Mary Daly was one of the most prescient voices of her time with regard to environmental disaster.
Daly was also an explicitly transphobic thinker.
These two facts are deeply related.
What links these two directions in her thought is a radically anti-interventionist ethic. Daly repeatedly shows how the patriarchal impulse to control everything in the world not only destroys womens’ lives but is destroying the living, natural world. She describes boundary violation as one of the key elements of control, and her concern for the ability of nature to be on its own terms extends to such unconscious phenomena as comets. In Quintessence: Realizing the Archaic Future, she laments scientists “harpooning a comet, just to see what’s inside,” revealing the extent of her respect for the integrity of natural processes. (3)
In contrast to the technological use of science to bend nature to human purposes, Daly advocates participation in Be-ing. Be-ing is a natural process of unconstrained movement, in which various Selves and Elemental forces unfold. In an unalienated state of participation in Be-ing, connection is genuine and unforced, and the relations that emerge in this process further spur the development and creativity of a natural unfolding process. Among the many words Daly reclaims and plays with, her use of “Wild” describes women’s participation in Be-ing, and it especially brings out a sense of uncontrolled creativity.
Among the many benefits of Daly’s advocacy of participation in Be-ing is the sense of sheer aliveness it offers. To write this piece, I re-read her Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy to help me think about the conundrum I named in the opening sentences. I had originally read it in my first years of college, and experienced it as a shock, but also as a way of thinking that was more than compelling – it was alluring, enticing, exciting. Over the years, I’d referred back to bits and pieces of the book, but when I sat down to read it from beginning to end again after twenty-some years, I was struck again by how alive it made me feel, how it deepened my own awareness of our profound connection with the natural, living world around us.
Of course, the importance of Daly’s work is not simply in her advocacy of harmony with nature, but in her keen naming of destructive forces apparent on many levels. In Pure Lust, she states, “Within the sadostate women are ontologically undermined, for the sado-intent is the conversion of female participation in Be-ing into mere being, that is, the conversion of women into things, and into complicity with thinghood.” (59) Since 1984, when Daly published these words, the scientific rush to convert life into thinghood has accelerated. For example, one group of Japanese scientists looked at the threat of bee collapse, and came up with the idea of using robot bees to pollinate plants. While other scientists quickly showed that robot pollination would not be a feasible alternative to bees, the impulse to replace nature with machines that the premise revealed is growing more and more common.
The depth to which this impulse is present in contemporary society is apparent in the rise of various transhumanist movements, many of which advocate complete “liberation” from biological restraints, or what we generally call embodiment. Some manifestations of these desires can be seen in cryogenics, the notion of uploading brains to computers, Ray Kurzweil’s feverish pursuit of the Singularity, or Nick Bostrom’s philosophical musings on whether we are living in a computer simulation, all of which are chronicled in Mark O’Connor’s important and highly readable account, To Be a Machine. O’Connor offers a skeptical view of the transhumanist subculture, and he notes how male-dominated it is. He furthermore explores how the more men seek to avoid death through technology, the more they hurtle the world toward a total death. Daly brings these various strands together in her comment,
Since the Virgin Mother mythically represents all matter to the sublimers/sublimators, the myth of “the Incarnation” symbolically legitimates the rape of all matter as well as all women – a project which has been speeded up immeasurably in the age of computerized technology. Nuclearism, chemical contamination of the earth, planned famine, torture of political prisoners, torture of laboratory animals, obscene medical experimentation – all are discharges of male instinctual energy through activities that are socially approved by males. (Pure Lust, 75)
Daly’s diagnosis of patriarchy’s central impulse to convert that which IS into mere thinghood needs to be heeded today more than ever.
Unfortunately, Daly explicitly tied her critique of technological violation of nature to her negative verdict on transsexuals. In Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, she states, “the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology. The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms. Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes.” (70-71) Here, Daly positions transgender experience not simply as an extension of patriarchal encroachment on women’s creativity, but as a manifestation of the same forces that reduce the vibrancy of the living world to a dead counterfeit.
The importance of Daly’s position in transphobic discourse can also be seen in her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, a vehement critic of transsexualism. Transgender people have compared Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early twentieth-century example of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. Raymond relied on Daly’s thought in her book The Transsexual Empire, and Daly approvingly cited it in Pure Lust.
It took me a long time for me to register how offensive Daly’s takes on transgender people are. The shock Daly delivered in Pure Lust was a crucial factor in my coming out as a gay man. Yet for many years, I gave mere lip service to the “T” in LGBT. I identified unreservedly with the LGB part of the community, I knew that attempts to exclude transgender people were morally wrong, but I was guilty of relegating trans people to an afterthought. Although I had ample opportunity to interact with transgender people, it has only been in the last few years that friendships with trans people have transformed my perspective from a passionless affirmation of an abstract principle of fairness and inclusion to embracing the full humanity of transgender people. In my initial reading of Daly, I neither affirmed nor balked at her descriptions of trans experience -–I simply didn’t consider it important enough to form an opinion about. I don’t think it is true that Daly slowed my acceptance of transgender people – but she certainly did not help.
So, I’m left with the question – if Daly gives us unparalleled tools to resist the mechanization of the world, and her dehumanization of transgender people is explicitly and deeply informed by those very tools, can I love the Luddite and deplore the transphobe? On one level, the answer is obvious – I can and I do. Every great thinker has blind spots, exhibits limitations of historical moment, social location, and personality. I am not one for throwing out the baby with the bathwater (which is also why, despite Daly, I still enjoy the Bible). But because I also see that these are not just two aspects of her thought, but two clearly interlocking aspects of her thought, I’m still left with a sense that I have to wrestle harder with this contradiction, that there is a deeper reckoning with my unease that lies ahead.
Dirk von der Horst is an adjunct lecturer of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and his revised dissertation was published with Wipf and Stock as Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference. He juggles a spiritual commitment to life with despair over ecological disaster and a world of injustice on a daily basis.