Pregnant With Meaning
Where there is power there is resistance. -- Michel Foucault
I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess. -- Donna Haraway
I'd all but given up on finding it when the guardian of the 10th-century tower asked me: "Have you ever heard tell of a Sheela-na-gig?"
I had. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'd come all the way to Kildare after three months of visiting Marian sites across Europe, blurring the lines between fieldwork and pilgrimage, motherhood and scholarship, carrying my infant son up holy mountains and down grimy subway stairs. In my last days in Ireland I wanted to see where Saint Brigit, both a historic and mythic figure made up of Christian and pre-Christian themes, founded her mixed-gender monastery around 470. Brigit is also known as "Mary of the Gael." Like Mary, she is "material-semiotic," a term Donna Haraway uses to confound supposed separations between the literal and the figural. Each year on Brigit's feast day, February 1st (also the Pagan festival of Imbolc), nuns flock to Kildare to kindle fires in her honor. Before walking toward the round tower, I'd knelt in the nearby charcoal pit, taking in the smell of soot, rain, and old stones, thinking about how fires have been tended here for at least 1500 years in honor not only of Brigit but of her earlier counterpart, the goddess Brig, whom Celtic cosmology associates with fire and water.
While my son slept in the back of our rented yellow Fiat, I circled the chapel several times, reading and rereading the little blurb in my Lonely Planet guide:
"The church also contains the restored tomb of Walter Wellesley, Bishop of Kildare, which disappeared soon after his death in 1539 and was only found again in 1971."
There was indeed a tomb, ornately carved and unmarked, crowding the back rows of pews, but none of the figures carved on it resembled a Sheela-na-gig -- a menacing image of a naked woman pulling her labia apart. This image is found on old stone structures, particularly places of Christian worship, throughout Ireland and Great Britain. A product of medieval Christianity no one knows its origins or significance.
Taken aback, I asked the guardian if perhaps I'd been looking at the wrong tomb. Considering the Irish cultural discomfort with female sexuality, I was surprised that this older gentleman not only mentioned the Sheela-na-gig figure to me but was now leading me across the grounds, between rows of vertically-challenged gravestones, back into the church to show me the carving. He took me to the very same tomb I'd been puzzling over. I began to tell him that I'd already looked at it and found nothing when he turned my head sideways so that I was looking upside down -- underneath the top slab of the tomb -- face-to-face with an acrobatic woman, vulva gaping, in the midst of either childbirth, sexual ecstasy, or some combination of the two.
"Now why would they put that on a Bishop's tomb?" asked the guardian. It's exactly what I was wondering.
A year and a half earlier, I sat as far back as I could in an Introduction to Feminist Theory class, suffering through a migraine and waves of intense nausea. I'd found out three days beforehand that I was unexpectedly pregnant. While my professor stood before the class, lecturing about Simone de Beauvoir and her work on illegal abortion in France, I began to feel in my own body the strange liminal world of pregnancy, where edges -- between being and non-being, self and other, child and mother -- become difficult to discern. The class ended. I left as quickly as possible and dropped the class. In fact, I dropped all my classes that semester.
A few months before that, I'd begun work on the Virgin of Guadalupe as a useful metaphor for understanding what I, at the time, called the "feedback loop of spectacular co-optation" (a pastiche of terms borrowed from John Leland and Guy Debord among others). Her image, constructed by Franciscan missionaries, incorporated indigenous symbolism to assist in the colonization of indigenous peoples, demonstrating how the most effective method of domination is often assimilation. But, more interestingly to me, she also speaks to a fierce insistence on cultural, artistic, and spiritual survival in the face of imminent violence -- a survival that necessitates syncretic forms.
It would be another year before I was able to take the Introduction to Feminist Theory class and during that year pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood became more than interesting subject matter for critical study -- they became my reality. My son was born at dawn and as I held him in my arms in those early morning hours I listened to Morten Lauridsen's setting of the "O Magnum Mysterium." The title, translated as "O Great Mystery," refers to Mary's miraculous capacity to give birth to Jesus without having sex. I could now approach Mary from the perspective of a single mother with an infant son of my own. I wondered at the great mystery of how concepts and conception co-mingle, cross-pollinating one another: did conceiving of Mary help me to conceive my son or the other way around?
Motherhood changed my relationship with Mary as well as the way I engaged in feminist thinking. Like childbirth, giving birth to new ideas was messy. I began to negotiate my lived experience as a mother and my political-theoretical work as a feminist, searching for a place within/between/outside of what I perceived as polarized notions of the maternal self within feminist discourse. One paradigm, inherited from Simone de Beauvoir, who was the subject of that initial Intro to Feminist Theory class lecture, views motherhood as inherently oppressive. Another paradigm, held by theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, and feminist theologians such as Carol Christ, Merlin Stone, and Mary Daly, embraces motherhood, but too often as central to the definition of femininity. The former paradigm poses obvious problems in that it devalues maternal ways of being while the latter naturalizes them under the guise of sexual difference. I felt the need for an alternative position that accounted for difference without essentializing it. Donna Haraway's work offers such a position, one that also provides a way to work in the world.
Haraway's framework gave me a new way of articulating my fluid relationship with Mary in terms that embraced connections without assuming holisms. As I worked with Mary in varying contexts, I found that others had an insistent need to place me: Was I Catholic or even Christian? Was this a personal or spiritual obsession for me or just some scholarly thing? Was I arguing that Mary was good or bad for women? Did I believe Mary was the mother of God or that she was even a historical person? And what did Mary have to do with my politics? Finding these questions difficult to answer, I was grateful to recognize affinities between Mary and the characters in Haraway's "queer family of companion species," a menagerie of cyborgs, monsters, vampires, and beasts where real and imagined, flesh and fantasy, corporeal and textual grind against one another. In Haraway's cyborg world,
"People are not afraid of their joint kinships with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point."
Cyborgs -- "hybrids of machine and organism" are, as biographer Joseph Schneider puts it, difficult to define and "hold onto, both materially and politically," echoing the ambiguity that I saw as not only helpful but critical in exploring Mary's many layers -- as well as my own experience of deciphering them. Mary proved multi-valent, pregnant with meaning as much as with the son of God.
I began to see Mary as a proto-cyborg, both mitigating and exacerbating tensions between false dichotomies and unlikely couplings, inhabiting the borders between human and divine, virginity and motherhood, sex and death. Like Haraway's cyborg, the cult of the Virgin has often historically embraced these tensions as not only unavoidable but as potentially transformative; Mary's liminal spaces have frequently become sites of resistance. She provides fertile ground for deconstructing how and why European cultures, as well as cultures missionized through their colonial conquests, have constructed femininity, especially maternal femininity, and how and why these constructs have shifted throughout history. Mary lent legitimacy to the Crusades, a centuries-long effort to drive followers of Islam from the Holy Land; as the original Our Lady of Guadalupe of Spain, she is an icon through which Christianity and Islam became inextricably tied together. Under banners bearing her likeness, los Conquistadores colonized the New World; beneath flags imprinted with her image los Zapatistas in turn fought to overthrow the tyranny of Spanish colonialism. Her maternity is invoked to deny women access to birth control and safe legal abortions in Ireland and Poland; she also opened her robes to protect le innocenti as patroness of the first social service in Renaissance Italy that provided an alternative to infanticide. Shedding light on the worlds presented, re-presented, and misrepresented by history (a field that is never ideologically neutral), Mary's socio-political dimensions are myriad.
While Mary revealed to me the sticky relationships between sex, gender, and reproduction in social discourse, Haraway's work revealed to me my own sticky relationship with Mary. In her lecture in 2000 at the European Graduate School, Haraway calls herself both "blessed and cursed" to be raised as an American Irish Catholic, giving her an "indelible" sense of the semiological notion that "the sign is the thing in itself." She explains that both the Eucharist and the pantheon of Christian figures (including Mary) are fetishized such that they "implode semiosticity and materiality." Haraway says that such figures
"collect up and reflect back the hopes of a people. [They] are about collective yearning...[reflecting] back a sense of the possibility of fulfillment or the possibility of damnation or the possibility of some kind of collective inclusion in figures larger than that to which they explicitly refer."
Haraway likens this to philologist and literary critic Erich Auerbach's (1953) work on mimesis which shows how the figure and the referent become confused. She tells us that, in this way, the figurations inhabiting her writing are "material-semiotic entities," melds of meaning and matter. In her world, all the beings invoked by a single signifier have ontological status. Encountering this notion of blending the material and the semiotic, I was better able to explain my hybrid connections to Mary. I realized that the concept of metaphor as fiction was in itself a fiction. Reality is a contested site comprised of multiple meanings, many of which are metaphorical and it is our relationship with these meanings --that which is signified -- that conjures up the substantive players in our reality. As a material-semiotic entity, a meld of the historical Miryam of Nazareth and the mythical Blessed Mother, Mary crosses both sides of the feminist discourse surrounding her. Like Haraway's obstinate cyborg, she refuses to be written off as merely a tool of patriarchy nor is she seduced by the dream of a return to "organic wholeness," to borrow Haraway's tongue-in-cheek term. Undeniably, Mary is often crucial to these narratives. But as much as she has enabled them she has also eluded them.
Scholars argue about what the Sheela-na-gig was intended to signify. Debate hinges around these same issues within feminist discourse, namely, that the Sheela is either considered a uniformly patriarchal symbol or a figure onto which modern essentialist notions of the divine feminine can be projected. The former and more generally accepted theory, held by Jorgen Andersen (1977), Anthony Weir and Jim Jerman (1986), and Eamonn Kelly (1996), contends that because Sheelas are often found at vulnerable structural areas of towers and castles, they were meant to "play the role of apotropaic or protective icons against evil; ugly and explicit representations of the much-feared vulva would turn the female sex into a demonic figure able to prevent other demons from approaching". This theory emphasizes the historical associations between femininity, bodily desire, and sin within Christian theology. The other popular theory surfaces in the work of researchers such as Barbara Walker (1983), Ann Pearson (1997), and Maureen Concannon (2004). Wary of patriarchal scholarship, they instead connect Sheela images to "pagan fertility rites in which female corporeality was perceived as reminiscent of goddess imagery."
Both of these theories attempt to identify the correct historical reading of the Sheela-na-gig image. Looking for the right way to read a sign which is a multiple signifier, this approach reifies medieval culture such that "it" becomes an object which has only one way of reading a sign rather than a network of agents with a plurality of interpretations based on context, association, language, race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and lines of power. Whether a naked Sheela flaunting her enlarged vagina or a Madonna protecting her swollen belly with layers of reticent robes, these icons defy our inclinations to privilege certain readings of them. They require us to exercise multiple literacies, epistemologies, and, by extension, ontologies. These are skills which I believe are vital to the field of feminist inquiry and, perhaps, to our very survival.
This thesis is an attempt to exercise these skills. Born of a desire to excavate the multiple Marys that exist outside and between these schisms, I refuse to relegate the Virgin Mother to the perspectives that she is either a uniformly patriarchal or uniformly matriarchal symbol. To do so would be to repeat the same mistakes that have enabled ideologies and infrastructures of oppression for millennia -- innocent mistakes, maybe, but Haraway reminds us that we can't afford to be innocent. Our increasingly complex and interconnected world requires us to recognize the ways in which each of us is complicit with mechanisms of domination, to historicize what has been naturalized, and to deconstruct what has been deified in an effort to seize "the tools to mark the world that marked [us] as other."
Whatever the Sheela-na-gig on Bishop Wellesley's tomb signifies, I found it interesting that it was placed in the last spot one might look and, moreover, that one would literally have to turn her or himself upside-down in order to see it. Evoking the inverted nature of both Haraway's cyborg and Mary's recalcitrant tendencies, this upside-downness is also analogous to Chéla Sandoval's theory and practice of oppositional consciousness. Combined with a methodology of the oppressed, Sandoval (2000) tells us that oppositional consciousness is indispensible in "forging twenty-first-century modes of decolonizing globalization." Sandoval also suggests that the best -- and sometimes only -- place to work against oppressive structures may be within them, in the heart of the beast, in the last place one might look.
 Schneider, Joseph. (2005). Donna Haraway: Live Theory (New York: Continuum), p. 5.
 Davenport, F., Beech, C., Downs, T., Hannigan, R., Parnell, F., & Wilson, N. 2006. Ireland (7th ed.) (Berkeley, CA: Lonely Planet), p. 334.
 González Arias, Luz M. 2007. "Wide open...to mirth and wonder": Twentieth-Century Sheela-Na-Gigs as Multiple Signifiers of the Female Body in Ireland." In P.B. Haberstroh & C. St Peter (Eds.), Opening the Field: Irish Women: Texts and Contexts, pp.102-118 (Cork, Ireland: University of Cork), p 103.
 Belenky, M. F., Bond, L.A., Weinstock, J.S. (1997). A Tradition That Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities (New York: Harper Collins).
 Cited in Schneider, 2005, p. 58.
 Cited in Schneider, 2005, p. 72.
 Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge), p.150.
 Schneider, 2005, p. 66.
 Haraway, Donna J. "Birth of the Kennel: Cyborgs, Dogs, and Companion Species." European Graduate School, Media and Communication Studies Program. Saas-Fee, Switzerland, June 2000.
 Auerbach, Erich. (1953). Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
 Haraway, 1991, p. 150.
 Andersen, Jorgen (1997). The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles (London: Allen & Unwin); Weir, A., & Jerman, J. (1986). Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (London: Batsford); Kelly, Eamonn P. (1996). Sheela-Na-Gigs: Origins and Functions (Dublin: County House and the National Museum of Ireland).
 González Arias, Luz M. (2007). "Wide open...to mirth and wonder": Twentieth-Century Sheela-Na-Gigs as Multiple Signifiers of the Female Body in Ireland. In P.B. Haberstroh & C. St Peter (Eds.), Opening the Field: Irish Women: Texts and Contexts, pp.102-118 (Cork, Ireland: University of Cork), p. 105.
 Walker, Barbara. (1983). The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (London: Pandora); Pearson, Ann. (1997). "Reclaiming the Sheela-Na-Gigs: Goddess Imagery in Medieval Sculptures of Ireland," in Canadian Woman Studies/Les cahiers de la Femme 17(3), 20-4; Concannon, Maureen. (2004). The Sacred Whore: Sheela, Goddess of the Celts (Cork: Collins).
 González Arias 2007, p. 105.
 Haraway 1991, p. 175).
 Sandoval, Chéla. (2000). Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota), p. 1.Tweet