- Gut Feminism by Elizabeth A. Wilson
Over a decade ago, Karen Barad challenged feminist and queer theorists to give a precise account of how discourse materializes in and as bodies. Recognizing that many of the most important theories of sex and gender at that time took the flesh as the result of iterative performative enactments, she asked what we might be able to say about the nature of the flesh such that it is open to the shaping effect of discourse. "If performativity is linked not only to the formation of the subject but also to the production of the matter of bodies," as she put it, "then it is all the more important that we understand the nature of this production" (2003, 808). Elizabeth A. Wilson's recently published monograph Gut Feminism contributes to the growing literature in feminist new materialism that takes up this task. As in Barad's own major contribution, Meeting the Universe Halfway (whose influence can be felt throughout Gut Feminism), Wilson does not seek to supplant language, culture, history, or representation with their material opposites, but rather to consider the nature of their entanglements. Matter and meaning, discourse and embodiment, epistemology and ontology: the great achievements of the last decade of feminist new materialism have been to demonstrate (in concrete and historically situated terms) that the actual is the result of the elicitation of the virtual and that such elicitation happens all the time and everywhere. Culture, technics, embodiment, language, psychology, history, and many other things as well coincide in the labor of meaning-mattering.
Wilson's Gut Feminism operates within this broad and transdisciplinary endeavor, contributing her specific region—the enteric nervous system or what she calls "the thinking gut" (5)—to the archive of feminist analyses that also includes, for example, Myra Hird's work on symbiogenesis, Annamarie Jagose's sweeping consideration of orgasm, and Sarah Franklin's pinwheel mosaic of technologies of kinship in the age of IVF1. These and other examples of feminist and queer inquiries into science and technology studies situate Wilson's work in the field. Her skilled and persuasive analyses of depression, psychopharmacology, bulimia, metabolism, and non-Oedipal psychologies annexes important territory. Both the belly (subject of so much popular advice aimed at women) and the brain (and the reifying popular scientific discourses that have grown up around it) are important terrains for this sort of feminist exploration. Gut Feminism does more than this, however. It also takes feminism to task for its persistent rejection of science and its misrecognition of aggression. The book's structure expresses this split concern. The first part, roughly half the book, is devoted to "feminist theory," while the second centers on psychopharmacology. I find this division a bit misleading. As I have been noting, contemporary feminist theory really does not suffer from a pervasive, kneejerk antibiologism. It [End Page 236] does, however, tend to overvalue positive affects like joy and practices like care. For me, then, the really fascinating commitment of Wilson's book, and the one that threads together both sections, is her engagement with and performance of feminist rage.
That engagement is present from the Introduction, "Depression, Biology, Aggression," in which Wilson lists her book's two main tasks as rebuking feminist antibiologism and reasserting feminist hostility, a mood and mode that she suggests might be "intrinsic to our politics" (1). It closes the book too. Reading Lee Edelman reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on reparative reading, Wilson argues that attempts to cordon reparation from paranoia will trigger the same phobic boundary-drawing that attends any dichotomy. "The issue is not that there should be no amelioration," she writes; "it is that amelioration will always inflict some harm" (178). Indeed, the book's last sentence figures the "conventional ambitions for amelioration or reparation" as antagonists that might one day "lie gutted" at our feet (179). The close association of guts and the nervous system with emotional states—anxiety ("nerves"), courage ("guts"), sadness ("gutted")—here takes its most violent verbal form. It might just be...