Introduced in 2015’s Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, a pseodonymous production of the Laboria Cuboniks collective of academics, artists, and writers from around the globe, Xenofeminism (XF) presents “a technomaterialist, anti-naturalist, and gender abolitionist form of feminism” (Hester 2018, 6), which avows the technological, disavows the natural, and searches for a way out of the perennial hangups of contemporary feminist, not just through a re-hash of cynerfeminist/Harawayan language but as a project that intimately practices what it preaches—Laboria herself is already an exercise in high-intensity cybernetics, both a singular entity and multiplicitous collective: autonomous nodes working neither in homogenous unity nor in heat-death isolationist heterogeneity.
As an anagram of the “Nicolas Bourbaki” group of twentieth century French mathematicians, Cuboniks also advances an affirmation of abstraction as an epistopolitical 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 (qtd. in Holt 2018).
Through Laboria, the collective (Helen Hester, Lucca Fraser, Amy Ireland, Diann Bauer, Katrina Burch and Patricia Reed) speaks as one: indeed, the magic of this collective exercise of writing is that she manages to say many things (some quite contradictory, as we shall see) in but one seemingly cohesive voice. XFM recalls, in style, form, and rhetoric, two previous techno-feminist manifestos—1991’s Cyberfeminist Manifesto from Australia’s VNS Matrix collective and Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs—as well as 1971’s The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone.
The manifesto itself plays host to a hodgepodge of technofuturist and cyberfeminist ideas—a massive polemic data-dump on a wide range of contemporary feminist dogma, ranging from new iterations of gender essentialism to Feminism’s suspicious and even naturalist outlook on techno-economic change (including posthuman forms of technology and reproduction). For XF, there is no room for ‘suspicion’ or renewed calls to the ‘natural’ or the fixed: “Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’—neither material conditions nor social forms….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—the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing” (Cuboniks 2015, 1). XF is thus explicitly gender abolitionist, race abolitionist, class abolitionist, and “vehemently anti-naturalist”. For XF, “Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology—the sooner it is exorcised, the better” (Cuboniks 2015, 2).
There have been many attempts to tease out what exactly Xenofeminism is—theorists have taken microscopic laser cutters to the manifesto to neatly derive one meaning and one vector in its theorizing. Since publication in 2015, there have been a flurry of articles critiquing, reassembling, and tweaking many of the core affirmations of the manifesto (as, perhaps, was intended!). But in this it has also become popular to compare and contrast each of Laboria’s component authors and to speculate on their influence and/or “breaks” with the dispersive and contradictory affirmations laid out in the manifesto—the assumption being that there must be as many possible Xenofeminisms (of varying moral and political quality) as there are authors. Following the manifesto’s publication in 2015, Helen Hester, one of six assemblages pulling themselves together from Laboria’s scraps, went on to publish a full length book, also under the Xenofeminism name. Despite its broad name, Xenofeminism focuses mostly on but one issue raised in the collective’s manifesto: reproductive rights and technology.
Regardless of whether or not Hester “breaks” from the original manifesto, there has at very least been the perception of such a break, which has lead some to differentiate her work from Laboria’s collective production. For example, Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, has explicitly held up Hester over the other members of Laboria Cuboniks—dismissing poet Amy Ireland’s statements as merely “esoteric, ecstatic and/or nihilist-apolitical” (Lewis 2019), and linking some parts of XF—especially those espoused in the manifesto—to a so-called “dark lineage” of philosophy’s unpopular kids—specifically British philosopher Nick Land (others, such as Jules Joanne Gleeson1, have further linked the manifesto to Martin Heidegger, and thus to a lineage of esoteric fascism). Yet in elevating it over the others, Lewis, at least, finds promise in Hester’s “‘version of XF’ [that] already vindicates reproductive justice, democratic practices of scientific bricolage and irreverent collective biohacking” (Lewis 2019). It is Hester’s work that I’ll focus on here.
Briefly, and to clarify, it is not my intention to trace XF’s “dark lineage”, or to rehabilitate said kinship (always figured patrilineally and arborescently) in the face of criticism—I don’t have the time or interest to do either, and it seems irrelevant to the more critical issue Lewis’s thought inspires: what could it mean to have a ‘version of XF’, and does Helen Hester actually have one? Is Xenofeminism a cohesive ideology in the first place, one that can be easily broken away from? How and why is Hester’s work held in such esteem, over the others? After all, XF—following through on Haraway’s influence—never makes any claims to innocence. XF is also not, as the manifesto is quick to point out, a recipe, “or a single-purpose tool by which a determinate problem is solved” (XF p. 10). Xenofeminism is not a political program but “a platform, an incipient ambition to construct a new language for sexual politics—a language that seizes its own methods as materials to be reworked, and incrementally bootstraps itself into existence” (Cubonics 2015, 10).
Instead, here I am primarily interested in the epistemic and ontological foundations behind the manifesto’s most provocative call and sign off—“If nature is unjust, change nature!”. What is nature, and how is the concept criticized—and employed—in Xenofeminism and subsequent criticism? And, most importantly, if Xenofeminism is not a political program, then what kind of politics does it produce? Does subsequent work—particularly Helen Hester’s—“break” with the manifesto, or are there deeper contradictions and tensions that have yet to be addressed?
First and foremost, nature does a lot of work for XF—and XF works through it, on it, and over it. For example, the manifesto laments the “sense of the world’s volatility and artificiality [that] seems to have faded from contemporary queer and feminist politics, in favour of a plural but static constellation of gender identities, in whose bleak light equations of the good and the natural are stubbornly restored” (Cuboniks 2015, 4-5). For XF, calls to nature are power moves—linguistic expressions of the will to power that inadvertently locks one into a prison—in which we “are told to seek solace in unfreedom, staking claims on being ‘born’ this way, as if offering an excuse with nature’s blessing” (Cuboniks 2015, 5). Appeals to nature—or more specifically, truth in nature—are “a retreat from what makes trans and queer politics more than just a lobby: that it is an arduous assertion of freedom against an order that seemed immutable” (Cuboniks 2015, 5). Here, nature is figured as a kind of limit which must be overcome—an order that can be overthrown or escape. This xenofeminism confronts a prison, sure, but prisons have outsides: they are escapable.
Yet while this XF is embedded rather neatly in the language of transcendence, hardly two pages later the manifesto shatters any illusion of transcendence or the possibility (possibilities?) therein. With a heavy dose of Donne Haraway, XFM reads: “‘Nature’—understood here, as the unbounded arena of science—is all there is“ (Cuboniks 2015, 4). Where the previous XF almost yearns for a kind of innocence (though I’m sure no one will ever admit to it), this other Xenofeminism—where nature is not a limit but “all there is”—invokes Haraway’s unwavering refusal to tease out the organic and the inorganic: “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism” (Cuboniks 2015, 2). In this respect, XF seems to undermine itself. From A Cyborg Manifesto:
It is certainly true that postmodernist strategies, like my cyborg myth, subvert myriad organic wholes (for example, the poem, the primitive culture, the biological organism). In short, the certainty of what counts as nature — a source of insight and promise of innocence — is undermined, probably fatally. The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding ‘Western’ epistemology. But the alternative is not cynicism or faithlessness, that is, some version of abstract existence, like the accounts of technological determinism destroying ‘man’ by the ‘machine’ or ‘meaningful political action’ by the ‘text’. Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the answers are a matter of survival (Haraway 2005, 4).
There’s a certain Harawayan disavowal in the manifesto’s affirmation of alienation—“We are all alienated – but have we ever been otherwise?”—not in alienation per se but in XF’s acceptance of the immanent conditions as they are, as seen in its seizure of “alienation as impetus to generate new worlds” (Cuboniks 2015, 1). This snippet—or slice or ‘version’—of XF presents, following Haraway, not the issue of becoming, but a factual observation that we already are, and perhaps always have been, cyborg creatures. For Haraway, this precludes the appropriation of nature/culture by the other:
The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other (Haraway 2006, 2).
But any staunch endorsement of Haraway’s paradigm is difficult to support, and ‘nature’ only gets more bizarre. Elsewhere, XF does seek the appropriation of nature by culture—it sees nature as, at the very least, a malleable object that can be labored over and, once again breaking with Haraway, appropriated. How else could the manifesto’s signature sign off—“If nature is unjust, change nature!”—be possible? If nature is not a discreet object, how does one “change it”? Instead, for this XF, nature is to be controlled, surpassed, manipulated—it is no longer a “refuge of injustice”, but something to be put to new forms of political utility: abolish gender, yes, but “[l]et a hundred sexes bloom” (Cuboniks 2015, 6).
So Laboria is therefore juggling two seemingly contradictory affirmations—the political call to become cyborgs (to transcend nature) and the immanent philosophical (but not apolitical!) fact that we are cyborgs. Tentatively, I call these the Haraway position on one hand—that we are already cyborgs and must find solace within this fact—and the Firestonian position on the other—that we must (or will) become cyborgs to surpass the conditions of the current order, transcending towards a gender abolitionist horizon. For Haraway, this means (roughly) a politics of a cope—learning to “survive” the immanent (and thus already present) conditions of postmodernity. There is no “escape”—no prior authenticity to uncover, no new authenticity to construct. Meanwhile for Firestone, “we are no longer just animals…humanity has begun to transcend Nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature” (Firestone 2003). Rather than waxing poetic about a lost authenticity or nature (in the vein of Mary Daly and other ‘goddess’ feminists), Firestone yearn for a new world—a different world—over the horizon. While both are committed to XF’s staunch anti-naturalism—and gender abolitionism—the conditions that facilitate their dynamic conceptions of nature are quite different, and have very different risks. These are very different cyborg politics!
Firestone’s position—espoused in The Dialectic of Sex—accepts Freud’s account of woman’s “disadvantage” (i.e. her reproductive role, her size, her lack of penis) as a given, arguing for a promethean overcoming of sexual difference vis-a-vis technological innovation (and, importantly, progress). This is what Hester’s post-manifesto work, Xenofeminism, dedicates itself to—the role of DIY reproductive tools (such as the Del-Em and artificial wombs) in a liberationist politics of gender abolition. Hester summarizes her (and Firestone’s) position here:
As Nina Power notes, ‘Firestone’s approach to the question of sex is refreshingly blunt. Sex difference is real. Men and women exist, and possess asymmetrical physical capacities which have historically made existence for women extremely difficult and frequently unpleasant or even lethal.’ Firestone observes, however, that with the development of increasingly sophisticated means of birth control and artificial reproduction, technology has ‘created real pre-conditions for overthrowing these oppressive “natural” conditions, along with their cultural reinforcements’. For a condition to be described as natural at this historical juncture is no reason to assume that it cannot be changed (Hester 2018, 23).
Yet Hester has to do quite a lot of work to retrofit for new political (or, and I think this is more accurate, linguistic and ontological conditions). Whereas “The Dialectic of Sex insists that the sex-class system is based on disadvantages suffered by those capable of conceiving, restating, and bearing a child…[and] this group is called women”, Hester suggests that we “may not wish to follow her in this”, instead preferring a plurality of “embodied differences” (which nonetheless seems to privilege the “gestating” component of these differences). Hester distinguishes between, for example, certain trends in trans politics which see nature as “both a stable origin and incontestable endpoint—a view that is obviously at odds with xenofeminist ideas”, which (in her account) would trend toward a view of nature as a “protean platform”.
But no matter how flexible—or ‘protean’—this platform, Hester cannot—and does not seem to want to—escape this Firestonian notion of transcendence. Moreover, this dissonance seems unnoticed and certainly unresolved. In her book, Hester describes Laboria Cuboniks as “Haraway’s disobedient daughters” (Hester 2018). But this is quite a lot of disobedience—a different paradigm entirely! Hester writes:
We too find ‘discourses of natural harmony, the nonalien, and purity unsalvageable for understanding our genealogy in the New World Order, Inc.’, and agree that it ‘will not help – intellectually, morally, or politically – to appeal to the natural and the pure’. (Hester 2018, 20).
This is all well and good—but for a feminism that claims a direct lineage (albeit disobedient), this is a very slim point of commonality in a sea of difference. What does Xenofeminism even think it is here? Hester—and perhaps other Xenofeminists—seem convinced of a Harawayan legacy that is directly contradicted through their transcendent politics. And if there is a “break” in Hester’s text from the collective manifesto, it is certainly not expressed here. And because these contradictions were already present within the manifesto, it would seem impossible to chart a clear trajectory for any one member—unless we are going to go down the fruitless forensic paranoia of reconstructing who wrote each individual line and selected each word.
It seems, then, that there are not as many Xenofeminisms as there are Xenofeminists—there are more! This certainly supports the various viral metaphors which permeate XF—the coexistence of distinct strains of diverse origins within the same bodies/texts. What, then, is the role of Haraway’s spectral presence on an emerging Xenofeminism canon? There is a very real contradiction between the Harawayan lineage that is accepted or affirmed seemingly by default, and the reality of the texts (both the manifesto and Hester’s book) as a polyvalent and contradictory assemblage that leans heavily, especially in Hester’s work, towards Firestone and transcendent theories of the natural. This makes it all the more confusing that some, like Sophie Lewis, have used Haraway as a yardstick by which to judge Xenofeminism. Lewis acknowledges parallels with Haraway’s work—“whose incantatory language [XF] is rebooting for the 21st century”, but claims that XF oversimplifies Haraway’s “anti-colonial, non-duallist queer materialism” (Lewis 2019). Lewis specifically calls the “concept of ‘alienation’ touted in the XFM…a misunderstanding of the pro-human2 post-humanism of the Cyborg Manifesto”, praising Hester for having “happily” abandoned it in her book.
But does this actually mean Hester is somehow closer to Haraway’s vision? Is she less “disobedient”, or does she compare more favorably against who is now employed more as a (don’t call it father) figure over the whole ordeal? This seems unlikely—in fact, if Hester “breaks” with the manifesto, it is only to become less Harawayan—to embrace a transcendent theory of nature and to further embrace what is, underneath the fresh coat of paint of language like “gestators” and “menstruators”, fundamentally a dualist, albeit perhaps queer, materialist program that hardly differs at all from Firestone’s 1971 polemic. How does a recognition—following Hester—of “embodied differences” change the fact that we are ultimately talking about a dialectic notion of history wherein there are gestators and non-gestators? This is hardly conceptually distinct from the “men and women” of Firestone’s work!
It’s one thing to acknowledge Haraway’s contribution (even through disagreement), but it is altogether more problematic to ignore the dissonance in one’s own work that prevents any realization of the kind of politics Haraway hoped for (whether she continues to hope for those politics, I can’t say). The result is that Hester’s work (and I think you see this in Lewis’s work too, though that is beyond the scope of this paper) suffers from nearly identical problems as Firestone’s radical polemics: dualisms, progress narratives, and an awkward mismatched recognition of, particularly, queer/trans bodies that seemed sprinkled on at the last minute. While this is also beyond the scope of this engagement, I do wonder: what would it look like to strip Firestone down to parts—to embed her as a set of strategies within a Harawayan paradigm? Certainly this is not the kind of project Laboria’s critics have offered—but I think I’m right in finding it much in the intended spirit of Xenofeminism: A Politics of Alienation.
Cuboniks, Laboria. 2015. “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation.”
Firestone, Shulamith. 2003. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. 1. ed. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Haraway, Donna. 2006. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. Routledge.
Hester, Helen. 2018. Xenofeminism. Theory Redux. Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity Press.
Holt, Macon. 2018. “What Is Xenofeminism?” Ark Review, February 13, 2018. http://arkbooks.dk/what-is-xenofeminism/.
Lewis, Sophie. 2019. “Cyborg Sentiments.” Red Pepper, March 7, 2019. https://www.redpepper.org.uk/cyborg-sentiments/.