I just finished reading Mary Harrington’s new book, ‘Feminism Against Progress’. I forget exactly when I first came across her writing but it was immediately clear to me that she was not just another cultural commentator. She was willing to say things that were at odds with prevailing orthodoxies and she was clearly well-read. Plus she had a snappy style about her prose that I really liked. Having learned a little bit more about her in subsequent years, I see now why she had these qualities. She was educated at Oxford, went deep into queer theory in abstract and personal ways throughout her 20’s, and was then radically re-oriented by her experience of motherhood in her 30’s. She is one of those modern writers who has been through the swamp of post-modern ideology and emerged the other side sounding a little bit like a conservative. Well, that’s the slur typically deployed against such people; the once-faithful adherents who have abandoned the progressive enclave.
One of the most memorable phrases Harrington uses in her writing is that of meat lego gnosticism. Now that’s a phrase that needs a bit of unpacking the first time you hear it, sort of like moralistictherapeutic deism. “Say what now?” Harrington argues that the logic of the current iteration of feminism is leading our society into a tech-enabled dystopia of meat lego Gnosticism: ‘meat lego’ because we are talking about human bodies that are “liberated” from the biological constraints of gender and sexed differences, and fundamentally reduced to collections of exchangeable parts. And ‘Gnosticism’ because that ancient (and ever-present) heresy rejected the created goodness of embodied existence and made the internal (or spiritual) self the ultimate authority. So whatever I feel myself to be internally is the north star by which all other considerations are guided.
The myth of progress sold to us centers around the idea that ever greater freedom equals ever greater progress. We have equated those two concepts: freedom & progress. Therefore autonomy is prized over responsibility, and constraints are by definition to be resisted. But having achieved historically unprecedented levels of freedom and opportunity already, the modern woman is faced with the uncomfortable reality that women are not really any happier for all their gains. This is one of the book’s strengths: cataloguing all the ways in which a deep malaise haunts men and women who are beholden to this view of freedom-as-progress. So that leaves many in our culture facing the following choice. Either the fundamental promise of liberation was wrong or we just haven’t broken through enough constraints and inequalities to usher in the golden age. Folks on “the right side of history” (as they see it) are convinced it’s the latter, while Mary Harrington makes the case – rather persuasively to my mind – that it’s the former.
There are many other things to commend about this book and Harrington’s other writing in general (typically at the website UnHerd, where she is a regular contributor). She is not a conservative Christian like me, but it is precisely due to this difference of theological and cultural location that her particular insights shine brightly. She sees things differently, comes at them from different angles, and has read entirely different kinds of books. Yet I recognize in her that glimmer of common sense, of seeing the world rightly, of following the evidence when it collides with cherished beliefs, and pursuing truth at the expense of cultural capital among the bien pensants.
This book is precisely the thing to give that person in your life who has bought into all the mottos and slogans of modern feminism. This is not a conservative diatribe against feminism. Those books have their place, though usually not in convincing feminists to rethink their ideas. But this book, written from inside the feminist framework, can accomplish exactly that. And as our world hurtles ever on towards the dystopia of tech-enabled bio-libertarian meat lego gnosticism, Mary Harrington will be a thinker who will help us all to think carefully about the choices we face.
As she points out in this book, the greatest thing we may have to fight for in the coming decades is the right to remain fully and truly human.