratulations, you just murdered your first baby,’ she said, and plugged it back in. ‘Want to try for two?’
‘Goo,’ said the deck. ‘Dada.’ (462)

Here, although Angel is the architect of the machine and the “genius” behind it, it is Kozyk who is positioned as the father and the reproductive unit. At the end of the text, when both Whitman and Kozyk are absorbed and plugged in as narcissistic objects of their own desire, a feedback loop emerges as they become turned on by themselves turning themselves on. Here again is Bowlby’s “endless reflexive interplay of consumer and consumed” (29). Thus, the males, both as father figures and narcissistic consumer-commodities, are left to endlessly reproduce themselves staring at themselves – reproduction for the Information Age, and one that has no generation or generative use. There is nothing beyond it but the male.

“(Learning about) Machine Sex” thus draws attention to the dangerous commodification of the female and feminist anti-essentialism by male-dominated institutions at the same time that the story warns of the dangers of this commodification – and this is extended to cyberpunk. In cyberpunk, as in the text, females are nothing more than a male fantasy, commodities that feed masculinity back to the male consumer; again, as Flanagan argues “’Woman’ in cyberculture is primarily created and represented by men” (“Hyperbodies” 425). Yet if cyberpunk is so closely related to the kind of capitalist exchange economy represented in the text, and so closely related to these male/female, consumer/commodity relations, cyberpunk as a genre is perhaps just as trapped in its own gaze as Whitman and Kozyk.  It may be no surprise, then, that the “cyberpunk of the 1980s did not live up to its potential in reconfiguring cultural categories such as gender, race, nation, and class” (Booth 26). As a genre that only produces and reproduces male desires rather than individual women, it cannot see outside of its own gaze, but becomes trapped reproducing its same image and viewpoint over and over again. Thus, “(Learning about) Machine Sex” can be seen not only to critique cyberpunk’s commodification of women, but the limits it puts on itself because of this commodification.

This critique is especially emphasized by Angel’s abrupt exit from the text. While the men are still absorbed in the program and their own witty banter, “Angel hadn’t waited for the punch-line. She was gone” (476). If Angel has moved out of this economy, on to the next project and a new perspective, the men are still stuck inside it. She is the controller of this economy, she has inverted it to turn the narcissistic male consumer into a commodity, and now she is removing herself from it. Meanwhile, they stay, still hooked in, gazing at their own images and their reflections in the monitors, still endlessly reproducing. Again, as much as this is a critique of the abuse of women as commodities in cyberpunk, it also critiques cyberpunk’s navel-gazing, which never moves the texts beyond the male gaze but only endlessly reproduces that gaze. This is a realm where “cyberspace heroes are usually men” (Steffensen 216), reproducing their own fantasies, and so endlessly trapped in them.

Thus, although anti-essentialism is important in providing a range of potential identities and alliances for all kinds of women, it leaves these identities open to be objectified by male-dominated institutions, which in turn can move outward and detrimentally effect genres like that of cyberpunk. However, by acknowledging the dangerous possibilities of the anti-essentialism of the feminist cyborg and cybersex through the commodification of women, and the similarities male-dominated cyberpunk has to this commodification, Dorsey’s text creates “a space in which there is oppression as well as room for tactical and oppositional maneuvers” (Booth, Flanagan 3). It is a space, much like anti-essentialism itself, which is neither perfect nor well defined, and Angel and her program play conflicting roles within it. Nonetheless, by addressing the issues inherent in the feminist cyborg, cybersex and cyberpunk, the text creates an awareness, if not a resolution, of potential problem areas in feminist anti-essentialism and the institutions that would use it.

In closing, then, I would like to briefly point to other ways anti-essentialist theories might be appropriated and applied to current uses of cyberspace with political efficacy, with an eye to any potential pitfalls and appropriation by male-dominated institutions – as this appropriation is often detrimental to the institutions themselves and the theories they appropriate. However, as Faith Wilding has pointed out, “the problem for cyberfeminism, then, is how to incorporate the lessons of history into an activist feminist politics which is adequate for addressing women’s issues in technological culture”(paragraph 5). Cyberfeminist anti-essentialism, as an ambiguous theory, is by nature difficult to translate into political efficacy or indeed to translate from theory to application in general – and we have just seen it misused once before by the cyberpunk genre. Carole Stabile’s Feminism and the Technological Fix, with her criticism of the post-modernist male technomania, also raises concerns about this.  The question becomes: how to promote feminist anti-essentialism in the application of technologies without watching it turn into a narcissistic tool for a male-dominated institution, or some other such fate?

The first step, I believe, is to see the possibility beyond the male in technology. As aforementioned, if technology is only ever seen as a feminine servant or a male tool of power, it seemingly always reverts to male empowerment and female disempowerment. Interestingly then, a similar rhetoric of narcissism to the one exhibited above by Kozyk and Whitman, with similar notions of asexual reproduction, emerges in these theories. For if technology is viewed only within the confines of this dichotomy – as a subservient tool to be used by males or a tool to assist male domination – technology seems still to be used as a feedback loop. Males use technology only as it assists their needs, as a dominant or subservient tool; males only see themselves in technology, rather than seeing its possibility beyond them. As such, they too may become commodified, involved with and identifying in technology only as it is a tool and a commodity itself. When anti-essentialism is commodified in this way, then, both the feminine and the masculine suffer along with technology.

One way avoid this closed loop is to focus on women’s use of cyberspace – but in a discriminatory way. In Cyberfeminism 2.0 Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh warn that  “cyberfeminists should look at women's participation online, avoiding the trap of hailing women's voices simply because they are women's voices ... it s a call for rigorous examination by researchers in order to unpack contradicting and inconsistent voices of women" (3). If this kind of discrimination seems to diminish the dangerous potential of anti-essentialism, perhaps this is because political efficacy demands a more limited scope. However, this is by no means a narcissistic feedback loop. The hybridism of feminist anti-essentialism in “the contradicting and inconsistent voices of women”  is still present, it is merely under rigorous examination. However, as Jesse Daniels points out, “Additional research into actual online practices suggests that rather than going online to ‘switch’ gender or racial identities, people actively seek out online spaces that affirm and solidify social identities along axes of race, gender, and sexuality” (110) – in many ways, the internet can reconfirm the stronghold of male-dominated institutions and the feedback loop produced therein. Thus, critics must ask questions about what kind of identities are present online and how and why they express themselves to give direction to what they what to achieve. Technology, as non-essential, is dangerous and varied – the Internet is open to many and accommodating of a plethora of identities – but its use as a political tool requires a curator.

The institutions surrounding cyberspace must also be paid attention to. Again, Gajjala and Oh argue Cyberfeminism necessitates an awareness of how power plays not only in different locations online but also in institutions that shape the layout and experience of cyberspace. However, this does not mean that individual experiences become overshadowed and determined by institutional structures; rather, it means the understanding of those institutions should be examined with decentered, multiple, and participatory practices. (1)

I can only just touch upon it here, but one of the other social forces that contributes to these male-dominated institutions is class. Daniels’ asks “Is the Internet subversive? If so, for whom? … For the women working in a microchip factory in China or a call center in India, the Internet is not a subversive potential future but a work- place rooted in economic necessity” (109).  We must take into account that cyberspace and related technologies may not be a personal privilege but rather an economic means for – or perhaps entirely unavailable to – women, and thus again might not promote female empowerment through disembodiment but rather further commodification from male-dominated institutions that employ them. The key here, however, is might, and this again is where anti-essentialism comes into play. As Gajjala and Oh point out, these issues surrounding male-dominated institutions need to be acknowledged, but they need not overshadow individual experiences and individual opportunities to explore the full, feminist potential of cyberspace.

Above all, it is less important to perfectly translate these anti-essential theories to political reality than it is to be aware of the potential pitfalls, shortcomings and opportunities for appropriation by male-dominated institutions and work within them. Ultimately, as Bailey and Telford argue, “Cyberspace, then, cannot be presumed to be the place of transgression and destabilization imagined in Plant’s early heady days of cyberfeminist idealization”, and though they admit cyberspace could  “provide a site for exploration …  we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is occupied by real space brains socialized in the destructive art of stereotype” (267). However, cyberspace, like Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex” can also be “a space in which there is oppression as well as room for tactical and oppositional maneuvers” (Booth, Flanagan 3). Anti-essentialism in cyberspace cannot provide any hard and fast answers away from female subservience to male-dominated institutions and into anti-essential liberation within the Internet, just as Dorsey could not provide a clear solution to the narcissism of cyberpunk. It can, however, maneuver towards these possibilities – and possibilities are essential to anti-essentialism. 

Works Cited

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1 There are other challenges of the feminist cyborg that do not directly further the argument but that merit discussion. As a hybrid figure that challenges bodily identity, the feminist cyborg and the cyborg body bring sex and gender into a dialogue. In the cyborg, “sex and gender,” formerly standing in opposition to each other, like "natural and artificial," are brought together, albeit in a relationship of ambiguity (Chilcoat 158). Just as the feminist cyborg body is an intersection of organism and machine that challenges the identity of the human body, it also is an intersection of sex and gender that challenges Second Wave Feminism’s opposition of the two. With bodily identity destabilized yet not destroyed, sex and the body can be put into dialogue with gender and identity unrelated to the body. In so doing, the female and the feminine are not reduced to an essential binary, oppositional relationship of sex and gender. Rather, sex and gender inform each other while what is female and/or feminine is still anti-essential. For Haraway, “the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world” (67), and in so doing the feminine and female become anti-essential, and not subject to the kind of sex/gender binarism that is still in many ways essentialist.

2 This, however, is not the only cyborg or technological model. Leilani Nishime discusses a range of them, some of which “result in … the suppression of the human” (38) (what she calls the ‘Bad Cyborg’) and those ‘cyborg myths’ where “humanness … remains a central organizing principle” (43) where the cyborg is subservient (the ‘Good Cyborg’). Haraway’s cyborgs, however, are not pliant and subservient because they challenge the human identity, all without oppressing it: they cross both boundaries.

3 It is notable that another one of Baudrillard’s theories, that of seduction as outlined in Seduction, pushes back on Hogle’s economy of women. For Baudrillard, seduction is a “trompe-l’oeil” that “does not attempt to confuse itself with the real” and is “Fully aware of play and artifice, it produces a simulacrum by mimicking the third dimension, questioning the reality of the third dimension” (159). As such, it may indicate a way to combat this kind of detrimental non-essentialism by being ever more playful with reality an even further removed from it in order to question this “third dimension” of unreality.

4 See Fernbach, Amanda. "The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy." Science Fiction Studies 27.2 (2000): 234-55. And Flanagan, Mary. "Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in Games, Women in Cyberpunk, and Strategies of Resistance." Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture. Ed. Susan Koppelman and Austin Booth. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.425-54.

Biography: Dancy Mason is currently a Doctoral Candidate at McGill University in Montreal. Her primary research interests lie in the effects of consumerism and technology in the 20th Century, particularly in Britain and America. She also has a strong interest in how feminist theory relates to these concerns, having worked on the modernist poet Mina Loy and her incorporation of consumerism into her feminist poetic. She is also concentrating her Doctoral Dissertation on three women modernists , Marianne Moore, H.D., and Loy again, and their valuing of a new consumer authenticity in the face of technical reproduction.

© 2012 Dancy Mason, used by permission.

Technoculture Volume 2 (2012)