Feminism and Economic Transition

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  • N.S. Lyons: "Clearly feminism has had and is having a significant impact on our societies. But you’ve argued that “what we think of today as ‘feminism’ is a story of economic transitions,” and, “If everyone today seems to be arguing about men and women again, it’s because we’re in the throes of another economic transition.” What do you think is the nature of this economic transition, exactly? And how is it producing these arguments?

MH: I’d suggest we are in fact about 50-60 years into this transition, which I characterize as the end of the industrial and beginning of the cyborg age. It began in the 1960s with the emergence of new technologies that radically shifted how we understood our limitations on two crucial fronts: computation and reproduction. The contraceptive pill threw into question whether – or how far – we were limited by the givens of human reproductive biology, and in the process liquefied the entire corpus of social and cultural norms we’d developed to manage fertility and family life, seemingly opening a limitless vista of polymorphously perverse and consequence-free sexual pleasure in its stead. Computation, and especially the internet, promised to end all limitations to our thinking, and even to enable us to transcend embodiment itself. A core thesis of the book I'm working on, Feminism Against Progress, is that significant changes in material conditions within a society inevitably force re-negotiations of family life – how could they not? – these two developments represent just such a radical change.

The digital reimagining of personhood, and the (supposed) biomedical mastery of fertility, dramatically change the possible conditions both for individual human life but also for the life of a family. That can be on as mundane a front as where work happens, but it has shaken our norms and assumptions to their foundations by proposing – for example – to disaggregate reproduction from being a woman, identity from being in a body, gestation from being a mother, sex from emotional intimacy or, in the age of mass pornography and sex robots, even the necessary presence of another.

The consequences of radical material changes tend to lag the changes themselves: you saw that in the delay between industrialization and the way families – and women in particular – adapted to those changes. I think we're now far enough from the cultural legacy of the industrial age that we’re beginning to see the contours of the cyborg one more clearly. Much of my work seeks to ensure that women are meeting that age not with a hermeneutic toolbox left over from the last age but as far as possible a critical framework that's trying to understand what constitute women's interests now and in the world that's now emerging."