Karl Steel's Reviews > Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self

Bodily Natures by Stacy Alaimo
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May 26, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: theory
Read from May 26 to 28, 2012

Be sure to read this book's other Goodreads review, by user sdw: it's excellent. Also read Levi Bryant's appreciation.

Profs, if, for some reason, your students need a handy illustration of "cultural studies," Bodily Natures will work perfectly: Alaimo ranges through high modernist fiction and poetry (Meridel Le Sueur and Muriel Rukeyser), postmodern and magical realist fiction (Watershed and So Far From God), self-published MCS memoirs, the individualist, anti-environmental politics of amniocentisis, science fiction (Greg Bear's Darwin series), the sociobiological discourse of the gene as 'master', and a host of other works and genres and ways of life. The opening chapter is a masterful, generous background on criticism of the body and on materialist feminisms: it deserves a place in any intro to theory course that has its eye on the 21st-century.

I've only a few complaints: Alaimo almost exclusively concentrates on the harm done by our being implicated in this shifting world (eg, "Multiple chemical sensitivity may well be the quintessential example of what I'm calling trans-corporeality"): cancers, chemical sensitivity, silicosis. I don't recall anything on the peculiar ways humans can live better through yogurt or sunlight or color, etc. To be sure, Alaimo's strong interest in environmental justice means that she's seeking out wrongs, and I know she's resisting the 'anything goes' approach of nonmaterial constructivism (and what looks like a postethical embrace of extinction in E. Grosz), but a more expansive posthumanism means looking, as well, at the advantages we can derive from our material connections.

The other complaint is the final bit, which aims to further the opening chapter's discussion of trans-corporeal ethics: I wasn't convinced. It's far too short for its importance, and Alaimo's frequent appeal to Karen Barad, I think, fails her here, as Barad speaks in praise of "vitality" and "flourishing." Fine language, that, but cui bono? Not all flourishings are good for me (see my paragraph, above). I'm being provincial here, of course, but it would be a cop-out to say, well, we all--humans, viruses, frying pans--gotta be -centrist. But still, I don't think flourishing can be a universal good. What's good for me isn't good for a lot of other things, and so on for others.

Some favorite bits follow:

"Perhaps the only way to truly oust the twin ghosts of biology and nature is, paradoxically, to endow them with flesh, to allow them to materialize more fully, and to attend to their precise materializations."

"Environmental justice movements epitomize a trans-corporeal materiality, a conception of the body that is neither essentialist, nor genetically determined, nor firmly bounded, but rather a body in which social power and material/geographic agencies intra-act."

"The most important difficulty for the material memoir, a difficulty that is simultaneously political, epistemic, and generic, is that autobiography by definition surfaces from one individual person, yet at present it is not feasible to trace the exact causes of cancer or other environmentally generated illnesses within an individual."

"The things-you-can-do-at-home-to-save-the-earth movement has become, in part, things-you-can-do-at-home-to-save-yourself. Sadly, many of these things involve the consumption of more products and more energy, thus contributing to further environmental degradation and climate change."

"Whereas green consumerism privatizes our response to widespread environmental degradation, the practices of the citizen-expert may foster political awareness of the relations between power and knowledge as well as between science and capitalist enterprise."

" Interestingly, despite his emphasis on textuality, [Timothy W.] Luke offers one of the most tangible and disturbing depictions of what it is to live in risk society. After explaining that environmental risk management routinely calculates such things as “for every A, B, or C benefit of this chemical or material, X people per 10,000, Y people per 100,000 . . . will be harmed by ill health, genetic mutation and/or death,” he states: “[i]n modern society, everyone tacitly consents to the crippling and painful execution of many of their fellow consumers every time they spray herbicide on lawns, fill their gas tanks with high-test, buy pressure-treated lumber, and purchase plastic housewares”

"The messy, multiple, material origins of this posthuman may suggest an environmental ethics that begins from the movement across—across time, across place, across species, across bodies, across scale—and reconfigures the human as a site of emergent material intra-actions inseparable from the very stuff of the rest of the world"
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