- A Feminist Cosmology: Ecology, Solidarity, and Metaphysics
Is it possible for feminist theory to construct a cosmology that recognizes the multitude of possible perspectives generated by differences in race, class, and gender; encourages relational solidarity on the model of female friendship; and treats the natural world as at one with the human rather than as something to be risen above? This is the problem raised by Nancy R. Howell's book, A Feminist Cosmology: Ecology, Solidarity, and Metaphysics (2000). In her attempt to provide a framework for such a cosmology, Howell explores a range of issues that a feminist cosmology would likely need to reconcile along the road to such a goal, as well as presenting some interesting alternate interpretations of divine power. At the same time, the effort also raises some additional questions about whether such a project is ultimately feasible—questions that one could wish were explored more fully and at a more fundamentally theoretical level.
Howell's work is an attempt to weave together several different strands of thought, not all of which are obviously compatible. The first and foremost of these is Alfred Whitehead's metaphysics and process theology. Not a straightforward candidate for feminist theorizing, given its hierarchical and patriarchal elements, Howell nevertheless mines Whiteheadian cosmology for its emphasis [End Page 197] on process and context, its relational perspective, which she places beside feminist discussions of friendship, and the development of selfhood and solidarity. Because of this relational orientation, the issue of feminist separatism gains a significant place in the discussion. Put simply, the problem that feminist theory has faced has been whether or not women can develop a woman-defined conception of self and practice within the context of masculinized definitions that place separation from others at the center of self-acquisition. The irony has been that feminist separatism has frequently been seen as the necessary means for women to develop their own reconstruction of self, one that reemphasizes in a positive rather than a destructive way the connection of self with others, that is, through receptivity rather than struggle. The risk has been that such a practice might itself reproduce the oppositional dualisms that threaten relationally oriented reconfigurations of selfhood.
This need to reconcile traditional dualisms further accounts for the ecofeminist strand in Howell's book, as it has been ecofeminists in particular who have been concerned to root out the dualist attitudes lurking within our language and thinking about human and nonhuman nature.1 The aim here is to ultimately reintegrate the natural into the human and vice-versa, without simply reiterating anthropo- or androcentrism by subsuming the natural under the human, as through a transpersonal Self that is defined, once again, in the language of domination.
The greater part of Howell's book is an exploration of these themes as they are reflected in Whitehead, in selected feminist and womanist theory and literature, and in a few ecofeminist sources. The goal is to find a way of bringing these threads together in order to lay down a pattern upon which can be filled out a cosmology of human and natural relationship in connection with God on the model of a "pantheistic erotism," drawing each self forward to fulfillment in relationship.
However, there may be at least one quite serious question about the feasibility of Howell's project, and that is this: Howell is quite concerned to avoid any kind of theorizing that fails to regard the distinctness of variant perspectives, particularly those attributable to the differences of race, class, and gender. The concern here is familiar: we do not want to impose a rigidly unitary (that is, totalizing) perspective onto alternate perspectives. Howell refers to the "multiversity," for example, rather than to the universe (2000, 14). Yet, surely the construction of a cosmology inevitably engages one in the project of presenting or constructing a unitary, organized, picture of the world (worlds?). I don't happen to think that this is necessarily a bad thing—I, for one, assume that there is some way that the world is, and I want...