Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Myra Hird (2003) 'From The Culture of Matter to the Matter of Culture: Feminist Explorations of Nature and Science'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 1, <>

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Received: 15/10/2002      Accepted: 26/2/2003      Published: 28/2/2003


'The body' has come to represent a key signifier both within, and beyond, cultural studies. Analyzing and challenging the underlying cultural assumptions of scientific discourses of nature have keenly involved feminist theory in the project of uncovering the culture of matter. The aim of this paper is to review the important insights feminists have brought to bear on the cultural constructions of materiality. I then go on to suggest that considering the matter of culture might be both interesting and useful for feminist theory, especially in opening up new sites of analysis of sexual difference. I explore four areas of materiality that might assist feminist analyses in this area: paradigm shifts, boundaries, technology and the evolution of sexual difference.

Bodies; Culture; Materiality; Nature; Science; Sexual Difference


How should explanations be possible when we turn everything into an image, our image! ( Nietzsche 1974: 172).

Feminist theory has been keenly involved in the project of uncovering, what I have come to term, the culture of matter.[1] One of the most powerful demonstrations of feminist culturing of matter is found within social constructionist theories of gender. Social constructionism focuses on the developmental and cultural aspects of identity formation and negotiation, figuring sexual difference as that which is compelled through discourse to 'be' sexual difference. Yet, critics of social constructionism articulate a shortcoming that is particularly relevant to the subject of this paper. The critique is that discussion of discourse and text erases the materiality of the doer – in other words, that the doer has a material body. In Bodies that Matter, Butler acknowledges:
it must be possible to concede and affirm an array of 'materialities' that pertain to the body, that which is signified by the domains of biology, anatomy, physiology, hormonal and chemical composition, illness, weight, metabolism, life and death. None of this can be denied (Butler 1993: 66).

The task then becomes 'how to think the seemingly persistent material differences of sex' (1993: 131). The revived focus on materiality creates, to my mind, a particular challenge. Most social theories invoke 'bodily materiality' with little knowledge of evolution, biology, anatomy or chemistry. This lack of knowledge about – to borrow from John Brockman and Katinka Matson (1996) – How Things Are, sets necessary limits on discussions of materiality, notwithstanding the most extreme deconstructive efforts.[2] That is, the invocation of materiality tends to be in the exclusive service of cultural analyses.

This paper presents a review of the diverse ways in which feminism has explored the cultural constructions of materiality. This review is necessarily partial: rather than provide a complete exegesis on the subject, my interest is in framing a general shift towards feminist exploration of materiality itself, an exploration alternatively termed 'neo-materialism' ( Braidotti 2000) or 'new-materialism' ( Sheridan 2002; Wilson 1998). I will argue that concepts such as 'the body', 'sex' and 'technology' are used within much feminist sexual difference theory as a metaphor for nature or materiality – that is, what stands outside of cultural bounds but must nevertheless be recognized. However, I will suggest that some feminist theories attempting to bring 'materiality' under scrutiny tend, in so doing, to repeat the cultural turn. I am not suggesting that analyses of the culture of matter are unimportant. What I do suggest is that considering the matter of culture might be both interesting and useful for feminist theory, especially in opening up new sites of analysis.

The Culture of Matter

Feminist focus on the culture of matter is prompted by the recognized need to critique theories of materiality that emerged within political, economic and social discourses during the eighteenth century (sociobiology for example), which began to use science as a key source of evidence for 'solutions to increasing questions about sexual and racial equality' ( Schiebinger 1993: 9). These discourses cohered around the institutionalization of sexual differences between female and male non-human and human animals. In response, feminist critique turned its gaze toward five main areas, producing comprehensive and detailed analyses of scientific reports.

The first area, often termed feminist science studies, largely concerns the place of women in science. A number of texts (Haraway 1989; Hubbard 1989; Keller 1983; Kohlstedt and Longino 1997; Mayberry, Subramaniam and Weasel 2001; Small 1984) have examined this topic, arguing that female scientists have had to particularly struggle against a 'masculine' discipline. Some analyses (Ainley 1990) survey statistical trends of female students and academics in various science disciplines. Other analyses are more interested in exploring the working and learning lives of women biologists (Keller 1983), primatologists (Haraway 1989), entomologists and astronomers ( Schiebinger 1989), mathematicians (Henrion 1997), physicists (Keller 1977; Wertheim 1995), and engineers (Meilwee and Robinson 1992). These diverse studies all emphasize how women affect, and are affected by, the culture of science.

Some of these latter works have gone on to argue that women have, historically, been marginalized from all processes of scientific endeavour, which, coupled with the supposedly different ways that women view and engage with the world, has prompted female scientists to approach scientific questions from a less mainstream and more creative perspective, challenging fundamental assumptions about issues such as objectivity and the 'natural' inferiority of women. For instance, Evelyn Fox Keller (1983) suggests that Barbara McClintock's Feeling for the Organism was prompted by her greater openness to alternative accounts of genetics, because she 'escaped some of the psychosocial indoctrination received by her male peers' (Hawkins 1998: 163). The argument that women approach nature and science questions from a fundamentally different perspective is particularly distilled in theories of science as social knowledge, and raises the question of the possibility of a distinct female epistemology of science (see Hankinson-Nelson and Nelson 1996; Hubbard 1989; Longino 1990; Schiebinger 1989; Stengers 1997, 2000). Again, these analyses emphasise the social, political and economic features of women in science, rather than the actual material objects that women in science study.[3]

Adopting many of the premises of 'feminine science', the third area of materiality that feminists have theorized is eco-feminism (for a useful summary see Soper 1995). Eco-feminism comprises a diverse range of approaches, both theoretical and practical, to the impact of human animals on living and non-living matter. Some of these theories utilize arguments for a distinct feminist epistemology, as the means by which women are better able to live within the world without destroying it. To my mind, one of the more positive aspects of eco-feminism is the 'recognition of nature in the "realist" sense…nature as matter, as physicality: that "nature" whose properties and causal processes are the object of the biological and natural sciences' (Soper 1995: 132). This conception of nature focuses on processes of living and non-living matter that are independent of human activity, a theme I will return to later in the paper.

A fourth area of feminist attention is the relation between nature, science and technology, with reproductive technologies and cybercultures topping the list of recent focus. Many feminist considerations of the future of sexual difference focus on the impact bio-technologies might have on conceptualizations of embodiment and materiality. Thus, a host of feminist contributions concentrate either on the supposed rent of maternal embodiment from women with cloning and other reproductive technologies (Murphy 1989; Overall 1989; Sawicki 1999; Spallone and Steinberg 1987; Weir 1998– see Donchin, 1989, for a useful review) and increasingly genetics (Franklin 1995, 2000), or the transformative possibilities which technologies, through cyborgean techno-bodies, potentially offers (Braidotti and Lykke 1996; Broadhurst Dixon and Cassidy 1998; Featherstone and Burrows 1995; Gray 1995; Haraway 1991; Jonson 1999; Plant 1997).

The final focus of feminist analyses of materiality is what interests me most here because it is this focus that, in my view, comes closest to exploring the matter of culture. These feminist critiques pivot on a re-interpretation of scientific 'facts' as cultural productions, or what Evelyn Fox Keller terms the 'social construction of science' (Keller 1989: 34). A range of studies critique the ways in which science works to create and maintain sexual difference. Since Simone deBeauvoir's classic work on biology (1949/1976), a number of studies have begun to argue that, prior to the eighteenth century, women and men were considered to share one morphological body ( Daston and Park 1998; Laqueur 1990; Oudshoorn 1994; Tuana 1989)[4]. More recently, Alan Peterson (1998) has analyzed shifts between 1858 and the present in medical representations of female and male skeletons in Gray's Anatomy. Peterson notes that increased emphasis on comparisons between the two skeletal structures concomitant with an emphasis on the superiority of the male body, serves to emphasize comparatively miniscule sex differences whilst minimizing much more obvious similarities. Similarly, Jennifer Harding (1996) and Nellie Oudshoorn (1994) argue that knowledge about sex hormones was constructed in such a way as to support both the assumption that sexual difference can be read from the body, and the cultural need to support sexual dimorphism.

Emily Martin (1991), Gerald and Heide Schatten (1983), Nancy Tuana (1989) and The Biology and Gender Study Group (1989) argue similarly that scientific analyses transpose cultural understandings of femininity and masculinity onto egg and sperm activity. Thus, irrespective of evidence to the contrary, ovulation is most often interpreted as passive compared to the activity of sperm production and movement. Martin notes that 'this amounts to the implanting of social imagery on representations of nature so as to lay a firm basis for re-importing exactly that same imagery as natural explanations of social phenomena' ( Martin 1991: 500). Barbara Marshall's similarly engaging work on the creation of sexual difference through medical notions of 'sexual dysfunction' makes for fascinating, if disturbing, reading (Marshall 2001).

The first two laws of thermodynamics and their allegorical use within science to structure sexual difference is the subject of Mary Ann Doane's creative analysis of cellular metabolism. Doane reveals that the first law of thermodynamics (in a closed system the total quantity of energy remains constant) is associated with female cellular metabolism as 'anabolic' – passive and conservative as the cost of reproduction (Doane 1997: 5). The second law of thermodynamics (as it transforms, usable energy ultimately dissipates – the law of entropy) is associated with male cellular metabolism such that masculinity is defined as 'katabolic' – active, energetic and passionate (1997: 5; see also Spanier 1995; The Biology and Gender Study Group 1989).

A number of feminists have critiqued scientific work on non-human animals and plants that also emphasises sexual difference. For instance, Londa Schiebinger (1993) charts how eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century European botanists attempted to find supporting evidence for the normative preference for heterosexuality, sexual reproduction and the theory of sex complementarity. The history of botany shows a remarkable insistence on the recreation of reassuringly familiar concepts such as sexual difference amongst plants (despite the fact that most flowers are intersex), marital bonds between plants (the term 'gamete' originates in the Greek gamein, 'to marry'), active male and passive female sexuality ('male' stamens were said to have visible orgasms as opposed to the 'female' pistils which showed little sexual excitement and modesty) and monogamy (even though plants reproduce through pollination which is transported via insects and air) (1993: 105). Turning from plants to animals, Schiebinger questions the classification of Mammalia (meaning 'of the breast') when only half of this group of animals have functioning mammae, and then only for a short period of time (1993: 41). Mammae were chosen above several other possible taxonomic markers to be symbolic of women's association with nature (and at a time when politicians were attempting to convince middle- class women to breastfeed their children rather than use working-class wet nurses) whereas Homo sapien was chosen to associate 'man' with 'reason' (for more critiques of the social construction of sex differences in animals see Fedigan 1986, Grosz 1995 and Merrick 1998).

In terms of human animals, my own work on intersex ( Hird 2000, 2001) adjoins others (Kessler 1998; Chase 1998; Dreger 1998; Fausto-Sterling 2000) in arguing that people with intersex conditions are the site of a number of moral panics in Western cultures, concerning sex diversity and homosexuality. Although 'nature' does not provide consistent evidence of sexual difference, and despite the prevalence of intersex conditions (approximately 1.7-2.0% of the population have intersex conditions, making sex diversity more common than Albinism, Down Syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis), the modern medico-psychiatric response to intersex operates a self-referential process of creating, reflecting and re-inscribing sexual dimorphism and heterosexuality onto the body.

Thus, to sum up, the major analytical thread which connects all of these diverse studies is that discussions of 'matter' are socially mediated. Each study raises important questions about the relationship between the cultural and the physical. However, these texts largely tend to open up science to the social, leaving the actual materiality of organic and non- organic matter intact. In other words, while feminism has cast light on social and cultural meanings of sexual difference, there seems to be a hesitation to delve into the actual physical processes through which differentiation and change take place. For this reason, I argue that whereas 'the body' is meant to be a metaphor for materiality, what is actually being analyzed is where materiality meets culture. Thus, I am concerned that 'the body' does not actually signify materiality in its own right, but in fact re- signifies culture.

Very significantly, there has been a momentous shift in the natural sciences within the past few decades to suggest that there is openness and play within the living and nonliving world, contesting previous paradigms which posited a changeable culture against a stable and inert nature. I suggest these transformations within the natural sciences might be of interest to feminist social scientists who increasingly find themselves (often through the trope of 'the body') grappling with issues involving life and matter.

The Matter of Culture

The challenge, as I see it, is to explore how feminist theory might open up the social to the material: to explore the matter of culture as it were. In the remainder of this paper I want to consider what this 'opening up' might look like by signposting four areas in which explorations of living and non-living matter might provide useful insights and new paths of analyses for feminist theory. These four areas include: paradigm shifts, boundaries, technology, and sexual difference.

Paradigm Shifts

Feminist theory might consider some of the paradigmatic changes taking place in the physical sciences that might significantly affect notions of sexual difference. For instance, the physical sciences are moving away from understandings of nature as a stable, monolithic and inert entity, towards a conception of nature as a complex open system subject to emergent properties. In such analyses, nature is far from inert; emergent hybridizations are not solely the product of human agency, but are indigenous to networking open systems.

One of the most important themes to emerge from these observations is the notion of 'organic chauvinism'. Manual DeLanda emphasizes that if nature has a 'point', it is the process itself, not the coagulation of nature (of which our bodies are a prime example):
In the eyes of many human beings, life appears to be a unique and special phenomenon…This view betrays an 'organic chauvinism' that leads us to underestimate the vitality of the processes of self-organization in other spheres of reality…In many respects the circulation is what matters, not the particular forms that it causes to emerge…Our organic bodies are…nothing but temporary coagulations in these flows: we capture in our bodies a certain portion of the flow at birth, then release it again when we die and micro-organisms transform us into a new batch of raw materials' ( Delanda 1997: 103-104).

New materialism emphasizes that if nature is to 'retain any meaning at all it must signify an uninhibited polyphenomenality of display' (Rabinow 1992: 249). Thus, science aims not to distil the vast variation found in nature to a simple, single explanation of 'reality', but rather to normalize these very differences (Ferguson, 1997).

Taking into account the idea that matter possesses its own 'immanent and intensive resources for the generation of form from within' (DeLanda 2000) might help us to think about materiality without the usual accompaniment of essentialism, where matter is understood as an inert container for outside forms. These observations of nature might aid feminist reflections on theories of gender 'complimentarity' such as the division of labour in society and the 'public/private' divide. Briefly, one of the reasons that I think feminists are increasingly engaging with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's work is because nature is not conceived under a 'juridical transcendent plane' (i.e. in need of translation and governance by humans) but as immanently self-organizing (Gatens 2000: 60). Deleuze and Guattari (2002) have developed a theory of the mattering of culture that, in refiguring matter as molecular, mobile and dynamic, challenges theories that figure bodies as solid inert objects as well as distinctions between human and non-human; and, living and non-living matter.

Karen Barad (2001) applies this paradigm shift within the natural sciences to tackle the traditional nature/culture dualism through an application of Bohr's atomic theory. Barad develops what she terms 'agential realism' to refer to (amongst other things) the ontology of scientific and other social practices, reality, matter, and the relationship between the material and the discursive in epistemic practices (230). Agential realism seeks to move beyond the traditional division between 'realism' and 'social constructivism'. Whereas in classical Newtonian physics there is an assumption that observations can be transparent (that a distinction can be made between observations and objects), Bohr argued this distinction to be impossible. Bohr defined a 'phenomenon' as the lack of inherent distinction between objects and their agencies of observation (231). This means that 'reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena, but things-in-phenomena' (235). This ontology does not suppose being as prior to signification (as in classical realism and some cultural feminist theory), but neither does it understand being as a product of language (as in some Derridean and cultural formulations). Rather, agential realism examines the ways in which nature and culture intra-act, as for example, how different disciplinary cultures (such as feminist theory) define what counts as 'nature' and what counts as 'culture' (240).


One of the key themes within the biological and evolutionary sciences is 'boundaries'. This term involves a number of issues, from the integrity of bodies as single organisms, the taxonomy of sexuality (homosexuality/heterosexuality), to the differentiation of humans from other primates, and indeed living and non-living matter in general.

For example, in the presciently named More than a Metaphor, Donna Haraway provides a superb example of how knowledge of biological diversity can inform key feminist debates about embodiment. Haraway describes Mixotricha paradoxa, a minute single-celled organism that lives in the gut of the South Australian termite. This tiny organism engenders key questions about the autonomy of identity (we tend to assume that single organisms are defined by the possession of nucleated cells), or as Haraway puts it 'the one and many' (Haraway 2001: 82). Mixotricha paradoxa lives in a necessary symbiotic relationship with five other organisms, none with cell nuclei but all with DNA. Some live in the folds of the cell membrane, whilst others live inside the cell, whilst simultaneously not being completely part of the cell. Haraway asks: 'is it one entity or is it six? But six isn't right either because there are about a million of the five non-nucleated entities for every one nucleated cell. There are multiple copies. So when does one decide to become two? And what counts as Mixotricha? Is it just the nucleated cell or is it the whole assemblage? (2001: 82). As we will see, these same questions might easily be asked of the human body. Advancing a similar argument, Joost Van Loon (2000) uses symbiosis theory to argue the parasite with the body as the ultimate 'Other', and invites a reconsideration of a politics of difference from inside the body (see also Rackham 2000).

Another 'boundary' concerns the distinction between humans and primates in the first instance, and living and non-living matter more generally. Commenting on Barbara Noske's work, Anne Scott notes that 'asking simple, well-evidenced questions' about the traditional species divide are vital to new approaches to materiality' (Scott 2001: 369). She asks 'why do social scientists tend to homogenize the members of non-human species?' (2001: 369). For instance, contemporary social constructionist theory owes much to George Mead's theory of symbolic interactionism. Mead (1934) distinguished humans from all other animals through our supposedly unique ability to recognize ourselves as objects. Yet, recent studies conclude that chimpanzees and orang-utans recognize themselves, and subordinate simians hide copulation from dominant males (Margulis and Sagan 1997). Language is another trait that human animals favour in distinguishing themselves are entirely unique and (usually) superior. However, all non-human animals communicate – indeed, the recent discovery of symbolic communication by honeybees 'upsets the very foundation of behavior, and biology in general' (Griffin in Margulis and Sagan 1995: 150). Feminists might want to consider whether the homogenization of non- human animals is an attempt to shift attention away from the fact that humans share ninety-eight percent of the same genes with chimpanzees; and if so, to what effect does such a taxonomy work? As Sarah Franklin notes 'trading organismic distinction for pan-species genetic information flow pulls the rug out from under the sex/gender system as we know it' (Franklin 1995: 69).

Which raises sexuality as another area within which a great deal of boundary work is done. Sharon Kinsman argues:
Because most of us are not familiar with the species, and with the diverse patterns of DNA mixing and reproduction they embody, our struggles to understand humans (and especially human dilemmas about 'sex', 'gender' and 'sexual orientation') are impoverished…Shouldn't a fish whose gonads can be first male, then female, help us to determine what constitutes 'male' and 'female'? Should an aphid fundatrix ('stem mother') inform our ideas about 'mother'? There on the rose bush, she neatly copies herself, depositing minuscule, sap-siphoning, genetically identical daughters. Aphids might lead us to ask not 'why do they clone?' but 'why don't we?' Shouldn't the long-term female homosexual pair bonding in certain species of gulls help define our views of successful parenting, and help [us] reflect on the intersection of social norms and biology? (Kinsman 2001: 197)

Against all analyses that use 'nature' to argue against sexual diversity, Bruce Bagemihl convincingly contends that 'natural systems are driven as much by abundance and excess as they are by limitation and practicality' (Bagemihl 1999: 215). Bagemihl presents a comprehensive catalogue of homosexual, transgender and non- reproductive heterosexual behaviour in animals that defy the traditional homosexual/heterosexual boundary. Describing Caillois's work, Grosz notes that 'the particular characteristics defining an insect species…are always in excess of their survival value. There is a certain structural, anatomical or behavioural superabundance' (280). Thus, gay parenting, lesbianism, homosexuality, sex-changing and other behaviours in animals are found, in abundance, in strong species or ecosystems (Bagemihl refers to this as the 'quiet revolution' in biological theory).


In debates within feminist theory about whether or not technology is helpful or a hindrance to women, it is worth bearing in mind that life itself is, and has always been, 'technological' in the very real sense that bacteria, protoctists and animals incorporate external structural materials into their bodies (Margulis and Sagan 1997). Approaches that insist technology is the creation and purview of human animals are simply naïve: 'we never invent anything that nature hasn't tried out millions of years earlier' (Clarke 2000: 333). Ants, termites and bees construct homes and cities that rival any human made structures, and they do it with a synchronicity, and without the destruction of the surrounding environment, that humans should envy. Birds, bats and bees showed humans that flying was possible; termites invented air conditioning to keep their cities cool in hot climates, and have practised agriculture for millions of years (termite cities continue to harvest fungus); fireflies and deep- sea fish created fluorescent lighting; bacteria invented rotary motion; squids jet-setted across the ocean long before airplanes did; some beetles mix reactive chemicals to create a violent rocket system; dolphins, whales, bats, electric eels and some fish created radar and sonar long before World War II; coral built hundreds of kilometres of tropical reefs and foraminifera and coccolithophorids created entire cliffs of chalk (Margulis and Sagan 1995); and all forms of living matter that reproduce meiotically perfected cloning millions of years ago (not to mention the cloning that goes on inside human bodies – the stomach lining, liver, skin and other tissues). Indeed, autopoiesis is the fundamental property of living matter.

As for the futuristic cyborg that combines living and non-living matter, how about some forms of bacteria that over 3,000 million years ago learned to incorporate metals such as iron and manganese as energy sources, and magnetite in order to have a built-in compass.[5] And if gene-splicing to create more socially desirable human beings is ever actualized, bacteria will have once again, by millions of years, beaten us to it by encouraging genes to cross species barriers, leading some to argue that bacteria have long ago out-classified themselves as a separate species. Current controversy over the use of animal cell and organ 'donation' (no one, as far as I know, has ever asked the pigs for their consent) is old hat for bacteria. The equivalent to this bacterial ability in human animals would be a man with red hair and freckles waking up, after a swim with his brunette boyfriend and dog, with brown hair, a tail and floppy ears (Margulis and Sagan 1997: 53). Much of human engineering, whether industrial or genetic, is borrowed, not invented: bacteria long ago cornered the market on 'trans', whether transduction or transfection (I eagerly await a feminist analysis of transsex that uses bacterial and animal transsex research). They even invented programmed death. And, at this point, it probably goes without saying that bacteria perfected nanotechnology by controlling molecules in ways that continue to elude scientists. We may certainly need to ask questions about the ethics of these technologies, but we should not pretend this to be a human-invented 'brave new world'; we are borrowing techniques developed millions of years before our human existence.[6]

The Evolution and 'Immutability' of Sexual Difference

If feminist social constructionists have, as Birke argues, favoured the 'malleable surface [assuming] an internally stable corporeality' (Birke 1999: 137) it may be worth delving, as I have argued elsewhere (Hird 2002), below the surface of the body to inform sexual difference debates. There are some major, often unstated, assumptions about the 'naturalness' of sexual difference in human and non-human animals. These assumptions include: 1) sexual reproduction is the most common form of reproduction on earth; 2) sexual reproduction has an evolutionary purpose; and 3) the human body itself is sexually differentiated. However, sexual reproduction is a statistical anomaly amongst species of living organisms on this planet. Evolutionary biologists have replaced the two-kingdom schema with five-kingdoms (bacteria, protoctists, fungi, animals and plants), but the major division is no longer between plants and animals, but between eukaryotes (cells with nuclei) and prokaryotes (cells without nuclei such as bacteria). Human beings evolved from the protist lineage that developed meiotic sex. Thus, during most of our evolutionary heritage, our ancestors reproduced without sex. Moreover, most of the organisms in four out of the five kingdoms do not require sex for reproduction. What would The Joy of Sex look like for plants, fungi and bacteria, I wonder? For instance, only a very few primitive fungi are two-sexed. Schizophyllum, on the other hand, has more than 28,000 sexes. And sex amongst these promiscuous mushrooms is literally a 'touch-and-go' event, leading Laidman to conclude that for fungi there are 'so many genders, so little time…' (2000: 1-2). Nor should we take sexual dimorphism in reproduction for granted. Male sea horses get pregnant. Male pipe fish get pregnant on the underside of their bellies. Many species are either, male and female simultaneously, or sequentially. Many types of fish change sex back and forth depending on environmental conditions (Rothblatt 1995: 26).

The second assumption is that sex must have some evolutionary purpose. But as Margulis and Sagan argue, sex may have no evolutionary purpose whatsoever; and it is certainly not the case that the 'purpose' of sex is reproduction (Margulis and Sagan 1986, 1991). It is increasingly clear that 'sexual difference does not in itself confer evolutionary advantage to the species in which it has developed' (Nye, 1999). Thus, rather than deliberate on how most living organisms are able to reproduce without sexual reproduction, scientists are more puzzled by those species which do engage in sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction consumes twice the energy and genes of asexual reproduction (Bagemihl 1999). A careful study of the evolution of sex has led Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan to conclude that 'males and females are different from each other not because sexual species are better equipped to handle the contingencies of a dynamically changing environment but because of a series of historical accidents that took place in and permitted the survival of ancestral protists' (1986: 3).

Finally, there is a persistent assumption that the human body itself is sexually differentiated. But only by taking our skin as a definitive impenetrable boundary are we able to see our bodies as discrete selves.[7] Our human bodies, like those of other animals, are more accurately 'built from a mass of interacting selves. A body's capacities are literally the result of what it incorporates; the self is not only corporeal but corporate' (Sagan 1992: 370). The cells in our bodies engage in constant, energetic reproduction. Oyama refers to this 'mobile exchange' of genetic, intra-and extra-cellular and environmental influences as a 'choreography of ontogeny' (in Jonson 1999: 51). In contrast to the minimal amount of specifically sexual reproduction that some human beings engage in, all humans engage in constant reproduction. Thus apart from the fusing of separate bodies, human beings engage in recombination (cutting and patching of DNA strands), merging (fertilization of cells), meiosis (cell division by halving chromosome number, for instance in making sperm and eggs) and mitosis (cell division with maintenance of cell number). Our cells also provide asylum for a variety of bacteria, viruses and countless genetic fragments. And none of this interaction requires any bodily contact with another human being.

Concluding Remarks

Feminist analyses of the culture of matter have long proven to be critical to social, political and economic debates, and clearly feminist theorists will continue to contribute to this important area of analysis. My aim in this paper has been to suggest these analyses might be pushed further by not only considering the social character of materiality but also how matter itself might impact on social and material relations. Put another way, if, as Elizabeth Wilson argues, feminist critiques of the culture of matter 'have fallen into old and familiar patterns [then one way this] ubiquitous gravitation to culture' (Wilson 1996: 50) might be averted is by studying the matter of culture.

It seems to me there are current and future debates within feminist theory that might productively engage with materiality, and I see in the general shift toward 'neo-materialism' a desire to formulate new questions for feminism. For instance, we may no longer be certain that it is nature that remains static and culture that evinces limitless malleability, and feminist theory may want to look at the ways in which we divide culture from matter on the assumption that matter is unchangeable (for instance, in formulations that accept the sex/gender binary). Indeed, this brief review argues that often cultural notions of boundaries (between self and others, between living and non-living matter, between human and non-human animals), technology (reproductive, sexually reproductive and so on) and sexual difference, lag behind the self-organising, polymorphous display of matter. As Sharon Kinsman (2001) contends feminist understandings of notions such as self, sex, gender and sexuality might well be aided by looking beyond humans to the variations displayed by the vast majority of species on this planet. For instance, my own exploration of living matter (2002) has led me to conclude that the term 'sexual difference' might well be culturally significant, but that it is largely nonsensical in terms of living matter. Whether we consider that almost all of the cells in an individual body (human or non- human) are intersex, or whether we consider the majority of reproduction on this planet (living and non-living) that does not require 'sex', it is difficult to continue to argue as though 'sex' is an inert and stable 'given'. These lines of investigation, at the very least, stand to shift the seemingly endless debate about the 'authenticity' of transsex embodiment.

Feminist theory might also, as Karen Barad (2001) has done, draw upon knowledge of non-living matter to contemplate the cultural division between 'nature' and 'culture'. Feminist theory has, for some time, critiqued any easy division between these two concepts. And we might continue to expand our horizon of study to non- living matter in order to, for instance, consider the ways in which matter and culture intra-act temporally that challenge the assumption that culture acts upon an already formed (and static) matter. And our explorations of technology might also continue to consider what is, or is not, 'natural'. Xenotransplantation and reproductive technologies might engender ethical questions for humans, but these are not the products of a brave new human made world. Living and non-living matter, independent of human activity, long ago developed these technologies.

Explorations of matter may also shift debates about embodiment. For instance, Haraway's Mixotricha paradoxa raises interesting questions for me. If we resist the temptation towards organic chauvinism and re-think embodiment in terms of temporary coagulations of being in symbiosis, how might we think about agency? Do we only grant agency to the 'totality' of the termite, or are 'each' of the symbiotic 'one and the many' agentic? Closer to home perhaps, should we limit the notion of agency to erase the multitudes of living and non-living matter beneath (and through) our skin, or might we expand the notion of embodiment to include this matter? Or, to use Joost Van Loon's concern, what does alterity look like from inside the body?

I am not suggesting what the outcome of these explorations will necessarily be. Modestly, we might predict that concepts such as sex, sexuality and bodies will be debated in different ways, and that cross-disciplinarity will extend to the 'natural' sciences.


1 I gratefully acknowledge the comments of the anonymous reviewers and the editors on an earlier draft of this paper.

2 A Derridean analysis might suggest that the culture-nature dichotomy is a precondition to the functioning of social constructionist arguments. Soper sees the debate as not arguing whether the distinction exists or not, but whether it is a distinction of kind or degree (Soper 1995: 41). I like the double-meaning of Frank Capra's remark 'we never speak about nature without at the same time speaking about ourselves' (Capra 1975: 77).

3 One trajectory of the female epistemology argument suggests that the scientific approach to nature is itself fundamentally masculinist, and is one of the primary techniques deployed in the material oppression of women. For some (Bleir, 1984; Harding, 1986, 1991) this requires the fostering of distinctly feminine approach to materiality. For instance, one of the strongest proponents of a feminine epistemology argues the case through the materiality of fluids. Irigaray (1985) argues that masculinist science tends to favor solid objects in its descriptions of the world because solid objects give the appearance of 'things in themselves'. Fluids (and presumably gases) deny the fixity of solid objects, and introduce 'things' as processes into the field of nature. As Olkowski describes, 'if solids fail to adequately account for fluidity as a physical reality, then there must be something physically real, and that 'thing' must be fluidity, which…is not a process but a thing' (Olkowski 2000: 78). Moreover, because fluids deny the characterization of substances or universals, they demonstrate a logic outside of the universalization of masculinist logic. For Irigaray, the potential of this alternate logic, non-logic as it were, is the potential of a feminine epistemology. Others (Stengers, 1997, 2000) reject any notion of a 'feminine science' and criticize the current feminist focus on the culture of matter as the predominant intervention into scientific enquiry (Wilson, 1996, 2000).

4 I thank Jack Veugelers for re-directing my attention to deBeauvoir's early work on biology.

5 Many minerals are produced in and by life, such as calcium carbonate, making the distinction between minerals and animals problematic (Margulis and Sagan, 1995: 29).

6 Our interpretation of these non-human technologies may depend upon the extent to which non-human living matter is accorded agency. Humans tend to think of agency as requiring intentionality born of subjectivity, but if we use Karen Barad's definition of 'agency as an enactment rather than something someone has' (Barad 1998: 112) we get a different picture. To deny all forms of non-human matter agency reminds me of Descartes's humanocentric claim that dogs do not suffer pain.

7 Lewis Thomas puts it more directly: from the point of view of the mitochrondria in our bodies (which occupy as much volume in themselves as the rest of us), we 'could be taken for a very large, motile colony of respiring bacteria, operating a complex system of nuclei, microtubules, and neurons for the pleasure and sustenance of their families, and running, at the moment, a typewriter' (Thomas 1974: 72).


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