Blood, Bread, & Roses — and Death of Nature
In a brilliantly re-creative intellectual thread, in 1993 feminist lesbian poet Judy Grahn re-members and reclaims the sacrality of women and menstruation in her Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. She notes with startling clarity that, “All origin stories are true” (7), as she offers us a radical new origin myth for women, grounded in her conceptualization of metaformic consciousness and metaforms: actions or objects which are regarded as not just conceptually iconic, but also directly linked to the mental concept of menstruation. In Grahn’s brave new origin story, metaformic ritual is synchronous, cyclical; a cultural “container of knowledge” embodying a conceptual ideal, with blood as one element. Ideally such metaform ritually solve cultural or spiritual issues, such as the safe separation of potentially damaging powers, so as to maintain order and civilization while simultaneously preventing chaos and destruction. Within a lyrical mix of creative non-fiction and personal remembrance, Grahn poetically locates menstruation as the foundation of human culture through these symbolic metaformic expressions via ritual, mythology, language, cosmetikos, and food.
Grahn notes it is unsurprising that, as cultural containers of knowledge, metaforms are also often hotly disputed locations of meaning. Depending on which metaform addressed, they can allow their participants to either embody personal agency, or (as women can still today attest) suffer a societally enforced lack of voice. It is the culturally contested nature of metaforms — and, indirectly, menstruating women as well — which metaphorically creates these ritual modes of control of the feared unknown or misunderstood, via the creation of categories of pollution. Despite this, Grahn’s new origin story is curiously empowering for women, and has the potential to release much of the cultural angst regarding menstruation, for women.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ecofeminist perspective strongly diverges from current modern society’s rather distancing and mechanistic view of nature. While Merchant never uses the word ecofeminism, in her groundbreaking and exhaustively researched 1980 scholarly work The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, & the Scientific Revolution, American ecofeminist professor and science historian Carolyn Merchant traces the roots of this current and atomistic scientific worldview to the European “Enlightenment” of the 18th century. In this deeply perceptive analysis of philosophical and sociopolitical change, Merchant describes the earlier organic conceptualization of the Earth — as a benevolent mother — being overthrown by an emerging hegemonic and hierarchical “scientific” standpoint which objectifies, subjugates and masters, atomizes, and dissects a supposedly inert Nature. Integral to this process is the objectification and “mastery,” through scientific inquiry, of the life-giving capabilities of women — thereby leading as well to the dialectical conceptualization of Nature as passively female. Within this intellectual re-framing, Nature may be controlled just as Woman is: as a manageable resource to be dominated, unveiled of her secrets, and commercially exploited in the name of scientific progress, technology, and capitalistic production. The result of this dramatic ideological shift into the modern conception of science is the creation of a rapaciously individualistic, technology-oriented capitalism which incorporates environmental degradation and oppressive gender politics with social progress.
In the process of this disassembly of the supposed rationality and objectivity of science, Merchant convincingly associates this destructive thought process with the colonial mindset which was beginning to emerge into the prevalently-male European socio-political hierarchy. Though she does not directly link this mechanistic scientific viewpoint (and its attendant male supremacism) with racism, it is relatively clear where the predominant sociopolitical ideology of the times was headed. Further, considering when this book was written, it is my belief that Merchant is attempting to address the then-current critiques of ecofeminism as both ethnocentric, and essentializing a conflation of woman and nature, while also avoiding a reifying nature/culture dualism. Thus she explicitly locates her critique of universalist claims for science within specific places, times, and ideologies, powerfully reframing the so-called logic of science and unrestrained capitalism as the root cause of the oppressive exploitation of both women and nature. However, as Merchant notes, this organic-mechanistic intellectual model cannot be correctly framed as rigidly dualistic, since not only are women often perceived as subordinate in both viewpoints, but she also believes our planetary survival may be contingent upon somehow reconciling these two rather oppositional positions.