a feminist poetics of the machine
Essay by Mary Flanagan
A computer can be seen as an instrument on which many types and
layers of writings have occurred. For example, many of us think
of writing text on the computer, corresponding with friends or conducting
business; we also inscribe multiple versions of a file. When a file
is deleted from the hard driveunwritten, in a way-- it is
not immediately destroyed. Only the literal link to the file is
deleted, and perhaps our awareness of the file is also lost; the
actual data, however, remains in its proper block and sector until
written over with new data. Even then, some fragments exist in between
the written-over bits. New files mix with the layers of old, unwanted
data. Thus the computer is a storehouse of artifacts: fragmented,
coveted, corrupt, or precious; it holds diverse layers beneath its
seamless, trustworthy user interface.
The computer is more than a diary; in a technology-infused culture
it records the bulk of a person or groups of person's work and becomes
a witness and recorder of that work. If we manipulate the data inside
the computer as a space, we can expose the computer as our virtual
palimpsest on which more than one text has been "written"
with the earlier writing incompletely erased; the place where the
residues and actions of our lives are kept, partly recorded, erased.
What kinds of language other than the technical can we use to describe
this area so elusive to cultural and artistic study? One approach
is to use the metaphor of poetics to tap into a humanistic way of
thinking about data which has both inherent organizing principles.
The theory and practice of poetry, namely the area of poetics,
is concerned with such fundamental questions as what poetry is,
how it is read, and how it is composed and "written."
This project concerns the poetics of the computerhow form
is transmutable, how tasks are multiple and fluid, and how the machine's
design and use establishes its own brand of poetics in its writing
of files: order, of space, and of power. Thinking deeper into the
architecture of the computer itself will allow us to consider the
structure of the computer using the mechanism of a computer virus.
My goals are to establish a poetics of and for the computer workstation
in order to examine the users relation to this poetic system.
* * *
Following on popular fascination and revulsion of human-created
life-forms that Mary Shelley brought forth in Frankenstein, or the
obsession with ebola or the flesh-eating virus in the media, viruses
have become an important focus of fiction, urban legends, hoaxes,
popular media, and lawsuits. Etymologically speaking, "virus,"
from the Latin virus, means, "poison." The politics of
computing are at a fevered pitch as struggles over personal identity
and privacy issues peak. We are engulfed in a culmination of complex
obsessions founded on the fear of the computer: as our confidant,
we have a wary trust, knowing our machine can turn on us, selling
our browsing habits or address books. Friend, diary, tattler, perhaps
even malevolent agent.... At the pinnacle of this fear lies the
Computer viruses have played an important role in the development
of this climate through their uncanny bodily metaphor. The word
"virus" immediately conjures up a biological equivalent
for the phenomenon of computer viruses. (Louw and Duffy 34). Much
of their popularity seems to be based in one of two camps: one which
fears for the self or host and the other which roots enthusiastically
for the interruption or destruction of cyber-smooth workings of
mega-national companies. Attached to a deep-seated biological analogy,
computer viruses replicate by attaching themselves to a host (a
program or computer instead of a biological cell) and co-opt the
host's resources to continue existence. Behaviorally, viruses are
executable, self-sustaining programs; they effect or change data;
and they replicate.
Why are computer viruses so frightening? Viruses place us at a
kind of periphery: between the natural, bodily virus and the unnatural
virus of the machine; between the unintentional "natural"
causes of viruses to the malevolent and intentional, between ideas
of the uncontrolled and the controlled. These opposites balance
in a constant state of tension in virus discourse. As contagion,
they erase our data. But further, they invade and destroy proof:
proof that we have worked, proof that we have been entertained,
proof that we have remembered a history. Computer viruses recall
such a profound fear because they cause users to face the fear of
impermanence; along with our data our memory, experiences, the proof
of our existence in our technoculture can be irretrievably destroyed.
* * *
A virus, by form or function, is not inherently harmful (Fites
7). Humans live with several strains of viri in the body without
consequence. Like their biological counterpart, computer viruses
do not need to be destructive. Biology in fact presents us with
a constructive virus type: bacteriophages, viruses used for healing,
do not harm the human body but can destroy other bacteria. Since
the early in the 1900s, the capital of the republic of Georgia,
Tblisi, has been the center of phage research. Georgians use
phage tablets, medications, and creams to combat illness. Phages
developed at Tblisi can treat illnesses to which modern antibiotics
have become immune.
A digital equivalent to this "constructive virus" can
be created. To determine how we can come to an understanding of
our relationship to our data, we need to not only examine its content
but the technical framework which creates and stores it. One way
to do this is through utilizing the imaginary of this discourse
to explore the material of the system to show us something unexpected.
In response to the positive image of the bacteriophage in the wake
of contagion fears brought by computer viruses, I created the program
[phage] with graduate student Chris Egert as technical director.
[phage] is an application with viral behaviors which explores a
workstations architecture and creates a poetics of the computer
as an autonomous object, with host data as material for creative
fodder. [phage], referring to the constructive bacteriophage, from
the Greek phagein, meaning "to eat."
Like biological viruses, [phage] exist in two distinct states.
When not in contact with a host cell (or computer), the virus remains
dormant in a non-living state. When the application comes into contact
with the appropriate host, it activates. Biological viruses cannot
"live" or reproduce without getting inside some living
cell, nor can the computer virus [phage] exist without a host hard
drive. When [phage] is ready to act, it opens, filters through all
available material on a specified workstation, and visualizes it
in a 3D space. [phage] places a user's experiences in an alternate
contexta visible, audible, and moving 3D computer world, where
the rules of what is shown, for how long, and why are created by
the virus itself instead of the user.
* * *
The material conditions for creating virtual space--computer hardware
and software-- need to be taken into account when examining our
relationship to it. Let us examine the "space" of the
machine in two parts: one as a social construction of space, and
one as a technically created space.
The social space of the computer is one of individuality, a private
space which presupposes a certain intimate relationship with the
user. Of course, stating this calls up a wider discourse about spatial
structuring, especially evoking feminist geography in the separation
between public and private. These external/internal practices are
deeply rooted in cultural ideologies, architectures, law, and popular
discourse, subject to cultural interpretations--interpretations
embedded inside the cultural reading, in our case, the technocultural
reading. Geographer Nancy Duncan see instances of privatized public
space (the gated community, the shopping mall) as institutionalized,
accepted, apolitical spaces by their very virtue of being private
(128). With technology, this could be equated with members-only
chat rooms or member shopping sites. More recently, the reverse
has happened -- publicized private space has developed and grown
in various forms. Family/gay web-cams in the home, email, which
is actually public communication masked as interpersonal, web browsing
monitors in the workplace, or street surveillance can be seen as
sites which destabilize the assumptions of what acts or information
Because [phage] explores data in a visual display, it models and
exposes the representation of the private relationship with the
computer to the publiceven if no one serves as spectator to
these private experiences "gone public." As privacy occupies
a position considered "a-political" and infused with ideologies
of control and intimacy, the very act of allowing the computer control
over the experience creates, like a surveillance act, a blurred
site for exploration.
* * *
We now need examine how the space is technically created. The hard
drive could be conceptualized very much like a physical space. Or,
perhaps, it could be considered like one of the virtual 3D worlds
created by artists or the entertainment industry. Instead of XYZ
planes, however, hard drives are gridded into divisions called sectors
and can be mapped, explored, and imagined. Like an Alphaworld, Onlive!
Traveller, VRML performance, or a 3D action game like Tomb Raider
or Unreal, the "space" of the hard drive can be mapped,
explored, and imagined. What happens when one types a text document
or creates a graphic and saves it? The operating system chooses
an appropriate sector of the hard drive on which to write the data.
Unlike the typical 3D game experience, the maneuverings inside the
"world" of the hard drive are supposed to be entirely
masked to the user. One cannot seem to avoid using metaphors of
space to describe computer activities.
Even the term "cyberspace" renders an absolute connection,
associating digital experiences with spatial descriptors. Programming
languages suggest specialization as an operating mode within code.
For example, we ask in the Basic language for the computer to "run,"(not
process) and commands such as "goto" and "get"
or, in Lingo, "put" or "place" (rather than
compute, display, or calculate input). Such descriptions using the
language of geography must be carefully considered given linguistic
ties to a historic use of geography as a site of male power. And
more broadly, in daily life as well as in feminist discourse, there
has been an adoption of such spatial metaphors in language such
as "working at the margins" at the "site" of
one, singular point, and suggesting that "recentering"
is a way to critique status quo tropes--these refer to space as
a place for strategic and political action.
A related question to the discussion of space and meaning is, "Do
3D worlds alter the relationship between the body and knowledge?"
3D modeling and animation applications and the images they create
are useful for a variety of purposes. They can be used to model
difficult to understand scientific principles, such as chemical
reactions or the workings of jet propulsion. Three-dimensional models
and animations-- human-made virtual objects-- can be used as "proof"
in legal cases (eg. modeling a car accident to prove that the engineering
of a road is misaligned) or provide "proof of concept"
in architecture. Through the simultaneity and variety of perspectives,
the software packages used to create virtual worlds and characters
evoke complete and total omniscience. Indeed, this "design
from nowhere" aspect is prevalent not only in 3D games but
in the broader scope of information technology..
Women in the sciences and in the arts investigate space in different
ways using categories that may vary from the traditions in their
fields. Women have not historically been privileged to define fields
such as geography or architecture; and second, women have not been
the primary designers of the computational architecture of virtual
spaces. Yet the construction of virtual environments is coded in
ways which strongly affect the creation of knowledge in these environments.
Virtual environments are mathematically based cohesive, seamless
systems which create the sense a unified order of knowledge. The
construction of 3D spaces reincapsulates traditional epistemologic
tropes of reason and objectivity by being unsituated, outside of
the body or encapsulating the virtual body. Graphics in three dimensions
are meant to provide objectivity and omniscience. If, therefore,
graphics in cyberspace set up this relationship of objectivity and
omniscience, we as users assume this relationship unquestioningly
in our complicity to user the systems we use.
The role of the body in relation to human viruses and computer
viruses cannot be overlooked. The body serves as a referent to ideas
not only of control but of knowledge as well. The body not only
represents a cultural force but has also regulated men's and women's
relationship to knowledge. This relationship to knowledge has a
particular importance when using the computer to manifest 3D space.
When we use the materials of a given episemologic condition but
remove the important element of control to remap, reprioritize and
display the computer architecture, we are able to find a gap in
which rethink underlying power and information structures on the
very machines we record our memories, experiences, and knowledges.
Thus the virus project [phage] creates a visual, audible, and temporal
metaphor for our experiences with the computer. [phage] sits at
the axis of virtual space, public space, private space, and assumptions
* * *
[phage] is a type of artificial life form, a computer virus, which
explores a workstations architecture and creates a poetics
of the computer. [phage] possesses its own organizational parameters
for the mapping of virtual space, and thus works to reorient the
user to the computer. [phage] exhibits viral behavior by scouring
the drive, then manipulates and creates, or births, the data into
a visible and audible 3D environment. Using [phage], participants
experience the computer in an exceptional way through the architecture
of the computer; it becomes a space for examining digital cultural
creation and the structures behind the myths of digital space and
identity. [phage] has only the lifespan of a computer application:
it can run for days or months, or it could crash quickly. Much depends
on what it discovers on the hard drive.
Let us return to the question of space. Why is it important that
we think of the hard drive as a space, and how does spatialized
thinking have significance? If we see the computer as a palimpsest,
we can give control over these layers to the creative force of the
virus. [phage] breaks down virtual space's hierarchy by displaying
information in a differently organized 3D space, granting random
and many times unknown pieces of data trajectories, lifetimes, and
the power of random movement. The computer in this context acts
as its own creator and its own enactor of memory. Like University
of California at San Diego Art professor Harold Cohens computer
program Aaron which uses artificial intelligence to create drawings
and paintings, [phage] exhibits a large degree of autonomy in its
selection and display of media on the computer. In other words,
it is a recorder and a creator as well by re-creating our experience
on the computer with different rules. [phage] functions similar
to video art or other critical media works which use the medium
and format to call a critique on itself. It calls a geographic critique
of virtual space.
The bodily metaphor is intentionally significant in this project.
More than simply an equative function between computer and human
viruses, the body represents a significant location in power struggles
and meaning in gendered terms. [phage] seeks to manifest an Irigarayian
critique and counteract traditionally masculine paradigms of the
technological age. In effect, the work could be thought of as an
extension of Irigarays work. She asserts that masculinist
hierarchies regulate language and material relationships, especially
in regard to the body. Computers, like the body, are permeable,
and this permeability is dangerous as it allows contagion as well
as content to enter; the contagion, like physical or computer viruses,
might consume our histories and our knowledges. Irigaray notes that
the human body, with its essential need for penetration, is not
easily regulated in conventional masculinist power paradigms; this
"feminine" permeability must be controlled through the
objectification of woman, or, extending this critique to the computer,
the objectification of the machine. Permeation without consent (hackers
and viruses representing this danger) threatens the historic use
of the computer in a command |control relationship inherited from
military uses. This relationship is reinforced through the fear
of the uncontrolledviruses and hackers in fact work to validate
and fortify power metaphors in computer culture. But for another
type of structure to "be," for women in cyberculture to
have authorship and subjectivity, power paradigms must be altered,
questioned, and reworked.
Through its inherent critical approach to a user's relationship
with the computer, the creation and organization of [phage] can
counteract traditionally masculine paradigms of the technological
age. Cornelia Brunner notes that while men tend to see technology
as a means to an end, women often view technology as a way to communicate
or experience the world around them differently; and Sandra Harding
points out, "All scientific knowledge is always in every respect,
socially situated"(1991, 11). The knowledge on which virtual
space is created is based on modernist epistemology: a masculinist
valued rationality upon which Western assumptions of hierarchy from
Enlightenment to the present are based. Through its non-hierarchical
organization and its divorce of creative control from the user to
the machine, [phage] is an attempt to alter this epistemology by
creating a feminist map of the machine. By allowing our communications
and artifacts to be both the means and the ends of the work, [phage]
allows us to become aware of our relationship with the computer,
enter into the machines design, and examine its own brand
of poetics in its writing of files, of order, and of space. Most
software and art projects tell stories or provide experiences, but
few are about the viewer or user. With [phage], the story is about
you, the user, but told to you in a meaningful play of subjectivities.
In this case, our environment contains our own artifacts, separated
from our own ordering power. [phage] allows the user to experience
his or her computer memory as a palimpsest of life experiences rather
than experience the computer as simply a tool for daily use. By
mapping a users unique encountersthrough images, downloads,
web sites visited, emailsit creates spatial memory maps that
not only reflect the users interactions, but to a larger degree
the users redefinition of self within in technoculture.
Next steps? We need to encourage this virus to spread via email
and establish itself (but only by the consent of the host). In a
few months, material dredged up in [phage] will be sent to a server
site and become part of a collective computational unconsciousness.
Beardsley, Tim. "As Time Goes By...: Accuracy of Human Memory."
Scientific American. May 1997 v276 n5: 24(2).
CNN. "Man Charged with Unleashing 'Melissa' Computer Virus.
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Duncan, Nancy. "Sexuality in Public and Private Spaces."
Bodyspace. Ed. Nancy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 1996:127 -
Fites, Phillip, Johnston, Peter,and Kratz, Martin. The Computer
Virus Crisis. New York: Wan Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
FitzGerald, Jerry. "Detecting Computer Viruses." EDPACS,
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Gray, Douglas F. and Jack McCarthy. "Fortune Cookie Hit by
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Ryan, Frank. Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues Out of the
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Essay reproduced with permission of Mary Flanagan
to accompany her project for The Physics Room
July 17 - August 10, 2002
Digital artist Mary Flanagan is currently an Associate Professor
of Art at the University of Oregon, where she teaches about gender
cyberculture, interactive media, and sound design. She was recently
to exhibit her internet work [collection] as part of the prestigious
Whitney Biennial in New York. This was only the second Whitney Biennial
include any internet based artworks. Mary Flanagan has also worked
commercial field of computer software production, and has co-edited
an anthology of essays exploring issues of gender and cyberculture.
Flanagan's art practice is primarily concerned with exploring issues
identity, gender, memory and culture in virtual spaces. Her works
investigate the relationship between individuals, communities and
technologies we use.
[phage], her project for The Physics Room, is a computer virus
the artist which explores the architecture of the computer it invades.
Here, Flanagan's own laptop is being explored: random pieces of
and image are pulled up from the computer's hard drive, creating
dreamlike web of floating exerts of data - at times appearing as
nonsensical gibberish, and at other points revealing personal information.
In [phage] the machine becomes not just a tool to be used, but a
of experiences and memory. Flanagan has created the necessary code,
computer now drives the artwork as a dynamic artificial life form.
other works by Mary Flanagan can also be viewed on-line at: www.maryflanagan.com