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Feminist Engagements with Matter.

Transcorporeality. Entanglement. Meeting-with. Matter. Nonhuman. Causality. Intra-action. Disclosure. Agential realism. These terms, and several more besides, frequent texts within the emerging field of "material feminism." The following review essay discusses the recent material feminist works of Vicki Kirby, Elizabeth A. Wilson, Luciana Parisi, Donna Haraway, and Karen Barad. My own research, as I will briefly outline at the end of this review, owes a debt to the provocations these books incite. (1)

By way of preliminary outline, I want to distinguish the emerging field of material feminism from the more familiar "material feminism" that grounds significant feminist analysis. This latter field is concerned with women's material living conditions--labor, reproduction, political access, health, education, and intimacy--structured through class, race, ethnicity, age, nation, ableism, heteronormativity, and so on. (2) These analyses, in broad brushstroke, draw attention to the often mundane, repetitive, and tedious activities of daily life-hauling water, chopping firewood--that occupy women's lives. Although certainly paying attention to the often overlooked minutiae of "living woman," these analyses tend not to engage with affective physicality or human-nonhuman encounters and relations. What distinguishes emerging analyses of material feminism--alternatively called "new materialism," "neo-materialism," and "new sciences"--is a keen interest in engagements with matter. (3)

So what does engagements with matter mean exactly? Adrian Mackenzie and Andrew Murphie argue that the social sciences approach science and materiality in one of three ways: critique, extraction, or engagement. (4) Critiques of science, write Mackenzie and Murphie, include critical analyses of scientific rationality (such as those by Theodor Adorno, Giorgio Agamben, Karl Popper, and Thomas Kuhn) as well as social constructionist analyses of the processes of the enterprise including the construction of scientific objects. Feminist science studies critiques, such as those by Evelyn Reed, Ruth Bleier, Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, Nellie Oudshoorn, Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Franklin, and Londa Schiebinger are central to this approach. (5) Their analyses focus on those epistemic cultures, gender relations, and changing orders that build and rebuild the fabric of gendered scientific and technological enterprises. It is in these works that the analytic force of social constructionism and discourse analysis comes to the fore.

Extraction is interested in using scientific concepts, such as "singularity," "refraction," "reversibility," and "ontogeny," to elucidate philosophical discussions concerned with the fabric of social relations. (6) The direction of these uses is usually from science to social science. Finally, engagement attempts dialogue, conversation, and collaboration with science as "it engages with science-in-the-making, and it has had to formulate questions about how to live in or with science collectively." (7)

Within feminist theory, critiques of science are most often associated with the postmodern linguistic and cultural turns. These critiques have proven timely and useful. As Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman note, "the strength of postmodern feminism is to reveal that since its inception, Western thought has been structured by a series of gendered dichotomies: nature/culture, male/female, mind/body, object/subject, rational/ emotional and so on." Postmodernism's eschewal of modernism's claim to an objective access to the natural world has led to analyses that rely upon the often-implicit assumption that the "real/material is entirely constituted by language; what we call the real is a product of language and has its reality only in language." (8) Thus, when materiality is discussed, it is in terms that completely separate matter from culture, sociality, and language. Material feminism is not convinced that culture entirely either produces and/or contains materiality or that culture and matter are isolated domains. Material feminism may also be seen as a response to the identification of the "two cultures" problem made famous by C.P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture. (9) The authors discussed here identify their work as explicit attempts to corrode the culture/matter distinction. Not all feminist scholars agree with this characterization, however; and I conclude this article by discussing a recent critique that charges material feminists with unfairly characterizing earlier feminist scholarship.

Vicki Kirby's intimate exegesis of Judith Butler's oeuvre is an appropriate place to illustrate the disquiet with cultural analyses outlined by emerging material feminism. Judith Butler: Live Theory critically reviews Butler's main texts, tracing the development of performativity. There is much going on in this detailed analysis, Kirby examines identity's primordial conditions and interpolation and power's perversity, and she reads the compromised compatibilities of Sigmund Freud's discontented civilization against Michel Foucault's arguments concerning the "repressive hypothesis." Given her interest in engagements with matter, it is no surprise that Kirby follows Butler's contemplation of the "matter of identity" closely. Through careful analysis, Kirby details how Butler develops a theory of culture that produces both ways of being (ontology) and ways of knowing (epistemology) (23). As such, Butler argues that "what appears in all its obviousness as the materiality of brute existence, the 'before culture,' is just that, an appearance which is ciphered, transformed and phantasmatically invested by social regimes of significance" (49). In other words, "what we thought was Nature," writes Kirby, "is really 'nature,' that is, Culture" (69). We have, then, culture and [begin strikethrough]nature[end strikethrough]. And yet, as Kirby's analysis reveals, Butler's theory of identity as interpolated assumes "a temporal development whereby primordial conditions (and identities) are only later interrupted, prohibited and transformed by culture's dictates ..." (34). These "primordial conditions" are nature's specter: nature is not completely erased and thereby haunts identity's interpolation. Further, Butler's temporalization implies a Cartesian separation between nature and culture. In Kirby's interview with Butler at the book's close, this conundrum is discussed. Butler states: "I think perhaps mainly in Gender Trouble [1990] I overemphasize the priority of culture over nature" and says that her work "did not take account of a nature that might be, as it were, beyond the nature/culture divide, one that is not immediately harnessed for the aims of certain kinds of cultural legitimation processes" (144, 145). Kirby also presses Butler on the distinct humanist inflection of her work. Butler responds by suggesting the need for a "critique of the 'human' as a norm" (153). Thus, we are left with a promissory note of directions in which Butler might pursue her theory of identity that interrogates "the human" as norm and engages with matter and culture as already enmeshed phenomena.

Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body is engagement with science at its best. The central tenet of the book is that soma and psyche do not correspond to different "realities" of the body. Elizabeth A. Wilson begins by arguing that Freud's early work on neurology did not separate the psychic from somatic, as later analyses would. The model that Freud develops (nerves-penis-cortex-psyche) relies upon each element operating within "circuitous relations" rather than as separate elements in "determinable relations" (19). Wilson argues that Freud's original thesis is not reductionist, but rather, attends to the complexity of neurology such that psychic and somatic forces are co-constitutive. Wilson builds on Freud's decisive work through an analysis of gastrointestinal complaints. Here again Wilson is able to trace the development of both biological and psychoanalytic theories of gastrointestinal disorders such that both eventually sever their relationship with the other. Each constructs theories of the gut that obviate all connection between soma and psyche in such a way as to demarcate each as distinct entities and foreclose explorations of the ways in which the gut might co-constitute both soma and psyche.

The book then offers a new approach to Simon LeVay's research on the possible association between the hypothalamus and sexual orientation. Rather than rehearse feminist concerns with the conceptual and methodological limitations of LeVay's study, Wilson is interested in what the study might have to say about the relationship between dimorphic (n=2, associated with heteronormativity) and disseminated (n>2, associated with queer) theories of sexuality. Specifically, Wilson acknowledges that although there is certainly a political motivation to favor a disseminated theory of sexuality, "these two kinds of neurological forms are in a reticulated relationship, wherein dimorphic divisions are irreducibly, agonistically, generatively conjoined within networks of divergence" (51). Wilson uses the concept of reticulation to account for the fact that LeVay's data show both a clustering around a dimorphic pattern and a range of disseminated organization. In Psychosomatic, Wilson then returns to a consideration of Freud's work, this time on emotion. Wilson deploys Freud's classic study of frog reflexes to critically trouble the contemporary dismissal of Lamarckism. In a fascinating account of Charles Darwin's early endorsement of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory of inheritance, Wilson draws attention to the contradiction between the rejection of nongenetically inherited characteristics and the acceptance of inherited characteristics within the psychological realm. Wilson explores Darwin's work on reflexes (such as the startle/eye-blink and blushing) to make the case that biological approaches have cut themselves off from considering the ways in which biology and psychology are co-implicated in evolution. The book ends by considering how evolutionary and neurological accounts of emotions might usefully inform feminist concerns with embodiment.

Abstract Sex: Philosophe, Bio-technology, and the Mutations of Desire is a complicated philosophical treatise weaving together the metaphysics of Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour; feminist theories of power and agency; scientific studies of evolution and microorganisms, ontogeny, phylogeny and emergence; genetic engineering; economic theories of relation; and cybernetic theories of information. Luciana Parisi rejects the postmodern ordering, as in Judith Butler's formulation critiqued by Kirby, of sex as the physical mark of gender, to argue instead that "sex lies neither before nor after discourse" (22). For Parisi, both sex and gender are animated by desire. "Abstract sex" organizes desire according to multiple strata, including
    the biophysical (the cellular level of the body-sex defined by
   bacteria, viruses, mitochondrial organelles, eukaryotic cells); the
   biocultural (the anthropomorphic level of the human body-sex
   defined by psychoanalysis, thermodynamics, evolutionary biology and
   anatomy in industrial capitalism); and the biodigital (the
   engineering level of the body-sex defined by information science
   and technologies such as in vitro fertilization, mammal and embryo
   cloning, transgenic manipulation and the human genome in cybernetic
   capitalism) layers of the virtual body-sex. (12) 

Parisi attends to emerging scientific research interested in exploring evolution outside a strict neo-Darwinian framework (this interest is shared by a number of feminist scholars including Anne Fausto-Sterling, Elizabeth Grosz, and Donna Haraway). (10) Given my own work on the origins of sociable life from a nonhuman (bacterial) perspective that highlights evolution through symbiogenesis--defined as the appearance of a new phenotype, trait, tissue, organelle, organ, or organism formed through a symbiotic relationship--I deeply appreciate Parisi's vigorous and unapologetic engagement with scientific theories and evidence. (11)

Parisi's reading of the organism as a temporal and fragile effect of evolutionary and developmental contingencies leads her to characterize the organism in terms of affinities rather than identities. Referring to symbiogenesis, Parisi argues that
    the classical evolutionary understanding of the development of life,
   based on differences of degree (increasing complexity) and types
   (species) and on random mutation (Darwin's theory of natural
   dismisses the symbiotic processes of inheritance that explain the
   continual modifications of cellular and genetic transmission.
   [Symbiogenesis] challenges the "zoocentrism" of the
theories of evolution
   (based on linear evolution from the simple to the complex). (35, 40) 

To illustrate, Parisi draws upon mitochondria as the quintessential example of what she means by abstract sex's "contagion." The symbio-genetic merger of mitochondria within eukaryotic cells became obligate (meaning that the original bacteria that became mitochondria and the eukaryotic cells formed a relationship such that each could not survive without the other) some one to two thousand million years ago: mitochondria convert chemicals such as oxygen and provide energy in the form of adenosine 5'-triphosphate for the cell. These microscopic powerhouses are also involved in cellular signaling and differentiation, control of the cell cycle and growth, and cell death. Mitochondrial DNA is a gift of matrilineal inheritance through hypersex, or the failed digestion of bacteria by eukaryotic cells that led to the mixing up of genetic material. For Parisi, mitochondria exceed the germ line (nuclear DNA) and soma line (cytoplasm) bifurcation, expressing more of a "threshold between parallel networks of sex and reproduction" (78).

In this way, Parisi describes a Deleuzian rhizomatic phylum that exceeds linear hereditary transmission of nucleic DNA. This latter sex is overcodified in the anthropomorphic stratum that orders bodies into "nucleic forms and functions of reproduction" (91). The biophysical and biocultural strata are connected via this overcodification--no more evident than in gender difference--in which bodies are ordered (through the Oedipus complex, signs, symptoms, and so forth). In other words, the constant biocultural production of gender difference matters.

Rather than critique (and then reject) evolution per se, Parisi engages with the nuanced debates taking place within evolutionary theory stimulated by burgeoning research complicating genecentric models. She then intertwines this scientific evidence with Deleuzian theory (which itself extracts from science) to eschew the characterization of nonvertical forms of inheritance as "foreign, disease, retrogressive." (91). Indeed, for Parisi, abstract sex marks an event born of bacterial sensibilities that defies organic-inorganic, nature-technology bifurcations as it affiliates, infects, cannibalizes, and sometimes merges within and between stratifications of particles, membranes, DNA, RNA, protein, cells and organisms, or what Deleuze and Felix Guattari call "molecular sexes" or "n-1 sexes." For this reason, I do not agree with Parisi's association at the end of Abstract Sex of neo-Darwinian filiation with the masculine/sadistic and symbiogenetic contagion with the feminine/masochistic. To do so invokes, to my mind, an overcodification, even if metaphorical, of sexual difference.

When Species Meet is engaging with science par excellence. Haraway develops a "naturecultures" (which she also calls "material-semiotic") epistemology to detail the indelible and complex entanglement of nature/culture through which she weaves a series of connected stories about kinship, politics, sociality, economics, and environments. There is a lot going on in this 360-page book, far too much to synopsize adequately here. Of the myriad engagements with science offered in this book, I focus on two: identity, and how we might respond to meetings with nonhuman species.

Rather than figure a primordial nature/body that is then interpolated through culture (see Kirby's critique of Butler), the "primordial body" for Haraway is an already fully enmeshed entanglement of communities.
    I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10
   of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body, the
   90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria,
   protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my
   being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing
   rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny
   companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with
   these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. (3) 

Bodies are not self-contained autonomous entities, for "every species," Haraway reminds us, "is a multispecies crowd" (165). Nor is their entanglement a matter of nature alone. Nature is not reserved for "our" microbial inhabitants, while culture is the reserved purview of human identity. Identity, for Haraway, is indebted far beyond what humans rather parochially term "parents" (the neo-Darwinian focus on vertical inheritance of parent to offspring) to a cascading multitude of already entangled, incalculable, and temporal enmeshing of species--and precisely the kind of contagions that Parisi's book focuses on.

Proceeding from an already mixed genealogy, Haraway asks of these families of kin and (taxonomic) kind important questions about the possibilities for becoming-with companion species. Here, relating precedes identity: the relating itself forms constituent identities. Not, as Haraway points out, that species do not have ontologies-in-themselves "sometimes-separate heritages both before and lateral to this encounter" (25). But there is contagion at work in Haraway's species-meeting: kin and kind defined less through (neo-Darwinian) "arboreal descent" and more through "the play of bodies," a kind of forbidden fertilization of species-meeting.
    Genes are hot the point, and that surely is a relief. The point is
   companion-species making. It's all in the family, for better or
   until death do us part. This is a family made up in the belly of the
   monster of inherited histories that have to be inhabited to be
   transformed. I always knew that if I turned up pregnant, I wanted the
   being in my womb to be a member of another species; maybe that turns
   to be the general condition. It's not just mutts, in or out of
   traffic of international adoption, who seek a category of one's
own in
   significant otherness. (96) 

Haraway's companion species impregnation is metaphoric to be sure in its weaving of histories of codependence and production, but it is more than this: a literal enmeshing of bodies and all their resident companion species in a recursive cascade beyond, even, LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor).

The question then becomes, what is the character of this relating? Haraway pursues this question by recognizing the urgent need to reach beyond the kinds of "speaking for" species licensed through persistent claims of human exceptionality:
    Disarmed of the fantasy of climbing into heads, one's own or
others,' to
   get the full story from the inside, we can make some multispecies
   semiotic progress. To claim not to be able to communicate with and to
   know one another and other critters, however imperfectly, is a denial
   mortal entanglement (the open) for which we are responsible and in
   we respond.... Response is comprehending that subject-making
   is real. Response is face-to-face in the contact zone of an entangled
   relationship. Response is in the open. Companion species know this.

This is a highly reflexive move reminiscent of Barbara Smut's "co-presence" approach to the baboons. (12) Haraway's species-meeting is not the kind in which we humans make other humans of our animals (imputing emotions, drives, and motivations that are suspiciously all-too-human) and then relate to animals to the extent that they reflect these human qualities we have imputed. (13) The extensive discussion of international dog breeding, genomics, and disease in When Species Meet engages a different kind of species-meeting ethics than previous offers-Immanuel Kant's sublime, Ludwig Wittgenstein's lion, Jean-Francois Lyotard's inhuman and Differend, Martin Heidegger's Hand-Werk, Emmanuel Levinas's dog Bobby, and ultimately Jacques Derrida's cat--each of which pivots on a comparison between humans and animals (the animal) that leads to an ultimate disavowal of the latter. No, Haraway has something entirely different in mind. Watching Haraway and Cayenne Pepper practice their agility training together, it was clear to me these species meet--they talk, move, negotiate, listen, feel, and think--with each other. Haraway does not make a human of Cayenne, and Cayenne does not grant Haraway canidae status. Cognizant of the myriad implications of anthropomorphism, Haraway nevertheless urges engagement in the "open." (14) "There is no formula," Haraway argues, "for response; for precisely, to respond is not merely to react with a fixed calculus proper to machines, logic, and--most Western philosophy has insisted--animals" (77).

Like Haraway, Karen Barad is interested in "entanglement" as a way of comprehending the ontology and epistemology of phenomena. Haraway's approach is through biology and evolutionary theory, whereas Barad employs her training as a physicist to detail the concept of entanglement as it developed within physics. Indeed, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning is a carefully crafted analysis of a fascinating ongoing conversation about ontology and epistemology involving physics and philosophy. To say that this book crosses disciplines is an understatement. And like the work of Haraway, Parisi, Wilson, and Kirby, this book engages with science.

The book's starting point is a long-standing conversation between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr about what became known as the "particle-wave duality paradox." Particles are material objects; each particle occupies a particular point in space and time. Barad writes that waves, on the other hand, are not things per se but "disturbances (which cannot be localized to a point) that propagate in a medium (like water) or as oscillating fields (like electromagnetic waves such as light)" (76). Waves, under the right conditions, produce diffraction patterns when they combine, overlap, and/or encounter an obstruction. Given these definitions, Newtonian physics predicts that only waves will produce diffraction patterns because particles cannot occupy the same place at the same time. To think this through, Niels Bohr adapted Thomas Young's "two-slit" experiment to produce a gedanken (thought experiment) in which particles are propelled through a series of slits (one, two, or three slits). Incredibly, the particles display a diffraction pattern on a photographic plate placed at some distance from the slit or slits characteristic of waves. This even occurs when a single electron passes through the slit: it produces a diffraction pattern. To complicate things even further: if we "track" the electron with a "which-path apparatus" (that is, to observe the electron to see where it goes), the electron's resulting pattern will appear as one that characterizes particles. If we do not track the electron, the resulting pattern appears in a diffraction (wave) pattern. So how does a single electron "interfere" with itself, in a wave sense? How can a single electron go through both slits at once? How can it be that the resulting pattern and the observation of the experiment are co-implicated?

For Heisenberg, quantum theory distills an epistemological concern about how we know what we know (known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). The particle-wave duality empirically demonstrates that we can only make probabilistic predictions about energy/time and position/ momentum. Bohr, by contrast, interpreted this as an ontological issue. "[P]articles do not have determinate values of position and momentum simultaneously" (19). It is the difference, in other words, between "uncertainty" (Heisenberg's epistemology) and "indeterminacy" (Bohr's ontology). Barad's term "intra-action" refers to the ontological inseparability (in the Bohrian sense) of all "words" (culture) and all "things" (nature), contrasted against the term "interaction" predicated upon (ontologically) individuated entities that subsequently interact. By considering "words" and "things" as ontologically (as opposed to only epistemologically) entangled, Barad's theory avoids the problem that representation seeks analogies and homologies between separate entities (88). As such, Barad defines realism as "not about representations of an independent reality but about the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within and as part of our world" (37).

Bohr argues that natural (and presumably social) scientists study phenomena, defined as the "observations obtained under specified circumstances, including an account of the whole experimental arrangement," what Barad refers to as "entangled material agencies" (56). In other words, reality is defined as things-in-phenomena rather than things-in-themselves (205). Objectivity, Barad writes, becomes what Bohr defines as "permanent marks--such as a spot on a photographic plate, caused by the impact of an electron-left on bodies which define the experimental condition" (197). Objectivity, then, does not depend upon the isolation of observer from observed (in classical accounts). Indeed, for Bohr, to evacuate the human from the universe would be to accord the human with a privileged position.

Meeting the Universe Halfway is an extended conversation about the metaphysics of knowing. But the ontology that Barad develops also carries myriad implications of interest to humanities and social science theorists: too many indeed to adequately detail here. One important implication is our understanding of "objects." For Barad, "the primary ontological unit is not independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather phenomena" (139). "Existence" in other words, "is not an individual affair," argues Barad, and concurring with Haraway, "individuals do not pre-exist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating" (ix). This incessant exchange takes place with or without observation and sentience; it is not created or sustained by a measuring process or observer. Moreover, observer and observed are not inherently static in time or space (to make them so is to exact an agential cut): they are always already previously intra-acting physical systems.

Another important implication concerns the notion of volition. Barad (like Bohr) is careful to distance her position from those who interpret quantum theory as advocating a kind of everything-is-connected-sotherefore-everything-is-within-our-power-to-change position. She writes "one can find suggestions in the literature that quantum physics is inherently less androcentric, less Eurocentric, more feminine, more postmodern, and generally less regressive than the masculinist and imperializing tendencies round in Newtonian physics." However, as Barad reminds us, quantum theory led to the development of the A-bomb; particle physics is scientific reductionism at its best in some respects; and quantum theory generally remains the purview of a handful of primarily Western-trained males (67). Moreover, it is a testament to human exceptionalism that we would place ourselves at the center of the universe and assume that we are the ones forever in control.


A number of scholars have endeavored to deflate the philosophical space between matter and culture, developing terms aimed at, if not completely rejecting then at the very least significantly narrowing, the matter-culture bifurcation, for instance: Latour's "parliament of things," "co-production" and "infra-physics"; Michel Callon's "actor network"; Isabelle Stenger's "cosmopolitics"; John Law's "relational materialism"; Andrew Pickering's "noncorrespondence realism"; Michel Serres's "quasi-object"; Matthew Kearnes's "relational intersubjectivity"; Steve Fuller's "social epistemology"; Henri Bergson's "to vary with" matter itself and "image"; Rosi Braidotti's "new materialism" and "transpositions"; Alan Irwin's "co-constructions"; Evelyn Fox Keller's "dynamic objectivity," and Alfred North Whitehead's "propositions." (15) These terms' elucidation suggests a long-standing recognition that philosophy and science can and must move beyond the separation of matter and culture (recall Heidegger's cryptic assessment that Plato single-handedly set Western philosophy on the dead-end path it still follows today). (16) This said, the challenge now is to develop feminist analyse--of bodies, environment, relating, and so on--that eschew nature and culture as separate ontologies and engage with science to build these analyses.

In the introduction to their edited collection on material feminism, Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman anticipate that material feminism will "spark intense debate." This, to a degree, seems to be the case. Sara Ahmed's 2008 article in the European Journal of Women's Studies heavily criticizes a number of feminist theorists--Kirby, Wilson, and Barad, among them--for what Ahmed argues is their misrepresentation of feminist theory. (17)

Ahmed argues that material feminists present a caricature of feminist theory as "antibiological," which then enables these feminists to present their own refusal to adhere to this antibiological stance as "a gift to feminism." (18) Ahmed charges that "new materialist" scholars do not provide sufficient evidence that feminist theory in general is "antibiological," and Ahmed tries herself to offer examples of feminists engaging with science. Unfortunately, the examples provided are better characterized as critiquing science, according to Mackenzie and Murphie's formulation. Critique in and of itself is not an unappreciated form of analysis, and I certainly think that Barad. Wilson, Kirby, Parisi, and Haraway detail how their analyses have both benefited from, and contribute to, this type of analysis.

The issue, to my mind, is that engagement requires a different ontology and epistemology--ones that do not bifurcate nature and culture. In her response to Ahmed's article, Noela Davis notes that the examples Ahmed provides of feminist engagement with science--a description by Lynda Birke and Sandy Best of biological processes in the female body and a description of hormones by Anne Briscoe--turn out not to engage with science at all in the sense that matter and culture are kept separate. She writes that "there is an assumption that the biological and the social can be examined and assessed separately and that their respective effects can be somehow added together to describe the symptomatology under investigation." (19)

I want to interpret Ahmed's article as an opportunity to open up discussion within feminist theory generally about what might constitute our "mission statement." Ahmed states that her "viewpoint is partly a matter of an impression that has accumulated over time" as a result of "numerous conversations with friends, colleagues, [and] participants at conferences...." (20) I do not contest Ahmed's interpretation of these experiences as a kind of bandwagon effect. Rather, these experiences sustain multiple readings: perhaps, indeed, they suggest an excitement about possible new ways of contributing to feminist theory. Perhaps there is, after all, something different about recent feminist engagements with matter.

I have no doubt that feminist theory will (and should) continue its rich tradition of critiquing science, knowledge, and technology. We will also likely continue to extract concepts from science for their strategic utility within social theory. Haraway's adoption of the term "refraction" from optics to elucidate her epistemological approach is a good case in point. We also want to critique current extractions. (21) And surely we also want to engage with science in the specific sense that Kirby, Parisi, Wilson, Haraway, and Barad so brilliantly do--by imagining a nonbifurcated cosmos. Thus, I suggest, "matter becomes a fetish object" only as the effect of an ontology that separates matter from culture. (22)

My own research is inspired by attempts to engage with matter. In The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution after Science Studies, I am concerned to build a micro-ontology by thinking through the possibilities for, and parameters of, engaging seriously with the bacteria. (23) Ultimately, I hope to theorize an ethics-outside pathogen histories and characterizations--that engages seriously with the microcosmos. I am particularly interested in considering intra-actions that do not necessarily have anything to do with humans: to wit, the countless microbial intra-actions that sustain the biosphere and drive evolution. As Graham Harman reminds us, "all reality is political, but not all politics is human." (24)

I hope this work contributes to feminist theory by scrutinizing the reception of symbiogenesis theory within neo-Darwinism. It also extracts a number of concepts from science: self. other, symbiosis, symbiogenesis, sex, and so on, in order to contribute to the humanities' and social sciences' long-standing theorization of these concepts within the fabric of social relations. I am particularly interested, for instance, in biological formulations of "sex," "reproduction," and "gender," and theories that contest the neo-Darwinian proposition that sexual reproduction is a "problem" within evolutionary theory. I argue there are robust theories derived from evidence concerned with the deep time of sex (beginning about 3.8 billion years ago) and the contemporary diversity of sex and reproduction, which offer provocative ways of considering the ontology of sexual difference that do not endorse neo-Darwinian assumptions concerning its immutability. Indeed, feminist scholars might find this biological research especially germane to continued debates about "bodies that matter." I also try to engage with science by contemplating what it might mean to meet with the microbial. This effort was greatly facilitated by the year I spent in the Lynn Margulis laboratory at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It is a place, to borrow from both Haraway and Barad, where naturecultures intra-act: pictures of Margulis amid rows of scientists at various meetings (she is typically the only woman in these pictures); scores of honors tucked behind fridges containing various microbial communities; scientists; cameras; termites; petri dishes; theories; unwashed dishes; solar rays; janitorial staff; undergrad and graduate students; runaway cockroaches escaping from neighboring labs; a murky Miller/Urey-type vat in which the inorganic becomes organic; generous amounts of dust; computers; music; pens and paper; and so on. I delighted in observing and identifying symbionts under an electron microscope at the same time that I attended to the ways in which scientific and political models comingle in reductive ways. Put another way, even though I recognize symbionts with the aid of a classification scheme, electron microscope, air, solution, pincers, nervous system, light, eyes, research grant, fingers, human instruction, brain, and slides--not to mention the symbiont itself, let's say a termite with thousands of different microbes within its gut--I do not want to argue that prokaryotes and eukaryotes exist only through my social and/or technological construction of them or that my entanglement with microbes is more important than (or worse, determines) their entanglements with each other. My attempt to "meet with" the microcosmos stands firmly on the shoulders of feminist scholarship such as that which I have reviewed here: Kirby's careful illustration of the erasure of matter by culture; Wilson's detailed examples of soma/psyche intra-action in the gut, the brain, and so on; Parisi's thoughtful eschewal of feminist theories of sexual difference sustained through neo-Darwinian linear filiations in favor of a contagic understanding of sex and reproduction; and Barad's and Haraway's epistemic commitment to the messy entanglements that proliferate the cosmos.


Judith Butler: Live Theory. By Vicki Kirby. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body. By Elizabeth A. Wilson. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.

Abstract Sex: Philosophy. Bio-technology, and the Mutations of Desire. By Luciana Parisi. New York: Continuum, 2004.

When Species Meet. By Donna Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. By Karen Barad. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.


(1.) I discuss the importance of material feminism in Myra J. Hird, Sex, Gender. and Science (Houndmills. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Press, 2004).

(2.) Rosemary Hennessay and Chrys Ingraham, eds., Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class. Difference. and Women's Lives (New York: Routledge, 1997).

(3.) Susan Sheridan, "Words and Things: Some Feminist Debates on Culture and Materialism," Australian Feminist Studies 17, no. 37 (2002): 23-30; Elizabeth A. Wilson, Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition (New York: Routledge, 1998); Rosi Braidotti, "Teratologies" in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. Ian Buchanan and Claire Colebrook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 156-72; Elizabeth Grosz, "Darwin and Feminism: Preliminary Investigations for a Possible Alliance," Australian Feminist Studies 14, no. 29 (1999): 31-45.

(4.) Andrian Mackenzie and Andrew Murphie, "The Two Cultures Become Multiple? Sciences. Humanities, and Everyday Experimentation." Australian Feminist Studies 23, no. 55 (2008): 87-100.

(5.) Evelyn Reed, Sexism and Science (New York: Pathfinder, 1978); Ruth Bleier, Science and Gender A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women (New York: Pergamon Press, 1984); Helen Longino. Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1990); Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives (Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press, 1991); Nellie Oudshoorn, Beyond the Natural Body: An Archeology of Sex Hormones (New York: Routledge, 1994); Patricia Gowaty, ed., Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997); Sarah Franklin, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); and Londa Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(6.) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone Press, 1988); Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (New York: Cosimo, 2007); and Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (New York: Continuum Press, 2002).

(7.) Mackenzie and Murphie, "The Two Cultures Become Multiple?" 89.

(8.) Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, Material Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 2.

(9.) C.P. Snow and Stefan Collini, The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Vicky Kirby, "Subject to Natural Law: A Meditation on the 'Two Cultures' Problem," Australian Feminist Studies 23, no. 55 (2008): 5-17.

(10.) Anne Fausto-Sterling, "Feminism and Behavioral Evolution: A Taxonomy," in Feminism and Evolutionary Biology, 42-60; Grosz, "Darwin and Feminism," and her Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005); and Myra J. Hird, The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution after Science Studies (Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2009).

(11.) Hird, Origins of Sociable Life.

(12.) Barbara Smuts, Sex and Friendship in Baboons (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Press, 2007).

(13.) Myra J. Hird, "Animal Trans," Australian Feminist Studies 21, no. 49 (2006): 35-48.

(14.) Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

(15.) Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Michel Callon and John Law, "After the Individual in Society: Lessons on Collectivity from Science. Technology, and Society" Canadian Journal of Sociology 22, no. 2 (1997): 1-11; Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention: Situating Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); John Law, Power. Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? (London: Routledge, 1986); Pickering, Mangle of Practice; Matthew Kearnes, "Geographies That Matter: The Rhetorical Deployment of Physicality?" Social and Cultural Geography 4, no. 2 (2003): 139-52; Steve Fuller, Social Epistemology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory. trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: Allen and Unwin, 1911); Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2006); Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne, Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); and Whitehead, Concept of Nature.

(16.) Steven L. Goldman, The Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It (Chantilly, Va.: Teaching Co., 2006), 231.

(17.) Alaimo and Hekman, Material Feminism, 1; Sara Ahmed, "Open Forum, Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism,'" European Journal of Women's Studies 15, no. 1 (2008): 23-39. Responses to Ahmed's article include Iris Van der Tuin, "Deflationary Logic: Response to Sara Ahmed's "Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism,'" European Journal of Women's Studies 15, no. 4 (2008): 411-16; Noela Davies, "New Materialism and Feminism's Anti-Biologism," European Journal of Women's Studies 16, no. 1 (2009): 67-80.

(18.) Ahmed, "Open Forum," 26, 24.

(19.) Davies, "New Materialism and Feminism's Anti-Biologism," 70.

(20.) Ahmed, "Open Forum," 25.

(21.) Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (New York: Picador, 1998).

(22.) Ahmed, "Open Forum," 35.

(23.) Hird, Origins of Sociable Life.

(24.) Graham Harman, "The Metaphysics of Objects: Latour and His Aftermath," Speculative Heresy, 118 (
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Author:Hird, Myra J.
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Essay
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Date:Jun 22, 2009
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