Pursuing difference through biology: gender and the multiplicity of materiality

Kathryn Cai

 

In the Sunday, September 24 issue of the New York Times, a cover story shines a spotlight on men who think that “women are ruining the tech world.” As much-publicized sexual harassment scandals spawn new diversity trainings and initiatives, these men voice opinions that center on their feelings of persecution in a traditionally male-dominated space. Once making up a “fringe element” of Silicon Valley, these men’s rights activists are becoming more vocal and gaining greater traction, a trend that dovetails with the emergence of men’s rights movements across the US. In particular, the article notes that Google’s firing of James Damore, a former employee who circulated a memo declaring that women are less represented in tech because they are “biologically less capable of engineering,” has galvanized many who have voiced agreement and support for the scientific soundness of these views.[1] These persistent biological essentialisms converge with an ongoing conversation in feminist scholarship on the notion of biological difference. While the social construction of gender has become a dominant frame in feminist theory for contesting representations of reified difference, and inferiority, interrogating the contingencies and multiplicity of biological difference remains a provocative thread of feminist thought that is taking new shapes through a variety of engagements with theorizing the body, including neuroscientific research that considers the biological basis of difference in the brain. 

Here I would like to briefly consider neuroscientist and feminist scholar Deboleena Roy’s call to take material and biological difference seriously. Roy notes that earlier feminist scientists have often criticized studies of sex difference because much of such research “assumed that sex differences could be translated into sex binaries and dualisms.”[2] These counters to claims of essentialism in neuroscientific research can, however, privilege the variability and contingency of social-environmental factors at the price of attending to the dynamism of biological material itself.[3] Roy considers how we might open the space to critically consider the ways in which biological material is itself dynamic even as it remains in conversation with environmental and social factors. Though sex differentiation is currently characterized through X/Y signals, Roy’s exploration of the different degrees and combinations of sex differentiation within a single body points to the instability of this binary in an individual through attending to biological matter itself. In a 2016 article in SignsJournal of Women in Culture and Society, Roy discusses the findings of neuroendocrinologists Margaret M. McCarthy and Arthur P. Arnold, who suggest that sex differences in the brain arise not only from epigenetic interactions with environmental factors but also in response to signals that are specific to particular tissues or regions of the brain. According to these researchers, sex differentiation takes shape differentially in individual cells and brain regions rather than the brain at large, and these states are “transient” and marked by a “far higher degree of dynamism than previously anticipated.”[4]

Roy’s consideration of difference does not return us to binaries and hierarchy but instead calls attention to the multiplicity and potentiality of biological material. As Roy argues, these findings suggest that approaching difference through closer interrogations of male/female sex differentiation in biological processes can in fact lead us to the fundamental multiplicity of matter and sex beyond binaries. A true concept of difference, then, is neutral, infinitely multiplicitous, and emerges from the contingencies of the body and the world, which are always in dynamic interaction and in flux.[5]

To propose how scientists and feminist theorists might together expand interpretations of scientific findings beyond biological essentialism, Roy elsewhere draws on philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers’s idea of “shared perplexity.”[6] Stengers and Roy emphasize that “shared perplexity” is an open stance that makes room for indeterminacies and taking seriously challenges to one’s own preconceived ideas. While Stengers and Roy consider “shared perplexity” among researchers, I would also like to ask what potential there is for a space of “shared perplexity” in popular conversations about gender, biological difference, and social construction, particularly in such a polarized political climate. If a turn to scientism and biologism can continue to reify gender differences and maintain real and pressing threats to gendered and racialized bodies, is it at all possible that engagements with difference through the lens of scientific research can also chart as-of-yet unexplored possibilities for openness and new languages for considering the body and gendered being? If engaging Damore and others who espouse his views on their own terms is a dead end (biological difference = hierarchy), what forms, if any, of dialogue and inquiry are possible that might build open engagements with gender and the body, even with those who might not already share feminism’s political investments? And through what avenues would these conversations take shape?

I am wondering if a sustained meeting ground between the sciences and humanistic inquiry, not just in the academy but in public engagement, might lead to broader stances of openness and vulnerability as we continue to engage in fraught conversations about the nature of difference. As theorists of feminist science studies remind us, this humility is rooted in recognition of a material world that escapes our control and full knowledge. Roy entreats researchers to “listen to their own findings and open up to difference more fully,”[7] and I am reminded of Donna Haraway’s figure of the trickster coyote, who “suggests our situation when we give up mastery” and instead “make[] room for the surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production.”[8] While these theorists speak to the knowledge production of research, they also reflect a fundamental attitude toward the world, others, and ourselves.

 

[1] Nellie Bowles. “As Inequality Roils Tech World, A Group Wants More Say: Men.” New York Times (New York, NY), September 24, 2017.

[2] Deboleena Roy, “Neuroscience and Feminist Theory: A New Directions Essay,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41, no. 3 (Spring 2016): 537.

[3] Ibid., 539.

[4] Margaret M. McCarthy and Arnold, Arthur P. “Reframing Sexual Differentiation of the Brain.” Nature Neuroscience 14, no. 6 (2011): 677-83 in Roy 545-7.

[5] Roy also cites Jami Weinstein’s readings of feminist theorists and Weinstein’s summarization of the possible paradigms of sex difference they offer. See Jami Weinstein, “Introduction Part II,” in Deleuze and Gender, ed. Claire Colebrook and Jami Weinstein (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press), 20-33.

[6] Deboleena Roy, “Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference.” Neuroethics 5, no. 3 (2012): 219. See Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2000.

[7] Roy, “Neuroethics,” 226.

[8] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991), 199.

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