Hypatia 19.3 (2004) 209-216
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Rooms of one's own, borderlands, nomads, centers and margins, public versus private—both literally and metaphorically, space long has been an important issue for feminists. To Michel Foucault's declaration that "[t]he present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space" (1986, 22), one should add that spaces are constituted to a great degree by relations of gender, race, nationality, and sexuality. While Foucault tended to focus only on the latter, recent feminist work such as that of Stacy Alaimo, Elizabeth Grosz, and Radhika Mohanram helpfully broadens the site of interaction, illuminating crucial ways in which raced, sexed, and imperial(ized) bodies are linked with nature, landscapes, and places.
Alaimo's Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000) takes on the important work of dismantling nature-culture dualisms in which culture is viewed as dynamic and nature as static. Alaimo argues that claims that women's bodies are more closely aligned with nature than men's bodies are often have been rejected by late twentieth-century feminists because of the assumption that nature is fixed. Feminist responses to such claims generally have been to refute women's alleged natural inferiority by arguing either that women's naturalness is socially constructed or that feminists should eschew any talk of connections between women and nature because of the misogyny from which such connections were born (3). In both cases, however, the notion of nature as something fixed and unchanging goes unchallenged. Alaimo's concern is that both strategies "attemp[t] to disentangle 'woman' from the web of associations that bind her to 'nature,'" and in doing so, "nature is kept at bay—repelled—rather than redefined" (4).
Alaimo, in contrast, seeks precisely to rewrite the concept of nature, viewing it as an active agent rather than as passive matter (12). Working with nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, film, television, popular journalism, and visual arts, Alaimo shows that "nature has been and continues to be a place of feminist possibility" (2). Nature has been seen as undomesticated, and as such has been crucial to loosening sedimented ideas about domestic spaces and those firmly rooted within them—namely, women. This has happened in a variety of ways: one has been to cast nature as that which dissolves gender distinctions. Thus, for example, Sarah Orne Jewett's 1884 Country Doctor offers a picture [End Page 209] of nature in which it "is identified neither with the world of the mothers nor with that of the fathers; rather it exists as a third space, a place where Nan [the lead female character] can liberate herself from gendered scripts" (54). A contrasting approach, found in Mary Austin's 1909 Lost Borders, has been to embrace gender differences by casting nature as "an unruly woman" who cannot be wholly controlled by a (masculine) society (72). As Alaimo demonstrates, whether minimizing or maximizing women's differences from men, appeals to nature have been indispensable for feminist social intervention.
Part of the strength of Undomesticated Ground is that in urging that nature be seen as an actor, Alaimo does not advocate erasing all distinctions between human beings and other parts of nature (158). In other words, Alaimo is careful to avoid the false dilemma of either positing nature and culture as sharply separate or collapsing them into the same, unidentifiable mush. These two positions are the flip side of the same problematic coin: they both assume that to be distinguishable from one another, two things must be radically opposed to and atomistically separate from one another. In the absence of such opposition and separation, the two things (allegedly) must really be the same one thing after all. Both positions thereby deny that continuities and connections can exist between different, distinguishable things. Or put another...