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  • Mattering
  • Pheng Cheah (bio)
Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Any cursory survey of contemporary cultural-political theory and criticism will indicate that the related concepts of “nature” and “the given” are not highly valued terms. The reason for this disdain and even moral disapprobation of naturalistic accounts of human existence is supposed to be self-evident: simply put, in a post-Newtonian age, nature refers to the totality of objects governed by immutable causal laws. If human existence was merely natural or given, then we would never be able to alter the conditions that bring about human oppression. Antinaturalism in contemporary theory, however, betrays a deep fear in its repetitive tirades against the natural. For if it is so obviously precritical to treat human existence as given, then why does antinaturalism need to be articulated again and again? This obsessive pushing away of nature may well constitute an acknowledgement-in-disavowal that humans may be natural creatures after all. Furthermore, as a theoretical position, antinaturalism itself is produced by the polemical energy that strives to keep nature at bay, in quarantine from the sphere of human life. Consequently, antinaturalism works with a conventional philosophical definition of nature which it may do well to question. We may therefore be justified in claiming that, far from being tired superstitions that savvy discourse analysts and cultural constructionists can leave behind, the concepts of “nature” and “the given” are, in fact, neuralgic points, the contested sites around which any theory of political transformation is organized.

In its conventional usage, nature is opposed to a whole host of other terms: history, culture, law, production, and so forth. The slipperiness of nature, however, is seen in the fact that the relation between nature and its others defies characterization as a simple relation of exteriority between two ontologically distinct terms. For instance, the relation of nature to history can be posed not only in terms of the modification of nature by historical agency but also from within the realm of historical agency insofar as the constraints of structure or construction on transformative rational agency seem to replicate the limitations or weightiness of nature. Feminism is an exemplary site for rehearsing this fundamental questioning of the distinction between nature and its others because it must refute biologistic and naturalistic justifications for the oppression of women even as it must affirm women’s bodily specificity as the minimal consensual stuff which grounds feminist practice. As Zillah Eisenstein astutely observes in spite of her own intellectual allegiances, “if the body is already engendered in this way, how can we claim our bodies without reproducing the inequities of the gender-system? . . . [S]o we become involved in explicating patriarchal relations without knowing where patriarchy begins and ends in the definition of a woman’s or a mother’s body. What aspect of the body constitutes a woman’s potential capacities, and what part articulates her oppression?” [73, 75]. [End Page 108] Philosophically speaking, the giving of body or matter—what I propose to call “mattering”—may be the process where history and nature become uncannily indistinguishable in a manner that is both enabling and disabling for political transformation, its condition of (im)possibility.

Thus far, the productive unease in feminist theory occasioned by the body as the ambivalent ground of both oppression and emancipatory transformation has resulted in debates over the sex/gender distinction and the question of essentialism/antiessentialism. 1 Discussion has, however, primarily centered on the strategic deployment of the body as a political resource. Two recent books—Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies—stand out because they promise to raise discussion to a level where political issues concerning the body can be reevaluated through a rigorous rethinking of the relation between nature and its others: culture, history, and society. The authors of these books share the distinctive aim of articulating a feminist theory that is centered on a philosophical exploration of the status of the body. Both Grosz and Butler are trained in Continental philosophy, where the secondary status of...