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New feminist sociological directions.

Abstract: Feminism has already raised significant questions about the relationship between the cultural and the physical. However, this tends to open up science to the social, leaving the actual materiality of organic and non-organic matter intact. That is, whilst feminism has cast light on social and cultural meanings of sexual difference, there seems to be a hesitation to delve into the actual physical processes through which differentiation and change take place. The momentous shift in the natural sciences towards openness and play within the living and nonliving world will have an enormous impact on sociologists who increasingly grapple with issues involving life and matter (for instance in discussions of 'the body'). The aim of this paper is to pay tribute to the work of Australian feminist theorists, whose recognition of the importance of new materialism for sociological theory is prescient. I will argue that Australian feminist research is a major attempt to deal directly with materiality.

Resume : Le feminisme a deja souleve suffisamment de questions au sujet de la relation entre l'aspect culturel et l'aspect physique. Il semble toutefois ouvrir la science a la vie sociale, sans toucher a l'importance reelle des matieres organique et inorganique. Alors que le feminisme a mis en lumiere les significations culturelles et sociales de la difference sexuelle, on semble hesiter a etudier les processus physiques reels de cette distinction et de ce changement. L'important virage des sciences naturelles a legard de l'ouverture et dujeu dans le monde des vivants et des non-vivants aura certes des incidences enormes sur le travail des sociologues qui ne cessant de jangler avec les questions touchant la vie et la matiere (par exemple les discussions sur le << corps >>). Le but de cette communication consiste a rendre hommage a l'oeuvre des theoriciennes australiennes dont on doit reconnaitre l'importance du nouveau materialisme pour la theorie sociologique. Je ferai valoir que la recherche des feministes australiannes represente une tentative de taille pour aborder directement cette importance.


There have been a number of significant shifts in the natural sciences within the past few decades to suggest an openness and play within the living and nonliving world (for examples of these shifts see DeLanda, 1997a, 1997b; Deleuze and Guattari, 2002; Jonson, 1999; Kinsman, 2001; Kirby, 1997; Margulis and Sagan, 1997; Rabinow, 1992; Sagan, 1992). (1) I believe these developments within the natural sciences stand to make a significant impression on feminist sociologists who increasingly find themselves grappling with issues involving life and matter (for instance in debates about 'the body,' the 'sex'/'gender' binary and sexual difference). In this paper I attend to explorations of 'new materialism' that have recently been produced by Australian feminists. (2) I want to suggest that Australian feminist theorists' keen interest in science represents a prescient recognition of the merits of engaging directly with the natural sciences. As such, the aim of this paper is to pay tribute to the work of Australian feminist theorists, and to suggest how feminist theory might harness this work to reorient our approaches to bodies and sexual difference.

Discussions of materiality within sociology and much of feminist theory tend to be anchored by two critical assumptions (Soper, 1995). (3) Firstly, the constitution of matter is largely figured as inert, stable, concrete, unchangeable and resistant to socio-historical change. Vicki Kirby argues that contemporary critical analyses' insistence that the target of scrutiny is the discursive effects of objects, and not the object themselves, belies a construction of materiality as 'rigid, prescriptive' and opposed to 'cultural determinations that are assumed to be plastic, contestable, and able to invite intervention and reconstruction' (2001: 54). Consequently, when feminists study materiality, it tends to be in terms of how humans (such as scientists) interact with materiality, as though there is no outside of, or beyond, the cultural context. In other words, feminist critiques of science tend to focus on social constructions of materiality that emerged within political, economic and social discourses during the eighteenth century (socio-biology for example), which began to use science as a key source of evidence for 'solutions to increasing questions about sexual and racial equality' (Schiebinger, 1993: 9). Anne Witz explains:

Feminist sociologists have, for the most part, written against the grain of corporeality, in the sense of a fleshy materiality, in order to fill out the absent, more-than-fleshy sociality of women traditionally repressed within sociological discourse. And for good reasons. Precisely because they were sociologists, they did latteraly for women what masculinist sociology had formerly done for men, and men alone: they retrieved them from the realm of the 'biological,' 'corporeal' and 'natural' and instated them within the realm of the 'social' (2000: 4).

Thus, feminist social constructionism convincingly argues that the 'naturalness' of bodily materiality is socially mediated, and raises significant questions about the relationship between the cultural and the physical.

However, these analyses largely tend to open up science to the social, leaving the actual materiality of organic and non-organic matter intact, as though these aspects could have no significant impact on cultural analyses. For example, much has been written within feminism on eating disorders and the body, including the social construction of dieting, fitness, beauty and the patriarchal system that regulates women's relationships with their own bodies (Orbach, 1986; Bordo, 1993). Despite the enormous number of feminist analyses on the gendered construction of eating disorders, 'these analyses consider the cellular processes of digestion, the biochemistry of muscle action, and the secretion of digestive glands to be the domain of factual and empirical verification ... only a certain understanding of the body has currency for these feminist analyses, an understanding that seems to exclude "the biological body'" (Wilson, 1998: 52).

In other words, while feminism has cast light on social and cultural meanings of sexual difference, there seems to be a hesitation to delve into the actual physical processes through which stasis, differentiation and change take place. There is a paucity of feminist studies that analyze how physical processes might contribute to feminist concerns such as 'the body' and sexual difference. The difficulty with social scientific and cultural analyses of the representation of matter is that 'providing a social explanation ... means that someone is able in the end to replace some object pertaining to nature by another one pertaining to society, which can be demonstrated to be its true substance' (Latour, 2000: 109). This effects a recursive return to sociality and away from the material object of study.

The second, related, assumption is that the primary means through which the study of matter has been accessed, science, is principally a tool of patriarchy. Consequently, feminists often approach analyses of matter both reluctantly and negatively. As Elizabeth Grosz notes, 'nature has been regarded primarily as a kind of obstacle against which we need to struggle' (1999b: 31). Thus, feminist analyses focus on reproductive technologies, pre-menstrual syndrome, menopause and birthing technologies in often-negative terms (Balsamo, 1996). In part, the negative inflection of these analyses is guided by a commitment to the feminist political project of equality, which is keenly sensitive to any natural science inclinations toward sex, gender and 'the nature of things.'

These two assumptions present particular challenges to feminist theory which Judith Butler summarizes thus: 'it must be possible to concede and affirm an array of "materialities" that pertain to the body, that which is signified by the domains of biology, anatomy, physiology, hormonal and chemical composition, illness, weight, metabolism, life and death' (1993: 66). This is what Bruno Latour refers to as comprehending the 'thingness of the thing' (2000:112). As Australian Jacinta Kerin argues, 'we cannot merely displace the force of scientific schemes by analyzing their cultural conditions of emergence' (1999: 101). Fellow Australian Vicki Kirby's more acerbic conclusion crystallizes the problem: 'the radical purchase of deconstruction's self-consciously awkward and repetitious insistence that the text is everywhere present, has been dissolved in the mantra of its repetition' (1999: 20). The challenge, then, is 'how to think the seemingly persistent material differences of sex' (Roberts, 1999: 131). We may access bodies through language and discourse, but this mediative process does not entirely account for the creation of material bodies, or what Anne Witz refers to as the 'residual facticity ... the lost or untheorised 'matter' of bodies that lurk, unattended to, on the sidelines of the social' (2000: 10). (4)

Conceding the need to revive a focus on materiality presents, to my mind, two challenges. The first challenge is that most social theories invoke 'bodily materiality' with little knowledge of evolution, biology, anatomy, chemistry or physics. This lack of knowledge about--to borrow from John Brockman and Katinka Matson--How Things Are (1996), sets necessary limits on discussions of materiality, notwithstanding the most extreme deconstructive efforts. (5) The first challenge, then, is to become sufficiently literate in the natural sciences to contemplate the contribution of these knowledges to feminist theory.

The second challenge is to move away from a notion of matter as an inert, largely negative ontology whose only representative medium is masculinist science, and towards a more positive notion of matter as open-ended and playful. Here we find a reconsideration of the notion of bodies as the excluded 'other' to masculinist representation (see Colebrook, 2000a, 2000b). The revived interest in feminist science studies indicates a movement beyond the political position that science serves only to endorse the claims about women' s 'ontology' that the political project of feminism set out to challenge. Using both Deleuzian and Derridean theories in tandem with science literate analyses of matter, feminist concerns such as 'the body' and sexual difference are explored. In the remainder of this paper my aim is to sketch how Australian feminist theorists have met both these challenges.

Origins and Non-linear Becomings

In the bulk of feminist analyses, matter is (often implicitly) figured as the inert and static entity on or through which cultural forces operate. Yet non-linear biology, and new materialism more generally, has for some time moved towards an understanding of matter as a complex open system subject to emergent properties. Manuel DeLanda (1995) traces the history of the philosophy of matter to demonstrate how simple behaviour, defined through the emerging science of chemistry as matter that conforms to the laws of definite properties, became the major focus of scientific attention. Tremendous gains were made in understanding properties of inert matter, but at the expense of recognizing what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari term the 'machinic phylum,' or the overall set of self-organizing processes within the universe, including organic and inorganic matter, that is produced by non-linear dynamics (1991). By observing the structures and processes whereby organic and non-organic matter self-organize, Deleuze was able to address the major philosophical concerns of essentialism (that matter has its own essence a priori to culture) by suggesting that the form matter takes comes from matter itself--that is, spontaneous morphogenesis (DeLanda, 1997a). (6) Deleuze and Guattari explain how different structures (geologic, biological, socio-economic) are produced through 'strata' (homogeneous elements such as sedimentary rocks, species and social hierarchies) and 'meshworks' (heterogeneous elements such as igneous rocks, ecosystems and pre-capitalist markets) (DeLanda, 1997a: 509). (7)

Taking into account the idea that matter possesses its own 'immanent and intensive resources for the generation of form from within' (DeLanda, 2000) has helped a number of Australian feminist theorists to think about materiality without the usual accompaniment of essentialism, where matter is understood as an inert container for outside forms. One of the reasons that I think Australian feminists are increasingly engaging with Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari's work is because nature is not conceived under a 'juridical transcendent plane' (i.e. in need of translation and governance by humans) but as immanently self-organizing (Gatens, 2000: 60). Deleuze and Guattari (2001, 2002) have developed a theory that, in refiguring matter as molecular, mobile and dynamic, challenges theories that figure bodies as solid inert objects as well as distinctions between human and non-human, and, living and non-living matter.

Deleuze and Guattari's theory of 'becoming molecular' stands in rather stark contrast to feminist theories of the body as excluded 'other' (Irigaray, 1985; Kristeva, 1986). Because representations of the body and sexual difference are seen to be effects of a pre-representation (usually the maternal feminine), analyses tend to be negative--a mourning for that which is lost through masculinist representation. Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand, do not consider bodies as vehicles of consciousness nor as privileged sites of meaning (Bray and Colebrook, 1998: 56). As Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook write:

Matter, or the body, would not be thought's 'other' if thinking were seen as a desiring production, a comportment, an activity, or an ethos. The body is not essentially anterior or other. And it follows from this that a theory of sexual difference that relies on constitutive negation may be best overcome by not turning to the body or attacking representation but by questioning the primacy of the representation/materiality dichotomy (1998: 56).

Deleuze and Guattari present an account of materiality such that the body is a positive event rather than a negated origin; 'action is productive rather than representational' of some originary lack (Bray and Colebrook, 1998: 57. See Colebrook, 2000a for a provocative delineation of the metaphysical differences between Irigaray and Deleuze).

Thinking about bodies as 'becomings' rather than the signification of an originary loss has encouraged a number of feminists to consider sexual difference differently. Some Australian feminist scholars have taken up Deleuze and Guattari's work to question notions of sexual difference as pre-representation, such as Elizabeth Grosz' s edited collection Becomings (1999a), Ian Buchanan and Claire Colebrook's Deleuze and Feminist Theory (2000) and the special issue of Hypatia 'Going Australian: Reconfiguring Feminism and Philosophy' (2000). For instance, in Becomings, Grosz has collected a number of works that emphasize concepts of chance, randomness and openendedness. These articles attempt a distinctly non-social constructionist account of becoming, insofar as social constructionism is dependent upon human interpretation to open up the world. Buchanan and Colebrook's collection is also concerned with the notion of becoming, and employs a Deleuzian analysis to explicitly contest the dependence of traditional social constructionist arguments on human interpretation. In this collection, Colebrook asks 'what if sexual difference thought itself as a problem ...? If philosophy were neither a question of the opening of pure truth, nor a question of recognition, but the confrontation of new problems and concepts, then sexual difference would be a different form of difference' (2000a: 124). Colebrook employs a Deleuzian philosophy of the event, rather than the concept (such as the originary subject found in some cultural analyses) to argue that difference does not generate the subject, and thus sexual difference 'is no longer foundational, no longer the difference from which all other (given) differences are effected' (2000a: 118).

A number of Australian feminists have also analyzed sexual difference as origin through the work of Jacques Derrida. Feminist theory's use of Derrida's writing is wide-ranging. But in Australia, Derrida's work is being used in a way that might surprise even those feminists who regularly refer to Derrida's ideas. A hallmark of Derrida's work is his concern with the notion of origin or pure presence. For Derrida, the world is constituted through signs, inscriptions and marks that are subject to repetition. In order for each sign to be discernible from the next, it must differ in some way, that is 'an interval, a distance, spacing must be produced between elements' (Derrida in Grosz, 1986: 34). This spacing or interval is also a movement in time, such that each iteration of the sign is deferred. For Derrida, then, each iteration effects both continuity and difference, or differance, so as to obviate any notion of an origin or absolute self-identity.

Yet Kirby observes that whilst cultural deconstruction may claim to have dismantled the notion of origin, the very division between 'nature' and 'culture' reinstates an origin:

But what is happily relinquished in the critique of the subject is then quietly recuperated elsewhere. The identity of the subject as an atomic principle of indivisible autonomy has certainly been sacrificed, appearing in qualified form as an 'emergence' within a generalized field of becoming. The explanatory force that can no longer be ceded to the subject, or indeed to any identity, has nevertheless miraculously resurfaced in the entity of 'culture' itself (1999: 21).

Kirby explores how the work of Derrida has been selectively taken up by feminists to further cultural analyses at the expense, according to Kirby, of potential Derridean applications to science and materiality. She asks 'why is Derrida's privileging of "writing" and "language" read as cultural constructivism par excellence, as if Nature is placed under erasure by Culture' (1999: 20)? As Annemarie Jonson writes, Derrida himself is critical of this reduction of writing to culture:

Indeed, while Derrida remarks not infrequently on the 'differential and formal character of semiological functioning,' the 'possibility of code ... independent of any substance,' he elsewhere stresses equally the deconstructive insistence of materiality. For matter, in Derrida's view, is philosophy's debased 'exterior,' a 'radical alterity ... in relation to philosophical oppositions'; and insofar as material substance may be thought 'outside the oppositions in which it has been caught (matter/ideality, matter/form) ...,' he concedes that 'what [he] write[s] may be considered 'materialist' (1999: 56).

Drawing out some observations initiated by Kate Soper (1995), Kirby challenges the traditional nature/culture opposition as an example of Derridean supplementarity, whereby those sociological theories that attempt to ground 'nature' entirely within 'culture' grant to 'nature' an extra-discursive order of reality. Kirby argues that a Derridean analysis effects a 'mediated nature of nature [that] neither nature nor culture can accommodate comfortably' (1999: 25). Rising to both of the challenges I outlined at the outset, Kirby uses DNA and cells as material examples of languages that should prompt a re-thinking of language within the nature/culture divide. In this sense, the 'text' that Derrida claims has no outside is the 'text of nature' (1999: 28). Here is a thesis that suggests the restriction of some poststructural and postmodern deconstruction to discourse has implications for both nature and science, and Kirby argues that we must open up the 'text' to outside determinations not concerned with the human subject (2001). (8) Derrida's notion of difference invites an understanding of nature and culture as concepts which are neither pure presence nor absolute self-identity, but indicate instead marks within a 'web, a textile of other marks, a mesh of constantly moving parts extending through time and space' (Clark, 2001: 96).

Rosalyn Diprose (1991) provides a further excellent illustration of Australian feminist engagement with science. Challenging the widely held assumption that the genetic code is the origin of biological (and sexual) differences, Diprose goes beyond cultural analyses of genetics that argue against a causative relation between genetic codes (genotype) and their expression (phenotype). Developing Derrida's theory of the origin as always deferred, Diprose argues that the genetic code has no material origin. Specifically, genetic codes are determined by the pairing and ordering of nucleotide bases, that is, their relation to each other. Moreover, DNA codes only become operative when they replicate into a mirror image of themselves and then reverse this process, not back to an originary code but to 'the other of the other' (1991: 72). As Elizabeth Wilson explains:

The process of DNA-RNA transcription effects a double deferral: from the nucleotide bases to their interval, and from their interval to a series of transcriptions that never return to the origin. It is the processes of spacing, difference, and translation without original--rather than the repetition of the same from a present origin--that determines genetic effect. It is this trace of a trace, rather than u present and locatable code, that is the genetic 'origin' (1998: 99-100).

Diprose demonstrates the utility of feminist scientific literacy in debating the ontology of sexual difference. Learning about genetic theory enables Diprose to affront scientific reductionism of the gene as origin, and also those cultural feminist analyses that, through omission, defer to the matter-static-origin/ culture-malleable dualism. Indeed, Diprose demonstrates matter at play to show that even genetic difference is not grounded anywhere but rather produces its own origin as effect.

Feminists Intra-acting with Matter

Vicki Kirby's analysis of Derridean 'text' as DNA takes feminist analysis along a path seldom traversed by most feminist theory--which remains firmly anchored to an implicit separation between culture and matter. Kirby adjoins a minority of feminists critical of the lack of engagement with matter. What Kirby seeks is a viable interaction between culture and matter, where neither is effaced at the expense of the other.

In an analysis that combines critical theory with physics, Karen Barad (1998, 2001) offers an epistemology for comprehending 'things' (matter) that does not depend on a notion of 'truth as a faithful reflection of a static world of being' (DeLanda, 2000). Barad develops what she terms 'agential realism' to refer to (amongst other things) the nature of scientific and other social practices, the nature of reality, the nature of matter, and the relationship between the material and the discursive in epistemic practices. Agential realism seeks to move beyond the traditional division between 'realism' and 'social constructivism.' Whereas classical Newtonian physics assumes that observations can be transparent (that a distinction can be made between observations and objects), Niels Bohr argued this distinction to be impossible. Bohr defined a 'phenomenon' as the lack of inherent distinction between objects and their agencies of observation (Barad, 2001:231). This means that 'reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena, but things-in-phenomena' (Barad, 2001 : 235). This ontology does not suppose being as prior to signification (as in classical realism and some cultural feminist theory), but neither does it understand being as a product of language (as in some cultural formulations). Rather, agential realism examines the ways in which nature and culture intra-act, as for example, how different disciplinary cultures (such as feminist theory) define what counts as 'nature' and what counts as 'culture' (2001: 240).

A number of feminist scholars concerned with science studies, and nonlinear biology specifically, offer interesting and useful ways of intra-acting with matter. For instance, Sarah Franklin argues that the most pervasive and powerful representation of nature is as a biological entity; that the origin of 'life itself' is represented in biological terms as natural selection, and egg and sperm activity (2000). Franklin traverses conflicting representations of, on the one hand, biology as telos of organic survival through sexual reproduction--traditional neo-Darwinian accounts such as Richard Dawkins's 'Selfish Gene' (1989)--to, on the other hand, the non-linearity of genes as information reproduction. One of the significant implications of the shift to 'genomic governmentality' is that 'many of [biology's] former foundational fictions are now in the reliquary beside Lamarckism, [and] neither life nor sex [are branches] on the same family tree that Darwin borrowed from the Bible to begin with' (Franklin, 2000: 219).

Like Barad, Donna Haraway develops a notion of materiality as both material and semiotic effect. Haraway is particularly interested in trans species /cendence /fusions /gene /genics /national that disturb the hierarchy of taxonomic categories (genus, family, class, order, kingdom) derived from pure, self-contained and self-containing 'nature.' For Haraway, trans 'cross a culturally salient line between nature and artifice, and they greatly increase the density of all kinds of other traffic on the bridge between what counts as nature and culture' (1997: 56). What appeals to me about the concept of 'trans' is that it works equally well both between and within matter, confounding the notion of the well-defined, inviolable self which precedes Western culture's 'stories of the human place in nature, that is, genesis and its endless repetitions' (1997: 60). As Haraway argues, in these Western stories 'history is erased, for other organisms as well as for humans, in the doctrine of types and intrinsic purposes, and a kind of timeless stasis in nature is piously narrated. The ancient cobbled-together, mixed-up history of living beings, whose long tradition of genetic exchange will be the envy of industry for a long time to come, gets short shift' (1997: 61).

Haraway (2001) goes on to provide a superb example of how knowledge of biological diversity can inform key feminist debates about embodiment and 'the self.' Haraway describes Mixotricha paradoxa, a minute single-celled organism that lives in the gut of the South Australian termite. This tiny organism engenders key questions about the autonomy of identity (we tend to assume that single organisms are defined by the possession of nucleated ceils), or as Haraway puts it 'the one and many' (2001: 82). Mixotricha paradoxa lives in a necessary symbiotic relationship with five other organisms, none with cell nuclei but all with DNA. Some live in the folds of the cell membrane, whilst others live inside the cell, whilst simultaneously not being completely part of the cell. Haraway asks: 'is it one entity or is it six? But six isn't right either because there are about a million of the five non-nucleated entities for every one nucleated cell. There are multiple copies. So when does one decide to become two? And what counts as Mixotricha? Is it just the nucleated cell or is it the whole assemblage?' (2001: 82). Advancing a similar argument, Joost Van Loon (2000) uses symbiosis theory within non-linear biology to argue the parasite with the body as the ultimate 'Other,' and invites a reconsideration of a politics of difference from inside the body (see also Rackham, 2000).

A number of Australian feminists are fore-fronting analyses of the kinds of intra-action that Barad and Haraway refer to. The 1999 issue of Australian Feminist Studies features a series of articles on feminist science studies (for an Australian analysis of feminist technology studies see Australian Feminist Studies, 2000). Guest editor Elizabeth Wilson sets out the current state of feminist analyses of science with the following quote: 'that culture, history and language exist at all must, in some broad sense, be in the nature of human biology' (1999: 7). Wilson argues that a feminist audience is likely to attribute to this quote a determinist or essentialist author. The fact that the author is Elizabeth Grosz might surprise many feminist scholars of 'the body,' and Wilson is interested in exploring how feminist analyses have proceeded 'as though the nature of biology is immaterial' (1999: 7). Using hysteria as an example of the 'psycho/somatic,' Wilson argues that feminist analyses of corporeality have narrowed to such an extent as to be completely reduced to cultural discussions. Wilson calls for feminists to contemplate biology, bodies and matter as the important, but mainly overlooked or erased, details of corporeality, and suggests that feminist theory will remain impoverished in so far as it does not attend to these details. (9)

Elizabeth Grosz's article Darwin and Feminism: Preliminary Investigations for a Possible Alliance (1999b) encourages feminists to use the analytic tools provided by evolutionary theory--abundant individual variation, proliferation of life forms, and the 'play' of natural selection--to analyze such diverse themes as oppression, social change, relations of sexual and racial difference, as well as a number of dualisms that have frustrated feminists, including the apparent nature-culture divide. As Grosz argues, 'evolution is a fundamentally open-ended system which pushes towards a future with no real direction, no promise of any particular result, no guarantee of progress or improvement, but with every indication of inherent proliferation and transformation' (1999b: 39). This means that culture is not the end product of nature, or any sort of logical culmination or going-beyond of nature. In this sense, nature cannot be overcome by culture, or culture by nature, as they are one in the same process.

A number of the articles in this special issue go on to consider specific 'matterings' such as Helen Keane's analysis of the addicted brain, Catherine Waldby's analysis of The Visible Human Project and ideas about reproducing life, Adrian Mackenzie's analysis of technology, Celia Roberts's review of Haraway's 'material-semiotic' actors, and Anna Munster's analysis of cyberfeminism. Annemarie Jonson evaluates the dualism between 'form' and 'matter' in artificial life studies that holds 'form' (in this case computer programs) to be the 'essence' of life. But rather than provide a more traditional analysis of the social construction of this dualism, as, for instance, feminist analyses interested in the ways in which form and matter became gendered, Jonson turns to molecular biology. Like Diprose (1991) Jonson shows how the interaction between genes (as 'computer program' form), proteins and cytoplasm is not a unidirectional set of instructions that cause proteins to function in certain ways, but rather a complex interaction dependent upon the environment.


Confining feminist criticism to cultural practices naturalizes the distinction between cultural and material domains, reduces the complexity of biological matter that new materialist studies emphasize, and reauthorizes the very practice of segregating 'feminist concerns' from 'neutral' explorations that anchor traditional scientific endeavours. If, as Elizabeth Wilson argues, feminist critiques 'have fallen into old and familiar patterns [then one way this] ubiquitous gravitation to culture' (1996: 50) might be averted is by studying materiality using the tools currently being developed by Australian feminist theorists. I see in these Australian 'feral publications' (to use Vicki Kirby's term) an unbridled enthusiasm absent in more mainstream feminist cultural analyses, which seem at times to be founded upon a resolute determination to find all that is negative in science and matter. It is almost as if the polyphony of living and non-living matter has infected these Australian feminist scholars, who are proving to be an 'enthusiastic audience ... hungry for more curious and excited modes of feminist interaction with the sciences' (Wilson, 2000: 40).

In this brief account, I have tried to indicate the flavour of these Australian theories, which delve into matter to understand feminist concerns with culture, and use new materialism to consider questions such as the origin of Sexual difference. But these explorations go further: by bringing DNA, bacteria and viruses within the purview of feminist critique, the project of feminist theory is at the very least expanded to include areas traditionally considered outside of feminist consideration because they do not explicitly refer to women or sexual difference. At most, these critiques are a 'breach ... against conventionalization ... the infraction of immobile boundaries and a displacement of the fixed political-critical spaces they enact' (Wilson, 1998: 204).

(1.) I gratefully acknowledge the comments of the anonymous reviewers on an earlier draft of this paper.

(2.) I use the term 'Australian' fairly loosely here, to include feminist scholars such as Claire Colebrook who does not currently reside in Australia, but who produced very thought-provoking work whilst at Australian National, Murdock and Monash Universities.

(3.) I use the term 'materialism' to refer to living and non-living matter, rather than the perhaps more familiar definition of materialism as the social and economic relations between women and men. See Sheridan (2002) for a useful summary of the debate within feminism between the latter definition of materialism and cultural analyses.

(4.) Colebrook refers to this as the 'pure difference corporeality' theories of Australians Moira Gatens, Elizabeth Grosz and Genevieve Lloyd. See Colebrook (2000b).

(5.) I am not arguing here that biology and sociology have never been connected, or that all sociologists and feminist theorists lack knowledge about the natural sciences. My aim is to encourage greater matter 'literacy' on the part of social scientists generally, as well as a more sustained critique of the assumption that the social sciences are limited to cultural analyses.

(6.) I thank the anonymous reviewer for her/his insightful questioning of the possible essentialism of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of 'spontaneous morphogenesis.' Does this notion essentialise by incorporating all notions of culture into an a priori (albeit active) concept of matter? I agree with the reviewer that this is the subject of its own paper, but briefly I would suggest that Deleuze and Guattari seek to challenge the very distinction between 'culture' and 'matter,' in the same way that Karen Barad speaks of 'intra-acting.'

(7.) For Jerry Flieger 'Deleuze's great originality resides in his inmixing of planes or phyla--animal with plant and with human--and his explanation of 'transgression' in molecular terms, which apply to non-organic phenomena as well as to human and animal life' (2000: 44).

(8.) A Derridean analysis might suggest that the culture-nature dichotomy is a precondition to the functioning of social constructionist arguments. Soper sees the debate as not arguing whether the distinction exists or not, but whether it is a distinction of kind or degree (1995:41). I like the double-meaning of Frank Capra's remark 'we never speak about nature without at the same time speaking about ourselves' (1975: 77).

(9.) In Neural Geographies (1998) Wilson meets the challenges of science literacy and analyzing matter as more than cultural representation. Here Wilson explores connectionism and cognitive theory. As a form of new materialism, connectionism stresses cognition as the connections between neuron-like units rather than cognition as 'the manipulation of symbols in accordance with pre-existing computational rules' (1998: 6).


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Myra J. Hird lectures in Sociology at Queen's University, Belfast. She is the author of several articles on new materialism, sexual difference, intersex and transgender, including "Considerations for a Psycho-analytic Theory of Gender Identity and Sexual Desire: The Case of Intersex" Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society; "Gender's Nature: Intersexuality, Transsexualism and the 'Sex'/ 'Gender' Binary" in Feminist Theory; "For a Sociology of Transsexualism" in Sociology; and "Unidentified Pleasures: Gender Identity and it's Failure" in Body and Society. She is completing a sole-authored book on new materialism and sexual difference.
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Author:Hird, Myra J.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Sociology
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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