By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gender, Politics and the Internet: Gender in the new discursive space of Blogging

An Examination of the Medium: Gender in a Body-less Space

When the Internet was new (and hardly affordable as it is now, although still by no means, a small expense), like everybody else, feminists focused on the basic politics of access and participation. Who has more access to the internet? Women or men? What is the most predominant use for the Internet? (Everyone of course knows the answers to the questions. 1) Men; 2) Pornography. These questions remain relevant today but such a discussion tends to be premised on a number of notions which urgently need “unpacking,” among them sex (who are women, who are men? More aptly, what is gender/sex in the internet?) and how is “power” exercised in the new discursive spaces of the internet.

Just when feminists and queer theorists were busy taking apart the notions we have of gender by pointing out that it is hardly a FIXED category and that it lies not just in the body or bodily, but is also performed; it is experienced as a relationship and that relationship usually involves a hierarchy, the Internet emerged as a new discursive space in which “gender” is performed and viewed.

Make no mistake, while it is undeniable that dominant ways of viewing and representing the “feminine” and the “masculine,” or for that matter, beauty and the display of bodies representing such ideals, persist on the internet, just as such notions endure over the other (older) medium, Television, a closer look though, will reveal that unlike TV, the internet (however offensively or distastefully done, depending on your own biases), offers a wider variety than TV ever has. Again it is worth noting that dominant stereotypes endure and proliferate, but by the sheer “multi-centeredness” of this medium, there is always another or other views. In so saying, gender, and sex need not (and are often enough, not) fixed in the internet per se. Gender/Sex on the internet, can be ambiguous.

In fact, many feminists, who first wrote about the Internet celebrated this “body less” space as offering fabulous feminist futures (Squires: 1996). In her popular essay entitled: “A Cyborg manifesto: Science, technology and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century,” Donna Harraway (1991) already reflected on the possibilities of the new media on notions of self/identity, particularly in abandoning dualisms, among them, materialism and idealism; nature/culture.

Blogging: Identity, Interactivity and Community

As familiar as we think we are about BLOGS and BLOGGING, it would be foolhardy to think that a “blog” is just an electronic version of a diary. On one level, blogging can be private (since you can control who is able to view your blog) and it is in a sense just like publication (because posting and making it accessible to others, does make it public) but unlike the print on paper form, the technology in which blogging takes place affords us real-time interactivity (connectivity) and over time (given an adequate amount of hits and regularity), makes possible a form of community, and all this with the option of withholding or limiting access to “identity” (both on the part of the blogger and the posters of comments, but more often the posters of nasty comments, we call flamers)

Why people blog and how people blog is as diverse as any topic can get. (Diary-type? Bridgette Jones? (More recently, Petit Anglais) Politics, Religion, Academic, Commercial or otherwise, it is the blogger’s choice even when it is not notably always a conscious one)

The more relevant issues I would like to raise about BLOGGING are the questions around the users’ relationship with the new medium.

“The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Guttenberg technology…. Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the dumb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of a movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech.” (Mac Luhan: 1969)

Marshall MacLuhan said this in 1969 and while the “internet” did not yet exist when he said this warning, the acclaimed “spokesman” of the electronic age may well have been describing computers and his observations, as easily relevant to our discussion on “blogs.”

Self-awareness is often lost on the users (now aptly called consumers) of media, which proliferates. Not only do we take for granted that newspapers, radio and TV as a sources of information, but we privilege these “sources” as reliable above all others. Take any piece of unverified information, package it (ala news or news feature) and publish or air it. What do you get? (Do I hear anybody saying the Philippine Daily Inquirer? That is, among others). Mac Luhan even then constantly warned (and it is in many ways a warning we must still heed: “The medium is the message.”) He pointed out: “Any media has the power of imposing its own assumptions on the unwary.”

A parallel phenomenon in “blogging” can in fact reveal a similar and unfortunate level of unawareness on the part of its users.


In blogspeak, interactivity can refer both to the means (technology) and the exchange (posts and comments). Here we actually see how early on the concept of “feedback” was the first thing offered by site hosts, in a sense, a “space” accorded to the “general public.” Despite the “two-way” exchange denoted by “feedback” however, it wasn’t until blogging (as we know it) when both access and immediacy were made possible to the one giving feedback and in effect seemingly making possible actual and potentially meaningful “exchanges.” On the other hand, while “blogging and the internet” are “new media,” it is very much founded on a VERY old medium: the written word and/or speech.

Mind you, while on one level, “some” blogging can very well lead to a revival or a return to the written word (literacy as we have defined and delimited it), it is unlikely that it would approximate the advent of Guttenberg print in days of old. For one, print (paper) is still relatively inaccessible compared with blogging. Both the Publisher and the Editor are eliminated in most blogs (save for the corporate sponsored ones) and the consumers or the public in blogging is one of a generation saturated and steeped in video, TV and MTV. Hence, not everyone who will read blogs and seek them out (or blog themselves) will be people who like reading books or even “excel” in writing. Ironically, even as most cultures and societies continue to privilege “literacy” (textual), we have a whole new generation of (depending on how you want to view it), differently literates or illiterates in the guttenberg (print) sense.

This to me explains a lot of the stuff that goes on in the blogging world, specifically, “flaming.” Often portrayed as ideological clashes or brushed off as bad manners, one aspect of flaming,certainly seems in every sense, "worlds colliding." In my own observation, people who tend to use the medium as an extension of speech (translating the manners and affect of speech onto the medium) tend to shake up or ruffle the feathers of others who use the medium as an extension of written text, not necesarrily, speech, despite the immediacy. On the other hand, the syntax of Internet users differ across generations of users. In one chat conference I moderated, a particularly emphatic, elder professor, sought to drive home her point and chose [CAPS] to do it. [Note that in the SYNTAX of printed newspapers, CAPS means simply shouting out to denote importance and emphasis, not shouting at] The rest of the participants (of a younger set, and also more used to the syntax of the internet) ended up whispering to me and asking why the Professor was ANGRY at them and shouting. (In the Alternative Class where I shared this piece, the youngsters found it amusing when I told them I draft and pre-edit some of my longer blog entries on word. The fact that they laughed as I expected they would, I think, proves my point: WE USE the new media differently and often these differences go unoticed.)

In blogspeak or net-speak (because it also happens via email), a “flame” is an inflammatory remark or message. [An example on Computing basics-1995 goes as follows: say person 1 posts a comment or blogpost which says, “welfare should be abolished.” Someone who disagrees in turn says, “You have got to be the stupidest person I have come across and I hope you end up on the streets needing weldare to stay alive.”] This is, as is commonly agreed in blogging, a “flame.”

In the same article, they further add: “Flames are often fanned by discussion of politics, feminism, religion, or any other controversial subject.” (All of which I should point out are topics I blog about all the time)

There have been a lot of interesting takes on the “heated exchanges” that can take place within blogs and blogging sites/communities. You may very well guess that a lot of them come up in defense of the abstract ideals we are so familiar with, that is, “free speech,” with all the hortatory claims around unbridled exchanges and the value of debate. How about the oft heard ”democracy is best served with airing more view points and perspectives?”

In the case of yesterday’s televised voting on the impeachment complaint, I am sure you will agree that “more views” by all those disagreeing, debating, combative congressmen (the lot of them lawyers), didn’t exactly necessarily translate to “better.” Let us get this straight: “Debates and exchanges” presuppose thought, not just speech. (Airtime does not translate automatically to quality exchanges)

On the other hand, when you take a look at the average “flame,” or if you have ever been caught in a hailstorm of flaming, (a lot of it hate mail and hate speech) it never feels anything like any recognizable idealized notion of freedom or democracy. More likely, it feels every bit as a personal and hurtful attack, very often by people who as free as they feel in hurling hurtful words and accusations, are unwilling to stand by them (some bloggers have called them ACs or anonymous cowards).

If you think about it, the abstract notions we have of “freedom” and “democracy,” were carved out of human and societal experiences, so far removed from what spaces we have now, specifically the blog.

Remember that in Rights 101 class, classical individual rights are those we claim against the sovereign state. Romantic as our notions are about democracy and “healthy debates,” we raised up these ideals in the context of state censorship. (Which I have to point out, are still important to address and oppose) But in blogging, posts and comments may be controlled or moderated by every able-blogger. While such control is power, it is, nonetheless, diffused, its exercise, no longer always, by a central and all powerful person or institution.

Again, institutional censorship (state and corporate censorship) are still raging and relevant issues. Over all, it is the more insidious types of control (not always blatant censorship) which can have far-reaching consequences.

This brings me to my earlier point. Flaming in the blogging world is characteristic of the “numbness” Mac Luhan describes in people’s relationship with media. Flamers no doubt, take for granted that the one at the other end of the post (the receiving end of the flame) is a human being. Those who “flame” in response to “flames,” do the same. As ideal as the “unbridled” nature and essence of democracy (and the free market) we continue to harp on sound, the technology which makes blogging (on one level, free expression) possible, also allows us the “freedom” to withdraw (identity, access) even as we partake and participate, or delimit /moderate posts, ban flamers and other undesirables. Which is which? Whose freedom prevails? For that matter, why is it framed as a contest? Where does power reside?

This irony is in fact very prevalent than we probably care to notice. “Free speech,” has been the battle cry of those engaging in “hate speech” since the early nineties. It is no surprise that along with politics, feminism and religion, race issues are also considered most likely, “flamebait” as defined by Jon Katz on, “flamebait are writers or sites most likely to draw the small but angry hordes.”

In discussing the discursive culture of cyberhate, Susan Zickmund (1997) cited how the Internet has transformed the nature of community and identity within the US, and in particular affecting the cohesiveness of erstwhile subversives (i.e. Neo-Nazis, Skinheads) who prior to the Internet operated in isolation.

Blogging with an Edge and beyond: From Consumer to Producer

“The hybrid or meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses. ” (Marshall Mac Luhan: 1969)

Among the many paradoxes that new media has helped surface, or perhaps, merely, highlight, is how increasingly inconsistent our dominant ways of knowing and thinking are becoming with our own evolving sense of self and communities. Let me elaborate from my own “neck of the woods,” that is the community of feminist activists (local and world wide).

Feminists (and feminist blogs) are often singled out as previously mentioned, and considered, garden variety, “falmebait.” Without going into speculation about the myriad of motives behind flamers of feminist sites, it is worthy to mention that engaging new media has facilitated a lot of transformations within feminist cultures and even feminist icons. While your average teenager or even college student will probably not be too enamored with the label feminist, “GIRL POWER” is something she likely supports and believes in.

In the feminist “bloggosphere,” there is hardly one way feminists are now represented. (The ambiguity can be viewed in another way, how can we be ever sure it is feminist in the first place?)

If you remember in recent past, the War in Afghanistan brought to the world’s attention, the web-posting, web site-reporting women of RAWA (The Revolutionary Alliance of Women in Afghanistan), who, clad in their traditional burka because they were consigned to do so and at the same time because they eagerly sought its protection and familiarity in conducting a myriad of covert activity- (i.e. video recording atrocities) RAWA’s sites were at one time flooded by visitors, it crashed several times. Nonetheless, the site offered new ways of looking, new ways of showing us experiences and messages, which would otherwise be filtered through dominant institutional media. Allison Jagger (1998) wrote: “women are frequently taken as emblems of cultural integrity, so that defending beleaguered cultures becomes equated with preserving traditional forms of femininity, especially as these are manifest in traditional female dress and practices of marriage and sexuality.”

This phenomenon for me best illustrates the otherwise untapped potential new media offers, that is in effectively becoming extensions of ourselves (and our senses), we also gain back and experience an altogether new level of “social consciousness,” “In the electric age, we all wear (human)kind as our skin," Mac Luhan observed quite accurately. Likewise, with more recent developments in using the available technologies, (i.e. You Tube, pod-casting etc.) bloggers may not opt to always remain faceless, body-less in due time even if flaming ACs persist.

No doubt, it is in the context of confronting diversity at each turn, instead of an otherwise ordered dual and predictable, universe, in which we blog and in which old notions of self, identity and community are being reworked.

Some Recommended Sites:

Flame Wars and other on-line arguments by Timothy Campbell

One-line Connections: Internet Interpersonal Relationships by Susan B. barnes, Reviewed by Andrew Dalton (2004)

Create an e-annoyance, go to jail at Cnet by Delan McCullagh, January 11, 2006


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