Instead of placing limits on what humans can do, xenofeminism posits alienation as a kind of longing that allows human beings to think about concepts that exist outside of our experience. The members of Laboria Cuboniks bring us this text by way of an introduction to the book Nuevos vectores del xenofeminismo (New Vectors from Xenofeminism), which we have published courtesy of Holobionte Ediciones.
Laboria Cuboniks was generated in the summer of 2014 when the six of us came together for a conference on rationalism organised by Peter Wolfendale and Reza Negarestani at the HKW in Berlin. None of us knew each other very well at first, but as the conference went on we found ourselves banding together to discuss the role of women in the discourses of science, rationalism and mathematics – a role that has often been viewed problematically in feminist writing as betraying some form of submission to patriarchal modes of thought. Traditionally, in the West, feminist discourses have always been allied with nature, or various strains of purely materialist philosophies. Rationality, technology and science were viewed with suspicion as oppressive.
Nevertheless, we were all interested in these areas of thought, and at the same time had strong feminist commitments and considered ourselves feminists. We were sick of that interest being denounced as ‘unfeminine’ (or even anathema to certain strains of gender politics) and we all agreed that an alliance between feminist thought and practice and these highly technical discourses deserved a fundamental reassessment – one which would give it an explicitly positive role. This, to us, was the best way to realize a future-compatible feminist philosophy. We were sick of either being made invisible within the intellectual spaces we liked to engage with, or being relegated to ‘feminist’ or ‘queer’ sub-categories of these domains of thought. So we decided to do something about it. And that’s how the manifesto was born.
Maybe it’s important to add that there was quite a lot of playfulness involved in the idea as it evolved. It began as a meme that we’d bat around between each another over the two weeks we were in Berlin together – concocting increasingly silly permutations of the pseudonymous ‘Nicolas Bourbaki’ (a group of mid-twentieth century mathematicians) to stand in for the absent voice of what would become – an anagram of Nicolas Bourbaki – ‘Laboria Cuboniks’ (hereafter ‘LC’). She quite seriously began as an effective fiction which made itself real – a ‘hyperstition’.
Writing the manifesto online after we had returned to our respective homes across the globe was the moment where we worked most intensely together on a single project. Partially because of the huge physical distances between us and partially because we all have diverse skills and interests in what LC can do, we have often worked in smaller groups or presented our work individually in countries that are accessible for each of us. Paradoxically, the global nature of LC has led to a fragmentation of sorts. This suits the project because LC has always been something of an emergent entity – she is more than just the work of six individual women. Other writers, thinkers and artists have often produced work under the guise of xenofeminism, or have been involved in collaborative projects with us in various ways. LC has shared a close relationship with cyberfeminism from the beginning. We have been working with various cyberfeminist artists and writers since 2014, when we timidly wrote to members of the Australian cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix (famous for their text A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, written in 1991) and asked them to participate in a seminar we were involved in. To our surprise they wrote back immediately and said yes! Since then, VNS Matrix have done several collaborations with LC, ranging from zine publications and talks, to large public performance works, including a piece with the Australian feminist performance ‘artist’ Barbara Cleveland (previously known as Brown Council) for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, and a collaboration with VNS Matrix’s Virginia Barratt to write an original libretto for Marcin Pietruszewski’s (dia)grammatology of space – a series of exploratory articulations between mechanical speech analysis/re-synthesis, and computer music. The cyberfeminist artist Linda Dement has also worked with members of LC, producing experimental code-poetry among other things, and xenofeminism has been enshrined alongside our feminist heroes on the corrupted, memorial ‘Cyberfeminist Bedsheet’ that Dement and her collaborator Nancy Mauro-Flude created in 2018. We’ve also been approached by cyberfeminist collectives in Russia, such as Intimate Connections, and the HOMAR collective in Poland, who published a manifesto for xeno-sexuality in 2018.
This alien future isn’t some preconceived ideal state – otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘alien’ – but the constantly mutating labour of a more just and novel future, always open to unexpected information and inputs.
In some ways LC might be more of an agent/avatar than a collective. As mentioned above, the only thing we have done that included all the original members was the manifesto itself, while much of the subsequent work and thinking has been carried out through smaller groupings or with others that were not present at the origin in Berlin. So, LC and xenofeminism exceed just us six. She is a mutable form that can be inhabited by many, eschewing personal identity and indexing what the manifesto describes as ‘no one in particular’ and the ‘desire to construct an alien future’: a constantly moving ‘X on a mobile map’. This alien future isn’t some preconceived ideal state – otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘alien’ – but the constantly mutating labour of a more just and novel future, always open to unexpected information and inputs. A form of constant learning, ready to jettison old biases when they are deemed repressive and unuseful. This is one of the reasons behind the positive attitude towards alienation that we espouse in the manifesto. Alienation as the freedom to let go of the oppression of past configurations of the world and integrate new models on the fly.
To help clarify the operation of ‘xeno’ in xenofeminism, we can draw from the etymology of the word. The Greek word ‘xenos’ has a threefold meaning, often obscured in its simplistic reduction to that which is ‘foreign’, and can be understood as such:
a) Xenos, of course, does refer to foreignness, but more precisely to someone outside a particular known community, with no clearly defined relationship; or something outside familiar modes of identification or epistemic classification;
b) Xenos as an enemy/stranger, or as something unknown which is potentially a promise or a threat;
c) Xenos as a guest friendship (as opposed to philos, the root of philosophy, referring to local or known friends) or a guest relationship to that unknown thing or idea.
What this threefold meaning of xenos indicates is an inherent uncertainty or ambiguity as to the status of an unknown entity. It indicates a mixture and a relationship, seeing as xenos can be neutral, threatening or friendly, or perhaps even all these qualities simultaneously. Xenos can be best understood in the context of ‘xenia’, the Ancient Greek protocol for obligatory hospitality, illustrated through several myths where gods make appearances as humans to test a given community in their enactment of xenia, by seeking refuge as strangers.
‘Gender abolition’ doesn’t mean the abolition of markers of gendered difference, but an abolition of the categories that determine possible and legitimate genders in advance, along with the social and discursive power these positions automatically grant.
In xenofeminism we see ‘xeno’ as a navigational principle, extending to both human and non-human interrelations, as well as to epistemic negotiations with the unknown.
It is this estrangement between the constituent of that part of the universe that can be said to know itself and that which cannot. It is this estrangement that allows humans to think about concepts that exist outside of experience. It is this alienation that makes abstraction possible. So the ‘alien’ of alienation in this specific sense that ‘xeno’ indicates can be another fruitful way to understand the xeno. It is the gap between what is, and what can be understood and imagined, that gives us purchase on the future.
In the manifesto, LC writes that ‘“Gender abolitionism” is shorthand for the ambition to construct a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.’ Importantly, ‘gender abolition’ doesn’t mean the abolition of markers of gendered difference, but an abolition of the categories that determine possible and legitimate genders in advance, along with the social and discursive power these positions automatically grant. One example is the binarism that ushers in the whole notion of ‘passing’ in trans representation. The in-between is just as valid as a position to occupy. ‘Gender hacking’ comes in here as a supportive and affirmative mode of sharing, and experimenting with, various sex technologies across the entire spectrum of social and technical innovation – from women’s health information groups and robotically-aided reproductive labour, to ectogenetic and endocrinal technologies. To paraphrase Spinoza, ‘we don’t know what a body can do’. So gender abolition is a formula that gestures towards a future in which difference may become so alien that we no longer have a contemporary representational system sufficient to its description.
Xenofeminism’s fundamental commitment to transfeminisim makes a case for eschewing a gender politics grounded in categorical identities in favour of a feminism based on always malleable states and processes – transits and transformations – what VNS Matrix has called a ‘slime politics’. We advocate for the system of rigid gender difference to be abolished via the proliferation of fluid sex and gender differences. It is a creative, rather than a destructive, approach.
Reason allows feminism to work across different scales of complexity, from the personal to the abstract. This is why the activity of reasoning, an activity enacted by most humans (with the exception being those facing catastrophic limitations due to their endowments or circumstances of brain injury that diminish cognitive agency), even if often historically disregarded, needs to be claimed. It’s a capacity to battle over and expand, not one to cede.
The activity of reasoning, even if often historically disregarded, needs to be claimed. It’s a capacity to battle over and expand, not one to cede.
There are vectors from feminist epistemologies that xenofeminism extrapolates from, as a way to combat the historical exclusivity of this category, while aligning the power to reason with the valences of planetary interconnection that constitute our present condition. One of the primary tenets of feminist epistemologies stems from Donna Haraway’s ‘Situated Knowledges’ (written over 30 years ago) – where she pushes for different understandings of ‘objectivity’ apart from the ‘god’s eye trick’ of impartial knowledge-making. Put broadly, her framing demands a situated accounting for the local geo-historical-material contexts from which one speaks, thinks, relates, learns and acts, as a bi-directional form of agency between the knower and her object of thought.
Today, however, how are we to define the ‘position’ from where a knower is situated? It’s not a straightforward question considering the entanglements of locations (both on and off-line) that mutually co-constitute one another. Our personal situations, while indeed particular and different from one another in substantial ways, are also conditioned by multiple locations at once (i.e. caught in deep production chains; while online interactions see our signals/data bouncing around the globe throughout various corporate, state and geopolitical jurisdictions). Here we can only account for multi-locatability through an understanding of situatedness that figures one’s particular position as a synthesis between the specific and the global. Situatedness is, therefore, not atomisable.
Reasoned abstraction is, in itself, required for imagining one’s material situatedness in this discretely continuous (and vice versa) way. This relative, and not absolute understanding of ‘position’ allows us to also ask: From what scale is situatedness mapped? From the scale of a singular human in the world, or from the scale of humanness as such? Do we have to choose scales? When the human is decentered at the planetary scale, can that abstract schematic work upon our understanding of positioning at a personal scale? Xenofeminism is interested in probing this synthetic picture of personal situatedness as already productively contaminated by that which is extra-local to it.
This also connects with a commitment to feminist inhumanism, where the rational and the natural are bound together in a loop of constant revisability. Reason is the capacity that enables us to lever ourselves out of ‘the given’ – whether that is understood as biological determinism or so-called ‘natural’ hierarchies which operate as control systems for determining and constraining the capacities of bodies. It’s here where we can say that every situation contains within it the possibility for re-situation, emphasising the point that no modes of situatedness (material or conceptual) are ever fixed to a finite position.
Reason within xenofeminism additionally notes the need for the residues of reason to be reasoned with. Just because the techno-sciences, for instance, may have the power to construct new tools or technologies, does not mean, by default, they ought to be built. This is where knowledge intersects with political and normative domains, when it enters the category of ‘use’. If one of the long-standing legacies of feminist epistemologies is to insist on the parity between propositional forms of knowing and knowing-how, we must additionally highlight the importance of hypothetical thought in thinking the consequences of reason’s material incarnations. Xenofeminism remains committed to this important intersection between what is known, how that knowledge is potentially put to use, and the crucial dimension of narration for politicising how reason is instrumentalised in relevant and equitable ways.
If the code of what humans will become is written in a condition of norms blind to inequalities of gender, race, and class, these blind spots will continue to determine our future.
Technological change has always had two faces, hence the realistic acknowledgement of risk and the refusal of utopian politics in the manifesto. But this is why the construction of non-oppressive norms and hegemonies, a project which xenofeminism is a part of, is so important now as technologies develop at an ever-accelerating rate. If the code of what humans will become is written in a condition of norms blind to inequalities of gender, race, and class, these blind spots will continue to determine our future. Pernicious norms will become ever more deeply entrenched and constitutive of our future selves. As the development of AI is in its infancy, this is one of the urgencies of xenofeminism.
With regard to a future that is neither dystopian nor utopian, we could return to the concept of alienation. Alienation is useful for thinking out the human relationship to something like global climate change, a condition that functions at a scale that is both experiential, in that individuals experience the effects of climate change in their everyday lives, and outside the scale of the experiential, in that both its effects and causes are complex and interconnected and need to be confronted in and as a condition of abstraction if they are to be dealt with adequately. Xenofeminism’s approach to such problems is one of constant modulation between different scales of comprehension and intervention –connecting micro, meso and macro levels of complexity, without privileging one scale in particular.
The nation state, for example, is a human invention born out of a capacity for abstraction that at one point in world history would have been a scaling up of a social contract, but climate change shows us that the scale of the nation is no longer adequate to how we are functioning on the planet (this is with regards to profit-driven technological innovation blind to everyday oppressions as well as climate change) and this further scaling-up cannot happen without abstraction. So this prospective future would be one where we use our capacities for abstraction to make material and political commitments to scales and realities outside of our personal experience, in such a way that also takes into account the demands of smaller-scale realities.
The effects of climate change are not and will not be felt equally. We need to be able to use our capacity for large-scale abstraction to make commitments in the present to kin (in the broadest sense, to the more-than-human) that are already suffering the current effects of climate change as well as future kin that to not yet exist that will potentially feel these effects even more deeply, whilst also being cognisant of how such abstractions play out on a micro-ecological level. The capacity for abstraction – a capacity that is specific to sapience and the ability to reason – allows feminists to act on a macro level, at the level of globe (and beyond), but it cannot simply be implemented without also taking the other levels into account. So the tactical use of hegemony in the manifesto is one in which macro levels of abstraction that are equal to planetary problems such as overpopulation and climate change are negotiated from the ground up, in a constructive relationship with micro and meso levels of experience.
At the same time, we stress that technologies of bodily autonomy are not sufficient in and of themselves. We must remember that any meaningful ‘right to choose’ must include but also extend beyond abortion as a medical procedure – it must incorporate all those social conditions which impact upon our autonomy and shape the viability of so-called ‘life choices’. This would include secure housing, protection from violence (including that of the carceral state), support for carers, a safe and liveable environment, and so on. We also see the struggle for free and secure access to abortion to be continuous with other, no less urgent struggles for autonomy over gendered embodiment that are everywhere being fought by trans people. We are thrown into this world of flesh, carved up by gender and skewed by power, under circumstances that are not of our choosing, but feminism is nothing if not the will to defy those circumstances and reforge them into something new. Biology ceases to be destiny only insofar as we are free to control our biology and refuse to let it merely be a means by which we, ourselves, are controlled by others.