New Criticals

The Public Is Political


In 1970, Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt edited Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, which contained a letter written by Carol Hanisch entitled “The Personal Is Political.” The title of the letter went on to become a catalyst for feminist consciousness raising and activist organizing, intending to force conceptual connections between personal, individual experience and the systematic and systemic production of women’s oppression. In 2006, Hanisch wrote that Firestone and Koedt titled the letter as such after Katie Sarachild brought the letter to their attention. Hanisch also writes that while Notes was widely reprinted, it was only in 2006 when she did a Google search that she discovered “just how much it had gotten around.” Today, such a foundational letter would have almost certainly “gotten around” in the form of a blog post, then being reposted to other blogs, commented on by people around the world, shared on social media, or linked to by a journalist in the mainstream press. Indeed, in 2007, Tracy Kennedy would suggest that “The ubiquity of the Internet has located feminist advocacy and consciousness-raising within the virtual world” and that blogs, in particular, play a crucial role in the facilitation of an emerging network of feminist writers. In the last ten years, numerous studies have sought to explore the political implications of such “cyberfeminism” as well as the lived realities and social nuances of feminism online (see also on this topic: Van Cleaf, K. Blogging Like a Mother, Dissertation, CUNY Graduate School, 2014.)

Feminist blogs evolved not only from early Web technologies but from a long tradition of women’s media practices, which often blurred easy distinctions between personal and social life. These practices include autobiographical writing, journal- and diary-keeping practices, experimental documentary work, film, video, and photography. Such media practices emphasize the value and necessity of self-expression and social commentary as well as give voice and vision to untold, unseen, or forsaken experiences. Looking, for example, to the history of women’s experimental video practices we see a number of female artists, such as Vanalyne Green, Mindy Faber, Lynn Hershman, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler, and Shigeko Kubota, turning the camera toward the self, the body, the home, family relations, and the domestic sphere in general in order to break the silence of trauma and to shatter myths of gender and sexuality, motherhood, and the private family. In this way, such autobiographic video has been described as a form of empowerment both for the videomaker and the audience of presumed female viewers. Such self-examination is also what Rosalind Krauss famously deemed “narcissistic,” linking experimental video production with the very nature of video and the evolving apparatus of video itself. Krauss’ argument not only resurrected the very critique that Hanisch meant to dismantle—that focusing on personal subjects is a misguided move and such topics must be dismissed as being less-than serious— it continues to surface today in discussions of “selfies” and women’s online media practices.  Nonetheless, Deirdre Boyle would label the eclectic mix of experimental video a “radical pluralism,” which grew like a network via other forms of media including alternative television programs, guerilla-style activist work, and community video.  The social and political goals of such a feminist “pluralism” in many ways mirrors the very “ethos” that is said to accompany the development of cyberfeminism and Web 2.0 technologies, namely a strong emphasis on sharing personal experience, connecting and building communities through such shared experiences, and encouraging access and participation in media, particularly and specifically as a way to express one’s “self.”

Given that the blogosphere and its circulating content, which now includes an ecology of media forms and innovations (video, images, pod casts, Tweets, Vines, etc.), has claimed to reignite feminism or, as Nina Power recently suggested, produce “feminism at the speed of light,” we might flip the question and ask: what role did the ethos of feminist media production play in the development and embrace of Web 2.0 platforms? Rather than seeing these platforms “give” new space to feminist work, we might ask: how did the DIY feminist ethos of increasing access to media and “participation” fuel both the vibrant potential of the early Web 2.0 promises of a “democratized” web and its economic value? What historical and material understandings of feminism must we adopt in order to take account of the ways in which it became critically entangled in platforms that are evolving into a deeply obscured and alienating data economy and shadow surveillance state?

We can most certainly argue that the personal remains deeply political, offering proof of the continued interconnections between lived reality and structural violence, race, and gender, inequality, and subjectification (If you have any doubt, please immediately visit Tressie McMillan Cottom’s online writings). While the feminist blogosphere/social mediasphere continues to take up vital questions of racism, labor, access to technology, health care, mental health, and structural inequalities in the nature of the web and its use, as well as the endemic misogyny of Silicon Valley, I would argue the same “sphere” is only just beginning to come to terms with data, the digital itself, and its political economy. 

“The Personal Is Public Is Political” might be a new motto from which to begin reconceptualizing the linkages between everyday life and structural oppression. These linkages point us toward the need for deep attunement to emergent forms of data-based governance and toward the role the digital plays in the production of social, economic, and political power, structural inequality, and systematic dispossession. Furthermore, these linkages ask us to move discussions of hashtags and clicks towards an awareness of the fundamentally violent formations of “population” and “population management” that the very medium of the Internet fosters. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges currently facing any “sphere” that aims to raise consciousness or transform the nature of social relations is to begin to articulate who “we” are and to take account of the ways in which data itself is playing across long-standing social and racialized inequalities, while simultaneously working as obscured statistically probability and algorithmic logic to produce profiles of emergent populations—populations tied together in different, speculative temporalities, yet nonetheless governed.

While this does not foreclose the essential work of writing one’s life, it does mean we must do the work of tracing the emerging social ontology of the digital and the ways in which it simultaneously stratifies and produces new populations. On the surface, Web 2.0 looks overly individualist, often desiring to link an individual face to an individual name to individual content (the three often married as “the brand”), but it is fundamentally a terrain of aggregation, parsing, and categorization.  Data and digitally are now fundamental social actors in the equation of “the personal is political.” How we understand their (often uneven) relations to our lives is the feminist work of our time.

Works Cited

Boyle, D. “A Brief History of American Documentary Video”, in ed. Hall and Fifer, Illuminating Video,  Apeture, 1990.

Krauss, R. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”, October, Vol. 1, 1976