How a network of feminist and female-only online zines, poets and artists energise the net
How do you write about a technology-specific aspect of feminism as a white, institutionally sheltered male on a platform such as Dazed and Confused? If the online literature landscape is one shaped through clusters of interconnected nodes rather than traditionally linear publishing platforms (a hugely valid project would be to map this, thinking about it), then what’s exciting about these nodes is the number of feminist and female-only zines that have emerged over the last few years. Illuminati Girl Gang, Girls Get Busy, Two Serious Ladies, Womanzine, Belladonna and Tender all stand out as prominent examples, with initiatives such as Lies and Salt also blending poetry among critical essay-based forms of writing, and platforms such as The Le Sigh, Vagenda and Rookie propelling a wider discourse and community. Combined, these projects present a mix of where Cyberfeminist and Riot Grrrl zine culture from the 90s meet a Tween / social media sensibility from the 10s, often streaming underground and radical culture right through the heart of one of the world’s most popular websites - Tumblr - with the result that it memes and malfunctions and blossoms on the other end.
That these have emerged in such force and with such presence is exciting. Yet why? My anxiety surrounding writing this is that there is a risk of it becoming appropriation. To take a feminist discourse and valorise it on a decidedly Culture Industry platform might be too simply to undermine the first principles of this discourse whilst propelling my own market value and ego as young male writer. Further, it is also potentially insulting or trivialising to suggest an empathy or solidarity with a struggle I can have no material understanding of. Yet to think about an online literature landscape and not consider a re-emergence of feminist and female-only writing and publishing is to replicate the same processes of obscuring that hegemony relies on. Feminist art can transcend a female subjectivity. Whilst this space should probably be given to a different person more able to critically frame and promote this work (or even abolished - why not?), I still think it is worth exploring the entry points to a broader conversation, not in opposition to this discourse but in continuation of it.
So why is it exciting? One question that emerges is to what extent this is a phenomenon accentuated by technology. This is not to attempt to detract from the issue at hand, for to account for the work here too strongly via the tools rather than protagonists of its production is to both desubjectivise its producers and to undermine the issues inherent within it. However what all these moments mentioned above have in common is their engagement with popular forms of distribution. Cyberfeminism was explicitly entwined with the rise of the world wide web, and zine culture is equally co-emergent with a culture of cheap photocopying and cut and paste magazine imagery. “Tumblr feminism” is a contentious and not particularly useful name, but there is no denying the importance of social media flows in the rise of these current platforms. The initial reading of this is one of liberation, of these technologies providing people with the resources to self-represent and thus challenge existing hierarchies of representation. This is certainly true. Yet there is also a further dynamic at work here: the adoption of social networking tools accentuates the degree to which these struggles exist inside the remit of subjective labour forms. The financialisation of social media is in many ways the financialisation of the self, and it is eviscerating that a rejection of the ideological implications of this can happen in the same territory. It is a type of resistance subjectivised, whether it comes in the form of militant poetics or Hello Kitty gifs.
Language is a technology in itself, though, and it is on this level also that this work and these platforms should be appreciated. Helene Cixous has developed the idea of écriture féminine, a term she coined in her 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”. In this she urges famously that “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies - for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal.” This is a call to re-establish women’s voices in a phallocentric literary realm, sure, but it is also a recognition that the very structures and codes of language itself are inherently male-prejudiced; the construction of meaning relies on the imposition of the female-as-other. Acting within language, therefore, écriture féminine by its very speaking works to implode this, shattering the prison of language through the injection of the personal and the feminine. “A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive” claims Cixous in the same text, for “If she's a her-she, it's in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the "truth" with laughter.”
“oh shit i have / “feelings”” reads Diane Marie in her long ebook/poem “I Wrote A Poem To God That I Considered to Be Extremely Disrespectful”, the ‘i’s all italicised, subdued and accentuated, nothing else on the page save space. Later in the same poem, “Joan of Arc was a witch and a believer / I am not either”. These are simple affirmative statements, yet they are affirmative of much more than their simplicity, they are affirmative of their author and their own writing and the force of that writing. It is this intensity of person that forms the backbone to Marie’s poetry, and which gets explicated and developed in the more subtle statements of “i am that man’s impatience when you look at me”, and multiplied and completed in the knowledge that “we are the moon and the sky to the earth in this bed”. To make a straightforward comparison between the presence of the first person here and écriture féminine is clumsy, and wayward in its historicity. Marie’s writing is elliptical, and these moments of explicit personhood are sparse, even if they still permeate the whole thing. Further, Marie has talked about her influences as being predominantly male - Chomsky and DFW among others. What supports and pervades the writing is a performance through Facebook and Twitter, for it is as much the “i” that has feelings as Marie herself, mediated through these different networks and interfaces and complicated because of it. The i is only ever a stand in, a precarious one at that. The echo on the page is the residue of the performance elsewhere. The poem is an encounter and an antagonism between these different spheres. What this emphasises is the degree to which language as a technology and social media as a technology have become intertwined. For Cixous the logics and structure of discourse protects those who occupy positions of privilege through the establishment of dichotomies and by making hierarchical positions seem natural. If this writing manages to rupture this, then the way that it does so is by emphasising language as a thing that transcends the linguistic, that is intimate with the ways we express and create ourselves through all technologies of representation. The écriture féminine is not in the “i”, but in this reformatting of language from the inside, or at least the struggle to do so.
Of course this article in no way attempts to define feminism, or what is feminist writing, and there are much more powerful expositions of that both in circulation and still to be written. It would naturally fail if it tried to, and perhaps presents too weak an illustration of this field regardless. Cixous says écriture féminine isn’t necessarily gendered, yet I’m not particularly sure about that, and to what extent I can argue for it is negligible. Yet where I feel I can enter is in the territory surrounding this. Both Lies Journal and the conversations being had around Arcadia Missa at the moment stress feminism as inherently a critique of capitalism, in the sense that it’s both a repudiation of patriarchy as well as a rejection of any sort of categorical determinacy. In the introduction to Lies: “The violent relations produced by the forced binary gendering of bodies and the enforcement of heterosexuality in all spheres of life are as much a part of patriarchy as is the production of male domination over women and, in fact, these processes reinforce one another.” Capitalism is upheld by patriarchy, and therefore to challenge one is to challenge the other, and to oppose the imposition of hierarchy more generally.
Patriarchy is by its nature the creation of false dichotomy to justify hierarchy and rule by domination. This domination gets extended across race and across gender, and enforces all types of rule by social contract: the master-slave relationship as interpreted by capitalism to subdue the worker, or by the state to subdue its citizen (these relationship are often convoluted and obscured in neoliberalism, but still exist). It has entered even the subconscious and critical theory through the invention of the Oedipus complex, and it is through all of this that it gets interpreted and reinforced, as Cixous argues, in language. To return to Lies: “Communization’s very starting point is a demand for the abolition of fundamental material elements of the reproduction of gender - the division of social life into two “spheres””. Yet to flatten the terrain too much at this point is to maintain its existing structures, and of course a certain degree of gender affirmation is more than potent with this end goal in mind. That this proliferation of feminist discourse has been able to enter the mainstream is an exciting moment regarding the subversive potential of our tools and of poetry, but it also has political resonance to this end, and one that reverberates both through and beyond a feminist subjectivity.
By no means is this some sort of celebration or retrospective look at a victory - the 2012 Vida counts are inexcusably one-sided (like some sort of awful oppressive Pacman for the most part) and only 10 out of 34 contributors to the most recent Pop Serial, even, were women: not that even numbers is the answer, but forms of gender inequality and structural oppression are clearly still pervasive. I of course play my own role in this, which is something that somehow needs to be negotiated and there are no obvious answers. But I think it’s ok to ground a support of this in a critique of patriarchy, and a rejection of patriarchy as the progenitor of hegemony and systematic violence. In a time of austerity politics and global exploitation, this is obviously crucial. That these oppressive structures might be addressed at the level of language, no matter how mainstream the voice or the platform, creates a beautifully materialist base for resistance. To write is to engage with this, and this is ultimately the power of the first person voice. Yet whatever might be celebrated or achieved, it is never really enough, and must be incorporated into a continuing critique and admonishment of capital. Feminism is integral to this, yet is only ever accentuated by a rejection of patriarchy by all types. For we might also shift attention towards issues surrounding race, geography and access to resources: these are collective problems and should be addressed as such.