Books

Stomachaches

Where is the gut? A corporeal and metaphorical space, our gut is the suggestion of invisible viscera, our most sensitive internal self— soft and vulnerable, near the surface, and barely covered by muscle and skin. The gut is where the outside world comes in, and where the inside threatens to come out. Spill your guts. Gut idioms range from fortitude and courage (that takes guts, do you have the guts?), to instinct (trust your gut, gut feelings), to representing our essential selves (I hate your guts).

In studying human microbiomes, I have seen guts when the in becomes the out: mice sacrificed and dissected, blood and epithelium exposed to oxygen, tiny stomachs split and scraped. I have seen human guts in pain: a confluence of urban poverty and diarrheal disease so severe the body can’t stay nourished. I have seen what guts produce: bacterial genomes sequenced from human feces for clues about the intestinal landscape. A human microbial ecologist once said to me, “With human samples, feces is all you have. You have to make a story from that.” When you deal in guts, shit is inexorable.

And so, Gut Feminism puts the reader in the middle of it, so to speak. Elizabeth Wilson makes the gut a nexus, a place where feminism, biology, and aggression are necessary, uncomfortable interlocutors. In previous work, Wilson has lamented the traction feminist theories of the body and embodiment have lost by eschewing biological data. In this book, she has a clearer argument: that a better, more generous engagement with biology will reanimate and transform the foundations of feminist theory, “This book is less interested in what feminist theory might be able to say about biology than in what biology might be able to do for—do to—feminism” (2).[1] And indeed, the call for feminist theorists to finally develop a conceptual toolkit in which we can take biomedical data seriously but not literally (12), is a timely one. Many have written about disarticulating biology and culture, and recently about rematerializing matter. But so far, difficulties remain in getting different disciplinary knowledges or different data to actually transact, what Wilson describes at one point as “a way of articulating those nonlinearities with each other . . . realms both align and dissociate, how they are antagonistically attached” (106), bringing to mind Strathern, Mol, and Barad.

And Wilson doesn’t totally solve this problem. She works through an analysis of the pharmacokinetics of antidepressants and placebos, suicidal ideation and bulimia—taking the gut as a site of metabolization and politics. Starting with the premise that the gut is an organ of the mind (is always minded), Wilson uses new theories of biopsychiatry to try to productively process pharmaceutical data. Not to critically deconstruct it, but use it. She explores the organic interior of the gut and its psychic nature (23), rejecting the notion that stomach and mood were never not coentangled, that psyche and soma were ever not coevolved. How pills, synapses, gag reflexes, and depression transform and interact in the gut is contingent on emotion and environment.

Yet Wilson’s most powerful provocation is not in offering solutions, but in recognizing just how crucial it is that we start trying to figure out “pathways by which biological data can become critically mobile” (175). This is compelling and brave. She warns from the outset that some will find Gut Feminism “politically erroneous, dangerous, or compromised” (4), which I have no doubt some do. Just as the terrain of the gut is a lightless, airless mystery, so is how to alter the DNA of feminist theory, within which a rejection of biology is already deeply programmed (30). She urges us to escape these traps, to move past a consideration of biology as both irrelevantly peripheral and politically threatening.

As with the body’s nervous system in Wilson’s analysis, maybe the center is not where we thought it was. Her book is a starting place, an incitement to do better with the data of other disciplines, data that has a transformative potential for feminist thinking. The gut absorbs, metabolizes, and excretes; it also ruminates, deliberates, and comprehends.

 

Amber Benezra is a sociocultural anthropologist developing an “anthropology of microbes” to explore how the biological and social sciences might jointly engage pressing global health problems. She researches the bio/social imperatives emerging from human gut microbiome research in the United States and Bangladesh, and is a visiting scholar at NYU.

[1] The book has a secondary consideration, concerning rhetorics of hostility, bile, aggression, and an assertion that feminist politics must learn to tolerate its own capacity for harm (6). This matter does not feel like it is located in the gut, it seems perhaps to be located in the appendix, a distal but related site that may have some valuable purchase that is not yet apparent.


2 Responses to Stomachaches

  1. Pingback: Book Forum–Elizabeth A. Wilson’s Gut Feminism by Alexandra Sarkozy | Bioethics Research Library

  2. Pingback: Somatosphere in 2017 | Somatosphere

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