‘Mother and Child’, by August Macke. Public Domain. Resized.

Mary Harrington Takes on the Machine

Each year, in the capstone humanities course I teach, I show the students the remarkable passage from Shulamith Firestone’s book, The Dialectic of Sex, in which she calls for the abolition of sexual asymmetry. She was not the first to do this, of course, but she does bring together in a single paragraph the connection between the division of labor, technology, the promotion of polymorphous perversity, artificial reproduction, the demolition of parenthood and the dramatic truncation, of childhood. That she did this in 1970 is impressive. This was long before the trans movement emerged as a political powerhouse, queerness became mainstream, IVF and surrogacy were routine, jokes about factories producing babies seemed plausible, men could be mothers, and children’s gender confusion was essentialized.

The point I make to the students is this: it is external authority, particularly the external authority of the sexed body, that Firestone is rejecting. Everything else follows from this exaltation of the disembodied, individual will, even though she expresses this rather Nietzschean concept in the language of Marxism.

Firestone and the increasingly influential strand of feminism she represents provide much of the backdrop for Mary Harrington’s impressive new book, Feminism Against Progress. Indeed, Harrington might be said to have arrived at her current thinking about feminism after a previous life spent living the Firestone dream: a kind of queered life marked those “pure relationships” described by sociologist Anthony Gidden, as hallmarks of our age of free-floating self-creation in a liquefied culture. Only when she married, settled down and—most importantly—had a daughter did she realize that the postmodern dream she had been living offered a rather impoverished understanding of what it truly means to be human.

Indeed, in one of the many striking turns of phrase that mark Harrington’s book, she comments early on that, when her daughter was born, she felt “like I wasn’t a separate person from my baby.” This is an interesting inversion of the more traditional feminist claim (and cliché), that the unborn child is no more than a part of the woman’s body. Harrington extends the idea beyond birth but within the context of a new anthropology, one that she instinctively felt: this relationship of dependency underscored that she, the mother, had natural obligations to her baby.

Such an anthropology of natural dependency and obligation is one from which technology now enables us to liberate ourselves, or at least to imagine that we might be liberated. The notion that human beings are to realize themselves not by accepting natural limitations and relationships but through an increasing mastery over nature has emerged from a world where the individualism of western liberalism and the power of technological innovation feed off each other. Endless progress delivered by increasingly powerful technology is one of the great guiding myths of our era.

At the core of Harrington’s book is her rejection of this view of the world, what she calls “progress theology”: the belief that things will continue to improve and that history has a “right side,” which will win in the end. In disputing this, she is now scarcely alone: 9/11, the impact of advanced technology on the environment, the increasingly fractious nature of liberal democratic politics, and the rise of a new and unpredictable global order all press against the optimism that once saw progress as inevitable. Yet, as Harrington points out again and again, belief in the liberating power of technology remains strong, especially among libertarians and progressives. It is against these, specifically in their feminist manifestations, that she pits herself.

At the heart of her argument lie two competing views of what it means to be human: women and men as independent liberal agents of self-realization defined by their wills, and women and men as beings with obligations and dependencies mediated, in part, by their bodies. As others—Carter Snead, for example—have argued, this anthropological divide is critical to contemporary debates in bioethics. Deny the significance of the body, and those things that cannot be detached from the body (e.g., pregnancy) will come to be regarded not so as means of realizing individual human nature but obstructions to such. Indeed, citing the work of contemporary cyborg feminist Sophie Lewis, Harrington offers examples of the ways in which such ordinary bodily functions as gestation are described in terms of horror and disgust. Biology becomes a nightmare from which we have a right to be delivered.

Technology plays a critical role here. As Harrington points out, contraception and easy access to abortion not only allow for the easy separation of sex and procreation but also shift the ways in which society comes to imagine the function of sex. Reduced to trivial recreation, sex’s primary purpose is now understood as mere genital pleasure. It is no longer an act that marks out a unique relationship, nor is it one with significant consequences for the community, such as the creation of children and families.

Sex as pleasurable recreation also serves to mitigate the difference between men and women. Marx and Engels were correct in the Communist Manifesto to note that increasing mechanization in the industrial workplace would lead to the labor of women superseding that of men. Harrington points out that the normative technological sterilization of the sexual act leads to the elimination of the sex difference between men and women at the one place where it is most important. A world where sex is sterile by default is a world where it becomes easier to imagine that the differences between male and female are entirely negotiable.

This is why technology plays such a large role in Harrington’s narrative. Again, others such as Michael Hanby have made the point before, arguing that the sexual revolution and technological revolution are inextricably connected. But Harrington makes the case with painful and harrowing detail, looking both at the impact of pornography on society’s notions of sex and the physical trauma that a pornified norm for sexual behavior can inflict upon vulnerable female bodies. She also examines the trans movement. Coining a phrase that deserves to become part of the standard vocabulary for addressing transgenderism, she writes of “Meat Lego Gnosticism”: that modern cultural intuition that thinks of the body simply as raw material which must be chopped up and rebuilt to allow the intangible, immaterial self that lies trapped within confines to realize itself.

Her discussion here fulfills a threefold service. First, she locates transgenderism within the context of transhumanism. Second, she underscores the fundamental misogyny of a movement that wants to make the non-gestational nature of the male body normative. And third, she brings to the fore numerous tragic stories of the horrific damage done to individuals in this latest and most physically traumatic war against women.

Yet Harrington’s book is not simply one of negative critique. She closes with suggestions as to how feminism—and society in general, given that she is really offering a vision of what it means to be human as female and male—might move forward.

First, Big Romance must be abolished. Put simply, Big Romance reduces the male-female sexual relation to that of the emotionally intense bond, justified by the sentimental satisfaction it brings to each party. Instead, she wants a reconceptualization of marriage as a relationship of mutual commitment to a larger goal, typically that of raising children (if possible), being a mutual support for one’s partner, a companion, and a co-worker in the task of life. This is not a call to return to some arbitrary standard drawn from the past and made normative (the way that 1950s suburbia functions in some American conservative circles) but a call to reflect upon what an anthropology that takes bodies seriously—with their sexual differences, their obligations, and their dependencies—should look like in a post-industrial Western society.

In this context, Harrington also calls for a “rewilding of sex.” We should seek, Harrington argues, sex that refuses domestication via the Pill and thus always brings with it respect for the body and the possibility of obligations towards potential offspring. This is sex that is not cheap, to use Mark Regnerus’s phrase, but always potentially costly, therefore valuable, and worth pursuing with true effort and self-sacrifice.

The book is powerful and deeply moving, but it left me with one question. Harrington is careful not to make religious arguments in the book. Instead, she keeps very closely to careful analysis of immanent economic, technological, and cultural forces. But can her vision really be realized within what Charles Taylor calls an immanent frame—a view of the world as all that there is, to be ordered without reference to any transcendent reality? Christians would ground the moral authority of nature in the doctrines of God and creation and see this as precluding any view the human body that might tend towards Meat Lego Gnosticism. Absent such theological commitments, it is unclear what normative framework can withstand the eroding forces of the cyborg era. 

Of course, no writer can cover everything, especially on such a complicated issue as this. Indeed, in the final postscript to her argument, Harrington refers to “ghost books”—alternate versions of her book dealing with themes she left out that are nonetheless relevant: the conflict between a belief in advanced technology and care for the environment; the significance of the shift from print media to the digital age; and the question of political engagement. I would love to see her add a fourth to the list and then to write it first: the question of the relationship between the death of God in modern culture and the rise of such things as cyborg feminism and Meat Lego Gnosticism.

The questions upon which Harrington is reflecting are ultimately religious, not merely anthropological, and I suspect she must address that further than she has done thus far at some point soon. When she does, the product will no doubt be as learned, thought-provoking, and beautifully written as this volume, for which we are all in her debt.