The Womb and the Cave

Carolyn Merchant, in “Mining the Earth’s Womb” (1983), writes that a “female nurturing earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine” over the course of the seventeenth century (471). As I have noted previously, in my paper “The Sovereignty of the Subject: Theological and Political Trajectories,” the seventeenth century saw a remarkable confluence of philosophical, political, and theological ideas that would simultaneously open Western thought to the development of Newtonian science (Oakley), while undermining the metaphysical (or onto-political) framework undergirding such a development (Balibar). If theological voluntarism provided a basis for mechanistic science, its roots in the Roman political tradition also provided a basis for a revolution of the philosophical and political subject that would collapse the hierarchical and causal structure so central to classical mechanics. But in all of this, I nowhere discussed the question of gender. As Balibar notes, in the classical political hierarchy inherited by Descartes, and the tradition preceding him, women were included in the “heterogenous set” of “dependent” subjects, along with “slaves,” “children,” and “adopted relatives” (8). With the transposition of this political apparatus into the theological (voluntarism) and philosophical (Descartes), the transcendental subjection of women (and slaves, and children, and outsiders) seems unavoidable. As Merchant shows, such a subjection was in fact the case: philosophical, political, and theological metaphors of “dominion” led, in the seventeenth century, to the domination of women, and the feminine or dependent abstractly, in a heretofore unseen way (472). If we are to follow Balibar in critically assessing the historical roots of our politics and philosophy, Merchant’s arguments should not be ignored.

Referring to Stanley Cavell’s essay, “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1971), Merchant draws our attention to the “ethic-laden” nature of our “[d]escriptive statements”: “descriptions and norms are not opposed to one another by linguistic separation into separate “is” and “ought” statements, but are contained within each other” (472). Thus, to “be aware of the interconnectedness of descriptive and normative statements is to be able to evaluate changes in the latter by observing changes in the former” (472). Looking to the Scientific Revolution, Merchant identifies precisely this sort of interconnectedness at play: “[b]ecause the needs and purposes of society as a whole were changing with the commercial revolution, the values associated with the organic view of nature were no longer applicable; hence, the plausibility of the conceptual framework itself was slowly, but continuously, being threatened” (472-73). Indeed, if we consider the scientific mechanism of which Oakley writes, and note in particular its growth out of the political value of obedience, and the theological value of the Judeo-Christian God’s omnipotence and independence, we can see how the oughts asserted by these values led to the reformulation of the is of reality in their terms. We see nature shift from a “geocosm” to a “dead, inanimate, physical system” (473) and law (natural, juridical, divine) shift from immanence to imposition (Oakley 54). And in this, the “nurturing mother,” the “nurturing earth,” was excluded and subjugated to the will (Merchant 473).

Merchant identifies the geocosmic perspective in the likes of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Seneca the Younger (4 B.C.-A.D. 65), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Paracelsus (1493-1541), and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). It is from Paracelsus that Merchant draws the metaphor of the earth as “a female whose womb nurtured all life,” a view that was generally held in the Renaissance period: “all things were permeated by life ... The earth was alive and considered to be a beneficient, receptive, nurturing female” (474-75). Pliny (A.D. 23-79) described the mining of the earth as the “penetrat[ion]” of “her entrails” (cited in Merchant 475), and Ovid 43 B.C.-A.D. 17) as “[digging] into her vitals” (cited in Merchant 476). As late as the German professor Paul Schneevogel (1490-1495), “Mother Earth” is allegorically represented “in a tattered green robe,” “desecrated” and “devastated” by mining (cited in Merchant 476). But, during this same period, Georg Agricola (1494-1555) would challenge this depiction of the earth, and gradually, the “image of the nurturing mother” would “transform[]” into “that of a stepmother who wickedly conceals her bounty from the deserving and needy children” (477). With the entrance of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to the debate, “Nature’s womb” was seen to be “harbor[ing] secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp” (479), and with “bold sexual imagery,” the “key feature of the modern experimental method is established”: “constraint,” “dissection,” “penetration” (480). In stark contrast to the reverence held for the earth by one such as Cicero, Bacon and those who followed him brought about “sanctions in language that legitimate[d] the exploitation and “rape” of nature for human good” (480). By combining the “[s]cientific method” with “mechanical technology,” Bacon created a “new organon,” which “unified knowledge with material power” (480). The days of the nurturing geocosm were no more.

Through Merchant’s reading of the ecological and scientific traditions, then, it becomes clear that our previous discussion of the theological and political traditions, examined by Oakley and Balibar respectively, cannot be separated from questions of gender and female subjugation. Indeed, as Bacon argued, our “right over nature” is ours “by divine bequest” (cited in Merchant 480). God has spoken —or rather, Bacon has spoken for him. The ought has reworked the is; the normative has revised the descriptive. We encounter a profound responsibility for our words and for our ideas insofar as they directly impinge upon the world, and upon others, through our technologies. And if our theology, our philosophy, our politics, and our science, in their interpenetration and entanglement, so deeply permeate our understanding as to authorize the domination and exploitation of women, the disadvantaged, and the environment, a critique of these superstructures is absolutely necessary for the seeking and maintaining of justice in praxis and policy.

Though I do not have as much space here as I would like to introduce a further voice to the conversation, I will try, by way of a conclusion. In her Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), Luce Irigaray contends that the violence of domination and exploitation does not originate so recently as the seventeenth century, as one might assume from the foregoing discussion; rather, its source is the very foundation of Western rationality. In the final section of her book, “Plato’s Hystera” (243ff.), Irigaray takes the myth of the cave in Plato’s Republic for the “impossible” metaphor of “Western metaphysics,” “our point of departure,” the originary “mystification,” whose “passage” is the “forgotten transition,” a forgetting that refers all “proportions, functions, relations ... back to sameness” (243-47). In structuring the ascent of reason in this way, as a movement from the “[g]round, dwelling, cave,” what is forgotten is indeed the “hystera,” the “womb,” for which the cave stands in as a “reproduction” and “representation,” the “maternal and still silent ground that nourishes all foundations” (243, 244, 365). The womb was indeed plundered, as Merchant argues, but well before Francis Bacon authorized such violation. Western metaphysics, Western philosophy, in Irigaray’s reading, is predicating on this action. Irigaray’s text requires far more care and consideration than can be given it here, but if we are to take these hints and scraps of her thought as an extension, a deepening, of Merchant’s argument, and therein of Oakley’s and Balibar’s, we can perhaps begin to see how the paradigm of rational technology and technological rationality that emerged in the seventeenth century was in fact a symptom of a more primordial and structural affliction at the very “spring, or source” of Western thinking (247).

Works Cited

Balibar, Étienne. “Citizen Subject.” e-flux journal, no. 77, 2016, journal/77/77371/citizen-subject/. Accessed 14 Sep. 2017.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. 1974. Translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press, 1985.

Merchant, Carolyn. “Mining the Earth’s Womb.” Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology, edited by Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, John Wiley & Sons, 2014, pp. 471-81.

Oakley, Francis. “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of the Laws of Nature.” 1961.

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