Legacy 18.2 (2001) 244-245
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Recasting Nature as Feminist Space
Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space. By Stacy Alaimo. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. 225 pp. $45 .00 /17.95 paper.
For years feminist theory has resisted, reversed, or deconstructed the binary oppositions that inform phallogocentric Western language and thinking: male/female, mind/body, culture/ nature. Stacy Alaimo's poststructuralist study blurs the boundaries of nature and culture and traces a tradition of American women writers who locate in nature an "undomesticated ground" of feminist possibility. Alaimo's work counters the works of Annette Kolodny (The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her) to contend that American feminist women have narrated nature neither as a space of colonization and conquest nor as a domestic garden. Whether one agrees with Alaimo's conclusions or not, the wide range of writers considered, which includes Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Mary Austin, Emma Goldman, Donna Haraway, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Marian Engel, Leslie Marmon Silko, Octavia Butler, innumerable women conservationists, and contemporary visual artists, attests to the richness and centrality of her subject.
Alaimo begins with a brief history of feminists' "flight from nature." In their desire to resist the nature/culture binary in Western logic that has allied women with nature and made possible their colonization by patriarchal culture, liberal feminists (including Simone de Beauvoir) and radical French feminists (Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray) have rejected nature. Ecofeminist critics, by contrast, embrace nature and are, therefore, often dismissed by postmodern feminists as essentialist. Using the work of Donna Haraway, Carolyn Merchant, and Sandra Harding, who view the earth and its inhabitants as agents, Alaimo argues that "we must transform the gendered concepts—nature, culture, body, mind, object, subject, resource, agent, and others—that have been cultivated to denigrate and silence certain groups of humans as well as nonhuman life" (13). Coining the term "situated theorizing," a play on Haraway's "situated knowledges," to describe her historicized cultural studies approach, Alaimo contends that American women writers and theorists since the nineteenth century have transformed nature into an undomesticated space. Alaimo defines this as a space "utterly free from such confining [gendered] concepts, values, and roles," "a space apart, . . . an indispensable site for feminist cultural critique" (16). Further, Alaimo claims, in this space, "women could be untamed, unruly, and unregenerate" (16).
Part One, "Feminist Landscapes," locates in the works of Sedgwick, Freeman, Jewett, and Austin examples of "undomesticated" nature that resist dominant cultural narratives of colonization. Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) ties its heroine and Native Americans to nature, an anti-patriarchal, anti-authoritarian space. Both Freeman and Jewett construct "hybrid spaces . . . that do not conform to boundaries between nature and culture, places where nature takes root in the domestic and the domestic opens out into nature" (39). Alaimo effectively juxtaposes the fiction of Jewett and Freeman with Darwin's evolutionary narratives, showing the ways each deconstructs the boundaries between human and nonhuman. Finally, Alaimo reads Mary Austin's work against conservationist writers' "Municipal Housekeeping" ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (63). Austin's Western desert counters the discourses of domestic science and motherhood and the racist, classist separate-sphere thinking that underlies conservationists' utilitarian views of nature. Instead, Austin offers a feminist vision of women's relationship to the natural world. [End Page 244]
In Part Two, "Nature as Political Space," Alaimo examines early twentieth-century feminist responses to dominant cultural narratives that condemn birth control as "unnatural." Goldman's Mother Earth and many others resist the construction of nature as an apolitical space and instead consider how the operations of class, labor, and work—along with gender—inflect what we perceive as "natural" or "nature."
Finally, Part Three, "Feminism, Postmodernism, Environmentalism," explores the presence of "natures" within contemporary novels, theoretical works, and popular cultural texts. Seeking sites where feminism and environmentalism jibe, Alaimo suggests that postmodernist discourses sometimes "'play nature' as a postmodern political act" (135 ). To this end, Alaimo considers to what extent Song of Solomon, Surfacing...