Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power

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Recently the distinguished feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz has turned her critical acumen toward rethinking time and duration. Time Travels brings her trailblazing essays together to show how reconceptualizing temporality transforms and revitalizes key scholarly and political projects. In these essays, Grosz demonstrates how imagining different relations between the past, present, and future alters understandings of social and scientific projects ranging from theories of justice to evolutionary biology, and she explores the radical implications of the reordering of these projects for feminist, queer, and critical race theories.

Grosz’s reflections on how rethinking time might generate new understandings of nature, culture, subjectivity, and politics are wide ranging. She moves from a compelling argument that Charles Darwin’s notion of biological and cultural evolution can potentially benefit feminist, queer, and antiracist agendas to an exploration of modern jurisprudence’s reliance on the notion that justice is only immanent in the future and thus is always beyond reach. She examines Henri Bergson’s philosophy of duration in light of the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and William James, and she discusses issues of sexual difference, identity, pleasure, and desire in relation to the thought of Deleuze, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Luce Irigaray. Together these essays demonstrate the broad scope and applicability of Grosz’s thinking about time as an undertheorized but uniquely productive force.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Elizabeth Grosz has long been recognized as one of the most astute commentators on feminism, continental philosophy, and cultural studies. Renowned for her clarity and rigor, she has a well-deserved reputation as a major feminist philosopher. In Time Travels Grosz manages to surpass her already magisterial standards and produce a tour de force of originality. Here, Grosz finds her own voice and argues for a new theory of time and life. This is an exciting, inspired, and inspiring book.”—Claire Colebrook, author of Gilles Deleuze

“What does it mean to introduce time into thought? Bergson formulated this question in the nineteenth century; Deleuze took it up again in postwar France. In her philosophical travels through legal studies, new technologies, and debates in Darwinism, Elizabeth Grosz brilliantly pursues its punch for us today: What would it mean for feminism to include an evolutionary materialism of time, and what would it mean for it to become an ineliminable part of a ‘new Bergsonism’ of the twenty-first century?”—John Rajchman, author of The Deleuze Connections

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Grosz is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (also published by Duke University Press); Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space; Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies; and Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. She is the editor of Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures.

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Feminism, Nature, Power

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3566-5

Chapter One

Darwin and Feminism: Preliminary Investigations into a Possible Alliance

[Darwin has] not succeeded in explaining living beings, but in constituting them as witnesses to a history, in understanding them as recounting a history whose interest lies in the fact that one does not know a priori what history it is a question of. -Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention: Situating Science

There has traditionally been a strong resistance on the part of feminists to any recourse to the question of nature. Within feminist scholarship and politics, nature has been regarded primarily as a kind of obstacle against which we need to struggle, as that which remains inert, given, unchanging, resistant to historical, social, and cultural transformations. The suspicion with which biological accounts of human and social life are treated by feminists, especially feminists not trained in the biological sciences, is to some extent understandable. "Biology" designates not only the study of life but also refers to the body, to organic processes or activities that are the objects of that study. Feminists may have had goodreasons to object to the ways in which the study, the representations and techniques used to understand bodies and their processes and activities, have been undertaken-there is clearly much that is problematic about many of the assumptions, methods, and criteria used in some cases of biological analysis, which have been actively if unconsciously used by those with various paternalistic, patriarchal, racist, and class commitments to rationalize their various positions. But there is a certain absurdity in objecting to the notion of nature or biology itself if this is (even in part) what we are and will always be. If we are our biologies, then we need a complex and subtle account of that biology if it is to be able to more adequately explain the rich variability of social, cultural, and political life. It needs to be an open question: how does biology, the bodily existence of individuals (whether human or nonhuman), provide the conditions for culture and for history, those terms to which it is traditionally opposed? What are the virtualities, the potentialities, within biological existence that enable cultural, social, and historical forces to work with and actively transform that existence? How does biology-the structure and organization of living systems-facilitate and make possible cultural existence and social change?


It seems remarkable that feminists have been so reluctant to explore the theoretical structure and details of one of the most influential and profound intellectual figures of the modern era, Charles Darwin. For the last three decades or more, there has been an increasingly wider circle of male texts that have enthralled and preoccupied the work of many feminist theorists: Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze are just some of the more recent and philosophically oriented additions to this ever-expanding pantheon. This makes the virtual ignorance and neglect of Darwin's work even more stark and noticeable. It is not clear why Darwin-whose enduring impact on knowledge and politics is at least as strong as that of Hegel, Marx, or Freud-has been left out of feminist readings. It is perhaps time that feminist theorists begin to address with some rigor and depth the usefulness and value of his work in rendering our conceptions of social, cultural, political, and sexual life more complex, more open to questions of materiality and biological organization, more nuanced in terms of understanding both the internal and external constraints on behavior as well as the impetus to new and creative activities.

Some feminist theorists have made tentative approaches to a theoretical analysis of Darwin's scientific contributions. The most open has been Janet Sayers, in Biological Politics: Feminist and Anti-Feminist Perspectives (1982). She carefully distinguishes Darwin's theory from the more pointedly politicized and self-serving readings of the social Darwinists of Darwin's own times, and their current counterparts, sociobiologists. Darwin's theory of evolution, she suggests, implies "that the species characters are not fixed but change as the effect of chance variation and of selection of those variations that prove relatively well adapted to prevailing environmental conditions". She sees it as a model which signals an open-ended becoming, a mode of potentially infinite transformation, which may prove helpful in feminist struggles to transform existing social relations and their concomitant value systems. Sadly, while she notes the relative openness of Darwin's understanding of evolution, she leaves its social and political implications largely unanalyzed. There is, however, perhaps only in the last few years, an increasing unease with the rejection of biology in some more postmodern feminist concerns and the beginning of a more serious intellectual engagement with biological and scientific discourses.

Other feminists, especially those working within evolutionary biology, have actively welcomed a Darwinian mode of explanation, but have commonly reduced Darwinism to a form of determinism, to a partial explanation, to be placed alongside of, or in parallel with, social and cultural accounts. This seems to be the most pervasive feminist position for those working within evolutionary Darwinism. Patricia Adair Gowaty, the editor of the only anthology specifically directed to exploring the relations between Darwinism and feminism, may serve here as representative of this trend. She claims that Darwinism is a discourse parallel with feminist social and political analyses. It functions in a different but contiguous conceptual space, outside the political interests of feminists. In attributing to it a neutral, non-infecting position vis-à-vis political, psychological, and cultural theory, she has effectively secured Darwinism against its own most radical insights (a fundamental indetermination seems one of the most exciting elements of Darwin's contributions to both science and politics), and has insulated feminism against any theoretical impact on, and protects feminism from being transformed by, Darwinism:

There are multiple foci of analysis in the modern biological study of behavior (including social behavior and social organization of both human and nonhuman animals). We ask questions about neuronal causation (How do sensory signals contribute to "cause" behavior?), about hormonal causation (How do hormonal signals "cause" behavior?). How do cognitive processes "cause" behavior? How do genes cause behavior? How do emotions or feelings cause behavior? None of these levels of foci of analysis are alternative to one another, meaning that each of these levels of causation or foci of analysis might (probably) simultaneously work to "cause" the expression of this or that behavior (including sexist behavior of all kinds). (Gowaty 1997, 5)

Clearly uneasy at the notion of causation in these accounts (this explains her use of quotation marks where the word cause is used), Gowaty reduces both Darwinism and feminism to positions on two sides of a mutual divide. They occupy different levels or "foci"; each provides a "proximate explanation" of its own fields of endeavor, which do not come into direct contact with each other. The social is uninfected by the biological, the biological is secured from intrusion by the social. They are assumed to act simultaneously without, however, any adequate explanation of how they affect and transform each other, how they integrate together or influence each other. Gowaty's use of Darwin implies both a reduced view of feminism (feminism as the struggle for social parity) and a reduced view of science (science as the search for causal relations), as well as a commitment to the impossibility of their interaction, indeed a revelry in their neutral indifference to each other.

Sue V. Rosser outlines the way many other feminists have regarded Darwin's apparent androcentrism. She seems to endorse the common assumption that because Darwin's work is "biased," it requires a corrective lens which focuses on the active position of females rather than naturally assuming the perspective of the male as active evolutionary or sexual agent. Her position functions as an inverted Darwinism: if Darwin's theory could somehow be made more open to the position of females, it could more adequately deal with both sexes and its "bias" could be redressed. She affirms a kind of Darwinist liberal reformism:

Many feminist scientists have critiqued Darwin's theory of sexual selection for its androcentric bias. The theory of sexual selection reflected and reinforced Victorian social norms regarding the sexes.... Expanding considerably on the theory first presented in the Origin, Darwin specified, in the Descent of Man, how the process functions and what roles males and females have in it.... According to the theory, the males who triumph over their rivals will win the more desirable females and will have the most progeny, thereby perpetuating and increasing, over numerous generations, those qualities that afforded them victory. (Rosser 1992, 57)

In short, Darwin's is a theory of "winners and losers," of those who dominate and those who have succumbed to domination or extinction, a theory that, on the face of it, seems to provide a perfect justification for the relations of phallocentric and racist domination that constituted Eurocentric, patriarchal culture in his time as much as in ours. Darwinism, it is implicitly claimed in accounts such as Rosser's, justifies-rather than providing the tools by which to problematize-relations of domination and subordination between races and sexes, as well as the domination of the human over the natural.

These claims are strikingly similar to those that surrounded Freudian psychoanalysis in the estimation of feminists openly hostile to its possible theoretical contributions three decades ago-what Freud (Darwin) says about women is phallocentric, rooted in the assumption of a natural subordination of women to men: it is sexist and biased. Each privileges the masculine and positions the feminine as its subordinated and complementary counterpart. While this is undoubtedly true, more or less, of any discourse written before the development of feminism as a theoretical and political movement, it evades the more interesting question: Without necessarily minimizing these investments in male and white privilege, do these discourses provide theoretical models, methods, questions, frameworks, or insights that nevertheless, in spite of their recognizable limitations, could be of some use in understanding and transforming the prevailing structures of (patriarchal) power and in refining and complexifying feminist analyses of and responses to these structures? Psychoanalytically oriented feminists have demonstrated, even while recognizing many of the limits of Freud's work, that it provides an account of the unconscious and of the acquisition of sexual identity that has proved crucial, if not indispensable, to the ways feminist theorists have come to understand subjectivity and desire. It seems timely to suggest that Darwin may himself prove to be as complex, ambivalent, and rewarding a figure for feminists to investigate as Freud has been. His writings may provide feminism with richer and more workable concepts of nature, the body, time, and transformation than those available to it from the discourses of cultural and political theory, history, and philosophy alone. Darwin's work may prove as rich, if not even more productive, for feminist thought as Freud's has been, in spite of its nineteenth-century conceptions of the relations between the sexes because, like Freud, Darwin opened up a new way of thinking, a new mode of interpretation, new connections and forms of explanation, indeed a new discipline, which may prove useful in highlighting and explaining the divisions and connections between nature and culture.

I will argue that Darwin's work offers a subtle and complex critique of both essentialism and teleology. It provides a dynamic and open-ended understanding of the intermingling of history and biology (indeed it is Darwin's work that most actively affirms the irreversibility of time within the natural sciences, the centrality of chance, and the accumulation of temporally sensitive characteristics) and a complex account of the movements of difference, bifurcation, and becoming that characterize all forms of life. His work develops an antihumanist-that is, a broadly mechanical or fundamentally mindless and directionless-understanding of biological dynamics which refuses to assume that the temporal movement forward can be equated with development or progress. His work affords us an understanding of the productivity, the generative surprise, that the play of repetition and pure difference-the ongoing movement of biological differences and their heritable reproduction through slight variation, which he affirms as "individual variation"-effects the becoming of species. He is perhaps the most original thinker of the link between difference and becoming, between matter and its elaboration as life, between the past and the future. Moreover, his work pays specific attention to the question of sexual difference, to which he grants prominence as a quasi-autonomous feedback loop within the larger and more overarching operations of natural selection. The status and function of sexual selection, and the intense variability, or difference, he sees both within each sex and between the two sexes, as well as within and between species and genera, occupies a central, if ambiguous, position in his work that is worthy of serious feminist investigation.

These seem to provide at least prima facie reasons why it may prove fruitful for feminists to cast their critical gaze at Darwin, not simply with the a priori aim of dismissing his work, as has been the case in many feminist responses to any kind of biological analysis, or of simply accepting it and developing scientific research projects and paradigms that function to illustrate or refine its principles, as seems to have occurred with the largely revisionist ambitions of many feminist approaches within evolutionary biology. Rather, we need to look again at his texts with the desire to see what may be of value for providing feminist theory with richer and more subtle intellectual resources to both attain its aims and to refine its goals.


Although the most essential elements of Darwin's understanding of evolution are relatively straightforward and generally well known, there is a great deal of contention regarding the ways in which scientists and nonscientists have interpreted its most basic precepts. The Origin of Species (1996) has two aims: first, to demonstrate that contemporary species and forms of life are descended from earlier forms-if there is an "origin" of species, it is in earlier species, and their transformations; and second, to demonstrate how such an evolution, a "descent with modification," is possible, and what processes and mechanisms enable both modification and descent to produce viable new species from the mutability and transformability of existing species. In this sense, Darwin offers an account of the genesis of the new from the play of repetition and difference within the old, the generation of history, movement, and the dynamism of evolutionary change from the impetus and mobility of existing species.

Darwin claims that three basic and closely linked principles explain the contrary forces at play in the evolution of species: individual variation, the heritability of the characteristics of individual variation that lead to the proliferation of species, and natural selection. The evolution of life is possible only through the irreversible temporality of genealogy, which requires an abundance of variation, mechanisms of indefinite, serial, or recursive replication/reproduction, and criteria for the selection of differential fitness. When put into dynamic interaction, these three processes provide an explanation of the dynamism, growth, and transformability of living systems, the impulse toward a future that is unknown in, and uncontained by, the present and its history. I will briefly outline each of these three principles.


Excerpted from TIME TRAVELS by ELIZABETH GROSZ Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Darwin and feminism : preliminary investigations into a possible alliance 13
2 Darwin and the ontology of life 35
3 The nature of culture 43
4 The time of violence : Derrida, deconstruction, and value 55
5 Drucilla Cornell, identity, and the "evolution" of politics 71
6 Deleuze, Bergson, and the virtual 93
7 Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, and the question of ontology 113
8 The thing 131
9 Prosthetic objects 145
10 The time of thought 155
11 The force of sexual difference 171
12 (Inhuman) forces : power, pleasure, and desire 185
13 The future of female sexuality 197
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