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  • Sexual Matters:Darwinian Feminisms and the Nonhuman Turn
  • Stacy Alaimo (bio)

At the start of the twenty-first century, the linguistic turn in the humanities has been contested by various positions that could be called the nonhuman turn. Thing theory, affect theory, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, new materialisms, material feminisms, animal studies, biopolitics, and posthumanism jostle together, merge, and diverge. Whereas some strands of the nonhuman turn leave the rational human knower intact, others, such as biopolitics, posthumanism, material feminism, and my own conception of "transcorporeality," radically reconceive of humanity as animal, biological, material—shaped by evolutionary, environmental, and technological forces as well as by politics and economics. As scholars consider what is at stake in how these theories develop and how they are defined, it may be useful to consider the work of Charles Darwin, along with two nineteenth-century writers, Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Eliza Burt Gamble, who employed evolutionary arguments to forward women's rights. Darwin's 1871 Descent of Man may well be the founding text of posthumanism, insisting, as it does, that the human is, of course, an animal, a particular sort of animal that just happened to happen, as the others happened to happen, an animal that shares a "community of descent" with other creatures, an animal that is, in fact, always itself composed of the vestiges of other creatures. As Matthew Rowlinson points out, "For Darwin the crucial problem posed by natural selection was not that it left no room for God, but that it left no room for what he termed 'man.' "1 The human, as such, becomes a tenuous category when all species distinctions are revealed to be rather arbitrary. Did Darwin's sense of the human as always already animal, or, indeed, as part of an ever-transforming material world, extend into late nineteenth-century texts, practices, and ethical modes? And, like the vestiges of our evolutionary ancestors, do Darwin's ontologies inhabit twenty-first-century posthumanisms, material feminisms, and other new materialisms?

I would hazard to respond in the affirmative to the last question, referencing Elizabeth Grosz's recent books on Darwinian theory but also pointing out other new materialist theories that seek, through their insistence on emergence, interaction, intra-action, and trans-corporeality, [End Page 390] modes of tracing always-embedded material agencies. In Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space, I observe that while reading Darwin, "we imagine our own body, no longer an entity unto itself, as a site of metamorphosis, still bearing traces of its forebears, the 'hairy, tailed quadruped,' the 'amphibian-like creature,' the 'fish-like animal,' and finally, the 'aquatic animal provided with branchia, with the two sexes united in the same individual.' " Even though the expanse of time that Darwin describes is unimaginable, the vivid examples populating his Descent of Man propel animal into human into animal, creating a dazzling space of palpable amalgamations and transfigurations.2 Darwin's conception of the human as a corporeal being packed with remnants of past creatures, raveling out into the distant past, brought forth by nonsexed or doubly sexed ancestors, and inhabiting a space-time of continual transformation, is, I believe, still good to think with, especially as the humanities turns to the nonhuman. What would it mean to think as this Darwinian body, to think as the very stuff of an evolving world,3 rather than to remain within the echo chamber of the rational, enclosed self? Instead of taking the nonhuman as an object of inquiry, it is possible to turn toward the nonhuman as ourselves not exactly human—a practice that often materializes from subjects who have themselves been positioned as objects.

It is common to observe that whereas Freud and Marx have generated invaluable theories for textual and cultural inquiry, Darwin's writing has been left behind as relatively inconsequential for humanities scholarship. Scholars of the nonhuman turn, however, may wish to consider what the humanities would look like if it were practiced in the tangled banks of Darwinian theory. Grosz has asserted the value of Darwinian theory for feminism as well as for the humanities more generally, emphasizing this "new and surprising conception of life" as "dynamic, collective, change...