Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Cybersexism

I finished reading this book recently.  It is a short, passionate epistolary tribute to the internet, to its many thriving life-worlds, to its heterotopic spaces, its libidinal intensities, its shy, its erotic fan fiction writers, its nerds and geeks and libertine communes.  The internet is real, the book insists.  It is not a game; it is not just words.  It is "a public space, a real space; it's increasingly where we interact socially, do our work, organise our lives and engage with politics".  "It's where we live and work and fight and fuck and make friends."*

And that is the book's secret, without which it might just have been a grimly sardonic display of filthy sexist execrations, rape threats and murder fantasies which are directed at women on the internet - including, of course, the book's author.  Without it, such a book could lend itself so easily to a misplaced drive to police the internet.  But, while dealing bracingly and contemptuously with the hypocrisy of phallocrats who cry 'censorship', the argument is too scrupulously feminist to really embrace official prohibitions.  One cannot "achieve radical ends by conservative means".  One cannot blame the "imperial fuckton of porn" available on the internet, and hope, through government prophylaxis, to quarantine the threat.  Censorship is not about protection, but about control.  And the people it controls disproportionately turn out to be female.

No, the substance of the book's appeal is simply this: the utopias of the internet, the adventure, the danger and the forbidden fruit of the internet, have to be open to women as well.  If women are dehumanised and denied "full, free access to the same channels men enjoy", then the network is simply not working.  It is "broken and needs to be updated".  The book appeals to those - geeks, primarily - with an interest in the internet being a genuinely free and egalitarian space.  It is a call to collective action.  

What sort of collective action?  Well, as the book notes, women have always been subject to the surveillance of their peers and elders; thanks to the internet, men are potentially subject to this too.  "Online vigilantism", wherein swarms of activists coalesce in exposing misogynistic trolls or stalkers, exploits this fact.  This has its potential dark side, of course - as all collective action does.  But the point is that the architecture of the internet is still being created.  "Systems can be rewritten.  Protocols updated.  The social architecture we're building online today will be the one the next generation grows up in, and if that looks too much like the one in which we did, for all our talk of futurism, we've fucked up."

The prose in this short book has been described as 'raw'; that isn't quite right.  It is as stylised as ever.  There is the witty, lapidary turn of phrase, the raised-eyebrow-of-snark, the quasi-ironical flag-flying (for, as I say, nerds and the nerdile, but also for online conversation, games and fucking).  These are the character traits of a Laurie Penny outing.  Still, there's something to the description.  The book is didactic, exhortatory even, and is less personal than one might have expected.  It exults in ideas.  Yet, it does feel somehow less mediated, and less constrained, and wears its bookishness a bit more lightly than, say, Meat Market.  And that works.  If this represents a new phase of Penny's writing, I welcome it.

*I can't prove this, but I think its probable that Penny drops the f-bomb in its literal sense more than any feminist since Andrea Dworkin.