Genderhacking an Alien Future: On Helen Hester's Xenofeminism
by Helen Hester
Polity Press (2018), 140 pages
In 2015, the Laboria Cuboniks collective proclaimed “If nature is unjust, change nature!” at the end of their much celebrated Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation. After countless discussions in the years that followed, the second canonical xenofeminist text was written by one of Laboria Cuboniks' founding members, Helen Hester (Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of West London). Hester's new polemic, Xenofeminism, published by Polity in their Theory Redux series, expands upon the groundbreaking work of the initial manifesto by bringing us a fresh look at xenofeminism from a specific perspective. As Hester notes, "[e]ach of the six members of Laboria Cuboniks [...] would likely emphasize different aspects of the manifesto" and thus Xenofeminism is not so much "the book on xenofeminism [..,] but rather a book on xenofeminism.” As such, one ought to read Xenofeminism not as a book explaining an already established set of ideas, but, rather, as a growing nodule on the xenofeminist root: Hester's nodule.
Hester's nodule, with its focus on technofeminism, thus explains xenofeminism as a "technomaterialist, anti-naturalist, and gender abolitionist form of feminism" wherein liberation can be realized through the reappropriation of existent technologies. For Hester, the first part of xenofeminism’s tripartite structure lies in its recognition that technology, far from something to be simply rejected, is "part of the warp and weft of our everyday lives" and thus becomes a locus for activism. While recognizing that existent social structures constrain usages of technologies, xenofeminism stresses that technology is not inherently anything and exists on a plane upon which political action can occur in an attempt to "'re-engineer the world'."
Hester further couches xenofeminism in staunch anti-naturalism where, in a break with modern ecofeminists, she rejects the romanticization of "wildness" and rejects the view that 'nature' is a limit to growth. More specifically, xenofeminism takes nature (and naturalness) not as fixed categories or conditions, but as “space[s] for contestation” wherein the body can be pushed beyond supposed ‘natural’ limits. As Hester notes, “[b]iology is not destiny, because biology itself can be technologically transformed.”
The third part of xenofeminism lies in its endorsement of gender abolitionism. While similar to contemporary radical feminist politics, xenofeminism takes a distinctly Deleuzian turn by advocating for a proliferation of differences—one of the oft-quoted lines from the Xenofeminist Manifesto is “Let a hundred sexes bloom!”—with the recognition that difference is beautiful while also positioning itself against systems that utilizes differences for categorization. Gender abolitionism under xenofeminism is not literally the eradication of differences between people, rather it is the eradication of the usage of differences poised as "markers of [social] identity" that lock individuals into a defined set of valid identities associated with various privileges. As Hester says, "[f]or xenofeminism, gender [and indeed, race, class, able-bodiedness, etc.] should be granted no extraordinary explanatory power"; differences ought not be vectors of oppression.
As noted above, the initial manifesto was a collaborative effort and thus different parts of xenofeminism are foregrounded for different contributors. Given Hester's focus on technology and technofuturism, it ought not be surprising that the bulk of Xenofeminism resides in the "Xenofeminist Technologies" chapter. Before that, however, Hester does go on a brief excursion to examine both futurity in a xenofeminist context (specifically by engaging with Lee Edelman's famous critique of the future in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive) and the propagation of differences in an anti-naturalist context. While noting that "Xenofeminism is invested in constructing an alien future," Hester is acutely aware of the heteronormative and/or essentializing traps a future-oriented politics can fall prey to. Whereas Edelman worries about the Child as the image of the future (from which the queer body is both unable and prohibited from engaging with), Hester notes that xenofeminism's futurism should not imply a "propagation of the same," but, rather, a multiplicity of not-yet-actualized possibilities in which liberation is possible. Additionally, while being future-oriented, Hester wants us to confront already existing instantiations of difference in the form of queer bodies to make the future safe for them. By expanding the arena of moral concern from familial relations to broader social relations, Hester views xenofeminism as affirming Donna Haraway's call to "[m]ake kin, not babies!" which acts as "a form of counter-social reproduction" that encourages communities of difference to emerge over and against replication of the same existent hierarchies. Crucially, for Hester, "biological reproduction is, in fact, separable from social reproduction" and xenofeminism thus focuses its efforts on the latter. As she proudly affirms, "[t]he future is under construction."
Finally, for Hester, a key tenet of xenofeminism is its technomaterialism and technofuturism with an emphasis on revitalizing feminist self-help. As her case study of what a xenofeminist technology would look like, Hester examines the development and propagation of the Del-Em menstrual extraction device invented in the 1970s before Roe v. Wade. Designed by feminists who were critical of the technomanagerialization of reproductive medicine, the Del-Em was a "DIY abortion technology" that aimed to skirt the medical establishment by "appropriating established medical tools" and handing them (and the knowledge about how to use them) over to individuals who wanted to take care of their own bodies. This radical movement of self-help was described not only as "an attempt to seize the technology without buying the ideology," but also as a way to wrench power away from the medical establishment that was seen as oppressive.
Indeed, for self-help feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, reproductive freedom meant not only the ability to regulate one's hormonal functions, but also the ability to do so individually. As Hester notes, this attempt to circumvent those who were seen as the "gatekeepers" of reproductive medicine spawned a process of "self-enfranchisement" that saw with it the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves in the early 1970s. As early feminist self-help groups such as Jane arose and began collecting knowledge related to gynecological procedures, the nature of the medical establishment as a form of "disciplinary power" became evident. Indeed, Hester notes that the institutionalization of reproductive medicine was "a means of hoarding both institutional authority and useful knowledge."
Expanding upon this, Hester argues that the Del-Em, coupled with a deep distrust of existent medical structures, served as a break in gynecological politics that allowed self-experimentation and "amateurism" to rise. Further, the rise of self-experimentation seemed to provide opportunities for trans people to circumvent "the policing gaze of medical and juridical authorities." Supporting this "hacking," Hester frames the Del-Em, and later Testogel, as reappropriations of existent medical technologies designed to limit reliance on the medical establishment and promote so-called "radical amateurism." For Hester, the situation of various tools within an oppressive establishment served to limit possibilities for emancipation and the only way to truly free oneself was to turn the master's tools against them. Ultimately, for Hester, the true emancipatory power of xenofeminism lies in its rejection of “conventional” or “institutional” knowledge and the appropriation of tools for amateur uses. Xenofeminist technologies must be freed from the chains of institutionalization so they can be adapted to changing social situations and deployed diffusely and anonymously.
While I think Hester’s overall analysis is good and engages critically with problematic aspects of historical feminist movements, her endorsement of “radical amateurism” gives me pause. While it would be dishonest to say that Hester is arguing that all “expert” knowledge is bad and we ought to distrust all established knowledge-norms, it would be equally dishonest not to note that the “radical amateurism” she endorses potentially paves the way for pseudoscience to flourish. All this is not say that “radical amateurism” is part and parcel with pseudoscience or that pseudoscience can only arise in the midst of amateurism (indeed, that’s patently false). Rather, my concern lies on the level of methodology. While I think that it’s good to be weary of the medical establishment that has a deeply problematic history (e.g. unethical human tests, forced serializations, etc.), it is foolhardy to eschew the existing establishment due to historical contingencies. Just as xenofeminism affirms the mutability of technology and technologic knowledge within specific contexts, it ought to similarly affirm the mutability of medical technology and medical knowledge by recognizing that infiltrating existent medical establishments and “hacking” them for feminist purposes can be just as, if not more effective, than withdrawing and operating in zones of exteriority.
Further, while Hester doesn’t call for the rejection of scientific fact, the promotion of “radical amateurism” coupled with “self-experimentation” and DIY knowledge winds dangerously close to ceding existent knowledge. I fear not so much the endorsement of “radical amateurism” per se, but, rather, the wanton promotion of "radical amateurism" without adding caveats (that is to say, “we ought to engage in self-experimentation to learn more about our bodies…but some established medical knowledge is good and ought to be accepted”). Specifically, I fear that such uncritical endorsement gives justification to those who are already predisposed to reject established scientific and medical facts and/or ignore data. Indeed, criticizing the medical establishment without self-reflection gives ammunition to those who would cloak their dangerous actions behind high-theory.
Ultimately, when one runs down the path of unqualified “radical amateurism” and arrives at the door of scientific skepticism, a theory that merely historicizes medicine without adapting the critique to current liberatory incursions has a strong pull that drags one into the room of total rejection. When one then rejects established scientific and medical facts, the void that arises does not stay vacant for very long. Homeostasis eventually returns and the void is filled with so-called “alternative medicine.” Indeed, the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, the proliferation of Reiki and crystal therapy, expensive “fix-all” detox programs, and other unregulated and untested means of healing can be seen as symptoms of a growing distrust of experts (and this is only in the medical field) that ought not be uncritically endorsed.
While Hester's skepticism of the medical establishment should not be read as a complete abandonment of existent forms of knowledge, her endorsement of "radical amateurism" and “self-experimentation” without qualification opens the door for more insidious groups or individuals that have the potential to undermine her entire project. That being said, taking Hester’s analysis in Xenofeminism with a grain of salt and, potentially reluctantly, accepting established norms and knowledge provides the Left with a fertile ground for a new, other-centered feminism to grow.
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