BINARY SEXES, BINARY CODES
by Sadie Plant
A and B have always been those with something to say or write. In the modern world, this has tended to be men. Women have functioned as the messengers, and even as the messages themselves.
"The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women", writes Irigaray. "The exchanges upon which patriarchal societies are based take place exclusively among men. Women, signs, commodities, and currency always pass from one man to another; if it were otherwise, we are told, the social order would fall back upon incestuous and exclusively endogamous ties that would paralyze all commerce."
Patriarchy is not a construction, an order, or a structure. These are all representations of an economy, a system in which woman functions as currency, and commodity; medium, means, and material base. She exists "only as the possibility of mediation, transaction, transition, transference - between man and his fellow-creatures, indeed between man and himself." Woman is the go-between, the in-between man, the one who takes his messages, decrypts his codes, counts his numbers, bears his children and passes on his genetic code. She is the medium, the tool, the first commodity of a specular economy whose circuits are the definition of patriarchy.
The telecoms revolution does not leave this situation unchanged. "Two terminals do not two interlocuters make. In 'tele' space [...] there are no longer any determinate terms or positions. Only terminals in a position of ex-termination." This is the also death of the subject, who loses his qualitative difference from the objects he could once manipulate as means, or media, to his ends. The automation of communication fuses media and messages, means and ends. Lines become more important than points, which themselves collapse into rhizomatic networks which no longer function as controlling nodes. Messengers, messages, and the points between which they circulate are coded in the 0 and 1 of binary maths, an off/on switch which is, as Baudrillard writes, "no longer a distinctive opposition or established difference. It is a 'bit', the smallest unit of electronic impulse - no longer a unit of meaning [...] This is what the matrix of information and communication is like, and how the networks function."
Although there is a sense in which the stark reductionism of binary code reinforces the binaries of the modern sexual economy, it also has quite contrary effects. The introduction of binary code introduces a plane of equivalence which undermines the very foundations of a world in which male and female have played the roles of superstructure and material base. Go-betweens become more important than that which they go between; communications systems gain a life of their own; networks and machines learn to turn themselves on.
This paper explores some past, present, and future connections between women, computing, media and communications in order to give a positive response to a question posed by Irigaray: "If machines... can be aroused all by themselves, may not woman do likewise?"