Faculty Lecture, Samantha Frost: “Body, Cause, Politics: The Beginnings of Biology for Humanists
Guest Writer: Brandon Jones

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On January 28, 2013 Samantha Frost (Political Science/Gender & Women’s Studies) gave the Unit for Criticism’s annual faculty lecture titled, "Body, Cause, Politics: The Beginnings of
Biology for Humanists.” Below is a response from Brandon Jones, a graduate student in English]

Biology as Criticism: Reimagining the Body as Biocultural Organism

Written by Brandon Jones (English)

Samantha Frost began her talk on her forthcoming book, Biology for Humanists, with an important disclaimer. This is no how-to-guide—no call for humanists to drop what they are doing to learn the intricate details of molecular and cellular physiology before they can even begin to talk about the body or biopolitics. Rather, she called our attention to the much bolder claim that she is trying to make with her title: biology is for humanists.

That is, for Frost, biology becomes another resource, not a trump card, for critical interpretations of embodiment. It is time to stop thinking about the principles of biological science as somehow outside of or opposed to the semiotic, social, historical, and political formations of subjectivity. Frost encourages us to question the dominance of some poststructuralist approaches to the body that historicize and denaturalize it, not in order to replace these approaches with claims of biological determinism, but to reimagine and reconfigure the body as both biopolitical subject and organism. Living bodies are both material and discursive—in a word, biocultural.

In her previous writings on Thomas Hobbes and New Materialism (her monograph, Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics and her co-edited New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics) we see Frost working up to this claim, moving away from social constructivist approaches to biopower and identity in favor of a closer attention to the material processes involved in bodily engagements with, and responses to, cultural and physical environments. In her talk, Frost drew upon her experience in the biology classroom as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow to give us explicit examples of how attention to biology (particularly the molecular and cellular variety) can help humanists reimagine insightful critical orientations to the body.

By starting with the claim that biology is indeed for humanists, Frost emphasized that a primary objective of her forthcoming project is to disrupt suspicious modes of thinking about biology. She wants to dispel the fears humanists have toward biology as a discipline outside of the humanistic fold, as a set of incontrovertible truth-claims that seek to define our embodied destiny. We do not have to consider biology solely as a discipline that takes the body to be a natural rather than cultural object of knowledge.

Frost made this point by noting how humanist approaches that examine the body as biopolitical subject enact a reversal of the logic of biological determinism. Whereas naturalistic accounts of the organism point to the self-evident material attributes of biological structure and function out of which bodily and cultural formations arise, the poststructuralistic critique of this alleged essentialism holds that discursive regimes of epistemological and political power are behind this building of bodily identities. But according to Frost this reversal recapitulates the logic of biology as destiny, which naturally follows when we consider the idea of the body as organism as somehow insidious. The fear is that if we foreground the biochemical processes of the organism, we may be falling prey to a political ruse; we may miss the manner in which our sexual and racial identities, for example, are being manipulated by forces of biopower. How are we to avoid this bind while taking biology seriously?

Frost offered her methodology of reimagining and refiguring biological selfhood by way of answer. She did not argue for replacing humanist practices of historicizing the body with principles of biology, but rather advocated a shift in emphasis toward examining the material processes by which organisms engage with their social and physical environments to maintain their constitutions as living entities. We do not have to pick one side of the nature versus nurture debate, but can change the conversation by dispelling notions of causality that describe the relations between biology and culture as linear and unidirectional.

Frost illustrated the theoretical difficulty humanists may have in getting to this point by sharing a debate she had with a student regarding the question of whether we can definitively say an organism is alive or dead. She posed the scenario of coming across a dead squirrel. We would both agree, she said to the student, that the squirrel was indeed dead, correct? The student responded by saying yes, we would, but then invoked arguments of social and historical relativism to claim that they could only come to that agreement given a certain shared cultural environment and biological episteme. Frost insisted on the simple but crucial point that, in the end, the student can tell the difference between a dead squirrel and a live squirrel. While the student insisted that that was not the point--could we not imagine a culture that mistook the squirrel’s deadness for liveness--Frost emphasized that our being able to tell was precisely the point.

Without suggesting that humanists discard their critical heritage, Frost encouraged them to overcome the difficulty in saying that embodied beings are definitively alive (or dead, as the case may be). Living bodies grow within habitats, and these habitats, as domains of subsistence, are materially substantial as well as social and symbolic. The manner in which we are embodied and embedded in habitats is not reducible to sociality or physicality; instead, nonlinear, complex relations between material and discursive processes form, de-form, and re-form an organism’s biological and environmental conditions that allow for an embodied livelihood.

Again, Frost made it clear that by emphasizing this point she is not trying to establish a new foundation for humanist approaches to biopolitics and bioethics. She is not calling for tackling the intimidating obscurity of biochemical details of anatomy and physiology; she is calling humanists to question the perception of biology as obscure and politically problematic. The majority of humanists working on sociopolitical issues of embodiment, Frost claimed, continue to envision the movements, flows, and trajectories of cellular and molecular processes as yet unimaginable and unknowable for their projects. To refigure the common critical perception of biology in the humanities in order to think of living bodies as biocultural organisms, Frost argues, can only aid in attending to the complex ways in which we respond to and shape our socio-material subjectivity and environment.

To demonstrate how such a reimaging of biology can enhance the critical questions humanists can ask, Frost closed her talk by turning to three features of molecular and cellular biology concerned with material boundaries. The first is the principle of entropy, the role of which is as crucial to molecular processes as it is to physical thermodynamics and informational systems theory.

Frost gave the example of two atoms moving closer to one another. These atoms vibrate as they approach, and upon encountering one another constrain each other’s vibrancy. This results in a state that is collectively higher in energy, a condition highly disagreeable to physical entities. In order to lower the energy of the compound state, the atoms have two options: (1) they can bond in a chemical reaction to form a molecule, which results in energy dissipation, or (2) they can mutually repel one another, which also leads to energy dissipation. In either case, the dissipation of energy amounts to an overall increase in disorder: the law of entropy states that, as a result of their tendency to decrease energy levels, atoms and molecules will reach the most disordered state they can in a given context.

The second feature Frost touched on was the semipermeability of cellular walls, or membranes. Her point here was to emphasize that cell walls are neither indiscriminately porous, nor are they hermetically sealed. Instead, they are selectively permeable such that certain molecules (lipids, proteins, etc.) may pass in and out via diffusion in order to maintain homeostasis. For molecules that are too large to simply pass through the membrane, there are specialized channels (such as the protein channel in the cell membrane diagram) through which they can enter the cell. Thus, cell walls do not function to mark a sharp distinction between intracellular and extracellular, but to allow diffusion across the boundary.

The final feature she touched on was the interaction of these porous cell bodies. Cells do not relate to one another as rigid, discrete structures but as squishy, mutable blobs that selectively exchange materials across their membranes. Although Frost did not explicitly elaborate on how these molecular and cellular processes come to bear on core issues of politics and ethics, her implications were clear: the dynamic flows and relations of biological processes challenge conceptions of boundaries as arbiters of discrete spaces of interiority and exteriority. They do not necessarily have to mark spaces of violent encounters between self and other, but can allow for selective openness between entities and environments.

Her bottom line: biology for humanists (and Biology for Humanists) can help provide ways to understand nature with culture, and biology with politics.

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