Gut Feminism
Elizabeth A. Wilson

Reviewed by Jean-Thomas Tremblay


Published by Duke University Press, 2015   |   240 pages

In 1986, Sandra Harding, then a professor of philosophy, sociology, and women’s studies at the University of Delaware, published The Science Question in Feminism. Since the mid-1970s, Harding outlined in her preface, feminist criticisms of science had evolved from being essentially reformist to revolutionary in motivation. In lieu of, or in some cases in addition to, aiming to improve the situation of women working in the sciences (the “woman question in science”), feminists now sought to use sciences traditionally entrenched in Western, bourgeois, and masculinist projects for more emancipatory ends (the “science question in feminism”). Harding divided the recent, more radical feminist engagements with science into three distinct fields. Feminist empiricism sought to correct social biases in the practice of science through a stricter adherence to existing methodological norms. Feminist standpoint theory advocated a paradigmatic transformation of the scientific project via feminist principles that would provide a morally and scientifically preferable grounding for explanations and interpretations of the world. Feminist postmodernism, lastly, openly challenged a perceived violence inherent in science’s universalizing impulse.

Fast-forward almost thirty years. In her recently published Gut Feminism, Elizabeth A. Wilson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Emory University, offers a new reading into feminism and its relation to the sciences. Specifically, Wilson argues that feminism must rid itself of its habit of rebuffing data obtained through scientific experimentation. According to her, even when feminists have taken biological data seriously—she cites Harding as an example—they’ve been more interested in what feminism can say about biology than in what biology can do for feminism.

Wilson’s project in Gut Feminism is twofold. First, she ponders the conceptual innovations that would be possible if feminist theory, meaning Western feminist theory, “wasn’t so instinctively antibiological.” Second, she proposes a case study on the biological data of depression. She suggests that this data can be deployed to stage an aggression or hostility that informs feminist theory and intervention.

Wilson accounts for the alleged antibiological bias within feminist theory by noting that “most feminist research on the body has relied on the methods of social constructionism, which explore how cultural, social, symbolic, and linguistic constraints govern and sculpt the kinds of bodies we have.” She maintains that the social constructionists have seldom been curious about the details of empirical claims in genetics, neurophysiology, evolutionary biology, pharmacology, or biochemistry.

In the first chapter of Gut Feminism, Wilson examines two essays at length—Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975), and “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984)—as exhibits in her charge that feminism has been rendered effectively antibiological by the primacy of social constructionism. In “The Traffic in Women,” Rubin uses ideas from Structuralism to investigate how kinship systems normalize and enforce social hierarchies and relegate women into subordinate roles. In “Thinking Sex,” Rubin examines the mechanisms by which popular discourse in U.S. culture stigmatizes sex and imposes upon it disproportionate scrutiny and regulation. In both essays, Wilson argues, Rubin downplays the significance of biology, viewing it as anterior to processes of oppression and regulation deployed through language and culture. Wilson’s criticism has some grounds: at first glance, Rubin’s essays convey the assumption that biology is ontologically and historically prior to culture. What’s more, the existence of an antibiological trend in feminist scholarship, as well as this trend’s reliance on social constructionism, are undeniable.

Problems arise, however, when Wilson equates “The Traffic in Women” and “Thinking Sex” with feminism, and feminism with antibiological feminism. Such simplifications flatten the nuances of both Rubin’s work and feminism as a field. “The Traffic in Women,” for example, ultimately transcends its initial disregard for biology by making a convincing case regarding the inseparability of reproduction (read: biology) and production (read: culture) in the valuing of sexuality under capitalism. “Thinking Sex,” for its part, contemplates lust and desire in its effort to complicate, not abandon, accounts of sexual identity hinging on anatomical features. As stated earlier, Wilson has charged that even feminists like Harding who have taken biological data seriously have shown little interest in what biology can do for feminism. Yet, in at least one of the three approaches surveyed in The Science Question in Feminism—that is, feminist standpoint theory—science is only feminist in so far as the data it generates can be interpreted, mobilized, and disseminated across feminist circles.

Wilson’s analysis in Gut Feminism hinges on a variation of the “repressive hypothesis.” Often attributed to the rise of psychoanalysis, the hypothesis essentially argues that modern industrial societies have ushered in an age of increased sexual repression. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault debunks this repressive hypothesis. For Foucault, sexuality is more present than ever—in discourse. Gut Feminism tweaks the classic formulation of the hypothesis, arguing that it is biological concepts and data—as opposed to drives and desires—that have been repressed, and whose liberation promises to be “arresting, transforming, taxing.” Wilson’s argument about the indeterminacies and surprises brought about by biological data is convincing. What is less convincing is the opposition she establishes between this argument and a feminism homogenized as outright repressive in its antibiologism.

Wilson’s analysis of the biological data of depression provides a glance at how biological concepts and data can be deployed tactically in feminist engagements, but ultimately functions more as a promise of an investigation to come than as an entirely accomplished project. Pursuing the work she began in her 2004 book Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, Wilson outlines the ways in which attention to scientific and biological data can generate liberatory possibilities out of the newfound, uncanny entanglements between mind and body. These entanglements generate a reconceptualization of mood and action, which in turn delineates the terrain for, rather than explicitly carries out, a politics of the body (one of the ambitions of feminism) whose rightful locus isn’t assumed to be a mind that is disembodied or isolated from the messiness of biology. Wilson’s imaginative narration of biological phenomena gives rise to sophisticated accounts of structures that amalgamate mood, mind, and viscera (the scientific term for organs, such as the gut, that are located in the main cavities of the body). In a chapter that asks whether biological substrata can be melancholic, aggressive, or bitter, Wilson likens a violent pressure in the bowels termed “organ speech” to J. L. Austin’s notion of performative utterances—statements that change the social reality they are describing. According to Wilson, organs very much can “speak,” even issue directives. In situations of mourning, for example, constipation and diarrhea amount to an organ speech that, by giving the impression that the entire intestines are being pushed out of the body, injures or soils both individuals in mourning and the world they inhabit.

A further chapter investigates selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a leading class of drugs for the treatment of depression and anxiety. This chapter looks at SSRIs not through pharmacodynamics (the branch of pharmacology that catalogs the effects of a drug on bodies) but rather through pharmacokinetics (the branch that concerns itself with the distribution and movement of a drug and its metabolites within the body). Metabolites are not intrinsic to a drug; they are substances that are generated by the transit of a drug through bodies. In the case of SSRIs, this transit conventionally entails a passage from gut to liver, and subsequently from liver to brain. While the metabolites of certain SSRIs are pharmacologically inactive, others, like the ones produced by Prozac (fluoxetine) and Celexa (citalopram), are actively antidepressant in their effects. Wilson compares the “intricate network of causality” of drugs whose pharmacological effectiveness is dependent on the byproducts of their metabolization to the psychoanalytic notion of transference. She discards Sigmund Freud’s idea of transference, which she summarizes as the one-way transfer of old memories from the analysand (the psychoanalytic term for the patient) to the analyst. Instead, she adopts Thomas Ogden’s conception of transference as a profound entanglement between analysand and analyst. In Wilson’s own words, “the pill finds its capacity to act as an antidepressant not through reductive or deterministic or unilateral action, but through the workings of transference—which is to say, through biochemical relationality.”

Wilson’s biological reading of transference is only one example of her insistence, throughout Gut Feminism, on the crosspolination of biology and culture. Instead of transcending the tensions and contradictions that characterize the amalgamation of biology and culture, she demonstrates their structural inseparability. As such, parasitism qualifies the relationship between medication and placebo in SSRI testing. Elsewhere, Wilson mobilizes the notion of pharmakon, read in the context of Gut Feminism as the inter-implication of cure and poison with the other, sometimes unsuspected functions of SSRIs. The author employs this notion to describe the suicidal ideation that can accompany SSRI intake as the actualization of a “pharmako-neuro-ideo-affect system” which has lost its equilibrium.

The fluidity of Wilson’s writing is undeniable. So is the scope of the conceptual pool from which she draws. But there are limits to the analogies of structure that constitute analytical evidence in Gut Feminism. For example, the observation that biological relationality and psychoanalytic transference share a similar structure is evidence enough for Wilson of the reality of a direct analogue to Ogdenian transference in the chemical realm. On closer inspection, however, the analogy is not so straightforward. Transference, as it has been theorized by psychoanalysts, necessitates time and labor. Consciously and unconsciously, analysand and analyst work together over the course of many sessions to establish the conditions that enable the transfer of memories and experiences. Chemical relationality, on the other hand, lacks the longue durée of psychoanalytic transference. Wilson’s analogies of structure too often neglect the particularities of the phenomena they blend.

Bold in its assertions (feminism has been antibiological; transference is biological), Gut Feminism is most successful in its polemical assertion that feminism can learn from the ambivalent entanglements she devises. By infusing these entanglements with feminist and other critical-theoretical concepts—even if this means simplifying or putting a spin on these concepts—she, in an important sense, performs the kind of aggression that she claims can be beneficial to feminist politics. Gut Feminism is less a book about politics than one that makes politics happen. It shocks its readers into taking a stance—like a punch in the gut.



Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a Ph.D. student in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. He is writing about breathing as a problem of form in contemporary literature and media. His writing, scholarly or not, has appeared or is forthcoming in Criticism, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Arcade, Public Books, Review 31, and The Oxonian Review.

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