Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology

Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology

by Angela Willey

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In Undoing Monogamy Angela Willey offers a radically interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of monogamy in U.S. science and culture, propelled by queer feminist desires for new modes of conceptualization and new forms of belonging. She approaches the politics and materiality of monogamy as intertwined with one another such that disciplinary ways of knowing themselves become an object of critical inquiry. Refusing to answer the naturalization of monogamy with a naturalization of nonmonogamy, Willey demands a critical reorientation toward the monogamy question in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The book examines colonial sexual science, monogamous voles, polyamory, and the work of Alison Bechdel and Audre Lorde to show how challenging the lens through which human nature is seen as monogamous or nonmonogamous forces us to reconsider our investments in coupling and in disciplinary notions of biological bodies.   

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374213
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Angela Willey is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Undoing Monogamy

The Politics Of Science And The Possibilities Of Biology

By Angela Willey

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7421-3



Colonial Sexual Science and Its Naturecultural Fruits

Creationists and evolutionists don't agree on much, but they both believe that monogamy is the most natural form of reproduction for the human species.

— John Witte Jr., "Why Monogamy Is Natural," Washington Post, October 2, 2012

A Martian zoologist visiting planet Earth would have no doubt: Homo sapiens carries all the evolutionary stigmata of a mildly polygamous mammal in which both sexes have a penchant for occasional "extra-pair copulations."

— David P. Barash, "Monogamy Isn't Easy, Naturally," Los Angeles Times, November 22, 2009

The emergence of sexuality as a possible candidate of scientific comprehensibility was global to begin with, and not a concealed Western project in which places of a distanced Other played no role in the early phases of its conceptual formation.

— Howard Chiang, "Historicizing the Emergence of Sexual Freedom" (2009)

Even as monogamy enjoys the status of the normatively desirable, its naturalness is contested terrain. While Witte imagines human nature in harmony with the ideal of monogamy, evolutionary psychologist David Barash offers a counterpoint. Coauthor with psychiatrist Judith Lipton of The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People (2002) and Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection between Sex, Evolution, and Monogamy (2009), Barash speaks on behalf of those who argue against the idea that monogamy comes naturally to humans. Its merit as a social institution not-withstanding, humans — both male and female — he argues, are not by nature monogamous. These are more or less the sides in an increasingly popular multidisciplinary scientific debate about monogamy's nature — a debate in which questions about the efficacy of the institution of marriage, who should parent and how, and whether and to what extent participation in non- or extradyadic sexual relationships should be condemned loom large. Whatever the precise meaning evoked in the term's scientific deployment, the stakes of the debate over monogamy's naturalness are high.

This chapter is a genealogy of monogamy as an object of sexual scientific knowledge and is, as such, an exploration of "monogamy's nature." I read historic contest over monogamy's nature through the dependence of that debate on a colonial archive, that is to say, on knowledges of the cultures of colonized populations as evidence. The naturecultural fruit of this history, monogamy's nature must be understood as fundamentally entangled with the politics of race and nation. When we begin from data, the conditions of intelligibility for the measured bioscientific object "itself" are obscured. A queer feminist critical materialist approach to bodies requires a long memory.

Like contemporary discourses around heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, trans identities, intersex, and instinct itself, those on the nature of monogamy and nonmonogamy are prefigured in and enabled by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexual science. And like other European sexological knowledges of this era, as Chiang suggests in my third epigraph, the emergent debate over monogamy's naturalness was always transnational. Fin-de-siècle sexology marks a shift that characterizes twentieth-century thinking about sexuality as human nature — what Foucault called sexuality as the truth of the self. The twentieth-century subject, Foucault famously remarked, is the sexual subject. Locating monogamy in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexology can help us to understand how monogamy became sexuality and thus monogamy's importance to the modern self and to contemporary debates over monogamy's meanings.

Theorizing Monogamy in the History of Global Sexual Science

Scholars of the history of monogamy and marriage have shown that monogamy was well established as religious and legal doctrine early in the long nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, however, monogamy was understood not simply as marrying once or marriage to one partner, as its roots suggest, but rather as a manifestation or perversion of human nature. The collusion of colonial political interests and their attendant imaginaries alongside the coterminous emergence of sexological authority created the conditions of possibility for imagining monogamy as a facet of human nature, and thus for a scientifically legitimated secularization of Christian marriage. That is to say, monogamy made a decided shift from being (just) a system of marriage endorsed, promoted, and policed by European legal and religious doctrine to an object with another kind of status. Specifically, it became an object of liberatory discourse that sought to free (natural) monogamy from (Christian) marriage. In this transition it retained every bit of its moral import, but discourses surrounding it began to take on the authoritative quality of science.

Rather than analyzing disparate local knowledges about monogamy and nonmonogamy, or when, where, and how European discourses around non/monogamy were embraced, resisted, or otherwise negotiated, I consider narratives about monogamy in canonical sexological texts produced in a world made global by colonial and imperial projects. Here I am concerned in particular with the global nature of the European sexological stories that have made debates about monogamy's nature scientifically intelligible.

As scholars of postcolonial sexuality studies — perhaps Ann Laura Stoler most famously — have by now established, the history of sexuality is also the history of colonization, and indeed, sexual sciences are deeply enmeshed with processes of racialization. Sexology must be understood as part of the colonial project and its experts' fantasies about geographically distanced Others as constitutive of its knowledges. I use the language of both Edward Said's concept of the imaginary and Joan Scott's concept of fantasy, the former to highlight the largely inventive nature of European projections onto the non-West, and the latter to gesture to the depth of investment in those fantasies about other lands and people. It is not only racialized sexual knowledges but psychic investments in their reality that shape contest over monogamy's meaning in sexology. What the stories we tell about "them" enable "us" to imagine about ourselves lends those knowledges a certain "truthiness." Indeed, European investments in both the patriarchal family and the egalitarian couple are at the heart of the imperial projects that constituted the context for the emergence of monogamy as a sexological object.

In Imperial Leather Ann McClintock contends that "after the 1850s, the image of a natural, patriarchal family, in alliance with pseudoscientific social Darwinism, came to constitute the organizing trope for marshaling a bewildering array of cultures into a single, global narrative ordered and managed by Europeans." Hers is a powerful comment on the role of the patriarchal family in linking scientization, racialization, and domination. While it captures the integral importance of coupled forms of belonging to processes of colonization, her use of "pseudoscientific" suggests an instrumentalism in the deployment of scientific authority. From a science studies perspective, the distinction between "scientific" and "pseudoscientific" obscures the fact that science is always of culture. The use of "pseudoscience," in an effort to displace claims that harm, uses the same epistemic logic that gives these claims their power in the first place. In light of the epistemological interventions of science studies, I would revise McClintock's assessment slightly by saying that the image of the nuclear family — and sometimes an expressly antipatriarchal vision of it — in alliance with the consolidation of epistemic authority within a paradigm of the scientific not only contributed to but was made possible by this racist organizing trope (the marshalling of many cultures into a global narrative of difference to be controlled by Europeans). This flexible global narrative provided the substance of a usable colonial archive of evidence in service of a wide range of stories about sexuality. In this subtle revision of McClintock's assessment of coupledom's import to nineteenth-century colonial projects, I suggest that the scientization of monogamy discourse is itself part of the problem and worthy of attention.

Foucauldian approaches to the history of sexuality alert us to the productive nature of contestations over the authority to define the normal and the abnormal, that is to say, over what counts as science. Contest over what counts as "real science" also reifies a hierarchy of ways of knowing that has historically been deeply raced, classed, and gendered, in addition to being decidedly Eurocentric. Sexological knowledge of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a mix of disciplinarily and generically diverse proclamations produced by a wide range of political actors with varied access to biomedical and scientific authority, due to training, gender, geography, and other mediating factors. Questions about what sexological knowledges count, when, where, and why, is part of the project of rendering intelligible a history of global sexual science. I am less concerned here with the various uses or epistemic specificity of "Western science," as such, and more concerned with how monogamy was rendered a candidate for scientific knowability through an already global epistemic regime. Thus this project does not retroactively condemn or recuperate sexological discourses about monogamy as "good" or "bad," "true" or "biased," scientific or pseudoscientific but rather seeks to understand the conditions of their intelligibility as science.

European knowledge of geographically distanced Others forms the content of sexology's legitimation through scientization at the turn of the century, such that when we refer to the emergence of what we call "sexuality" we are referencing an "epistemic modernity" rendered through the evidence of a colonial archive. The convergence of geographic and temporal alterities, where "other cultures" represent other times, Chiang argues, is the epistemic condition of possibility for the scientization of sexuality in disparate locales. I build on Chiang's "double alterity" here by exploring how the geographically distanced Other — specifically through anthropological accounts of marriage and sexual practices — comes to stand in for the imagined evolutionary past in sexological discourse on monogamy. It is by now well established that in European sciences of the nineteenth century "the term 'savage' signified not only the European in 'ancient' time, but also those peoples in the colonized world deemed to be the contemporary counterparts of those 'ancient savages.'" The arrangement and rearrangement of bodies along a temporal trajectory from them/there to us/here was at the heart of the co-constitution of racialized and sexualized difference. Whether that past comes to represent the distance the "we" of the texts have traveled or our true natures, access to that temporal other-as-evolutionary-evidence through colonial knowledgemaking allowed debates about marriage practices and politics to gradually take on the valence of science.

In the two sections that follow, I read monogamy discourse in the major works of two important sexologists widely acknowledged as key figures in the making of a science of sexuality: Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. Krafft-Ebing's and Ellis's works have become paradigmatic examples of the import of European sexology for contemporary sexual subjectivities. Focusing in particular on the opening pages of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis and Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex, volume 6, Sex in Relation to Society, I trace monogamy discourse in their respective works to locate monogamy within the historiography of sexual science. I focus on the narratives that emerge about monogamy in these texts, and on key aspects of the contexts that constituted their intelligibility, rather than focusing on the tellers themselves. That is to say, while their positioning as pivotal figures in the history of sexuality matters, I sideline specific questions of authorship, intent, and consistency in argumentation to focus instead on the kinds of stories they tell about monogamy. My analysis is concerned in particular with what this "archive of discourse" can tell us about the scientization of monogamy.

My reading is shaped by a Foucauldian paradigm in which "liberation" and "pathologization" are not opposites but rather co-constitutive discourses that produce us as sexual subjects. That is to say, claims about whether or not, or to what degree, human nature is monogamous share in common epistemic conditions of intelligibility. These conditions include the convergence of temporal and geographic otherness that allowed claims about marriage practices and sexual mores across cultures to stand in as evolutionary claims. In Krafft-Ebing, monogamous marriage marks the superiority of "Christian nations." In Ellis the capacity to redefine monogamy in accord with nature, not Christian doctrine, marks the superiority of "civilized races." In both cases, monogamy is bound up in implicitly and explicitly racialized notions of superiority, utterable within the cultural, political, and economic logics that animate a colonial worldview. This pair of discursive moves both establishes its own authority from within the logic of colonial discourse and bolsters that discourse by lending it greater scientific relevance and credibility.

"Especially Islam": On the Importance of Christian Monogamy

The content of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis has received a great deal of attention for the work his categories of perversion do to render the modern sexual subjects that shape contemporary understandings of sexuality. While his case studies are indeed rich, far too little attention has been paid to their framing. In the book's opening pages Krafft-Ebing mobilizes the vague specter of "Islam" repeatedly to establish the "we" of the text. "We" — the Christian nations — are monogamous. Monogamy is what separates "us" from "them." In Psychopathia Sexualis's English-language translations, monogamy is the national characteristic that separates the civilized from a generic racialized Other, and "especially" from Islam. Islam stands in as an exemplary threat to a "Christian" worldview and way of life; Christianity stands in for whiteness, Europeanness, and modernity.

To elucidate the work of the "especially" in Krafft-Ebing's formulation, I draw on Fernando Bravo López's tracking of early twentieth-century uses of the term "Islamophobia." López argues that these early uses offer a way of thinking about the ambiguities and flexibility of the phenomena to which this term refers today: racism, religious intolerance, and/or fear of religion in the public sphere. According to López, in their work Le pelierinage a la maison sacree d'Allah (The Pilgrimage to the Sacred House of Allah, 1930), Etienne Dinet and Silman ben Ibrahim describe two aspects of "Islamophobia" — "pseudoscientific" (racial) and "clerical" (religious), united by a common conception of Islam as an enemy and threat to Christianity that must be fought. These two conceptions work in concert — as "Islamophobia" — to vilify Muslims as a monolithic and threatening type. Indeed eugenic concerns with the future of the race ("pseudo-scientific") and concerns with Christian morality ("clerical") are "married" in sexology by a naturalization of Christian mores through a discourse of sexual selection: where the stakes of heterosexual courtship are precisely the eugenic quality of the next generation. The melding of these racial and religious meanings into one salient signifier — "Islam" — in sexological discourse both serves to legitimate sexual science as part of the imperial project and in turn adds epistemic weight to its endeavors through a scientization of its imaginaries.


Excerpted from Undoing Monogamy by Angela Willey. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xi

Introduction. Politics and Possibility: A Queer Feminist Introduction to Monogamy  1

1. Monogamy's Nature: Colonial Sexual Science and Its Naturecultural Fruits  25

2. Making the Monogamous Human: Mating, Measurement, and the New Science of Bonding  45

3. Making Our Poly Nature: Monogamy's Inversion and the Reproduction of Difference  73

4. Rethinking Monogamy's Nature: From the Truth of Non/Monogamy to a Dyke Ethics of "Antimonogamy"  95

5. Biopossibility: Molecular Monogamy and Audre Lorde's Erotic  121

Epilogue. Dreams of a Dyke Science  141

Notes  147

Bibliography  169

Index  191

What People are Saying About This

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society - Jennifer Terry

"Angela Willey's Undoing Monogamy explores the rich terrain of speculation over the meaning and significance of monogamy for scientists, for advocates of polyamory, and for feminists. Covering a substantial range of topics, Undoing Monogamy is a highly generative book for anyone interested in feminist science studies, cultural studies of sexuality, and especially new materialism."

Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science - Kim TallBear

"Reaching far into feminist science studies, new materialism, and feminist of color critique, Angela Willey refuses to privilege either biology or the social. Her deepest ethic is to recognize the animacy of both humans and nonhumans, of both culture and materiality, and the ways in which they make one another. An outstanding book, Undoing Monogamy opens up important questions for defining feminist science and its promise for democratizing science and society."

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