Penn State Mark

Feminism, posthumanism, new media art

An interview with María Fernández

On April 9, 2015, María Fernández delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled "Reading Posthumanism in Feminist New Media Arts." This follow-up interview was conducted by Brian Lennon, DCMI Director, by email during May–August 2015. The interview covers topics including the intersection of media theory with postcolonial studies and with feminism and gender and sexuality studies; feminist, posthumanist, and new materialist approaches to cultural analysis; and feminism and the linguistic turn.

Globalization and cosmopolitics concern many areas of media arts yet few new media theorists engage with postcolonial theory directly.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: In your 1999 article “Postcolonial Media Theory,” you remark of postcolonial studies that “for the past two decades [it] has been notoriously absent from electronic media practice, theory, and criticism.” What is your assessment of this situation in 2015? Has media theory and practice absorbed the insights of postcolonial studies yet?

María Fernández: The field has grown significantly since 1999 and it is now quite specialized. It has expanded to include cultural production in various parts of the world, most notably in regions outside the traditional European and American centers. Also new areas of practice such as bio art, mobile and social media as well as theoretical currents, especially those based in neuroscience, have developed. The extent to which postcolonial theory has been assimilated into media studies varies with the specific area. For instance, film and video engaged with postcolonial theory very early but were only later integrated into digital media studies. Globalization and cosmopolitics concern many areas of media arts yet few new media theorists engage with postcolonial theory directly. Postcolonial theory has become central to social science fields including some streams of sociology and environmental studies and it also has infiltrated science studies. As new media theorists progressively engage with the social sciences to address pressing global political and environmental issues postcolonial studies might ultimately be absorbed into new media theories.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: I also want to ask how you see the intersection of both of these areas (media studies and postcolonial studies) with feminism and gender and sexuality studies today. Would you say that media studies, postcolonial studies, feminism, gender and sexuality studies are more integrated with each other today than they were in 1999, or less so? Or has nothing changed?

María Fernández: Postcolonial studies is fundamental to intersectional analysis, which is now canonical not only in gender, feminist and sexuality studies programs but in most of the humanities and social sciences. In feminist media theory the insights of postcolonial theory are more prevalent in studies on photography and screen media than in other areas, perhaps because photography, film and video were incorporated earlier into academic gender studies programs than say, bio-media, software studies and robotics.

Some contemporary theorists understand feminism to be in tension and even in contradiction with postfeminism and new materialisms because of the association of feminism with social constructivism and with the linguistic and not with the materialist theoretical turn.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: In your recent lecture here at Penn State, you argued that “in new media art from the early 1990s to the present, it is often difficult to make a sharp distinction between feminist, posthumanist and new materialist orientations.” What accounts for this difficulty? Is it that these three particular formations share enough of a certain common intellectual and/or political disposition so that it’s difficult to distinguish them? Are you suggesting that new media themselves serve as the main context or occasion for that difficulty, or are there other important factors to consider?

María Fernández: The commonalities among these formations are precisely what interest me in the field of feminist art practice. Some contemporary theorists understand feminism to be in tension and even in contradiction with postfeminism and new materialisms because of the association of feminism with social constructivism and with the linguistic and not with the materialist theoretical turn. This conception implies that that feminists favored discursive explanations of the subject, distanced themselves from the natural world and from biology and viewed matter as inert rather than active. Also it associates feminism with unitary notions of subjectivity and identity in contrast to the distributive subjectivities that theorists such as Katherine Hayles identify with posthumanism.

While social constructivism was profoundly influential for feminism, not all feminists equally partook of the linguistic turn. In fact, post-structural theory defined academic feminisms that often became detached from activist and environmentalist positions with which some feminist artists identified. In order to evaluate the similarities and differences among feminism, posthumanism and new materialism it will be necessary to acknowledge the diversity within each current of thought. While most feminist artists did not use the language or the tools of new materialism and posthumanism this does not mean that they were indifferent to all the concerns associated with these orientations. Instead of finding a sharp division between feminists, posthumanists and new materialists I argued that some of the early feminist work in new media gestured towards even when it not directly engage with posthumanisms and new materialisms. I would not propose that digital media determined the artist’s positions, but sometimes, for example in early virtual reality works, it assisted both the artist and the participant viewer performatively to enact them. Some of these works required embodied interventions by the participants in order to operate, which complicated the relationship between the art, the machines and the subjects involved.

Instead of finding a sharp division between feminists, posthumanists and new materialists I argued that some of the early feminist work in new media gestured towards even when it not directly engage with posthumanisms and new materialisms. I would not propose that digital media determined the artist’s positions, but sometimes, for example in early virtual reality works, it assisted both the artist and the participant viewer performatively to enact them.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: Your work has a very wide disciplinary range, including several research domains that some scholars choose to focus on separately, but also a wide historical range as well. In your recent book Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture, you begin with materials from the seventeenth century and work your way up to the contemporary moment, along the way examining two key concepts in recent comparative cultural studies, cosmopolitanism and visual culture. What are some of the challenges of producing a wide-ranging historical study while simultaneously remaining an active critic and scholar of contemporary art and other cultural forms?

María Fernández: It is very difficult to work in distinct areas without a firm background in each field. My book on cosmopolitanism is a collection of writings that originated at various times and draws on expertise acquired over a quarter of a century. It would not have been possible, for me at least, simply to decide one day to write on the seventeenth century and another one on the 21st. That said, those kinds of restrictions can be contextual. If you look at the profiles of French intellectuals, for example, you might find even wider ranges of writings from sociology to aesthetics, philosophy, media and political theory in various historical periods.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: Without giving away more than you’re comfortable with, I wonder if you might share a little bit about your approach to the history of cybernetics and perhaps also about your interest in Gordon Pask, on whom you’ve focused your research most recently.

María Fernández: My approach to this body of work so far is historical. Now more than ever I am committed to history because as the study of digital media finally becomes established in the academy, especially in the humanities often there is an unacknowledged supposition that it must all be contemporary. Focusing only on the present we fail to learn from the past and frequently the documentation is lost. I began my research on Pask in the early 2000s when he was largely unknown in either media studies or art history. My first move was to visit all the archives of his work to engage directly with his writings. I have collected hundreds of documents that I am still in the process of reviewing. I believe that it is important to become familiar with one’s material and initially to take it at face value. The work of interpretation must be based on experience with the subject matter and not the other way around.