Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 226pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-5970-8
How would you describe rumination? As regurgitation and chewing? Or as mulling something over? Elizabeth Wilson would argue it is hardly a coincidence that these two seemingly contrary activities—the messy business of food, saliva, and bile, and the lofty heights of ideation—find a common home in a single word. Indeed, at the core of Gut Feminism is the claim that “the gut is minded.” Mentation and digestion; the psyche and the soma; brain and belly; neurological and biological—each of these seeming dualities is for Wilson thrillingly entangled in ways that critically reboot how we think about bodies and how they work in the world. At its core, this book thus makes a major contribution to one of feminist philosophy’s key concerns: theories of embodiment.
In Gut Feminism, the key site for exploring these entanglements is depression. Depression is a ubiquitous social and political concern that clearly demands the attention of feminist analyses. (While one in ten Americans will experience some form of depression, women are twice as likely to be afflicted in comparison to men, while people of color also report higher rates of depression [healthline.com].) Of more interest to Wilson, however, is the way that depression is a particularly charged site for aggression, conflict, and partisanship, which also implicates a wild congeries of bodily organs and processes. Rather than aiming to neutralize this conflict or straighten out these tangles, Wilson finds here potent matter for feminist rumination. [End Page 307]
More than just talking about bodies and depression, though, this book is also about feminist theory itself. This interest plays out in a number of ways, but one of those ways is not a simple application of feminist theory to biology generally, or depression, enteric systems, or psychopharmaceuticals more specifically. Wilson is explicit about this: “This book is less interested in what feminist theory might be able to say about biology than in what biology might be able to do for–do to—feminist theory” (2). In chapter 2, Wilson details Sandor Ferenczi’s concept of amphimixis, or interorgan communication, in order to argue for organic empathy and intelligence, against a more common view of organs and other biological matter as mere mechanical substrate. I’ll return to this key theoretical intervention shortly, but from the outset, it seems that the concept of amphimixis is a helpful way to frame Wilson’s whole endeavor in this work. It is not only that she argues against binaristic compartmentalizations at a conceptual level—between gut and mind, between psyche and soma, between words and pills, between harm and cure. More than this, she insists on what feminist quantum physicist and theorist Karen Barad would call the intra-action of the matters in play. Relata do not precede relations here. This is the methodological modus operandi of Wilson’s whole project. At the most generalized level, her intervention into how we think about depression co-emerges with how we think feminist embodiment; one is not applied to the other domain. “I am not proposing a theory of depression” (1), she insists, nor does she take biomedical data on depression at face value to forge a new feminist theory of bodies. Her insights into both depression and bodies gear into each other at every turn. In other words, just as Wilson insists on the amphimixis or adulterous relationship between mind and gut, so too does she craft a text that allows her research results and her theoretical framework to exist only in intra-action. The picture she paints of depression with its related concerns of pharmacokinetics, treatments, and side effects works on feminist theory, as much as feminist theory works on what the phenomenon of “depression” is.
Wilson’s two key concerns—bringing together gut and mind, and troubling feminism along the way—form the twin themes of chapter 1, “Underbelly.” Here, Wilson argues that “phantasy and peristalsis (swallowing) are coeval” (22). Her first task, however, is to demonstrate that antibiologism has been foundational to feminist theory. Not only do we “treat biology as a threat...