To the Dogs: Companion speciesism and the new feminist materialism

By Manuela Rossini , Kritikos V.3 September 2006.

Introduction: Matter Matters


Feminist productions in the fields of literary, cultural and social studies are almost exclusively – though for good reasons – informed by a radical constructivism. Drawing on discourse analysis and semiotics, such work relies predominantly on gender as a category of analysis in order to examine the social, cultural and psychic construction of subjectivity, while neglecting questions of biological sex. The general refusal of scholars from those disciplines to engage with the materiality of bodies, with their physiological, biochemical or microbiological details, forms and formations, is indicative of an anti-essentialist stance which is very understandable from a historico-political perspective: When politicians and scientists have for centuries recurred to “natural” (because biological) differences to explain and legitimate social discrimination, oppression and inequality between the sexes and between human beings of different classes and ethnicities, it was more than necessary to counter, if not downright deny, biologistic argumentations. Meanwhile, however, the hostile attitude towards the natural sciences and empirical research has “naturalised” itself and the socio-cultural framing of bodies and gender has simply become the counterpart of the ideology known as biological reductionism, insofar as influences of the environment and society as well as individual technologies of the self count as the determining factors now that, in their turn, can be acted upon by the feminist subject.

            As a consequence of this disciplinary division of labour, scientific debates between and within different academic fields remain trapped in the dead-end street of the dualisms nature/culture, essentialism/constructivism, materiality/discourse and sex/gender. Judith Butler’s attempt (in Gender Trouble and even more so in Bodies that Matter) to dissolve the sex/gender dichotomy by negating the preceding materiality of gender or, conversely, by postulating sex as a discursive and performative construct, is not particularly fruitful for transdisciplinary models of explanations and research questions beyond the nature/culture or nature/nurture divide.[1] I am not arguing for the abandonment of the (de)constructivist method in gender studies – on the contrary: as I will argue in more detail later, I would like to foster a much broader and literally deeper understanding of the constructedness of bodies as “material”. This understanding would result in an approach that balances the overemphasis of discursive analyses not only by including aspects of bodily (self-)experience, how bodies are present in space and time, and the social practices of the corporeal, but also brings in the weight of biological dimensions in the construction of subjectivities – without, however, reinforcing naturalist-essentialist assumptions. If this engagement with corporeal material(ities) fails to take place in gender studies, then, as feminists from various research cultures have emphasised for over a decade now, feminism runs the danger of playing into the hands of a regressive politics. According to Elizabeth Wilson, whom I quote here as a representative of a growing number of proponents of a new materialist feminism, feminist scholars should give up this anti-biologistic and broadly anti-technoscientific stance precisely in order to keep feminist theory progressive and differentiated:

if our critical habits and procedures can be redirected so that biology and neurology are not the natural enemies of politics – that is, if we defer gender theory from the start – then we will find a greater critical productivity in biology than theories of gender would lead us to believe.


With her call Wilson aims above all to encourage feminists to trace the critical potential for challenging and deconstructing the taken-for-granted stability of material structures and the unchangeability of what is presumably given within the natural sciences. Her book Neural Geographies thus presents an invitation to feminists „to envisage the possibility that neurology may already enact and disseminate the malleability, politics, and difference that they ascribe only to nonneurological forces”.[3] With the help of new research findings in the natural sciences, Wilson counters the orthodox view that nature/sex is unchangeable and that, hence, an intervention in those areas of research is futile for a feminist politics of social transformation; the true target for feminist resistance, so the accompanying story goes, is via counter discourses, alternative images and narratives on the level of culture/gender – even though it is obvious how stubbornly stereotypical hetero- (and homo-)normative representations of gender and gender roles persist in the media, in the arts, in literature and, last but not least, in daily life. Thus, instead of wasting feminist energies in debates that revolve around the question whether either sexual difference explains why girls cannot think abstractly and therefore do not choose to study for a degree in mathematics, for example, or whether this choice is not ultimately determined by traditional patterns in education, we should rather begin to think differently about nature, biology, the body and materiality. Wilson’s term gut feminism[4] for these alternative approaches joins a growing number of studies that I consider as examples of a new feminist materialism or “neo-materialism”. This latter term is used by Rosi Braidotti for her Deleuze-influenced nomadic philosophy in which radical immanence figures as a central concept: “a deeply embedded vision of the embodied subject. … it compasses the body at all levels, also, and especially, the biological body”.[5]

            One of the pioneers of a new materialist-feminist direction in gender studies, molecular biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, has convincingly shown that with regard to the construction of sexuality, categories of difference do not only inscribe themselves on the surface of bodies, but go literally beneath the skin: “events outside the body become incorporated into our very flesh.”[6]  At every moment of one’s lifespan, socioculturally-shaped behavioural patterns as well as reactions of the neural system to external signals affect one’s muscles, bones, nerves and even the architecture of one’s cells. In other words, cells are in a never-ending process of (re)formation and enter into material relations with their internal environment (affecting the very inside of a system/body) as well as its external environment or outside (influencing cultural practices, norms and values of a society).  Given these dynamic processes, it does not make sense any longer – if ever it really made – to oppose nature to culture as contenders in shaping bodies and subjectivities. Rather, as Fausto-Sterling proposes, we should talk of a “biocultural systems in which cells and culture construct each other”.[7] Already the choice of the word system implicitly signals a shift in paradigm from a reductionist towards a system-oriented thinking that can be observed for quite some time already within biology. As I hope to show later with recourse to so-called Developmental Systems Theory, to adopt the central premises of a systems approach would also be fruitful for feminist gender studies and cultural analysis more broadly as well as for the forging of truly interdisciplinary or, rather, transdisciplinary research projects.

            Systems theory, as well as feminist neo-materialism, introduce concepts and topics into gender and cultural studies that do not, at first sight, have anything to do with the human species nor directly touch upon gender or the woman question but could enrich feminist theorising and sharpen the argumentation of all emancipatory movements. Among such seemingly inappropriate themes I clearly favour the “animal question” (in analogy to and critique of Heidegger’s focus of the question of being as the question of technology) which I consider as having the greatest theoretical as well as political potential of fundamentally redirecting the humanities and which, for this very reason, is placed at the centre of the present essay.

            More concretely, this essay follows the imperative to engage concepts and theories from the life sciences in order to revise dominant posthumanist paradigms. I find – and this might seem slightly provocative, even though I certainly do not want to put poststructuralist feminism and certain tendencies of posthumanist theory on the same qualitative and political footing – that a feminism that focuses almost exclusively on the sociocultural construction of gender and gender roles similarly impoverished as a posthumanism that can only imagine the hybridity of human existence in the figure of the cyborg and endeavours to separate the material body from the immaterial mind to gain heroic invulnerability, perfection and immortality. After my critique of what is currently referred to as “cybernetic” or “popular” posthumanism, I will present the anti-speciesist approaches literary critic Cary Wolfe has developed in line with Jacques Derrida’s thinking of the animal as well as briefly introduce the new manifesto of biologist and historian of science Donna Haraway. I conclude with a modest proposal directed mainly at scholars from the humanities to give up their largely anthropocentric stance and participate in the building of the posthumanities by drawing on yet another paradigm shift that currently marks a number of fields; i.e., the shift from questions of being to questions of becoming.

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