Koerber: toward a feminist rhetoric of technology

Koerber, Amy. (2000). Toward a feminist rhetoric of technology. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 14, 1, 58-73.

 

Believing

This article was informative, clear, and enjoyable to read, and I found it to be instructional in a number of ways. After Keorber set the context for nonfeminist rhetoric of technology, I was most happy to see the three useful ways feminist scholars can build on this. I think one of the most important pieces here is her identifying that rhetoric of technology has emphasized production over use, and the narrative that technologies can be “liberating” needs to be problematized. As Kierber notes, new technologies become incorporated into the existing institutions, practices, and discourse communities, in turn becoming subject to the same systematic ways that women are oppressed (68).

It’s important that Koerber notes at the end how nonfeminist and feminist rhetorics of technology ought to complement each other (71). This is wise because I think there’s a grey area that exists between the two, both seem complex and represent a set of shared ideologies–and they have to in order to be accepted within the discipline.

Citing Treichler at the end, I’m curious about her use of the idea of creating a “counter-discourse”:  “Such a discourse, according to Treichler, “does not arise as a pure autonomous radical language embodying the purity of a new politics. Rather it arises from within the dominant discourse and learns to inhabit it from the inside out” (132).” To me, this seems similar to what de Certeau argues in the Practice of Everyday Life about becoming an active member of a dominant discourse community so that tactics can be employed within. The idea of dismantling the master’s house using the master’s tools, and wether or not that is possible, seems pretty relevant here, too.

My curiosity about this, which to be honest I’m not exactly sure how to explain thoughtfully, is related to her positioning of feminist scholars instead of nonfeminist scholars to create her argument. I think that is a wise move and a convincing one if she’s going to set the groundwork for a feminist rhetoric of technology. Regardless of whether or not this is important or worth mentioning here, I think we should always be attentive to which scholars a writer chooses to affiliate themself with for disciplinary and ideological traction.

 

Doubting

This is a clearly written article and, I feel, an important one that laid some major groundwork. I do have a couple of pet peeves about the argument, however. I find it a little disappointing that Koerber launches into her argument by leaning on Plato and Aristotle for a definition of rhetoric–this seems unusual because she’s attempting to help build a feminist rhetoric of technology, one I expect to look very different from the patriarchal, monocultural worldview of the western canons. I also disagree with Koerber in that I believe rhetoric is more than a tool–and is more about making (practices) than an instrument. Apart from examples of reproductive technologies and communication technologies, I feel that her statements about technology are a bit vague, and I was left wanting more specific examples.

While she stated she envisions nonfeminist and feminist rhetorics as complementing each other, the argument she sustains throughout the article suggests that these rhetorics are in fact polarized, and even though she suggests a relationship between them at the end, as a reader I’m left with the sense that these rhetorics are “us v. them” or binary.

 

Relevance

I think it was wise for Koerber to expand from design to use, but 15 years after this publication, I feel like I’m seeing an even stronger call for design again–user experience, experience architecture, and creating culturally-sensitive technologies for global users of all abilities. I’m curious to see how feminist scholars have discussed rhetoric of technology and if this rhetoric of technology has been sustained in conversations about communication design.

Koerber notes that use needs to be studied, and I believe that area has absolutely been thoughtfully explored over the years since this article. One example I can think of is how women in DIY craft communities have used blogs to create community and challenge the status quo of corporate capitalism. This is an example of using a masculine technology (the blog and its entire information infrastructure) to employ tactics that challenge hegemony through making. This isn’t to say that the technology is “liberating” or “empowering” anyone; instead, it’s being used to challenge dominant systems.

There are certainly countless examples of similar tactics–and I think that if I read more about this topic, I’d find that there are rich and thorough conversations about how feminist rhetorics of technology have informed both design and the phenomena of use. I’m also interested in learning more about what a feminist approach to studying workplace discourses of engineers or technologists; I believe these studies would ask very different and important questions than a nonfeminist methodology could offer.