Comment on Gut Feminism

Mid-way through the introduction to Gut Feminism, Elizabeth Wilson pauses to think about the literature on abdominal migraine, and the variously psychogenic and biochemical properties that have been thought to animate that experience. Against a clinical literature that insists on understanding abdominal migraine (an acute midline stomach pain, most common in children) as a cerebral migraine pushed to the periphery of the nervous system, Wilson asks: what if abdominal migraine was not the site of an (as yet) unresolved relationship between centre and periphery, or body and mind? What if it was a sign of the sometimes painful ways in which these agencies inhabit one another? ‘The periphery is interior to the centre,’ she reminds us: ‘the stomach is interior to mind’ (14).

Interiority is as good a place as any to centre the stakes of this profoundly enlivening text. What agencies, deeply interior to feminist theoretical and political work, have been made peripheral in the desire for conceptual purchase? Biology, for sure; aggression too. What would it mean, then, to re-situate conceptual labour vis-à-vis the interiority of anatomy and hostility, not in the deadening spirit of rapprochement, but as material and affective states that can, might – have to be – suffered? Could we bear them? What would it be like to try? In pursuit of the relationship between stomach and mood, Gut Feminism mobilizes such questions to extend a line of thought from Wilson’s Neural Geographies (1998) and Psychosomatic (2004) – works that entwine feminist theory within particular readings of psychoanalytic and neurobiological case-work, until all three objects enter into a kind of mutual undoing and remaking. Gut Feminism shares with those earlier volumes a knack for not only making this ‘work’ – but for making it seem utterly necessary, and vital, and right.

At its heart is a proposal to think relations and interiorities in determinedly anticonsilient mode (170): tacking back and forth between agencies that have structured the relation of gut to mood, Wilson unspools a range of dyads that have energised feminist work – psychoanalysis and psychopharmacology, depression and aggression, reparation and negativity, stomach and brain, biological data and feminist theory. The goal is neither the self-satisfied displacement of dichotomy, nor simple-minded consilience – rather, Wilson pursues the crucial work of understanding how the hostility that animates these pairs is a relation of intimacy too; of showing how intimacy is the neither reparative nor conciliatory – nor does it repudiate the negativity that holds the relation together. What emerges is an account of negativity that is insistently negative (6) – a deeply challenging feminist politics of harm that refuses the comforts of both strategy and solution.

I have nothing less banal to say than that I loved this book. To use the unavoidable euphemism: I swallowed it whole. But here – rather against the spirit of the book itself – is a question about the future. ‘What conceptual innovations would be possible,’ Wilson asks at the beginning, ‘if feminist theory wasn’t so instinctively antibiological?’ (1). To which I cannot but add: what would be made possible by a feminist theory that wasn’t so instinctively theoretical? This question is less about Gut Feminism than the communities that will devour it: are those of us in such communities in danger of splitting the (conceptual work of) theory from (the empirical labour of) biology – i.e. a desire to theorize materiality that does not always translate well into doing material things? Are we at any risk of having our cake, and ingesting it too? I know I’m belabouring divisions that the text displaces, but I cannot help but wonder what an honest-to-goodness gut-feminist laboratory practice would look like. Or: what might it mean to not only gain from biological data, but to actually constitute, perhaps in collaboration, feminist-biological-theory-data? What forms of intimacy and hostility would such a project engage? What might it show us about consilience? That it invites such speculation is only another tribute to Gut Feminism: it is what I have been thinking about ever since I finished this deeply engrossing, intensely energising work.


Des Fitzgerald is a Lecturer in Sociology at Cardiff University. He is a sociologist of science and medicine, with a particular interest in the history and present of the neurosciences. He is co-author (with Felicity Callard) of Rethinking interdisciplinarity across the social sciences and neurosciences and author of the forthcoming Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience.

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