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Reviewed by:
  • Gut Feminism by Elizabeth A. Wilson
  • Els Woudstra (bio)
Gut Feminism, by Elizabeth A. Wilson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Elizabeth A. Wilson offers in Gut Feminism a refreshingly new approach to the feminist debate on antidepressants, and a response to feminist tendencies of antibiologism. Taking the pharmaceutical treatment of depression as her point of departure, Wilson’s goal is twofold: to show how pharmaceutical data can be useful for conceptual innovations in feminist theory, and to argue for the necessity of feminist politics to account for its own capacity for aggression and harm. Divided in two parts that remain conceptually entangled, Gut Feminism develops the argument that, although both aggression and biology can be ignored, “they cannot be defanged” (93). Wilson’s dynamic reading of biology is particularly attractive: arguing that the gut is an organ of mind, Wilson decenters the brain and central nervous system in her approach to depression, and reads the pharmaceutical data on depression through the gut and neurological periphery. Her argument builds up convincingly through the six chapters of the book, and contests a neurological Cartesian split that assumes the neurological is synonymous with the cerebral. Moreover, she provides a conceptual challenge to feminist theory and its tendencies to anti-biologism, making it impossible to disentangle the social and the biological in the neatly distinct categories that much of feminist theory has preferred. Gut Feminism thoroughly challenges contemporary feminist theory to think beyond its internal distinctions, both in Wilson’s development of a conceptual framework for feminist readings of biology, and in her daring insistence on the place aggression necessarily has in feminist theory.

In her aim to develop a conceptual toolkit for reading biology closely, emphasizing the entanglements and transference of melancholic and pharmaceutical events in the human body, Wilson reads contemporary biomedical data about depression through the peripheral body, specifically through the gut, and takes up in each chapter different case studies relating to the gut. In the first three chapters, grouped together under “Feminist Theory,” Wilson focuses on depressive rumination, showing that it is both visceral (of the gut) and ideational (of the mind). Intending to bring feminist theoretical work in [End Page 260] closer relation with the biology of rudimentary bodily processes, Wilson reads the dynamics of antibiologism in Gayle Rubin’s canonical essays “The Traffic in Women” (1975) and “Thinking Sex” (1984) as an illustration of feminism’s political gesture of placing biology at a distance from its own social and political affairs. Wilson offers a way of thinking about the psychic nature of the organic interior through Melanie Klein’s ([1936] 1975) study of the infant’s hungry belly, as well as through the autonomous bingeing and vomiting of bulimia (as a Ferenczian organism that has begun to think), and merycism, or rumination disorder in infants. In her reading of these case studies, for which she also borrows from Sandór Ferenczi’s theory of materializations (1994) Wilson rejects both the biological essentialism and social constructionism she accuses feminist critics of, and makes a strong case for the coevolution and entanglement of soma and psyche.

The second half of the book, consisting of three chapters brought together under the title “Antidepressants,” builds on the theoretical framework of the first half, and reads against the trend of feminist skepticism toward pharmaceutical treatments of depression. Wilson decentralizes the central nervous system in the discussion of antidepressants and turns critical attention to the peripheral nervous system, specifically the gut, through a discussion of the chemical transference at play in the way antidepressants work in the body. Her discussion of antidepressants also engages with the phantastic nature of biology through readings of the adulteration of drug and placebo: she conceptualizes the placebo as parasitic to the antidepressant drug, and thus she counters the illusion of a possible purity in treatment with the assertion that treatment, be it with drugs or talking therapy, is always messy and potentially harmful. She takes on the difficult case of suicidal ideation in children and young adults to expand on the condensation of harm and cure, showing that we cannot assume that a subject—even a child—is harmless to begin with, and suggesting...


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pp. 260-254
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