Helen Hester: «Biology is not destiny, it can be technologically transformed»

A conversation with philosopher Helen Hester about xenofeminism, a gender technomaterialist proposal that aims to offer tools for a collectively construction of a new post-capitalist world.

Helen Hester

Helen Hester | Illustration by de José Antonio Soria | CC-BY

In 2015, a manifesto signed anonymously by Laboria Cuboniks broke into the contemporary debates around gender and sexuality with a proposal adapted to our times of technological acceleration and enormous complexity. Its title was Xenofeminism: a politics for alienation, and it ended with a strong statement: “if nature is unjust, change nature!”. Behind this text was a collective formed by archaeologists, artists, programmers, philosophers… One of the members of this group is Helen Hester, who recently published a book entitled Xenofeminism (Polity Press, 2018), in which she presents her personal developments following some of her own lines of research, such as digital technologies, social reproduction and post-work politics.

The Xenofeminist Manifesto was released more than three years ago and now you have published a book, which you define as “your own variant of xenofeminism” — to which territories were you interested in taking the proposal? In the case of reproduction, for example, it is not an issue that is explicitly addressed in the manifesto, and yet it constitutes the guiding thread of your essay.

The manifesto represents a distillation of multiple lines of inquiry, emerging from six different people from six different disciplinary backgrounds and fields of interest. As a result, certain directions are gestured towards but not rigorously pursued. In part, this more gestural character is a result of (or, at least, appropriate to) the manifesto form. Much of what I lay out in Xenofeminism is lurking in there, in an abbreviated, embryonic way. The first mention of pregnancy and child-rearing crops up almost immediately, for example, in 0x01, but only as the most fleeting aside. This is one reason why the text can feel dense — because it’s packed with monographs masquerading as slogans. The other five members of Laboria Cuboniks could easily write book-length studies from their own perspectives and positionalities. I hope they will!

In the introduction you also say that xenofeminism is a “polysemic project”, the result of “collaborative work based on difference”, and you refer to the negotiation process between your various positions as “one of the most satisfying and illuminating elements”. Beyond the diversity of disciplines and interests of each of the members, what have been the main points of discrepancy?

Yes, part of the distillation process I mentioned above involved substantial negotiation. We started with a sort of sifting or panning through our various perspectives to find shared ground – to figure out how to collectively produce something to which we all felt we could subscribe. It also involved challenging each other on key points, being open to revising our commitments where appropriate, figuring out what (and how much) we might be willing to let go off in order to write together under a shared pseudonym.

From my perspective, there are two influential figures for xenofeminism who might be thought of as totemic of ideological fault lines within the project– Shulamith Firestone on the one hand and Sadie Plant on the other. These two are not easy bedfellows. One emphasises hegemony, the other insurgency; one concentrates on the sovereign subject, the other on the swarm, and so on – programme vs. eruption, construction vs. generative destruction, control vs. escape. These are some of the conflicts that find expression within xenofeminism. Both tendencies are necessary, I think, though they appear to be at odds with each other, and represent a source of perspectival tension within the manifesto. This is one reason why the mesopolitical comes to be so important in my own elaboration of XF – it is a means of mediating between the collective’s investments in Firestonian counter-hegemony and Plantian distributed, decentralized insurrection. An emphasis on political transits – on transitioning between various scales of thinking and action – is helpful here, though it does not alleviate all the tensions by any means. We must learn to accept a degree of openness, messiness, and conflict as a perhaps inevitable by-product of collaborative thinking.

Laboria Cuboniks was formed in a summer school where you came up with the idea of answering a question: “What would an accelerationist feminism be like?”. You share some points like the orientation towards the future or the vindication of universality, but your vision is quite critical. What aspects of accelerationism do you find useful and which are problematic or hostile to women?

What initially struck me about the debates surrounding left accelerationism was that they referenced a very particular set of thinkers, and this created a somewhat skewed genealogy. This genealogy exerted a shaping influence upon the way in which ideas were being framed and received. Feminist theorists of science and technology too often appeared to be side-lined or omitted from the discussion, despite a set of shared commitments and ambitions. For all its apparent cosmopolitanism, accelerationism’s frame of reference was actually rather parochial.

I didn’t want to reject accelerationism outright, as I saw (and continue to see) something interesting and valuable in its attempt to reckon with the fact that any kind of better future must of necessity be assembled from the rotten, toxic social order we already inhabit. However, it seemed important to flag up the myriad points at which accelerationist politics intersect with (and are indebted to) feminist thinkers – to reinsert a different set of voices into the narratives being spun about that particular political moment.

In addition to accelerationism, xenofeminism is related to other philosophical movements linked to the so-called speculative turn (speculative realism, object-oriented ontology …), which accounts for the rise of realist and materialist positions after having occupied a marginal place in philosophy. What are the reasons for this emergence of materialist modes of analysis? Are other approaches such as constructivism, which had been hegemonic in gender theory, no longer useful?

I think we have to be quite careful not to roll Speculative Realism, OOO, new materialism, accelerationism, and so on into a single packet of contemporary philosophies. These movements may share certain personnel – people like Ray Brassier and Nick Srnicek are associated with both SR and accelerationism, for example, Graham Harman with SR and OOO, and so on – but there are ongoing tensions and conflicts between these positions. Too often people merge these tendencies into one phantasmatic object of critique; loose definitions allow people to build their own enemies. I don’t think this is sufficiently rigorous, or particularly helpful when it comes to advancing the debates.

That being said, at the broadest level, there is some common ground between something like SR and XF (an emphasis on achievable knowledge as a basis for action, for example, as well as a resistance to “mind equals world” correlationism). In XF, this particularly manifests itself as an interest in biological materialism — a perspective attentive to the biological stratum of embodied reality, which acknowledges that different bodies may have different capacities and vulnerabilities. Underpinning our biological materialism, however, is the anti-naturalist assertion that just because something is “real” doesn’t mean that it is automatically fixed or immutable; the physical body itself can be made subject to a certain degree of manipulation. This is not to reject or undermine theories that seek to unpack discursive and textual aspects of identity; we acknowledge that social ideas play a prominent role in understandings of embodiment. Rather, XF chooses to emphasize the fact that biology, too, is mutable and a potential space of emancipatory gender political interventions. As I put it in the book, biology is not destiny, because biology itself can be technologically transformed, and should be transformed in the pursuit of reproductive justice and the progressive transformation of gender. But again, any crossover here is only at the most general level — so general as to potentially represent an unhelpful point of comparison.

Xenofeminism | Diann Bauer
Xenofeminism | Diann Bauer

You enrol in a certain feminist genealogy — cyberfeminism, technofeminism… — as “Haraway’s disobedient daughters”. In your work, there is an attempt to dialogue with previous generations of feminist thinkers, as you do in the book by bridging the movement for women’s health in the 70s and contemporary trans* activism, trying to emphasize in some common interests and avoiding this widespread tendency to generate divisions. How important is to you the exchange between different currents and generations of feminists?

Intergenerational solidarity is extremely important to me. The metaphor of waves as a means by which to frame or periodize feminist politics (as in, “First Wave”, “Second Wave”, etc.) has been rightly critiqued on the basis that it promotes the reduction of a complex fabric of ideas to an easy to digest narrative; anomalous perspectives or voices that don’t easily fit into this narrative get pushed aside and forgotten. This idea of waves also seems to suggest successive movements within feminism – separate, distinct tendencies that emerge to subsume and supersede what has come before. Of course, the reality is that each historical moment contains a multitude of feminisms which bleed into and across one another; certain approaches, strategies, or ideas reach across different contexts and are taken up in new or different ways.

That being said, it is still important to recognise differences across time and across perspectives — change can happen! — and to critically reflect upon the work of those who came before us. This is how learning starts. It is also, I think, the most comradely approach to earlier work, in that it recognises that the debates and ideas are still vital, still alive. This connects with one of my preferred methodologies: repurposing. In the book, I talk about repurposing in terms of technology — about taking a device and turning it against its original purposes, deploying it for new ends. It’s about finding novel or unexpected opportunities within artefacts or systems that might not have been designed with one’s own exact needs in mind. But repurposing can go beyond specific technologies to represent a more general kind of reparative approach, one that looks for what is useful in (for example) intellectual movements or previous activist traditions that may not exactly correspond with one’s own position.

Although xenofeminism is fundamentally a gender politics, it has implications beyond this area (in the field of environmentalism or anti-speciesism, for example). Economic issues are also addressed: you claim the need for “an economy that liberates reproductive labour […] while building models of familiarity free from the deadening grind of wage labour”. Is xenofeminism inseparable from post-capitalism?

Aside from the odd hyperstitional glimmer, full xenofeminism is largely impossible under capitalism. As such, XF and post-capitalism are closely linked. Both are approaches to, and calls for, an alien future; both take things which have (until very recently) been assumed to be immutable and insisted that they can be made subject to thorough-going change. The idea of post-capitalism does not necessarily suggest a blueprint, either; as a term, it is devoid of even the rather nebulous signification associated with “communism”, “socialism”, or “anarchism”. It is to some extent a cypher or a placeholder for the not-yet – for a difference that may be emerging, but which still has some way to go before arrival, and which cannot be reliably predicted or pinned down in advance (a xeno-futurity, if you will). Something will come after capitalism – quite possibly something worse. Certainly, it will be worse if we remain quiescent in the face of climate crisis and ecological catastrophe. We must fight for the kind of successor system we actually want, and collectively develop the content of a truly emancipatory post-capitalism. XF aims to offer tools for this struggle, as well as something of a provisional horizon for determining what might be worth struggling for.

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Helen Hester: «Biology is not destiny, it can be technologically transformed»