Interview with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, Editors of Technoculture


Constance Penley and Andrew Ross
Editors of Technoculture

I talked with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross separately, in the virtual space of the telephone. It was decidedly low-tech, recorded with a $3 suction-cup microphone from Radio Shack; transcribed longhand; Macintoshed; edited via transcontinental fax.

Penley was charming and soft-spoken. Read her with a southern accent. Widely known for her many books on film and feminism, including Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction, she is an editor of Camera Obscura, the nation’s snappiest film/feminism journal. Her favorite TV shows are Roseanne, and Northern Lights, and she dreams of one day having a show about university cultural critics, to be titled Ivory Towers. She currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara.

Andrew Ross looks totally cute on his hip-pomo book covers (No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Universal Abandon?: The Politics of Postmodernism). In virtue reality, though disembodied, he was equally attractive. Read him with a slightly hoarse, sickly Scottish accent (he had the flu). I had techno-difficulties (gotta move up to the $20 suction mike) with Andrew. “I’m going back to bed now,” he said after our interview. He teaches at Princeton.

Being a bit skiddish about interviewing “cultural critics”,” they both assured me that Technoculture was aimed at a general audience (sub-PhD slobs like me), and that they got interviewed by “all kinds of people” (leaving me to wonder which kind I was.). To thank them for the interviews, I sent them each one of my signature T-shirts: “Postmodernism? Couldn’t Care Less!”

-Robin Moore

SCIENCE IS A PRIZE IN A CEREAL BOX Penley and I started by discussed her visit to the Biosphere II project, the subject of a chapter in her forthcoming book on how American culture and institutions tend to turn into science fiction or use ideas and images from science fiction to gain cultural legitimacy.

CONSTANCE PENLEY: Canned cultures like Biosphere II are interesting because they are just one place where the ideology is more important than actual information. Real science projects have to be project themselves like this to be popular. For example, NASA has modelled itself on Star Trek. All along they’re had a hard time getting people to support the manned space program, because all the scientists know you get so much more information from the unmanned flights. So they’ve tried to change that by tapping into people’s love of Star Trek. They named the first shuttle the Enterprise, by popular acclaim. They hired Nichelle Nichols – Lieutenant Uhuru – to run a recruiting program for women and minorities in the astronaut program. The Challenger crew was modelled on a kind of Star Trek crew: a mixed race, mixed sex crew. It all kind of blew up in their faces – literally. But enough about me. Now, what do you think about me?

M2: What’s your take on Mondo 2000 and the whole sexification, of technological culture? Do you think Mondo’s made high tech ideas more accessible? Or, do you think it goes too far in glamorizing technology?

CP: I like projects that go too far. I think it’s time to froth at the mouth. I find myself liking things these days that I normally hate… like Oliver Stone films – ugh, he just takes important American political events and turns them into male myths. But I loved “JFK”. This time the insanity went the right way. Right when people are feeling Iran-Contra is never going to move and no one’s ever going to take the rap for it, here comes someone making a film and putting movement on conspiracy, coverup, etc. Now that kind of frothing at the mouth and being a little too shrill – I love the way it breaks the smug complacency of what’s supposed to pass for political discourse in this country. So I see some strategic and tactical advantages to going a little too crazy, a little too far.

M2: Do you feel Mondo achieves some of what Donna Haraway wants in terms of visualizing ourselves in a technological future, especially with regard to women? Does Mondo help us to open up to a playful, oblique, more real future?

CP: Yes, although it’s not for nothing that the chapters in Technoculture are very case-study oriented – almost anthropological analysis of each group – ACT UP, the slash fans, hackers,… We do it case by case, to try to understand and make arguments for how we might make new imaginaries of technology, new imaginaries of body and of social formation. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s better. We also tried in these examples to give a sense of agency, not to celebrate the movements in and of themselves.

M2: Yes, I think you achieved that: it’s clear that each group is affecting the technology that they are also reacting to. It’s not a set of passive relationships. It’s about people changing their world of and with technological tools and ideas. Creating rather than just absorbing culture.

“Hey guys, what’s this button?”

M2: I loved it that you included the Processed World people in Technoculture. They really have such a great spirit – the humor and graphics. They’re really underappreciated and under- known.

CP: Oh yes, and the context was perfect.

M2: Did you know that they’re doing a project on Sex and Work? It will be any and all intersections of sex activity, labor issues, the workplace: people who have sex for a living, people who use work time to have sex, etc. It will involve video and other interviews of people all around the country.

CP: We always find issues of sexuality and sexual difference around technology.

M2: Is that because of traditional cultural positions, or is it a natural opposition because technology is felt to be cold… a sort of fetishism about machines?

CP: No, it’s not at all a natural opposition. I teach a science fiction film course where right from the beginning, all kinds of anxiety about technology gets projected onto women’s bodies. In the class we go from Melies’ Trip to the Moon, Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Godard’s Alphaville, and through Bladerunner. Just take Metropolis: all these fears about emerging technology get projected onto the body of the woman becoming a robot. And the number of exploding or radioactive women in science fiction film is phenomenal! When I was doing all this Challenger explosion and Christa MacAuliffe research, one of the things I was doing was collecting all the kids’ sick jokes about it. What was the very first one I heard? “What were Christa MacAuliffe’s last words?….’Hey guys, what’s this button?'”

M2: It’s too consistent to just be a pattern of scapegoating women…

CP: Right when technology was very much on the rise, and when women’s political power was increasing, I think was fear of technology being out of control and fear of women being out of control – the two get conflated.

M2: It clearly fits into Christian ideas of sin – the apple as techno-knowledge. There’s this difficult body and it’s the woman’s body: it’s weird, it bleeds, it does all these illogical things. And then you can blame anything about a machine that turns out to be illogical – or even unpredictable by someone’s faulty calculations – on the woman’s intervention. I’m interested in what you say about women’s power increasing simultaneously, because a lot of the way technology seems to have been conceived of is as an equalizer, physically. That strength had been one of the things that had kept women down.

CP: Well, of course, that has been shown to be absolute nonsense.

M2: Yes, but it was what people’s idea was – that people with weak muscles would have the same abilities in society, and be able to do work which was formerly back breaking. Therefore there was this idea that industrialized labor offered humans more opportunity, and was somehow morally better.

CP: Household technology was certainly developed for that reason. But now all these studies have shown that it just makes it possible for women to do more housework!

M2: And jobs now too!

CP: And high-tech jobs, too! When women were given a chance to compete in that arena – when women were tested in the early phases of the astronaut program in the 60’s, they were better in every single skill! There was a famous article in MS. magazine in 1973 about this study which was just suppressed for years. Women had more stamina, more dexterity, more psychological stability… every single criterion for being an astronaut, women did better.

M2: Well you know, that’s funny because everything I remember hearing about why women weren’t astronauts – “although they helped in every other way, on the ground, etc.” – was some weird thing about menstruation! They weren’t sure what impelled the flow – if gravity was necessary. And I thought – I was 12 years old – they can send a man to the moon, but they don’t understand tampons? Wouldn’t it be worth it, on the verge of a new age, to find OUT??

(Footnote: (Jude – I was unable to check up on the Ms. article. But…) Aroused by this, I called OB/GYN at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Dr. Richard Jennings was kind enough, and frank enough, to answer my questions. (1) He said the reason women were excluded from the early space program was that after the basic search and tests had been conducted, President Eisenhower decided that 1500 hours of training at the Test Pilot school would also be required – and the academy at that time excluded women. Of course, no one forced the academy to start accepting women in the name of science and opportunity – although there were Congressional hearings in the early 60s on the subject. (2) About menstruation in space, he said “Even if there were a problem – and there isn’t – there still wouldn’t be a problem.” Not only can flow be arrested with pills or endometrial fibulation (extraction), but the imagined problems of retrograde (backflowing) menstruation has never been found to have any consequences. “So do they just bring tampons along on the space flights?” I asked. “Basically, yes,” he said. (He referred me to an article he wrote on the reproductive functions of men and women in the space environment in Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey, vol 45, #1, p. 7. (1989) Also, for info about the hearings, Jeri Cobb’s autobiography – Women into Space, Prentice Hall , 1963) (3) He also gave me a very interesting history of the prejudices in aviation against women – which doubtless were inherited by NASA. There was a series of accidents in the 1920’s involving menstruating women pilots – things like the wings of the plane coming off. Which obviously could not have been the pilot’s fault – nevertheless these events were exploited by journalists and led to widespread negative feelings about women in flying machines – an irrational fear of the hex. (references: Journal of Aviation Medicine, vol 5, June 1934; Also same journal, December 1941, vol 12, p. 300)

(Jude – I would be happy to check up on all these references but was unable to for various stupid reasons yet – like that the Reader’s guide to periodical lit starts with Ms only after 1974! just say the word, I can do it all Monday – after the women’s march. Or would this subject be a good sidebar for something in a later issue?)

CP: Men should think that they might have had to pee some time – there are fluids in their bodies, too.

M2: But I remember thinking, well it’s science, it must be true. Of course, if the study was suppressed… that’s amazing. We haven’t come that far after all.

Andrew Ross

Applicator Free – Environmentally Smart

M2: What do you think about Mondo?

AR: Well I have some comments that are more or less critical in Strange Weather, and they’re mostly around the question of humanism – a tradition that is pretty corrupted at this point. What Mondo preaches about are unfettered limitless possibilites of the species, and to me that’s not what I call a very socialized idea. That kind of radical humanism is more likely to benefit a small minority rather than the majority of the species. But I am interested especially in Mondo’s contribution to the New Age of smartness – a New Age which is signified by the displacement of smartness onto objects – not just smart drugs, but smart buildings, smart bombs, smart bars, smart yellow pages, smart highways, and so on.

M2: What were your political goals in writing Technoculture?

AR: Well we were tired of hearing, especially from the left, that technology is hard domination. It’s important that we’re not under the illusion that that’s the whole story. There’s a need to tell other stories, too. There’s this one story about disempowerment, which tends to perpetuate existing power relations. It gives the powerful more power, because it leaves the powerless feeling helpless. And that story becomes dominant very easily. But we also felt the need to avoid the open celebratory tone that Mondo has. We imagined most peoples’ stories were somewhat in between, and would give it a balance. Certainly another goal was breaking open access to technologies. That was the basic idea, and to expand the definition of technology itself – into social and cultural practices.

Is woman the measure of all things?

M2: What kind of questions would you like to see people asking themselves in regard to their place in technoculture? I know for myself I always compare to human scale: does this technology help me do something I want to do? What effect does it have on human relationships? For example, how would you evaluate VR? Would you use a standard measure or testing stone?

AR: Virtual Reality is a good example because at the moment it has not been decided what it’s going to be used for and so there’s a lot of flak and buzz around about it. The situation is not unlike the early development of TV technology. No one knew exactly what TV was going to be used for either. VR has already had something of a half life in the world of research and military development and it’s currently feeding into the special effects boom in Hollywood entertainment. The Lawnmover Man is a good example of how humans who don’t have access to smart technology are seen as morons who can then be transformed into omnipotent deities by having their intelligence boosted (special warning for Mondo 2000 readers!).

AR: One other thing that seems interesting is that if machines are getting smarter then it’s also true that they look a lot dumber. All smart machines these days come in dumb boxes- uncommunicative containers that say nothing about their content or their function. The golden age of industrial design, at least from a fine art perspective, is long gone!

M2: At least older machines, like typewriters or ovens, had “faces” in a human sense. Look at the old radios! There was an attempt to base the interface on visual human analogies. In architecture, much of it now seems to be designed in flagrant disregard of human scale – either for expedience or for the intimidation factor.

AR: Well I think both of those are very much at work. [a short series of beeps] Oh, my phone’s running out of energy. Could you call me back in, say, 2 minutes? [I do] Military- industrial design has long outstripped human scale – since most information technology now is produced for the purpose of surveillance which takes place at the same time that it’s being used. So humanism or human scale is not always the best response to that situation. So we have to give up the idea that the human body is the measure of all things. In addition the scale factor is further false because our intelligence bears little relation to that artificial intelligence installed in that smart machine. What has happened is that the smart machinery has coopted the function of the intellegentsia or the knowledge class in the same way that industrial technology once coopted the know-how of artisans and laborers. Smart, after all, is not the same as intellectual. Smartness is cost-effective intelligence. It is planner-responsive, user- friendly, and unerringly obedient to its programmers’ design.

M2: Whereas I think what’s useful about human intelligence is the mistakes we make on the way to finding a “solution,” and the ability to use illogic or humor or offer other questions. How will we remind ourselves of what technology lacks if we abandon the criteria of humanism?

AR: Let’s put it this way -I’m not suggesting abandoning the human scale entirely, because that way lies eco-fascism and the GAIA hypothesis – a hypothesis under which humans are no more important as a species, and a lot more worthy as objects of genocide, than fruit flies. On the other hand, the new measure of appropriate technology has to involve agents other than humans. If we’re going to think about a smart world, in ways other than the definitions offered by the designers of smart technology, then it has to be along the lines of a model of environmental coexistence. And politically speaking that is what the earth summit in Rio this summer is all about.