- Queering Conventional Biologism
Elizabeth A. Wilson
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. x + 240 pp.
One of the most provocative and talked-about new books in feminist theory, Gut Feminism is as imaginative as it is polemical. Wilson nuances her intervention here in productive ways. She positions herself at the outset as critic of both "anti-biologism" in feminism and of the enthusiasm that characterizes much of what constitutes the "turn to neuroscience" in the humanities and social sciences. Both problems lie in the pervasiveness of what Wilson calls "conventional biologism": a view of biology as flat and deterministic — as "juridical" (34) or "magisterial" (35). Feminists have been too quick to accept this version of the biological and have therefore been at least uncurious about biology, if (or when) not fervently resistant to considering it a proper object of feminist thought. Conversely, in a wholesale reclamation of what the "softer" disciplines have cast off, many in the humanities and social sciences have embraced this same biology. Being "for or against" thinking with or about biology where biology is understood thusly gets us nowhere. Recognizing the inevitability of the book's entanglements with/in an antibiology/probiology debate, Wilson focuses on reframing feminism as more aggressive and bilious than we like to imagine and biology as messier and more feminist than we have been led to believe. Her case studies queer biology by decentering the [End Page 440] juridical brain and reassigning to the gut those powerful properties of mind that have preserved the brain's status as the control tower for human life and thus the important site of biological knowledge. In so doing, they aid her in unsettling some cherished feminist assumptions about both biology and politics. Among these is the notion that we can disentangle positive effect from negative side effect, and in the comfort of such clarity "turn to the good," disclaiming aggression. Aggression thus emerges as a central analytic, importantly undertheorized as part of both "the depressive scene" and feminist politics: "What are the hostilities, aggressions, and animosities that make feminist politics possible? Might we begin to think of aggression not simply as the harmful action of others, but as the necessary condition for every feminist engagement?" Wilson asks (67). Alongside the call to rethink what we know about biology stands a challenge to rethink our investments in a vision of politics as potentially or ideally nonaggressive. I suspect many readers will long for this call to be situated more carefully within a larger feminist conversation about hostility and politics. The relationship of Wilson's aggression to Audre Lorde's "Uses of Anger" and Sara Ahmed's Feminist Killjoy, and its implications for them, will, for example, be of interest to many.
Despite this call for a radical rethinking of feminist politics, Wilson's approach bends if not exactly "to the good," then at least to a familiar feminist ethic of troublemaking: "If feminism is to continue to make trouble," she says, "it will need to form intimate and unruly alliances with biological data" (35). It is the intimacy and unruliness of Wilson's alliances that I would like to draw attention to in this brief review.
The intimacy of Wilson's engagement, and the engagement she wants to provoke, might be described as part of a tradition of shameless feminist curiosity about bodies and refusal to accept inherited body-narratives, even feminist ones, at face value. It is thus more than an intimacy with scientific disciplinary methods, but also a bold, sometimes uncomfortably visceral invitation to explore those constitutive silences surrounding embodied experiences of depression, eating disorders, and the like.
Gut Feminism, in its specificities, calls us to rethink our mental health narratives, and more generally, it compels us to consider the physical/metaphorical gut as powerful in shaping experience and as an important site of body knowledge. Wilson's skillful treatment of the data on the effects and side effects of SSRIs through the minded gut, for example, upends narratives of suicidal adolescent girls as acting out (social) or as damaged by drug side effects (biological). The by-now deeply entrenched understanding of suicidality as a side effect of...