Nature as a System of Production and Reproduction
I want to do something very important. Like fly into the past and make it come out right.
Marge Piercy, woman on the Edge of Time
The concept of the body politic is not new. Elaborate organic images for human society were richly developed by the Greeks. They conceived the citizen, the city, and the cosmos to be built according to the same principles. To perceive the body politic as an organism, as fundamentally alive and as part of a large cosmic organism, was central for them (Collingwood, 1945
). To see the structure of human groups as a mirror of natural forms has remained imaginatively and intellectually powerful. Throughout the early period of the industrial revolution, a particularly important development of the theory of the body politic linked the natural and political economy on multiple levels. Adam Smith's theory of the market and of the division of labour as keystones of future capitalist economic thought, with Thomas Malthus's supposed law of the relation of population and resources, together symbolize the junction of natural forces and economic progress in the formative years of capitalist industrialism. The permeation of Darwin's evolutionary theory with this form of political economy has been a subject of considerable analysis from the nineteenth century to the present (Young, 1969
). Without question, the modern evolutionary concept of a population, as the fundamental natural group, owes much to classical ideas of the body politic, which in turn are inextricably interwoven with the social relationships of production and reproduction.
The union of the political and physiological is the focus of this chapter. That union has been a major source of ancient and modern justifications of
domination, especially of domination based on differences seen as natural, given, inescapable, and therefore moral. It has also been transformed by the modern biobehavioural sciences in ways we must understand if we are to work effectively for societies free from domination. The degree to which the principle of domination is deeply embedded in our natural sciences, especially in those disciplines that seek to explain social groups and behaviour, must not be underestimated. In evading the importance of dominance as a part of the theory and practice of contemporary sciences, we bypass the crucial and difficult examination of the content
as well as the social function of science. We leave this central, legitimating body of skill and knowledge to undermine our efforts, to render them Utopian in the worst sense. Nor must we lightly accept the damaging distinction between pure and applied science, between use and abuse of science, and even between nature and culture. All are versions of the philosophy of science that exploits the rupture between subject and object to justify the double ideology of firm scientific objectivity and mere personal subjectivity. This anti-liberation core of knowledge and practice in our sciences is an important buttress of social control.1
Recognition of that fact has been a major contribution by feminist theorists. Women know very well that knowledge from the natural sciences has been used in the interests of our domination and not our liberation, birth control propagandists notwithstanding. Moreover, general exclusion from science has only made our exploitation more acute. We have learned that both the exclusion and the exploitation are fruits of our position in the social division of labour and not of natural incapacities.2
But if we have not often underestimated the principle of domination in the sciences, if we have been less mesmerized than many by the claims to value-free truth by scientists as we most frequently encounter them - in the medical marketplace (Gordon, 1976
; Reed, 1978
) - we have allowed our distance from science and technology to lead us to misunderstand the status and function of natural knowledge. We have accepted at face value the traditional liberal ideology of social scientists in the twentieth century that maintains a deep and necessary split between nature and culture and between the forms of knowledge relating to these two putatively irreconcilable realms. We have allowed the theory of the body politic to be split in such a way that natural knowledge is reincorporated covertly into techniques of social control instead of being transformed into sciences of liberation. We have challenged our traditional assignment to the status of natural objects by becoming anti-natural in our ideology in a way which leaves the life sciences untouched by feminist needs.3
We have granted science the role of a fetish, an object human beings make only to forget their role in creating it, no longer responsive to the dialectical interplay of human beings with the surrounding world in the
satisfaction of social and organic needs. We have perversely worshipped science as a reified fetish in two complementary ways: (1) by completely rejecting scientific and technical discipline and developing feminist social theory totally apart from the natural sciences, and (2) by agreeing that 'nature' is our enemy and that we must control our 'natural' bodies (by techniques given to us by biomedical science) at all costs to enter the hallowed kingdom of the cultural body politic as defined by liberal (and radical) theorists of political economy, instead of by ourselves. This cultural body politic was clearly identified by Marx: the marketplace that remakes all things and people into commodities.
A concrete example may help explain what I see as our dangerous misunderstanding, an example which takes us back to the point of union of the political and physiological. In Civilization and Its Discontents
, Freud (1962)
developed a theory of the body politic that based human social development on progressive domination of nature, particularly of human sexual energies. Sex as danger and as nature are central to Freud's system, which repeats rather than initiates the traditional reduction of the body politic to physiological starting points. The body politic is in the first instance seen to be founded on natural individuals whose instincts must be conquered to make possible the cultural group. Two recent neo-Freudian and neo-Marxist theorists have ironically reworked Freud's position in illuminating ways for the thesis of this essay: one is Norman O. Brown, the other Shulamith Firestone. Freud, Brown, and Firestone are useful tools in a dissection of the theories of the political and physiological organs of the body politic because they all begin their explanations with sexuality, add a dynamic of cultural repression, and then attempt to liberate again the personal and collective body.
), in Love's Body,
developed an elaborate metaphorical play between individual and political bodies to show the extraordinary patriarchal and authoritarian structure of our conceptions and experiences of both. The phallus, the head; the body, the state; the brothers, the rebellious overthrow of kingship only to establish the tyranny of the fraternal liberal market these are Brown's themes. If only the father was head, only the brothers could be citizens. The only escape from the domination that Brown explored was through fantasy and ecstasy, leaving the body politic unchallenged in its fundamental male supremacy and in its reduction to the dynamic of repression of nature. Brown rejected civilization (the body politic) in order to save the body; the solution was necessitated by his root acceptance of Freudian sexual reductionism and the ensuing logic of domination. He turned nature into a fetish worshipped by a total return to it (polymorphous perversity). He betrayed the socialist possibilities of a dialectical theory of the body politic that neither worships nor rejects
natural science, that refuses to make nature and its knowledge into a fetish.
), in the Dialectic of Sex,
also faces the implications of Freud's biopolitical theory of patriarchy and repression but tries to transform it to yield a feminist and socialist theory of liberation. She has been immensely important to feminists in this task. I think, however, that she committed the same mistake that Brown did, that of 'physiological reduction of the body politic to sex', which fundamentally blocks a liberating socialism that neither fatalistically exploits the techniques given by sciences (while despairing of transforming their content) nor rejects a technical knowledge altogether for fantasy. Firestone located the flaw in women's position in the body politic in our own bodies, in our subservience to the organic demands of reproduction. In that critical sense she accepted a historical materialism based on reproduction and lost the possibility for a feminist-socialist theory of the body politic that would not see our personal bodies as the ultimate enemy. In that step she prepared for the logic of the domination of technology - the total control of now alienated bodies in a machine-determined future. She made the basic mistake of reducing social relations to natural objects, with the logical consequence of seeing technical control as a solution. She certainly did not underestimate the principle of domination in the biobehavioural sciences, but she did misunderstand the status of scientific knowledge and practice. That is, she accepted that there are natural objects (bodies) separate from social relations. In that context, liberation remains subject to supposedly natural determinism, which can only be avoided in an escalating logic of counterdomination.
I think it is possible to build a socialist-feminist theory of the body politic that avoids physiological reductionism in both its forms: (1) capitulating to theories of biological determinism of our social position, and (2) adopting the basically capitalist ideology of culture against nature and thereby denying our responsibility to rebuild the life sciences. I understand Marxist humanism to mean that the fundamental position of the human being in the world is the dialectical relation with the surrounding world involved in the satisfaction of needs and thus in the creation of use values. The labour process constitutes the fundamental human condition. Through labour, we make ourselves individually and collectively in a constant interaction with all that has not yet been humanized. Neither our personal bodies nor our social bodies may be seen as natural, in the sense of existing outside the self-creating process called human labour. What we experience and theorize as nature and as culture are transformed by our work. All we touch and therefore know, including our organic and our social bodies, is made possible for us through labour. Therefore, culture does not dominate nature, nor is nature an enemy. The dialectic must not be made into a dynamic of growing domination.4
This position, a historical materialism based on production,
contrasts fundamentally with the ironically named historical materialism based on reproduction that I have tried to outline above.
One area of the biobehavioural sciences has been unusually important in the construction of oppressive theories of the body political: animal sociology, or the science of animal groups. To reappropriate the biosocial sciences for new practices and theories, a critical history of the physiological politics based on domination that have been central in animal sociology is important. The biosocial sciences have not simply been sexist mirrors of our own social world. They have also been tools in the reproduction of that world, both in supplying legitimating ideologies and in enhancing material power. There are three main reasons for choosing to focus on the science of animal, especially primate, groups
First, its subject and procedures developed so as to span the nature-culture split at precisely the same time in American intellectual history, between 1920 and 1940, when the ideology of the autonomy of the social sciences had at last gained acceptance, that is, when the liberal theory of society (based on functionalism and hierarchical systems theories) was being established in the universities. Intrinsic to the new liberal relations of natural and social disciplines was the project of human engineering - that is, the project of design and management of human material for efficient, rational functioning in a scientifically ordered society. Animals played an important role in this project. On the one hand, they were plastic raw material of knowledge, subject to exact laboratory discipline. They could be used to construct and test model systems for both human physiology and politics. A model system of, for example, menstrual physiology or socialization processes did not necessarily imply reductionism. It was precisely direct reduction of human to natural sciences that the post-Spencerian, post-evolutionary naturalist, new ordering of knowledge forbade. The management sciences of the 1930s and after have been strict on that point. It is part of the nature-culture split. On the other hand, animals have continued to have a special status as natural objects that can show people their origin, and therefore their pre-rational, pre-management, pre-cultural essence. That is, animals have been ominously ambiguous in their place in the doctrine of autonomy of the human and natural sciences. So, despite the claims of anthropology to be able to understand human beings solely with the concept of culture, and of sociology to need nothing but the idea of the human social group, animal societies have been extensively employed in rationalization and naturalization of the oppressive orders of domination in the human body politic.5
They have provided the point of union of the physiological and political for modern liberal theorists while they continue to accept the ideology of the split between nature and culture.
Second, animal sociology has been central in the development of the most
thorough naturalization of the patriarchal division of authority in the body politic and in the reduction of the body politic to sexual physiology. Thus this area of the natural sciences is one we need to understand thoroughly and transform completely to produce a science that might express the social relations of liberation without committing the vulgar Marxist mistake of deriving directly the substance of knowledge from material conditions. We need to understand how and why animal groups have been used in theories of the evolutionary origin of human beings, of 'mental illness', of the natural basis of cultural co-operation and competition, of language and other forms of communication, of technology, and especially of the origin and role of human forms of sex and the family. In short, we need to know the animal science of the body politic as it has been and might be.6
I believe the result of a liberating science of animal groups would better express who the animals are as well; we might free nature in freeing ourselves.
Third, the levels at which domination has formed an analytical principle in animal sociology allow a critique of the embodiment of social relations in the content and basic procedures of a natural science in such a way as to expose the fallacies of the claim to objectivity, but not in such a way as to permit facile rejection of scientific discipline in our knowledge of animals. We cannot dismiss the layers of domination in the science of animal groups as a film of unfortunate bias or ideology that can be peeled off the healthy objective strata of knowledge below. Neither can we think just anything we please about animals and their meaning for us. We come face to face with the necessity of a dialectical understanding of scientific labour in producing for us our knowledge of nature.
I will restrict my analysis primarily to a few years around the Second World War and to work on a single group of animals - the primates, in particular, the rhesus monkey, native to Asia but present in droves in scientific laboratories and research stations world-wide. I will focus principally on the work of one person, Clarence Ray Carpenter, who helped found the first major research station for free-ranging monkeys as part of the school of tropical medicine affiliated with Columbia University off Puerto Rico on the tiny island, Cayo Santiago, in the late 1930s. These monkeys and their descendants have been central actors in dramatic reconstructions of natural society. Their affiliation with tropical medicine in a neo-colonial holding of the United States, which has been so extensively used as an experiment station for capitalist fertility management policies, adds an ironic backdrop appropriate to our subject.
Men like Carpenter moved within a complex scientific world in which it would be incorrect to label most individuals or theories as sexist or whatever. It is not to attach simplistic labels but to unwind the specific social and theoretical structures of an area of life science that we need to examine the
interconnections of laboratory heads, students, funding agencies, research stations, experimental designs, and historical setting. Carpenter earned his PhD at Stanford for a study of the effects on sexual behaviour of the removal of the gonads of male pigeons in mated pairs. He then received a National Research Council Fellowship in 1931 to study social behaviour of primates under the direction of Robert M. Yerkes of the Laboratories of Comparative Psychobiology at Yale University. Yerkes had recently established the first comprehensive research institution for the psychobiological study of anthropoid apes in the world. For Yerkes, apes were perfect models of human beings. They played a major part in his sense of mission to promote scientific management of every phase of society, an idea typical of his generation.
It has always been a feature for the use of the chimpanzee as an experimental animal to shape it intelligently to specification instead of trying to preserve its natural characteristics. We have believed it important to convert the animal into as nearly ideal a subject for biological research as is practicable. And with this intent has been associated the hope that eventual success might serve as an effective demonstration of the possibility of re-creating man himself in the image of a generally acceptable ideal. (Yerkes, 1943
, p. 10)7
He, then, designed primates as scientific objects in relation to his ideal of human progress through human engineering.
Yerkes was interested in the apes in two main regards - their intelligence and their social-sexual life. For him intelligence was the perfect expression of evolutionary position. He saw every living object in terms of the outs...