Implying iridescence, the blue purple colour of the backdrop used in ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ (1991) calls upon the quintessential images of the sea so commonly used as desktop backgrounds: calm, blue and tranquil. This would-be serene passivity is visually ruptured, both by the content of the collage and the wording of the manifesto itself. The work we are using as a focal point here is is ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, made by Cyberfeminist collective The VNS Matrix. The collective made these works in response to the popular idea, put forth by thinkers such as Michael Benedikt, that technology provides an ‘advancement’ for the body, rendering the fleshy meat of the body obsolete in light of the Internet’s power to ‘free up’ subjects to wander the terrain of the web. The VNS Matrix sought to subvert these ethereal conceptions of the cyber- corporeal in an attempt to reclaim their flesh whilst also maintaining an online agency and presence. These works insisted upon the sensual and erotic character of human-computer interactions in an online economy dominated by ideas of transcendental subjectivities. This article will analyse the critical implications brought about by ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, and consider how despite now being 25 years old, this artwork’s call to arms retains a sense of urgency due to its demand to rethink nature/culture and corporeal/cerebral divisions. Central to this reading is Vicki Kirby’s thinking around cyberspace, subjects, deconstruction, and their implications for cyberfeminism. Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction informs this reading’s encounter with the ways ‘nets’ and ‘bags’ have been figured throughout ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’. I will additionally draw upon the work of Kimberly Peters and Philip Steinberg, and Jacques Derrida, in order to interrogate the way fluids, bodies and cyberspace come together; where this collage and Kirby’s proposal to substantially reconceive the subject meet.
Rewriting Bodies and Rewriting Subjects
As Kirby describes in ‘Reality Bytes’, the closing years of the millennium and the technological advancements brought with it generated a feeling of having been ‘freed from the wet net of any carnal mooring’. In a discussion of the relationship between the body (as such) and the subject, Kirby describes how early interventions on the Internet held onto the idea of the bodiless subject as something of a reprieve from a ‘carnal incarceration.’ Mapping the connections between these notions of transcendental subjectivity and Cartesian models of phenomenology, Kirby details the mind-body split and its indebtedness to religion. These models of thought that separate mind and body always maintain a relationship to the biblical separation of word and flesh. Referencing Zoë Sophia, she examines the way human-computer activity has already been sexualised, meaning the computer is fetishised as the body of a woman, in the logic of (masculine) intellect as simultaneously divided from and making use of the (feminine) maternal body. Through this logic, both the body (as such) and the computer occupy the space of the ‘dumb support.’ To assume such a stance, the body would have to be conceived as illiterate matter, a tool for the mind. Kirby invokes deconstruction in a move to disrupt this discourse of hierarchical division. Quoting Derrida, she states that,
"The politics of representation are always implicated in a constitutive economy that exceeds the classical notion of mediation and identity. The determination of the culturally different subject, though a problematic designation, must remain a vexed one if we are to take seriously our responsibility to ‘protect the other’s otherness.’”
In this, we can understand that in order to substantially reconceive the ‘subject’ and its relation to the body, if such distinctions can be so easily made, then we must move away from ‘corrective’ logics. The question of how we can rethink body-subject relationships in a way that is not already logocentric is thus raised. Following Derrida’s question of who or what comes after the subject, Kirby argues that in order to ‘substantially reconceive the subject’ in relation to cyberspace, we must first recognise the literacy and articulateness of the body (as such).
Kirby coins the term ‘corporeography’ to situate the body itself as the site of research. Where the literacy of the biological body is recognised as pivotal to cerebral thought, the separation of body, interface, and subjectivity become problematic. Under this ‘corporeography’, these divisions, and indeed the term ‘division’ itself can no longer adequately describe what is at stake here. In ‘The Calculation of the Subject, or Eating Well’, Derrida states that deconstruction does not prescribe to the logic of ‘correctional’ opposition, but fosters multiplicity and the inextricable importance of ‘ceaselessly analysing the whole conceptual machine’. Cyber-landscapes are now so deeply embedded within day-to-day life that they have to a degree become invisible. A large quantity of the food we eat is genetically modified, and then transported by technology that records the temperature of the food, sending the data ahead to customs. The food we put into our bodies is digitally implicated, and therefore, so are our bodies. We are more intrinsically interwoven with the digital than we may notice. Where Derrida emphasizes the importance of ‘ceaselessly analysing the whole conceptual machinery’ it must here be recognised that the conceptual machinery includes the terrains of cyberspace.
Where we can understand this ‘machinery’ as undergoing perpetual rewriting according to environmental factors, this apparent division between the digital and the corporeal becomes so porous it could be better conceived of as a ‘calculation’. The body is infiltrated by the digital, and vice versa and as such absolute distinctions between the two cannot adequately describe digital encounters. I propose that this calculation, along with Steinberg and Peters definition of a ‘wet ontology’, and the particular means by which ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ presents its aims provides a productive ground for discussion of wet bodies in cyberspace.
Wet Nets, Leaky Bodies
Disputing claims that cyber-subjects have been ‘freed from the wet net of carnal mooring’, Kirby uses wet language to describe both the flesh of the body and cyberspace. Similarly, ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ references water in the aesthetic of the collage and the textual content of the manifesto itself. The images of the women appear to be floating, suspended in a purple- blue liquid space, a shell-like tail forming their lower bodies. The central image of the woman turned sideways shows a blue, fishbowl or bubble-effect circle above her neck. Reminiscent of a watery globe, the manifesto itself is stretched across its surface. The manifesto’s text refers to the artists as ‘mercenaries of slime’, and makes reference to tongues, and ‘going down on’. These gestures to bodily wetness, serve as reminders of the necessity of fluids for survival, and of the wetness of the body in sexual contact with other bodies. Fluids and wetness are thus made central to the understanding of a body within this collage. Far from situating the ‘wet net of carnal mooring’, something to escape from, this is exactly what gives it its agency. I argue that these wet qualities of the body are precisely what need to be addressed if we are to substantially reconceive the subject.
Given the body’s dependence on water to maintain any status as a body, water’s aesthetic and lexical presence in the web, and the body’s co- dependence with the web, how can we begin to understand the relationship that has formed? Computers and wetness have traditionally been separated via the semantic distinctions of wetware, hardware and software, as well as the vulnerability of digital machinery when exposed to water. Despite these distinctions, there is an increasing amount of slippage occurring. Bodies, computers and water here find common ground in that have all too often been figured as passive spaces. Following Kirby and The VNS Matrix’s call to rethink this, Steinberg and Peters state:
‘this oceanic absence can instead be conceived of as a presence, with different politics. This oceanic politics emerges from its materiality as a space of fluidity, volume, emergence, depth, and liquidity.’
Less directly perhaps than Kirby’s thinking around the politics of bodies in cyberspace, this conception of a wet, oceanic ontology still seems to owe something to deconstructive thought. Fluidity, emergence and materiality are put forth as the qualities that lend this method of thinking its appeal, and appear to follow the logic Derrida presents in his paper ‘Differance’:
‘In the end, it is a strategy without finality...The concept of play [jeu] remains this opposition; on the eve and aftermath of philosophy, it designates the unity of chance and necessity in an endless calculus.’
Calculus and calculation – so crucial to Kirby’s reestablishment of flesh in cyberspace – also play a key part in a wet ontology. Materiality and emergence are put forth as foundational functions of a wet ontology. Certain parallels can be drawn between Kirby’s conception of the body and Peters and Steinberg’s conception of water, particularly their union as encountered in cyberspace. Where Kirby calls for a re-conception of the subject in which substance is taken into account, these nuances are a productive site for debate.
Steinberg and Peters suggest that the ocean has been critically neglected due to our inability to fit oceanic spaces into traditional conceptualisations of time and space. These tend to rely on linear trajectories, sectioning them off into epochs and layers; ‘the “geo” in geology points to material works of stable ontologies that persist in spite of transformations within either the geophysical or social domain’. Far from persisting in spite of transformations, the ceaselessly transmuting materiality of water is what provides its appeal as a model for analysis. Water intrinsically resists the stable trajectories of conceptual borders that have been imposed upon them.
Where the material wetness and consequential fluid molecular activity of water renders it resistant to terrestrially based borders, Kirby’s ‘corporeography’ can help us to understand this as not a problem with oceans, but a problem with our conceptualisation of various geographies. A coporeography establishes the body as a site of infinite rewritings, with the aim of substantially reconceiving the subject. Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ calls upon similar references of the aesthetic ends to which water has been put on the web. Rather than a concentration on the discovery of land, the focal point of this collage is beneath the waves. Similar to the way Steinberg and Peters define a wet ontology – as a means of thinking through oceanic spaces, fostering plurality and fluidity, this collage utilises the wetness of bodies, in particular women’s bodies, as a means of thinking with our porous, leaky bodies. This wet, carnal way of knowing and telling is mobilized by The VNS Matrix in order to ‘corrupt the discourse’, and ‘rupture the symbolic from within’. Water and biological bodies are recognized as intrinsically implicated within each other and as active in their own right. Moving away from land based, dry trajectories, where patriarchal and colonial undercurrents are so strong, the work operates through the wetness of the body.
Bags that Leak
Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ provides this analysis with a productive set of ideas through which this can be further discussed. ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ describes ways of thinking, telling, and knowing that undermine the traditions of the ‘killer story’. She describes the story that breaks away from the hero-centred narrative of the man, who goes out hunting, kills something and comes back with a story of the killing. Le Guin expresses her severe boredom with this model of story telling and instead proposes a model based around the ‘carrier bag’. This model is a way of telling that is ‘full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations’. Novels, Le Guin suggests, are an example of this. She compares a novel to a bundle, or a device for ‘holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us’. While ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ cannot be said to be a novel in the traditional sense of the word, the barrier that would make the two distinct has developed cracks through which the two have seeped. In describing the novel as a bundle of relations, Le Guin emphasizes the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’s porous behaviour. The stories of which she speaks, the under-spoken, under-told stories of women and their bags, is a model of telling which has allowed works such as ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ to thrive. Although taking the form of a collage rather than a traditional novel, the work nonetheless contains a number of stories. In naming their collective the VNS Matrix, – VNS pronounced ‘Venus’ – the Roman Goddess of eroticism, fertility, and love is referenced. ‘Matrix’ etymologically comes from the Latin ‘mother’, later becoming particular to the functions of a uterus, and recently gaining note for its use in Science Fiction and computer science. Where placed together – as is done in the collective’s name and within the collage – the title can be read as referring to the ‘Birth of Venus’. The composition of this collage appears to draw upon the telling and retelling of this story, which has continuously been represented within art history. Particularly poignant to this discussion of this artwork is the way Le Guin uses the word ‘net’:
‘If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because its useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or whatever have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people.’ 
The idea of a net is here used to discuss a means of telling and knowing that is ‘leaky’. The structure of a net is purpose-built to allow water to move through it. The leaky, porous nature of this model is mobilised within ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ to retell a story in relation to the re-calculation of the ‘whole conceptual machinery’ within which cyberspace has come to be so prominent. Once again exhibiting the semantic change that cyberspace has triggered, the word ‘net’ is of interest here. While Le Guin uses it to discuss the leakiness of her Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, it also carries connotations of the term ‘the net’ to describe cyberspace, as well as the use of nets in the ocean. A net dragged through a body of water contains a volume of space between the threads woven together to form its structure, the water is moved through the net by tidal movement and by the force of the net being dragged through the ocean. What remains constant is water moving through the net, and the aim of collecting something to be brought back to the surface.
This conception of the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction model – as read together with the way the ‘Birth of Venus’ is re-visited within this collage – can be further examined through Peters and Steinberg’s notion of wet ontologies. Although coming from geopolitical beginnings, the way oceanic borders are discussed within their paper, ‘Environment and Planning’ are useful to our discussion of VNS Matrix’s method of rearticulating stories. Too often, our conceptions of oceanic spaces have been limited by our habit of imposing terrestrially based systems of borders onto the ocean. Peters and Steinberg describe how the materiality of water inhibits the functionality these borders, put in place to establish national boundaries. Water is in constant movement: tidal and gravitational pull, the trajectories created by boats, marine inhabitants, and the movement of tectonic plates all contribute to its constant churning. The systems of bordering that nation-states employ are problematic even on land, where their inevitable leakiness is designated and propagated as a threat to those held within the borders. This issue of leakage is infinitely more enormous when these terrestrial borders are transferred into the sea.
Peters and Steinberg discuss the inadequacy of nation-state’s terrestrial borders when imposed onto the sea, due to the wet, transmutable materiality of the ocean. The VNS Matrix uses the materiality of fluids, both oceanic and bodily, to draw upon this shared history. Where women’s bodies have been figured as passive support, oceans have similarly been figured as following this same logic of femininity. This is present in the work through the collage’s reference to The Birth of Venus, wherein Venus is born out of sea foam, thus designating the ocean as a maternally functional space. As Kirby argues, computers and cyberspace are subject to similar tropes in that human-computer interactions have been sexualised, where computers and cyberspace are both fetishised as the body of a woman. She goes on to suggest that terms such as ‘motherboard’ and ‘console’ are contemporary expressions of an ancient masculine anxiety about women’s bodies.
Engaging with the fluids produced by women’s bodies, VNS Matrix uses this collage to propagate the power of fluidity to infiltrate and sabotage such understandings of women’s bodies in cyberspace. Vaginal references are made frequently throughout ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’: ‘ We are the modern cunt... we see art with our cunt we make art with our cunt... the clitoris is the direct line to the matrix... go down on the altar of abjection probing the visceral temple we speak in tongues... we are the future cunt’. The way the vagina and its functions are figured here – as a device with which to see, make and engage – dispels some of the patriarchal reductionism to which women, cyberspace and oceans are subjected.
Water is put forth by Peters and Steinberg as a device through which to think due to it’s material defiance of terrestrial boundaries. Where The VNS Matrix position themselves as ‘mercenaries of slime’, this statement can be critically addressed through a similar analysis of its molecular – and in the case of biological body’s cellular – make up. To expound further upon this, we must return to Kirby’s call for recognition of biological literacy, and in particular to the material biological entanglements present in ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, and their implications for the word ‘slime’. Within biology, the term ‘slime’ is often used to colloquially describe biofilms as well as bodily mucus. Biofilms are groups of microorganisms where the cells attach to each other or to a surface, and are distinctive for their extracellular matrix structure. They are found most commonly in wet spaces such as ponds or showers, as well as in the bodies of both humans and other animals. Within the human anatomy, biofilms can be either indigenous to the body, such as those found in the vagina, mouth, stomach and lungs or they come in the form of disease or infection, such as Bacterial Vaginosis. An extracellular matrix gives physical and biochemical support to the cells of the body. This is the means by which cells communicate and engage with their environment. An extracellular matrix has an overall negative charge, which attracts water by osmosis to hydrate the cells. This structure applies to the hydration of every part of the body, but due to the focus on women’s sexuality and the references to ‘cunts’ and ‘slime’ in ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, the vagina, and its corresponding fluids remain at the centre of this analysis. The term ‘matrix,’ which has been used to describe a functioning womb or uterus, is also used within biology to describe a support mechanism for cells.
Infiltrating, rupturing and disturbing the calm oceanic background adopted for this collage, the references to ‘slime’, ‘cunts’, and ‘tongues’ dispute the implications of serenity and blankness the background has the potential to bring forth. Drawing upon historical figurations of the ocean as a maternal body to be used as a means to an end, the mess of unidentifiable molecular structures disturbs the implied stasis of the backdrop. Molecular structures are here visualised as a net. Messy and entangled as nets often become, their presence within this collage draws attention to the structural wet nets that underwrite our biology. Where the ocean has been depicted within traditional desktop backgrounds as a clear, untouched body of water, ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’ sets out to ‘rupture the discourse’. Rather than resembling the swimming pool-like images chemically sanitised and purpose-built for recreation that are commonly used as desktop backgrounds, oceans and bodies are here tied to the plethora of microbiologies present therein. The literacy of wet flesh is here used as a way to engage with cyberspace. Figured as a net within this work, the extracellular matrix is the wet net of communication that our bodies rely upon. Used as a device through which cyberfeminists might navigate cyberspace, the implications this carrier bag mode of encounter has for discourses that designate bodies and cyberspace as empty territory open to conquest are challenged.
The structure of both cells and extracellular matrices leads us back to the previously discussed Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. The use of the phrase a ‘net woven of your own hair’ strikes a chord with this reading when read in relation to the literacy of the body. It brings forth the image of a net woven from strands taken from a woman’s body. The net with which she makes stories is made of her biology. Her biology is implicated within her story making.
When the literacy of the body is held together with the way extracellular matrices are figured within ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, a corporeography begins to emerge. Where Le Guin uses the hair, stomachs, and homes as models of containers through which to tell stories, the VNS Matrix examines the net-like structures that ‘slime’ and ‘cunts’ connote. Within the matrix structure that forms bodily slime, the body’s cells, and the water transported to and around them via the extracellular matrix are co-dependent. Neither can maintain its function or purpose without the other. There is not a division, but rather, a calculation. Self identified ‘mercenaries of slime’ engaging in the act of ‘going down on the altar of abjection’, the artists use the biological structure of the fluids associated with vaginas as a proposed means of engagement beyond the scope of its biological context. To weave a net or bag out of your hair is here used as a means of telling and thinking with the body and its biological complexities. A Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction seeks a path whereby the flesh is active, lending itself well to the structural literacy of cells as read within ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’. The net, as I previously mentioned, is functional because of its porousness, because it allows water to leak through. An extracellular matrix holds the body’s cells inside a net, holds them in relation to each other. It holds them together but apart, in an ongoing series of rewritings and regenerations. An extracellular matrix, similarly to a fishing net, must allow water to pass through it in order to maintain its functionality. The VNS Matrix draws upon movability, fluidity, calculation and recalculation in suggesting this mode of encounter, using female genitalia as point from which to navigate. Focussing on the fluids associated with vaginas and the biological structures of these fluids or biofilms, this work utilises the notion of a Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction to create a model of engagement that extends outwards for itself rather than passively waiting to be embroiled with literacy from external forces. By using the phrase ‘go down on the altar of abjection’, the artists assign the agency of the act to the meeting of two bodies, to a relation. Critiquing models that use the uterus as a dumb site for production and support, the matrix structure invoked here produces and supports – but does so through a calculation: through relationality.
The structure of the slimes or biofilms associated with the uterus and vagina extends to lungs, brain, stomach, and every other part of the body. This leads us back to Kirby, and her call for a substantial re-conception of the subject whereby the literacy of flesh, blood and bone is taken into account. Finding its beginnings in the vaginal references throughout ‘Cyberfeminist Manifesto’, this is a model that literally underwrites every part of our anatomy. Rather than the traditional, cerebral models of literacy where the brain is the centre of thought, The VNS Matrix relocates this way of knowing to the vagina. It is a means of encountering shaped by and for the wet, carnal net of women present in and between bodies.
We Make Art with our Cunts:
Wet Subjects in the Making
by Georgia Dearden
1. V. Kirby, Telling Flesh: The substance of the Corporeal, (New York and London: Routledge, 1997) p. 129.
2. Zoë Sophia, Contested Zones: Futurity and Technological Art, (London: The MIT Press, 1996) p. 63.
3. V. Kirby, p. 161.
4. U. K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (1986) In: Glotfelty, C and Fromm, H. (ed) The Ecocritisism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996) p. 149-153.
5. The VNS Matrix, Cyberfeminist Manifesto, 1991, Image Accessed at: (01/04/2015)
6. Kirby, p. 129.
8. Kirby, p. 132.
9. Z. Sophia, Virtual Corporeality: A Feminist View, in Australian Feminist Studies 8, 1: 109-131, In: V. Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal, (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 148.
10. J. Derrida, Eating Well or The Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida, (Interview with J-L. Nancy), trans. P. Connor, and A. Ronell, and J-L. Nancy, (Eds.), Who Comes After the Subject?, (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), In: Kirby. p.161.
11. Derrida, Eating Well or The Calculation of the Subject, p. 274.
13. J. Derrida, Differance, In: The Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 3-27.
14. Kirby, p. 129.
15. Kirby, p. 161.
16. K. Peters and Steinberg, Wet Ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking, in Peters and Steinberg (Eds.) Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(2), (p.247-264), p. 260. [Accessed at: 16.05.2015]
17. Derrida, Difference, p. 4.
18. Peters and Steinberg, p. 255.
19. N. Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet, (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2010), in Peters and Steinberg, p. 255.
20. Kirby, p. 161.
21. Le Guin, p. 150.
23. Le Guin, p. 153.
25. Le Guin, p. 151-2.
26. Peters and Steinberg, p. 253.
28. Sophia in Kirby, p. 143.
29. VNS Matrix, 1991
30. Peters and Steinberg, p. 245.
31. J. Barkwith MSc, Interviewed by Dearden, G. (10th July, 2015)
32. PC Desktop Art: Accessed from: bizhi_363000_12.jpg, (10.08.2015)
33. Le Guin, p. 150.
34. M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps, (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1992), in Kirby, p. 133.
35. Kirby, p. 148.