A review of Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body by Elizabeth Wilson

by Tamara Popowski

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Notions of what we might loosely call ‘the body’ continue to incite a great deal of debate in academic circles, particularly in light of what now seems like a recalcitrant stance between ‘science’ and ‘cultural’ studies. Elizabeth Wilson’s new book Psychosomatic is a wonderful addition to the literature that attempts to engage with this recalcitrance and what exactly continues to be at stake in its maintenance. On the one hand as Wilson rightly points out, it might be useful to remember that there is a ‘long- standing preference in scientific endeavour for cognitive, rational, and conscious events, and [a] corresponding distaste for emotional and bodily states’ (91). On the other hand, it is perhaps equally disturbing to note ‘not only how readily biology is denounced in the name of feminism, but also how that denunciation has been central to the intelligibility of more sophisticated accounts of the body’ (7).

Psychosomatic takes these feminist accounts of materiality as a point of departure; they present a paradox in alleging an ‘intensive scrutiny of the body’ (8), whilst at the same time strangely appearing to exclude and/or renounce biology in their analyses. The results of such analyses (that Wilson writes ‘typically seal themselves off from – or constitute themselves against – the domain of the biological’ (8) ) have been to deem anatomical or biological concerns ‘naïve’ (7), ‘pre- critical’ and thus ‘politically barren’ (8), with the accompanying and regrettable caveat that complexity is found elsewhere and outside of the corporeal in the domain of the ‘cultural, social or linguistic’ (13). Moreover in these accounts, feminism presents a dangerous ‘theoretical scene that is bent instinctively toward correcting, reversing or resisting the forces of biological reductionism’ (3), with the added implication that science studies simply present the reverse view.

When feminist writing has attempted to engage with materiality, it has conventionally done so by suggesting that the material world is a mere construction of sorts, granting it complexity only by virtue of its being apparently always and already part of the realm of culture. However, in spite of claims that such an approach offers a coherent ‘solution’ to what we might call the Nature/ Culture ‘problem’, it nonetheless still presumes an ontological separation between these two realms that does nothing to shift their implicit hierarchy; for example, Nature is granted complexity but only because it is part of the realm of Culture from the start, so that complexity remains always part of that cultural domain.

Throughout Psychosomatic, Wilson maintains a firm focus on these kinds of arguments, whilst leaning on a series of problems and texts that work to displace them. She asks how might we rethink our perception of ‘soma’s compliant nature’ (11) in a way that is not at the expense of ‘critical innovation and political efficacy’ (16), but that opens ‘up the very nature of determination (i.e., certainty, termination, resolution) to interrogation’ (26). What if we could allow ourselves to ‘perceive in biology a complexity usually attributed only to nonbiological domains’ (13)? In other words, what if nature indeed engaged in the kinds of complex things we usually attribute to culture? How might we displace the ‘figuration of channelling and control’ (28) and put cultural and biological certainties ‘back into analytic circulation’ (27), at the same time underscoring rather than undoing their ‘relational and ontological complexity’ (20)?

Simply put, Psychosomatic sets out to explicate this complexity by exploring the relationship of biology to psychology; can we continue to state that biology and psychology ‘operate in disjunctive realms’ (68)? And if they don’t, then how might we think their co-implications? While Wilson is not alone in her theoretical concerns, it is her use of source material, and the paths of creative possibility that her choice of material enables, that is so surprising and inventive here. Part of what makes Psychosomatic such a fascinating read is that Wilson brings her eye for detail to bear on a series of neurological theories (those of Peter Kramer, Simon LeVay, Paul MacLean, Joseph LeDoux, Charles Darwin and Oliver Sacks for example) that she maintains ‘struggle with ambivalence and incoherence about psyche – soma relations’ (34). She carefully guides the reader, flagging the potentials for reanimating these texts in light of her thesis. And she is generous in her reading, with the underlying suggestion that it is exactly this kind of generosity – rather than recalcitrant animosity – that can be the source of new possibility in circulating academic debates.

Whilst it is neither possible nor desirable to provide an exhaustive synopsis of Wilson ‘s explorations here, I would at least like the reader to come away with a taste of her ingenuity. Psychosomatic begins, for example, with a short but provocative meditation on Freud’s early paper on the nervous system of the lamprey. Wilson argues that the significance of this early (read: naïve and biologically reductionist) paper has long been overlooked in light of his later (read ‘more sophisticated’) discovery of psychoanalysis. Yet her strikingly simple hypothesis is that it is precisely in those moments of apparently heavy reliance on ‘reductionist declarations’ – conventionally assumed by feminism to be ‘static, incoherent, or critically useless’ – that we might find ‘new modes of embodiment’ (3). In other words, if we tolerate and explore (3) biological reductionism rather than attempt to somehow transcend it, how might we recuperate fecundity in those areas that feminism has for a long time relegated to the pre-critical past?

She goes on to ask what the consequences to Freud and Breuer’s subsequent accounts of hysteria would be had they not theorized that phenomenon as ‘primarily ideational. at the expense of analyses of biological conversion’ (5). Such accounts rely on the suggestion that the psyche somehow governs the soma. But it is precisely this vague ‘somehow’ that Wilson puts under interrogation (though importantly, not because she thinks Freud has necessarily somehow ‘overlooked’ it). For her intention is not to merely invert the psyche/soma hierarchy, with its preservation of the notion of unilateral control, but to suggest that there is a more productive way of understanding that relation, in which we might think it as ‘a mutuality of influence. that is indeterminable and constitutive’ (22). What for instance, would be the productive consequences or ‘ontological contortions’ suggested by the body’s ‘compliant and complicitous character’ (12) in accounts of hysteria, accounts where ‘hysterical diversion is not forced on the throat, legs, or eyes from the outside, [but] is already part of the natural repertoire of biological matter’ (13)? As Wilson gently argues, not only should such accounts force us to rethink the notion of an ‘originary predetermining term (19)’, but that ‘[i]n such a structure, critical anxieties about (and orthodox ambitions for) incontestable determinism have nowhere to land’ (23); what she terms ‘[t]he vectors of governance (what determines what?) are here fully disseminated – which is not to say that they are undecidable (an unsystematic array of random associations), but rather that they are not delimitable within conventional parameters of cause and effect, origin and derivation'(23).

With a similar intention in mind and to take just one more example, Wilson takes up Simon LeVay’s infamous hypothesis that relates the dimorphism in size of certain hypothalamic nuclei in humans to both gender differences and differences in sexual orientation (52). However, her intention is explicitly not to dwell on the variously homophobic or anti-homophobic possibilities that his conclusions might support. Nor is it to simply impute his data or methodology (with its reliance on apparently ‘simple’ categories of analysis – hetero/homosexual, male/female – for example) with a naïveté that belies our new-found critical sophistication. Indeed, for Wilson it is this very question of what we might do with this apparent ‘error’ that seems to lie at the heart of LeVay’s study – and by extension at the heart of any study that must always fail to capture the complexity and diversity of Nature given such a formulation – that is most interesting. With that in mind she asks, ‘[i]s a dimorphic analytic axis simply an error, a failure to accommodate difference, or does it offer a particular approach to the notion of (sexual and neurological) difference that, though rudimentary, is nonetheless generative’ (57)? In other words, do we relegate such accounts to the past, or can we use them as provocative nodes from which far broader and politically invigorating conclusions might be explored. Indeed, can an appreciation of the less obvious conclusions of Levay’s account that Wilson brings to light extend beyond Levay’s study alone? Such provocations abound in Psychosomatic ; it would be a great shame if we were to continue to be resistant to them.


Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body by Elizabeth Wilson was published by Duke University Press in 2004.

Tamara Popowski is a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology and Anthropology at UNSW. She is currently studying for the 2006- 07 school year at UC Berkeley in the Department of Rhetoric. Her research interests include biosemiotics, developmental systems theory and poststructuralism.

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