Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Review of Gut Feminism

By Katie Givens Kime

Katie Givens Kime is a doctoral student at Emory University in the Graduate Division of Religion, as well as the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, and the Psychoanalytic Studies Program. Her dissertation investigates the role of religious conceptions in addiction recovery methods.

As neuroscience has expanded in capacity, resources, and public attention, many in the social sciences and humanities have been loudly critical: “Reductionism! Neurobiological chauvinism!” The essence of such critique is that the objectivity championed by the sciences masks all sorts of hidden biases, unconscious agendas, political motivations and economic purposes. Many historians and philosophers of science have argued that even choosing the object of scientific study and communicating observations inevitably involves language, point-of-view, and value prioritization. This means the nature of scientific knowledge, to an important degree, is unavoidably sociocultural [1].

Feminist theory has leaned more heavily upon this critique than other social sciences, for reasons at the roots of feminist movements. Essentialist claims about the “biology” and “nature” of women’s bodies have historically justified all manner of public policy, cultural conventions, and medical care models that violate and oppress women and other historically vulnerable populations, from the right to vote to equal pay. Thus, when it comes to the engagement of neurobiological data of most any sort, feminist theory is a realm of scholarship where deep suspicion has reigned. Projects revealing the sexism, racism, and classism embedded in the structures of supposedly objective scientific inquiry have been crucial for the success of various waves and stages of feminist liberation movements.

Image courtesy of Duke University Press
Thus, Elizabeth A. Wilson’s recently published monograph, Gut Feminism (2015), is as timely as it is persuasive. Wilson begins by charting how antibiologism is detrimentally “laced into feminist theory” (93).  “In the last thirty years, feminists have produced pioneering theories of the body...how bodies vary across different cultural contexts and historical periods, how structures of gender and sexuality and race constitute bodies in very different ways,” but when it comes to reading biological data, feminist theory lacks “a conceptual toolkit”(3). While gesturing to the understandable anxieties about “biology’s power to determine form and control politics,” (27) Wilson proposes that “...the antibiologism on which feminism cut its teeth has now become politically and intellectually restrictive” (26).   Wilson applauds the recent swell of feminist science studies contributions, but cautions against simply trading battle for betrothal, critique for exuberance, and “rejection of” for “belief in” – because to change from neuro-skeptic to neuro-enthusiast is merely “the coin of antibiologism flipped verso” (5).

Wilson, currently Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, is not the first to propose a solution to the supposedly hygienic separation between sociocultural webs and neurobiological architecture, nor does she pretend to be. She cites the excellent overview by Fitzgerald and Callard (2015) of such proposed solutions by critical humanities scholars: that we (social scientists) subject the new brain sciences to a refined sociocritique, or demand their political reform, or welcome them into cultural theory, or use them to upset our taken-for-granted assumptions, or embed them in our accounts of the political, or locate them within a much thicker braid of social and political torsion. The list of such proposals is long and tangled [2].

Wilson situates herself in this sprawling debate via several case studies, such as the role of the gut as an organ of the mind that “ruminates, deliberates, comprehends” (5) beyond merely contributing to minded states. To her intended audience (colleagues investigating neuroscientific-humanities bridges, and scholars in feminist theory and gender studies), she offers compelling possibilities for how biological data might serve and transform the field, and visa versa.

In freshly querying biological data by “tracking the psychic character of the organic interior,” Wilson presents the “belly” as “just the right kind of container for such endeavors” (43).  The stomach is one of the human body’s most malleable organs – it is so easily modified, that it is hard to describe a typically shaped and positioned stomach.
The belly takes shape both from what has been ingested (from the world), from its internal neighbors (liver, diaphragm, intestines, kidney), and from bodily posture. This is an organ uniquely positioned, anatomically, to contain what is worldly, what is idiosyncratic, and what is visceral, and to show how such divisions are always being broken down, remade, metabolized, circulated, intensified, and excreted. (43-44).
Position of the stomach within the
body, courtesy of Wikipedia
Such a proposition might strike those from a natural science perspective as being overly symbolic and interpretive. If this is true, Wilson also engages many recent and robust neuroscientific and psycho-pharmaceutical findings about the gut as an organ of the mind, like the findings of a 2015 study from the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at the University of Cork, which suggests certain kinds of gut bacteria (“psychobacteria”) regulate the neurotransmitter GABA via the vagus nerve (which connects the gut and the brain) (169) and thus regulate our mood. Wilson’s project, arguably distinguishing her from many “neuro-enthusiast” humanities scholars, is not to recruit neuroscientific data to finally “settle” our most outstanding philosophical problems, like what counts as unconscious, or narrative, or what explains economic behavior, or mental distress. (171) Rather, Wilson boldly pulls from an incredibly vast spectrum of concepts, deliberately entangling opposing explanations for problems that reveal the co-implication of psyche and soma.

One of many examples is Wilson’s unfolding of what might be learned from chronic bulimia, which is notoriously difficult to treat. In chronic bulimia, the ability to vomit food without any gag or hack prompt -- seemingly, to “will” the food back up – is a common development, often attributed to a reconditioning of the gag reflex. Wilson fluidly opens a wide array of questions:
Is the gag reflex a simple mechanical action distinct from psychic or deliberative impetus? Does its disconnection from higher cortical centers (and so from conscious cognitive processing) render it a nonpsychological event? What is conditioning, anyway? It seems to me that the gag reflex, this seemingly rudimentary biological action, is a very useful place from which to start thinking about the organic character of disordered eating (60-61).
Wilson suggests that the altering of digestive organs in chronic bulimia, held alongside the striking findings about the “mindedness” of the gut, might offer clues as to why episodes of bingeing and vomiting, now compulsive, fail to seem connected to events in the patient’s internal or external world. “The vicissitudes of ingestion and vomiting are complex thinking enacted organically: bingeing and purging are the substrata themselves attempting to question, solve, control, calculate, protect, and destroy” (63).  No wonder, Wilson notes, with “distress, anger, need, depression, comfort, and attachment” now becoming primarily organic, the capacity for those suffering with chronic bulimia to respond to cognitive behaviorally oriented therapy is so often less successful. And what might we make of how highly effective antidepressants seem to be for such patients, and the failure of agreement in the literature about “how the relationship between mood and bingeing” should be understood?

As elsewhere, Wilson suggests we explore etiologies beyond the conventional and flat biological economy, which is usually sequenced as “depression then bingeing; satiety or mood; brain not gut” (64).  As elsewhere, Wilson insists she is not proposing that organs, or psyche and soma, are indistinguishable. “Rather, I am claiming that there is no originary demarcation between these entities; they are always already coevolved and coentangled” (66).

So flows the bold and fluid assertions and explorations of Wilson’s Gut Feminism. Perhaps the pragmatic potential for this work can be illustrated by the case study Wilson cites of a woman suffering from depression, who picks up her prescription for a popular antidepressant. Instead of a bottle of capsules, she finds the pills packaged in flat metallic wrapping, individually separated.
“Each pill is in total solitude,” she said, “like metal shells looking out at each other. They are all in individual prisons”...her next thought was to swallow the pills together. When I asked her why, she said, “so they don’t feel so lonely and claustrophobic” (21).
The gut is a minded organ, image courtesy of YouTube
To bluntly (and surely inadequately) sum up Wilson’s project through the lens of this case: if how we think about things impacts our bodily state, and if the gut is a minded organ, and if the pharmaceutical agent produces particular biochemical results, and if the woman (like every human) is a mind-body co-implicated by both nature and culture, then surely feminist theory and neurobiology have contributions for one another. But more than transactional “conversations,” or pretending a flat and fair “interdisciplinary” field can be created, the sociocultural and the neurobiological come together messily, and Wilson notes, “each is a little undone in the encounter.” One might also add: each is encouraged to expand the imagined value of the other.

[1]: See Papineau, also http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/point-of-view-affects-how-science-is-done/, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/science-theory-observation/

[2]: See Fitzgerald and Callard for a compelling, fresh proposal of how the conception of empirical experiments might be generatively “entangled.”


Fitzgerald, D., & Callard, F. (2015). Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements. Theory, Culture & Society, 32(1), 3–32. http://doi.org/10.1177/0263276414537319

Papineau, D. (2005). Problems with the philosophy of science. In T. Honderich (Ed.), The Oxford companion to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, E. A. (2015). Gut feminism. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

Want to cite this post?

Kime, K.G. (2016). "A Review of Gut Feminism." The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/04/a-review-of-gut-feminism.html

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