Reproduction in Contemporary Materialist Feminisms

by Sean O’Brien

Considering the state of feminism in Canada today necessarily means confronting the long list of policies the Harper government has introduced that serve to entrench gender inequality, but here I want to consider the integrated structural frameworks of patriarchy and capitalism within which Harper’s policies operate, specifically in the context of women’s reproductive labour. While feminist studies of reproductive labour conventionally draw on historical materialist discourse, there has recently been a turn towards new materialism in the work of theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, Claire Colebrook, Susan Hekman, and Karan Barad. I want, therefore, to consider what these divergent materialisms might offer a feminist study of reproductive labour by surveying the new materialism of Elizabeth Grosz—which makes a case for the development of a feminist politics from a postmodernist reading of Darwinian evolutionary theory—alongside the work of Clémence X. Clementine, whose feminism is inherent to a historical materialist critique of political economy. It is important to note that these examples by no means represent all the diverse practices of materialism: this is not, and cannot be, an exhaustive survey of contemporary materialisms, nor is it a comparative evaluation of feminist theories. I am also aware that I risk playing the role of male mediator of female relations, and so the form of my argument constitutes an attempt to account for my own gendered position. This essay is intended, then, as a preliminary exploration into the divergent materialist discourses surrounding feminist politics, in order to consider their theoretical relationships to the ongoing production of gender inequality in the realm of reproductive labour, and their respective capacities for constructing a critical lens through which to render intelligible the operative logics of patriarchy.

Grosz’s critical engagement with Charles Darwin’s work spans several of her publications, but she develops her argument for the relationship between Darwinian evolutionary theory and feminist politics cogently in The Nick of Time, where she reads Darwin through a distinctly postmodern theoretical lens to advance a political philosophy in which evolution replaces revolution as the transformative process through which human beings realize political change. This process functions as the production of difference through time, the result of the generative interplay between the categories of life and matter that evolution constructs. Her argument champions a post-humanist celebration of flux and difference, showing how Darwinian evolutionary theory works to challenge stable identity classifications. According to Grosz, “Darwin makes it clear […] that time, along with life itself, always moves forward, generates more rather than less complexity, produces divergences rather than convergences, variations rather than resemblances.” Citing Darwin’s The Origins of Species and The Descent of Man, Grosz characterizes Darwinian evolutionary theory as anti-essentialist, indeterminist and non-teleological. She argues that, in attempting to determine the origin of species, Darwin realizes that the object of his analysis is not reducible to any single unit of measurement, and that evolution is ultimately a random and unpredictable process. For example, Grosz writes that “Darwin seems to produce a quite peculiar, and thoroughly postmodern, account of origin,” insofar as “origin is a consequence of human, or rather, scientific taxonomy, a function of language.” More specifically, she argues that the evolutionary process itself operates according to a logic that anticipates Derridean différance, which combines the French verbs ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer,’ and is Jacques Derrida’s neologism to describe the way in which there is only difference, and no stable set of differences, at the heart of binary systems that produce meaning, effectively undoing binary constructions as such:

Darwin wants to link the most significant differences that constitute species, subspecies, and varieties, and the associated problem of the origin of species, to the differences between individuals. Indeed, his individualism is fundamentally linked to his anti-essentialism. Species cannot be readily defined, for they are not constituted by essential features, abilities, or forms: species are nothing but the aggregation of interbreeding individuals who share a common descent.

Picking up Darwin’s discussion of genealogical descent, Grosz describes the heritability of variation as a fundamentally random process, made up of the two separate processes of individual variation and natural selection: individual variations occur for unpredictable reasons, and natural selection intervenes to produce species-wide variations which are only recognizable as such retrospectively. For Grosz, Darwin “introduces a fundamental indeterminacy” into the field of natural history, a reading that allows her to posit that “the origin of species can be understood as the discernable but noncalculable measure of degrees of difference between individuals and groups, a kind of biological pure difference.” Darwinism thus operates in Grosz’s own philosophy as a thoroughly postmodern construction: the genealogy of a given species such as the human is dynamic, without definitive origin or endpoint, and constituted through the interplay of irreducible differences. This reading of Darwinian evolutionary theory might look like a postmodern feminist revision of Darwin; however, Grosz claims that it bears fidelity to the philosophical underpinnings of Darwin’s ideas. Feminism, for Grosz, is not supplemental to other possible readings of Darwin, but is immanent to Darwinian evolutionary theory.

From this postmodern reading of Darwin, Grosz argues for the development of a feminist politics whose operative logic entails the production of the greatest degree of difference over time. According to Grosz:

Darwin’s work is of direct relevance to feminist concerns [insofar as] Darwin develops an account of a real that is an open and generative force of self-organization and growing complexity, a dynamic real that has features of its own which, rather than simply exhibit stasis, a fixed essence or unchanging characteristics, are more readily understood in terms of active vectors of change.

Underwriting the connection she draws between Darwinian evolutionary theory and feminism is the postmodernist rejection of a programmatic politics in favour of a politics of difference. For Grosz, feminism is “an ongoing struggle, for it is the articulation of ways of living, an ongoing experiment in the attainment of maximal difference rather than the attainment of specific goals.” In this conception of feminism, the poststructuralist concept of becoming serves as the crux of Grosz’s politics. Grosz writes, “just as the human is an elaboration, a becoming-other of animal impulses to social and moral behavior, so too the human is in the process of becoming other-than-human, of overcoming itself.” According to Grosz, the biological processes of becoming other-than-human have important implications for feminism: “Darwin also provokes a concern with the possibilities of becoming, and becoming-other, inherent in culture, which are also the basic concerns of feminist and other political and social activists.” Shifting the nature/culture relationship, as she sees it, from binary opposition to one of dynamic interrelation, Grosz argues that “the biological prefigures and makes possible the various permutations of life that constitute natural, social, and cultural existence.” If contemporary culture is not some separate sphere, a completion of evolution in the perfection of the human, but is rather one potential form of cultural organization among an infinite possibility of forms to come, it is then open to the prospect of radical change. Grosz therefore insists that the cultural is not rigidly determined by the biological, but emerges through processes of natural selection, with all their experimental randomness, which the cultural then acts upon, influencing genealogical trajectories. While evolution operates automatically according to algorithmic processes, she concludes, it is not determinist or essentialist; there is no teleological progression, no fixed origin, and no goal or end point to evolution. Evolution is an ongoing process of becoming that produces endless difference.

While Grosz anticipates several points of criticism around sexual identity and the threat of biological determinism, her claim that a feminist politics is immanent to Darwinian evolutionary theory completely neglects the central feminist problematic of women’s reproductive labour. Before considering this omission, however, I want to consider the new materialist discourse out of which her work emerges. As noted above, I am not capable here of staging a comprehensive critique of new materialism. Moreover, I do not want to reject outright Grosz’s potential contribution to a new thinking of biology. Her work undoubtedly helps to wrest the realm of the biological from anti-feminist discourses of biological determinism which, as Sara Ahmed notes, “present social relations as products of nature not only within science, but also within government and public culture given the associations the word ‘biology’ has with what is given or already decided.” And yet, as Ahmed has shown, there is a major problem with new materialist feminism’s routine characterization of other feminist theories as automatically anti-biological, an inflated position against which new materialist feminism defines itself. Ahmed’s critique explores the way that this foundational gesture “both offers a false and reductive history of feminist engagement with biology, science and materialism, and shapes the contours of a field that has been called ‘the new materialism.’” Examining Grosz’s work alongside other new materialist feminisms, Ahmed draws attention to a long passage from the opening of The Nick of Time, which for the sake of expediency I will quote only in part here:

This book functions primarily as a reminder to social, political, and cultural theorists, particularly those interested in feminism, antiracism and question of the politics of globalization, that they have forgotten a crucial dimension of research, if not necessary to, then certainly useful for more incisively formulating the concepts on which they so heavily, if implicitly rely…We have forgotten the nature, the ontology, of the body.

Ahmed argues that Grosz’s presentation of feminism as blindly anti-biological is historically inaccurate. As Ahmed points out: “not only is the history of feminist scholarship on biology and science missing from In the Nick of Time [sic]…but Grosz does not engage with any of the more recent work within feminist science studies, which has engaged with the question of biology, materiality, life itself: such as represented by the work of Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Emily Martin, Sandra Harding and Sarah Franklin.” It is not simply that Grosz omits this work, but that this omission allows her to claim the need for a ‘return,’ effectively providing the position against which she establishes her polemic. In the process, Grosz distorts the history of feminist theory and practice, reducing the complex genealogy of feminism to an unthinking biophobia, and thereby producing a rationale for her own work on the biological.


This paper is based on work undertaken for Dr. Karyn Ball’s graduate seminar, “Time, Narrative, and Memory,” offered at the University of Alberta during the winter of 2013.
See Grosz’s “Darwin and Feminism,” Colebrook’s “On Not Becoming Man,” Hekman’s “Constructing the Ballast,” and Barad’s “Posthumanist Performativity” in Material Feminisms.
Grosz, The Nick of Time 7
Grosz, The Nick of Time 23
Grosz, The Nick of Time 21
Grosz, The Nick of Time 42
Grosz, Nick of Time 21-24
Grosz, The Nick of Time 19
Grosz, The Nick of Time 260
Grosz, The Nick of Time 63 
Grosz, The Nick of Time 20
Grosz, The Nick of Time 1
Ahmed 28
 While Ahmed focuses on the gesture’s routinization across a wide range of new materialist feminist works, including Grosz’s The Nick of Time, the routinized gesture can be found in several of Grosz’s other works. For example, in “Darwin and Feminism,” Grosz begins the piece with the statement: “There has traditionally been a strong resistance in the past of feminists to any recourse to the question of nature” (23). And in “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom,” Grosz writes: “Instead of turning to those philosophical traditions in which the questions of freedom and autonomy are irremediably tied to the functioning and deprivatory power of the (oppressive or dominant other)—that is, the tradition of dialectical phenomenology that dates from Hegel, through Marxism, and influences and inflects existentialism, structuralism, and poststructuralism, which in turn have so heavily influenced most contemporary forms of feminist thought regarding the subject—I want to turn to a more archaic tradition but also a more modern one that feminists have tended to avoid—the philosophy of life, the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of nature, initiated to some extent by the pre-Socratics, but fully elaborated primarily in the nineteenth century through the texts of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson and flourishing well into the early decades of the twentieth century” (140). See “Darwin and Feminism: Preliminary Investigations for a Possible Alliance,” and “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom.”
Ahmed 24
Grosz, The Nick of Time 2
“Feminist work in science studies,” notes Ahmed, “which must be read as intrinsic to feminist theory rather than apart from it, explores the traffic between nature/biology and culture, as a ‘material-semiotic’ to use Donna Haraway’s (2003: 201) classic term” (34). Further developing an account of feminism’s historical relationship with the biological, Ahmed draws upon “the longer genealogy of feminist science studies: one thinks of classics such as Alice Through the Microscope, produced by the Brighton Women and Science Group in 1980 (Birke et al., 1980), which involves contributions from feminists based in humanities and social science disciplines; or books like The Woman in the Body, published by Emily Martin (1987), which contributed to the analysis of science as culture. Indeed, we could turn to the edited collection Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies (Franklin et al.,1991), which contains a section titled ‘Science and Technology’ (with individual contributions from Maureen McNeil, Sarah Franklin, Wendy Fyfe, Deborah Lynn Steinberg and Tessa Randles) and reminds us that feminist cultural studies and feminist science studies have a shared genealogy. We also need to recognize that many of the feminist theorists trained in the biological sciences actually work in, and contribute to, humanities and social science disciplines (e.g. Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, Lynda Birke and Ruth Hubbard). The history of feminist science studies is exemplary as a history of the willingness to cross the borders between the humanities, social sciences and biological sciences. This interest in the biological sciences cannot thus be described as recent for feminists in the humanities and social sciences, though of course it might be the case that a more specific group of feminist theorists have become interested in biology and science more recently” (37). See “Imaginary Prohibitions.”


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