invisible infrastructures

On cyberfeminism, rhetoric and our social limitations

I recently subscribed to an educational Youtube channel because I’ve always been a fan of educational television but don’t have cable anymore. The channel, Second Thought, has a lot of content which is enlightening, but there’s this one video that led me to immediately unsubscribe. The video is titled “What the Hell Happened to Feminism?” and is a pretty tone-deaf overview of what the narrator described as Tumblr Feminism (fourth-wave / cyberfeminism), highlighting specific instances of feminists living and fighting for their survival as somehow invalidating the entirety of 4WF politics. I’m not about to rip Second Thought to pieces here because that channel is only one instance of a general issue which is happening all across American cultural politics, and is not simply limited to issues of gender, but to issues of identity itself – lack of compassion.

One of my primary research questions for one of the chapters of my thesis was the question of human detectability when interacting with one another; to what degree can I afford someone the respect I would afford myself, and how does one’s otherness, when somehow quantified, influence the ways I will interact with this person on a sub/unconscious level? Within the context of African-American women’s literature in the vernacular, I argued that the usage of standard registers of American English are not sufficient at demonstrating one’s inherent humanity, despite cultural notions of Western superiority, acculturation and assimilation telling us otherwise. One’s ability to speak the Queen’s English does not entirely mitigate the otherwise inescapable condition of one’s Blackness which in itself as a marker of inhumanity or qualified humanity. Detectability as a concept therefore functions alongside social legibility (the ability to read and decode social information from a medium, like the body, a text, or a way of speaking) insofar that it allows us as social beings to look at someone and determine their intrinsic social value. Somehow we translate social demerits (transness, blackness, woman-ness, foreignness, queerness, darkness, etc.) as somehow removed from the self (and in many cases of self-hate, the imagined third-person standard), somehow distant and therefore alien. Xenophobia therefore is not a fear of cultural outsiders, but a seemingly intrinsic social discomfort around those who we have determined to be outside of the public order – a fear and hatred of the other.

How is this related to this foolishness in Second Thought’s video? Our inability to see other people as legitimate human beings because of their marks is ultimately an issue of the invisible infrastructure of ordinary life in which we live in disharmony. The social order, for those who benefit from it, is without issue; insofar as a heterosexual person is concerned, the issue of one’s sexual orientation has never and will never pose them an issue within a society in which their sexuality is read as ideal and normal. For the queer person living outside the boundaries of normalcy, the constant reaffirmation of their alterity is suffocating for reasons which the straight person will never understand. The straight person ultimately views the queer person as abnormal, beyond the boundaries of the ideal world of otherwise invisible social architecture. The straight person believes themselves to be in a field expanding onwards infinitely, but the queer person becomes aware throughout their life of invisible structures which inhibit motion, limit trajectory and stifle development. The plain of the straight person looks like a prison for the queer person, and because the straight person cannot see what the queer person sees, and the straight person is already suspicious of the queer person by virtue of his very queerness, he is less likely to take his words into account, to unsee the world as it always has been to him, to ruin his own reality in order to affirm that of someone whose very existence is an abnormality, a person who does not belong and perhaps should not exist.

This scenario is rather limited, but I’m using it to demonstrate one major point – social reality is subjective. We cannot inhabit other people’s lives, crawl into their minds or peer out of their eyes. This is one of the limitations of human communication, and through that, literature – we can only convey so much information about ourselves and our realities, and this information is nevertheless at the discretion of the person to whom we are talking. The issue in this Second Thought video is therefore an issue of speaking and listening.

What the narrator doesn’t understand is that the Internet allows for new ways of conceptualizing how fourth-wave / cyberfeminism will look and function. The Internet has the potential to be the most democratizing innovation in our history, allowing for (literate) individuals (with access) to build communities across otherwise insurmountable physical space. Many feminists have made Tumblr a place for specific kinds of discourse, reaffirmation and absolution that they see as essential to their survival. They can scream and be angry and be woeful and hate men all they want and there isn’t anyone (or shouldn’t be anyone) to censor their voices. The democratization of the Internet also comes with the reform of how we understand “movements” to look. Black Lives Matter has often been criticized by Black people as a movement designed to fail because of its formlessness (read: fluidity) and its lack of central purpose or leadership. For one, BLM has a website, and it has founders who are still quite vocal in their fight for the end of police brutality and systemic inequality, all of which you can read on their website. Yet, because it does not seem to look like other forms of resistance, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. All social and political movements are made possibly by webs of personnel working behind the scenes to make things happen, and the Civil Right movement is no different. The Internet intensifies this by putting everyone at the foreground, making it all look like one giant mass instead of one or two prominent figures supported by an entire community. Black liberation online will not and cannot look like the Civil Rights Movement, because the Internet functions differently than physical space insofar that everyone is allowed and given a platform from which to speak. Cyberfeminism will not look like Third or Second Wave feminism for this very reason. There likely won’t be a Cyberfeminist Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir or Audre Lorde or Ntozake Shange, but thousands of folks fighting for their freedom as only they can.

At the same time, the narrator doesn’t seem to get that it’s essential that we listen to another, and that we take descriptions of the invisible scaffolding of our social order in good faith. We must exercise compassion with one another, hearing each other out in order to better understand things which we will never truly experience. Instead of writing off cyber feminists as feminazis drunk on their own backwashed “bitriol,” go and read one of their posts and try to understand their arguments instead of just getting disgusted with the tone and manner of their cadence. Yet, to do this, we need to understand another key point: the oppressed must constantly negotiate their oppression with their oppressors, must go through the channels developed by their oppressors in order to mitigate, and never completely address, their oppression. Y’all know how much I can’t stand respectability politics, but they are not simply bound within the context of the African-American bourgeoisie. Respectability politics are the very coding language in which social legibility and human detectability functions – people who do not meet our standards, who do not resemble us, are not people, or they are not as human like as us. They are somehow not deserving of respect, they are somehow below us in the social order, therefore justifying their continued mistreatment. I doubt most people think this so clearly as I am writing it, but I am certain that all human beings (even the woke ones, perhaps even especially the woke ones) are guilty of this. The Second Thought video is tone-deaf because the narrator fails to realize this central axiom within the politics of the oppressed; the fact that one’s liberation from bondage or discrimination requires negotiation with your oppressors is infuriating and humiliating, and feminists getting angry online because they have to describe how they are oppressed to their oppressors, only to be misunderstood and labeled as feminazis is but a manifestation of this. Existing within a world where everything seems to be a direct threat to your existence, where all injustices seem to flow and coalesce into the same putrid stream, all of the ills of the world being interconnected and dead-center in one’s mind is a horrifying reality which many people must endure every day in silence, for the rest of the world, adrift in blissful sleep, cannot see what one can see, and will never see it, even if they begin to believe that it might just be there.

What is our resolution? Faith. We must have faith in one another, in our testimonies of suffering and prejudice. Very few people actually want to kill all men, and I’ve rarely heard of many women serial killers going on indiscriminate man-killing benders, just like I haven’t heard of a Black woman going about killing black men for continually writing Black women out of narratives of Black racial progress (save, maybe, Rosa Parks.) Even fewer people are willing to lie about their oppression for reasons which are obvious; if you get caught lying about your oppression, you delegitimize everyone’s bid for progress by providing literally the ONE counterexample to discredit you as a group. I don’t think many people would do this, and even in situations where allegations coming from the oppressed seem to somehow demonstrate a bit of power (allegations of racist remarks / treatment against white people, rape allegations from women against men), I’m reticent to think many marginalized folks would ever ever lie about the instruments of their oppression. Being skeptical doesn’t help when someone’s life is on the line, and therefore you have to listen and to care about another. You must take what someone is saying about you, or about people who look like you, into consideration, for that person doesn’t have anything to gain from lying, and the world to gain from being truthful about the way they live their lives.

There is no universal social reality in which we all live. We remained isolated, and wholly alone in the bodies we carry around this world, and that means that no one can walk in our shoes, as Atticus Finch, a well-meaning white Liberal, once suggested in To Kill a Mockingbird. The world will never look the way it does for someone else, and upon switching eyes you may very well realize that there is much to this world which you could have never imagined, that you would have much rather never known. Let people get pissed, but don’t think that they’re just pissed about the world because it’s fun (being perpetually pissed and afraid is not fun), and don’t think that because their anger doesn’t ring at just the right tone for it to be considered proper discourse doesn’t mean that it is any less legitimate. Instead of getting a sour taste in your mouth when someone tells you about yourself, or thinking “omg I feel threatened” when you see #killallmen, think “Hm, I wonder why these women and femmes are so anti-men?” “How do I benefit from systems of privilege which disenfranchise and disempower women?” “What are some of the things I do without knowing which contribute to women’s oppression?” And I’m doubtful we’ll generate many responses, for doing so is like trying to imagine the structures whose existence you are only faintly aware of, which you only know in legends. We are very closeminded, and it seems we have a propensity to remain closeminded lest we disillusion ourselves. Yet, many people seem to be born disillusioned.

Cyberfeminism is new territory for popular culture. The Internet, although it seems to have been around for all our lives, is still only in its first phases of life. It will open gateways for social and political discourse which we have never been able to market and reproduce in physical space, and it will change the very means by which we understand one another, by which we build bonds and develop our own identity politics. And unless we want the Internet to mimic the ways that our social order in the physical world functions (kyriarchy), we must be accommodating, inviting and accepting of one another in ways which only new territory can realize.

Artwork: Faith Ringgold, “For the Women’s House”

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