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Interviews with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross

by Robin Moore

Here are the unedited transcripts of Robin Moore's interviews with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, editors of the excellent essay collection Technoculture. These interviews were intended to run as a sidebar to the Technoculture review that appeared in Mondo 2000 #7. Only a piece of the Penley interview was used.

Robin Moore is the manager of the Washington Project for the Arts bookstore in Washington, DC. She also makes cool, funky, street-techy T-shirts.

- Gareth Branwyn

I talked with both Constance Penley and Andrew Ross in the virtual world of the telephone. Decidedly low-tech, I recorded their voices using a $3 suction-cup microphone from Radio Shack; transcribed longhand; Macintosh input; edited transcontinentally by fax.

Penley was charming, soft-spoken, with a voice that is highlighted by a southern accent. She is widely known for her many books on film and feminism, including Close Encounters: Film, Science Fiction and Feminism. She is the co-editor of Camera Obscura, the nation's coolest film/feminism journal - which has, of late, discussed at length both Pee Wee Herman and thirtysomething, as well as the panoply of discussion on Hitchcock, Lacan and other intimidating constructs. Her favorite TV shows are Roseanne, Northern Exposure, and one she's dreaming of about cultural critics, to be titled Ivory Towers. She teaches at UC Santa Barbara.


Andrew Ross looks totally cute on the jackets of his hip "pomo" books: No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Universal Abandon?: The Politics of Postmodernism, and others. In virtual reality, though disembodied, he was equally attractive. Sick with the flu, his Scottish accent slightly hoarse, he was still willing to give up part of his Saturday night. In thanks I sent each of them one of my signature t-shirts: "Postmodernism? Couldn't Care Less!"

Neither of them was off-putting or academically distant. They both assured me that Technoculture was aimed at a general audience (sub-PhD slobs like me).

- Robin Moore


CP: NASA has modeled itself on Star Trek. All along they've 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 tap into it 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 modeled on a kind of Star Trek crew: a mixed race, mixed sex crew. It all kind of blew up in theirfaces - literally. I use NASA as just one example in the book I'm writing on the way American everyday life, pop culture and institutions either tend to turn into science fiction or use ideas and images from science fiction to gain cultural legitimacy. I'm writing about the Biosphere II project as a science fiction film - because that's the interesting way of looking at it. One chapter is on the slash fans, one on the Challenger explosion... a really weird chapter is on indigenous American religions as science fiction scenarios - The Mormons, Scientology, and New Age.

RM: What do you think of Mondo 2000 and the whole sexification, or popification of technoculture?

CP: I like the project... it's one that I follow, but I'm very weak on music.

RM: That's okay, I think they are too. (both laugh) Do you think they've made high tech ideas more accessible? Is it too glamorous?

CP: Well there's a lot of it I like. Sometimes it seems to me a little too much like a boy thing. There's this cyberpunk swagger.

RM: Do you think it's too gonzo, too "mondo," that it goes too far?

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, it's just taking important American political events and turning them into male myths - but I loved JFK. 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 else making a film and putting movement on conspiracy, cover-up, etc. This time the insanity went the right way. And I kind of confess feeling the same way about Jerry Brown. I hated him when he was my governor up here. But 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 crazy, a little too far.

RM: 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? I mean, if technology is going to break down the man-based aesthetic and hierarchy, women should have an equal/strong role in the new ideas that are put in the place of the old ones. 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, PW, Hackers,... we do it case by case, to try to understand and make arguments for how it might be interesting to make new imaginaries of technology, new imaginaries of body and of social formation .. Because 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.

RM: 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. 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.

RM: 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.

RM: Is that because of traditional cultural positions, or is it a natural opposition because technology is felt to be cold... a sort of fetishism around 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. It just happens over and over again in science fiction film... In the class we go from Melies' Trip to the Moon, Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Godard's Alphaville, and right on through Blade Runner. 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?'"

RM: It's too consistent to just be a pattern of scapegoating women...

CP: I think that right when technology is very much on the rise and when women's political power is increasing, I think a lot of it is fears of technology being out of control and fears of women being out of control - The two get conflated.

RM: It also fits into Christian ideas of sin - the apple is knowledge - when something goes wrong, 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 man'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 is that it's an equalizer, physically. That had been one of the things that had kept women down.

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

RM: 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!

RM: And jobs now too!

CP: And high-tech jobs, too! When women were given a chance to compete in that arena - when women were 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.

RM: Well you know, that's funny because everything I remember hearing about why women weren't astronauts - the only thing I had ever heard in those news magazine articles - about why women weren't on space flights - "although they helped in every other way, on the ground, etc." - was some weird thing about menstruation! They weren't sure that if women had their period in space if it would be healthy. Which is so - 18th century! - and I remember thinking, this is crazy. This doesn't have anything to do with gravity - even I knew that, as a child. And anyway, I was appalled because I remember they said, "they didn't know" how menstrual flow worked! And I thought, we're paving a brand new age... and it's not worth them to find that out ??? Wouldn't equal opportunity to be an astronaut figure into the bold new vision? (There are muscles there, probably like peristalsis, and other things besides gravity facilitate the flow... and anyway, menstrual extraction is quite easy and shouldn't pose much problem in zero G's...)

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

RM: But I probably thought, well it's science, it's probably true. Of course, if the study was suppressed... that's amazing. We haven't come that far after all.


RM: What do you think about Mondo ?

AR: Well I have some comments that are kind of critical in my book Strange Weather. Mostly around the question of humanism. One thing to be grateful to them for is for resurrecting Timothy Leary. I've often thought a biography of Timothy Leary would really be a great record of our time... His project has been to boost humanism in every possible way, to make use of the expanded potential of the mind - not only in terms of brain chemistry but also the understanding of cybernetics and expanded consciousness. But I find it hard to talk about because the tradition of humanism is so corrupted at this point. Mondo is all about the glories of unfettered limitless possibilities of human beings and I don't find it environmentally appropriate, for one thing. But I do "like" (or I especially have problems with?) the "smartness" idea - in terms of the shift of the word in its association with objects - not just smart drugs, but smart buildings, smart yellow pages, and so on. However their project is continuous with the humanist idea of boosting human technologies.

RM: It seemed to me that of the two of you, Constance was pretty enthusiastic about people's responses to and with tech and technoculture. Are you more cynical than she, or am I overreading? Or are you just more focussed on the objects themselves? She and I discussed ways that Mondo and your book seek to show new ways of envisioning the self in a technological society.

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 that's the story of disempowerment, which empowers further those that have. And that story becomes dominant very easily - and this story still leaves the disempowered powerless. But also we 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. That was the basic idea, and to expand the definition of technology itself - into social and cultural practices.

RM: I think it is clear from the book that from the uses of "technology" and "technoculture", which I made a sort of concordance of as I read, you are discussing really the information society, not primarily the machines. Because often you are only talking in direct application about printing technology or xerography.

What kind of questions would you like to see people asking themselves in regard to their place in technoculture? Do you have a standard measure? I know for myself I always compare to human scale: does this technology help me do something I want to do? Mostly, what effect does it have on human relationships? In the service sector where I work, I don't want a system that keeps me away from the public. I want a system that helps me to give people answers to their questions. I find that most people's assumptions are that the machine is dominant: they come in and say, "Does your computer know if you have this book?" and I make a point of saying, well if we have it, we told the computer about it. I want the body to be the primary aim: For example, how would you evaluate VR? Would you use a standard measure?

AR: VR is a good example because at the moment no one knows what it's going to be used for and there's a lot of flak about it. It's like TV - no one knew how it would be used either. There's a lot of ideas about VR but none of them are set in stone. Of course the research and development that's going into it, most of it is being done by or for the military and it already has some uses there.

RM: I've been reading Paul Virilio and it's hard to go back to Mondo after that - thinking about human scale when really the development is so monolithic. The machine is just not listening to my body! The tendencies of that kind of information are just to dominate, and the amount of info from the military is just overpowering. There's no information coming from people into the technology, or from bodies.

AR: Yes, we had no idea under which auspices TV would become a cultural institution and it was the same with radar... the military wanted complete control, then corporations wanted their piece of it. Then, these amateur ham operators got into it and started messing things up - there was a huge brouhaha, they would be sending ships out to sea to pick up imaginary objects (by accident?) and so on.

RM: So they really were just like hackers? They just started building crystal sets in their basements?

AR: Yes, it was that kind of subversion that led to the hearings, when a compromise was reached: to give control of different frequencies to different groups.

With VR, it's already making its way into the entertainment world. I've seen a few, in Europe. But the human scale is just not there. They're these plain black boxes with buttons and switches... The golden age of industrial design is really past! It's a real paradox: they're supposed to be smart machines, but they just look so dumb.

RM: At least older machines, like typewriters or ovens, had "faces" in a human sense. Look at the old radios! There was an attempt to interface, and to base it on visual human analogies.

AR: Yes, this idea is: it doesn't communicate to the user.

RM: It makes sense. After all, with architecture, much of it just seems now 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. The idea is that most people can't access it with its vast computing power. But it's a paradox that's irreconcilable. I suppose Donna Haraway has the most cogent critique of humanism in this respect, in her "Cyborg Manifesto" - that we have to give up the idea that the human body is the measure of all things, because it just isn't anymore. an obsolete idea that hinders our understanding of how the information and technology work. It just isn't listening to us. And the analogy is further false because our intelligence bears not much relation to what artificial intelligence is installed in that machine. I see it is the smart machine has coopted/copied the intellectual but artificial intelligence, it's not like an intellectual - it's task oriented, it's planner responsive, it obeys orders, and doesn't cause problems.

RM: Whereas what's useful about human intelligence is the mistakes we make on the way to finding a "solution," the ability to use illogic or humor or offer other questions... and people try to imitate those machines! We base our ideas of intelligence on their abilities and make those demands on ourselves... when actually there's no real comparison. Look at the increase in average work hours, which everyone's talking about! And, technology was supposed to free us from work and give us lives of leisure...

AR: It's a whole illusion of smart machines. For years there were, and still are, these dumb debates on whether they could play chess! It's not the point at all. The images just overpowers - of speed, efficiency - and that's where the human scale thing doesn't fit at all.

RM: Isn't that a paradox? How will we remind ourselves of what they lack if we lose our scale and abilities?

AR: Of course, you must keep in mind the human scale, because there are environmental problems and that's a good enough reason now. But the measure has to be not just human - for example there's agents other than human. Maybe they can't talk to us, but they are smart. and then this model of the human world can be turned on its head. We need to think of the object world in smart ways - I'm thinking maybe of the GAIA hypothesis, although it's not one I agree with entirely.



graphic: Verbum Magazine

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