The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called. –W.B. Yeats
While it wasn't until 1854 that the belief in Mary's immaculate conception was officially incorporated into Roman Catholic doctrine, the cult of the Virgin has long emphasized the belief in Mary's ability to reproduce via parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction in which an egg is fertilized without the presence of sperm. The construction of Christ's virgin birth narrative was a critical component in lending legitimacy to nascent Christianity, particularly aiding Paul of Tarsus in evangelizing a Greek population already comfortable with stories of virginal conception. Greek gods such as Apollo, Mithras, Dionysus, and Attis were all believed to be conceived via parthenogenesis. Stories of virginal conception were also often attached to human leaders-Alexander the Great, Romulus, and Caesar Augustus, for example-validating their claims to power.
But while these stories served to legitimize claims to power, they also challenged them. John Dominic Crossan tells us that the story of Christ's virgin birth was created after the crucifixion to contest the Roman occupation of Palestine. Romans believed that Caesar Augustus was conceived when his mortal mother was impregnated by the god Apollo. Crossan says:
"When the same story is told of Mary concerning Jesus and the Holy Spirit, it means, where do you find your God? Do you find God in pomp and power with Caesar Augustus or do you find God in a Jewish child so poor that he didn't even have a home to be born in? That's really what's at issue in that story."
In this sense, the Christian nativity narrative is subversive, appropriating Roman beliefs in order to challenge Roman power. Over the next three centuries Rome recuperated this borrowed theme of virgin birth but found it inverted. Instead of promoting the power and wealth of the ruling class, it spoke to the fierce beliefs of a poor oppressed people that God sided with them, that they would "inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5), that a just and righteous earthly kingdom of God was imminent.
In an effort to neutralize the subversive elements of the virgin birth story and manage a volatile area of the empire, Rome downplayed the political nature of Jesus' ministry, its Jewish roots, and the gender egalitarianism that seems to have been prevalent in early Christian practices. In fact, so skillful was the empire at mitigating the radical nature of Christianity that it made Christianity the official state religion in 380 A.D. In any event, whether used to promote or subvert colonial power, the human capacity to reproduce by parthenogenesis was, in the first century, reserved only for the divine.
Today we know that many organisms reproduce parthenogenetically, among them certain species of plants, sharks, reptiles, and invertebrates as well as single-celled organisms. Evolutionarily, asexual reproduction preceded sexual reproduction. The latter likely arose from what is generally regarded as a mutation-not unlike "the aberration in the scripture" that gave rise to the wealth of Marian devotion that has characterized two thousand years of Christian history.
However, while Mary's ability to reproduce via parthenogenesis occurred through divine intervention, today we are able to create new life through human intervention. Sex and reproduction have been uncoupled, troubling commonly held and often heterosexist notions of gender, sexuality, family, and kinship. Technology has made reality out of science fiction. The advent of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, transplants, immunizations, prosthetic devices, and cloning confounds supposed separations between natural and artificial. Cyborgologists Chris Gray, Steven Mentor, and Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera tell us:
"Anyone with an artificial organ, limb or supplement (like a pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed to resist disease (immunized) or drugged to think/behave/feel better (psychopharmacology) is technically a cyborg."
From this point of view, most of us are already cyborgs, and these interactions between machine and organism that happen on the contested sites of our bodies play out in different ways based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, and nationality.
Donna Haraway identified this reality in "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1991). Written in 1982 in response to an invitation made by the editor of The Socialist Review to write a piece about contemporary socialist feminist thinking, Haraway's manifesto seized the opportunity to trouble assumptions too often unquestioned by feminist and leftist thinkers. It offered a vivid critique of essentialism, "universal, totalizing theory" and "anti-science metaphysics," interrogating the false dichotomies man/woman, human/animal, organism/machine, and nature/culture.
Her manifesto expanded the term cyborg, short for cybernetic organism, first coined by researchers Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 when they implanted an osmotic pump in a white lab rat at Rockland State Hospital. Summoned from the zeitgeist of Star Wars and Reaganomics, Haraway's cyborg is
"resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. . . . The cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden . . . it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. . . . Cyborgs are . . . wary of holisms but needy for connection. . . . The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. . . . . But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential."
Similar to Frederic Jameson's recognition that postmodernism is not a philosophy to which one subscribes but rather a condition with which one must contend, Haraway realizes that we, as cyborgs, are produced through militarism and patriarchal capitalism. Haraway's cyborg is "completely without innocence" because it doesn't deny this fact. Instead, it appropriates these founding identities in order to advocate for "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction." Cyborgs are both playful and deadly serious about the status quo, locating ways to work in and across inescapable differences without attempting to overcome them through transcendental Marxist or Oedipal urges. They take to heart (or pacemaker) the fact that we inhabit cyborg worlds, as Haraway says, "willy-nilly…whether we want to or not."
More than twenty years later, Haraway's manifesto now seems prophetic. In her preface to The Cyborg Handbook (1995), Haraway reflects:
"Already in the few decades that [cyborgs] have existed, they have mutated, in fact and fiction, into second-order entities like genomic and electronic databases and the other denizens of the zone called cyberspace. Lives are at stake in curious quasi-objects like databases; they structure the informatics of possible worlds, as well as of all-too-real ones."
Scholars and activists have drawn heavily upon the cyborg as a tool to scrutinize the various roles that technoscience plays in contemporary forms of militarism and neocolonialism, transnational trade and labor systems, global economics, religious fundamentalism, biomedical practices, and body politics. In and across all of these spheres, cyborgs have a way of "transfecting, infecting, everything" (Ibid.).
In Lynn Randolph's painting, The Annunciation of the Second Coming on the cover of Haraway's (1997) book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM
(Figure 2), a Renaissance-esque angel is not the herald of joyous news of Christ's birth but rather the harbinger of an ominous message: "…life is changing on earth irrevocably." The neo-Mary to whom the angel announces this is a "classical and statuesque electronic goddess" carrying in her "troubling body both a threat and a promise." Haraway tells us that "[s]he is a matrix, one who is pregnant with the contradictions, emergencies, delusions, and hopes of colliding sociotechnical worlds." The title of Randolph's painting alludes not only to the Biblical prophesy of Christ's reappearance as described in the New Testament but, perhaps indirectly, to W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," which deals with the same prophesy.
First published in 1920, Yeats' poem expressed his belief that the Christian era was coming to a close and transitioning into a new age of chaos and destruction. It reflects the fears and anxieties of an increasingly confused and confusing modern world, a world that found itself contending with the incredible violence of the First World War, the disappointments of the Russian Revolution, and, for Yeats, the compromises of the Irish Civil War of 1916. The First World War in particular introduced a new kind of violence in which relationships between humans and machinery became extraordinarily intimate. "The Second Coming" is also an exemplar of the kind of apocalyptic mysticism that often surfaces during calendrical changes and historical moments of great political upheaval and contact with radical otherness.
This holds true for both the historical moments I have examined in my research: the first century Roman occupation of Palestine under which Miryam of Nazareth was living and the Spanish colonization of the "New World" when Malinche, born on the borders of blurring empires, was christened Doña Marina and made property of Hernán Cortés.
Rome conquered Palestine just a few decades before Jesus was born. In response, mystery cults proliferated in the area, assured that a Messiah would come to deliver Jews from their subjugation. Similarly, Spaniards and Aztecs alike had ambivalent feelings that their contact with one another would mean either the fulfillment of a supernatural destiny or, alternately, the end of the world. In both circumstances, these interactions opened up liminal spaces that simultaneously ruptured pre-existing systems of domination and ushered in new ones. These points of contact also allowed for immense technological and cross-cultural exchange across asymmetrical lines of power. Like the wars waged with Roman and Spanish technologies, Haraway tells us that the "relation between organism and machine" is also "a border war" of which the stakes "have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination."
Likewise, these territories have also been the breeding ground for Mariology and malinchismo, both of which simultaneously maintain and intensify otherness. For both Miryam and Malinche — or at least for the images constructed around them — pregnancy became a decidedly public affair. As ethnic women, they are also each "women of color" who knowingly appropriates inadequate categories, as Haraway puts it, "at the bottom of a cascade of negative identities."
In Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), liberation theologian Howard Thurman identifies four ways in which Jews in first century Palestine responded to Roman oppression and, by extension, the ways in which oppressed peoples in general contend with subjugation. Questioning the options available to "those who stand with their backs against the wall," Thurman suggests that their choices lie in either assimilating or resisting dominant cultures. Thurman's question is clearly also applicable in the case of the Spanish conquest of what became México. However, unlike first century Palestine or the 16th century New World, today we live in a New World Order in which the differences between oppressor and oppressed become increasingly complicated.
Corporations supercede nations to become "global," countries break up and reform, multiple diasporas cross continents, humans become cyborgs. Corporations have the same legal rights of personhood as flesh-and-blood bodies; they are immaterial and untraceable yet everywhere at once, making it increasingly challenging to identify, locate, and therefore resist them. The enemy is no longer easy to see or even define; as Haraway points out, "small is…dangerous." Militarism and global capitalism operate on a microscopic scale: as computer chips made by the Third World and embedded in First World passports; as miniscule surveillance devices that collapse distinctions between public and private; as invisible frequencies that are as ubiquitous as air; as psycho-pharmaceuticals that reprogram psyches; as genetically-modified organisms that displace control over the means of food production; as biochemical weapons that threaten the swift annihilation of entire populations. While the shift from Homo sapiens sapiens to Homo faber (literally, "man the maker") happened over about ten thousand years, technology has radically altered "human" life in a mere ten decades. The ways in which we, as subjects, use and are used by technology are drastically different from the ways in which technology aided Roman and Spanish conquests, or even colonial pursuits during the period of European imperialism prior to World War I. Surely, as Yeats predicted, "the ceremony of innocence is drowned."
This is what Haraway means by non-innocence. As cyborg citizens of global empire, we each, to varying degrees, with or without complicity, participate both in hegemony and subordination. We are all implicated. (And here, echoing Haraway, I must ask: "who counts as 'us' in my own rhetoric?") On this hyperspatial terrain, oppression becomes ever more intersecting and intermeshed, meaning that new forms of oppression necessitate new forms of resistance. Cyborgs are, as Haraway reminds us, "trans' to their origins, defying their founding identities as weapons and self-acting control devices, thus trying to trouble U.S. cultural commitments to what counts as agency and self-determination for people — and for other organisms and machines" (p. xvi).
Likewise, if we are the illegitimate offspring of militarism, patriarchal capitalism, and technoscience, then our survival depends on being able to knowingly manipulate what we have, voluntary or otherwise, inherited from these ideological origins. As in Christianity's genesis story, if we are made in the image of our creators, how do we appropriate these tools to bring about liberation?
The narratives that inspired the cult of the Virgin are rooted in the same ideologies. How do both Miryam and Malinche, each quite possibly rape victims, teach us about survival; about finding choice where there is no choice; about consciously constructing freedom within and outside of inescapable confines? What potentials for transformation are offered by their perpetually liminal states? How have both the mythic Miryam, symbolic of a return to innocence, and the mythic Malinche, symbolic of a fall from innocence, each, like the cyborg, betrayed their origins? And, more urgently, what can be learned from these stealthy betrayals? Haraway tells us that her manifesto is
"an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end. The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history."
Undeniably, Mary has been integral to maintaining categories of gender and genesis. But ironically, it is because she has been so indispensible to these constructions that her deconstruction holds such promising possibilities for interrupting the systems of power that rely on these constructions. Appropriating Mariology as reproductive cyborg mythology, we are impelled to redefine what constitutes sex, gender, reproduction and autonomy and, in turn, to rework feminist theology, theory and practice. Haraway's feminism fights on two fronts at once, both "for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class."
With the fable of our essential commonalities shattered, we are forced to engage with intricately incomplete identities and Haraway's "powerfully infidel heteroglossia." We can longer assume naïveté; we cannot afford to play innocent. But accepting our cyborg status, while uncomfortable, may actually prove to be exceedingly pleasurable.
Image by Alpha Auer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.