Laboria Cuboniks, collective authors of the Xenofeminist Manifesto, insist upon a scaling-up of feminism. Drawing on both queer and transfeminist theory and philosophical rationalism, Laboria Cuboniks propose a new universal—one no longer coded as cis, straight, white, and male—with Xenofeminism as its theoretical and technological platform. The Xenofeminist Manifesto contends that contemporary feminism is limited by its predominant investment in local and micropolitical action, and argues instead for a scalable feminism capable of systemic intervention. Against nature and biological essentialism, Laboria Cuboniks invest in alienation and the anti-natural, given that “anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us.”
aCCeSsions: The Xenofeminist Manifesto (XFM) demands that feminism and its emancipatory projects be scaled up beyond local communities and interventions, holding that these tactics must be extended to operation on a global scale. Why is this scalability of essential importance today? What role (if any) might micropolitical actions, such as those which largely constitute queer and feminist politics today, hold in a macropolitical feminism? How does XF seek to reconcile the emphasis on difference (in intersectional frameworks) inherent to current feminist micropolitics with an insistence that feminism rewrite or recode the universal?
Laboria Cuboniks (PR): Yes, the scalability question is central to the work of XF. We wholeheartedly agree with the assertions of someone like Rosi Braidotti, who has made the point that feminism cannot be satisfied by victories on the margins alone: it’s time to occupy the center. This seems to us to necessitate a counter-hegemonic project buttressed by the deep work of what we could call “thinking integratively,” rather than continuing a path that often stops at difference. Thinking integratively means that we cannot simply analyze our political reality from a single perspective—or believe that we truly understand something by breaking it down into particularities alone. Integrative thought, which borrows from the important epistemological innovations of Anne-Françoise Schmid, who coined the concept of the “integrative object,” requires not only the weaving together of several perspectives. In Schmid’s formulation, the object as a stable given does not exist, and thus a milieu must be engineered to host that object, since the object can only be grasped through a multiplicity of disciplinary viewpoints. Mapping this concept onto a socio-political framework (where clearly much more experimentation must be done), we can then begin to reframe something like universalism as a kind of gluing operation, rather than a top-down schematic à la modernism. Equally, contemporary mathematics offers us clues regarding universalism that are greatly at odds with our knee-jerk reaction to the term as a homogenizing machine (unleashed from a single perspective). No one would suggest that we can map these ideas directly onto socio-political programs, but we can certainly exploit these concepts to help reframe a strategy that would reinscribe universalism as a glue, piecing together difference in a bottom-up fashion, dynamically constituted by the relations it constructs.
LC (DB): I am often reminded of the Jodi Dean quote in relation to micro vs. macropolitics: “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”—i.e., you can make things better in your immediate area or opt out of a system or go off-grid, but it will have no effect on the larger power structures that organize more widely how lives are lived (especially the lives of those less able to opt out). Basically, much of what happens within the micropolitical ends up being illusory, in that it makes those participating feel like they are doing something—and they are, for individuals or groups of individuals—but if the scale is limited to the local, then the change will remain in the local, and the larger global power networks that also affect people’s lives in real ways will remain unaffected.
Scalability is not the same thing as replicability, and this is an important distinction. For example, let’s say there is an app so parents can arrange to share childcare: who is available when, to take what, how many kids. This might already exist—if it doesn’t, then it should—and it would be useful, but not an answer. As a model, this would be replicable, and could be used by anyone with a cellphone, but this is not what I would call scalable or systemic. What would be systemic is the provision of universal preschool (and I would argue that it should be available from 12 months, in combination with an obligatory parental leave provision from 0-12 months, and I mean pointedly parental and not specifically maternity leave). So I would argue that thinking about legislation as a technology (not legislation of technology, to be clear, but the construction of international law and its implementation as a technology) and as a feminist project would be one way for this to go. This is not to say that action in the local or action as or for specific communities isn’t important. It can benefit individual lives immensely; but feminism needs to be thought about systemically as well.
Broadly speaking, feminism needs to be injected into the fundamental logic of a vast range of disciplines that have the capacity to think systemically and have an interest in doing so. International law is certainly one area where scalable feminist politics can contribute; architecture is another. Keller Easterling has done a lot of work on infrastructure space—speaking of architecture not as objects or buildings but as the infrastructure in which we live. I think Xenofeminist logic could very easily be injected into the formation of infrastructure space. My own experience is more in the art field, so I am more equipped to speak to the specificities of that.
Though the art field may not be the site of the most urgent injustices of gender inequality, it can be a useful example here, in part because it is full of would-be sympathizers who (often unintentionally) help maintain a system of inequality. So it’s a good example of a field where the problem is deeply embedded, and often invisible in its causes but not in its effects. If one were to ask those in positions of power within the contemporary art field whether they avow equal opportunities for women and minorities, I’m pretty sure a vast majority would answer in the affirmative, of course; yet looking at the numbers, this does not play out. This is visible across a myriad of examples, such as the percentage of represented artists, sale and auction prices, or the number of women studying in art programs as compared to the number of women in power once out of university. One has to question what is going on. I would wager that it’s not something that localized action can deal with, because power, in the art sector anyway (and many others I’m sure), would indeed advocate micropolitical actions in support of humans that are not cis white dudes, but these micropolitical actions are no threat to this power; if anything, these micropolitical actions make power look good, make it look like its politics are also “right on” and in support of diversity and equality. Yet the power structures remain.
aCCS: You describe the art world as a site in which participants with good intentions (in terms of gender and racial equality) often end up reinforcing systemic disenfranchisement. Considering this, as well as contemporary art’s tendency to absorb critique without really resolving its inherent inequities, does Laboria Cuboniks see a particular role for art within Xenofeminism, or ways in which art might be used as a vector for Xenofeminist politics? Is there a relationship between your thinking here and ongoing critiques of contemporary art which consider it as a field of indeterminacy with continued investments in the micropolitical, as discussed by Suhail Malik and Amanda Beech, among others?
LC (PR): I think it’s important to point out that this tendency of contemporary art to absorb “radicality” with ease, rather than have radicality fundamentally alter its systemic conditions, is nothing new. Walter Benjamin pointed this out over eighty years ago when he noticed how readily revolutionary material could be assimilated by a bourgeoisie (a production class) without generating any threat to its own existence—going so far as to suggest that those authors who don’t transform existing production chains (but only propagate revolutionary content) serve as mere amusement for the public. Clearly, the same or at least a similar phenomenon is very much at work in our field today. Thinkers such as Beech and Malik who have, I believe, correctly diagnosed our axiomatic conditions as being hindered by a commitment to indeterminacy, have done so by pointing out contemporary art’s idealisms—insofar as there is a large gap between what contemporary art says it does and how it actually operates (I think this is important to elaborate on, since their arguments have already been boiled down to one single word). What needs to be pointed out, however, is a crucial question: If we agree with their diagnoses, and even if some of us elaborate upon them, how can these theoretical commitments be negotiated through practice in a transformative way? What I’m getting at, and this is no slight to either of them, but rather an indication of contemporary art’s structural condition, is the following: Isn’t there a risk that we could propagate these very arguments over the next several years (for as long as they remain in vogue), while contemporary art nods in agreement and blandly assimilates them, as it has all other radical positions? Because these questions concern the system of legitimization of contemporary art, the responses (if they are to be transformative) would equally require strategic systematicity. I don’t think one could manifest a response as a single artist in this regard, since the diagnoses resist individuation and exemplification, and concern the very cultural-normative modes by which contemporary art functions.
aCCS: How might those currently invested in micropolitical feminist action begin to size up (or rescale) their investments and actions to the levels of the systemic, infrastructural, and global? Is there something specific about the online or the digital which proves useful here, given the digital publication of the Xenofeminist Manifesto? And as this scaling up occurs, how does one avoid the re-settling or re-solidifying of the regimes and hierarchies of power and difference within these new deployments of feminist action? Considering, for instance, how a recent broadening of feminist discourse seems to have resulted in a depoliticized white liberal or “lean in” feminism—emphasizing individualist corporate success rather than care, interdependence, and structural change—by and for whom are these actions deployed?
LC (LF): I’d say that there’s a weirdly narrow focus in this question, in regard to the internet-enabled broadening of feminist discourse. As “feminism” becomes more and more of a buzzword, it’s no surprise that you’re going to see traces of it in the mainstream, bourgeois-liberal media (a sort of Jezebel feminism fixated on celebrity gossip, or the kind of thing Nina Power rips apart in her amazing book One Dimensional Woman). But if this is all you see emerging from the net-fueled boom in feminist discourse, then you’re browsing with blinders on. It was this boom that eroded the walls of the ivory tower, where a lot of the more “theoretical” discussions of feminism had been contained, not only making those discussions accessible to people too poor or too busy with childrearing and work to enjoy the luxury of academic life, but also making highfalutin forms of academic feminism and gender theory answerable to a much broader mass of readers. Queer and feminist theory stopped being some academic preserve, and became something that alienated teenagers and other outsiders could engage in on Twitter and Tumblr. These are people who beforehand were not only walled off from the hotbeds of feminist discourse, but were walled off from one another. Similar things can be said for critical race theory, and for the dialogue that the web catalyzed—and repeatedly re-catalyzes—between otherwise sheltered white or well-to-do feminists and racialized and poor women in the struggle. Of course, what people call—or called, a few years back—“Web 2.0” arrived arm-in-arm with a host of mechanisms for forming “info-bubbles,” and there is a very real tendency for people to re-insulate—“reterritorialize”—themselves into particular in-groups. There’s even a pretty distressing tendency for people to react to any out-group exposure as if it were a severe allergy, breaking out in hives and quickly hitting block.
I guess what I want to say is that web dynamics are a double-edged sword in this regard—they have both deterritorializing and reterritorializing tendencies, to lift some jargon from Deleuze and Guattari. When too much reterritorialization or info-bubbling occurs, all these cybertribes begin to disengage from one another. When I say “disengage” here, I’m thinking of an idea in evolutionary theory, or, more specifically, in the craft of genetic programing. Under certain conditions, when you have a struggle between various groups, this can lead to each group becoming stronger, more complex, and better adapted to the struggle. Coevolution takes place. But there’s always a risk of getting to a point where the groups just wall one another off, interacting (when they do interact) in such a way that just about every member of group A treats group B as a monolith. Any selective pressure that the groups might have put on one another in the past vanishes, and they close off into themselves, with interactions reduced to brute clashes. When this happens, you start to see what’s called “genetic drift.” (Maybe we could call it “memetic drift” in this case.) The groups continue to mutate and so on, but they no longer “adapt” to anything. Their transformations become purely stochastic, and literally irrelevant to anyone outside the in-group. We’ve seen this happen, I think, to certain swaths of academic discourse (not every ivory tower bailiwick was redeemed when the walls fell). You see it happening nowadays with various political affinity groups.
So, back to scalability and networks: yes, I do think that networks—and the internet in particular—are indispensable to any global political project today, including feminism. But feminism isn’t going to sway global politics in some sort of unilateral takeover, in some magical imposition of Total Hegemony from above. So what feminism needs to be, at least for so long as it remains rather marginal, is a kind of parasite, a parasite that is just nonvirulent enough to steer the development of its host, while skirting the risk of disengagement. Or, to put it another way, we should be as virulent as host-engagement can endure. The bubble of radicalism has lured too many romantics into a kind of politics that is, in the end, entirely self-indulgent and disengaged from its adversaries. The idle “radical” doesn’t engage, doesn’t provoke change. She drifts. We need to be far more clever than this, far more cunning. Our goal, after all, is to steer the evolution of the status quo in a way that is more just, not to bathe in the nectar of our own beautiful souls.
LC (DB): I don’t think any of us would espouse “lean in” feminism, though women tend to feel less able to negotiate higher salaries, for example, and this is a problem. I think the pay gap is not something that can be ignored simply because the women in question are already in a position of privilege. I think the misogyny at play there is real and endemic within corporate culture, but well beyond it too, of course. The fact that many women are reluctant to ask for more money because they feel they will be seen as a prima donna or as spoiled is real, and in many cases they will be seen that way; and that sort of entrenched misogyny is indeed something that needs to be gotten rid of.
This sort of misogyny plays out in academia too (and probably other fields). I know many women who, before they give a talk, feel the need to know their shit inside and out, and the fact is that they do! I do think that men are more quickly granted authority as a matter of course. I don’t think women get this automatic authority as much (unless it’s about traditional feminism or the body); women have to earn their authority. Again, I’m speaking of women who already have agency, who tend to be middle class—and yes, these are first world problems, but it doesn’t mean they are not problems both in themselves and also as indicators of deeper forces, norms, and habits that are at play more widely.
The bigger problem is that liberal, corporate feminism is all about the individual, ignoring the systemic. One of XF’s primary imperatives is its call for systemic thinking. The whole “lean in” thing would be the most minor of minor practices in that (as I understand it) one is left to advocate for oneself, and this too is insufficient—and as we have made clear, would not be a tactic we would support.
aCCS: How do you think the demands of the Xenofeminist Manifesto—scaling up existing tactics, repurposing technologies (in the term’s widest sense) toward an emancipatory feminist politics, recoding the universal—might be implemented within broader culture? And how do you see the Xenofeminist project extending beyond the Manifesto?
LC (DB): The manifesto form is bombastic. We chose this format deliberately. But the question of what happens after the Manifesto is a good one. Ultimately, XF exists as a means to do away with itself.
We would like XF to be a contagion, infecting the DNA of a broad range of disciplines and thereby mutating the reality these disciplines produce. This is not a top-down program that can be followed, but, importantly, it is not a grassroots one either. It is a contagion. The claims to universalism, calling that term to task, demanding that it be true to its meaning, is of course at present an idealism. There will not be “a way” to navigate from this idealism existing in the now to a future realism. There will necessarily be many “ways,” via shifts in codes and norms, and via changes in legislation, amongst other things.
It will not be a matter of barricades in the streets. That is not how this will play out. The ways in which gender inequality manifests itself are of course very broad and multifarious, across cultures and economies, so the idea that one tactic or strategy could dismantle it is fantasy. This is why it needs to seep, it needs heuristics, as a tactic for a highly differentiated and mutable politics. So the kind of approach that one takes in the art field, for example, will be very different to an approach within health care. There will be overlap, but there will be no one-size-fits-all or silver bullet to end discrimination. However, one step in the right direction would be a recognition of the problems both in their specificity and in terms of where they link with systemic conditions on many scales. The work must be approached from the perspective that these things are constitutively interwoven.
LABORIA CUBONIKS (b. 2014) is a polymorphous Xenofeminist collective. As an anagram of the “Nicolas Bourbaki” group of mathematicians, Cuboniks also advances an affirmation of abstraction as an episto-political necessity for twenty-first century claims on equality. Espousing reason and vigorous anti-naturalism, she seeks to dismantle gender implicitly. Cuboniks is a multi-taloned, tetra-headed creature uncomfortably navigating the fields of art, design, architecture, archeology, philosophy, techno-feminism, sexuality studies, digital music, translation, writing, and regular experiments with the use of evolutionary algorithms in offensive cybersecurity.
Commissioning Editors: Christian Camacho-Light, Patricia M. Hernandez, Dana Kopel