Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Justice, Christopher. “Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 10, 2013. doi:10.20415/hyp/010.r06
Abstract: Review of Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. 193 pp. $21.39.
In the Summer 2012 issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment (ISLE), editor Scott Slovic opens his "Editor's Note" by stating, "Material ecocriticism is really heating up" (443). That heat is partly due to University of Texas-Arlington Professor Stacy Alaimo, whose article "States of Suspension: Trans-corporeality at Sea" is featured in that ISLE volume. In that article, Alaimo builds upon her important 2010 monograph, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, which won the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Award for Ecocriticism in 2011 and articulates her theory of trans-corporeality, a bellwether in the field of material ecocriticism.
Alaimo argues in Bodily Natures that "matter" — the essence of material culture — has been reduced by scientists into "manageable bits" and "flattened" by cultural studies scholars, making matter nothing more than the product of "human inscription" (1). However, Alaimo complicates conceptions of matter by examining the "interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures" (2). She calls for more "capacious epistemologies" (2) by arguing that the material world and human bodies are inseparable and challenges cultural studies and feminist scholars because their examinations of "the body" have focused primarily on its discursive and cultural constructions.
Alaimo integrates scholarship in ecocriticism, environmental ethics, gender studies, biomedical ethics, environmental health, science studies, and environmental justice to argue for the importance of trans-corporeality, which she defines as "the movement across human corporeality and nonhuman nature" (3). She argues that trans-corporeality creates new "modes of analysis" (3) that unpack the imbricated places of the material, discursive, textual, biological, environmental, and cultural. Alaimo emphasizes the limitations of cultural studies and articulates a new environmental ethics that envisions this imbrication as a rich network of meanings. Culture doesn't primarily produce meaning, she argues, but how, where, and why matter interacts with culture, biology, politics, gender, policy, and class is what ultimately shapes it. If we ignore these networks, we do so at our own peril.
According to Alaimo, because "woman" and "nature" have often been inseparable, gender studies scholarship has too often separated them. She undermines fixed notions of biology by suggesting that feminist scholars have tried too hard to counter biological determinism by framing gender as a human construct. Instead, biological determinism itself must be questioned, and as one example, she explains how heterosexism — potentially a deterministic cultural construct itself — may be a myth since many species in four of the five animal kingdoms "do not require sex for reproduction," and the Schizophyllum "has more than 28,000 sexes" (6). Drawing upon Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, Alaimo suggests that trans-corporeality can help us view human and non-human matter as an elaborate network of networks co-constituted by each other.
Alaimo provides numerous examples for understanding this theory. She calls food "the most palpable trans-corporeal substance" because it represents a complex matrix of non-human and human materials. Citing the work of Nancy Tuana, Alaimo explains how, for example, hurricanes are "complex interactions of both social practices and natural phenomena" (14). Human subjects should not be the primary agents of cultural, discursive, social, or biological activity; rather, they are flesh hubs where these forces intersect, producing important interactions, which then spawn additional, exponential reactions.
Alaimo's explication begins within an environmental justice framework. She suggests that how we understand our bodies is mediated through science and medicine, but since ideology profoundly influences both, we must unravel how these agents intersect. The body is not a fenced off, separate entity, she contends, but a site of trans-corporeality that embodies the simultaneity of nature, discourse, and society. Consequently, the worker's body is an ideal subject for understanding trans-corporeality, especially since industry has often treated workers' bodies as natural resources. Alaimo questions the history of corporate medical benefits, which she believes were historically provided to protect companies, not individuals. Invoking Donna Haraway's concept of situated knowledges, Alaimo argues that the human body is a constellation of ideological perspectives, so "Occupational disease...can be seen as a corporeal mode of resistance to harmful labor practices" (31).
She examines the short stories of Meridel LeSueur and how LeSueur illuminates why powerful institutions negotiate our bodies' relationships to environments. She also analyzes Muriel Rukeyser's poem The Book of the Dead, concluding that Nature in that text is a "material substance that moves through human bodies, inseparable from networks of power and knowledge" (58). Alaimo positions X-rays as an important embodiment of trans-corporeality because X-rays are "texts" read by individuals that convey an array of meanings about science, corporate malfeasance, gender, race, and biology.
Alaimo then moves to complicate race scholarship since the 1980s, which she argues has focused mainly on social constructionist views of race. However, this focus distracts attention away from the materiality of race and overemphasizes culture and discourse. Alaimo encourages scholars to re-examine race's materiality because, since language is rarely sufficient to understand "invisible matters" such as toxins, genes, atoms, bacteria, etc., alternative methods are needed. She argues that many Westerners live in risk societies, but that some — primarily minorities — are more at risk than others from pollution, toxic chemicals, radioactive materials, etc. Therefore, since material entities that constitute risk typically escape perception, we must examine the specific locations and contexts where race and place intra-act.
Alaimo's analysis of Percival Everett's novel Watershed is an excellent example of how material ecocriticism illuminates these issues. Her analysis raises critical questions about who has access to science, technology, and medicine and whether expertise should be the sole domain of experts. She cites trends in movements known as popular epidemiology, street science, and ordinary expertise to highlight other ways of producing knowledge beyond science. To make this argument, she draws upon Sandra Harding's theory of "strong objectivity" and Haraway's "situated knowledges" to interrogate science's presumed objectivity. Furthermore, when trans-corporeality occurs, consent from affected individuals is rarely procured, so Alaimo urges environmental activists to use photography and other forms of new media to produce new forms of evidence to remedy environmental injustices.
The material memoir is another important genre Alaimo investigates. These memoirs help ecocritics navigate the material crossroads that define trans-corporeality and, because they contain personal, experience-driven accounts of materiality, help eco-scholars transcend the limitations of traditional approaches to knowledge production. Alaimo uses Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals and Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream: A Scientist's Personal Investigations of Cancer and the Environment to argue their value. She positions the self as a network of biological, political, economic, and ideological matter, making environmental health ideal for studies in trans-corporeality because it mixes the self and society, the personal and political, the external and internal. Material memoirs, then, are vital because they reflect an individual's ontological search for the self.
Citing Judith Butler, Alaimo further argues that "critique" embodies reflexivity between the self and Foucault's "regimes of truth." The material memoir activates that reflexivity to produce new ways of knowing: one's experiences with the environment become scientific data. Given the limits of science's ideological and political dimensions, this personal knowledge is critical because, as Ulrich Beck notes, in risk societies, knowledge assumes a new value. Alaimo compellingly argues that material memoirs' approach to knowledge production should be valued because, drawing upon Lawrence Buell's notion of "toxic discourse," contemporary discussions of environmental hazards are filled with anxiety, allegation, insinuation, and moralism. Toxic discourse is characterized by insufficient evidence and the contestation of ideologies, and industries sometimes instigate these debates to create uncertainty and manufacture controversy. Alaimo concludes by invoking Latour and arguing that, in a new trans-corporeal environmental ethics, we should not peel away, but assemble; we should not subtract, but multiply. We should add layers of complexity to critiques of environmental challenges instead of reducing them to isolated, fragmented parts. She uses the modern genetics movement as another example for why this shift must occur: too often geneticists overemphasize the gene/individual body and underemphasize the environment's relationship to that body. Consequently, networks of trans-corporeal interactions are overlooked.
The final site of Alaimo's analysis is multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that affects thousands of people but is often disputed and misunderstood within the medical community. She examines a diverse range of texts, including Todd Haynes's film Safe, Rhonda Zwillinger's book of photographs The Dispossessed: Living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, and Jacob B. Berkson's Canary's Tale, to demonstrate how the health industry's failure to address this condition reflects its inability to function in trans-corporeal ways. For example, MCS sufferers are often women, and many health officials have attributed their symptoms to psychological states. However, although the medical industry has a long history of "breaching corporeal boundaries with surgery, injections, transplants, dialysis, and other procedures" (119), it has often failed to examine the relationships between the biological and environmental causes of disease. For complex reasons, it is women who often interact with perfumes, cleaning fluids, medicines, and other potentially toxic materials, so to simply examine how their behaviors are constructed without also understanding how materials affect them is unjust. Environmental health, Alaimo argues, is fundamentally an indictment of social constructionist views of the body because such views dismiss trans-corporeality.
Finally, Alaimo argues that understanding the concept of "deviation" and its multiple meanings, including the idea of deviating from a standard ideology or deviating evolutionarily to adapt to environmental conditions, should help environmental humanists pivot toward a post-human environmental ethics that accounts for all beings and materials, not just humans. Agency should not be limited to rational beings, but instead, should be expanded into trans-corporeal networks that include dirt, water, bacteria, insects, and a host of other material agents. Valuing non-human agency is an important first step in moving toward this new ethical framework.
Bodily Natures is a major contribution to the rapidly emerging field of material ecocriticism. Like Latour's actor-network theory, which helped establish an important framework for identifying the component parts, breadth, and reach of networks, Alaimo has provided scholars an invaluable theoretical framework for looking inside these complexes and identifying some of their most important nodes. For Alaimo, to look inside is also to simultaneously look outside since all materials are connected. More importantly, she has effectively demonstrated how rich and ubiquitous trans-corporeal exchanges can be and how they can assist ecocritics in advocating ethically sound environmental practices.