Goddess in the machine: how the myth of the cyborg can help Mormon feminism

The feminist philosopher Donna Haraway observed that the cyborg is not just a creature of speculative fiction, but of modern social reality.1 She saw the myth of the post-human cyborg as a feminist alternative to the dualist myth of the human. In the traditional construction of a human, we imagine that the person is conceptually separable from his bodily mechanisms. This is baked into modern intuition, because we say, for example, that a human “has” a body or brain, not that a human “is” a body or brain. A cyborg is not a traditional human in that sense. It is a person inseparably welded and wired to her embodiment. A cyborg is an indivisible and indistinct union of person and mechanism, and it is impossible to locate the true boundary between woman and machine.

Haraway wrote that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”2 The computers, cell phones, drugs, medical devices, engineered clothing, and transportation devices we rely on are no less part of our functionality than our organs. On a biological level, we are complex machines composed of interchangeable cell parts. For eons, evolution has adapted our biological machines, including our large brains and dexterous hands, in response to tool use by our hominin ancestors. As far back as our species has existed, the boundary between self and technology has been unstable and illusory. The human being, as we imagine him, never really existed. We are, and always have been, cyborgs.

Cyborgs, yes, but not androids. Unlike the cyborg which is both person and machine, the android is pure machine. Androids are like the replacement women of the film The Stepford Wives (1975). Their subjective personhood has been erased and they have become fully objectified. Because of their status as object, stories are written about them, but never from their perspective. They are assigned the role of helper and physical supporter for those who are the focus of the story. Androids are like the patriarchal image of the woman. As an android, the primary value of a patriarchal woman is in her mechanism. Her place is to perform bodily functions: sex, childbirth, nurturing of children, labor in the home, physical support, and pleasing the male eye. This is unlike the cyborg, in which person and mechanism join indistinguishably. The cyborg has no “place,” and she cannot be controlled. Her machine embodiment merges with her selfhood. Thus, Haraway noted, “Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, and aspect of our embodiment.”3

Although there is incredible latent diversity within Mormon thought, today’s mainstream Mormon theology and practice has embraced the patriarchal mythology of the android woman. Mormons have a female Goddess. However, despite feminist hopes to the contrary, the official theology only assigns her the mechanical role of giving birth to the “spirit bodies” of humanity.4 In a 1995 announcement, 15 male leaders of the LDS Church officially assigned women the mechanical role as nurturers within families presided over by men. Mormon women are taught to dress modestly so that men may avoid having impure thoughts,5 thus establishing a relationship in which men are the subject, and women the object of male observation. Women are taught that they “enjoy the blessings” of male priesthood, but they are always only objects of that priesthood, never subjects. Thus, within the prevailing Mormon myth of the woman, she is primarily an object, a mechanism, whose role is one of physical performance in the support of male interests. In short, she is an android.

This is not to devalue mechanical roles in general, or in particular the valuable roles traditionally played by women. For a cyborg, there is no distinction between mechanical or non-mechanical roles, and there is no distinction between subject and object. The problem is not in the distribution of subject and object roles between Mormon men and women. The problem is that subject/object represents a rigid gender binary. Like other such binaries common in Mormonism (e.g., presiding/nurturing, priesthood/motherhood, and quorum/auxiliary), the more “central” alternative is assigned to males, while the supplemental or “other” one is assigned to females. Mormon women are nearly always assigned the role of auxiliary object. Mormon women are to be helpers, both at church and in the home, and objects of observation, authority, and effusive praise by men. That men place them on pedestals only means that women are construed as objects to be placed. But in the cyborg, the rigid patriarchal distinction between subject and object is subverted.

Of all religions, Mormon cosmology may be the most theologically equipped to admit a cyborg identity. Mormonism has never separated spirit from matter, or nature from technology. Mormonism began as a merger between Christianity and the mystical technologies6 of seer stones, ancient compasses, and Babylonian submarines equipped with glowing mineral light sources. The cosmos imagined by Mormon founder Joseph Smith included no supernatural god. The Mormon God was an advanced extraterrestrial man, composed of matter, who had been raised to superhuman status on another world. Humanity differed from God only in the level of their knowledge and the sophistication of their embodiment.

Mormons yearn to become supermen and superwomen, but not in a supernatural sense. In the theology of Joseph Smith, both humanity and the gods are cyborgs—inseparable mixtures of mind and material mechanism, which progresses in power and complexity with the acquisition of intelligence. As a scientific-oriented Mormon leader wrote in the early 20th century, “Under the law of evolution, man’s organization will become more and more complex. That is, he will increase in his power of using intelligence until in time, he will develop so far that, in comparison with his present state, he will be a God.”7 In the far future, Mormons teach that humanity will become a society of matter-embodied gods, interconnected by a network of eternal social relations. They will have visual access to a universe of information, projected onto the facets of a crystal earth and a portable communication device connecting them to all knowledge (D&C 130:9–11). This vision might be imaginative science fiction from the mind of an American religious revolutionary. But this powerful, progressive vision of gods and humans as cyborgs supports a unique Mormon kind of feminism.

Reconstructing the Mormon as a cyborg is not merely a theoretical exercise. The Mormon ontology of embodied personhood has enormous implications, including the current ban on female clergy, one-sided eternal polygamy which is still practiced in Mormon temples, the silent, fragile, and subordinate image of the Mormon Goddess, and sanctions against transgender Mormons. How Mormons divide subject from object, person from mechanism, is fundamental to the LDS Church’s position on many subjects, and affects the lives of real people.

Cyborgs subvert the patriarchal order that assigns men to subject, and women to object. Cyborgs blur the boundary between mind and matter, person and mechanism, and thereby begin to deconstruct the philosophical pillars of patriarchy. Because Mormonism uniquely refuses to separate spirit from matter, or nature from technology, there is a natural place for cyborgs within Mormon theology. Donna Haraway said, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”8 But for Mormons, these could be one and the same.

1 Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Social-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1992), 149 [LINK].
2 Ibid., 150.
3 Ibid., 181.
4 Robert A. Rees, “Our Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone 15 (April 1991): 49–50 (“What we are left with is an image of our Heavenly Mother staying at home having billions of children while the men—the Father and his sons—go off to create worlds, spin galaxies, take business trips to outer space. She is happy, it would seem, to let them have all the recognition, all the glory.”).
5 Dallin H. Oaks, “Pornography,” Ensign (May 2005): 90 (“And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.”) [LINK].
6 I use the term “technology” deliberately here. To a non-Mormon, it might seem that the eternal technologies imagined by Mormon founder Joseph Smith were supernatural magic. However, within the Mormon worldview, Joseph Smith’s natural magic was a manifestation of as-yet undiscovered scientific principles, on a par with “heat, light, magnetism, electricity, and other forces.” John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Associations, 1908), 132. The natural magic of Mormonism is therefore no more supernatural than the undiscovered technologies of speculative fiction.
7 Ibid., 137. Widtsoe relied on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, who had a metaphysical interpretation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Some later Mormon writers such as Joseph Fielding Smith rejected evolution, but agreed with Widtsoe on the theology of human progression to superhumanity.
8 Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto, 181.