Mary Harrington & Cyborgs
A somewhat lengthy reaction to an interview of Mary Harrington by Alex Kaschuta, in which I identify my own errors in a book I wrote eight years ago, regarding Ivan Illich and Gender . . . and some other stuff, too.
Long live revision!
I like Mary Harrington. That is, I don’t know her personally, but she’s a writer and social critic who — from my perspective — popped up out of nowhere and emerged into a peculiar virtual political space where I’ve found myself at least adjacent: nascent postliberalism. I like what she writes and says, because she’s like an Olympic archer who no one had ever heard of who’s suddenly slamming arrows into the ten-ring one after another. And like said archer, she occasionally hits just off in the nine and even more occasionally fires one astray into the eight or seven. Obviously, I’ve elevated myself in this simile to the one who always hits the ten, and in this admission is my disclaimer. I could be totally wrong where I think she may miss the mark! I’m often wrong. Further along in this piece, I’ll be disowning some of what I myself wrote in Borderline with regard to Ivan Illich and his book, Gender, which Harrington cites at the end of the interview. I made a critique of Illich that was based on my own inadequate interpretation of his book; and the same species of inadequacy may mar my critical remarks here. I do revisions.
Ms. Harrington reminds me of myself here, inasmuch as her intellectual history consists of serial and sometimes dramatic revisions. Like shedding skins. Speaking for myself and presuming much about Harrington, there is a cycle to this molting that begins with discomfort then progresses through doubt into confusion, from confusion to contrition, from contrition to study, from study into reformulation, and from reformulation into periods of rather heady, even explosive, new insights. Rinse and repeat every ten years.
Ms. Harrington is a Brit, whose history includes a lengthy period living in a petit bourgeois gender-fluid counter-culture (one that, as she explains in the interview, has been subsumed into market ideology and mainstreamed into liberal culture). She is also a longstanding feminist, and she demonstrates a deep familiarity with the fractious body of feminist thought in her writings and conversations. At some point, in one of her moltings, she began to question the Butlerian gender orthodoxy which took root in academia in the nineties and which has now been diffused into a liberal, technocratic ruling stratum as a politico-cultural orthodoxy. Within feminism, this “gender ideology” became extremely contentious and broke out into a war which has spilled into the virtual streets of Anglo-American political discourse. I wrote about that here. Her criticism of this ideology among the censorious liberals led to her anathematization — a common experience for any public intellectual who fails to toe the plank — whereupon she did find a loose constellation of people who were willing to hear her out, which included some self-described conservatives, especially those of a postliberal bent. Naturally, as soon as she engaged in mutually respectful dialogue with these folks — with whom she has real disagreements at times — she was further marginalized by the same neo-Puritan pop-poststructuralists who enjoy nothing so much as a meaty guilt-by-association fallacy.
Speaking now of conservatives, let me summarize Harrington’s interlocutor in this interview, entitled Cyborgs in the Longhouse, linked here so the reader can find the points cited in the conversation as this reaction piece advances. (Put that baby up in an adjacent window, and I’ll give you time-markers as we go.)
Rollin’ with reaction
Alex Kaschuta is a Romanian émigré who has a history with the intellectual dark web (IDW), a linguistic marker for a loosely conglomerated online commentariat whose unifying principle appears (to this outsider, at least) to be resistance to the aforementioned censorious liberals . . . a kind of “anti-woke” disposition which, while I find it understandable, has its own inhering problems, not the least of which is that it serves as an attractant — like dripping blood into the water — to reactionaries and bigots. (To be fair, when I was active on the left, we ourselves inevitably attracted our own cohort of whackadoodle strap-hangers.) Most of the IDW commentariat I find a little shallow, to be honest, because their prevailing mood is more annoyance and resentment than critical engagement (well, and their imperial apologetics). Nonetheless, I have touched base with Kaschuta’s podcast a few times, because she is willing to go outside her own comfort zone (and now appears to be disengaging to a degree from the IDW) to interview some actually interesting thinkers . . . like Mary Harrington.
Speaking of reactionaries, Mary Harrington has staked out her own little niche and named it “reactionary feminism,” which she explains briefly in the following interview, but which I feel compelled to clarify before people head for the door. She uses the term ironically, calling it a “meme.” She is in fact not a reactionary, except by those ideologues who subscribe to the myth, or idol, of “progress,” and who map politics on a straight-line continuum that aims — either-or — toward progress or reaction. This includes most liberals, many conservatives, and all Hegelians. Harrington, in fact, rejects the myth of progress (rendering the progress-reaction line moot), for which she is auto-branded by these either-or fetishists as reactionary. In much the same way “gender ideologues” have taken the epithet “queer” and transformed it into a badge of honor, Harrington is trying to do the same when she calls herself a “reactionary feminist.” I get it, and I guess it works among the few who are already cognizant of both the problems with the myth of progress and the attendant stupidity of the either-or/progress-reaction ideology; but for many who aren’t, it serves as an unfortunate repellent or attractant — again, putting off those who rightly dislike actual proto-fascist reactionaries, and acting as blood in the water to the the same. I could be wrong, and hope I am, because I believe Harrington has much to say that is incredible valuable, and with that, let’s get to it.
In the first seven minutes or so — for those ten of you who want to follow along — Harrington unpacks her thesis on progress and begins her integration of that analysis — sound in my view — with the issues of technology, class, and gender. I’ll let her speak for herself on that account, because she is well-practiced, articulate, and accessible. I’ll interject here about something she brushes past (but returns to later). That is, how class corresponds to the very medium (and milieu) in which this interview is conducted, which includes her own sub-class (university-educated, Atlantic, metropolitan white-collars), which she freely admits.
Average people are not watching philosophical debates on YouTube. They not only don’t have access to the language and history, they seldom have the time and energy. I bring this up now as a pre-critical point with regard to the pronoun, we, to which both Harrington and Kaschuta make frequent reference in their more speculative remarks. The short version is, who is this “we”? The longer version is linked in my argument here.
The interview is about feminism and gender, which may be where the two of them hold views that most closely correspond. Their views, however, are not identical. Kaschuta is tactically emphasizing Harrington’s “gender ideology” critique, in part because “gender ideology” is a favorite bugaboo on the right — to which Kaschuta still clings — and it has become a (highly effective) right-wing cudgel to take up against trans-Atlantic liberalism, which has run afoul of more vernacular culture on this account (a class dynamic which Harrington discusses), because neither liberals nor conservatives in the mainstream can openly discuss their shared failures, which has forced them into tactically emphasizing “culture wars.”
The reason I put “gender ideology” in scare quotes is precisely because the reasoned discussion of the actual thing to which it refers has been foreclosed by the two combatants in two wars — in one case, between conservatives and technocratic liberals, and in the other case, on the vestigial left, between “gender ideologues” and “gender abolitionists” (with the remainder of us left out).
Harrington — who fits none of the above — will momentarily (and very diplomatically) engage Kaschuta in a reasoned discussion of this issue, in spite of what I believe to be Kaschuta’s agenda to strengthen the position of “the right” as she sees it (I don’t hold “having an agenda” against her; it’s her show, and that’s its raison d’etre.) Again, I give her credit as part ofthe “dissident right” for including a number of guests who — apart from their stands on cultural issues — are anti-capitalist . . . something you won’t see from “mainstream” conservatives.
Harrington, from about seven minutes in to thirteen minutes, does a kind of Illichian historical review of Western bourgeois gender relations, or gender in the transition from subsistence economies to industrialized economy. This is the point at which my own confessional (or revisionist) self-critique of errors in Borderline seems appropriate. Borderline: Reflections on War,Sex, and Church (Wipf and Stock, 2015) is a book I wrote about gender and militarism in 2015, and where I unintentionally misrepresented Illich, specifically his book, Gender (to which Harrington refers). This is a safe link to a pdf of Gender.
In my book, I imposed my own version of the term gender which I shared with various schools of feminism. This definition of gender is transhistorically identified with patriarchy — or more accurately andrarchy — which is different from the more well-known and now popular identitarian term gender. That is to say, my gender included any social form which divided men from women (and power between them) in ways that were not related directly to biological gender or childbearing. I was carrying the vestiges of a gender abolitionist version of gender, which was likewise predicated on the nature-nurture (sex-gender) dichotomy that engendered (forgive me) both the identitarian gender position and gender abolitionism: Gayle Rubin’s thesis circa 1984.
While I openly challenged this distinction in Borderline, I remained unaware of how late modernity’s language and categories were still inflected in my acceptance of the transhistoricality of undifferentiated “patriarchy,” which provoked an unjustified criticism of Illich’s Gender (which I confess I did not fully comprehend until later). The excerpt:
I have quoted Ivan Illich extensively, and he has been a tremendous influence on my life and my conversion, first to Christianity, then to Catholicism. In several places in this book, I have quoted passages of his from a book called simply Gender. It was a controversial book, and it was roundly attacked, especially by a number of feminists. Unfortunately, in my opinion, many of those attacks were aimed at a straw man, because they clearly misrepresented what he was saying. Being unfamiliar with his Christian episteme, they superimposed modern categories on his work in ways that were inappropriate. It is unfortunate, for one reason, because there was — and I say this with my hat in my hand before this great mind — one monumental error in the book, in which he claimed that gender, as I have appropriated his definition of it more than once here — differences between the tools, clothing, practices, spaces, preoccupations, and even the language of men and women that divides communities into complementary spheres — has gone by the wayside, bulldozed by “sex.” He was wrong.
Illich pointed out, correctly, that there were substantial differences between gender in vernacular (subsistence) communities and modern ones. His claim that gender had gone by the wayside in modernity, that it has been disappeared by “sex,” by which he means something akin to how I have used “sexuality,” a disembedded category that is hypothetically and legally appended to an abstracted “individual,” does not conform to what I see around me. And I think his distinction is valid. But his claim that “sex,” as such, has displaced gender is simply not supportable. Sex, used in this sense, has simply re-coded gender in the way Pateman describes — women who were under a paternal regime have been placed under a fraternal regime.
Anyone who pays attention today can see that men and women still overwhelmingly have different tools, clothing, practices, spaces, preoccupations, and language, even if they can more readily move between the two spheres. What has happened, instead of displacement, has been the increased sexualization of the gender regime, and this has been most apparent in the sexualized backlash against feminism. Gender divides the tools, clothing, practices, spaces, preoccupations, and language of men and women into complementary spheres, but — as MacKinnon points out — gender also still divides power.
Certainly in recent years we have seen cross-infiltration and homogenization in several of these areas, especially tools, given the advancement of deskilling technology. The computer has become a highly androgynous tool, for example, even if the use of its applications still reflects division of both emphasis and power. When we attend to what people write in virtual spaces, it is seldom difficult to determine whether a man or a woman is writing; and when these spaces turn to argument and debate, we see that men can readily push women out of those spaces with verbal bullying. The dangers that many men pose to women, and which preoccupy women more than most men know, are reflected in these virtual spaces, where women can be made to feel unsafe and abused even in virtual anonymity.
Even as the androgynization of tools has progressed in workspaces, the implements used by men and women apart from unisex workspaces have continued to be gender-divided. One particular type of tool or implement that is still seen as masculine is the weapon, especially the gun. Even with the portrayal of more and more women in entertainment media using guns, in the actual world, men are still overwhelmingly those who own, use, and show an unhealthy interest in guns. This accounts in some ways for the overreaction of the young Rangers in Somalia, who have chosen the gun as the tool of their trade as an alternative to the unisex workspaces of civilian life.
As women and men have infiltrated further across the old boundaries in work — ever more specialized and deskilled — and work has been further separated from local production, residence, kinship, and community, there has been an intensification of gender division in the sexual arena, especially since the so-called sexual revolution, which rather than critique the promiscuity of men has asserted the right of women to be equally promiscuous, a trend that is celebrated and promoted by many men, as it gives them greater access to women’s bodies. This has not been a good thing for women, whose objectification has intensified.
Men and women alike are now encouraged by mass media and advertising to “market” themselves as sexual commodities; but this has not created anything that could be interpreted as equality of social power.
Instead, gender constructed by the hoary norms of male power expressed as sexual desire has been concentrated in product lines to make men appear bigger, more confident, and more muscular, and women more silent, demobilized, infantilized, and sexually receptive. I note as one example that in recent years there has been increasing pressure on women not just to eliminate the naturally occurring hair on their legs and armpits, but now to get rid of the hair on their mons pubis — which makes them appear (to sexual partners) more like prepubescent girls than women. Much of the sexual pressure on women now, both in appearance and sexual performance, is being driven by the explosion of Internet pornography, which more men are demanding that their female partners imitate. Most of the women I know play an asexual, nonviolent game called Candy Crush on their computers; they play it, and they socialize online about it. Most men I have known well enough to know what they do in front of their computers watch porn or play war games.
Sex and war.
It is not vernacular; those days are gone. But it is (ever more sexualized) gender.
Nice words, mostly I still believe them . . . but when I said, “He was wrong,” I was wrong. In my clinging to an unstated opposition to complementarity — which has served malignant polemical purposes — I reacted by reinforcing my attachment to the gender abolitionist (and distinctly modern) epistemological standpoint. I am no longer a “gender abolitionist” (as I was back in the day, and hinted in the book that I was already finding it untenable). My conflation of Illich’s “economic sex” with “sexuality,” while they are related in Illich’s book, was mistaken. He was not “bulldozing gender with sex,” but making a profound, unsettling, and very subtle point about modern economics and personhood (more on this near the end). I find myself in agreement with Illich now . . . for the record. So . . .
Abortion and the proprietary body
Returning to Harrington and Kaschuta, at seventeen minutes in, the subject of abortion is broached. Harrington’s answer is, in my view, brilliantly independent of the evasions and equivocations of the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” policy warriors, who are both tactically dishonest.
Harrington says the issue is extraordinarily difficult (too true), then she gives some historical context to situate, in her theoretical shorthand, “the cyborg era.” Here her comments dovetail with the recently published book (which I’ll review here) by Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, inasmuch as they identify “the disaggregation of women from their reproductive potential” by the legalization of “the pill” (as well as the digital revolution) not as mere social phenomena, but as materially based upon and dependent upon, in historical scales, extremely recent technologies. Perry’s thesis is presented provocatively (as the title shows) in the same sense that Harrington provokes with her “reactionary feminist” moniker; but what they’re pointing out is important.
Again, I have to inoculate readers — who, like me, are entrapped and indoctrinated by the horizontal propaganda of culture and language to accept certain things as axiomatic — against a reflexive response that goes something like, “Would you deny women birth control?” or “What about women’s bodily autonomy?” In the same way that discussions are distorted or foreclosed in the pro-life/pro-choice debates by the magnetic north of policy or legal questions, in which both sides tactically disallow contradictions and complications, this eye-on-the-law preoccupation wants us to bypass any discussion of the negative outcomes of what is widely thought to be a net positive development. But the fact remains, as Harrington shows, that no change in technology or attendant social policies and norms, is (1) without unintended consequences or (2) divorceable from its philosophical antecedents and logic. (Both Perry and Harrington hail from the left, not the right, even if their conclusions are amenable to some conservatives.)
Harrington explains what the sexual revolution and the digital revolution have in common — the technologically mediated ability to impose dramatic changes on living human bodies. There are circumstances where we might experience that as a net good; and there are (here’s the taboo topic) outcomes that are not good at all. As with many social and technological changes, the gee-whiz-wow response to something new “that works” attaches us to the new thing, and only after extended collective use do we understand the unintended (and sometimes deleterious) consequences. Fossil fuel? Plastic?
So, watch and listen on to around 25 minutes.
One interesting point that Harrington makes with regard to abortion — which may discomfit liberals — is that the untrue popular truism, “If you don’t want women to get abortions, then ensure the have access to birth control” is demonstrably wrong. Harrington researches and historicizes her points, and what she shows is that the “disaggregation of women from their reproductive potential” brought about by the pill requires legal abortion as an adjunct to be effective. What actually happened with the introduction of chemical contraception was that women — for whom heterosexual intercourse had heretofore always entailed tremendous and life-changing risks — began having a lot more sexual intercourse. Neither the pill, patches, rings or rubbers are 100 percent effective; their combines failure rate is seven percent. Failures in relation to the increased frequency of intercourse (and now more often with men outside of marriage) that contraception’s actual outcome was more unwanted pregnancies. One out of five pregnancies in the US now end in abortion, and one in four in the UK. Contraception now corresponds to greater rates of abortion. Saying this, stating this fact, is not tantamount to endorsing either the criminalization of abortion or prohibition of chemical birth control. Neither Harrington, nor Perry, nor I for that matter, have ever endorsed either.
If being honest is wrong because of tactical political considerations, then there is no space for discussion with others who disagree, and no hope of depolarizing a society already in deep crisis.
At around 24 minutes, Harrington goes beyond historicizing and touches on the deeper philosophical conundrum of “the cyborg age.” That is, what does it mean to be a person? She calls it the ultimate mind-body dualism and a “gnostic fantasy.” I call it “the proprietary body,” or body as personal possession, in all its technologically-mediated and “trans-humanist” glory. In some ways this is the most Promethean fantasy of all, built into liberal philosophy with the introduction of the proprietary body.
The subtext of Homo economicus and the proprietary body is — in Harrington’s words — that “no un-chosen obligation is legitimate.” Focus on that for a moment, because this is crucial. No un-chosen obligation is legitimate. This is not only the philosophical grounding for abortion apologists, but for Wall Street and Amazon. This is the liberal fiction, embodied (pun intended), of the deracinated, pristine, thoroughly independent, optimizing, born-an-adult (male or honorary male) “individual.” It’s fairly obvious when it is taken to logical ends in the actual world presents us with a reductio ad absurdum. No society can actually exist, from the smallest band of hunters and gatherers to the modern American imperial core, without the legitimation of un-chosen obligations. There’s a very good reason that this public fantasy survives, seldom noted. The family, knitted together by un-chosen obligations, the only non-transactional place left, is the “private” space necessary for the public fiction to survive. I discovered rather late in my life that I myself was an un-chosen obligation.
Bio-libertarians and TERF-adjacents
As Harrington points out, this is a fantasy only conceivable in the technologically-mediated cyborg epoch which began, by her reckoning with my generation — the baby boomers — and which has progressed to the present absurd moment which she describes as bio-libertarian. (This is why I’m a little taken aback by how many putative Marxists have been taken in by this line of “reasoning,” which leads me to believe (in some degree this is self-criticism of my own past motives) that they are more interested in the appearance of radicalism than the practice of intellectual rigor.)
At 26:31 in the video, Mary Harrington explains her resistance to her own former convictions regarding the poststructuralist, or Butlerian, notion of gender, which is a form of bio-libertarianism. She objects to the idea, as this writer does, that we can or should “transcend all the limits of our bodies.”
Her use, and mine, of the term “our bodies” shows how the language itself and the philosophical fiction of the proprietary body reinforce each other in culture as what Ellul would call horizontal propaganda. In fact, we don’t have bodies; we are bodies. As she says earlier in the interview, this is mind-body dualism run amok. It’s basis in culture and law, when we look at history (thinking here of Carole Pateman’s interventions on contract theory), begins in earnest with the rise of inescapable wage labor . . . the idea that one could rent out his or her body for commodity-producing drudgery in exchange for money. Taken to it’s reductio ad absurdum, as Pateman showed, this means you or I could conceivably sign a contract to become a slave, out of which there would be no escape. (It should be noted, as Pateman’s historical review showed, that the “liberal individual” was and remains a masculine figure, and it leads women seeking “equality” to become more like males who were formed as dominators; something I unpacked in my book Tough Gynes — Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men.)
The bio-libertarian absurdity applies likewise to liberal notions of sexual consent. Consent is a necessary, but wildly insufficient standard.
An article I read described a meeting of women who were raising boys. The women were asked what qualities they would like to see in their sons when their sons matured. The answers ranged from humor, to athleticism, to strength, to courage. When one woman said “kindness,” the others were taken aback. Well, of course, yes, kindness, too . . . an afterthought, almost an obligation. And so masculinity and femininity as a hierarchy of power were reinscribed unthinkingly. The author then added, in her own editorial voice, that she wanted boys to become men who would understand what “consent” means.
A warning light started blinking in my mind. Feminists who have focused their analyses on sexually structured social power had wired that warning light in my head. It is attached to the term consent. Consent is easy to define out of context, but very slippery in real space and time. If a man and woman go on a date, and they are drinking, can her “consent” to sex after two drinks be considered meaningful “consent”? After four drinks? Eight? If she would not have consented when she was sober, but she does consent when she gets tipsy, is consent qualifiable along some continuum, or is it a cut-and-dried affair with some observable line of demarcation? If a woman works with a man who offers her money for sex, and she has sex for money, is that meaningful consent? How about if she is a sole parent who is in trouble financially? How about if she needs the money because one of her children is ill and she can’t afford a doctor? How about if she doesn’t work with the man, but for the man, and she fears for her job? Is there a point in any of these scenarios where we call it “rape”? Not according to law, because the law says she “consents” if she is awake and does not say no. How about a married woman who has no desire for sex, or who finds sex with her husband, for any one of many reasons, unwanted or unpleasant; and her husband threatens her with separation or divorce? Is she consenting or being coerced? Is the situation more starkly apparent if the woman will be reduced to poverty by a divorce? If her children will suffer? How about a woman who lives in a society where her chances of flourishing are curtailed simply because she is a woman, and having a man as a “breadwinner” is understood as a kind of long-term necessity? Or how about a woman who lives in a society where she fears all men, based on her past experience with some or many men, and she feels it necessary to cleave to one man as protection against all other men? Are these the “choices” of any women you know?
Choice, in the real world, is never reducible to an instant. If one is honest, one can begin to see how this business of consent is not intelligible by law, which in liberal society is forced to reduce consent to a decontextualized episode — something with a beginning, a middle, and an end broken off from history, divorced from anticipated consequences. That’s why rape is defined by law as a particular kind of force and a particular kind of sex (yes, rape is sex!), and determined in a voyeuristic, after-the-fact, and detailed re-living of the episode that forces the victim of a rape to revisit the pain, fear, and humiliation several times over. (Borderline, pp. 394–5)
The consent standard unmodified is now used as justification for another phenomenon that Harrington (and I, and many other feminists) have critiqued only to be cancelled by the bio-libertarians: prostitution (and pornography).
It’s not that I, or Harrington, or Perry for that matter, are gender abolitionists (post-marxist radical feminists, i.e.), though the gender abolitionists do concur with us on several points: (1) that human beings are a sexually dimorphic species comprised (with very few natal exceptions) of men and women; (2) that men and women in the aggregate are in some respects fundamentally different; (3) that the sexual aspect of our lives is incomparable — especially in terms of intimacy, as well as in terms of physical and psychological vulnerability — to other aspects of out lives; it is not like eating or working or buying something at the store; (4) that prostitution and pornography are bad for both men and women, but especially for women, and (5) that the proponents of the sexual revolution who celebrated the newfound opportunity for women to become as promiscuous as men as liberatory were wrong — we shouldn’t be aiming at making women more promiscuous, but at making men less promiscuous. (Women still suffer far more consequences than men for promiscuity.)
Those who refer to us as TERFs (a term of abuse leveled by bio-libertarians originally meaning “trans-exclusive radical feminists”) appear to ignore the fact that many of us have strong disagreements (at least Harrington and I do) with radical feminists in other areas . . . but hey, never waste an opportunity to employ guilt-by-association, as the bio-libertarians do against radical feminists, because radfems sometimes arrive at conclusions convergent with conservatives. By bio-libertarian logic, this means that “TERFs” (and the TERF-adjacent) are “fascist”. In fact, both Harrington and the aforementioned Perry have come out squarely against gender abolition. I was only just letting go of gender abolitionism as I wrote Borderline.
I also have opinions and convictions that correspond to “progressives,” even though I hate the term, don’t subscribe to the myth of progress, and have never called myself a progressive. This is true of Harrington as well. In a way that is somewhat analogous to Baudrillard’s observation that we have come to confuse reality with representation, we have also come to confuse the coherence of beliefs and convictions with constellations of the same organized into tribal camps, categories like “progressive” and “conservative,” to which — admittedly — many people voluntarily assign themselves. Once self-assigned, we develop a bunker mentality . . . defensive, rationalizing, hyper-vigilant . . . out of a need to belong which has been heightened in an ever more atomized and virtualized world. This makes it simultaneously easier (and more acceptable) to employ guilt-by-association fallacies to tribal apostates and to misunderstand and misrepresent their “apostate” assertions.
Distortions of law
Again, a big part of the problem is the dominant épistémè, or assemblage of socially shared certainties which within which Ellul described horizontal propaganda. We simply aren’t accustomed to thinking about things any other way, and we don’t often recognize that what appears to be common sense in many cases is a cultural inheritance, not straightforward personal perception. It would be difficult to get through the day if we were constantly making an effort to critically examine our every assumption.
In bureaucratically managed, technocratic “democracies,” there is a generalized perception that everything is reducible to law — which is a Kantian phenomenon, that is, law is categorical. By framing everything in a legal sense, we ourselves become categorically imperative. Justice is perceived as everyone being treated equally under the law, even though, in reality — and we all see this all the time — the law is a dead instrument, not only blind (a disability), but often stupid (willfully wrong). Even St. Paul recognized this, in speaking of one ethnicity’s law; that the law’s intent is to produce justice, but the law itself produces injustice. The law is incapable of incorporating the immense complexity of context, as we noted above with regard to consent. In real life, women are not only pressured into accepting unwanted pregnancies, they are pressured by men to get abortions they don’t want. In legal debates, each side emphasizes one and excludes the other.
We spoke of vulnerability above, to which I’ll add dependency (in opposition to “independence” as a liberal value). Here is where liberal law — predicated on this freely-choosing individual — is particularly blind and stupid. Harrington, in other interviews and articles, describes a big part of her intellectual molting being motherhood — an experience wherein one carries life inside herself, gives birth, feeds this other person from her own body, and takes responsibility for this utterly dependent creature for many years afterward. The liberal individual was conceived, originally, as a grown man roughly between the ages of eighteen and sixty in good health.
It was Alasdair MacIntyre who noted in Dependent Rational Animals that our moral considerations (not some abstract Morality) become meaningful (unless you’re a Spencerian or Nietzschean) in the face of vulnerability and dependency. Every human person, because we begin as the unborn and as children, is subject to die without the care — and guidance — of others. A constant in childhood, this also applies to old age, and to accidents and infirmities throughout our lives. Independence is a pernicious myth. MacIntyre’s moral philosophy is not categorical, or law-like. He notes again and again — this is getting back to Harrington’s inability to make some categorical claim about the legality or illegality of abortion — that context matters, and that the evaluation of context requires cross-reference between a menu of interactive virtues. There is no one-size-fits-all, though this is the categorical character of liberal law.
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
— Anatole France
Pro-choice and pro-life are both categorically imperative.
Functional religion and normative pattern realities
Kashuta, unfortunately, misses this point altogether and launches into a mini-tirade about another popular myth: Nature. She is, of course, making a kind of crypto-Hobbesian assertion (she likes the phrase “red in tooth and claw”) that segues into “religion,” which she abstractly describes in a functionalist way. A transcendent framework is necessary to discipline the Hobbesian (I would add Freudian) wolf-man and ensure order in society. This, of course, describes neither the natural world (of which humans are a part, not apart from) nor human beings themselves. What she’s reaching for is a very modern trope that really became ascendant in nineteenth century Western bourgeois circles.
Harrington (at around 30 minutes) shuffles her feet in discomfort at the digression, diplomatically says “you’re spot on” about nothing in particular, says she isn’t ready for whatever this functionalist “religion” is, and makes a throwaway claim that the “ascendant movement today is rainbow satanism.” I had to look that up, because if it is “ascendant” it hasn’t ascended to my little corner of the world yet, where Catholics and Protestants are still the big pluralities, and the most common conversations between them are about weather, fishing conditions, crops, and gas prices. Must be a Brit thing. (She goes on to admit this is something entirely virtual — a point I’ll get back to — and dismisses her own assertion as a “meme.”) Here’s one of the “rainbow satanist’s” silly t-shirts:
Kaschuta persists, however, in her point about the need for a transcendent “external standard,” presumably to ensure order. What is interesting is that she identifies this vague, searching intuition as one of her reasons for breaking up with the IDW and calling herself a “misfit” and a member of the “dissident right.” I find this tentatively hopeful, because even though these kinds of fractures are sending some into the arms of Jordan Peterson and his ilk, it means they are willing to question themselves and spend some time in the no-man’s-land between political and ideological tribes.
Harrington says something about “natural law” as “what’s going to get us out of this mess.” (33:50) She says that utopian schemes, for dissolving differences between the sexes, e.g., are re-ordered in commodity-society to the market. Ideologies are monetized. Harrington manages to wriggle free of Kaschuta’s attempted redirection and get back to her thesis (and the thesis of her prospective book, Feminism Against Progress), where what she calls “natural law” is neither Thomist nor social Darwinist.
She is admittedly struggling to verbalize her intuition about what “natural law” means here, but it is explicitly not categorical. She calls it the “gestalt sense” that there are “normative pattern realities” out there that relate to some “objective reality.” I believe she’s onto something, which she says is hard to articulate (ergo the “gestalt sense”), even though I’m skeptical that it can “get us out of this mess.”
Kaschuta completely misses the point here, and falls back on rationalizing the IDW as accepting of things being “downstream of science” and emergent from “empirical findings.” Totally. Misses. The Point. It’s okay. It’s an unusually subtle and heterodox point.
Harrington puts things back on track, however, by shifting away from IDW and functionalist “religion” (with those authoritarian echoes) and clarifying what she (Harrington) means by “natural law”: “the ability “to make non-prescriptive normative statements about what is or is not a better way for us to interact with one another.” (emphasis added, Harrington is not aiming at authoritarianism but public discussion . . . nice deflection)
It’s easy to lose track, but Harrington is still talking about feminism, which she describes as discerning women’s standpoint in the negotiations between men and women about how to get along with one another. The reason Harrington is given a hearing with Kaschuta and other dissident conservatives is largely their shared ground in rejecting what’s called “gender ideology,” though their reasons for rejection differ. As Louise Perry put it, they arrive in the same place with “different priors.” But in giving these progress-skeptical feminists a hearing, several philosophical doors are opened which have been closed too long . One in particular stands out for me, and that’s the alienable body — an article of faith for liberals and conservatives alike. One of the most remarkable things about the conservative reaction against lockdowns during the pandemic was the appearance of protest signs that said . . . “my body, my choice.” Hmmmm.
Warmed over Nietzsche
Kaschuta struggles here, her discomfort visible. She falls back into a pop-Neitzschean frame, blaming Christianity’s preferential option for the marginalized and oppressed, who she sees (this is a conservative white-victim trope) as having gained too much “leverage” in politics (38:00). This is the emotive core of “anti-wokism,” a simple-minded reaction to the excesses (perceived and real) of the self-described “woke” PMC.
Harrington responds again with a diplomatic deflection. Prefacing with “Absolutely” (again aimed at nothing in particular, but unfortunate and confusing in my view), then flips the discussion back into the marketization of resistance. There are two separate sub-texts running through this part of the interview. Kaschuta laments the introduction of civil rights legislation generally — apparently unaware of the Jim Crow era in the US — while Harrington is obviously still on about “gender ideology.” It is in this section of the interview that Harrington the archer fires a couple of shots into the eight-ring, methinks, in response to Kaschuta’s drift toward actual reactionary tropes. Watch and decide for yourselves.
In all this diplomatic wrestling, Harrington manages by and by to go back to her point, related to the alienable body and the cyborg epoch (39:30), and turns another pithy phrase: “liquefied human nature.” Back in the ten-ring.
“Liquefied human nature” is “infinitely hackable by the biotech industry.” (43:35) We seldom hear, in debates about puberty blockers, about who profits. As with debates about porn and prostitution nowadays, qui bono has been externalized. Again, this is not astounding among liberals, who’ve always been capitalists, but it is quite astounding on the lips of “socialists.” But then, we hear talk of “socialist WalMarts” and “socialist nuke plants” and Socialist Rifle Associations,” and thus is the sorry state of the left.
I’ll be blunt. “Sex work” is not mere work, and surgical gender ”transition” is not just a choice, but an expensive, lifelong, technologically and chemically mediated, elective “medical” procedure — hardly universalizable as a “right.”
Kaschuta, in response to Harrington’s whimsical reference to Alex Jones tin-hats, rolls into a somewhat goofy “we-dreaming” spiel on technology, where she ends up fantasizing about “smashing the machines” (laptop revolutionaries often talk like this). I wish she’d let go of the skirts of her IDW Jordan-fucking- Peterson conservatism a bit more, because she is constantly retreating back into a fantasy of universal order (as opposed to the post-Latin-Christendom fantasy, per Illich, of administering a universal charity). As with many whose refuge from anxiety is authoritarianism, she reverts to “warmed over Nietzsche” ( a term Harrington will use in response) mixed with warmed over Hobbes. This contradictory mix in Kaschuta, Peterson, and others of ostensible religious conviction and Machiavellian authoritarianism sees “religion,” as Kaschuta herself tries to articulate, as an authoritarian functional tool to ensure order through reference to an unbreachable truth-wall — a dam against the relativistic failures of liberalism. Here is where and how they undermine their own moral frameworks — Christian and post-Christian — which can be measured, as MacIntyre points out, by how we respond to vulnerability, infirmity, poverty, and other forms of dependency (and interdependency). There is no place where this contradiction is more evident, in fact, than among those who profess Christianity, which has always been wracked between the incommensurable demands of the Gospels and the Powers.
Harrington responds (in another diplomatic deflection at 45:42) by bringing up Paul Kingsnorth (someone I admire a good deal), with whom she agrees that we are not in a “political crisis” (that’s only incidental), but a spiritual crisis. Harrington’s recent engagement (or re-engagement) with Illich comes to the fore again, when she denounces “more fucking data” as what’s needed in the face of this spiritual crisis and says that beauty and wholeness and normative patterns are naturally occurring sensibilities that “have to be educated out of us.” (Dear readers, see Illich’s Deschooling Society.) But in response to Kashuta’s relentless drive toward some “old school religion” to impose a universal order, Harrington finally becomes direct: “no.” Just no.
Kaschuta’s comeback question tries to transform Harrington’s notion of “natural law” (and here is why it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase) into social Darwinism, whereupon she shifts laterally into something apparently out there, but beyond this reclusive septuagenarian’s experience — “pagan vitalism.” Maybe it’s an IDW thang, idk. Harrington seems to be in touch with it, though (she admits in other venues that she follows social media trends fairly compulsively), and she associates it with that earlier “rainbow satanism” reference. She says “that whole world view interests me,” but here’s where she makes the statement that it reminds her of “warmed over Nietszche, mixed with warmed over Camille Paglia.” I actually had a chuckle on that one.
Obviously, a goodly number of phenomena are passing me by in my dotage, and because social media has become something I can consume like pickled garlic, in small portions only. There just seem to be other things to do. Yesterday, I sanded the deck to prep it for re-staining. Tomorrow, I’m going fishing. Today I’ll write a bit (it’s going to rain, so I can’t re-stain), cook, and set out my minnow trap. Tonight, I’m going to catch an episode of Jack Irish.
There just seem to be a lot of other things to do.
Harrington says that “pagan vitalism,” whatever that is, is incoherent. Her reference to Bronze Age Mindset means absolutely nothing to me, and I have a kind of rule where I don’t read things authored by people with idiotic pseudonyms like “Bronze Age Pervert” (seems like pathological attention-seeking to me). Harrington apparently believes this is an important (I read that to mean “influential”) trend. I can’t help but wonder if it only seems importantly influential because it has a big presence on social media, instead of the world; but then I didn’t think Q-Anon or meme-warfare or muscle-printed t-shirts would be Things, so I could be in some form of detached denial. Am I out of touch, or are Kaschuta and Harrington over-immersed. Quien sabe?
I do recognize Harrington’s “vitalist” archetypes, which she says contradict one another: the “back-to-the-land cottage corps” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” These archetypes have been around for some time; and she rightly notes that these opposing archetypes most consistently correspond to their marital status. She can turn a phrase, one reason I like her, and I got another snort laugh out of, “The guys who reach escape velocity from very online singledom likely have a very different outlook to the guys who do not.”
Kaschuta’s reference to “the regime” hints again at the influence of the IDW, this amalgam within which there is exists a strong tendency to see the world conspiratorially — something online culture exacerbates with its infinite capacity to enlist thousands of “facts” in support of any crackpot notion, especially among those who feel chronically aggrieved. Harrington, on the other hand, refers to this epoch — in regard to sex, which is her feminist preoccupation and what brought her on the show — as “sexual Reaganism,” a reference to the systemic, self-organizing, and non-voluntaristic character of our period.
“We need an anti-capitalist movement for sexual intimacy.” Ten-ring! “We need to resist this idea that relations between the sexes can be reduced to the marketplace.” The proprietary body is the philosophical and political fiction that grounds both capitalism and “sexual Reaganism.”
There’s no such thing as the “just sex” in the liberal claim that, “It’s just sex.” And liberals damn well know it. It’s feigned gullibility, disingenuous to its roots. It happens between persons, and there no such thing as “just a person.” Unless you’re a statistician or a sociopath. We didn’t lose order with liberalism. Liberalism is, at the end of the day, authoritarian as hell — managerial, technocratic, and bureaucratic. A fucking rat race. What we lost by degrees is the sacrosanctity of each person.
At the end of the interview, Kaschuta asks Harrington for a recommendation, and Harrington recommends Ivan Illich’s most heavily researched and footnoted book, Gender (which I linked above). I second that nomination, for the aforestated reasons.
But here I want to add a postscript on Illich, which relates to Kaschuta’s repeated invocation of functional “religion,” as a necessary social regulator, like roads or constabularies.
Illich, especially after he renounced his priestly functions to comply with the Magisterium’s directive not to speak on behalf or the Church, wrote for a broad audience and said little for quite some time about his Christian calling. He called this approach “apophatic,” and it gave the impression — especially to his “secular” counter-cultural followers in the seventies — that his faith was somehow marginal to his thought. Nothing could be further from the truth; and Harrington, in her remarks, is already inching toward the significance of this.
Kaschuta has her issues with liberal language and categories, though her (shared popular) understanding of “religion,” which conflates many traditions and is a difficult category to pin down in any case, is thoroughly liberal, that is to say, modern, in its origin. (More on that here.) The whole secular-religious dichotomy is a mental invention every bit as much as the invention of the proprietary body (which shares its Western bourgeois origins).
Illich is not “religious,” he is a Christian. This is a specific category, and he is a Nicene Christian, which specifies matters even more. His convictions are not applicable only to himself in some privatized sense of “Jesus is my personal savior,” but are his window on the world at large. Every word he wrote on education, energy, medical monopolies, imperial development schemes, technology, and gender, emerged from his belief (and mine) that the cosmos pivots on the event of cross and resurrection, and that this event began when God crashed through infinity and took human form in the womb of a Palestinian teenager. (We have no empirical data on that.)
By today’s lights, this is just a little too strange an idea to be generalized and anthropologically corralled by the term “religion.”
Illich broke his silence on maters of faith just before his death (which he knew was coming) in a series of interviews with David Cayley which became the book, Rivers North of the Future. But rather than review this thought-provoking book, I’ll begin by describing Illich as a “personalist,” in the same way as Peter Maurin, Emmanuel Mornier, and Dorothy Day. This is an altogether different thing than the bourgeois conceit — now spread like a virus among “evangelicals” — of “Jesus is my personal savior.” Personalism very much begins with: You can imagine yourself outside of your own embodiment, but that imagination is still happening “in here.” There is no “out there” doing the experiencing. But Christian personalism goes well beyond existentialist horror (Kierkegaard started it, then the “secular” existentialists stripped away the hope). Mournier writes:
Personalism requires an affirmation of value, viz., the affirmation of the absolute value of the human person. We are not asserting that the human person is an absolute, although for a Christian believer the Absolute is indeed a person, and in strict terminology the spiritual does not exist except as personal. But we do assert that the human person as defined by us is an absolute in comparison with any other material or social reality and with any other human person. It can never be considered merely as part of a whole, whether of family, class, state, nation or even humanity. God himself, in the doctrines of Christianity, respects the liberty of the person, even while vivifying it from within. The whole theological mystery of free will and original sin is based on the dignity of free choice conferred on man. The Christian accepts it because he believes that man was in his very nature made according to the image of God, that he is called to perfect that image by an ever increasing participation in the supreme liberty of the children of God.
Any discussion of personalism must thus begin at the basic roots of all human existence. If our efforts were confined merely to a defence of man’s public liberties or to any rights not further grounded, then our position would be weak indeed; for there would then be danger of defending only individual privileges.
Jesus of Nazareth did not descend from the sky as a super-hero who merely rescues us from death. God taking flesh sanctifies flesh — that is, the embodied person. That sacrosanctity of each person mentioned above, which goes well beyond the malignant fiction of the “autonomous individual.”
When Illich wrote Gender, he was not writing primarily about sex-gender, Gayle Rubin’s formative dichotomy. This is what provoked anger among many, as well as my own initial misunderstanding. He was writing about economics and personhood.
Illich wrote Gender during a long series of conversations with his friend, the feminist historian Barbara Duden. Illich actually died in his office in Duden’s home in Bremen, Germany. He and Duden shared an interest in the history of perception, a rather Foucauldian genealogical approach without the Nietzsche. Duden wrote a brilliant little book on the history of the experience of pregnancy, called Disembodying Women; an unusual orientation for feminists, especially feminists — liberal, materialist, and radical — who oftentimes seemed to have missed the close association between women and childbirth.
In different periods and different times, the experience of personhood and the world is not merely a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. I am reminded here of Weber’s term “disenchantment,” and how it has changed the way we experience the world; and of Carolyn Merchant’s canonical history of disenchantment, The Death of Nature, also an Illich fave.
Illich wasn’t an apologist for any particular gender order; he frequently reminds us of gender’s variability. But he doesn’t confine gender to relations between male and female humans, and he definitely doesn’t give a Butlerian account. He actually begins describing it linguistically. Any English speaker who has studied Romance languages knows that most nouns are gendered masculine or feminine. As the Spanish joke goes, “El problema es masculino, la solución es feminina.” In English, we still call ships “her” and “she,” but the neuters “it” and “the” vastly predominate. Even the feminized ship is called “the ship.” The cosmos itself is understood, universally if variably, prior to modernity, as consisting of complementary gendered forms. This has far less to do with sex, says Illich, than it does with the idea that everything exists in relation to everything else, and we are fitted into that order. The neutralization of the “liberal individual” is part of the same atomizing logic that disenchants the world, dividing it up into separable and exploitable “resources.” Gender, in Illich’s sense, was a necessary step to complete the world’s disenchantment.
Just as modern development — which Illich railed against — necessitates a “war on subsistence,” it necessitates a “war on vernacular culture.” Everything has to be melted down in the drive for progress. The very existence of “vernacular” cultures is a threat to progress. Something that capitalists and communists agreed upon. And as Illich shows — something which Mary Harrington has likewise noted — the liberal “abolition” of vernacular gender has not been some unadulterated boon to women. In many cases, quite the contrary. It has in many cases opened actual women to more insidious and “sexist” harms.
Illich was a harsh critic of what Harrington names the Cyborg epoch. But Illich was no prophet of doom. He was far too Catholic for that. And his “religion” was anything but the bulwark of ruling authority imagined by Kaschuta. Illich’s north star was cross and resurrection — or what Loles Suarez Vega termed “tragic optimism.”
Fortunately, the powerless are always with us — they are, as the old comforted Illich will say, the great majority of mankind contemporaneous with us. To be repeated: no spiritualist temptation, no ‘in-political’ inclination in the trivial meaning of the term, in this attitude: militating the incarnation of the Word does not permit that; only, it doesn’t allow the fight and and the victory against the Ruler of this world with the means of this latter: it rather predisposes for a mysteriously fertile failure.