“The Thundershower,” H. Lyman Sayen. Public Domain.

Feminism in the Ruins: Resisting the Culture of Chronic Disassociation

We accepted technology’s promise to make us all pure, free, unencumbered selves. We’ve pursued that promise, and allowed the wider political, economic, and cultural order to name the pursuit “feminism.” We’re now well beyond the point where this is delivering more freedom, or even more happiness. The further we’ve slid, collectively, into the pursuit of absolute freedom underwritten by tech, the less we’ve come to need one another, and the more transactional, hostile, and nihilistic our relationships have become: with each other, with our kids, and with our own bodies.

It should be clear by now that trying to squeeze a few more drops of freedom from the rotting carcass of the industrial era is not going to help us abolish human nature. Nor will it do anything about “patriarchy.” It’s some time now in the West since we abandoned actual “patriarchy,” in the sense of abolishing social and legal forms such as primogeniture, coverture, or even the family wage or differential treatment for women in social interactions. Despite this, efforts to “smash” this nebulous thing appear only to have moved the goalposts in terms of where and how it manifests. This is because most of what flies under the “patriarchy” banner in the twenty-first century is simply those ineradicable sex differences that return, like zombie caricatures of themselves, in a hyper-liquid market society.

More efforts to smash our nature will not make this kind of ‘patriarchy’ go away. The feminist movement, in all its fractious multiplicity, is an umbrella term for women’s specific responses to the technologies and ideologies of the industrial era—responses that were often justified. But the industrial era’s core understanding of personhood is accordingly baked into those responses: the autonomous self. The notion of women’s rights implies this atomistic understanding of personhood, but most of the developed world no longer lives in the industrial era. If we go on clinging to that era’s memes of freedom and progress, we’ll get more atomization.

Wherever cyborg culture is ascendant, the universalizing, atomizing, abstract “rights” model that underwrites “freedom” and “progress” no longer benefits women, or any of us. Instead, it drives an ever more frenzied push to liquefy human nature that, in the end, serves only the hydra of freedom and trade.

But if we accept where we are, and pursue instead a story of interdependence and reconciliation, perhaps we might find another way. That means learning to live with ourselves, including those ways in which our sex shapes who we are, how we live, and what we desire. It also means balancing the atomistic framework of “women’s rights” against the more contextual, relational, and grounded one of “women’s interests.” This is, by definition, not a universalist project. To be clear, I see this as a “yes, and” rather than a “no, but”: I am emphatically not advocating abandoning “rights,” where these are still an appropriate frame, but rather staying aware that they’re a tool that works in some contexts, not a universal, metaphysical reality that can be realized everywhere. Though human nature is not infinitely malleable, human culture varies immensely, and the same policy can serve women’s interests in one material context and undermine them elsewhere. We need to consider, for example, the ways in which “women’s rights” have been used as a vector for neoliberal US foreign policy goals to see that a more grounded and culturally sensitive assessment of women’s interests may sometimes deliver more genuine benefits to women than a blind and absolutist fixation on “rights.”

Feminism against progress, then, is anti-universalist, contextual, and relational. This recovery of context and relationships begins with restoring our relationship with ourselves: that is, resisting the culture of chronic dissociation. In this light, we have much to learn from those men and women who found themselves elevated to sainthood by the cyborg cult, only to turn back again.

The Detransitioners

No one embodies more completely than these “detransitioners” the difficult experience of taking at face value the great lie of Meat Lego Gnosticism: that we could be freed from dependence on our bodies (and, implicitly, one another). Many detransitioners now live with irreversible medical decisions made on that journey. I don’t want to add insult to injury by objectifying them again, in service of a different political argument. But in describing their descent, all the way into Meat Lego body dissociation and back again, those courageous individuals willing to tell their story concretize a relationship to technology that in truth implicates all of us.

In less material ways, many of us have done something analogous, as we invited “progress” into the deepest parts of our relational lives. Many mourn traumatic experiences or irreversible decisions we made along the way, too, based on promises of mastery that turned out to be insubstantial. My own “liberated” youth left me with a wagonload of sexual trauma, for example, and I know I’m far from alone in this. I believed the stories about extended fertility, empowerment, and freedom, too. Except, as it turned out, I didn’t in fact have all the time in the world. I think often about my decision to defer having children as long as I did, and wonder whether I’d be a mother to more than one if I hadn’t. I’m grateful for my one child, but others aren’t as lucky. Some in my position may never have even one child, and mourn that absence every bit as keenly as the nameless young detransitioner quoted in the last chapter mourns her amputated breasts.

In the bitterly adversarial battlefield of online sex wars, there’s no shortage of men keen to laugh at those of us who took at face value the claim that we could liberate ourselves from our sexed reality, only to regret what we lost in the attempt. It’s not enough, though, just to laugh and point and say it serves women right for believing we could be free. That promise, and those technologies, profoundly structure all our understandings of what’s possible.

Detransitioners often face social ostracism at the hands of their formerly supportive trans “community.” Studies suggest detransitioners also often struggle to access medical support for detransition. Small wonder: they serve as living reproof to the claim that abstract, disembodied “selfhood” is an infallible judge of its own identity. Under Meat Lego Gnosticism, this is outright blasphemy.

So, too, is another common feature of detransitioners’ stories: the reconciliation with embodiment. Ash, one young male detransitioner, describes how what helped him let go of cross-sex identity was reconciliation with the pleasure a body can bring, including sexual pleasure. “Then I realized, why would I want to get rid of this?” he says. “This [body] is so cool and does interesting things.” Similarly, Abigail Shrier recounts the story of Chiara, a young woman who desisted after her family sent her to live on a horse farm for a year, where “the physical labor helped her reconnect to her body.”

I never went as far as these young men and women into body dissociation, but their stories echo my own slow, ambivalent recovery of a sense that selfhood and physicality can’t be separated. I’ve recounted how becoming a mother played a part in that journey. There was much more besides, and motherhood is by no means the only way back into a relationship with ourselves. This makes arguing for such a journey difficult to do in the abstract. But realizing my body isn’t something I’m in but something I am is near the heart of the case for reactionary feminism. It’s also the core of any meaningful resistance to Meat Lego Gnosticism. We’re less likely to submit to a regime that treats men and women as defective “humans” in need of tech fixes, if we know “bodies” can’t be treated as separate from “selves” without doing deep violence to both. And if I was just lucky enough to reach escape velocity before it was too late, it’s my hope that some of those who read this will be young enough to step back from the dissociative self and its commodification of body parts, before sustaining as many scars as I did.

Abortion and Reactionary Feminism

I may disappoint more conservative readers, though, in my suggested approach. For while abortion serves as a metaphysical keystone for cyborg theocracy, I don’t wish to make the argument that the only proper starting point for a fightback against this theocracy would be seeking abrupt and radical abortion restrictions.

Here, first of all, it’s important to disaggregate US and European abortion politics. The issue plays out very differently across different cultures: the United States is both more polarized and also (in places) considerably more liberal than much of Europe, with abortion permitted all the way to term in some states. By contrast, in European Union countries, the median gestational limit is 12 weeks. In the UK, it’s a relatively settled issue, with broad consensus supporting some abortion access but consistently more women than men supporting a reduction in the current 24-week gestational limit. Maximalist support for abortion to term is supported only by a minority, especially among women.

Even so, legislation itself is never fixed. In the United States, activists continue to push for an end to all restrictions on abortion. And American culture wars, complete with American-style polarization, have a habit of spreading beyond the United States. In this context, it’s probably too optimistic to hope that if we just sit quietly the issue will go away. But while we should anticipate and resist any political activism in favor of further liberalization on abortion, resisting calls for legislative liberalization in Britain is quite a different matter from pushing for total de-liberalization. The downstream effect of making birth control widely available has been destigmatizing extramarital sex; abortion serves as the material backstop for that change in social norms. Banning the backstop would not put the broader changes back in the box. As things stand, so much of the world is ordered along the sexually libertine and implicitly anti-natalist lines enabled by these technologies that abrupt prohibition of that backstop would be most likely to immiserate women still further.

But while I don’t advocate beginning with the law, nor do I think we can rely on it. We must do what we can to swim against the wider atomizing tide. This technology was sold as freedom for women, and on that basis the activist wing of cyborg theocracy continues to push for maximalist reproductive control, even at the expense of unborn lives. We must hold onto the recognition that the “freedom” it enables has become the keystone of a new kind of prison: a Meat Lego order that downplays the political, social, or cultural importance of sex dimorphism, even as it sets about shattering the reproductive functions at the core of those differences into component pieces and reordering them to the market.

On its own, banning abortion wouldn’t heal the dissociative relation we have to ourselves, a split now well established downstream of this legal and cultural reality. But at its most utopian, reactionary feminism dreams of a world where every baby is welcome, and this welcome is not in zero-sum competition with an understanding of personhood so atomized that mothers are by definition un-personed in the course of embodying that welcome. Even those who aren’t in favor of banning abortion can surely support the dream of transforming how we live together, so abortion may come to feel ever less indispensable as an emergency backstop. More and less ambivalently pro-life feminists against progress can, perhaps, converge on a vision of the future where the proper support and regard is there to enable all mothers to flourish as mothers, without being diminished as adult human women. So a good acid test for a prudential, embodied, relational feminism against progress is as follows: does a given action or policy bring us closer to this world? If the answer is no, it isn’t reactionary feminism.

Being Human in the Cyborg Era

I’m not arguing that we should excise modern science and technology from our lives. The cyborg era affords new possibilities, even as it brings new dangers. What we need is a more critical relation to the technologies we use, lest we find instead that they’re using us.

Tech determinism is itself a moral choice, that—once taken—frames every other moral choice we make. If we assume that we have no agency in the face of “progress,” we’ve already handed ourselves to cyborg theocracy. I think, though, that we can shift our focus from a controlling approach by tech, in the name of freedom, to a practice-based approach underwritten by a willingness to accept that we can’t, in fact, abolish human nature. Instead, if we want to retain any ability to live together, we need to be proactive about embracing—even exaggerating—that nature, an inescapably dimorphic whole. This is a fundamental act of resistance to the cyborg theocracy that would reduce us all to polymorphously gendered, interchangeable assemblages of fungible body parts.

The evangelists of progress enjoin us relentlessly to “liberate” ourselves ever further through the market. But if you’re reading this with a formless sense that there’s something off about that path, and a despairing hope that another life ought to be possible, take it from someone who has liberalled about as hard as it’s possible to liberal: you’ve been lied to. Another life is possible.

To live it, you’ll need to be the change you want to see in the world. You’ll be swimming against the tide. But there’s still time for men and women to step aside from the enticing highway to post-humanism, and look anew at how we might live together in the ruins of progress.

This essay is excerpted from Feminism Against Progress, by Mary Harrington, with permission from Regnery Publishing.