Did Shulamith Firestone want to abolish nature?
Re-reading The Dialectic of Sex
When I was writing an earlier post on surrogacy, I came across an article by Sophie Lewis, entitled ‘Shulamith Firestone wanted to abolish nature - we should too’. Her argument is not, as one might suppose, that Firestone rejected patriarchal assumptions that male dominance is ‘natural’, but that she supported domination of the natural world by humans. At least I suspect that is her argument - the article barely refers to nature, and focusses more on what Lewis imagines to be fundamental flaws in The Dialectic of Sex, stemming from Firestone’s blindness to “queer urban and nonmonogamous Indigenous lifeways” and her failure to understand that “women do not all have the same gender” or to appreciate that her vision “is ultimately unimaginable without the abolition of whiteness.”
Full Surrogacy Now?
Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now (published in 2019 by Verso, who in June of last year took reductive language to a new low by referring to women as ‘womb carriers’). Having sampled Lewis’ jargon ridden prose in her 2021 article, I was not tempted to wade through her book. But it did seem that it would be worth looking at reviews, which might explain what she meant by abolishing nature. By all accounts, Lewis’ book is a rejection of natural ‘babymaking’ and a celebration of the possibilities of relying on well rewarded ‘gestators’ to reproduce life for a collective that is fully inclusive, especially of men who claim to be women.
“Lewis obviously believes that transhumanism should be dictating what life is and how making life should be utilised to fulfil the needs and fetishistic motivations of adults. For her, surrogacy is like data-mining and file-sharing. It should be made free and open source……In her reproductive utopia, all pregnancy would be surrogacy, with ‘gestational workers’ supplying their ‘living products’ to be shared by the queer communist community.”
(Shambolic Neutral, Towards a Glitter Gilead, The Radical Notion, Spring 2021)
Shambolic Neutral is clearly not a fan. I read a number of reviews sympathetic to Lewis, to see if her assessment was a fair one. Clearly it was. The sympathetic reviews appeared in a book review forum published by the journal Society + Space, as part of its ‘Feminist, Queer and Trans Geographies’ topic area. These reviews are full of pregnancy metaphors, but go to enormous lengths to avoid mentioning the words woman or mother - a rare exception being to praise Lewis for “expanding the concept of gestation beyond the womb (as well as beyond the fraught categories of ‘woman’ and ‘mother’)”.
The Dialectic of Sex
It’s no surprise, then, to discover that Sophie Lewis may really want to “abolish nature”. But Shulamith Firestone? Whose book, The Dialectic of Sex, changed so many lives half a century ago, including mine? The penultimate chapter of which is titled ‘Feminism in the Age of Ecology’? I needed to check this out.
Re-reading The Dialectic of Sex for the first time in 52 years certainly uncovered a few surprises. It revealed what I, disillusioned as I was with much of male-oriented Marxism, had found so compelling back in 1971. That incisive first sentence :“Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.” Her recognition of how painful confronting that reality is: “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper. It is everywhere.” The need to illuminate what had been invisible: “For feminist revolution we shall need an analysis of the dynamics of sex war as comprehensive as the Marx-Engels analysis of class antagonism was for the economic revolution. More comprehensive.” The realisation that, if the elimination of economic class would require the seizure by the dominated class (workers) of the means of production, elimination of sex class would require the seizure by the dominated class (women) of the means of reproduction.
So far, so enlightening. But already, in the first chapter, there is a suggestion that the abolition of sex class distinctions based on biology requires more than changing the power relationship between men and women - it needs technological interventions that alter biology. Archaeological evidence that early matriarchies were egalitarian is ignored - “there’s still some dependence of the female and the infant on the male” (as if interdependence inevitably means domination and subordination). By chapter 2, first wave feminism in the US is described as “the dawn of a long struggle to break free of the oppressive power structures set up by Nature and reinforced by man”.
Feminism and ecology
If, as Firestone suggested in her opening chapters, it was not patriarchy but Nature that initially established men’s oppression of women, then it would follow that ending that oppression would require a transformation of nature. Fast forward to chapter 10, Feminism in the Age of Ecology, and it is clear that she was concerned about what men have done to nature. She argued, though, that what she called the “natural balance” that man has destroyed cannot be restored. Instead, she believed that what is needed now is “a beneficial human equilibrium between man and the new artificial environment he is creating.”
Firestone was clear that population growth was the main threat to ecological balance, and she understood that this threat was rooted in male supremacy, particularly within the family.
”It is true that a redistribution of the world’s wealth and resources would greatly ease the problem - even if it could happen tomorrow. But the problem would still remain, for it exists independently of traditional politics and economics, and thus could not be solved by traditional politics and economics alone. These political and economic complications are only aggravations of a genuine problem of ecology. Once again radicals have failed to think radically enough: capitalism is not the only enemy, redistribution of wealth and resources are not the only solutions, attempts to control population are not only Third World Suppression in disguise.”
Firestone understood that women’s control of fertility, and of reproductive technology, would benefit nature as well as promote greater sex equality. She went on to suggest that It had become necessary ”to free humanity from the tyranny of its biology”, and that this could be achieved by developing cybernation and artificial reproduction to create a new, human determined, ecological balance. Cybernation, replacing workers by machines, to transform work into ‘play’ (“activity done for its own sake”). And artificial reproduction, replacing mothers by machines, to free women from pregnancy (which she believed to be “barbaric” and a “temporary deformation of the body”). Artificial reproduction would also enable alternatives to the biological family, and ensure that population growth is halted.
Firestone did warn that, in the wrong hands, artificial reproduction and cybernation could be used to oppress. She had enormous faith, though, that, in the right hands, “when the male Technological Mode can at last produce in actuality what the female Aesthetic Mode had envisioned”, application of these technologies would improve on nature. She didn’t foresee an inherent problem with Artificial Intelligence systems, that if they are able to develop beyond human comprehension, they might be able to escape human control. And I’m pretty sure that she would have been horrified at how women’s bodies are now being commodified as a step on the drive towards artificial reproduction. She underestimated capitalism’s ability to innovate and embed new technologies which reinforce the existing power structure, before the political change that could undermine that power structure and influence how technologies develop has time to emerge. And she overestimated humanity’s ability to improve on nature.
I’m disturbed by the extent to which Firestone supported the colonisation of nature and welcomed a future that is in many respects transhumanist. I’m shocked at her disregard of safeguarding concerns (she advocated breaking the mother-child bond and eliminating childhood, and suggested that “relations with children would include as much genital sex as the child was capable of”). And I wonder at how little of this registered with me at the time.
But nothing can take away from the insight encapsulated in the opening sentence of The Dialectic of Sex - “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.” A sentence that cuts through current nonsense about ‘gender identity’, and encourages us to look behind surface appearances, and keep looking. An approach which requires us to stay grounded in material reality, and to keep raising our consciousness, because: “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper. It is everywhere.”
Everywhere includes, I now realise, within the pages of The Dialectic of Sex.
Listening to nature
There’s another way of responding to ecological crisis, exemplified by Rachel Carson, author of the book that exposed the unintended consequences of chemical pest control, Silent Spring (1962). Carson described that different way in a speech she gave at Scripps College, a Women’s Liberal Arts College in California, the year that Silent Spring was published.
“Man has talked somewhat arrogantly about the conquest of Nature, now he has the power to achieve his boast. It is our misfortune - it may well be our final tragedy - that this power has not been tempered with wisdom, but has been marked by irresponsibility; that there is too little awareness that man is part of nature, and the price of that conquest may well be the destruction of man himself….instead of always trying to impose our will on Nature we should sometimes be quiet and listen to what she has to tell us.”
(Rachel Carson, 1962 Scripps College speech, quoted by Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, 1998)
Coming next - the patriarchal underpinnings of climate breakdown and biodiversity decline.
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