FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Life Without Limits: the Delusions of Technological Fundamentalism

In a routinely delusional world, what is the most dangerous delusion?

Living in the United States, I’m tempted to focus on the delusion that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world — a claim repeated robotically by politicians of both parties.

In a mass-consumption capitalist society, there’s the delusion that if we only buy more, newer, better products we all will be happier — a claim repeated endlessly in commercial propaganda (commonly known as advertising and marketing).

I’m also white, and so it’s understandable to worry about the delusion that white people are superior to non-white people. And as a man, I reflect on the delusion that institutionalized male dominance is our fate, whether asserted to be divinely commanded or evolutionarily inevitable.

But all these delusions that rationalize hierarchies within the human family, and the resulting injustices that flow from those hierarchies, are less frightening to me than modern humans’ delusion that we are not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry, that humans can live beyond the biophysical limits of the ecosphere.

This delusion is not limited to one country, one group, or one political party, but rather is the unstated assumption of everyday life in the high-energy/high-technology industrial world. This is the delusion that we are — to borrow from the title of a particularly delusional recent book — the god species.

This ideology of human supremacy leads us to believe that our species’ cleverness allows us to ignore the limits placed on all life forms by the larger living world, of which we are but one component. What we once quaintly called “environmentalism” — which too often focused on technical solutions to discrete problems rather than challenging human arrogance and the quest for endless affluence — is no longer adequate to deal with the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our era: climate destabilization, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, and on and on.

Playing god got us into this trouble, and more of the same won’t get us out.

This inability to accept the limits that come with being part of “nature” – a strange term when used to contrast with “human,” as if humans were somehow not part of the natural world – was on my mind as I read two new books about controversial topics that typically are thought of as social, not ecological, issues: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, and Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, by Renate Klein.

[Disclaimer: I have met Brunskell-Evans in our shared work in the radical feminist critique of pornography, and Klein is co-publisher of Spinifex Press, which published my book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.]

Both books offer a feminist critique of the ideology and practices of these movements that herald medical/technological “solutions” to struggles with gender norms and infertility.

Brunskell-Evans’ and Moore’s book brings together researchers, activists, mental health practitioners and parents who question such practices as puberty suppression to block the development of secondary sex characteristics as treatment for gender dysphoria. Are such disruptions of a child’s development with powerful drugs warranted, given the lack of testing and absence of a clear understanding of the etiology of transgenderism? The authors challenge what has rapidly become the liberal dogma of embracing medicalized approaches to the very real problem of patriarchal gender norms (the demand that boys must act one way and girls another) that constrain our lives.

Klein marshals research and the testimony of surrogates to point out that another liberal dogma — affluent individuals have a right to “rent a womb” so they may have a child genetically related to them — involves considerable risks for the surrogate mother (sometimes referred to as the “gestational carrier”). The author’s assessment is blunt, but well supported: modern surrogacy is a form of exploitation of women and trafficking in babies.

Both books demonstrate the enduring relevance of the radical branch of feminism that highlights men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s reproductive power and sexuality as a key feature of men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. And both are critical of the naive celebration of high-tech medicine to deal with issues that stem from patriarchy’s rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms.

Those radical feminist challenges dovetail with a radical ecological critique that reminds us that being alive — being a carbon-based creature that exists within the limits of the ecosphere — means that we should be skeptical of claims that we can magically transcend those limits. The high-energy, high-tech, human-defined world in which we live can lull us into believing that we are like gods in our ability to shape the world, and to shape our own bodies.

Of course, drugs, surgery and medical techniques routinely save lives and improve our lives, in ways that are “unnatural” in some sense. To highlight these questions does not mean that lines are easy to draw between what is appropriate and what is ill-advised. But we invite serious miscalculations when we embrace without critical self-reflection the assumption that we can manipulate our human-centered worlds without concern for the limits of the larger living world.

Many of us have experienced this in end-of-life care decisions for ourselves or loved ones. When are high-tech medical interventions that prolong life without concern for quality of life a mistake? I have had long conversations with friends and family about where the line should be drawn, not only to make my own views clear but to search for collective understanding. The fact that the line is hard to draw, and even harder to face when arriving at it, doesn’t make the question any less relevant. The fact that there is no obvious and easy answer doesn’t mean we can avoid the question.

Elective cosmetic surgery is perhaps the best example of the culture’s rejection of limits. All living things eventually die, and human appearance changes as we age, yet many people search for ways to stave off that aging or to change their appearance for other non-medical reasons. In 2017, Americans spent more than $15 billion on cosmetic procedures (surgical and nonsurgical), 91% of which were performed on women. The two most common surgical procedures are liposuction and breast augmentation. Although some people who get liposuction are overweight, it is not a treatment for obesity, and breast augmentation is rarely related to physical health. These procedures typically are chosen by people seeking to conform to social norms about appearance.

With this humility about high-tech human intervention in mind, how should we understand the experience of feeling at odds with gender norms? How should we reconcile the physical inability to bear children with the desire to have children? There are no obvious or easy answers, but I believe that as a culture we are better served by starting with the recognition that we are not gods, that we cannot endlessly manipulate the world without risking unintended consequences for self and others. How does the rejection of limits impede our ability to first examine and then resist the impositions of patriarchy, to find new understandings of sex/gender and new social relationships for caring for children?

At the planetary level, we have considerable evidence that our faux-god attempts to dominate the ecosphere — which started most dramatically with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and intensified with the exploitation of fossil fuels — now make the future of a large-scale human population uncertain. The lesson some of us take from that is to turn away from the “technological fundamentalism” that leads us to see all problems as having high-energy/high-tech solutions and consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.

That same perspective is compelling on the level of these questions around gender and fertility. Here’s a sensible place to start: We should step back from the hyper-individualism of neoliberal ideology and examine more deeply how the institutionalized male dominance of patriarchy has shaped our collective thinking about gender and identity, and about women’s status and parenting. Such reflection reveals that the liberal ideology on transgenderism and surrogacy embraces the technological fundamentalism that embraces medical and market “solutions” rather than enhancing the sense of integrity that we seek.

Integrity is a key concept here because of its two meanings — adherence to moral principles and the state of being whole. We strive to act with integrity, and to maintain the integrity of both the living body and the larger living world. In hierarchical systems that reward domination, such as patriarchy, freedom comes to be understood only at the ability to control, others and the world around us. Andrea Dworkin captures this struggle when she writes:

“Being an object – living in the realm of male objectification – is abject submission, an abdication of the freedom and integrity of the body, its privacy, its uniqueness, its worth in and of itself because it is the human body of a human being.”

Freedom in patriarchy is granted only to those in control, and that control turns other living things into objects, destroying the possibility of integrity-as-moral-principles and integrity-as-wholeness. Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits.

This article originally appeared on the Australian site, ABC.

 

More articles by:

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail