- Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity by Banu Subramaniam
In Ghost Stories for Darwin (2014), Banu Subramaniam invites us to explore critical challenges that lie at the heart of current work in feminist science and technology studies (STS). As she visits ghosts brought forward through the figurations of morning glories, Darwin, eugenics, evolutionary biology, and invasive plants, she raises the crucial question of how to engage and think with the world through what Donna Haraway has named naturecultures (2003). More specifically, Subramaniam poses the productive question: “How does one study a naturecultural world” (6)? In this collaborative review of Ghost Stories, we highlight what we see as five key gestures devised by Subramaniam that can serve as tools to address this difficult question. By thinking about “how” to think about naturecultures, we are encouraged to make connections between feminist theory and practice, and to carry these reflections with us into our everyday, multispecies entanglements.
The first gesture requires the feminist researcher to reframe the aspirations of her research. Subramaniam states, “[T]he goal is to develop an experimental practice and method that does not overdetermine or prefigure its conclusions” (4; italics in original). In other words, while experimenting, we must let the process and knowledge unfold on their own terms. For instance, in her chapter “Singing the Morning Glory Blues,” Subramaniam explores the potential of fiction for “undoing [her] disciplining,” allowing her to create a space for play between the sciences and the humanities (71). In writing this fiction, Subramaniam takes scientific experimentation beyond the lab, thus creating “an experiment about experimenting” (126). She expands the purview of the experiment to include the form of academic writing, the form and purpose of the university, even the formation of the academic. In so doing, Subramaniam plays with a kind of story-modeling that allows a more three-dimensional presentation of ideas, such as interdisciplinary collaboration in academic research, women’s leadership in science, shifting emphasis from individual mastery to communal mastery, and the influence of time and place upon knowledge practices. The world of Subramaniam’s fictional science not only offers a vision of a possible culture, but also communicates the particular texture of this culture: the Thirumbaram Three are described as laughing, curious, and attentive to beauty, physically engaged—thigmatropic even—with trees, wind, and morning glory plants as well as with the humans in their community. They describe their work in terms of passion, excitement, fun, and sharing. Through the incorporation of landscape, character, dialogue, and the passage of time, fiction allows for [End Page 182] a thicker communication of Subramaniam’s vision of a different kind of academic world—a world with a felt sense of intimacy with one’s research, one’s collaborators, and one’s context.
The second key gesture involves creating a naturecultural vision of responsible and ethical living with our cohabitants. Subramaniam emphasizes that this vision must always be politically astute and reflexive of the complex histories of gender, race, class, sexuality, and nation that have shaped our idea of nature and the natural. In this text, three figures represent Subramaniam’s vision for the naturecultural practice of ethical cohabitation: ghosts, morning glories, and aliens. In her reading of the ghosts that circle around the work of contemporary science, of the languages in which aliens are invoked, and in her return to her own research on variation in morning glories, she shows us how the nature-cultural vision can be ever-unfolding, unceasing, and transformative. This also suggests that we unknowingly are constantly battling ghosts and aliens, which continue to structure our work in spite of and from within our academic and political work. Turning to Haraway once again, the responsibility that Subramaniam invokes may be more about becoming response-able, or being able-to-respond to the ghosts that usually go unseen...