How do we understand the agency and significance of material forces and their interface with human bodies? What does it mean to be human in these times, with bodies that are inextricably interconnected with our physical world? Bodily Natures considers these questions by grappling with powerful and pervasive material forces and their increasingly harmful effects on the human body. Drawing on feminist theory, environmental studies, and the sciences, Stacy Alaimo focuses on trans-corporeality, or movement across bodies and nature, which has profoundly altered our sense of self. By looking at a broad range of creative and philosophical writings, Alaimo illuminates how science, politics, and culture collide, while considering the closeness of the human body to the environment.
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About the Author
Stacy Alaimo is Professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is author of Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space and editor (with Susan Hekman) of Material Feminisms (IUP, 2008).
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Science, Environment, and the Material Self
By Stacy Alaimo
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2010 Stacy Alaimo
All rights reserved.
[Matter] is not little bits of nature, or a blank slate, surface, or site passively awaiting signification, nor is it an uncontested ground for scientific, feminist, or Marxist theories. Matter is not immutable or passive. Nor is it a fixed support, location, referent, or source of sustainability for discourse.
—Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway
And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It's a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness generally felt toward nature.
—Joy Williams, Ill Nature
Karen Barad and Joy Williams alert us to the rather shabby theoretical and rhetorical treatment of "matter" and "environment" in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Matter, the vast stuff of the world and of ourselves, has been subdivided into manageable "bits" or flattened into a "blank slate" for human inscription. The environment has been drained of its blood, its lively creatures, its interactions and relations—in short, all that is recognizable as "nature"—in order that it become a mere empty space, an "uncontested ground," for human "development."
If nature is to matter, we need more potent, more complex understandings of materiality. Side by side, Barad's critique of the linguistic turn and Williams's appraisal of the word environment suggest a troubling parallel between the immateriality of contemporary social theory and a widespread, popular disregard for nonhuman nature. This book will address the dematerializing networks that cross through academic theory, popular culture, contemporary discourse, and everyday practices by focusing on the possibilities for more robust and complex conceptions of the materiality of human bodies and the more-than-human world. Specifically, Bodily Natures explores the interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures. By attending to the material interconnections between the human and the more-than-human world, it may be possible to conjure an ethics lurking in an idiomatic definition of matter (or the matter): "The condition of or state of things regarding a person or thing, esp. as a subject of concern or wonder" (Oxford English Dictionary). Concern and wonder converge when the context for ethics becomes not merely social but material—the emergent, ultimately unmappable landscapes of interacting biological, climatic, economic, and political forces.
Potent ethical and political possibilities emerge from the literal contact zone between human corporeality and more-than-human nature. Imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always inter-meshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from "the environment." It makes it difficult to pose nature as mere background, as Val Plumwood would put it, for the exploits of the human since "nature" is always as close as one's own skin—perhaps even closer. Indeed, thinking across bodies may catalyze the recognition that the environment, which is too often imagined as inert, empty space or as a resource for human use, is, in fact, a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims, and actions. By emphasizing the movement across bodies, trans-corporeality reveals the interchanges and interconnections between various bodily natures. But by underscoring that trans indicates movement across different sites, trans-corporeality also opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors. Emphasizing the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world—and, at the same time, acknowledging that material agency necessitates more capacious epistemologies—allows us to forge ethical and political positions that can contend with numerous late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century realities in which "human" and "environment" can by no means be considered as separate.
Two particularly striking movements of the late twentieth century—environmental justice and environmental health—mark significant material interchanges between human bodies and the environment. Thus, much of this book focuses on the literature, science, and popular culture of these two movements, quite broadly conceived, including the erotic early twentieth-century "environmental justice" writings of Meridel Le Sueur, contemporary accounts of environmental racism, environmental memoirs in which the material world becomes the very substance of self, and the volatile scientific and political struggles to define or dismiss the syndrome of multiple chemical sensitivity. As they promote substantial interconnections between humans and the wider world, environmental health and environmental justice accounts often reconceptualize material agencies—the often unpredictable and always interconnected actions of environmental systems, toxic substances, and biological bodies. Strangely, popular renderings of genetics ascribe agency to genes, but tend to disconnect genes from the environment and evolution. Thus, the final chapter envisions a posthuman environmental ethics in which genetics, evolution, and environment are imbricated in and affect the emergence as well as the unraveling of the human.
This chapter introduces some of the theoretical models, questions, and arguments of the book, focusing on how feminist corporeal theory, disability studies, environmental humanities, and science studies productively engage with the materiality of human bodies and nonhuman natures. Ironically, despite the tremendous outpouring of feminist theory and cultural studies of "the body," much of this work tends to focus exclusively on how various bodies have been discursively produced, which casts the body as passive, plastic matter. As Elizabeth Wilson puts it, "The body at the center of these projects is curiously abiological—its social, cultural, experiential, or psychical construction having been posited against or beyond any putative biological claims" (Neural Geographies 15). Bracketing the biological body, and thereby severing its evolutionary, historical, and ongoing interconnections with the material world, may not be ethically, politically, or theoretically desirable. Trans-corporeality offers an alternative. Trans-corporeality, as a theoretical site, is where corporeal theories, environmental theories, and science studies meet and mingle in productive ways. Furthermore, the movement across human corporeality and nonhuman nature necessitates rich, complex modes of analysis that travel through the entangled territories of material and discursive, natural and cultural, biological and textual.
Throughout the book, I will examine how various models of trans-corporeality are emerging not only in a broad expanse of scholarship and theory, but in popular culture, literary texts, and social practices. My intention is not to conjure up a new theory so much as to work across separate fields, forging connections and suggesting ethical and political perspectives. If trans-corporeality were some sort of rarefied, new theoretical invention, it would not travel very well across intellectual, scientific, political, and popular domains. Moreover, the fact that "bodily natures" are emerging across different domains suggests that the concept has the potential to perform potent cultural work. Although most of this book does not address cultural studies directly, cultural studies models—that take popular culture seriously, that trace peculiar but potent intersections, and that insist upon the political relevance of academic practice—deeply inform my approach. I find the many bodily natures discussed throughout this book—of science studies, environmental health, environmental justice, popular epidemiology, disability studies, corporeal feminism, film, photography, material memoir, science fiction, and evolution—to be both theoretically provocative and politically potent, as they recast our most basic understandings of self and world as separate entities.
Pheng Cheah, critiquing the disdain for nature and "the given" in contemporary cultural theory, argues that this "obsessive pushing away of nature may well constitute an acknowledgement-in-disavowal that humans may be natural creatures after all" (108). I think it is crucial to address this "obsessive pushing away of nature," which has not only dominated social theory and humanities scholarship, but also infuses everyday beliefs and practices, rendering environmentalism a distant, dismissible enterprise. Rather than arguing, however, that humans are natural creatures, that nonhuman animals are cultural creatures, and that the nature/culture divide is not sustainable (all of which I believe), I will locate my inquiry within the many interfaces between human bodies and the larger environment. Those particular sites of interconnection demand attention to the materiality of the human and to the immediacy and potency of all that the ostensibly bounded, human subject would like to disavow. Trans-corporeality, emerging in social theories, science, science studies, literature, film, activist web-sites, green consumerism, popular epidemiology, and popular culture, counters and critiques the obdurate, though postmodern, humanisms that seek transcendence or protection from the material world. Thus, Bodily Natures grapples with the ways in which environmental ethics, social theories, popular understandings of science, and conceptions of the human self are profoundly altered by the recognition that "the environment" is not located somewhere out there, but is always the very substance of ourselves.
Feminist Theory's Flight from Nature and Biology
Nature has long been waged as a philosophical concept, a potent ideological node, and a cultural repository of norms and moralism against women, people of color, indigenous peoples, queers, and the lower classes. In Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space, I argued that because woman has long been defined in Western thought as a creature mired in "nature" and thus outside the domain of human transcendence, rationality, subjectivity, and agency, most feminist theory has worked to disentangle woman from nature. Working within rather than against predominant dualisms, many important feminist arguments and concepts necessitate a rigid opposition between nature and culture. For example, feminist theory's most revolutionary concept—the concept of gender, as distinct from biological sex—is predicated upon a sharp opposition between nature and culture. Even as it would be difficult to overestimate the explanatory and polemical force of feminist theories of social construction, such theories are haunted by the pernicious notions of nature that propel them. Thrust aside, completely removed from culture, this nature—the repository of essentialism and stasis—nonetheless remains dangerously intact. Rather than fleeing from this debased nature, which is associated with corporeality, mindlessness, and passivity, it would be more productive for feminist theory to undertake the transformation of gendered dualisms—nature/culture, body/mind, object/subject, resource/agency, and others—that have been cultivated to denigrate and silence certain groups of human as well as nonhuman life (Alaimo, Undomesticated Ground 4–14).
Human corporeality, especially female corporeality, has been so strongly associated with nature in Western thought that it is not surprising that feminism has been haunted not only by the specter of nature as the repository of essentialism, but by, as Lynda Birke puts it, "the ghost of biology" (44). She charges that the "underlying assumption that some aspects of 'biology' are fixed becomes itself the grand narrative (albeit implicit) from which feminist and other social theorists are trying to escape" (ibid.). Nancy Tuana, noting a resurgence of popular belief in racial and sexual determinism, charges that "we feminists have been epistemically irresponsible in leaving in place a fixed, essential, material basis for human nature, a basis which renders biological determinism meaningful" ("Fleshing Gender" 57). Only by directly engaging with matter itself can feminism do as Tuana advocates: render biological determinism "nonsense." For instance, rather than bracketing the biological body, Birke insists upon the need to understand it as "changing and changeable, as transformable" (45). Cells "constantly renew themselves," bone "is always remodeling," and "bodily interiors" "constantly react to change inside or out, and act upon the world" (ibid.). Even with these few examples, it is clear that the notion of biology as destiny, which has long haunted feminism, depends on a particular—if not peculiar—notion of biology that can certainly be displaced by other models. Since biology, like nature, has long been drafted to serve as the armory for racist, sexist, and heterosexist norms, it is crucial that feminists recast the norms, values, and assumptions that permeate this field. For example, Hird in "Naturally Queer" offers an abundance of biological examples that make heterosexism seem utterly unnatural: "The vast majority of cells in the human body are intersex"; "most of the organisms in four out of the five kingdoms do not require sex for reproduction"; and, marvelously, the Schizophyllum "has more than 28,000 sexes." She concludes by arguing, "We may no longer be certain that it is nature that remains static and culture that evinces limitless malleability" (85–86, 88). If this biology sounds queer, all the better. As a "situated knowledge" (see Haraway, "Situated Knowledges"), this queer biology contests not only the content and the ramifications of normative hetero-biology, but its claim to objectivity and neutrality.
Perhaps the only way to truly oust the twin ghosts of biology and nature is, paradoxically, to endow them with flesh, to allow them to materialize more fully, and to attend to their precise materializations. The theories, literature, activist websites, photography, and other texts and practices discussed in this book perform exactly this sort of cultural work as they grapple with both apparent and seemingly apparitional materializations.
The Material Turn in Feminist Theory, Environmental Humanities, and Science Studies
Wondering whether it makes her a "survivor or a traitor of the age of (post)structuralism," Teresa de Lauretis boldly suggests:
[N]ow may be a time for the human sciences to reopen the questions of subjectivity, materiality, discursivity, knowledge, to reflect on the post of posthumanity. It is a time to break the piggy bank of saved conceptual schemata and reinstall uncertainty in all theoretical applications, starting with the primacy of the cultural and its many "turns": linguistic, discursive, performative, therapeutic, ethical, you name it. (368)
What has been most notably excluded by the "primacy of the cultural" and the turn toward the linguistic and the discursive is the "stuff" of matter. Theorists within the overlapping fields of feminist theory, environmental theory, and science studies, however, have put forth innovative understandings of the material world. Some feminist theorists, such as Moira Gatens, Claire Colebrook, and Elizabeth Bray, have embraced the work of Spinoza and Deleuze as counter-traditions to the linguistic turn. Others have reread theorists at the heart of poststructuralism—for example, Jacques Derrida (Vicki Kirby and Elizabeth Wilson), Michel Foucault (Ladelle McWhorter and Karen Barad), and Judith Butler (Karen Barad). Together, these theorists, along with others, constitute the material turn in feminist theory, a wave of feminist theory that takes matter seriously. Such radical rethinkings of materiality are difficult to sustain within a discursively oriented theoretical cosmos. For example, Donna Haraway's influential figure of the cyborg, which muddles nature/culture dualisms, has been celebrated in most feminist theory and cultural studies as a figure that blurs the bounds between humans and technology—but, in this latest flight from nature, the cyborg is rarely embraced as an amalgamation of human and nature. Significantly, feminist cultural studies have embraced the cyborg as a social and technological construct but have ignored, for the most part, the matter of the cyborg, a materiality which is as biological as it is technological, both fleshy and wired, since the cyborg encourages human "kinship with animals" as well as with machines ("A Cyborg Manifesto" 154). Disturbingly, the critical reception of the cyborg as technological but not biological insinuates a transcendent cyberhumanism that shakes off worldly entanglements.
Excerpted from Bodily Natures by Stacy Alaimo. Copyright © 2010 Stacy Alaimo. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Bodily Natures
2. Eros and X-Rays: Bodies, Class, and "Environmental Justice"
3. Invisible Matters: The Sciences of Environmental Justice
4. Material Memoirs: Science, Autobiography, and the Substantial Self
5. Deviant Agents: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
6. Genetics, Material Agency, and the Evolution of Posthuman Environmental Ethics in Recent Science Fiction Notes Works Cited Index
What People are Saying About This
This impressively researched and vigorously argued study will be of the first importance to all environmental humanists, especially for its deeply-informed and subtle account of the 'trans-corporeality' of the human self.
Alaimo does a fabulous job of thinking through how a trans-corporeal understanding of matter provides a more robust and more adequate basis for appreciating issues of environmental health and environmental justice.