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  • The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos by Emanuela Bianchi
  • Jessica Elbert Decker
Emanuela Bianchi The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos New York: Fordham University Press, 2014, 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-8232-6219-9

Traditional feminist critiques of Aristotle fault him for his basic misogyny, but Emanuela Bianchi’s complex reading explores the subtleties of his thought through a “critical intimacy” with the texts, aiming neither to discredit nor salvage Aristotle’s theory but to undertake a rigorous reading through a feminist psychoanalytic lens. Bianchi’s analysis is creative while remaining firmly grounded in the texts, revealing hidden constellations within Aristotle’s system. The focal point of her analysis is the “feminine” motion of matter as it appears throughout Aristotle’s philosophy; Bianchi calls attention to his Generation of Animals as “the hidden and therefore never adequately studied foundational book of Western patriarchal metaphysics” (2). Following Irigaray, Bianchi’s method is to interrogate Aristotle’s text in order to reveal unconscious structures of his thought that ground patriarchy and its subjugation of female subjects. Sexual difference, as it appears throughout Aristotle’s corpus but most visibly in Generation of Animals, lies at the heart of patriarchal metaphysics—teleological male activity and techne both depend upon passive, receptive, and purportedly powerless “feminine” matter. [End Page 341]

Matter is aligned with the feminine throughout Aristotle’s system, and Bianchi traces three different characterizations of matter in Aristotle’s thought: matter as passive potential for form, matter as “desiring, as stretching out toward form,” and “matter as disruptive, as disobedient, as compulsive, as aleatory, as harboring manifold movements against nature” (223). In approaching this third designation of feminine matter, Bianchi deploys the multivalent concept of the symptom. From the psychoanalytic perspective, the symptom appears as a manifestation of something invisible; it is a sign that points elsewhere, a visible appearance of a dangerous hidden force. The symptom is produced by unconscious contents—tracing the symptom back to its origin can reveal the underlying “fault lines in the system” (6). The Greek word sumptoma refers to “falling together,” and connotes accident and chance; the Latin “coincidence” is a close cognate. Bianchi’s “feminine symptom,” as it appears in Aristotle’s text, is similarly overdetermined: a “falling together” of disruptive pieces that resist their categories in Aristotle’s schematic.

Feminist readings of Aristotle often emphasize his alignment of the feminine with passive, receptive matter, while the masculine is identified as active, powerful, and productive of both logos and techne. Beneath these obvious misogynistic strains, Bianchi discovers a peculiar inconsistency in Aristotle’s formulations: “feminine” motions of matter happen both in accordance with and against nature, simultaneously. According to Aristotle, the male sperm contains the pneuma, a kind of soul-principle, and provides the form for the offspring, while the female contributes only the matter, acting as a kind of receptacle for generation. The female child, then, signifies a deviation from form—and thus also from teleology. In failing to resemble the father, the female child is a monstrosity and thus works against nature while simultaneously fulfilling nature’s telos because females are necessary for the reproduction of the species. Females, as impotent mirrors of the male, are categorized as a deformity; anaperian refers to mutilation, maiming, and castration, prefiguring both Freud’s and Lacan’s classifications of women. Aristotle’s contradictory explanation places female beings within the teleological while simultaneously excluding them from teleology. This strange double nature of the feminine in Aristotle generates chaotic, unpredictable, and uncanny disruptions in his system. These “interruptive” elements are precisely what Bianchi names “the feminine symptom.”

Throughout Bianchi’s reading of Aristotle, she explores the interrelated forces of male mastery, techne, and teleology; this analysis is relevant to the work of feminist theorists of technology, including Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti. Aristotle tells us that when a female is produced, it is because the male has failed to gain the mastery—kratein is Aristotle’s word here, “a concept familiar from political contexts, carrying the sense of seizing control and ruling that may also be understood as an establishment of sovereignty” (38). There is [End Page 342] a...


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