Edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman and published in 2008, Material Feminisms reads something like a group manifesto. Contributors include Alaimo and Heckman, along with Karen Barad, Claire Colebrook, Elisabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, and others. With philosophical roots in phenomenology and post-phenomenology, the project is to return feminist theory “back” to the thing itself, namely back to corporeal matter and materiality. It’s a sharp swerve away from the single minded focus in what we might call 1990s feminist theory with its exclusive attention to the social construction of reality, and to “gender” as one such social structure, as posed over and against “sex,” conceived as a biological datum, whose “nature” is presented as brute and static. The volume should be read along affect theorists and new materialists, including works by Jane Bennet, Teressa Brennan, and Rosie Braidoti. While insistent to maintain its anti-capitalist bonafides, material feminism is in most other respects post-critical.
Material feminism presents itself as something of a dare, given the long association of women, matter, and nature with each other, and all together with passivity, subordination, and subjection to form and mind. For good reason, matter and materiality, body and nature have typically been considered a problem in feminist theory. Indeed, one could say that the critique of nature merely re-inscribes feminist theory into the main trajectory of the western philosophical tradition –platonic, medieval, and modern. The counter argument presented in the introduction of the volume is that the flight from nature makes nature all the more a site of misogyny (4). With profound debts to Deleuze, Iragary, and Haraway, as well as to Whitehead and Latour, the authors regard the linguistic turn in post-structuralist theory, in Foucault and in Butler, as ultimately an impasse. The turn to discourse and ideology, gender and performance would make it difficult if not impossible to consider science, medicine, and nature in productive ways.
With Deleuze and Iragary, material feminism represents a new twist to the Vitalist tradition of Nietzsche and Bergson in modern European thought. The new approach to materiality advanced by the authors in this volume looks past representation, ideology, discourse, and the social construction of reality in a move that is styled as ontological, not epistemological. The point is to look at the very stuff of bodies and matter, to consider the virtualities or potentialities at work not on or over nature, but in nature. These virtualities would be the material condition for social and historical existence and political transformation. The speculative turn is the assumption common to most of the authors in this volume that nature is not merely passive, but an active force with its vital life, including its own forms of agency. For the most part, dynamic matter and materializing are presented as radically impersonal and vital processes, described in terms such as affect waves, distributed cognition and emergence.
It is the interaction between matter and discourse that suggests the most interesting philosophical questions, as opposed to strictly scientific ones. Rather than thoroughly upend the mind-body distinction, the purpose in presenting matter itself as active is to open out more subtle approaches to what would otherwise be a rigid, binary opposition between mind and body. This is not the approach represented by Colebrook in this volume, and more in line with the “interactionism” of Barad and, one might add, Grosz. Against a reductive materialism, the force of difference is not simply to divide two more or less discrete features or functions as much as to join them. The reference to Latour is explicit in the way Material Feminism is predicated on the crossing of gaps (pp.216-17, 233).
The problem with the project and others like it (new materialism, affect theory) has to do with the Kantian caution flagged by Butler. As cited in Viki Kirby’s essay here in Material Feminisms, this core concern relates to the problem of scale; and also to the way in which theorists tend to conflate, identify, or confuse the theoretical-epistemological constructs used to model natural phenomena with the ontological thing itself (pp.219-20). For theorists such as Butler still invested in “critique,” there may be no getting past this philosophical hurdle that has always dogged this or that project in fundamental ontology.
There’s a temporal constitution to this problem, which would be that, for example, biological dynamics extend over more vast stretches than historical time. So it’s hard to see how much light Darwin, for example, might have to shed on historical action, the temporal constitution of which is more quick and compressed. More so than evolutionary biologists, historians and intellectual historians would provide better models with which to address that historical variations and transformations related to society and politics, religion and art. While one can assert plausibly that nature and culture are not binary in relation, it would be much harder to argue that natural selection has much if anything to do with the latter. “Culture” could be conceived as “nature,” but as nature set apart from nature, a subset of nature, perhaps more complex in relation to and impact upon the physical environment. If in fact, the emphasis in Material Feminism is on division and fracturing, there could be no “continuity” between nature and culture (cf. the contradiction at work on pp.44, 46n.1).
It could just be that there’s no escape out of the trap of representation, not for us at least. If, as Karen Barad aptly notes, we inhabit a representable world (i.e. one built on or that invites, even demands representationalist categories) then what is the efficacy of an interactional ontology? Following Butler perhaps, one might otherwise prefer to claim that there is no way to get outside bouncing back and forth in the mirror play of representation, that the world will never appear to us as such in its interactional dimension (p.122). Or if it does in fact appear to us in such dimension , it would be the case that interactional ontology can offer a better forms representation of reality, better and more interesting pictures than, let’s say Newtonian physics or classical realism.
Following Butler’s lead as quoted by Kirby, one might suppose the gaps that one might still posit between reality and language are bridgeable ones, not abysmal, which is to say that they are somewhat and somehow permeable, porous, and shifting in terms of the dynamic and dimension that one can capture by means of a model or representation and those dynamics and dimensions that will always elide and elude human consciousness (p.189).
The psychic form of consciousness is unavoidably key to the argument at hand. Wanting to overcome that gap between nature (still conceived as representing “reality”) and language (still conceived as a social convention), most of the contributors in this volume seek to create new models with linguistic, material, and technological components (with technology bridging the first two features). But what if one were to identify “language” as an index for “mind.” This would suggest that new so-called materialism and material feminism will depend upon a philosophy of mind. To explore this speculative possibility, it might prove to be the case that, in the end, that embedded or extended mind is a basic constituent of matter, that mind transcends its human form, human intentionality, human being. Speculatively, this kind would entail a pan-psychism that has gone unexplored in the particular literatures that have shaped social-construction-of-reality feminism and also material feminism, but which has been considered by analytic philosophers of mind (e.g. David Chalmers).
For students of religion, the lasting interest in material feminism would be in theoretical constructs that picture human existence as alongside and embedded into larger non-human energies. Setting aside pan-psychic or theological speculation, one could pull out with this kind of theory a more capacious notion of nature or bodies, appearing as they do in the monotheistic religions under the rubric of “creation.” In my own research, now at work on a chapter considering blood examinations and fetal emergence in tractate Niddah in the Babylonian Talmud, I have been particularly interested in those affective thresholds where human beings (suddenly?) become conscious and begin to think (p.56). These theoretical constructs help trace the image of affective emergence out of corporeal materials, including tissues that are radically inert, which are neither this nor that; or which, alternatively, could be modeled as maybe this or maybe that in their undetermined condition. The picture conveys raw matter that stands out as alive and vibrating, sensations with no clear reference, or no reference at all, the sense that there is something to be thought but with no clear sense of a concept of what is to be thought as actual (p.78).