One of Christian theology’s most radical moments came early in its history. It happened through the person of St. Gregory of Nyssa who, in the 4th century, preached against the idea of prime, chaotic matter to his Cappadocian congregation. As John Milbank puts it, “Gregory discovers the body and society as a site of pure activity, or of manifestation of the absolute, and even—in Christological terms—its full and unconcealed presence.”
Matter is not mayhem, it is not a pure, unformed substrate upon which some primordial demiurge must imprint order. It already contains the Logos of its maker, for all things are always already formed. The dichotomy between chaotic substance and an order-bestowing form is rejected. When a sculptor brings symmetry to marble, when a farmer brings rows of life to soil, when we ourselves give form to a disordered mind by submitting it to an education, we are not bearing down upon the irreducible havoc of reality. We are communing with an ordered cosmos and playing our part therein.
There is a fundamental agreement between that degraded, hubristic, pagan state-idolatry that would render all things to Caesar, and that despondent, humiliated pauper who rejects creation, like the Cathar sect whose members desired to escape from an evil material existence. Both see the world as inherently anarchic, the only solution to which is either to impose a ruthless order fundamentally alien to it, and therefore necessarily violent, or to escape life altogether. It should not surprise us, then, that contempt for the real world and for the human form itself, preferring virtual spaces, should, in our own time, accompany unprecedented capacity for state and corporate control.
That philosophy which sees no relation between the material or biological, and the psyche (never mind the spirit, which it denies wholesale)—or specifically between sex and gender, for example—is precisely denying a prior order to the material. It looks like a mere substrate of elements to be rearranged by that surgical butchery which the incestuous mind, looking only to its own thoughts, suggests to us.
And what the mind suggests is freedom. We are arrested in the arbitrariness of nature, of substance as distinct from form, the cruelty of chaos—until, that is, technology and language games allow our glorious redemption from the flesh, or, what amounts to the same thing, our gory revenge upon that flesh: our parodying of resurrection into a flesh we have made malleable to the psyche. Reports of patients regretting their ‘gender-reassignment’ surgery are relevant here.
It is fitting that, today, the above project should be particularly mired in questioning womanhood, since materiality and the biosphere—or better, the material and the mammalian, in the human case, since our young remain involved in the metabolic processes of their mother through lactation—are traditionally identified with femininity. In Indo-European languages they share their root with the word for mother.
We hear, from certain quarters, that gender is nothing other than a performance. Whereas masculinity is very much under attack, there is a sense in which the idea of treating gender as performance does greater violence against traditional femininity. Historically, the masculine did indeed have to prove itself. Insofar as this is displayed outwardly, it has tended to be so in the public sphere—the agora—and sometimes in ritualized competition. Femininity’s traditional association is with the non-political spheres of culture and home, in which oral tradition and certain arts are perfected and passed on. Insofar as femininity ‘proves’ itself, this involves the more subtle performance (if we agree to this word) of being discovered in those spheres, rather than displayed in the sense of being subjected to a quasi-political scrutiny as tends to occur in male spaces.
By (consciously or otherwise) treating domesticity, culture, and child-rearing as analogous to substance, and the public sphere or politics to form, modern gender politics devalues the former (home, culture, family), inheriting as it does the prevailing view that substance is fundamentally chaotic. The idea that women, by virtue of their biology, should be especially connected to the hearth, even if only during a certain phase of their lives, becomes offensive because it would mean that women are connected to chaos, are intrinsically lacking in order. Thus, prevailing discourse around gender radically privileges the political over the personal. It rejects that motherhood may be a creative act, a bringing forth of order through female agency. It believes that the world needs violent rearranging because she bears no mark of a higher life in herself.
According to this conception, only an agent that somehow stands outside the world will be able to impose order, because there is no prior order in the world. Of course, such an order-bringing entity—usually a centralizing state—cannot afford competitors, because if (as it believes) there is no Logos in the world, then the multiplicity of the world will not tend towards harmony, but towards a war of all against all. There can be only one ordering agent, and it will seek to feminize competitors, identifying all agents other than itself with chaos. (Theodore Adorno’s identification of totalitarianism with male sexual violence towards other males in his Minima Moralia relates to this.)
There are only two components to reality: a chaotic world, which will produce discordant multiplicity and so is in perpetual crisis, on the one hand, and her pursuing captor, the authority of a totalizing state, on the other. Wombs for rent, men presenting themselves as, and therefore being, women, and the ever-increasing facility with which culture and the medical establishment are to endow the deathly termination of pregnancy—all these are ways to orphan humanity. We are treating matter and our mammalian biology as pure disarray, the untapped mine from which materials might be extracted—materials, but not meaning.
It is no wonder that St. Gregory’s rejection of the idea of a purely chaotic substance, then, accompanied his high regard for women (his sister, who he treats as a teacher, as well as his late wife), his belief in the spiritually edifying character of marriage and his rejection, wholesale, of the institution of slavery—a really remarkable position for the time in which lived.
Tradition and the institutions we hold dear, from the family to deliberative councils (because they take for granted an ordered cosmos from which it is our duty to shepherd forth order, not impose it agonistically) do not abolish female agency (contrary to the caricature of “the patriarchy” invoked by paradigms that precisely end up denying womanhood). Rather, human females are icons for an aspect of reality which is able to produce life because it already contains life; women participate in order because they are already ordered creatures.
Importantly, the point is not that, being identified with the manifest world—substance, matter, and nature—femininity represents an inferior degree of truth (the temporal as opposed to the eternal). Rather, femininity appears as the dynamic power of divinity and, for this reason, is closely related to creation (the world is manifested through that power). We may think of the female Wisdom who God possessed in the beginning and who was “set up from everlasting” in Proverbs (8), or the earth itself—herself—which swallows the tide that had been poured out by the dragon, and so prevents the woman of John’s Apocalypse from drowning (12:16).
In contrast, an “ontology of violence,” to use John Milbank’s term, in which reality consists only of chaos, on the one hand, and a violent ordering agent, on the other, must deny motherhood and wage war on female fertility. Here the feminine is just chaos, and the male just violence. In current political dialectics, this manifests as an oscillation between the drive towards neutral freedom (untethered to virtue) through the (female, chaotic) market, and total control (usurping all other functions) through the (male, totalitarian) state.
The fact that much of modern feminism has come to see family and reproduction as an imposition on women illustrates that it has become allied with a metaphysic that precisely denies femininity its ontological status. This can take the form either of identifying with masculinity and seeing no value in what are traditionally construed as feminine activities, or identifying with a counterfeit femininity that champions chaos, the rejection of form and stability, and the destruction of “patriarchal” social structures.
Whether by devaluing femininity or valuing its false image, such an error will tend to militate in favor of state or corporate control over reproduction (even if indirectly, by creating situations that necessitate involvement by these entities).
Ultimately, to the degree that chaos brings anything to the table (contributing to the production of new forms, including children), it is to be distrusted and brought under control. This is the error which led certain archaic cultures to understand reproduction as the man producing children through woman, not with her, so that she does not herself pass on anything heritable.
To conclude, femininity was traditionally related to dynamism, the power to manifest, manifestation itself, and the cosmos. Insofar as we believe in a primordial chaos bearing no trace of transcendent order, we will tend to view the sphere of the feminine—and most of all, pregnancy and motherhood, where that sphere is most crucial to the species—as a dangerous realm in need of control. Today’s gender politics stem from just such a degraded metaphysics, tending towards the colonization and, ultimately, abolition of femininity.
Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.