Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit
February 9, 2015 § 3 Comments
This is a response, kind of, to Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on Starting your own b(r)and, an incredibly detailed and useful outline of Greenhall’s experience working with Model View Culture. This isn’t meant to be a critique. Greenhall has been generous in sharing her knowledge, and I mostly just want to expand on the first couple of thoughts I had in response:
I’m writing these thoughts not as an expert, but as someone who is still trying to think more and learn more about what it might mean to be a feminist, how to be an effective activist, and how to build alternatives to the very broken system that is currently available to us.
As the title of this post suggests, I’m drawing very tentatively on the important work of women, particularly Flavia Dzodan, in expanding the discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality, originally developed in parallel by Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, is a term that’s increasingly used in different feminist communities to discuss the ways in which different forms of oppression overlap.
Dzodan is one of the many writers who are emphasising the role that capitalism plays in these intersecting forms of oppression. In particular it’s useful to read her critique of choice, neoliberal, and libertarian feminism, in which she writes about the problems with seeing a form of feminism which sits easily with capitalism as the default. She argues that this,
“has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”
I don’t think that Greenhall’s post neglects the idea of solidarity, or talks only about individual benefits; for example, she writes carefully and thoughtfully about how to ensure that authors are properly paid and retain control of their work.
But I do think that the section on ‘What kind of corporation should you become?’ needs deeper examination. Greenhall opens by noting that, “The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit?” As she points out, there are a lot of problems with the non-profit format, including the ways that the need for funding can distort an organisation’s work (outlined in more detail by Sue Gardner). Greenhall cautions that, “You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist.”
There are two issues I want to raise here. Firstly, like Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content). We accept a particular model of workplace in which there are bosses and workers, in which some people control the company and others work for it. We accept that we can fulfill our personal goals through making and selling good products. We accept that we can work against gender inequality (and for diversity in other more nebulous senses) without working against the capitalist system. But capitalism requires inequality and always will. It is build on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of social reproduction, which is usually relegated to women and people of colour.
Secondly, I want to question the idea that our only choice of organisational forms is between for-profit and non-profit models. Both of these, especially in the context of formal US incorporation, are built on the same hierarchical model. They both assume that for an organisation to function properly, there must a division between those who control the direction and those who are merely workers. The non-profit sector doesn’t offer alternative models for organisation, and in many cases it merely means an intensification of the exploitation that workers face.
We need to, at the very least, be considering options beyond the for-profit/non-profit divide. We need to be thinking about organisational forms that create real challenges to the current capitalist system, including cooperatives and collectives. These forms have their own contradictions and problems, but we can learn from them and build on them. There’s a bunch of good writing on this, from the vast body of work on areas with a long history of collectives (including Mondragon and Reggio Emilio); more recent work on how workers in Argentina reclaimed their workplaces; activist zines on feminist collectives; writing reflecting on the experiences of current workers’ cooperatives; and histories of the collective movement in different places (including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which I just found out about and really want to read).
This is not to say that I think it’s somehow inexcusable or fundamentally unfeminist to end up deciding to run a for-profit or non-profit organisation. We all make our own uneasy compromises with the system, myself included. In many cases it may not be viable to attempt radical new forms of organisation. But at the very least we need to be thinking carefully about how feminism and capitalism relate to each other, and what the alternatives might be. We should be careful about restricting our vision to a set of possibilities that all exist within the system as it is, and instead be at the very least considering organisational forms that offer us hopes of a more fundamental restructuring of the world.
June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Several people requested more reading to accompany my talk on anarchist perspectives on feminism.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list: the goal is just to provide a few starting points for reading, most of which can be found online.
For explanations of anarchism and anarchafeminism:
- Emma Goldman’s Anarchism: what it really stands for in her collection of essays provides a good overview. Goldman’s writing style is not for everyone, being quite passionate (which I think was a political choice for her), but I enjoy it.
- The opening chapters of Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism give a concise and readable overview of anarchism and its relationship to socialism.
- History and actuality of anarcha-feminism: lessons from Spain, by Marta Iniguez de Heredia, provides a readable overview of anarchafeminism.
- bell hooks’ work is not explicitly anarchist or about anarchism as a theory, but her work is an excellent perspective on anarchafeminist ideas. I’d recommend Feminism is for everybody and Feminist theory: from margins to centre as useful starting-points. The first of these, and much of her other work, can be found online.
As I explained in the workshop, much of my learning and thinking about anarchism hasn’t come through political theory, but rather through fiction. Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time was quite influential for me (which makes me all the more disappointed to read that she signed on to a 2013 transphobic open letter), and I read a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work as explorations of how we might end up with an anarchist society, especially the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy (although he can be quite technocratic at times). Reading the lives of anarchist women is interesting. Emma Goldman’s Living my Life is a fascinating read, and hopefully provides an antidote to putting Goldman on a pedestal.
Other places to look:
- Project Gutenberg has quite a few works on anarchism which might be interesting, particularly for those who want to get a more historical perspective.
- The Anarchist Library has a section on feminism, as well as a broad selection of other writings.
- Libcom has a lot of posts and articles on feminism, including quite a few from non-Western perspectives. Be warned that your mileage may vary here, as some of the discussion posts are anti-feminist.
These are, of course, just a starting-point, and limited by my own experiences. I’m trying to do more to explore perspectives that are more marginalised and hopefully will have continue to develop this list over time.
August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
Open technology and open culture is important to me. Free and open source software is vital to my research work, and as a researcher and an educator, I do what I can to support open access to important materials. Open culture and technology help support a more equal society, making key tools and information available to those who would not otherwise be able to access them.
But the culture around ‘open’ is, in important senses, still not that equal or that open. Recent discussions about aggression within the Linux development community have highlighted the ways in which particular kinds of language and interactions can work to exclude women and other people who are not brought up to interact aggressively, or who tend to be penalised for ‘assertive behaviour’ (including black men). Issues such as this are, perhaps, one of the reasons that women are underrepresented in most (but not all!) free and open source software communities. Women are also underrepresented in the supposedly open and meritocratic field of academia, at least in more secure positions: women are more likely to work in insecure, poorly-paid sessional positions (which contributes to their lack of time for publishing). On Wikipedia, women’s contributions to the world tend to receive relatively limited coverage, and women are underrepresented as contributors (happily there are efforts underway to change that).
I donated to The Ada Initiative, as well as volunteering on the advisory board, because I want to see more women in open technology and open culture. More than that, though: I want to see the culture around ‘openness’ change. I want to go to conferences with clear codes of conduct and diverse speaker lineups (which means more than a better gender balance). I want to go to more events like AdaCamp, which connect women with different perspectives and life experiences. I want technology that meets the needs of people other than the privileged (and I’m not sure that’s best done through any kind of ‘business model’). I want to help build ‘open’ spaces that actively engage with questions about how gender, class, sexuality, disability and race affect open culture and technology.
The Ada Initiative is making important contributions to this, including by modelling good practices for accessible events; supporting diverse participation at AdaCamp through the selection process and with travel grants; and providing a space for allies. If you can afford to donate, you’d help The Ada Initiative to run more AdaCamps, build resources for event coordinators, do important research on diversity in open technology and culture, and support gender diversity initiatives.
Want to read why others donated?
- Sarah Sharp donated in part because AdaCamp helped her to recognise her own ‘impostor syndrome’.
- Selena Deckelmann writes about how the networks formed at AdaCamp are reshaping her work.
- Liz Henry supports the ways in which The Ada Initiative makes women in different open tech and culture communities visible to each other.
- Connie Berardi says that AdaCamp can have lifechanging effects, as can other work supporting women in open technology and culture.
July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
My review of Ecofeminism and rhetoric: Critical perspectives on sex, technology and discourse is now available on Anthropological Forum. Unfortunately I forgot to check whether the journal was open access before agreeing to do the review, but I’ve made a pre-publication copy available for download here.
Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is helpful as an introductory text on ecofeminism for undergraduates, as well as for researchers open to incorporating an ecofeminist outlook into their work. Glynis Carr provides an effective positioning of ecofeminist theory and practice in the foreword, writing that ‘Ecofeminists recognize the connections—theoretical and practical, discursive and material—between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women. Ecofeminists act to realize a world free of sexist oppression that is also environmentally and sustainable and sound’ (ix). Carr also gives a brief introduction to the significance and uses of rhetoric, outlining its importance as a tool for analysis and activism. Jeffrey Bile’s ‘The rhetorics of critical ecofeminism’ builds on this by providing a good, if dense, discussion of different theoretical tendencies within ecofeminism. The chapter revolves around critiques of three dualisms, spiritual/natural; public/private; and self/other, which will serve as a useful overview for newcomers to the field. Murphy’s afterword draws out common themes from the chapters and suggests further reading, including fiction, which may help those new to the area to explore further.
At the same time, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a valuable resource for those already familiar with ecofeminism. Bile’s chapter offers a categorisation of ecofeminism which may be helpful for those working in the field, as well as highlighting areas of disagreement which may benefit from further attention. The case study chapters are, on the whole, useful contributions both to ecofeminist analysis as an academic discipline and to the specific areas which they address. Karla Armbruster’s examination of humans’ role in shaping the reproductive lives of pet dogs elaborates on Donna Haraway’s ideas while also raising important ethical questions about our relationship with companion species. Stacey K. Sowards also builds on Haraway’s work, emphasising the ongoing relevance of her writings on primatology and applying them to popular narratives surrounding orangutans. Merle Kindred and Julia E. Romberger invite us to consider how an ecofeminist critique could transform architecture: Kindred discusses the use of a more open, inclusive, rhetorical practice in her attempts to transform energy use in the residential built environment, and Romberger looks at the ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might help us to rethink the architecture of popular word processing tools. Each of these chapters demonstrates ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might challenge our existing view of the world.
These chapters also offer strategies for action in answer to the challenges they raise. Armbruster and Sowards suggest alternative ways of relating to other sentient beings. Armbruster argues that although there is no simple way to evade responsibility for the role we play in domestication, we can rethink our relationship with dogs in ways which might allow us to rework our relationship with wildness, and therefore open the door to broader transformations in how we relate to nature. Sowards draws on Richard Rorty’s construction of ironism to suggest that we take a more cautious and tactical approach to the anthropomorphism which shapes many popular primatological narratives, and work instead to build ‘narratives that foster identification and connection but also invite critical interrogation because they are never final narratives or vocabularies’ (86). Kindred’s discussion of her personal experiences with invitational rhetoric outlines both the ways in which this can be useful, and the limitations involved in the approach. Romberger encourages educators to teach students how to question the software which they use, as well as to collaborate in design frameworks which lead to different priorities being embedded into software architectures. These suggestions are valuable contributions to the academic literature while also opening pathways for activists and individuals concerned with creating change in their communities.
There are, however, some misfires in this book. As Murphy notes in the afterword, ecofeminism has been particularly concerned with an intersectional and inclusive analysis (147). Given this, I would have expected to see more inclusion of voices from the Global South and other marginalised perspectives, to complement the brief (and somewhat romanticised and Orientalist) discussion of the Global South in Kindred’s chapter. The decision to frame the case-study chapters, contributed by women, with explanatory chapters in the form of a preface, introduction, afterword, and epilogue written by men, may also raise some eyebrows, as might Jeffrey Lockwood’s epilogue. Lockwood’s aim of guiding ‘the open-minded but discerning academic into the field of ecofeminist analysis by framing the venture in terms of a more familiar topography’ (158) is laudable. However, his assertion that ecofeminism has developed in an ‘academic cradle that has allowed the field to develop in relative tranquility’ (157) and his offer to provide ecofeminists with ‘a guide to the obstacles that are likely to impede a journey into the larger landscape of academia’ (158) demonstrates a lack of understanding of ecofeminists’ struggles within the academy: ecofeminists are likely to already have a highly developed understanding of the obstacles they face, including the difficulty of surviving in poorly-funded departments which are more akin to windswept mountainsides than tranquil cradles. Despite these issues, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a worthwhile contribution which will be valuable for undergraduates and researchers both within and outside the academic field of ecofeminism. It has much to recommend it as an introductory text in the area, although it should be complemented by work which provides a more global and diverse perspective.
January 29, 2013 § 5 Comments
After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.
While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.
I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics': you can find my slides and the abstract here.
- Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
- Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
- Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
- Ask questions.
- Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
- Keep a list of your accomplishments.
- Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
- Remember that you are awesome.
Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.
Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.
After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).
Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.
Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.
While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.
Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.
January 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
Next week I’ll be heading over to Canberra for Linux Conference Australia, where I’ll be giving a couple of talks. These will have a slightly less academic focus than many of my conference presentations: while they still draw significantly on my research, I’ll be giving a freer rein to my activist interests. During the main program I’ll be talking about free and open source software and activism:
Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users’ needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.
I’ll also be speaking at the Haecksen mini-conference that runs alongside the main programme. Haecksen, organised by the Oceania Women of Open Technology group, will “feature women speakers and panellists on technical and community topics related to free software and women in free software.” I’ll be talking about feminism, anarchism, and FOSS:
The language of open software is increasingly being applied to politics, as people talk about and develop “open government” projects. However, much of this discussion does not unpack the politics of “openness”, instead taking for granted that it involves a technologically-enhanced model of existing liberal democratic ideals. However, there are other ways to interpret what free and open source politics might look like. One is to more thoroughly apply the politics espoused by key figures within the free and open software movements, such as Stallman and Raymond. Another, more radical, route is to take the commitment to decentralisation of power that lies at the heart of free and open source software and apply it not only to an analysis of politics, but also to the existing free and open source software movement. This route demonstrates that there are useful lessons to be learned from looking at the interaction between free software principles, anarchism, and feminism.
This will be my first time at Linux Conference, and the mailing list has made it clear that the conference has a vibrant community around it. I’m also really happy to see that Linux Conference has a great Code of Conduct and is offering free childcare. While I don’t have kids, things like this seem like a good sign that the conference organisers are taking active steps to being an inclusive space that allows space for parents and supports groups that might otherwise be marginalised. I wish more academic conferences did this. If you’re going, please feel free to say hi to me!