The "Neutrality" of Refusing the Natural
Mary Harrington on cyborg feminism
On Wednesday, March 8th, I’ll be part of Cardus’s panel for International Women’s Day. The panel is focused on pursing meaningful work, at home and in careers. I’ll be speaking about my utter lack of a career “plan.” I never know what I’ll be doing in two years, but I know how I sift for work that I think is worthwhile but not totalizing.
Feminism Against Progress, Mary Harrington’s new book, came out last week in England and will come out next month in the United States. I got an early copy, and part of her thesis is very well aligned with the Other Feminisms project.
I like to summarize this substack as holding the following points:
The world is the wrong shape for women.
When the gap is noticeable, society treats us as defective men and expects us to change ourselves to fit a narrow idea of what it means to be human.
A full, just feminism advocates for women to be welcome as women, rather than finding tools to help us more easily reshape ourselves into a male-normed mold.
Harrington is interested in the way the industrial age pushed us to think more of our bodies as raw material, that could be spent or reshaped as needed to make society go faster.
We live in an age when some of our biomedical and digital tools make it easier to imagine that using the body doesn’t just mean pushing beyond your natural limits to exhaustion, but rebuilding your chassis till your limits and capacities change.
Some of the “cyborg feminist” thinkers Harrington engages are actively trying to destabilize our trust in the natural. Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now, narrates all the effects and effluvia of pregnancy and labor and asks, essentially: how much would you need to be paid as a just wage to undergo each of these experiences individually, let alone all together? If someone else took what a baby takes from you, wouldn’t it be a crime of assault?
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.” Puberty is transformational, so shouldn’t it be actively chosen, not passively undergone?
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?
I’m very suspicious of this approach. We can’t step out of the natural course of human growth, change, and differentiation without departing from what it means to be human. And in a society shaped by sexism, women’s ways of being human will often be seen as insupportable burdens—because we choose not to support women.
Asking how to share or ameliorate these burdens is different than wondering if we can split off gestation or puberty from the human experience. It’s very different to frame it as an expressive choice rather than part of a shared reality of being human.
(At the small scale, I find this very weird about skincare culture, where the default state of “having skin with pores” is becomes a statement about how natural/minimal you want to be in the face of the expectation that you can be airbrushed.)
There’s a dizzying anxiety that comes with making your biology a “choose your own adventure” where every part of your physical self is chosen and expressive, not simply received and lived with.