Staying Human in the Meat Lego Matrix

Notes toward a Cyborg Feminist Reaction

I’ve had a busy month. At UnHerd I wrote about asshat cockerels and ‘toxic masculinity’, quoted a Nazi in defence of constitutional monarchy, blamed John Stuart Mill for Boris Johnson, and invited reasonable people to give up on reason as a political strategy.

I also popped up in the Mail on Sunday in support for Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill, finished several big pieces I’ll link when they’re published, and had a great conversation with the wonderful Raven Connolly at Rebel Wisdom.

The chat was wide-ranging but its core theme was the question of how to stay human, in what Paul Kingsnorth is calling the ‘Age of the Machine’. This in turn helped crystallise some thoughts for me on the wider context for the line of thinking I explore in this newsletter, a line I’m calling ‘reactionary feminism’.

In brief: the Age of the Machine calls on us to clarify and defend aspects of our humanity that simply weren’t up for discussion before. The limits on many aspects of what we are as humans were once given - but aren’t any more. When is it fine to smash a limit? And when should we leave well alone, for fear of mutilating ourselves emotionally, culturally or literally? We no longer have a meaningful framework for even posing that question, let alone giving answers that feel stable enough to ground a regime.

In 1985 Donna Haraway saw this coming in Cyborg Manifesto, in which she argued that the transition from the industrial age to the digital one so radically disrupted categories we previously saw as natural and self-evident that humanism, and its daughter feminism, were no longer thinkable in terms of previously functional constituent categories. Even ideas such as ‘woman’ and ‘biology’, Haraway argues, were revealed by the information age as simulacra in need of creative challenge.

More than 35 years on, Haraway’s essay is prescient in its outline of transitions toward gig-economy work, the ‘feminisation’ of the workforce, the globalisation of industry and the growing interpenetration of human and machine - and consequent collapse of both categories as distinct entities. But where Haraway sees potential for a creative new feminist politics of affinity, I see the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’. This is a world where digital simulacra are used to push a fantasy of radical self-creation, that re-envisages human selfhood as online identity and our bodies as meat avatars.

In this worldview, human bodies are not sacred, let alone inseparable from consciousness. They’re inert meat we’re entitled to enclose for profit, instrumentalise at will, and rearrange like toy building-blocks to suit our sense of self. And because we’re entering an age where this is increasingly possible, with a moral framework inherited from a time when limits were still a thing, this is all being framed as a civil rights and social justice issue.

Emerging digital and biological technologies, from egg-freezing and commercial surrogacy through online sex work to the aggressively expansionary medical field of transgender medicine, are all fiercely championed by progressives today - because they advance the cause of individual freedom. What these all have in common, though, is a vision of human life in which consciousness and embodiment are radically separable - and the free play of inner desire is paramount. In this view, our bodies wholly subject to alteration, editing, enclosure, commodification and medical interruption in the interests of identity and individual self-realisation.

Such developments pose fundamental challenges for women. And a core reason for this is that for women, the very notion of freedom has always been ambivalent. Gestating and caring for children is a state of radical interdependence. And - whisper it - those women who long to be entirely liberated from such interdependence are a minority, and likely always have been.

Equally, though, there’s also a huge grey area of ambivalence for women concerning fertility. My grandma told me once that she had children ‘because it was expected’ but never really wanted to be a mother. Interdependence is a huge undertaking, especially in a culture that’s blind to it. I don’t blame those women who have mixed feelings about taking it on; or those many feminists who campaigned in the past (and still campaign) for birth control and other means of asserting autonomy over fertility.

Such resistance to this perceived burden of interdependence has been a key driver of technologies that seek to liberate women from all constraints (even that of loving our children). The radical feminist Shulamith Firestone dreamed in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) of a world in which gestation was performed by machines, and both women and the field of human sexuality had been liberated from reproduction. Now, having legalised birth control and abortion, that world is within touching distance, as extra-uterine gestation has been partly realised – albeit so far only in animal experiments.

But developments we frame as ‘progress’ often come with unexpected trade-offs – usually unevenly distributed by social class. We might imagine this technology could liberate career-oriented women from a difficult choice between ambition and motherhood. But should it become normal among humans, extra-uterine gestation could just as plausibly be used to undermine the case for maternity leave, at the expense of those women who value time with a baby.

Similarly, in a pre-contraception world that left women at the mercy of their fertility, pursuing bodily autonomy made a lot of sense as a feminist goal. But today the commercial surrogacy industry uses the feminist language of bodily autonomy to justify renting impoverished women’s wombs to infertile couples. And elsewhere in the pursuit of freedom, the pornography industry uses ‘free speech’ to justify the rape of barely-adult (and sometimes underage) girls for the camera. These shifts - driven by the transition into what Haraway calls the ‘informatics of domination’ - invite us to reconsider whose interests ‘freedom’ truly serves.

Freeing women from the constraints of biology also means dissolving (as Haraway predicted, cheerfully) the constituent category of feminism itself: adult human females. For having seized control over the givens of women’s reproductive biology, the logic of freedom and progress has moved on to repudiating any limitations whatsoever consequent on our being a sexually dimorphic species.

A feminism dedicated to equality and ending gender stereotypes must set itself against any discrimination a woman could suffer – even discrimination on the grounds of being male, or of not wishing to be referred to as a woman. This is now well advanced: yesterday, US Congresswoman Cori Bush referred in her testimony on perinatal fatalities to ‘birthing people’, and triggered a worldwide outcry at the abolition of the concept ‘women’ from our public vocabulary.

The Biden administration in the United States has been widely applauded for its feminist inclusion of many women, including the first ever female Vice-President. The same administration made it a priority to pass an executive order that prohibits the exclusion of trans-identifying males from women’s sport, despite a well-documented sporting performance gap between the sexes that evidence shows is not eliminated by taking cross-sex hormones.

And the biomedical turn in our drive to escape all limits requires that we reframe elective “gender affirming” cosmetic surgeries oriented as a form of feminist liberation. At the most extreme futurist end of such practices, medical scientists increasingly propose uterus transplants as the next frontier for those who wish to transition from their natal male sex to live as women – a progressive goal as it increases inclusivity and individual self-actualisation.

This raises questions, though, about where a supply of donated uteruses might be sourced. Will they be bought from ‘freely consenting’ but in truth impoverished and desperate women? Asking, as they say, for a friend. Nor do the breathless articles on this subject address obvious ethical dilemmas concerning the unknown effects of attempting to gestate a live human baby within a natal male artificially equipped with a transplanted uterus.

As transgender scientist Martine Rothblatt has argued, there’s a direct line from a campaign for acceptance of humans’ right to choose their own sex to acceptance of our right to augment and alter ourselves at will. In other words, what the Meat Lego Matrix offers is a dream of total mastery of the flesh - one that seeks to sideline all questions of whether or not there even is such a thing as ‘human nature’. And as these examples should indicate, it’s a project that - like all seismic changes in human civilisation - comes with tradeoffs. And those of the Meat Lego Matrix impact most profoundly on women, and on the radically interdependent (and intrinsically female) state of motherhood.

For the more we privilege freedom, the more invisible dependency and care become, and the more inhuman will become our treatment of those in need of such care. This, inevitably, will mean more women than men. If we see embodied existence as either private property to dispose of as we see fit, or else as terrain subject to enclosure and commercialisation by new biomedical industries, we’ll become increasingly blind to all the ways dependence and care are still irreducibly features of human life: old age, pregnancy, infancy, disability, illness, and so on.

There have already been numerous cases of children gestated as part of a commercial surrogacy arrangement only to be abandoned – sometimes by both commissioning ‘parents’ and gestational mother – when born with physical or mental disabilities. Similarly, the transformation of women’s gestational labour into a market commodity routinely airbrushes the physical risks to women undertaking this ‘work’, as well as the political and economic vulnerability of many such women especially in developing countries.

The Meat Lego Matrix is a tech-augmented final assault on all barriers to absolute freedom. As such it’s a radically atomised vision, where women are encouraged to treat the commodification of transient youthful beauty as empowerment, and interdependent bonds as a site of oppression. In this world the collapse of natural human fertility is a trivial matter, as reproduction is progressively subject to medical micromanagement. Spirit has triumphed definitively over matter, remodelling the human body as malleable site for individual self-actualisation, and women’s reproductive capacity as either a medical problem in need of cure or a resource to be monetised.

In the Meat Lego Matrix, feminism looks like equity for a shrinking group of ruling-class women, and an ever more abject, competitive and de-sexed existence for the rest in a world that shrugs at commercial surrogacy, destigmatises ‘sex work’ and replaces the political interests of women as a sex class with the validation of proliferating identities. That is, perks, plaudits and C-suite roles for those at the top, and (literally in the case of teenage athlete Selina Soule) a bitter and unwinnable competition for the rest.

If it’s not to be co-opted any further as ideological battering-ram for this dystopian agenda, the principal task of feminism must now be to set itself against freedom and progress. This doesn’t mean trying to ‘go back’ to some imagined past utopia, of course; the past wasn’t all rosy, and today’s challenges need today’s politics. But the worship of progress is itself yesterday’s politics. If we’re to find any space at all for solidarity between the sexes instead, in a common defence of the human, the central question can no longer be ‘how do we make more progress and acquire more freedom?’ but: ‘how can men and women live together?’. I’ll return to this question in future essays.