Gender and the digital

BRIEF COMMUNICATION presented at the international workshop Women in the History of Science, Philosophy and Literature that took place in Syros, Greece, 12-14 July 2018.

The underlying question of this workshop is what do we learn if we adopt a gender-sensitive perspective, that we do not learn from the mainstream narratives in history of science, philosophy and literature? Stories of women who thrived in philosophy can surely be found in the mainstream history of philosophy – often combined with the politically-correct lament for the inferior status they enjoyed; but it is indeed difficult to find a history of philosophy that takes seriously into account the gendered ways of philosophizing. After all, philosophy is philosophy and science is science. Truth about the world and about being in the world does not depend on gender, class, race etc. It is a hard-core result that can be reached through various ways, but is always the same.

Of course, all of us who participate in this meeting know very well that this is an obsolete approach and that historiography has moved far beyond this point. However, we should not fool ourselves: Stories in the press, stories taught at schools, reproduced in the public sphere and even the commonsensical perception of history of science and philosophy still have it this way. They defend women’s position and even assert their right to enjoy equal treatment by historians, but they are unable to escape the limits of the positivist perspective. If we take some distance from our disciplinary borders, we’ll soon come to realize that we are just an islet in an ocean of trivial feminism.

So, we are here because all of us have worked to raise this heavy veil. Others by showing that philosophy is gendered; others by bringing forward the gendered nature of technology; and others by simply coming across histories of women who personified alternative ways of doing science and philosophy in an otherwise male-dominated context. Speaking of my encounter with Mme du Châtelet, whose ideas were dearly adopted by two 18th-century Greek-speaking priests and scholars, I must say that I was impressed by the realization that in the 18th century there was already an alternative paradigm in philosophy supported by a distinctly feminine network; feminine not only in the sense of women’s participation, but also in the sense of openly giving priority to emotional involvement and aesthetic preferences, rather than to detachment, impartiality and reason: an embarrassment for philosophy, of course, which in the course of time was “resolved” through the establishment of professional institutions and the exclusion of such factors from scientific and philosophical communication.

However, I think that the feminine paradigm was not altogether suppressed by these developments, but stuck around throughout the history of modern philosophy. I am not a specialist, but I assume that we can see it in the case of phenomenology, which at times has been considered itself a departure from the main body of Western philosophy. I will only mention the (dear to me) example of Donna Haraway’s epistemology. On the antipodes of the Cyclopean gaze that guarantees objectivity, Haraway asserts the fluid nature of both object and subject of knowledge: “Objects are boundary projects” and subjects can acquire knowledge only by blurring their own boundaries and merging with the objects: by sympathy and immersion. Partial and situated knowledge is the “relevant alternative” (to borrow Dretske’s term) to the masculine-capitalist way of viewing and knowing.

But on top of all this, Haraway employs a paradoxical concept to make her point: modular prosthesis. Humans throughout history have developed tools to extend their bodily skills and dominate the world. But at a certain point they moved beyond that level. They acquired the ability to develop technologies that transformed their bodily experience, their way of being in and feeling the world. Technologies that did not extend their power to control the world, but that could transform them as sentient beings. This development enabled them to experience identity as a project, to assert the right to reinvent themselves and negotiate the boundaries between natural and artificial, human and animal, organism and machine. They became flexible, fluid, changeable, modular. They are freaks, of course; or women; or women to be: because they give up the privilege to sustain a well-defined self, a stable ego that will be their vehicle to penetrate the world.

Although Donna Haraway wrote her most influential works in the eighties, her thought captured the dynamics of the digital revolution, and her simians-cyborgs-women scheme were to be further developed through the notion of inforg (Luciano Floridi) in the digital era. The female qualities of knowing and being in the world acquire a new meaning in the digital context. The screen (or the interface, to be more precise) becomes the mirror, where one reflects not to confirm but to transform one’s identity. It becomes the magic mirror that sustains the ability of the individuals to decompose their selves and rebuild them as assemblages of deliberately selected features (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”); to repeatedly deterritorialize and territorialize their being-as-person in the world. So far in history, only women were apt to such “cosmetic surgery”. Men, particularly men of science, were well-formed individuals who pursued knowledge and control by becoming more of themselves. Ironically, the digital revolution calls for a radical reconsideration of the dominant perspective. In order to fully participate in the digital sphere one needs to embrace certain crucial aspects of the feminine paradigm in epistemology and philosophy.

So, we can trace a continuous … dotted line in history of science. The long ignored but always present undercurrent of feminine epistemology resurfaces by virtue of the technoscientific transformation not of the world, but of our way to understand what counts as natural. This is an important moment in the history of knowledge. Not only because the time has come to do justice to the contribution of so many women in science and philosophy, but also because the gender issue is being recast in a radically new way. The digital era enables two different approaches to the use of technology. For reasons that I cannot explain here I will call them processual and instrumentalist. Although none of them is homogeneous or politically straightforward, each of them moves toward an entirely different direction. The processual approach, which is kin to the feminine perspective, involves the notion of reinvention of the self, as described above. The instrumentalist approach, on the other hand, revolves around the notion of innovation as it is applied in industry and technoscientific research. People who adopt this view do not see something really new in the digital condition, beyond the capability to realize projects that other technologies were unable to sustain. It is this group of people who are surprised by fake news and take precautions against the “dangers” of the free internet. The aim of this approach is to perpetuate the circle of capitalist valorization and to expand the technoscientific control of nature by new means.

Maybe it has not yet become clear, but I strongly believe, that the transition to the digital era brings about the need of a conscious choice between those two approaches. It is not about good and bad science or about men and women anymore. It is about politics; or, to be more precise, about the point where epistemology crosses politics. The feminine epistemology resurfaces exactly at this intersection; not only as a criticism of the colonization project of modernity, but also as a viable and dynamic alternative to the instrumentalist project of the digital era and as a radical rejection of the rigid dualities upon which this project rests.