While I’m writing all this feminist criticism I do find that I spend a lot of time describing and refuting sexist criticism.

There should actually be a special category or word for works that especially offend, that are so egregiously sexist that they sting feminist to action. They make it all very clear. Really, work like this does us a favor. It needs special mention, a category of its own.

This occurred to me the other night as I was talking about feminist science fiction with Laura Quilter. What to put in the femsf wiki? I was trying to argue for this “worst offenders” category for feminist sf. What are the books that outraged me when I was 12, and made me suddenly realize I was not, as a girl, included in (male) universalist claims to represent humanity? What made me shriek, “Hey! That’s not ME… and it pretends to be. So I better stand up, say something, and represent.” What are the touchstones of sexist thought?

Instantly a few revolting candidates spring to mind… Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and certainly Podkayne of Mars. For me, I think, attempts to create the “plucky girl” stood out more strongly than the usual objectifications of women in fantasy and SF. I identified with John Carter of Mars easier than I did Arkady Darrell, for god’s sake.

Well, I’m led to think of all this again as I contemplate the horrors of Sidonie Rosenbaum’s “Modern Women Poets of Spanish America.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? But its horrible sexism was one of the main inspirations for me to translate Juana de Ibarbourou’s work. Rosenbaum praises and insults Ibarbourou sometimes in the very same sentence – she’ll refer to her freshness and sponteneity and then “lack of profundity” and “superficiality of thought.” She’s primitive, she’s ardent, etc. It’s a classic example of what (in How to Suppress Women’s Writing) Joanna Russ calls denial of agency. It’s as if the poetry just flowed unconsciously from Ibarbourou’s “brain”… not that Rosenbaum thinks she has a brain, so I should probably say “flowed unconsciously from her very being.” As soon as Ibarbourou writes about anything other than “take me now, i’m nubile and willing!” then the critics slam down on her for being a) pretentious b) boringly intellectual c) pretending to have understood suffering d) being obscure e) being too complicated. Even though they were previously saying she wasn’t complicated or mature ENOUGH.

Well, it’s endlessly annoying.

My point is, in part, that I have a strong impulse to slam the people who are trying to make anthologies of women writers and who do it in a way that exacerbates the entire sexist discourse of what women write and how and why and whether it’s “really” any good or not.

This means that as I leap into publishing my thoughts on the subject I will be criticizing pretty much everyone else in my field.

Luckily most of them are dead.

More about the SXSWi women's visibility panel

(reposted) Here’s my notes from before the panel. It’s still rough notes – I tried to lay out the idea very quickly.

I also want to note that Ayse, Jan, Tara, Virginia and I all talked a lot over email and then again before our panel, and it was super interesting to see the evolution of our conversation. And I hope we can all post some of those conversations as well as what we said on the panel!

An immodest proposal

We need protocols for identifying authorship. At BarCamp at many of the women’s discussions, we talked about people as tag clouds. Gender is just one of the possible tags. Put gender, identity into html markup just like the xfn markup for relationships. Or create some other protocol or standards.

Try doing some studies. We know what importance rankings look like with a genderblind algorithm. Then try labelling authorship and identities, try dividing the web and see what happens. Actually test it. Then re-integrate.

If you are going to ask a question like “who are the most important/relevant (to a topic) women bloggers” then you need to be able to identify them. Right now we can’t.

Other people could maybe tag or ID you, but your self-identification is the one that counts in the most important way for most algorithms.

More information is good. The individual author or blogger has control over their own flexible cloud of identities. More information could then be put into transparent algorithms that are flexible, so you can have a technorati-like engine but adjust it to your own (or someone else’s ) vision of importance.

Think of it like thermodynamics… through the identity-tag webs, right now you have a power imbalance on the net echoing existing power inequalities. I have this whole weird analogy of patriarchy as maxwell’s demon, as an invisible, imaginary gatekeeper that keesp imbalances going. If this system existed, then, what mechanisms would you invent to reverse its workings? You can’t kill Maxwell’s Demon – that’s not allowed, and it’s just too hard. Making it past the gatekeeper on an individual level is how you get tokenized, and it also keeps up the myth of meritocracy. You have to invent structural workarounds, other maps and roads.

It’s cheaper to experiment with restructuring technological spaces than it is to restructure society.

I think women need to be visible *to each other* in order for important conversations to develop. Trying to be “genderblind” doesn’t help women, because we still have many systemic inequalities which stack the deck against us. I think self-identification in the form of tagging, or identity authentication like I’ve heard Kaliya (Identity Woman) talk about, or a new XML standard, would help with this: if we’re going to ask who the most important women bloggers are, then we need to be able to find them in the first place. I’m arguing for identity-based markup and search, not just for all genders, but for any kind of identity like race, multiracial identifications, class, ethnicities, age. Authorship and identity in the mind of a reader (and the mind of a search algorithm) can’t be separated. Self-identification should be differentiated from the ways other people identify an author. Visibility should also be broken down into frames of references, so that we can ask, “visible to who?”

For example, we could do a gender-based technorati search to see which women other women think are important; then which women men think are important; then which women everyone does – and see if those rankings are drastically different. I suspect they would be different, and those differences would be *interesting information*.

We need many ways of looking at visibility. If I’m a firefly, I don’t care if humans see me. I want other fireflies to see me. Humans might *want* to perceive me. Or to put it another way, if I were an alien fnnargh artist, doing the fine art of fnnargh for other aliens, those aliens would want to be able to judge my fnnarghing compared to other aliens’ fnnarghing. Humans might think fnnarghing is totallly hilarious and weird and cool, and so they might want to be able to find it too and talk about it compared to opera; but the aliens don’t *care* what the humans think or how Snarx’s Forty-Third Fnnargle is really similar to Wagner. And if they do, they can search on what humans think, or on what humans think with a little bit of what aliens think weighed into the mix. In other words, we need identity, authorship, and open, flexible search parameters.

the poetics of programming

I’ve been getting tech recruiter calls steadily for the last few years. They’ve stepped up in the last couple of months. The deal is, I don’t have control over an old server I used to be on, and so can’t change or take down a set of old web pages including my resume from 2001! So headhunters see 1999-present as a programmer and start drooling. Since I lost my job in late 2001 in the crash, and had 6 months of futile jobhunting… I have not kept my hand in with the programming. I told this to today’s recruiter, who blustered, “Aw, you’d be back up to speed in a month!” While this is true, I’m not sure where I stand on going back into a tech job.

If the people were super smart and nice… and know how to communicate… and are sane… and the job was poking around in someone else’s giant mess of Perl hackery and twiddling it… I would likely be quite happy. There is something nice about a huge data set and messing around with it and “seeing” into it various ways. On the back end – not live. And about the process of understanding someone else’s code… very much like the logic of translation. I especially enjoyed the spamhunting part of my old job, where I could imagine being a keen detective or a spy. I’d go back to translating 1 night a week and on one weekend, like I did when I worked at That One Dead Search Engine Company. But is the company high-pressure and will they want me 12 hours a day? No way could I do that!

The thought of having oodles of money again is tempting. I could save it up like crazy. And yet I could also be quite happy with my plan of teaching community college part time and finishing the Wittig book and then the huge anthology.

going to talk to them. Mostly because their site is good and slick. If it was dumb I would not be tempted for a second.

I’m on the fence!

partial response to Sour Duck's take on the women's visibility panel

This is in response to Sour Duck’s commentary on SXSWi and specifically on the panel I was on… I commented it on her post but then realized it’s so long I might as well repost it here. And I have a lot more to say later in response to her comments on other panels!


First, I do know that some people got where I was coming from, and got something out of it.

I was trying to avoid having to explain what the patriarchy was or defend the very idea that sexism exists in general or on the web or in tech. Without having to explain that, I knew we could push much further into “So now what.”  I was not there to do Feminism 101 for SXSWi. That would be a different panel…  It might be quite useful to have it, as well as a panel of “And here’s about 8 bazillion examples of evil sexism that I as a woman in tech have experienced.”  Which, actually, all of us on the panel talked about to some extent, but decided was not the point.

I think Jan’s position was to approach the solution by facing down internal barriers women have that make them feel that self-promotion is wrong. Her solution was not just “kick ass 10 times more than the men around you”… but also “and don’t forget to tell the world about it.” What she was saying on the panel was a direct demonstration of that philosophy. Not to wait to be asked, or looked for, but to step up and say “I’m great at my work and here’s why and here’s how to find me.”  I agree with Jan that this is crucial. Diffidence and niceness isn’t going to help fix anything. I think it’s possible to do this without becoming part of the problem – i.e. do it without stepping on anyone else.

I wanted, though, to take a different approach. I suggested a systemic technological fix  — as the furthest thing I could think of from Jan’s solution. (At least, the furthest thing that seems within women’s grasp, and that doesn’t involve violent revolution.)  

I was not suggesting tagging. Instead, two things: an extension to xml, something like xfn, that people could use to mark up their pages to indicate authorship and identity. It could be built in to existing tools, or added to whatever people like Kaliya are doing with identity authentication layers, or be xml… but it would create standards for people to declare their identities or affinities – including gender, but I also mentioned race as an example.   There’s room for discussion of what that would look like.   

The second part of my proposal is that tools be built to use that information.  Currently, we look at a set of all pages (for google or other search engines) or of blogs (for Technorati or whatever other blog-specific search engines.)  so we know by Technorati’s algorithms what blogs are considered the most important by other bloggers. We *can’t* ask the question, “Who are the most important bloggers in the view of all the *women* bloggers?” or “in the view of all the *non-male* bloggers?”

If we had gender identity data we could see if the answer to that question.  What blogs do women rank most highly? What blogs do men rank most highly? What male-identified ( tiny joke…)  blogs do non-males think are most interesting?  etc.   Extend this to race and you might see how it could be both fascinating and useful.  

The mere fact that those answers would all be different means that we should do it and see what the answers ARE.   Also, seeing their differences shows directly how we construct “value” and ranking, and how that value depends on the identity of the constructors.  So what I am suggesting is actually rather radical. I am saying that tech can give us a direct way to take the power of constructing value, and own it, and make it very very transparent.

Of course that data could be used for scary purposes, but…. I guarantee you it already IS… or will be.  So why not build it to be open and used by everyone?

Not everyone would identify themselves, but enough would that we would get interesting data.  It would actually allow us to “name the problem” MORE than we can now with existing vision.

It would make women more visible to each other, and it would also make them more visible to men who cared to look at what women’s standards of aesthetics, usefulness, and value are.  

You might argue that it will not matter if those aesthetics are visible; patriarchy basically guarantees that women’s standards and power will be denigrated, belittled, etc.  In other words what women assert is valuable, patriarchy will devalue *because* women like it. One merely has to breathe a hint that “teenybopper girls” or “housewives” like something for it to become the epitome of unpowerful. Consider romance novels; they *sell*. By all rights their continued existence should change something about what is considered valuable – they have this huge economic power. But… are they Literature? Somehow… (sarcasm) Not.  HOrribly.. I remember this same dynamic being pointed out to me when I first joined the STC in the early 90s – I was warned that because women were succeeding in “infiltrating” tech writing, tech writing was going to become a low-power pink-collar job.  THAT sort of thing.   Anyway, you could argue this against what I’m proposing. And you would be quite right to argue it.  I don’t think it’s a good reason for not DOING it, though.

Tara and Virginia had other things to say, but I thought I’d try to make my own statement a little more clear.

My 2 metaphors, which I just didn’t have time on the panel to go into, and I realized they were too wacky to pass without a lot of explanation… were … well… “radical fuzzy separatism” which just cracked me up as a name… because I’m suggesting a temporary separatism and one with fuzzy boundaries.  The other metaphor is of Maxwell’s Demon. Think of patriarchy, or racism, as being Maxwell’s Demon, i.e. an invisible and imaginary and impossible Agency, a being sitting at the tiny doorway between two chambers and keeping them separate… picking particles out of the air with tiny tweezers, perhaps…    We could shoot the demon maybe; we could point out who’s wearing the demon suit; we could exhort various particles to whiz around faster so they can trick the demon and get through the door; what I was proposing is to recognize the shape of the system itself and, well, drill some new holes between the two chambers. But first you have to know where the walls are.  

Litgeek? Nerdaesthetics?

I’m so flattered that Brian labelled me a “Technoaesthete Mashup”. We had a really random encounter at the SXSWi conference, where within 3 minutes we established that we both think computer/net/tech and literary theory and cultural studies have this strange point of intersection that barely anyone else sees.

Then when I started to talk about translation, meaning to lead up into mentioning Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation of Tres Tigres Tristes, I swear this is true, before the words could come out of my mouth Brian said, “It’s like in Tres Tigres Tristes…” How mind-boggling!

It was great to come across another literary theory geek in the middle of a computer conference.

Woolf Camp

woolf camp
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

Here’s some of the crowd at WoolfCamp, a writing/blogging retreat.

Duuuuude! It was heavenly to hang out with those 30+ women and 5 men, most of them with laptops surgically attached to their bodies. All people who find it normal to listen while typing. In fact, typing during a conversation is a compliment; it means you’re taking notes because the conversation is so cool you want to write it up in realtime.

We had discussions on ideas like:

– Who is your audience, and why do you care?
– Gender, blogging as a genre
– Blogging, business, and feminism
– tagging; thinking about tagging
– memoir

And demos/workshops like

– nifty bloggy techie tools
– art blogging
– videoblogging and podcasting

And there was a poetry reading. I swear, I had no idea people really *wanted* a poetry reading. They did, and lots of people participated.

Grace, Jackie and I wanted to mix up literary, arty, and techie people a bit, and bring together people who love blogging, in an unconferencey, informal way. We had a feminist take on the event, are closely connected with BlogHer and mommyblogging, and wanted to work hard to bring people into the conversation who might usually hang back.

One of my main goals was to bring people together. I was so happy to see everyone making personal connections, and I got to meet a lot of awesome bloggers! Intensity, and people who get excited about ideas, give me energy. I don’t require people to prove themselves as some kind of big technical expert, or a zillionaire, or ask them where they work, before I listen to their ideas and take them seriously! The non-“legitimate” people are often edge-thinkers who don’t just think outside the box, they live outside it. (That automatically includes most mommybloggers, especially the potty-mouthed and dirty minded kind.)

My own favorite conversations were in the “gender and genre” discussion, diva-ed by Amber Hatfield; I also loved the ideas thrown around in “Who’s your audience” diva-ed by Emily!

Personal blogging had many strong voices in the mix. It was a given that personal blogging can be a political and feminist act. I liked what Emily said: “If I like what you write, I want to read everything about everything. Your kids, your job, your bowel movements. So I like it all mashed up, which is how I love to blog.”

Chris Heuer answered with this excellent thought about the importance of categories and tagging in mixy-uppy blogging: “The whole self is very intriguing. But we don’t have enough time to get to know everyone on that deep level.”

It was also a given that blogging was a serious literary or artistic endeavor – or can be. That in itself was interesting and empowering. We were a group of people who share that belief.

I have more to say, and in more detail, but I’ve been flying on one brain cell for the last couple of days, and have a lot going on, for school, writing projects, and friends in crisis.

Can some of the people who took notes in discussions, post them raw?

One book to rule them all

I just got back from the library/community meeting to choose the possible books for the “One Book, One Community” program that will happen in May. Our town has about 90,000 people and about half of them speak Spanish (counting the unincorporated part of town that has the most Spanish speakers, an extra 15,000.)

The library committee had chosen a list of possible books, but then the city council said, “Hey, why didn’t you ask the community.” So, they threw out that list, and opened an invitation. I came because I’m in the local mothers’ club, and another mom asked a few people she knew loved books to participate. Two of us went. Other groups represented: high school teachers, elementary school librarians, senior citizens, librarians, one Latina librarian, men, and high school students.

At our first meeting, we brainstormed a list of qualitites we felt were important for The Book to have. This worked very well. The list of qualities was rewritten into loosely grouped categories. Then we voted, three votes each, on the most important qualities. Our top three picks were: available in Spanish and English; of high interest to the community; and ability to cross generational lines, i.e. be accessible as far downward in age as possible. “Good story” and “interestingness” I think got folded into “of high interest” which originally meant “topical, relevant to our town”. “Literariness” was actually a negative quality even though many people in the room personally liked it.

Not voted on, but often mentioned, was that the book had to be something that would not be offputting to men. We all seemed to know what this meant. It was a dealbreaker quality. No one liked this idea, but there was a sort of pragmatic consensus.

That was three weeks ago. We all talked to people in our communities and came up with no more than 5 books each that we felt would have the right qualities, and that we felt passionate about. I put the question out there, “So are we committing to the idea of availability in Spanish?” And there was reluctance… though it had the most votes. Tonight there was a moment again where some books only in English might have slipped through, but I put my back up, and then the librarian agreed, and everyone else went with it. I was glad. My main goal of being there was fulfilled…

We had an interesting discussion of books that were good, but that were overused, were sort of too canonical. The Giver, or The Red Pony, or House on Mango Street. The high school student sort of closed her eyes and groaned at all these, which have become standard middle-school reading list fare. I was thinking of House on Mango Street as standard community-college fare, but that was 20 years ago. Now it’s for middle school!

There were only a few of us for this second meeting: The high school girl (new), the senior citizen (she was in favor of more ‘literary’ options), the other mom-club woman’s husband who is a community college lit prof and who was the only non-anglo, me, the librarian who was unbearably cool, and some other old guy who seemed quite well read and interesting, parent of a high school student. I was impressed with everyone. They had all made sincere efforts to ask around and get opinions!

We had some discussion, ruled out a few books, spoke up in favor of some others, passed books around the table, and came up with:

– The Kite Runner
– Before We Were Free
– Grapes of Wrath
– Seabiscuit
– Their Eyes Were Watching God

That’s a pretty cool list. I could lose “Seabiscuit” and not care, but the rest of it’s fine! I don’t think anyone will vote for Grapes of Wrath, which IMHO is too long at 600-ish pages, and also too high of a reading level. “Before We Were Free” was my suggestion. I loved the idea of everyone reading “The Moon is Down”, but could not find it in print in Spanish. The other book we wanted that wasn’t in print in Spanish: Night, by Elie Wiesel.

I would have been unnerved to suggest The Kite Runner, but the high school girl’s freshman class had read it and all really liked it and had super intense discussions. “It’s got war, it’s got racism, it’s got father-son relationships, and going back to your old country, and class issues, it’s got EVERYTHING,” – radiating valley-girly intensity enthusiasm.
“And it’s, well, it’s sort of about, it’s got this… rape. Of a guy.” Okay, after that endorsement from a 14 year old, we were all voting for it! Plus the author lives here. I’ll probably vote for it over my original choice.

Well, I wanted to write that all up because it was a great example of actual community involvement in politics and in canon formation.

Dear Lillian,

Reading “Treason Our Text” is so orgasmic… it makes everything clear and beautiful. Well, clear and scary, but that’s better than dark and scary.

Am I really going beyond it? I feel like I can see beyond it, but I’m still IN it. And no one I have read seems to have gone beyond it.

1) criticize existing canon – pick it apart
2) make case for individual women writers that they fit the canonicity
3) make countercanons (but: questions of aesthetics/quality)
4) women’s culture, continuity, connections (evading “quality”)
– break down class/elite/genre high/low (here is where I am pounding the keys on genre formation, which Robinson only lightly touches on: “an entire literature previously dismissed because it was popular with women and affirmed standards and values associated with femininity” )
5) style challenged

“Once again, the arena is the female tradition itself. If we are thinking in terms of canon formation, it is the alternative canon. Until the aesthetic arguments can be fully worked out in the feminist context, it will be impossible to argue….”

and then:

The development of feminist literary criticism and scholarship has already proceeded through a number of identifiable stages. Its pace is more reminiscent of the survey course than of the slow processes of canon formation and revision, and it has been more successful in defining and sticking to its own intellectual turf, the female counter-canon, than in gaining general canonical recognition for Edith Wharton, Fanny Fern, or the female diarists of the Westward Expansion. In one sense, the more coherent our sense of the female tradition is, the stronger will be our eventual case. Yet the longer we wait, the more comfortable the women’s literature ghetto — separate, apparently autonomous, and far from equal — may begin to feel.

So my answer to that has been to construct not a countercanon, but a countergenre. Then within that genre (which might be the “women’s culture” strategy) I propose to redefine literary quality. Then to reintegrate canons. (Of course: Someday? When? How?)

But where I go much further, or where I can see further, is in tech, in databases and tagging. Databases and indices, taggable entries, and open source algorithms that people can tweak to construct their individual or institutional canon of the moment. Obviously, large powerful universities would “brand” their own algorithm and perhaps might make them closed-source. I’ve been saying it for a couple of years now. It would be so beautiful. Tagging and tag clouds would make popular input possible. The construction of algorithms with spectrums of weighting desired important qualities would come up with results to construct syllabi, anthologies, and reading lists on the fly. Databases and the web make it possible to build infinite multiple dynamic canons.

WoolfCamp – blogging and writing

The date for WoolfCamp has been set! It’s a writing-blogging-creativity-DIY retreat in Santa Cruz:

I invite you, Dear Readers and Interested Parties, to WoolfCamp, Winter 2006, Saturday, 2/18 and Sunday 2/19:

Behold, our tee shirt/schwag logo and image of our muse, Virginia Woolf, Her Very Self.

The “camp” concept is based on the barcamp and brainjam innovative models of conferencing- cooperative, participatory, zero bureaucracy, zero power tripping, total immersion, big fun.

Historically, these camps and jams have been geek-based. WoolfCamp will differ in providing a focus on the creative aspects of blog content. The goal is to help each other with writing on our blogs, in whatever form we wish to explore – memoirs, creative non-fiction, fiction, poetics.

And if a geek or two wants to join up and help me decide, once and for all, on which RSS feed I should be using, that geek will be welcomed.

If you’d like to come, sign up on the wiki, or send me email for help signing up.