Somatic Matters: Becoming Molecular in Molecular Biology

Deboleena Roy

The only half-hidden anxiety that offsets triumphalist news of each new 'advance' in bioscience should bring to mind the processes of disavowal by which unexpressed intimations of corporeal and ontological vulnerability haunt the cultural imaginary.
                    — Margrit Shildrick ("Genetics, normativity, and ethics," 2004)

Never say never in medicine and biology.
                    — Mary Jane Minkin (TIME magazine, 2007)

[1] I begin this paper with a matter that some may argue is not so much somatic as it is gametic. It is the recent story of a set of twins born through a new mechanism of gamete pairing, or at least one that has never before been witnessed. The twins, neither identical nor fraternal, are recorded as "sharing a single genetic contribution from their mother but [have] two genetic contributions from their father" (Souter et al. 2007, 179). The new type of twins were "discovered" and labeled by the scientific community as chimeras because of what was deemed as ambiguous genitalia in one of the twins. In genetics, the term chimera refers to an organism that is composed of two or more genetically distinct tissues. But the fascination with which scientists have come to the study these particular twins is not new. For many of us, this study of an "unusual" human birth bears an obvious connection to another, much older fascination. As others have pointed out, the scientific discipline of teratology, the study of unusual births, is not far from our fascination with chimeras of mythical origins, those horrible creatures of the imagination and monsters made by the amalgamation of foreign parts (Braidotti 2002; Fausto-Sterling 2000). And so it is with sadness, a sadness that stems from not being surprised, that I recently read the scientific article in which this new biological twinning event and the birth of these children were recorded. The title of the article published in the journal Human Genetics reads, "A case of true hermaphroditism reveals an unusual mechanism of twinning" (Souter et al., 2007). Despite the important scholarship and activism that has come out over the last decade on intersex issues, such as an awareness of the confusion that can result from the use of outdated terms such as hermaphroditism, the study reveals the continued fascination with which scientists approach the event of an unusual birth, even referring to these children as "human chimeras" (Souter et al. 2007, 179).

[2] What also struck me, however, while reading about these children and the onslaught of molecular biology tests that have been run on both their somatic and gametic cells, were two comments made by medical experts in response to the scientific article that announced their birth. While explaining the mechanism involved in this biological event, Dr. Eric Vilain, professor of urology and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, stated, "You don't need to have 100% Y-chromosome to be male. If you have more than 15 of Y-chromosome in the gonads it's likely that you're going to be a male" ( Depending on one's faith in biological essentialism, this comment is enough to put the cult of masculinity into crisis. It raises the possibility that there are males in our population who are walking around with varying percentages of Y-chromosomes in the cells of their body. More importantly, it brings to our attention the plausibility of a profound and as yet undetermined amount of biological variation within our human population.

[3] A second comment that caught my attention, and was worthy in my opinion as an opening quote to this paper, was made by Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University. While commenting on the rare twinning event, Minkin explained that there is a one percent chance of an embryo being fertilized by two sperm but that usually these embryos, which have three sets of chromosomes, are not viable. Then, in what can be deemed as an outright admission of uncertainty and flux, Minkin is quoted to have said, "Never say never in medicine and biology" ( I am aware that this statement can be read in a few ways. Some may find it peculiar to hear such a sentiment of unpredictability coming from an expert in the medical and scientific community, and perhaps interpret it to suggest that as a doctor, Minkin has seen and heard everything and is no longer surprised by her patients. But I believe that Minkin's statement, whether intended to or not, reveals much more, and in fact can contribute to critical discussions on theories of corporeality. This statement also produces an encounter between the biological sciences and philosophies of subjectivity, a relationship in feminist science studies scholarship that requires further exploration. The reason for this is that Minkin's statement both acknowledges and produces fissures in our knowledge of the body. These fissures or cracks are spaces where boundaries become unclear, where the messy grooves of our organs present openings without clear endings, or as Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price have put it, the "dis-organ-isation that will open up myriad unpredictable and temporary lines of connection and encounter" (2005, 13). The birth of these intersex children has stirred up confusion for the experts, in whose hands rest the power to produce the perception of fixed knowledges and certainties of the body. But more importantly, the effort being made to explain the birth of these two children has exposed the ontological vulnerability that is deeply embedded within our bodies and within the discourses of science, medicine, and more specifically, biology. It is this vulnerability that is of most relevance to this paper.

A Story of the Estrogen Receptor and its Other

[4] I would like to turn your attention now to another story, one that is full of fissures and fluxes. It is also a story of molecular scandals and desires to create new zones of proximity. About ten years ago, I had just started my research as a doctoral student in molecular neuroendocrinology, working in a reproductive biology lab. During my Ph.D. work, my supervisor encouraged me to dedicate some of my time to find a few protein receptors in an in vitro cell line of specialized hypothalamic neurons. The hope was to further characterize these hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons and to understand their role in the regulation of reproduction. [1] I set out on this task, not knowing the impact of my future work. In fact, it is only now, several years later, that I can begin to appreciate the significance of my nomadic wanderings—in and out of Petri dishes, in the shadows of transgenic politics, surrounded by the gender, race and class dynamics of scientists in the laboratory, immersed in scandals of scientific authority, and faced with anxieties of protein otherness (a day in the life of a feminist scientist). I would like to share a story of my work on estrogen receptors, hormones and neurons, and use the above wanderings as figurations, en route to becoming molecular. As Rosi Braidotti states,

Figurations are not mere metaphors, but rather markers of concretely situated historical positions. A figuration is the expression of one's specific positioning in both space and time. It marks certain territorial or geopolitical coordinates, but it also points out one's sense of genealogy or of historical inscription. Figurations deterritorialize and destabilize the certainties of the subject and allow for a proliferation of situated or 'micro' narratives of self and others. (2006, 90)

And so if I were to travel back to the geopolitical coordinates I inhabited a few years ago, I would find myself on a search for estrogen receptors in GnRH neurons, but not without the constant company of all the micro-narratives above—and then some. GnRH is known to be a central factor of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, helping to regulate the synthesis and secretion of luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone in the pituitary gland, and androgen and estrogen in the gonads (Yen 1991). I was investigating the possibility for direct feedback regulation of GnRH gene expression and synthesis by the gonadal hormone estrogen. Now, it is true that estrogen is involved in much more than just reproduction, inducing the fusion of long bone epiphyses (MacGillivray et al. 1998), the suppression of osteoclast activity (Shevde et al. 2000), and providing direct protective effects against atheroschlerosis (Baker et al. 2003). But my research was specifically in reproductive neuroendocrinology, and so I was mostly interested in examining the role of estrogen in its reproductive capacity. Estrogen is a very interesting hormone as it has been shown to negatively regulate GnRH synthesis, but it is also necessary to induce the preovulatory surge of GnRH during the menstrual cycle (Levine 1997). One would imagine that estrogen would have something to do with the regulation of reproduction at the level of the brain and so my investigation in itself may not sound remarkable. My research would almost be considered mundane, except for the fact that a jury of scientific experts had declared that GnRH neurons do not express the appropriate nuclear proteins, also known as receptors, which bind to estrogen. Therefore, the working premise that most neuroendocrinologists lived by was that GnRH neurons could not be directly affected by estrogen. Instead, estrogen-receptive interneurons contacting GnRH neurons were thought to be responsible for mediating the effects of estrogen and other gonadal steroids on GnRH synthesis and secretion (Shivers et al. 1983).

[5] This is what I was up against when I started my Ph.D. research, expert neuroendocrinologists who were unconvinced of a presence, that of the estrogen receptor in GnRH neurons, and unwilling to recognize new material possibilities for this protein. They dismissed these possibilities because they could not imagine what estrogen would be doing in this part of the brain. The long held belief that GnRH neurons functioned without experiencing direct contact by estrogen had resulted in a scientific milieu whereby new relations between these particles were inconceivable, and desires for proximity scorned. Estrogen receptors were also of particular interest to me because they had just been reported to behave in a manner that destabilized a dominant paradigm in neuroendocrinology. Estrogen receptors had traditionally been thought to only come in one form. Endocrinologists did not consider the possibility that more than one type of estrogen receptor may exist. However, in 1996, just before I had begun my research, the stable unitary identity of the estrogen receptor was displaced by the discovery of another nuclear receptor that bound to estrogen (Kuiper et al. 1996). This caused a minor endocrinological skirmish in its day forcing estrogen receptors to be reclassified as either estrogen receptor-alpha (ERα—the original) or estrogen receptor-beta (ERβ—the other). [2]

[6]My geopolitical coordinates at the time placed me in a position to examine the possibility of establishing new relations between GnRH neurons, estrogen molecules and estrogen receptors. I was able to encourage my desires to challenge a dominant scientific paradigm. I longed to create zones of proximity between molecules and my own political landscapes by addressing a biological/material/corporeal possibility that had been both marginalized and ignored. My earlier involvement in organizations such as the National Action Committee for the Status of Women (NAC) and the Feminist Alliance on New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies (FANRGT) had convinced me that feminists needed to learn more about the biology and technologies that were being used to control their bodies. I certainly would not have articulated my position this way ten years ago but looking back now, I was driven by a sense that molecular politics were just as crucial as molar politics and were absolutely necessary if I was to relate to the world around me in what I felt were more productive ways. I also knew that in some ways however, my desires to participate in reproductive biology research and to use molecular biology-based technologies were somewhat 'inappropriate' on the basis of certain feminist ethical grounds. The feminist ethics I refer to here focuses on molar issues of being and identity, and treating women as liberal human subjects. It aims to correct the conditions whereby women are considered less than human, and where their bodies are treated as objects or commodities. Understandably, this ethical position, which strives to safeguard women, protect their reproductive rights, and fight for their equal rights, is often in opposition to reproductive and molecular biology research.

[7]I believed then, and still do, that in order to deal with our posthuman living conditions, feminists must abandon that teleological pull that lures us into believing that we are capable of achieving or have achieved subjectivity in that liberal humanistic sense and turn our attention to developing molecular projects. While explaining what kinds of ethics are possible for postmodern subjectivities, Braidotti states:

Ethics in poststructuralist philosophy is not confined to the realm of rights, distributive justice, or the law, but it rather bears close links with the notion of political agency and the management of power and of power-relations. Issues of responsibility are dealt with in terms of alterity or the relationship to others. This implies accountability, situated-ness and cartographic accuracy. A poststructuralist position, therefore, far from thinking that a liberal individual definition of the subject is the necessary precondition for ethics, argues that liberalism at present hinders the development of new modes of ethical behaviour. (2006, 12)

I knew that by participating in the production of scientific knowledge on the body, I could use my micro-politics to new ends. I wanted to produce knowledge that addressed my concerns around contraceptives, hormone replacement therapies and new reproductive and genetic technologies. This is why I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in reproductive biology, why I worked with hypothalamic neurons of the brain in Petri dishes, and why I searched for the presence of the estrogen receptor protein and its other.

Returning to a new biology

[8]As a feminist scientist trained in molecular neuroendocrinology, I wasn't aware until recently that I had ever left my biological body behind—but apparently I have. I know this because of the current call within feminist theory and feminist science studies in particular to return to the matters of biology. Feminist science studies have had a long-standing relationship with the biological sciences, primarily in the form of critiques of methodologies, epistemologies and notions of scientific objectivity. These feminist critiques of science have examined how scientists do science; however, the actual objects of the biological body have come under very little critical feminist inquiry. Feminists have had sound reasons for retreating from the biological body as it has served as the site for biological determinations that have often been used toward oppressive and violent ends. As Elizabeth Wilson has suggested, most feminist engagements with science have been 'premised on a primarily oppositional relation to the sciences' (1998, 200), making the actual matters of the biological body further inaccessible.

[9]Recent scholarship indicates that both feminist science studies scholars and feminist philosophers are ready to expand the intellectual scope of feminist critiques of science (Kirby 1991; Haraway 1991, 1997; Wilson 1998, 2004; Barad 2003). They are ready to include the actual matter—the organs, cells and molecules—of our biological bodies in their analyses. As the feminist philosopher of science Karen Barad has pointed out, 'matter matters' (2003). Barad poses the question,

How might we understand not only how human bodily contours are constituted through psychic processes but how even the very atoms that make up the biological body come to matter and, more generally, how matter makes itself felt? ...What is needed is a robust account of the materialization of all bodies—"human" and "nonhuman"—and the material-discursive practices by which their differential constitutions are marked. (2003, 810)

I believe that what is needed in order to get to the 'materialization of all bodies' is a new way to think about biology and the practices that will be involved. Can there be a new biology? I am curious to know if the biological body we want to return to already exists, or whether it needs to be created. I am concerned with what we consider to be antibiologism within feminism and what we think we must relinquish in order to find our way back to biology. I also believe that we should explore more carefully the ways in which we plan on making this return.

[10]It is of course obvious that our scientific knowledge on matters of the body has been imagined by those allowed to participate in the production of this dominant discourse. If feminists are to join in and participate in the production of a 'new history' of biological knowledge, then they must think beyond the dominant imagination. In the words of Hélène Cixous, 'the future must no longer be determined by the past' (1981, 245). This does not mean that we must dispose of all biological knowledge of the body or question the existence of molecules and organs. It does mean however that the biology of these matters needs to be examined and (re)materialized through feminist analyses. So, in this sense it can be argued that the body to which feminists are attempting to return has yet to exist. But I believe that there are some matters of the biological body that feminists never left behind in the first place. It may therefore be beneficial to start our journey back to a new biology by returning to the point of our apparent departure from the body.

[11] Undoubtedly there is a sense, often aligned with the beginnings of second wave feminism, that in the last thirty to forty years much feminist theory has been devoted to describing the social construction of gender as the cause for oppression. In an attempt to escape oppressive ideologies based on biological determinism, feminists for the most part amputated the physical body from their theorizing. Instead we tried to counter the effects of sex/gender systems by bringing to light the biases based on the social category of gender. [3] The problem, it was argued, was not the inner workings of the body itself, but the outer workings of patriarchal societies in which women were second-class citizens. It has been argued that in this era of feminist theory, the biological body and the category of sex, understood as biological sex, were left untouched, granting non-feminists and non-feminist scientists free reign to further develop their concepts of difference rooted in biology (Fausto-Sterling 2000; Birke 1999). [4] Feminists who realized the importance of staying connected to the biological body however developed this area of feminist discourse in several different ways. Perhaps most early on were the feminists in the women's health collectives of the late 1960s and 1970s. Using accessible techniques including self-examinations and the cunning use of mirrors, women were taught to develop a sense of ownership over certain biological parts such as the breasts, vagina and clitoris (Tuana 2004). Secondly, with the growing opinion within certain disciplines including mainstream and feminist science studies that scientific knowledge is yet another type of socially constructed knowledge, the biological categories of sex, that is male and female, were not avoided but rather put into question (Butler 1999; Fausto-Sterling 2000). As such, feminists developed theories of embodied materialism in new ways, primarily using psychoanalysis and philosophy to dissect the outer and inner workings of the body (Grosz 1994; Butler 1993). Lastly, I would argue that feminists contributed to new understandings of the biological body by critiquing and questioning the existing scientific research in fields such as endocrinology, neuroscience, anatomy and molecular biology (Oudshoorn 1994; Fausto-Sterling 1985, 2000; Schiebinger 1993; Spanier 1995).

[12] Wilson has suggested that in these feminist critiques of science, feminist scientists often fell into the intellectual rut of conventionalized feminist politics, responding to 'feminism's naturalized anti-essentialism' (1998, 16). She states,

For example, Ruth Bleier (1994) and Lesley Rogers (1988)—both neurophysiologists—respond to the reductionism of contemporary neurological research on neural difference by gesturing to the outside of neurology. It is culture or the environment that delivers difference and malleability to otherwise barren neurological matter... Bleier and Rogers do not offer a feminist critique of the neuron, of the cellular architecture of the brain, or of the chemical transformations at the synaptic membranes. (1998, 16)

In her attempt to form new relations between neurology and psychology, Wilson searches for a 'wider analysis of the ontological status of neurocognitive matter itself' (1998, 66). She argues that feminist engagements with the sciences have largely been through oppositional relations based on 'antibiologism, antiessentialism, or antinaturalism' (1998, 200), and that furthermore, these forms of criticism are losing their potential for producing feminist interventions in the sciences. According to Wilson,

The issue... is less an inventory of what problems reside in natural or biological theories of women that would make these theories the target of feminist criticism, but what presumptions reside in feminist politics that make such inventories and their correlative recoil from the natural self-evident and politically uncontentious. Moreover, once established, what kind of narrowing or censoring of feminist political projects do these presumptions enact? What kinds of feminist projects remain unthinkable and unable to be enacted because of these presumptive foreclosures? (1998, 17)

Wilson and others such as Helen Keane and Marsha Rosengarten (2002) engage in criticisms of feminists who have critiqued science, including the work of feminist scientists such as Ruth Bleier and Anne Fausto-Sterling. Wilson further suggests that many of these critiques have exacerbated the problem of antibiologism found in feminist critical theory and have been 'premised on an unarticulated but nonetheless strongly held conviction that neurology [for example] itself is regressive and politically dangerous' (1998, 13).

[13] I have read the critiques of biology by these feminist scientists slightly differently—as also perhaps presenting carefully delineated entry points for more productive feminist engagements within the practices of science. It is true that many feminist critiques of science by feminist scientists have not quite offered feminist analyses of the actual biological objects of the body. For the most part, the organs, cells and molecules have remained untouched within our feminist discourses. However, I would suggest that Wilson's criticism might be a little too harsh. Similar to all other feminist disciplinary births, feminist critiques of science had to start somewhere—and they, along with everyone else, started with conventional presumptions of gender analysis. It may no longer be sufficient for feminist interventions in science to be based on these and other conventional feminist presumptions of antibiologism, antiessentialism and antireductionism, but there had to be an entry point. I think that instead of simply dismissing these critiques for contributing to feminist tendencies of antibiologism, we should in fact look a little more closely at them again. It is my contention that the rich collection of feminist critiques of science may offer some pivotal insights, exposing and producing useful fissures in the knowledge of our bodies. These critiques come from feminist scientists who, having actually worked with messy biological matters, may in fact lead us closer to the borders of biology that are most vulnerable.

[14] It is true that in the last few decades, the feminist practices aimed at creating a new body of knowledge on the biological body have involved mirrors, psychoanalysis and critiques. These projects have been essential in our attempts to recontextualize the biological body but now there is a call to look at biology itself for new feminist politics. While discussing the possibility of new feminist engagements with Freud for instance, Wilson asks,

What new accounts of the body are possible if we are able to keep the body of the lamprey in mind? What new modes of embodiment become legible when biological reductionism is tolerated and explored? (2004, 3)

I agree with Wilson that if we are to answer this call in feminist science studies to return to biology, we will have to move away from those feminist discourses that 'constitute the biological as fixed, locatable, and originary' (1998, 95). A biological body that we would want to return to can only materialize once the actual objects and matters of biology have been subjected to this kind of a critical feminist inquiry. However, I would stress that feminists will not be able to redirect their tendencies of antibiologism by simply returning to or 'tolerating' such things as scientific reductionism, but rather we must develop new feminist practices for the natural sciences. But what kind of practices can help us to form these modes of critical feminist inquiry in biology? In other words, how are we going to make this return?

Conversations in Interstitial Spaces

[15] In her latest nomadic travels, Braidotti summarizes quite poignantly one of the major rifts in feminist culture between science studies and theories of the subject. She states,

One of the major axes of discursive segregation... is the continuing drift that exists, in both mainstream and feminist cultures, between science studies on the one hand and philosophies of the subject on the other... Science studies need to address their resistance to theories of the subject, and to notions such as embodiment and affectivity. Philosophies of the subject, on the other hand, have to confront their mistrust and mis-cognition of bio-sciences. (2006, 138)

Braidotti admonishes science studies for the lack of flexibility when it comes to theories of the subject. I would argue that mainstream and feminist science studies are capable in their own ways—albeit limited—of acknowledging the biosciences by examining those who examine science, and sometimes most empirically. Feminist science studies, more specifically, has a long-standing relationship with the biological sciences but once again, the actual biological objects of the science have come under very little critical inquiry. Where mainstream and feminist science studies also fall short is the stability of their subjects of study, defined only in fixed terms, and allowed only to occupy specific types of relations with and within the biosciences. Feminist philosophies and theories of the subject, on the other hand, are quite rich. Occupying the position of the other inevitably forces the other to philosophize new possibilities for subjectivity. Alternative theories of the subject have therefore proliferated from traditions such as feminist, queer and postcolonial theory and have contributed immensely to the contestation of dominant liberal humanist philosophies of the subject. The problem with most of these philosophies of the subject, including those in feminist and poststructuralist traditions, is that they also cannot or care not to deal with the biological matter occupied by these new subjectivities. Perhaps these alternate theories of subjectivity are a little too flexible—so much so that the biological matter of the body keeps slipping away.

[16] The philosophical approach to subjectivity that I would like to extend to actual biological objects (such as the matters of neurons, hormones and proteins) is primarily based on feminist and poststructuralist theories of becoming. As Braidotti explains, 'becoming is a question of undoing the structures of domination by careful, patient re-visitations, re-adjustments, micro-changes' (2002, 115). Feminist philosophers of science have stressed the importance of materialist theories of becoming for feminist science studies by developing theories of nomadic subjectivities and cartographies (Braidotti 2002; 2006), figurations (Haraway 1997), posthumanist performativity (Barad 2003) and an ecology of practices (Stengers 2005). All of these theories can be regarded as 'materially embedded' (Braidotti 2002, 3) feminist practices that share the aim to 'de-territorialize the fixity and scramble the unitary structure of the classical view of the subject' (Braidotti 2002, 69). My desire is to extend these practices into the biological sciences so that we may work with, instead of against, the ontological vulnerability of our biology.

[17] This is where I locate the beginnings of my interdisciplinary scholarship, hoping to contribute to an emerging area of feminist science studies that seeks to enter into conversation with feminist philosophies of the subject. My experience as a biologist has taught me that the subjects and objects of biology are not fixed. Feminist philosophers of subjectivity need to be convinced of this fact and feminist science studies scholars need to bring this knowledge to the forefront of their critiques. My hope is also to redirect feminist tendencies of antibiologism by developing feminist practices that would support the process of becoming molecular in the natural sciences. On the topic of becoming molecular, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari state,

Starting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfills, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes. This is the sense in which becoming is the process of desire. This principle of proximity or approximation is entirely particular and reintroduces no analogy whatsoever. It indicates as rigorously as possible a zone of proximity or copresence of a particle. (1987, 272)

Becoming molecular will allow feminists to consider the organs, cells and molecules of the body in relation to one another without, for instance, having to rely solely upon theories of scientific reductionism. Feminist theories of embodied materiality can be extended into the actual biological objects of the body—not by performing traditional feminist critiques of science, but in fact by subjecting the biological matters themselves to a critical analysis. Feminist science studies will only be able to expand its intellectual scope by considering the implications of these feminist practices for embodied materialism, and carrying out new interrogations at the level of biological molecules. But can the biological molecules of the matter we must return to be formed under these conditions of becoming molecular? Can we think of a biology where molecules desire to reach out to other molecules, organs and subjectivities and form relations with the intention of becoming-collective?

[18] I suggest that from the vantage point of a feminist trained in the biological sciences, the divide between feminist science studies and philosophies of the subject may in fact be a rift between two discourses, but not one without cartographic possibilities. Can these discourses meet not in order to become one, but instead to have a conversation? I believe that the matter of our biological bodies has been dancing in the interstices of these divided discourses all along. Returning to a new biological body will indeed be a formidable task if we set out with the intention of finding the answer, or creating a new discourse that simply replaces divided ones. In order to return to the biological body, it is crucial for us to figure out how we can carry on conversations in this interstitial space.

Breaches and Laughter as Feminist Practices

[19] I think that there are a number of valid questions to ask before we attempt to carry on these conversations. Of course there are risks associated with navigating our way back to biology, but so that we do not get completely lost, I suggest we use a cartographic approach. A good place to begin I think is to take up Braidotti's lament in the above quote and confront the mistrust and miscognition of the biosciences by feminist philosophies of the subject. While exploring new navigational techniques for dealing with the diverse discourses of psychology and neurology, Wilson notes a more general condition that exists between the projects of psychology and the 'critical projects that emerge from postmodern, poststructuralist, and deconstructive theories' (1998, 88). Her point is not to resolve the tensions that exist between these projects. She instead suggests that what is required is a 'breach' (1998, 201) of sorts. Drawing from Derrida, she explains that a breach is a type of:

movement against conventionalization. It is the infraction of immobile boundaries and a displacement of the fixed political-critical spaces they enact...The movements of breaching are those that keep the nature of any location, object, or method permanently mobile, and that maintain a dynamic and constitute relations between such locations. (1998, 204-207)

Once caught in a breach, what would the conversation between feminist science studies scholars and philosophers of the subject look like? What if feminist scientists were also invited to join in? I believe that feminists will be able to find a language for creating new conversations on the body for two reasons. They share both a desire for displacing the fixed political-critical spaces that the biological body has been forced to occupy, and they have the nerves that it takes to begin speaking in the first place.

[20] As Cixous has said of writing and the body, 'by writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display' (1981, 250). Similar to the idea of the breach is Cixous' argument that by writing or speaking, feminists can cause 'ruptures and transformations' (1981, 250). She states,

We've been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty... But who are the men who give women the body that women blindly yield to them? Why so few texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body. Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse... (1981, 256)

How can we as feminist science studies scholars, philosophers of science and feminist scientists learn to write through our bodies together? Part of the feminist practice of creating a breach and causing fissures, ruptures and transformations to our scientific knowledge of the body requires that feminists invent a language that is subversive. This is indeed a formidable task in the case of developing a language for a new history of biology, one that incorporates critical feminist inquiries into the actual matters of the biological body. It is formidable because it necessitates questioning biological 'truths' that have been established by the authority of scientific law and reasoning.

[21] I'll be the first to admit that this is a daunting task. But I would also suggest that the hesitations that feminists may encounter in developing a new language may be put aside by drawing upon another long-standing feminist political practice—that of laughter. Indeed laughter has been posited as a key element for feminist thought and activity. For instance, in order to create interventions within the politics of language and discourse, in her concept of l'écriture féminine, Cixous further suggests that 'a feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive' and that the way in which it works is 'to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the 'truth' with laughter' (1981, 258). I think that as feminists searching for new meanings of embodiment, we will be able to return to the biological body. It will require shaking up scientific 'truths,' institutional frameworks, laws, paradigms and more. But this time, perhaps the task will seem less daunting if we are to able to proceed with this project with the knowledge and wisdom that comes from being able to laugh and use this laughter as a political tool. The work of the philosopher Isabelle Stengers suggests that as a feminist practice, laughter may in fact be integral for feminists who are interested in reconfiguring their relationship with the sciences. Stengers states:

What is learning to laugh again? It is relearning a laugh which would not be the irony and derision which always avoids risk-taking, going beyond the differences to recognize the same. It is, instead, the laughter of humor. It is comprehending and appreciative without expecting to find a secure position...This position, insofar as it has a certain specificity, is that of a minority—not numerical, of course, but in the sense of those norms which are supposed to define the modes of human existence. The first challenge to which a minority must respond is to not let itself be fascinated by the majoritarian norm, which includes not defining itself as its opposite. And one of the many ways to meet this challenge is "not to be too easily impressed," never to accept any easy or direct identification (even so as to resist it) of anybody or thing with great referents such as Science, Reason, Objectivity. (2000a, 52)

The laughter from this understanding of our relationship with science comes from a sense of humor and is not meant to be mocking or ironic. One must not misinterpret this feminist practice of laughter as a means for making science or biology into a laughing matter. Instead, it is a way to find a meeting ground which feminists and scientists can both inhabit. As Stengers also states,

[I]rony and humor constitute two distinct political projects, two ways of discussing the sciences and of producing debate with scientists. Irony opposes power to power. Humor produces (to the degree it itself manages to be produced) the possibility of a shared perplexity, which effectively turns those it brings together into equals. (2000b, 66)

Stengers suggests the political project constituted by humor as an approach to a broad range of scientific practices. I think that for both feminist science studies scholars and feminist philosophers of the subject, the challenge to return to the biological body and practice between two apparently divided dominant discourses may be met by sharing in the insights of this political project. The matter of the biological body is already a shared political project. It is in this space of 'shared perplexity' where feminist philosophies of the subject may finally confront their mistrust and miscognition of biology. It is in this space of shared perplexity that we will be able to confront and relinquish our tendencies toward antibiologism. Feminist philosophies of subjectivity will be entirely crucial for the development of these new practices, ultimately leading to the production of the new scientific knowledges of the body that we are after.

Shared Perplexities: A Return to the Story of the Estrogen Receptor and Its Other

[22] If as feminists we are serious about reclaiming the biological body, we cannot just ignore the molecules and cells that make up this messy body. I believe that it is time for new biological knowledges of the body to emerge, ones that have been created by feminists and informed by feminist practices. My hope is that biological matter, and more specifically, the matter of hormones, neurons, and proteins can be 'articulated as a site of play' (Wilson 1998, 96). These contributions will be as important to the effort of reclaiming the body as have been the efforts made by the women's health collectives, psychoanalytic theories and feminist critiques of science. Feminist science studies scholars such as Haraway, Braidotti, Stengers, Barad and Wilson are paving the way for this return as their notions of embodied materialism redefine the relations of a body to its environment, while at the same time working towards the dissolution of the liberal humanist subject. My hope is to contribute to this project. And so, I would like to end by returning to my story about the estrogen receptor protein and its other, with the hope of briefly illustrating the advantages of becoming molecular in molecular biology. I return to the estrogen receptor not to valorize the science that has been done, but to critically interrogate this biological matter.

[23] In my scientific research, although I was informed by feminist critiques of science, I attempted to go beyond these critiques. I tried not to dismiss, but to engage with the actual matters of biology. I longed to establish new relations, regardless of how messy things got. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari,

Becoming is to emit particles that take on certain relations of movement and rest because they enter a particular zone of proximity. Or, it is to emit particles that enter that zone because they take on those relations. (1987, 273)

It may be difficult to imagine how it was that I actually incorporated theories of becoming in my everyday scientific research on estrogen receptors. How did I 'emit particles' and how did these particles either create or enter into new 'zone[s] of proximity?' Returning to the benefits of breaches and laughter, allow me to share the value of these feminist practices and how they served as catalysts for becoming molecular in my scientific work.

[24] While I conducted my Ph.D. research in a reproductive biology lab, examining the effects of various hormones on hypothalamic neurons in a Petri dish, I needed humor in my life to get through the day. Apart from the mundane day-to-day tasks that all scientists must endure (the breakthroughs come few and far between), I also had to counter gender-biased scientific paradigms and language—such as the active sperm/docile egg dichotomy—on a daily basis. I had a decision to make. I could let these repeated offenses eat away at my spirit and triumph over me by forcing me to relate to my environment with irony, or I could further my feminist politics by trying to relate to and create new relationships between the molecules, the scientific paradigms and the scientists around me. My goal was to create a breach or a 'movement against conventionalization' (Wilson 1998, 204) in a specific area of reproductive neuroendocrinology. My micro-politics allowed me to get involved in a research project that examined the direct neurological impacts of estrogen-based drugs and could also displace what appeared to me as a 'fixed political-critical space' (1998, 204) in biological research. At the time, the feminist arguments against reproductive technologies also seemed to be operating in a fixed political-critical space. I felt that a breach in this majoritarian project was also necessary in order to engage with the actual scientific knowledge being produced on the body. I did exactly this, but was only able to do so through laughter. I used laughter to reconcile my knowledge of feminist critiques of scientific objectivity with my wish to work with the actual matters of the biological body. I think that if I share the source of my laughter, this may help others who are interested in bridging the gap that exists in feminist cultures between science studies and philosophies of subjectivity. The punch line of the joke I told myself each day was this—if there is a real materiality, we will never know it (insert chuckle). What we can do, however, and what I believe feminist scientists as well as some feminists who critique science have been attempting to do for the last twenty years, is to produce an acceptable materiality. [5] If we are to go back to a new biology, this is how I envision our return.

[25] I recall also the very first time that my colleagues and I searched for estrogen receptors. We used molecular biology techniques such as subcloning and sequencing in order to find the genes for estrogen receptors. We did what is referred to as a reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) experiment on in vitro GnRH neurons, searching for ER cDNA (complementary DNA). The idea was to show that the transcription and translation of these genes ultimately lead to the expression of the ER proteins in the GnRH neurons. Not only did we find ERα cDNA coding for the gonadal hormone receptor that had been excluded from the mind's eye of neuroendocrinologists, but we also found its other, ERβ (Roy et al. 1999). We went on to conduct more molecular biology experiments known as Western blot analyses, in order to search for the expression of ERα and ERβ proteins. Both were found easily, and so I laughed. I laughed at the scientific authority that had stacked up the odds against this research and against the ability of estrogen and GnRH neurons to form a more intimate 'zone of proximity.' I laughed at the ontological vulnerability that had been exposed. It is as if one night I had gone to bed with a materiality in which estrogen receptors could not be brought into closer proximity to hypothalamic GnRH neurons. The next morning, I woke up to an alternate materiality where feelings of protein otherness had shifted. I had helped to create movement and establish a new site of play for these biological molecules.

[26] This experience of becoming molecular made me realize first-hand not to be so easily impressed by scientific authority. Continued research and breaches in this area revealed that both estradiol (a form of estrogen) as well as an environmental estrogen directly repressed GnRH gene expression in hypothalamic neurons (Roy et al. 1999). These findings are crucial as they force us to take into account the possible direct neurological effects of estrogen-based drugs, including those used in hormone replacement therapies (HRTs) and contraceptives. Estrogens present in hormone therapies may be doing more than simply inhibiting ovulation or helping to manage the symptoms of menopause. For example, for over a decade scientists claimed that estrogens in HRTs may also benefit postmenopausal women by providing neuroprotective effects. However, results from the 2004 Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS) suggested otherwise. Scientists from this initiative found that older women who were using estrogen-alone hormone therapies were at a higher risk of developing neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's (Shumaker et al. 2004). In 2002, scientists from the WHI stirred up another controversy when they published their results from their landmark study which found that women who used estrogen plus progestin based HRTs were at a higher risk for developing breast cancer (Rossouw et al. 2002). Interestingly, a report published in 2006 showed that the incidence in breast cancer in the United States dropped significantly in 2003, and this decline has been credited to the fact that following the 2002 WHI study, there was a decline in the number of women who took HRTs (Gardner 2006). Reproductive healthcare professionals such as Mary J. Minkin, whom I have referred to previously in this paper, were alarmed by the millions of women who went off HRT treatments following the 2002 WHI study and tried to caution women that not all HRTs worked the same way or were composed of the same amounts of estrogen. Minkin even published a report suggesting that if the symptoms of menopause were debilitating enough, the benefit of low dose transdermal HRTs could outweigh the risks (Minkin 2004). More recently, another report published in 2007 by the WHI suggests that women who started taking HRT closer to the onset of menopause had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease compared to women who were more distant from menopause (Rossouw et al. 2007). Despite the fact that the researchers state that this result was not statistically significant, they go on to recommend that, 'hormone therapy be used in the short-term for relief of moderate or severe vasomotor symptoms, but not in the longer term for prevention of cardiovascular disease' (2007, 1476).

[27] Another matter to consider however, if there are indeed neurological benefits of having endogenous levels of estrogen in the body, is the concern this raises for women with estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. In 2006, the incidence of breast cancer in the United States was reported to be 1 in every 8 women, and of these 75% were reported to be estrogen-receptor positive ( Many postmenopausal women with breast cancer are advised to take aromatase inhibitors in order to stop the production of endogenous extragonadal estrogen in their body. To date, there are no studies that have examined the long-term neurological effects of aromatase inhibitors on humans. One study published in 2003 measured the cognitive performance in breast cancer patients receiving anti-estrogen therapies including anastrozole (aromatase inhibitor) and tamoxifen (estrogen receptor modulator). Results from this study showed that anti-estrogen therapy may cause a decline in verbal memory and processing speed (Shilling et al. 2003).

[28] These studies can be confusing, but they can also reveal the difficulty scientists face in their attempt to produce fixed knowledges of our bodies. When scientific knowledge or 'truths' break down, the fissures in our bodies are exposed and this exposure can in fact reveal much more. By becoming molecular in my scientific research, I have come to realize with even more urgency that the biological matters of our bodies cannot go ignored by feminists. The neurological impact of estrogen for instance is obviously a complex issue and an area of biological research that is in desperate need of more critical feminist analysis and intervention. As feminists make a return to the body, one that they acknowledge as being ambiguous and in flux, our collective geopolitical locations must be used to 'dis-organ-ize' and create new materialities—ones with which we are willing to live.


[29]There are many more estrogen receptor stories to be told, including its very irreverent tendencies for homologous as well as heterologous dimerization, as well as its unconventional affinity for binding to DNA in sites not designated as estrogen response elements (EREs). But what I have attempted to share here is a brief example of what a conversation in the interstices of feminist science studies and philosophies of the subject may look like. I think that I share a similar sentiment with other feminist science studies scholars and philosophers of science when I say that we must engage with biology, not to put a stop to the production of scientific knowledge or to create a completely different science, but to intervene in new and productive ways. This may mean working with other scientists and learning to live with the possibility of difficulty and tension. Once again, as Stengers suggests, we can only do this by developing those political projects of 'shared perplexities' (2000a). How else will we be able to produce a materiality to which we are willing to return?

[30]What has made me laugh as a feminist scientist, and what has allowed me to bring humor to my political project, has been the realization that each and every biological experiment I conducted in the lab was in fact an experiment in uncertainty, an experiment in transforming uncertainty into materiality. There is much room for feminist philosophies of subjectivity and theories of embodiment to guide these transformations from uncertainty to materiality. To do this, however, we must turn to the actual molecular matters of biology with desires for social justice. In other words, we can only return to the body by becoming molecular.


I wish to thank Lisa Weir for creating the above artistic interpretation of neurons and estrogen molecules coming into closer zones of proximity.


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[1] I am indebted to my Ph.D. supervisor Dr. D. D. Belsham for sharing with me her scientific expertise and intellectual foresight. Her interest in gonadal hormones and her motivation to examine the possible feedback mechanisms involved in the control of mammalian reproduction most certainly set the stage and direction for my own scientific research.

[2] It has since been reported that ER beta comes in four orientations or isoforms including ER-beta1 (the original other), as well as ER-beta2, 4 and 5 (the newer others) (Leung et al., 2006).

[3] I refer here to Gayle Rubin's work in 'The Traffic of Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex' (1975). Many have interpreted her work as placing more significance on the gender part of the apparatus thus causing a lack of feminist scholarship on the biological body from the mid 1970's onward. I do not believe that it was the intent of Rubin's project to dismiss the biological.

[4] Toril Moi has argued that poststructuralist feminists have in some cases made poor interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir's assessment of the role of biology and that the definition of 'sex' as biology and 'gender' as culture within feminist scholarship is wrongly attributed to second wave scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir. Moi believes that while contesting 'anatomy is destiny' de Beauvoir never intended to call for a detachment from the biological body, and illustrates this point by returning to de Beauvoir's notion that 'the body is a situation' (2001, 7).

[5] See the earlier works of Ruth Hubbard (1989), Evelyn Fox Keller (1983) and Anne Fausto-Sterling (1985).