Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Group 5 posting addendum: summary of Plant

Plant article: In “Weaving Women and Cybernetics,” Sadie Plant takes us on a journey from the mother of computer programming, Ada Lovelace, through the practice of weaving, then on to feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray and (masculinist?) psychiatrist Freud, and finally spins off into a mid-‘90s fantasia on cybernetics, feminism and strained metaphors regarding women, software and computers. She begins by tracing the lineage of software back to Ada Lovelace, a key figure in early thinking about programming for machines; she continues this trace (skipping over the many men involved in the process) to the one other quasi-famous female programmer, Grace Hopper, and suggests that software and programming is a feminine domain. Charles Babbage, with his inventions of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, was the father of hardware, which frames an easy dichotomy between man/woman and software/hardware. Plant pushes this dichotomy further as the essay progresses, finally splitting man into the seeming master of war machines, who is ultimately defeated by the software/woman/science he can’t control.

But before she reaches that conclusion, Plant uses weaving and the technology of the loom that served as a metaphor for the early computer and its punch cards as a way to connect her metaphors of woman and computers/software. She writes, “It seems that weaving is always already entangled with the question of female identity, and its mechanization an inevitable disruption of the scene in which woman appears as the weaver” (431). Perhaps is it in this mechanization that woman enters Plant’s computer metaphor, as a ghost in the machine?

After discussing some of the history of weaving and its metaphorical connections to women and early software, she notes, “Like woman, software systems are used as man’s tools, his media and his weapons; all are developed in the interests of man, but all are poised to betray him…” (432). How does this betrayal happen? Plant is unspecific about details here, but through a series of more and more abstract metaphors concerning veils, the womb, the matrix and the absence/presence of space behind the computer screen, Plant argues that it ultimately happens through woman’s capacity for mimicry. From Irigaray, Plant uses woman’s innate capacity for simulation (mostly as background, supporter, canvas for man), to liken her to the computer: “she is not [the] only performer: now that the digital comes on stream, the computer is cast in precisely the same light: it, too, is merely the imitation of nature, providing assistance and additional capacity for man…” (433).

Ultimately, woman and the machine “may aspire to be the same as man, but in every effort they become more complex than he has ever been” (436) and enter the matrix. This matrix, or cyberspace, “joins women on and as the interface between man and matter, identity and different, one and zero, the actual and the virtual…the veils are already cybernetic” (437).

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