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By Elizabeth A. Wilson
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Let me begin with a clinical vignette that will get us oriented toward the gut and depression and feminist theory. This fragment is drawn from the work of Darian Leader — a Lacanian analyst working in London who also writes popular books about psychology and is an occasional columnist for the Guardian newspaper. His 2008 book on depression opens with this sketch:
After receiving a prescription for one of the most popular anti-depressant drugs on the market and picking them up from her chemist, a young woman returned home and opened the small packet. She had imagined a yellowish bottle filled with tightly packed capsules, like vitamin pills. Instead she found flat metallic wrapping, with each pill separated from its neighbour by a disproportionate expanse of empty foil. "Each pill is in total solitude," she said, "like in metal shells looking out at each other. They are all in individual prisons. Why aren't they all together in one box, loose and free?" The way the pills were packaged troubled her. "They are aligned like obedient little soldiers — why doesn't at least one of them break rank?" Her next thought was to swallow all the pills together. When I asked her why, she said, "So they don't feel so lonely and claustrophobic." (Leader 2008, 1)
There are a number of different interpretive paths we could take in relation to this anecdote. We could inquire into the young woman's identification with the solitude of the pills, her phantasy that they ought to break free from their regimented existence, her nostalgia for medications that come in yellowish bottles rather than machine-pressed, mass-produced packaging, and her expectation that antidepressants and vitamins might somehow be akin. All of these paths would take us into familiar clinical territory, where the young woman's associations could be analyzed within a well-established set of rules about neurotic ideation. Or, following Leader, we might be interested in the broader cultural significance of the story: "We could see this situation as a metaphor for the way that depression is so often treated in today's society. The interior life of the sufferer is left unexamined, and priority given to medicalizing solutions" (2). That is, we could deploy this story as a way to push back against mechanized, biologistic, market-driven treatments of depression, and demand (as Leader does) that more attention be given to the complexity of unconscious mental life.
Both these approaches are important, but I want to get at something else in this story. I am struck that the patient thought of swallowing the pills — all of them, together. The young woman doesn't look for one of those yellowish bottles into which she could put the pills. Rather, she feels that their loneliness and claustrophobia would be alleviated by being in her stomach — as if she understands that her gut and the psychic world are allied. Might there be more than one kind of "interior life" being documented here? Psychological and psychoanalytic and psychiatric theories of depression draw on cognitive distortion, unconscious motivation, or neurochemical imbalance; rarely do they talk about bodily action in such a direct way. I open with this anecdote not in order to suggest that the body underwrites depression — that it might be the substrate that causes cognitive or affective dysfunction. Rather, I want to think anew about the character of biology in such research; in this chapter I will argue that phantasy and peristalsis (swallowing) are coeval. That is, the gut is always minded: it ruminates.
In these first three chapters, I want to think about the rudimentary processes of ingestion, digestion, peristalsis, and vomiting as part of the psychic landscape; and I want to bring feminist readings of depression into closer contact with these alimentary events. Part of my difficulty in reading gut, feminism, and depression together is that the sophisticated feminist theoretical work that would normally sustain this kind of project often takes its distance from rudimentary bodily processes. Curiously, eating and hunger often figure in feminist work as the mark against which more cultivated critical and political stances can be built. In this chapter I will concentrate on one example (Gayle Rubin's influential work on gender and sexuality) that illustrates how feminism has placed biology at a distance from its own conceptual and political affairs. The implications of this for feminist theory are canvassed, and some suggestions, via Melanie Klein, are offered as a way to think about the psychic nature of the organic interior. In the two chapters that follow, I build on these preliminary ideas to think about a biological unconscious (chapter 2) and about the nature of psychic and political aggression (chapter 3).
Bringing Up Biology
Rubin's two canonical essays, "The Traffic in Women" (1975) and "Thinking Sex" (1984), were watershed moments for feminist theory. In her interview with Rubin in 1994, Judith Butler begins by noting that with these essays, Rubin "set the methodology for feminist theory, then the methodology for lesbian and gay studies" (Rubin in Butler 1994, 62). And indeed, it is clear that Rubin's work was influential for some of the most important theorists of gender and sexuality who emerged in the generation following, including Butler herself. If we were to think of Rubin's contributions to feminist theory in axiomatic form, we could say that in 1975 she argued for a disarticulation of biological sex from gender and in 1984 she argued for a disarticulation of the study of gender from the study of sexuality. In the 1994 interview, Rubin demurs from the presumption that she instigated these theoretical and political changes. Instead, she notes that both essays emerged out of an already existing set of concerns in her political and intellectual communities: the lack of an adequate analysis of gender in Marxism (in the 1970s) and the rise of antisex feminism (in the 1980s). Her essays were able to set a new methodological tone because they clearly articulated a conceptual shift that her feminist cohort already craved.
Rubin also mentions in the 1994 interview that there is no direct line connecting "The Traffic in Women" to "Thinking Sex." Her political concerns in 1984 had arisen in a manner somewhat orthogonal to those that had motivated her in 1975: "I was trying to get at something different" (67). The sometimes stormy relation between a politics of gender and a politics of sexuality that followed from "Thinking Sex" (Halley 2004; Wiegman 2004) also tends to accentuate the ways these two essays, and their two constituencies, can be set apart. In this chapter I travel along a different axis of analysis, one that binds "The Traffic in Women" and "Thinking Sex" more closely together. It is Rubin's orientation to biological explanation (or, rather, her turn away from biological explanation) that interests me here. I will argue that, despite their differences, these essays share a common commitment in relation to biological substrata and politics; both essays argue that biology doesn't have much to do with politics, or at least it has no constructive bearing on politics. I am turning to Rubin in order to explore one route by which biology became the underbelly of feminist theory: how it became both a dank, disreputable mode of explanation and a site of political vulnerability. By examining the dynamics of antibiologism in Rubin's influential essays, I am hoping to broaden the base of what can count as theory and what can count as feminist innovation.
My argument focuses around a set of claims about biology and the belly in "Thinking Sex." Rubin's assertions about how to handle biological theories of sexuality emerge as she situates her work (and the work of people like Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks) as "an alternative to sexual essentialism" (Rubin 1984, 276). The specific form of essentialism that she targets is the idea that sex and sexuality are natural forms (i.e., fixed biological or psychological types) that exist prior to social life. Rubin rejects this formulation of sex and sexuality as her first matter of business: sexuality, she argues, "is constituted in society and history, not biologically ordained" (276). The sentences that immediately follow are instructive: they are emblematic of the fraught, contradictory efforts to inaugurate politics by holding sociality and biology apart. Rubin continues:
This [social and historical constitution of sexuality] does not mean the biological capacities are not prerequisites for human sexuality. It does mean that human sexuality is not comprehensible in purely biological terms. Human organisms with human brains are necessary for human cultures, but no examination of the body or its parts can explain the nature and variety of human social systems. The belly's hunger gives no clues as to the complexities of cuisine. The body, the brain, the genitalia, and the capacity for language are all necessary for human sexuality. But they do not determine its content, its experiences, or its institutional forms. (276)
In the decades after this declaration, Rubin's political gesture (for the social and away from the biological) became second nature to feminist critique, and the act of peeling biological influence away from social principles became critically habitual. Indeed, without such action, it has often been difficult to see how any argument can lay claim to being feminist or, more broadly, political (Kipnis 2006).
In a surprising number of contemporary feminist texts that have very little, or nothing at all, to do with biology, one of their core conceptual commitments is a repudiation of biological explanation. An antibiological gesture is often the ignition that starts the theoretical engine. Take, for example, Janet Halley's (2006) Split Decisions. This text makes a sophisticated intervention into feminist theory, and Halley explicitly states her debt to Rubin's work: "The Traffic in Women," Halley notes, is "the locus classicus of the crucial feminist idea — I rely heavily on it in this book, and so does everyone in this lineage from here on out — that sex and gender are distinguishable. Rubin powerfully demonstrated that the distinction would give feminism a remarkable new range of explanatory powers" (114–115). At the beginning of Split Decisions, Halley provides a definition of her key terms: sex, gender, sexual orientation, sexuality. What she means by sex is "penis or vagina, testicles or ovaries, testosterone or estrogen and so forth" (24). She calls this "sex1," to differentiate it from "sex2," by which she means fucking. Sex1 is tightly defined around discrete biological units: organs and chemicals. In contrast to this, Halley defines gender as "everything else" (24) that differentiates men and women: it is a "whole system of social meaning" (24). Following in the tradition set down in "The Traffic in Women" and consolidated in "Thinking Sex," Halley's definition of gender is significantly more capacious than her definition of sex1. Gender is a sizable, intricate semiotic formation; sex1 is narrow and inert and immaterial to the politics at hand. Importantly, Halley does not return to ponder the nature of these biological monads (penis, vagina, testicles, ovaries, testosterone, estrogen) that lie mutely at the beginning of her analysis. While her arguments about sex2 (and its quarrels with gender) are not simplistically derived from, or reducible to, this antiorganic gesture, there is no question that her politics have been rendered legible and legitimate in part by that gesture.
The importance of Rubin's work, then, is not that she single-handedly authored feminist antibiologism, but rather that she was able to so lucidly articulate it and noiselessly embed it within larger, more urgent, foundational arguments about gender and sexuality. In concert with an already existing set of political expectations about biology, "The Traffic in Women" and "Thinking Sex" were important loci of the crucial feminist idea that biology and politics are disjunctive. While the political and theoretical questions raised in "Thinking Sex" are still being vigorously contested, the potent rhetorical gesture that, in part, made these arguments viable (i.e., "no examination of the body or its parts can explain the nature and variety of human social systems" [Rubin 1984, 276]) has been less closely examined. Consequently, many feminist theories still rely on this core contradiction: biology is both a prerequisite and politically irrelevant. It is peripheral to our political concerns, yet it bears down on them dangerously.
In recent years, there has been some restlessness about the need to reject biology. There is growing feeling that the antibiologism on which feminism cut its teeth has now become politically and intellectually restrictive. It is not just feminists working in science studies or the history and philosophy of science who feel constrained by the antibiologism in feminist theory; there is also a broader sense that feminist theory would be made stronger (for all manner of disciplinary projects) by closer engagement with biological detail. Laura Kipnis, for example, in her comments marking the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of "The Traffic in Women," voices her disquiet about how anatomy has come to be regarded in feminism: "Rereading the essay made me reflect that the scope of its influence — echoed in a range of feminist work that followed — has made it rather unacceptable to interrogate truisms such as 'the body is a social construct'" (437). There are certain kinds of anatomical data (about bodily pain, for example) that Kipnis feels have been dismissed under the rubric of social constructionism, and she wonders if we might be able to talk about these biological experiences more candidly, less suspiciously. Yet even as Kipnis frets about the restrictive uses of anatomy in feminist politics, she repeats a conventional presupposition about biology. She still sees biology as inflexible stuff: "The problem with bringing up biology is that you're taken to somehow endorse it.... Please understand that I don't endorse these anatomical facts, I'm just stuck with them" (435–436). In both Rubin and Kipnis, there is an anxiety about biology's power to determine form and control politics. Rubin wants to push biology away, Kipnis wants to draw it closer, but neither has yet displaced the shared phantasy that biological matter is sovereign, intransigent, bullying. Is there not a shared belief in Rubin and Kipnis (and more widely) that to engage with biology is to find ourselves stuck?
This book does endorse biology. It vouches for the capacity of biological substance to forge complex alliances and diverse forms. It advocates for a biology that is nonconsilient. It disputes the grandiose notion (increasingly found in science-humanities scholarship) that biology can conclusively resolve questions of psyche or politics or sociality, and it rejects the creed that biological data bring interpretative methodologies to an end (see the conclusion). Instead it seeks out systems of biological overdetermination. In particular, this chapter examines how feminist theory got itself trapped in relation to biology. If, as I argue, there is no intrinsic orthodoxy to biological matter (if it can be as perverse and wayward as any social, textual, cultural, affective, economic, historical, or philosophical arrangement), why have we so readily joined with conventional biologism to think of biology as predetermined matter? What conceptual payoff (what secondary gain) have we received for this? And how easy will it be to do otherwise? I begin by working through a small section of "Thinking Sex" to map out some of the conceptual and political effects of Rubin's aversion to biological explanation. In particular, I am interested in how the belly figures in her attempts to forge new directions for feminist theory. It is the belly that will be central to my Kleinian interest in biological phantasy in the latter part of the chapter.
The Traffic in Biology
Rubin's (1984) claim that "human sexuality is not comprehensible in purely biological terms" (276) is, I think, uncontentious if we keep the focus on the word purely. It is true enough that sexuality is not comprehensible in purely biological terms. But then again, nothing is comprehensible in purely biological terms — especially not biology itself. The work of feminist theorists of biology like Anne Fausto-Sterling, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Donna Haraway has been able to show how the gene, or the neuron, or the hormone is from the beginning a biologically impure object. There are no entities or events, they argue, that can legitimately lay claim to being biological and not also cultural or economic or psychological or historical.
Excerpted from Gut Feminism by Elizabeth A. Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction: Depression, Biology, Aggression 1
Part I. Feminist Theory
1. Underbelly 21
2. The Biolocial Unconscious 45
3. Bitter Melancholy 68
Part II. Antidepressants
4. Chemical Transference 97
5. The Bastard Placebo 121
6. The Pharmakology of Depression 141
What People are Saying About This
“Theoretically rigorous, critically astute, and absolutely engaging, Gut Feminism is a well-crafted, exquisitely written, and lively intervention into key debates in feminist theory. A major and important book."
"'There is still something about biology that remains troublesome for feminist theory,' writes Elizabeth Wilson, in Gut Feminism. This vigorous, rigorous, and riveting book not only asks what biology might do for feminist understandings of affect, illness, mood, and agency; it makes a searingly powerful case for an unashamed embrace of feminist aggression. A wonderful pedagogical experience."