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

Going, Gone

Atomisation. Anomie. The overnight evaporation of millennia of acquired human wisdom. Our sudden confusion over questions like “What is a woman?” The medicalisation and commodification of the human, and our eager embrace of “technology’s promise to make us all pure, free, unencumbered selves—in particular, through hormonal birth control and digital disembodiment—have fuelled what Mary Harrington diagnoses as a “culture of chronic dissociation.”

She is on the money about many proximate sources of grief in the modern world. It’s true that a culture of cheap sex and disposable relationships has flourished since we liberated women from childbearing as an imperative; that technology (including, but not limited to reliable birth control) has played a major role; that the modern aspiration to transcend biological sex differences has raced ahead of what’s technically possible; and that our freedom to (at least in theory) fuck whoever we want, whenever we want, isn’t making anyone happy.

Harrington is a sharp diagnostician and wields words with the same delightful mixture of drollery, acuity, and fiercely internal logic as Orwell did. Defying all monochromatic visions, she forces us to consider multiple shades of complex issues—not so that we can pick our favourite swatch and paint over the offending others, but so that we may see the colours clashing, co-existing, and changing their hue in different lights.

Though her voice is strong and assured, you can never pin Harrington to a partisan stance that lends itself to sloganeering or caricature. Is feminism good or bad? Is technology? Is modernity? Mary seems to delight in teasing us to the brink of knowing where she stands (neologisms like “Meat Lego Gnosticism” and “cyborg theocracy” seem starkly unambiguous), then denying us the triumph of certainty—not as a perversion, but as a lesson. Underneath all the topical dissections in Feminism Against Progress is a deeper wisdom embedded in the book’s title: beware certainty, embrace nuance.

Yet Mary is less adroit as a guide to the future. Perhaps this is an unreasonable ask, as she isn’t claiming it as her role. It’s one I’ve stepped more overtly into at times, and have found myself clutching at straws trying to say anything that might actually help. Nevertheless, if you are advocating a new way forward under the banner of “reactionary feminism,” it is best to unambiguously unpack what you would have people do, and how those steps might scale. This is where precision is lacking—as is realism when it comes to solutions.

The principal absentee in Feminism Against Progress is a sense of the present moment in its larger context (though this is acknowledged in the afterword). If we could freeze the ebbs and flows of human civilization circa 2023 and were tasked with ironing out the kinks of contemporary lifeways, then I’d be on board with the project of cultivating a more embodied, connected, human existence. We have lost touch with so much innate sensory wisdom and are collectively naive about the rich insights and experiences available to us through deeper embodied awareness.

But life doesn’t come with a pause button, and we do not have the luxury of decades to figure out how to adapt to the technologies of yesterday and today, and stabilise our societies and institutions, before tomorrow’s deluge of change arrives. It will not be debates about hormonal contraception, abortion, or the medical transition of children that shape the next chapter of the human story. These are symptoms, not drivers, of something bigger and more impersonal—a trajectory that Mary implies at times that we chose, but we didn’t, really: the rise of the machines.

It is natural to think of the industrial revolution in terms of its impacts on humanity, which were both radically liberating and dehumanising. But people are containers for something else—minds—which are containers of information. And human brains are the first type of container (unlike atomic structures, DNA, and animal brains) to turn information into a self-aware brand of knowledge and wisdom. I am not positing that the human mind can be separated from its embodied context. But it is undeniable that many such minds are now busily engaged in the task of creating a new form of digital consciousness, where new rules may apply.

Of course, possibilities are not certainties and we ought to hedge. As there is so little we could control in a future in which some form of digital superintelligence emerges, it makes sense to devise better plans for how to flourish as human beings in a world where it doesn’t, or where it might be a long way off. I’m skeptical about the efficacy and side effect profile of several of Mary’s prescriptions, but she has a lot of smart things to say—and I broadly agree that finding ways to help women who wish to be mothers embark on that journey with maximum support, and the ability to raise securely attached children, is a worthy endeavour.

As for “the enticing highway to post-humanism,” my thoughts echo Philip Larkin’s words in “Going Going”:

Most things are never meant.

This won’t be, most likely…

I just think it will happen, soon.