The Relations of Ruling, Affect, and the Virtual In-Between:
Feminist Blogging as Textual Activism
Online feminist activism is a realm whose surface we have only just disturbed. The phenomenon of feminist blogging has dramatically affected the ways in which feminist thought is articulated through virtuality. As cyberspace emerges as a context in which feminists inscribe their politics, we must explore how Dorothy Smith’s articulations of the relations of ruling and text-mediation may be applied in the realm of virtuality. This theorization is best done with the view that the centrality of the body is necessary. This perspective is evident in Emma Dowling’s work on how affect occurs at the site of the body. To further extend my analysis, I interviewed Naomi Sayers, an Indigenous feminist blogger who writes at her site, Kwe Today: Fierce Indigenous Feminism (www.kwetoday.com). Sections of this interview will be used as qualitative data to enhance my arguments, as well as to explore Sayers’ specific affective relations in regards to blogging. I want to examine the connections that could be drawn between text-mediation, the relations of ruling, and affect within the virtual space of the ‘blogosphere’. Specifically, does blogging produce affective relations that promote or stymie feminists’ connection to the oft-cited perspective that the personal is political? How are the material and virtual bodies of feminist bloggers implicated in the act of blogging about personal and/or political issues? Does the act of blogging subvert the power dynamics inherent in the nation-state? Are those power dynamics present in an online context, and if so, how? I argue that the realm of the virtual promotes dynamic feminist spaces where feminist activist praxis is mobilized through textual affective relations.
The virtual realm has been the subject of much debate amongst feminist theorists/activists in terms of its potential both for productive feminist work and destructive replications of the same power systems that exist in the material realm. To further this work, I am interested in looking at the role of text in the virtual realm. Dorothy Smith outlines how text can mediate and depoliticize lived experiences: “social scientific methods of writing its texts created a standpoint from which the reader reflected on her life as if she stood outside it; taking up the relevances and focus built into the conceptual structures of the discourse. She became an object to herself” (Smith 39). The method taken up toward writing ‘legitimate’ texts in the social sciences, and indeed, in many other academic realms, is reliant upon a writer approaching a topic as though they had no personal connection to it. As far as knowledge production goes, this allows dominant bearers of ‘knowledge’ (who we may refer to as ‘the state’) to continue to legitimate particular forms of knowledge and knowledge production. In contrast, the very public nature of the virtual realm means that the blogosphere becomes a space in which people assert their own voices and broadcast that messaging. Taking up virtual space becomes an act in which feminist bloggers will define their identities and politics: “The argument for ‘situated knowledge’ as a new form of looking and knowing theorizes embodied spaces as ideal communities whose members generate collaborative identities” (Kaplan 213). I argue that the virtual is no less an embodied space than the material, as it carries forth the potential for new ‘forms of looking and knowing’. There are important theorizations that are made possible with the blending of a feminist blogger’s embodied identity and their virtual influence.
However, it is important not to romanticize the virtual realm as being some paradoxical fantasy of a ‘politically apolitical’ space. When I asked Sayers how she had come to blogging, she explained:
I wanted a way to respond to what I was hearing/reading in the media but without having to deal with the online forums where plenty of online/anonymous trolling occurs. I have tried to participate and provide feedback on articles online before but when I would go back to read what others have said, there really wasn’t any safe discussion going on. (Sayers)
The operation of her own site gives Sayers the ability to moderate comments and write her own thoughtful responses on a variety of issues. She values the space of her blog because she can write these authentic responses to the media, without feeling as though her commentary will disappear beneath a deluge of commentators who refuse to listen or who participate in ‘trolling’. As well, Sayers’ point about her blog giving her the ability to respond to the media is of particular importance. Frances Shaw describes the power of discourse and how it can inspire people to produce counter-discourses:
political agency is enacted in discourse, and in the ways that activists try to intervene in discourse through the creation of counter-discourses. This recognition is also important for the tradition of feminist political theory, in which linguistic intervention and consciousness-raising have formed a significant part of activism. (Shaw; emphasis added)
So it is not that there is a ‘new’ kind of political agency in virtuality, but that there are new methods through which activists can exercise their agency. The text of the virtual allows the creation of counter-discourses to be in personalized and politicized spaces over which the author can have control. Indeed, feminist blogging can construct a space through which one can resist disempowering structures of oppression which are replicated online: “I always say that simply being Indigenous in Canadian society today is a political act. We weren’t supposed to be here—creating my blog is a political act. The creation of my blog is also an act of resistance to the dominant discourses about Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women, in Canadian society” (Sayers). Sayers’ continually cited her Indigeneity as central to her political identity throughout the interview. Not only is the creation of the blogging space politically relevant, but the written contents of the blog inscribes the material realities of feminist activists within and through the virtual. However, this movement towards virtual organizing is often cited as a key generational difference in how activist efforts are taken up. In an interview with Wendy Harcourt, Sunila Abeysekera, an award-winning human rights activist from Sri Lanka, describes this generational dissonance: “For me it isanother world…New generations aretechnologically in tune with modernity…I feel the new technologies enable brilliant communication,but for me the virtual world is still not thesame as the real world” (Abeysekera qtd. in Harcourt 193). Feminist blogging as activist work is still a grey area for many people, due to the uncertainty of how embedded in reality it can truly be.
When discussing the challenges of blogging, Sayers identified racism as one of the main issues that she dealt with as an Indigenous feminist blogger:
…definitely racism. I had to change the way I allowed comments…after receiving a rash of comments earlier on that were really offensive towards Indigenous peoples…I do still receive the odd racist comment but I just delete them…I tend to find racists not the brightest bunch in the world—they also put their full name and email (and then their IP is recorded). It’s quite funny actually. (Sayers)
The specific targeting of Sayers’ ‘fierce Indigenous feminist’ blog-space by people who left racist comments clearly shows the intent to delegitimize her political thought through her virtually represented materiality. Though Sayers’ views the situation with a degree of humour, she outlined how she had to change her comments settings to ensure she was able to exercise her authority over the space of her own blog. Sayers’ also added that she does not “deal with too much sexism as a feminist blogger” (Sayers). Racism is also reflected through Shoshana Magnet’s work on sites that purport to be ‘feminist’, such as an online commercial site called Suicide Girls (www.suicidegirls.com), “which features the online journals, profiles and nude photographs of young, heavily tattooed, punk women” (Magnet 577). She identifies two opposing theorizations of feminist cyberspace in her article – ‘utopian cyberfeminism’ (cybersex as liberating) and ‘dystopian cyberfeminism’ (cybersex as exploitative) (578). In her analysis of both perspectives, she finds that neither attends to ethnicity and race at all: “Any analysis of cybersexuality must attend both to the impact of ethnicity and racism and must not essentialize women either as completely sexually empowered or victimized” (Magnet 588). Her focus is on cybersexuality, but her argument can be extended into analyzing the feminist blogosphere. Sayers’ outlines how mainstream media discusses Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: “in terms of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which is also a term that gets thrown around a lot in politics, they are only ever talked about in the media if they were a homeless, druggie, alcoholic, or a street based sex worker” (Sayers). So her creation of counter-discourses on her blog seems to be mainly motivated by these intense experiences of racism through mainstream media, which tries to place Indigenous women in this impossible limbo of sexualized victims made deviant through intensely negative racialization by the media. Caren Kaplan bluntly expresses that “[r]ace matters in cyberspace as do all the other identificatory epistemologies of the last several hundred years…The figure of the cyborg, a mix of flesh and machine, has been discussed at great length by numerous commentators…it is a vital player in these questions of boundaries and binaries of modernity” (Kaplan 219). Discussions of affective experiences of feminist bloggers need to centralize race, as the virtual makes it very clear how gender is intensely racialized.
Sayers views virtuality as a space where this centralization can be accomplished extremely effectively:
the virtual space allows Indigenous feminist politics and concerns to be heard and seen as a way to resist the dominant discourses that causes an erasure of the Indigenous identity and body in the mainstream. It speaks back to these discourses and forces others to think critically about how the media constructs Indigenous bodies and identities…in terms of Indigenous feminist politics, I always say that I am Indigenous before I am woman and that my feminist politics does not exclude Indigenous men/two-spirit/trans individuals. (Sayers)
As we have seen thus far, the body does not disappear in virtuality. When we are analyzing feminist work, we must pay mind to how race and ethnicity are sidelined as unimportant, as often occurs in the material world within mainstream (White) feminist movements. The affective connections, both positive and negative, must be attended to in order to think through whether virtuality provides a different space or different methods through which to challenge the relations of ruling. Emma Dowling’s work is helpful here, though she writes specifically of the role of intersubjectivity in her affective relations as a waitress: “What I produce is affect and that is the value of my work. Crucially, I can’t do this on my own. I need you to be part of this process” (Dowling 110). The interplay of different bodies meeting in a restaurant is different from, but not dissimilar to, the meetings of bodies in virtuality as they negotiate the power dynamics between each other. There is a replication of material power structures, but there are also strong sites of resistance and solidarity across platforms. Smith describes what these structures look like in the material realm: “Normal sociological and political economic practices divide these relations and apparatuses of ruling into a variety of spheres which are treated as quite distinct from one another, although they interact in various ways: management, state, professions, mass media, and so forth” (Smith 41). These relations and apparatuses change form but still retain meaning in virtuality, especially when it comes to how people support or do not support each other online. Sayers explained what blogging had revealed to her about these structures:
Blogging has shown me that when it comes to Indigenous and feminist voices, there is definitely a power dynamic at play here and people don’t like it when you point it out…I created the hashtag #WomenOnlyExcusesForPaikin which was in response to horrible, misogynistic blog post trying to address the issue of inadequate representation of women on Steve Paikin’s show…A lot of the women who responded to this hashtag were also supportive of it but there were a few women who were not supportive of it and called it “snarky” and “vilifying” to Paikin. (Sayers)
Sayers pointed out that this seems to be a recurrence of Sa’ar’s “liberal bargain” (Sa’ar 680) even in online activism and organizing. There are material consequences to getting involved in campaigns online or writing about the material realities that one deals with in their workplace. Sayers explained how this liberal bargain was enacted online: “these women were ignoring the fact that women are inadequately represented in MSM [mainstream media]…and…agreeing with Paikin without actually highlighting the fact that women face real systemic gender issues…all in exchange for their jobs” (Sayers). Sayers is careful to maintain that “everyone has to eat” (Sayers) but this serves as a reminder of how the virtual can be an incredibly political space, one which wields uncertain consequences for women in their workplaces. Bodies are made particularly vulnerable in a virtual context, because they can be so closely linked to their political stances and actions online.
Affective relations in the virtual realm also have a great capacity for productive feminist work and cathartic healing processes. Indeed, as feminists engage with the virtual, they can also engage in personal work that is tied up in their political values and strengths: “Blogging has helped me a lot in terms of my own healing and grieving. I lost my best friend to suicide in August 2012…I actually created another tumblr (http://kweok.tumblr.com/)…in order to help me with writing to help with grieving” (Sayers). The exploration of grief, pain and/or loss in the virtual realm embeds that very embodied suffering into textual form. Caren Kaplan articulates this clearly in her work on mobility in new technologies: “the self is always somewhere, always located in some sense in some place, and cannot be totally unhoused. New technologies appear to promise ever-increasing degrees of disembodiment or detachment, yet they are as embedded in material relations as any other practice” (Kaplan 210). The virtual body of a feminist blogger experiences the material impact of these intra-relations with the self, or interrelations with others online. Sayers was able to use the space of a blog to write out her grief, but also to work through her grief. When a person can pour out their grief into a post and then receive supportive comments, this can be another way to feel as though they are not alone. While grief is not the only experience in which this emotional solidarity can occur, it is one of the most powerful ones. The political solidarity that can be found through blogging must not be undermined:
I have met some really awesome people within blogging communities. I had the chance to meet Lisa Charleyboy and also Jessica Danforth (Jessica Yee). They ended up following me on twitter and following my blog. I get a lot of support from these two women and I am forever grateful from it…I think their own writings online definitely help me in everything I do. Lisa asked me to be a contributor to her Urban Native Magazine (which is super awesome) and I tend to cite Jess’s stuff in my essays and blogs a lot. (Sayers)
Not only does blogging promote, support and uplift Sayers’ political praxis, but it also gives her connections that assist in her academic work. This ability to connect with people who identify with your work is one in which the virtual seems to far surpass the confines of the material. The accessibility that the virtual affords to feminists is essential to understanding why online activism is becoming so central to feminist/activist organizing: “Online social activism is growing exponentially and, as Jessica Valenti has mused, “maybe the fourth wave [of feminism] is online” (qtd. in Solomon)” (Eudey 240). While this is an important point, we must also be wary of how mainstream (White) feminism has defined the ‘waves’ of feminism by very particular standards. This assertion of a new wave by a White feminist is a claim that we must take with much caution – but her point still stands that certainly many feminists are taking to the virtual to extend and enact their politics.
Liz Newbury wrote a news article covering the ‘Feminism 2.0’ conference held in Washington, D.C. in 2009. She identified the central role of online feminist bloggers in building feminist communities and sites to begin actions: “Cohesive online communities demonstrate reciprocity, and feminist blogs were shown to link between and among each other, drawing the community closer together” (Newbury 10). This conference showed the meshing of the virtual and the material, as the role of social media and new technologies was the central focus of the event. Much of this community-building is facilitated through the writing and (online) sharing of texts. Indeed, as Smith reminds us, “Our knowledge, practices of thinking, theorizing, images of the world, are textually grounded and grounded in the relations of ruling. The ‘knowledge-power’ relationship that Foucault has proposed is a metaphor for this reality, an organization of power mediated textually. And of course we can’t do without it” (Smith 43). While this seems overwhelming, this system is not without its weaknesses. If power is mediated textually, then that means that the production of personal, political and/or academic texts also holds a degree of power. Though the relations of ruling may seek to delegitimize these texts as ‘too personal,’ ‘not academic enough,’ or ‘biased,’ the virtual realm possesses a particularly new and relatively unknown kind of power. An article or video that gets a lot of ‘hits’ or ‘shares’ suddenly becomes a text that is imbued with meaning afforded to it by an active online community (or communities). That person suddenly has access to a lot of power through their online following. Also, they may or may not choose to put material and virtual work into a hierarchy through that articulation of their power. Sayers describes this tension as one possible disadvantage of working in virtual spaces:
Maybe the only disadvantage is when individuals who have a larger following/more readers begin to say that movements created within the virtual space do not matter as much as the work that is happening on the ground. I know this is where the indigenous feminist community remains divided. Some say that social media/blogging/writing is important and others say, it is not as important as the work happening in the communities…I think both is important because these virtual spaces create the space to share with other communities the successes and failures of projects or actions. We know that the virtual space allowed Idle No More to happen and I don’t think we can argue that it wasn’t important. But we can’t go and say that the work that is happening on the ground isn’t important either—because that happened first before the virtual. (Sayers)
There is a new balance that is still struggling to be made – between valuing the work on the ground and the work in cyberspace. Disagreements around these valuations can be sites for productive conversations on what activism can look like, how it can manifest, and the impact it can have. As has been made clear, “work happening in the communities” is occurring both online and offline. Even someone who does both kinds of work may value one over the other. Or perhaps they have a more nuanced view about what virtual and material work can accomplish, together or separately. Regardless, this engagement creates spaces of action and dialogue:
discursive activism is sometimes a response to discursive crisis…the points of disagreement between mainstream and counterhegemonic discourses…moments of discursive crisis can also be understood in terms of aural metaphors such as ‘dissonance’…’dislocation’, or…’rupture’…Such concepts provide a powerful way to understand not only the importance of discourse, but also the role of affect in political action. (Shaw)
Many feminist bloggers come to blogging through such affective experiences as those that create ‘dissonance’, ‘dislocation,’ or ‘rupture’ in their daily lives. While these are metaphors that carry negative affective meaning, they also inspire action as a response to mainstream discourses that do not align with feminists’ lived experiences. This means that the affective relations that feminists experience with(in) the virtual are complex, as they continually oscillate between feeling powerful and feeling powerless. If negative affect from mainstream media is one way that a blogger can begin her work, such as with Sayers, then it is clear that the act of feminist blogging is one in which there is joy found in resistance, as well as pain. As blogging most often intersects with other social medias, there are a variety of ‘movements’ online that can positively and negatively affect feminist bloggers: “These circulations and expansions appear to be economically, politically and intellectually beneficial, giving rise to innovation and new kinds of identities and communities. However, the movements can be viewed also as discrete, always uneven and infused with power relations of tremendous complexity” (Kaplan 211). It is not enough to claim the virtual as a space where the relations of ruling are carbon-copied exactly, nor can we claim it as a ‘new’ space free from those power dynamics.
Feminist activists are becoming more familiar with working in these in-between spaces. That is to say, feminists are becoming aware of the complexity in highlighting the potential of the virtual without romanticizing it and participating in the erasure of negative affective experiences. In particular, Indigenous feminists and feminists of colour are at the forefront of this movement, as they are intimately familiar with the histories of feminist movements that exclude Indigenous women and women of colour and of other social justice movements that exclude women. They are the experts on resisting and working from these in-between spaces, and their work continues to inspire me as well as younger generations who are even more immersed in the culture of virtuality. The virtual allows the creation of personalized, politicized texts by feminist activists, in a setting where there are familiar challenges as well as new methods for transformative change. Whether feminist activists’ affective experiences are positive or negative, both kinds of affect can be used as motivations to continue their work and extend it farther out into the world. As well, the community-building that occurs in the feminist blogosphere creates online support systems that they can access to continue resisting the relations of ruling in a virtual context. My final question to Naomi Sayers asked what aspirations she had for the future of her blog: “I try to use the example of my blog for inspiration to other young Indigenous women. I am hoping that my blog will inspire others to create, share, and write their own stories.”
Dowling, Emma. “The Waitress: On Affect, Method and (Re)presentation.” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies. 12.2 (2012): 109-117. Print.
Eudey, Betsy. “Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning: Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses.” Feminist Teacher. 22.3 (2012): 233-250. Print.
Harcourt, Wendy. “Crossborder Feminisms: Wendy Harcourt in Conversation with Srilatha Batliwala, Sunila Abeysekera and Rawwida Baksh.” Society for International Development. 55.2 (2012): 190-197. Print.
Kaplan, Caren. “Transporting the Subject: Technologies of Mobility and Location in an Era of Globalization.” Sara Ahmed, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier, Mimi Sheller. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003. 207-223. Print.
Magnet, Shoshana. “Feminist sexualities, race and the internet: an investigation of suicidegirls.com.” New Media & Society. 9.4 (2007): 577-602. Print.
Newbury, Liz. “Feminism 2.0 Conference Brings Together Grassroots and Online Activists.” National NOW Foundation Times 2009, Spring 10. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
Sa’ar, Amalia. “Postcolonial Feminism, the Politics of Identification, and the Liberal Bargain.” Gender and Society. 19.5 (2005): 680-700. Print.
Shaw, Frances. “(Dis)locating Feminisms: Blog Activism as Crisis Response.” Outskirts: Feminisms Along the Edge. 24. (2011): N/A. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
Smith, Dorothy E. “Feminist Reflections on Political Economy.”Studies in Political Economy. 30. (1989): 37-59. Print.