Utopian Enclaves: The City within Feminist Cyberpunk
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Frederike: Hey Sasha, I just wanted to let you know that your presentation is very nice, especially the beginning when you talk about the city and we see the train coming closer. Wishing you all the best for your Q&A session
mlex: the movie clips in this are terrific! The Warriors by Walter Hill… what a classic. What is that crazy asian film?
Sasha: I sampled from two Japanese films, Sogo Ishii’s Burst City, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo
Rachel: Hi Sasha! Unfortunately I can’t make your scheduled chat session so I thought I would cheekily get my questions in ahead of time…first of all, congratulations on an excellent microtalk – your argument was compelling and the video essay was very stylish and appreciated! I have two questions….
I was struck by your outlining of the leakiness of the grotesque body (or that bodies are rendered grotesque through their uncontrolled (uncontrollable?) leakiness) and how that leakiness is a means of subverting and claiming of hegemonically organised space (I’m thinking of your description of the Tower at the end of Brown Girl in the Ring). So I was wondering if you could talk about the Baktinian utopian potentials of leakiness a little bit more? Is this leakiness more generally a feature of feminist cyberpunk? If thats the case, then how would this leakiness generatively contaminate and interface with the more conventional cyberpunk hero which prides themselves (usually himself) on the control and separation of the parameters of the self?
As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the video samples you used to accompany your essay – I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you selected them and the relevance they have to your argument? For example, Id really love to hear more about the homoerotics of Tetsuo in relation to your discussion of drawing out the queer utopian potentials within ostensibly exclusionary urban spatialities. How does Tetsuo’s hyper-hybrid and leaking body contrast or vibe with the more explicitly feminist work you elucidated upon?
Sasha: Yes! For Bakhtin, leakiness, and the grotesque body in general, is also about the rejection of conceptions of the body that see it as closed and static. In Bakhtin’s words, “the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” So, it’s a more open conception of the body, and a way of understanding the body that is, in my reading at least, more open to collective ways of being, not just in terms of understanding relations between humans but also between humans and the environment. It reminds me a lot of Astrida Neimanis’s idea of the “hydrocommons” Sophie Lewis’s work on”co-gestation”. It also links to Deleuze and becoming I think too, as it sees the body as unfinished and in a constant state of revision. So, for me this has a utopian aspect in that it points towards new ways of being/being together (or, becoming together?) and also the insistence on the possibility of the birth of new possible worlds.
I think in the feminist cyberpunk I’ve read, the body and identity as being constantly under revision, pulled apart and multiplied comes through quite strongly! Particularly in the work of Laura Mixon, Amy Thompson and Janine Ellen Young
I tried to pick clips that I felt set the general mood that I was going for, but also organised them in a way that does its own critical/analytical work. I knew, for example that I wanted Burst City to pair with my discussion of Tom Moylan’s critical dystopia! Tetsuo for me has always felt like the grotesque body par excellence, with it’s merging into the metal world/wasteland around it, and it’s focus on the emergence of new forms of queer desire. It’s a very urban body, in that it’s literally formed of the city and consumer capitalisms detritus and waste, but organised for more radical purposes. I think that struggle for ways of being and forms of body that push against hetronormative, resonates a lot with queer, and feminist cyberpunk from the 1990s
Alexander: Hi, I loved this talk! So many fascinating points. Your description and unpacking of ‘critical dystopia’ in particular really struck me. Circling back to something thrown about in one larger group chats , would it be fair to say this lie description is adjacent to Solarpunk/Hopepunk? Or am I off base here?
Sasha: I must admit I don’t really know anything at all about hopepunk/solarpunk! What little I’ve picked up through the grapevine through friends and colleagues has been quite critical to be honest.
Whenever I’ve looked at the term hope and the poilitcs around it, it’s usually been through older work and Ernst Bloch’s work on expectant emotions and utopianism in The Principle of Hope. So, I’m not up to date
Ana: Well, my sense is that the cultural attitude right now is overwhelmingly that hope and positivity are in themselves naive, which I think feeds into the scathing perception of hopepunk/solarpunk
Also, should have led with this – such a thought provoking presentation, thank you Sasha!
Alexander: The only references I’ve seen to it outside this Discord have been fairly scathing too – mostly people poking fun at its naivety? Thanks for the refence points, I’ll follow that up
Steven: Great talk, thanks! – just a note on hopepunk/solarpunk: I have read a bit of it, and I don’t want to be scathing, but most of it just isn’t really that good… I am tempted to say that it is feels naive because it is not dialectical enough about hope, in the ways we see in Bloch, in Tom Moylan, and in Sasha’s current talk. What I like about “solarpunk” though is literally that it speculates about solar energy in relation to a technologized but ecologically sustainable and more equitable future
Joseph: Bone Dance contains a lot of shamanistic spirituality. How does spiritualism and superstition figure into the city in feminist cyberpunk?
Sasha: Yes, both texts are very interested in african-american religious practices. In both cases, I think they become ways of thinking about identity and community within the city. These practices become ways through which people connect and also crucially resist.
Joseph: and don’t forget the anti-solar panel…who will write the first antisolarpunk novel?
Adam: The antisolarpation is killing me
Sasha: In Bone Dance, two characters argue over the usefulness of solar technology! At the end of the text, they agree that solar panels require too many rare an expensive components, and that communal hydro-power generators are more efficient
Joseph: wouldn’t that subgenre have to subvert all the solarpunk tropes?
@Sasha: have you kept up with the new models for nuclear power plants? much more self-regulated, capable of using depleted uranium as fuel
Sasha: Ah, I’m not really up to date on specific technologies, but the idea of decentring power (in both senses of the terms) I’m very much up for
Joseph: right, each city with their own fully sustainable power grid
you think about a Hong Kong, this could allow for more autonomy
So decentered power (as energy) is a kind of metaphor for gendered control of society?
mlex: it’s a matter of economy of scale, though, a city like Hong Kong has scarcely the carrying capacity to be self-sufficient, even with the New Territories (which were once under cultivation, and now almost half devoured by new residential towers)… so self-sufficiency in the new networked reality has to be about power and leverage, perhaps
Sasha: Well, in Bone Dance at least, the decentering of power, or the breaking of the power monopoly, becomes a metaphor for the dismantling of American colonialism and its epistemologies
Esko: Thank you so much for a fascinating talk and the explication of the form above, really nice to get a look into your process! Could you expand a bit ore about the space of the marketplace in the texts you analyzed? Specifically, as the roundtable mentioned the importance of systems, how is the “premodern” marketplace able to resist/stand against/replace the neoliberal marketplace? You do say they operate differently, but is that just separation or a viable political alternative?
Sasha: In truth, I have no idea if this conception of the marketplace is viable, which is why I was careful to empathise it’s unreal quality within the texts. However, I think that both texts are moving towards systems mutual aid, and the space of the marketplace becomes reimagined to accomodate that
Esko: This is fascinating. I think I’m detecting a similar emphasis on, at least some kind of, communality in a lot of my corpus, Annalee Newitz has the anti-patent-system clusters of scientists in Autonomous, Malka Older has the global UN-Wikipedia organization in the Centenal Cycle, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail centers communities of artists, working class youth, etc.
Sasha: To be more clear, I am very against the whole notion of the markets! But, in this paper I was mainly pulling from Bakhtin’s notion of the marketplace, which I do find interesting!
Esko: Another thing, Sasha, I really liked that you pointed out that moving toward cyberpunk as a mode rather than a genre would be a worthwhile move. What do you think would be the first steps for critics into that direction?
Sasha: By cyberpunk as a mode, I’m very much following Thomas Foster’s ideas in The Souls of Cyberpunk, which is also a big reference point for the approach taken in the RCCC, I think. In general, as an approach I feel that it is about trying to move beyond the canonical and institutionalised definitions of cyberpunk from the first wave writers and allowing other voices to come through
along with reapproaching older texts that didn’t get called cyberpunk necessarily at the time, but with new aproaches seem to be working through similar or related ideas
So for example, Nalo Hopkinson is now being pulled back into the conversation a lot more, which is great
Joseph: “I think in the feminist cyberpunk I’ve read, the body and identity as being constantly under revision, pulled apart and multiplied” … This is great! So the female body reflects the city, with it’s ongoing revision, giving birth to new things, etc.
mlex: Jemisin’s The City We Became
Joseph: oh yeah, new one. you’ve already read it?
Sasha: I’ve heard N.K. Jemisin’s work does interesting things with cyberpunk, but I’m yet to read it in detail myself
mlex: yeah, it gets metaphorical, the characters are like parts of the city, and there is an underlying problem that they face in the organic reality of the city
Joseph: i tried to get the publisher to send me a copy for Rapid Transmission but never heard back
Steven: The new N K Jemisin is great. It is relevant here because it is definitely about the city as a living organism, with individual people chosen to incarnate it. I am not sure that I would classify it as cyberpunk however
mlex: yeah, I was responding to Sasha’s idea of the female body, split apart, and the city as a larger form of that organic reconstruction of itself
Ana: oh, The City We Became is a fascinating novel! I don’t know if I’d call it cyberpunk, but it certainly emphasizes the city as a heterogenous, fragmented multiplicity
There are multiple different people representing the city; it can never really be represented by one person (the avatar of all of new york spends the entire book in a coma “offstage”)
but Jemisin also engages with quantum physics, multiverse theory, etc. She kind of throws out sci-fi and fantasy delineations. Still probably not cyberpunk though
also, the first chapter describes the city coming alive in terms of the language of birth – which is very gendered language. e.g. “my water broke – that is, my water mains broke”
Steven: The City We Became is also an example of writing that directly contests Lovecraft & his racism… cf Victor Lavalle’s Ballad of Black Tom
Esko: This is a very interesting comparison, thanks!
Sasha: I am not the cyberpunk police and I have no real interest in guarding it’s borders, so I’m very happy for texts to slip in and out of its motifs and themes and engage with it in a more diffuse or slantwise manner
Ana: “the cyberpunk police” – a phrase with such a multiplicity of meanings!
Joseph: the cyberpunk police surely wear mirrorshades
Ana: But the question is, which of the types of cyberpunk fashion that Esko was talking about do they wear?
Esko: Oh mall ninja, totally.
Joseph: thanks for such a great presentation, sasha!
Sasha: Thank you for all your great questions!
Buran: Hi Sasha, Feminist cyberpunk changes cyberpunk’s white masculine and heterosexual forms. I also used the same topic of cyberqueertopia and dys(queer)topia in Turkish sf in my talk. I enjoyed your argument and focus on social-governmental control of non-binary gender. I liked this great talk so much, especially your point about Bakhtin’s carnivalisation of literature, but could you give more examples how you relate it to feminist cyberpunk, in terms of dialogism and heteroglossia as well?
Sasha: Heteroglossia is a really interesting term as Donna Haraway also uses the term at the end of her Cyborg Manifesto, and links it into her call for a multiplicity of perspectives/ a feminist politics based on difference rather than on common language. I feel like Bone Dance is attempting to move towards such a heteroglossia in its politics (though I don’t know if it’s completely successful at it). In terms of other examples, I think that Janine Ellen Young’s Cinderblock, Anne Harris’s Accidental Creatures and Marge Piercy’s He, She and It all have elements of Carnivalesque and heteroglossia in them.