Mary Harrington on cyborg feminism
My grandfather was born missing part of his left ear--he had most of the internal workings, but no outer ear at all. When he was born this could not be surgically corrected, but later on in life new techniques made it possible for his ear to be reconstructed and for him to regain some hearing in this ear. He chose not to receive the surgery because he was too used to living with one ear and didn't want to have to adapt again. This has had really, really direct consequences for our ability to communicate with him as he gets older. Maybe 5-7 years ago he reached the point where it is impossible to have a long or detailed conversation with him. I think it's quite likely that this could have been significantly delayed or avoided had he chosen treatment. Other choices around body modification or refusing treatment are much more upsetting and politically charged, but here I find it relatively simple to say that I think his decision not to receive treatment was unambiguously the wrong one. I wish I could talk to him more and I resent that he chose to say no to treatment that would have enabled it.
I think it's an interesting example that plays with the definition of "natural"--to him, having only one ear was his natural state and he didn't want to change it. Of course, the bioplan of the human body includes having two ears, so there is a convincing argument that reconstructing his ear is using medicine to restore the body rather than to enhance it. I'm not sure whether he was saying no to healing or to transhumanism.
> When have you reconsidered a natural process outside its natural context?
I was thinking recently about the domestication of various food sources. The eggs of a chicken kept in confinement are different from those of a chicken that scratches for most of its food, and those in turn are different (I imagine) from those of a wild jungle fowl. Greens grown in vast monoculture fields are different from wild foraged greens. You can feed bees sugar water, and the result is honey, but is it “really” honey if it isn’t made from nectar? I guess the main insight I’ve come to so far is that virtually everything is touched by technology, broadly defined, in some way, and maybe this too is part of being human. (At least I think this is true in a fallen world where there’s scarcity. Was it supposed to be this way? What will it be like in the renewed creation?)
I was in middle school when the 3 month contraception pill came out and women could choose to only have a period ~4x/year. I don’t think it’s completely taken off, I assume in part because it still requires taking a pill everyday so LARCs remain a popular recommendation, but I do think it has shaped medical advice and even common sympathy towards dysmenorrhea to taking this pill and skipping periods. Which as someone who used to have very painful endometriosis, I’m sympathetic too and think can be a very helpful option, but also as someone where only surgical removal fixed that pain I look out at the dearth of medical research for women in general and in dysmenorrhea in particular and am frustrated with a system that hasn’t sought out knowing more about dysmenorrhea (or women and cardiovascular disease, women and adverse drug reactions, etc, etc).
"She cites Zinnia Jones arguing that puberty blockers should be the default treatment for all children, 'An inability to offer informed consent or understand the long-term consequences is actually an argument for putting every single cis and trans person on puberty blockers until they acquire that ability.'"
Taking puberty blockers is also a choice. Not all our choices can be fully informed, and even the null choice is no escape from choosing, since not-choosing ends up being just another choice. We recognize adolescence as a time when people are still developing the capacity to make informed choices, when the burden of proof is still on them to demonstrate that they can, while in full adulthood, the burden is on others to prove that you can't. Once teens are old enough, they can demonstrate they're ready to make adult driving choices by passing driving tests. There's no licit test to prove readiness to take responsibility for sexual activity, alas. The really "traditional" (and I was one of them, at least in some respects) might count marriage as that test, but a wedding isn't a test, just a promise to keep being tested :-)
Still, I'm sympathetic to questions like, "If you could start from a position of ignorance, these arguments ask, where you didn’t know what would happen to the body as it grew and changed, where you didn’t know what its natural capacities were, how would you react to the body as it is?"
And I'm sympathetic to horror at one's given body being an understandable, even rational, reaction. Some things really are horrible. Puberty can be one of those things for a variety of reasons (not all of which fit under "the trans agenda", whatever that's supposed to be). "Normal" bodily experiences aren't something we earn by being morally "normal", but something "abnormalities" we didn't choose can cut us off from pretty thoroughly, and I wish more traditionalists flaunted less obliviousness on this point.
I'm not quite sure where I want to go with this, but it can be argued, I think, that contraception takes the normal course and makes it a choice, right? Whether or not it is a good can be argued, just like goodness of hormone blockers can be argued, but contraception certainly separates the natural/default cause-and-effect course of events.
The unfortunate consequences of widespread contraception are seen today in the view that children are chosen - that to have too many is selfish, that to "risk" a child (via "geriatric" pregnancy) with Down Syndrome is irresponsible, and even that to have children out in public with you during they day is inconsiderate. While I do not have a child with Down Syndrome, I have personally experienced my other two examples many times over 21 years of parenting (and I only have four children).
I don't have an example, but it seems like a few of these comments are working to make sure we're not conflating various distinct concepts: the natural and the normal, the natural and the typical, the natural and the untouched-by-technology. (The natural and the given, or unchosen?) Part of why these conversations are hard may be that for Christians, human beings are part of the natural world but in some way also distinct from it. We're animals but alienated from the animals. We have moral responsibilities we wouldn't impose on, like, a cat.
The Maker intended the people to fly. Therefore we have hands, heads, and hearts.
-Wilanne Schneider Belden, The Rescue of Ranor
Once we loved all the animals and gave them their names
But you'd never even know it, to hear them complain!
-Harrison Lemke, "Animals"
With no complications, fifteen generations of mine
All honoring nature--until I arrived
(With incredible style)
-Morrissey, "The End of the Family Line"
I had this in my tabs to respond to, and recently listened to this new interview with Mary Harrington which I think you and your readers might be interested in:
I was very moved, thought it was a fabulous interview. Life + Faith are doing great work.
On refusing the natural and reconsidering natural processes: I was on puberty blockers, 8-12, for precocious puberty, and if I'd known that the instant I came off them and into a high school uniform (high school starts at 12 in Australia) I would be catcalled and harassed by men in cars (in my very nice area of Sydney) until I got out of the uniform at 18, I would have taken the blockers for longer. Likewise for the contraceptive pill I was prescribed to help with periods that kept me out of school for 3 days every month, not realising I could take it the whole month through and not be obliged to those 3 days of suffering. I struggle to describe these experiences as natural- as far as my personal research has taken me, endometriosis and precocious puberty and dysmenorrhea are not natural conclusions of a body like mine; more likely to do with a combination of industrialization and complex trauma due to domestic violence, which we can probably put again onto colonization. I think you have to go very far back now to find processes that are "natural". Some days I think I wouldn't mind trading penicillin if it meant escaping domestic violence and 9:00AM starts. Maybe that's too utopian thinking!
An aside on natural bodies, and something that does feel utopian to me:
Now I'm older and identifying as transmasculine and thinking about the children I have a few years I have a couple of years to decide I want to try for as a solo parent, before IVF becomes a necessity I do not want. Experiencing all these necessary medical interventions has made me quite conservative in terms of biological interventions for myself. I'm content with a low dose of testosterone, especially as it doubles as one of the endometriosis treatments with the least side effects available to me, and experiencing surgery for endometriosis and hormone shots for precocious puberty was plenty of medicalisation for this body.
Somehow I've come around to agreeing with my old school radical feminist mother (who I think would quite like this newsletter). She would phrase it far more stridently, but it's a position I can respect since she applies it so consistently- leave the body exactly as it was made, barring major and necessary medical interventions. For me, I realised I can do my gender in my own time and way, which is increasingly common among a certain set of transgender people- you might be interested to know that transmedicalism, especially in the very binary way it can be interpreted, is considered anathema by many trans people. To me this position is not incompatible with Mary Harrington's position on the contraceptive pill and making cyborgs out of people by default and not as a choice- how can we shape our body in society outside of biology, or rather, how can we ask society to accommodate our bodies, as they are, better?
My sister has the same illness I do, except it's adenomyosis too, not just endometriosis, which means the best treatment that we know of seems to be a hysterectomy. She is quite determined on this point, and long ago decided to be childfree, and is suffering quite badly. My mum would be prefer for neither of us to have children, and have the career she couldn't, but would like her to avoid the hysterectomy if possible, as would some of her doctors. I don't know who will "win" on this point, between her and her doctors and our mother- this is very outside of my desires and experience. I fear that there is no "winning" decision. Once again the lens of natural breaks down for me here- I would like her not to be sick in the first place.
P.S. I always appreciate the way you touch on trans issues when they do come up on your blog- I think there are very many ways to discuss these things thoughtfully, and so many other issues in feminism and women's rights that need addressing. I'm grateful that this is a space where most people don't agree on every point, and because of that, not in spite, such fruitful discussion does happen. I don't have to steel myself to read the comments- I'm grateful to have access to this kind of rhetoric and discussion, let alone feeling like I could comment. Thank you.
"What, in your own lifetime, has shifted from being an unchosen part of ordinary human life to an expressive choice?"
It's not a particularly subtle example-- and as a not-quite-40-something it really belongs to my mother's and grandmothers' generation more than mine-- but I'd name the choice, particular but not exclusive to women, to color one's hair to conceal the silver and gray that come with age. (And actually, to name an aspect that *does* seem more specific to my own lifetime, I'd venture that current trends are rapidly mainstreaming a range of bright, "unnatural" Crayola hues that previously would have signaled a particular edginess of rebellious self-expression. For decades it's been common and normalized to use "natural" dyes of brown, black, blonde, auburn, etc. to mimic youthfulness or just to change one's look; but more and more I'm noticing blues, pinks, and purples among "real adults" who are professionals and managers, elementary kids who are otherwise running around in sneakers and ponytails, retirees who are as likely to be at a symphony hall as a jam band concert, and so on.)
Using hair dye is several degrees less invasive than permanently altering one's growth and development, of course, and there's a case to be made for benign, legitimate, creative delight in self-adornment and fashion as realized through one's hair style. Still, it's a short leap to the pervasive societal conditioning that prompts many women to feel they *must* pursue youthfulness or beauty according to predominant norms, and that they must alter the DNA-determined, biological-clock-selected color of the very hairs that grow from their heads.
To parallel your skincare example, it's often remarkable for a younger woman to let her hair grow gray in her 30s or 40s... for when so many women adjust their natural (as in, determined-by-nature) color in a salon, then the absence-of-adjustment itself becomes a statement, whether or not she ever intended it as such. "Wow, you're really brave to be rocking all that silver! Haven't you ever thought about covering it? How long has it been that way? I could never stop coloring mine. I can't believe you're only [age]. What a unique style you've got!" There's an implied expression (transgression?) simply in walking around with the unchosen default.
One of the most annoying things about motherhood in our culture is that it's seen as an opt-in choice instead of a default thing that basically everyone does.
I told my toddler, "there was a baby in my belly, and he got bigger, and then he came out! And he's your brother." That's pretty much *why* we have kids. It wasn't because we like cartoons (we do not), or because I thrived as a kindergarten teacher (I would absolutely fail). But in certain circles there is an assumption that because I have kids, because I chose to have kids, and it must be because I like kids and kid things. Well, the elephant-and-balloon asthetic is not my fave, and it is really hard to find the things my kids need as kids (sippy cups, safe bedding, kid-sized clothes) that aren't gaudy and tacky.
I see childhood as a time to grow and learn how to be human while the consequences for your actions are still pretty minimal, and I feel like I'm up against a society that sees children as a different species. (If you pay attention, you'll see that family things and church things are pretty much the only places that welcome adults and kids. Most "family-friendly" stuff is kid stuff that adults tolerate, imo.)
But I think the biggest problem is that motherhood-as-opt-in means everyone else is relieved of the burden of supporting mothers. I see a lot of "sure, go ahead and have a lot of kids if you can take care of them, I'm not judging." Well, you're not judging, but you're not helping, either. And I think we as a society owe mothers more help than we give them.
I think of the women at church whose grandkids are far away; a couple in particular have taken my baby/toddler for a few minutes after Mass so I could pray, and I think, yes. Society should be like that.
Rather than a shift, I'll mention a superposition that's been with us since, oh, at least The Book of Job. People with contested illness are suspected of manifesting illness as their expressive choice rather than as their unchosen burden. The social notion of illness doesn't "shift" so much as simply exist in superposition. It's ludicrous to suppose all illness is expressive choice, but we're never free of the suspicion that particular people's particular illness (perhaps even our own) isn't so much unchosen contingency as an expression of who they've decided to become. Job's friends had the grace to silently mourn with him awhile before opening their pie-holes, but once they did, they couldn't contain their speculation that Job had somehow done it to himself, either through secret sin or by being so goshdarn saintly as to earn special trials. Job, to his credit, would have none of it. Whatever Job might have repented of, God credited Job with speaking more rightly than his friends.
Sickness as a metaphor for (and sometimes literal consequence of) sin doesn't deserve abolition, but it's not a complete truth, and discomfort with incompleteness often leads to cruel denial of the incompleteness. I think the time has come for me to link to an unpublished essay of mine I had hoped to share with Leah or someone like her for a while now, but haven't, since its thematic unity still touches on more disparate topics than good style permits. I think, though, given Leah's questions, it's particularly relevant:
"Though I blame the Prosperity Gospel more than the tech bros for what [Tara Isabella] Burton calls America’s libertarian streak, the problem with vilifying techies’ belief that everything is hackable, including ourselves, is that they’re right: we *are* a bit hackable. The pharma ad I opened with advertised one such hack – even, arguably, a transhuman hack, creating humans with engineered hamster antibodies coursing through their veins. Plain old salutary habits are also hacks, gimmicky as it is to call them that.
"If technology doesn’t hack away our limits, it nibbles. And, even as economics presupposes limits, it, too, nibbles away at the margins: constrained optimization is, well, *constrained*, but aims to marginally increase our control in the face of constraints. Meanwhile, withering skepticism also nibbles away at our perception of human facticity, our belief that real people suffer from it rather than from malingering.
"Complete disbelief in human limits seems too freakish to take seriously. Much more commonplace are nibbling doubts that any *particular* limit need be as limiting as someone supposes. Even applying these doubts to *every* particular limit doesn’t entail complete disbelief in human limits. It can, however, reduce social trust, trust that people are navigating their limits as best they can, and can’t be reasonably expected to do better.
"Well, maybe people *should* be expected to do better. Sometimes. Often! It’s good for them! Unrelenting suspicion that you’re malingering, though, sucks you down the maw of the famished god."
"When Burton asks, 'What parts of us are us, and what parts of us are changeable, even will-able? Over what elements of our human condition do we retain power, either at the level of the individual—qualities we can choose or change on our own—or at the level of society—those that our hearths and homes and polises instill in us? What are we responsible for, as selves, as societies, as progenitors of a species, and what can we only ever adapt ourselves to?' I’m struck by her contrasting adaptability to responsibility, since much of what we’re responsible for *is* our adaptation. I’m not responsible for *having* asthma, in that I didn’t choose it, but of course I’m responsible *for* it: adapting well to it is my responsibility. Asthma attacks are not my fault – except, with the treatments now available, *they kind of are.*
"Even wholesome, lifesaving innovations nibble away at human boundaries. If asthma treatment is too tame an example, consider end-of-life care: the choice to pull the plug on a life that won’t recover is a power many would rather not have, but increasingly get stuck with anyhow through lifesaving technology – and choosing hospice to avoid that power is *itself* exerting choice over death. We don’t need power over whole categories like life and death in order to have more choices at the margins, including more disturbing choices.
"The alarm expressed over erosion of tradition is typically alarm over the erosion of supposed age-old physical and social boundaries expressing our facticity. It’s *decadent* to betray these boundaries by letting our cultural confidence be 'nibbled to death by cats'. Only, I’m not sure how much 'letting' is involved: The cats are already here, and they’re mostly neither transhumanist rough beasts 'dictat[ing] that there is no Reality at all' nor activist hepcats hellbent on shredding 'oppressive' tradition. No, these tabbies are doubts far more mundane, whelped by the facticity of uncertain facticity."
There is a vibrant strain of anti-capitalist feminism that it sounds like Harrington doesn't engage with in her new book. Feminism that advocates using other people as cogs in a capitalist machine is (and *sounds*) terrible. And reducing our bodies to a series of consumerist 'choices' is very much part of our pervasive capitalist ethos.
In my opinion, the best counter to that is a feminism that embraces genuine love for one another *as people* and our communal society *of people*. That respects every person as whole and worthy, full stop. Audre Lorde! bell hooks! Not a feminism that fears trans women or trans men. Trans and non binary people have always *always* been part of our societies. Ignoring or dismissing that fact does our whole community a disservice.
We are actively seeing fears about puberty blockers being used to take trans kids away from their parents and increasing the risk of trans kids dying by suicide. That is a far greater threat than an imagined future where puberty blockers are prescribed by default. Not least because it sure looks like an early move toward full on 'Christian' fascism!
A lot of women in my circles are into the podcast "Maintenance Phase," which sets out to unpack/debunk the history and validity of various health and wellness trends. The hosts Aubrey and Michael embrace a *highly* irreverent and progressive slant, and there's plenty of language etc, so it may not be for everyone; but whenever I listen to an episode, I'm definitely challenged to work through what I've received as a given from culture or "science," whether or not I ultimately land at the same conclusion as they do or even grant the premise they explore.
So your question-- "When have I heard someone heard someone reconsider a natural process outside its natural context?"-- brings to mind a recent episode called "Workplace Wellness," where they take up the issue of the growing number of workplaces which are claiming a foothold in individual biology and personal health practices. By relocating these into incentivized corporate or organizational programs that are at once highly impersonal-- faceless BMI goals or generic 10,000 FitWit steps a day, in exchange for lower premiums or bonuses or other corporate privileges-- they then force employees to reckon with whether or not the private details of their physiological selves are pertinent to the workplace.
Should the way an employee cares for, feeds, exercises, moves, rests, labors with, and enjoys their own one body be relevant to the context of a corporation/insurance company's business practices or bottom-line savings or human capital output? Are such workplace wellness programs actually about people's well-being and flourishing over the course of a natural lifetime with the attendant cares and conditions of being human; or do they veer toward that desire for optimization of individual bodies simply as components of overall workforce productivity and profit?
I'm actually only halfway through the podcast episode at present, so I'll have to finish first and consider further what might be illuminated and obscured. ;-)
Thank you for this thoughtful comment on the natural and how we might navigate the modern obligation of self fashioning or self determination. All these comments revealed the complexity of how to make a life with the distinctive human body mind we have. I have written about this as a call to accepting the unbidden. It's part of the call I have made for us to conserve disability as a form of human biodiversity. It's the argument for us to accept and value what is fundamentally human. In theory, it is a good corrective to the aggressive self determination late modernity demands of us. The case of accepting what I called the human variations, we think of as disabilities is an important one, and I'm grateful that it's emerged in this conversation.
I think both birth and death have come into the realm of an expressive choice in the past few decades. There are so many possible choices in birth (if you have the means to choose) - hospital or home, midwife or OB, doula or no, medicated or not - and the reactions (i.e. judgment) you get when you disclose your choices make those choices feel weightier. And if things go badly or you become high risk, and so you lose the ability to make some of these choices (such as by having an emergency C-section), it can feel like something has been taken from you.
At the other end of life, the care of a dementia patient is exhausting and expensive. Watching someone die over a long period of time is hard. If something like euthanasia or physician assisted suicide is available and common, it becomes an expressive choice whether you let death come naturally or not.
We don't even know what is Natural anymore... uman animal degeneration will Naturally run its course and cause the expected event.