I alluded a few posts ago to ‘the new materialism’, and some of the responses that it had gathered. I’ve been casually reading a few of the responses to Sara Ahmed’s paper “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism'”, one by Noela Davis and another by Iris van der Tuin (both accessible via the European Journal of Women’s Studies, subject to [sigh] subscription). I’m intrigued by the whole space of this discussion — by Davis’ characterisation of Ahmed’s concerns as somehow angry, by van der Tuin’s attempt to rework the space as partly to do with feminist temporality (I’m not positive I’ve come to grips with all of her argument, but that’s okay for the moment), by some of the ways that some ‘new materialists’ characterise other feminists’s arguments, by the grumpiness on both sides…

What is fascinating to me is how biology and the biological get configured in the disagreement. I almost put both of those terms in scare quotes, but that’s half the issue here: do we put biology and the biological into question or not? Each ‘side’ seems to mischaracterise the other on precisely this question. On the one hand, some suggest that the ‘social constructivists’ (a problematic collapse of those who see sex/gender as distinct, and those who think, for e.g., that sex is gendered) treat any reference to biology as reductive, as essentialist and as determinist. Others suggest that this mischaracterises the complexity of ‘social constructivisms’. I want to just take a little sample to discuss:

The analyses that follow in this book are my attempt to slow down the speed with which renunciations of the biological can happen in feminist writing on the body. I have taken the nervous system as my test case. This preference for neurological analysis does not imply that cultural, social, linguistic, literary, or historical analyses are somehow secondary considerations. Rather, my point is that the cultural, social, linguistic, literary and historical analyses that now dominate the scene of feminist theory typically seek to seal themselves off from – or constitute themselves against – the domain of the biological. Curiously enough, feminist theories of the body are often exemplary in this regard. Despite the intensive scrutiny of the body in feminist theory and in the humanities in general over the past two decades, certain fundamental aspects of the body, biology, and materiality have been foreclosed. After all, how many feminist accounts of the anorexic body pay serious attention to the biological functions of the stomach, the mouth, or the digestive system? How many feminist analyses of the anxious body are informed and illuminated by neurological data? How many feminist discussions of the sexual body have been articulated through biochemistry? It is my argument that biology – the muscular capacities of the body, the function of the internal organs, the biophysics of cellular metabolism, the microphysiology of circulation, respiration, digestion, and excretion – needs to become a more significant contributor to feminist theories of the body. (Elizabeth Wilson, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, p. 10).

What strikes me as fascinating in this account is that Wilson situates herself as remedying  a problem in feminist theories of the body. Without getting into the question of whether Ahmed is right when she suggests that Wilson mischaracterises feminist theories of the body, I want to point out something interesting about the way that disciplinary lines are cast here. Wilson says that “cultural, social, linguistic, literary, or historical analyses are [not] somehow secondary considerations” in her work, but that she is trying to address the tendency she sees in feminism to ‘seal themselves off from – or constitute themselves against – the domain of the biological’. She is, thus trying to rework the lines between the long list of ‘cultural etc’ analyses and ‘the biological’, a line she suggests is the product of feminist accounts.

My first reaction to this is that ‘the biological’ has gotten off scot-free in this account (and I have to say, Wilson’s happy support of Freud, her generous reading of him as telling enabling stories about the body sits very peculiarly beside the lambasting of feminism for being ‘sealed off’ and the supposed . .  ‘Feminism’ here gets to be an area of study, with analyses, whilst ‘the biological’ is a category that contains more than knowledge: it is a ‘domain,’ and implicitly, then, this goes on to refer not just to the knowledge of biochemistry, but its ‘reality’ (I’m going to hang on to those scare quotes here, because I don’t actually think that the new materialism is realist in this way, but I want to discuss the rhetoric it’s drawing on here). The question of who drew the line between biology and culture, roughly, is answered, and somehow it’s feminism’s fault that that line has been so hermetic. And this, I think, means that the account of power/knowledge in the legitimation of discourses remains uninterrogated. Biology becomes feminism’s ‘bad object’, whilst feminism’s situation in the contemporary field of knowledge is treated as neutral; feminism made the body inert, apparently, whilst biological analyses didn’t? This reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of the concept of geneaology and the idea of the science of Marxism:

In more detailed terms, I would say that even before we can know the extent to which something such as Marxism or psychoanalysis can be compared to a scientific practice in its everyday functioning, its rules of construction, its working concepts, that even before we can pose the question of a formal and structural analogy between Marxist or psychoanalytic discourse, it is surely necessary to question ourselves about our aspirations to the kind of power that is presumed to accompany such a science. It is surely the following kinds of question that would need to be posed: What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘It is a science’? Which speaking, discoursing subjects – which subjects of experience and knowledge – do you then want to ‘diminish’ when you say ‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist’? Which theoretical-political avant garde do you want ot enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it? When I see you straining to establish the scientificity of Marxism I do not really think that you are demonstrating one and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and that therefore its propositions are the outcome of verifiable procedures; for me you are doing something altogether different, you are investing Marxist discourses and those who uphold them with the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved for those engaged in scientific discourse. By comparison, then, and in contrast to the various projects which aim to inscribe knowledges in the hierarchical order of power associated with science, a genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to emancipate historical knowledge from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle again the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse. It is based on a reactivation of local knowledges—of minor knowledges, as Deleuze might call them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledge and the effects intrinsic to their power: this, then, is the project of these disordered and fragmentary genealogies.” Pp. 83-85 Foucault Power/Knowledge two lectures

This element of the whole question of the line between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ gets a bit covered over when we characterise feminism as the problem in drawing lines around biology. This is important, but not because I want to declare feminism innocent, and nor because I want feminism to work for its innocence by talking about biology. It’s important because I think that the question of ‘biology’ for those feminists Wilson is unhappy with is more vexed than she is making out. She ‘contends that feminism can be deeply and happily complicit with biological explanation; it argues that feminist accounts of the body could be more affectionately involved with neurobiological data.’ Psychosomatic, p. 13). This ‘complicity’, let’s be clear, is precisely what is at stake for lots of feminists: biology has been fundamentally bound up with some pretty problematic politics. Where Wilson seems to suggest that feminsts are responsible for relegating the body to inertia, there’s a fairly long history that suggests feminism hasn’t had nearly the level of discursive dissemination to do this. I actually think there are good, profoundly political reasons to resist Wilson’s suggestions that feminists ought to ‘pay serious attention to the biological functions of the stomach, the mouth, or the digestive system… neurological data [and] ….biochemistry?’ There’s something troubling about the presumption that in order to provide an adequate (adequate to what is precisely the question here) account of anorexia, for example, one must talk about biology in terms determined by biology, by a set of hyper-legitimised knowledges. What are we suggesting here, that scientific discourse has particular access to ‘the real’? Really? Because that is, after all, a core component of science’s popular significance at the moment: it has become that which can represent the ahistorical substrate, the solid ground that almost disappeared when God died, or when the grand narratives got blood all over their hands. Science, let’s be clear here, is given an astonishing level of faith in contemporary culture, and I think it’s particularly because it looks like it tells us true stories about the world. I can see why many many feminists might want to challenge those true stories, and the legitimacy of scientific stories about the world, to show that there are others. I’m not quite convinced, I think, that it is feminism that does the sealing off of itself from science, in this sense. I want to suggest that this might be about providing a proliferation of discourses to challenge the dominance of particular ones.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the political savvy of the new materialism here. I was at a conference once when Vicki Kirby laughed and said, ‘It’s all Nature!! Well, we call it Nature, but you could call it anything, really! Culture, if you wanted.’ It struck me then that the new materialism isn’t necessarily so different from that it imagines itself as critiquing. And that in many ways, there are really useful political effects of refusing to allow those problematic conceptions of science (as that which merely describes the world) to be the only uses made of scientific knowledge. Why leave Nature to be defined by a science that is so easily turned into a means for telling us the truth of the world? I can see that there are useful things about refusing to respect biology’s ownership of biology, to refuse precisely this distinction between epistemology and ontology. This isn’t antithetical, though, to the feminist theories of the body Wilson seems to be unhappy with, at least not in any straightforward way, which have challenged precisely that distinction between the epistemological and the ontological, perhaps especially where science has tried to instantiate it.

At the same time, though, claims like the following seem to me problematic:

It is the presumption of this book that sustained interest in biological detail will have a reorganising effect on feminist theories of the body – that exploring the entanglement of biochemistry, affectivity, and the physiology of the internal organs will provide us with new avenues into the body. Attention to neurological detail and a tolerance for reductive formulations will enable feminist research to move past its dependency on social constructionism and generate more vibrant, biologically attuned accounts of the body. (Psychosomatic, p. 14).

More vibrant accounts, more biologically attuned accounts, new avenues into the body? This seems to me to undermine the strength of the new materialism: that bodies are fundamentally tied up with knowledges about them. In fact, this seems to be a point of continuity between the earlier ‘constructivist’ accounts and new materialist accounts. So why do we want accounts of the body? Why don’t we want more vibrant bodies?

My point here is not to participate in the ‘gotcha’ game that seems to be the level at which these conversations seem to be happening at the moment (both sides legitimately claiming that quotes are being taken out of context). Wilson really isn’t referring to the ‘really real’ to which biological knowledge has especial knowledge. My point is more that these are difficult things to talk about. When I defended Butler against Kirby’s suggestion that she was a linguistic idealist or whatever the newest term is for the baddest of all social constructivists, I pointed out that English is a (phallogocentric) bastard, endlessly supposing both too much and too little difference: distinctions where we try to suggest otherwise, and collapsing distinctions we want to maintain difference.

For me, then, the question that I really want to pose about the new materialisms is this: why science? Why is scientific discourse being privileged here as the thing that feminists should really come to grips with? Why is it being accorded such importance? Are there not political questions to be asked here: do feminist scientific accounts of the body challenge the legitimising power of certain knowledges in contemporary culture, or do they simply accede to them? Are we proliferating discourses about embodiment in ways that might open out ways of being, or are we opening up feminist resistances to the potential delegitimising assessments of certain kinds of biology which are invested in an inert, knowable body?

I think back on my thesis, for example, and I think about how rare mention of biological terms of reference were. In some ways, some would say that I left aside ‘the body’ to biological accounts; I really wouldn’t, though — I’d say that I offered an alternative account of bodily being, one which let us explore the politics and vulnerabilities of embodiment. I could have spent my thesis talking about neurobiological accounts of pain receptors in the brain, about the ways that they get activated in pretty much the same way for ‘social’ as opposed, apparently, to ‘physical’ pain. But instead I focussed on the ways that bodily being is produced such that individuals have both deeply specific and carefully politicised vulnerabilities: to their own abnormalcy, for example. I talked about how there’s a political economy of bodies that produces those vulnerabilities, and the ways that the gift in that economy can enable the ethical. Part of the reason I didn’t is because I prefer reading Derrida to examining methodologies, charts and tables of results. But part of it is also because I refuse to let science’s (yes, often populist — I don’t necessarily hold individual scientists responsible for this) claim to simple correspondence truth shape how and why I do the work I do, even for other people. That is, given the proximity of correspondence truth to scientific discourse, if only in the popular imagining of science, producing a non-scientific account of embodiment (well, ‘producing’ might over-estimate my contribution to the conversation) enables me to challenge the idea that science Tells The Truth, as well as challenging the naturalising of bodily vulnerabilities that science is often used to produce, as well as offering an account of intercorporeality, politics, ethics, medicine, concepts of normalcy and abnormalcy, of race, of ability, of gender, of sex, of sexuality… I am not sure why this needs to be characterised as ‘dependency’ (Wilson, p. 14) on a non-vibrant constructionism.

No doubt there are lots of people who think that I don’t deal with the limits of the biological, but isn’t that precisely the point? Do all challenges to the conception of biology as limitation, as constraint, as inertia, have to occur through the same terms as those conceptions were first made in? And do we concede too much to ‘science’ when we do, let alone its tendency to claim to be the one true truth? If we can call ‘Nature’ ‘culture’, and the dominant narrative about ‘Nature’ is that it’s inert, and the dominant narrative about ‘culture’ is that it’s flexy as fuck, is there a problem with knowingly leveraging, of fucking with, of queering this distinction? Of taking moments at which the natural is supposed, according to certain accounts, to assert its singularity in no uncertain terms, and refusing–to believe it, to let it be so, to know it so, to live it so–even if, or perhaps mostly especially if (all we know about) the fantastical fixed substrate shouldn’t let us? Does that really lack vibrancy, my new materialist friends, does it?

Here, of course, I have my usual anxiety that I have been too clear, drawn lines too clearly, refused instead of engaged… so of course, I welcome everyone’s thoughts! Oh, and sincere apologies to Elizabeth Wilson, who had the unfortunate privilege of being my exemplar — a result of readyness-to-hand, I’m afraid!


(Apologies to those who tried to wrestle on through my typo-laden quotes. I get impatient with copying from one window to another!)