Women, pleasure and computers

In this text I propose a method inspired by an innovative notion of desire and pleasure to evaluate tech creativity through a feminist lens by avoiding the pitfalls of:

1) shame – for having been restricted to a certain kind of ability or expertise such as in-depth emotional self and mutual exploration; crafts and other technologies, and enjoying it;

2) reactivity against our bodies and self-hatred – for having a cycle, for studying our bodies and their healing properties for centuries

3) claiming male territories by copying male power – for sensing that we have to abide by male culture of hierarchical power if we manage to work in a male-centric domain such as technology.

This is about reclaiming spaces that were attributed to women from within but also opening them to other genders, and reclaiming our agency in male-centric spaces through our own parameters, perhaps acquired in those forced female spaces and in devalued female bodies through self-reliance, self-seeking. And the pleasure of acceptance. And the acceptance of pleasure.


Trigger warning: this text mentions assault.

Two drawings are superimposed, one partially covering the other. the one bellow is a random and irregular pattern of drawn eyes. The top drawing has a pattern of irregular sinewy shapes, not bigger than 3 cm, in black and white. On top that this work is a small screen displaying two rectangular striped shapes.
Jan Hopkins - Bitmap Bee - 2022 (detail)

I was commissioned to write a text about the artist Jan Hopkins, who works with computers, drawing, and occasionally knitting, which makes sense as I am working on a book proposal about the females spaces of drawing and technology. Jan Hopkins creates drawings in collaboration with drawingbots and drawing machines, elaborated from a digital environment called mamagarden (I strongly urge you to visit her virtual garden at: https://janhopkins.xyz/mama/mamagarden/index.html).

What I hadn't anticipated in this book proposal, was how difficult it is to define these female spaces of artistic production without falling into reductive patterns. As someone who was born in the seventies in a country that had just come out of a dictatorship and centuries of – quite literally – reigning patriarchy, I have a lot of isolated anger which bubbles up in unexpected times and fashions. In many parts of Europe, we are still disentangling the knots of unquestioned machismo in all areas. But I have instinct. And I know when something feels wrong. For instance, attributing emotions solely to women; considering women as inherent weaving experts; accepting the truism that women's labour is "natural" whereas men's is creative and therefore more human. And, conversely, that women are more of an animal force (to read more about the association between women and nature go here).

All of these categories, "emotion", "crafts", "natural knowledge", "animalism" are simplifications of a binary notion of gender that doesn't suit me. Nevertheless, they have real social, cultural, economic and political implications that I find difficult to tackle, and which savvier authors such as Rebecca Solnit pinpoint with a dizzying degree of accuracy. Once you've finished reading her book Men Explain Things to Me (2014), you will feel dizzy too. Solnit dissects in painful detail the amount of assaults sustained by women in the US and across the world. They are the numbers of a centuries-old genocide of women. And that is probably why it is so difficult to explore contemporary art practices from a feminist lens to me: while multiple genders unfold and perhaps a non-binary world is in the horizon (one can only hope), someone identifying or externally identified as a woman is trying to survive without despairing about assault, gap pay, medical biais' terrifying statistics. We want to be joyful, light. And for that we need hope and a certain form of disconnect. Most women, queer people in general and minority ethnicities are champions of cognitive disconnect as a survival mechanism.

I am someone who likes to create rather than look into the void. To see what is possible rather than what is lacking. I am drawn to positive desire. And this text is about just that: positive desire rather than desire considered as lack. Spaces that exist and transform rather than swamps in which are souls subside. But what is that? Rosi Braidotti, (who is, among many things, the founder of Women Studies at Utrecht University and of The Netherlands School of Women's studies), is one of those philosophers committed to that positive notion. Her concept of "nomadism" is based on "desire as plenitude", as becoming, as a forward action of being different - of growing into yourself rather than conceiving your identity as a given stack of cards handed at birth. She often quotes Virginia Woolf to clearly state that we cannot, however, become just about anything or shed the body along with the skin:

"I am rooted, but I flow".
Virginia Woolf, The Waves. London, Grafton Books, 1977, p.80.

So what is, then, this feminist desire as plenitude? Braidotti writes beautifully about it when it comes to the subject. To the "I", to "myself", to the "Ego". First of all, her vision of a progressive becoming is of the subject as a flow existing in a "plane of immanence" – of reciprocal immersion – that allows for the subject to be "relational, external and even collective". This notion of the collective moves me particularly as I am in a phase of my life where my children bring their partners into our lives, and we grow. We grow into ourselves with others.

How many are you?

How many is me?

How many is us?

The feminist vision applies here: if we are adjoined naturally to the family, for culturally, woman = mother, perhaps mothering as kinship (a concept dear to Donna Haraway, especially when it goes beyond a blood-related family) is a feminist value that we can turn into a flow rather than a prison of identity as serving others - the children, the friends of the children, the husband, and eventually the whole family. Perhaps we could start calling fathers "mother" and abolish the previous word altogether. Just a thought, just a flow, just a redefinition of kinship. Educating through kinship beyond gender.

"Desire is the propelling and compelling force that is driven by self-affirmation or the transformation of negative and positive passions. This is a desire not to preserve, but to change: it is a deep yearning for transformation as a process of affirmation. Empathy and compassion are key features of this nomadic yearning of in-depth transformation. The space of becoming is a space of affinity and correlation of elements, among compatible and mutually attractive forces and the constitutive elements of the process. Proximity, attraction or intellectual sympathy is both a topological and qualitative notion: it is a question of ethical temperature. It is an affective framing for the becoming of subjects as sensible and intelligent matter. The affectivity of the imagination is the motor for these encounters and of the conceptual creativity they trigger off. It is a transformative force that propels multiple, heterogeneous "becomings" of the subject".
Rosi Braidotti, "Writing as a Nomadic Subject", Comparative Critical Studies 11.2–3 (2014): 163–184 Edinburgh University Press

This realm of positive action and "transformation as a process of affirmation" is crucial to understand female spaces because they were, for a long time, – and still are, to a certain extent – what was possible for the females in question. But this possibility stands on top of a paradox of exclusion and devaluation. Beyond the feminine genocide of murder and domestic violence, there is the genocide of intellectual and creative value. The value of what was possible. In fact, the realm of female possibility, was also deemed futile, expendable, handmade, amateur. The female spaces of creativity are a paradox of restricted and priviledged access: because access was restricted to certain areas of life and of recognition, women's creativity unfolded in restricted activities such as sewing, weaving, drawing, child psychology, botany and even writing. (I am adressing the history of Europe in general strokes, but also, in particular, of the UK.) However, to those who could root their creative power in those areas, constraint became privileged access, and creative agency.

Or, in the words of Chris Krauss, "(...) once you've accepted total obscurity, you may as well do what you want".
Chris Krauss, I Love Dick, Serpent's Tail, 2016, p.72.

Women's production, when it has no particular attention doesn't garner the same commercial and competitive pressures as their males counterparts.

Jan Hopkins - Detail of a drawing produced in collaboration with a computer and a drawing machine, equipped with a pencil, which would be the same Hopkins would use if she were to draw it by hand.

These two thoughts of a productive temperament and that of a labour that, albeit productive, is disregarded, materialised in two books I was reading this week: Sadie Plant's Zeros + Ones (1997), about the relationship between women and machines; and Pleasure Activism, The Politics of Feeling Good (2019) by Adrienne Maree Brown, a compilation of texts radiating from the seminal text by Audre Lorde Uses of the Erotic, published in the eighties. The latter posed the notion of pleasure and of being pleasurable, a welcome shifting of perspective, turning a negative embodiment of desire into a positive and reciprocal ethos of goodness.

So, first Zeros + Ones. Sadie Plant pauses to contemplate, in the seventh chapter of Zeros + Ones, titled anna 1, how Sigmund Freud's ideas about women's contribution to the world, through his own daughter Anna Freud. The citations are scathing – for women or for patrarchy, depending on one's perspective – since Freud declares that "women have made few contributions to the inventions and discoveries of the history of civilization" because of their predisposition for stability and illogical thinking. Basically, women's brains are too inconsistent to dedicate themselves to any form of creative work. However, he seemed to change his mind once he saw his daughter working with her loom: weaving seems to be a female creation, he stated, inasmuch as it imitates the hair growing out of the female pubis. Plant concludes:

"if weaving was to count as an achievement, it was not even one of women's own. Their work is not original or creative: both the women and their cloths are simply copying the matted tangles of pubic hair. Should they have pretensions to authority, they would only be faking this as well. Women, according to Freud, "can, it seems, (only) imitate nature. Duplicate what nature offers and produces. In a kind of technical assistance and substitution". Plant continues: "weaving is an automatic imitation of some bodily function already beyond the weaver's control. She is bound to weave a costume for the masquerade: she is an actress, a mimic, an impersonator, with no authenticity underneath it all".

I want to focus on a passage where the notion of desire is addressed. The woman is a hole "where the male has his source of creativity" as Plant rephrases the relation betwen the male and the female in Freudian theory. Therefore, desire is considered as lack, and the woman is the embodiment of lack itself: she is (or has) a hole. Freud's theories were at times as basic as this. Therefore, the absence of authenticity in women's creations is not only because of their bond with nature as imitation, it also pertains to the notion of desire in heterosexual relations. The woman is a hole and therefore is empty, lacks a penis in order to root male desire, pleasure and thus creativity. Therefore, women are passive and inauthentic, lacking a creative impulse of their own. This is where static identities, as opposed to nomadic, enter the game. Freud's notion of heterosexual sexuality is bound by homophobia: men have holes too, and women have phalluses too if they use their imagination. His conception of the female body and its pleasure diminishes male pleasure by depriving him of his holes, in heterosexual eroticism.

But following my reasoning that female spaces and perceptions of the female body created a specific space, albeit by constrains and impositions, let's accept the fact that women are a container – we are, after all, a uterus and our reproductive system is regulated by the possibility of it being filled with a fœtus –; let's then, say we are a hole. Let's accept that we have been seen that way but let's take agency of how we are rather than the interpretations of it by others who want to diminish our pleasure (Freud infamously considered clitorian orgasms a sign of poor mental health, and attributed them to the pre-developed body of the female, which would then evolve into vaginal pleasure, which, of course, was yet again another attack on female pleasure). We are containers but not solely of other people's pleasure. Of a potential encounter. Hands can also be a container of pleasure, or other holes.

This brings to mind another feminist and bearer of futurist news of gender boundaries being broken, Ursula K. LeGuin. Her small text, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is a proclamation of portable holes as the basis of civilisation. It is raised against the theory of the stick, the pole, the knife, as the fundamental, obviously phallic, element and endlessly proclaimed basis of heroic narratives, and thus stories and, furthermore, history. The hero, the combat, the menace, the war and the hero emerging from it were the theories available to her when she started writing. The stick, in all its aggressive and creative force. No, no, LeGuin argues. The carrier bag. That is where civilisation lies. But why did LeGuin draw this theory? Because she is a writer of science fiction, the "mythology of technology". Therefore, she mused upon the first civilised object, which is often deemed to be the stick, an image sticking to our cultural landscape through the famous scene of the ape brandishing a bone and using it in Stanley Kubrik's 2001 Space Odyssey (1968). She thought long and hard about her place in writing and found none. She looked at her body, her story, her space, her tools. Namely, sowing oats, foraging and carrying a baby she names Oo Oo in this little manifesto. And she didn't find a place for herself. There was no Ursula K. LeGuin Space.

"(...) I am an adherent of what Fisher calls the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution. This theory not only explains large areas of theoretical obscurity and avoids large areas of theoretical nonsense (inhabited largely by tigers, foxes, other highly territorial mammals); it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before. So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it. ("What Freud mistook for her lack of civilization is woman's lack of loyalty to civilization," Lillian Smith observed.) The society, the civilization they were talking about, these theoreticians, was evidently theirs; they owned it, they liked it; they were human, fully human, bashing, sticking, thrusting, killing. Wanting to be human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that's what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all. That's right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero. Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man. If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again--if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time. Not, let it be said at once, an unaggressive or uncombative human being. I am an aging, angry woman laying mightily about me with my handbag, fighting hoodlums off. However I don't, nor does anybody else, consider myself heroic for doing so. It's just one of those damned things you have to do in order to be able to go on gathering wild oats and telling stories.

What a wonderful shift of perspective. Claiming the hole – the carrier bag; Oo Oo, and the other child in the text, who carries a basket, Oom, pronounced with the lips forming an oval hole; the womb; the domestic space, among others – as the Ursula space. The Ursula space is based on pleasure and recognition of a type of body without elaborating essentialist theories about women. In fact, most women know it is problematic to fixate on motherhood and the womb as an intrinsic female experience because some do not want to take a pregnancy to term or cannot. There is no essential experience of the female body; what the female, male and trans bodies are is a field of possibilities that exist as such for some, and as something else for others. I often think, with delight, what the carrier bag would be for me. Being quite domestic, it would probably be brought in by someone, as contribution, perhaps a gift, that I would cook, write on, or organise in a nice display for everyone.

We need women (and other genres) to think of technology because women claim other spaces and shift perspectives. I remember being silent at adults' tables, observing, and coming to the conclusion that if I was excluded from the conversation, I had, however, picked up on every detail of the wording, all the expressions, the tensions and the affinities most of them missed. A quiet observer and a prolific creator is the kind of behaviour sparked by female spaces and bodies. When they are not so, like Ada Lovelace who invented the computer, they are deemed "a very peculiar specimen of the feminine race" (the word "race"merits its own article here!); (...) "they called [Ada Lovelace] "wayward, wandering... deluded". She didn't argue, she seemed not to care. "The woman brushed aside her veil, with a swift gesture of habit" and, as though responding to Sigmund Freud said, "There is at least some amusement in being so curious a riddle." (Plant, ibidem, p. 27).

Isn't it curious that in a world where 35% of women in collections of exhibitions of art is deemed a success of inclusivity and representation, the artist robot who can paint – and who made a portrait of Queen Elizabeth – is a woman named Ai-Da after Ada Lovelace? Photographs of this elaborate computer with the lovely face of a brunette with hair cut in a bob always show her with a man, either the creator of Ai-Da or a representative of the museum or institution she may be displayed in. And yet, this computer made to look like a woman is not supposed to be clever: "Yet the question Meller wants to raise with this, the first public demonstration of a creative, robotic painting, is not “can robots make art?”, but rather “now that robots can make art, do we humans really want them to?”

“We haven’t spent eye-watering amounts of time and money to make a very clever painter,” said Meller. “This project is an ethical project.” (The Guardian, Caroline Davies, "Mind blowing: Ai-Da becomes first robot to paint like an artist", Monday, 1 April, [consulted on 22 July 2022]: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/apr/04/mind-blowing-ai-da-becomes-first-robot-to-paint-like-an-artist).

Already the female-looking computer is being regulated and its intelligence deemed futile for "the project". For me the question is: why does a robot painter need to look like a human? Wouldn't it be far more at ease, more itself, if it was a computer, whose body was created for the purpose of the task? Why are women's bodies constantly being used to give pleasure, and never seen as pleasurable? Did the scientists not think that, even for a lesbian or a bi/pan-sexual, that is, someone potentially attracted to women this would be, at the very least, conflicting and even triggering? Adrienne Maree Brown's book comes to mind: Pleasure Activism, The Politics of Feeling Good. Despite looking like one of those feel-good self help books who tell you to feel good about yourself without knowing you, Maree Brown knows the female experience well, and is open to knowing it more. First and foremost because she establishes a strong kinship with Audre Lorde's manifesto The Erotic as Power, and she plays by the latter's rules of introducing herself and her plane of action and existence, in order for the reader to establish theirs. Her first rule is to "recognize that pleasure is a measure of freedom" and immediately after that you "notice what makes you feel good and what you are curious about". Her notion of pleasure is bound by moderation and the recognition that pleasure may be intense and quick, but also mediated by a less pleasurable experience such as cleaning, studying, exercising, etc. Why is it revolutionary for women and all genders with them to think in terms of being pleasurable? When Ada got married to William King in 1835, "her mother instructed her to bid "adieu to your old companion Ada Byron with all her peculiarities, caprices and self-seeking: determined that as A.K. you will live for others"". She was nevertheless committed to mathematics and never abandoned her pursuits of knowledge and invention, probably because she was wealthy enough to have her children taken care of and the house duties carried out by staff. Tenacity and wealth supported her inclinations for science but her health deteriorated: she was diagnosed with hysteria which is a word whose etymology connects said ailment to the womb. The womb, the carrier bag of babies, pain (hers was lacerated), and history.

Jan Hopkins - Detail of a drawing produced in collaboration with a computer and a drawing machine, equipped with a pencil, which would be the same Hopkins would use if she were to draw it by hand.