Biology, Contingency and the Problem of Racism in Feminist Discourse

Theory, Culture and Society 28 (3):3-27 (2011)
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Abstract

In the 1970s and 1980s a strong opposition and anxiety towards biological and naturalizing knowledges was the norm in feminist discourse. In the past decades the certainties of that ‘anti-biologism’ have been challenged, in part because of a new recognition of the role of contingency in both biological determination and biological science. What seems to have survived the shift is a set of normative assumptions concerning the role of determinacy and contingency in the political implications of ontological claims: an assumed political valorization of contingency. This article challenges those assumptions. It draws attention to the embrace of contingency and processuality on the part of supremacist biopolitical discourse, and suggests the need to think again about the politics of contingency and becoming. Focusing on the issue of racism and supremacist-specification, the article takes a genealogical look at ‘second-wave’ feminist anti-biologism. Monique Wittig’s materialist feminist attack on naturalizing ideology and ‘the myth of woman’ provides the historical example. The article draws attention to curious absences in Wittig’s anti-biologistic statements concerning early 20th-century biologistic feminism: the absence of a critique of eugenics, racism and supremacism. Arguably the condemnation of biology as a conservative ‘ideology of the status quo’ created masks for biopolitical ontology, obscuring the progressive, dynamic, processual character of biologism and of modern racism. While dislodging some powers of biologistic discourse, feminist anti-biologism might also have played a part in facilitating the revitalization of biopolitical racism within the constructivist culturalist rubric. The aim of the article is not to critique ‘second-wave’ feminism from the perspective of contemporary scholarship, but to help generate new ways of thinking and feeling about the role of ontology, contingency and temporality in the present politics of classification.

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