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Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human

Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human

by Samantha Frost

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In Biocultural Creatures, Samantha Frost brings feminist and political theory together with findings in the life sciences to recuperate the category of the human for politics. Challenging the idea of human exceptionalism as well as other theories of subjectivity that rest on a distinction between biology and culture, Frost proposes that humans are biocultural creatures who quite literally are cultured within the material, social, and symbolic worlds they inhabit. Through discussions about carbon, the functions of cell membranes, the activity of genes and proteins, the work of oxygen, and the passage of time, Frost recasts questions about the nature of matter, identity, and embodiment. In doing so, she elucidates the imbrication of the biological and cultural within the corporeal self. In remapping the relation of humans to their habitats and arriving at the idea that humans are biocultural creatures, Frost provides new theoretical resources for responding to political and environmental crises and for thinking about how to transform the ways we live.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361282
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/10/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.46(d)

About the Author

Samantha Frost is Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the coeditor of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, also published by Duke University Press, and the author of Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics.

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Biocultural Creatures

Toward a New Theory of the Human

By Samantha Frost

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7435-0



In which we learn that energy takes form as matter through its constrained self-relation

Right from the very start of my ventures into biology, I found myself thrown back on my operative assumptions and having to rethink the concepts I had thought I would use. In the researches on embodiment and subjectivity that I intended to bolster and elaborate by studying biology, scholars explore what it might mean for our self-understanding and for politics if we figure matter, material things, and fleshy bodies not just as objects but as agents, as possessing some kind of agent-like force or capacity. According to such work, matter should be conceived not merely as an inert passive phenomenon that is buffeted by and that vehiculates the (human) powers external. Rather, it has a force or effectivity immanent within it. Manuel Delanda (1997), for instance, explains that "matter is much more variable and creative than we have ever imagined," for "even the humblest forms of matter and energy have the potential for self organization" (16). Much of this generative creativity or self-organization evinced by matter comes from "interactions between parts" through which "properties of the combination as a whole ... are more than the sum of its individual parts," properties that are thereby described as "emergent" (17). The impetus behind this shift in thinking is to displace the anthropos as the privileged locus of agency, for "if matter itself is lively," as Jane Bennett speculates, "then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated" (2010: 13). To disconcert ourselves by perceiving and tracing the vibrancy of matter could enable us to see the world and our place in it differently.

But as I began taking the organic chemistry courses with which all biology students generally begin, I was compelled to acknowledge theoretically some things about matter that actually I had already known but had neglected to incorporate into my materialist schema. What I needed to acknowledge is captured well in Timothy Morton's recent observation that whereas in everyday life we conceive of matter as "the 'out-of-which-it's-built' of an object. ... When you study it directly, it ceases to be matter" (2013b: 62). The first point of acknowledgment was that matter is not matter-in-general but matter-more-specifically. Matter is composed of elements whose varied composition constitutes the conditions of possibility for material things' being, persistence, transformation, and effectivity in the world. In other words, in working with notions of materiality, we have to conceive of matter not as a relatively undifferentiated mass of substance but rather as a broad array of atomic elements each of which is composed quite differently and specifically, as elements whose very specificity has a profound effect on how each behaves.

Moreover, and this was the second thing, what makes the atomic elements different in their specific ways is that they are composed of variously charged subatomic bits and pieces. Which is to say that when you get right down to the details of it, the atomic elements that compose matter are not really "stuff" at all but rather conglomerations of energy — a fact that complicates considerably the question of what we are to understand matter to be, and what it might mean to position oneself theoretically as a materialist. If researchers in a variety of fields are beginning to reconsider the significance of materiality, if they are taking matter as a bona fide starting point for their investigations, what might such a troublesome atoms-are-energy hiccup portend? Disconcertingly, I found myself having to challenge and transform my understanding of materiality at the very start of my effort to equip myself so as to be able to persuade more scholars to take it seriously.

It turns out, however, that if we give ourselves over to the insight that the atomic elements that make up matter are composed of energy, we do not lose the ability to talk about materiality. To the contrary, to attend to energetic basis of matter in the way that I outline in this chapter enables us to understand how matter is differentially composed and how different kinds of matter behave and participate in processes not just in random ways but in marvelously, astonishingly specific, complex, and directed ways. Indeed, to think about the energies out of which matter is composed enables us to appreciate the reasons that carbon is the predominant matter of the matter that is the body, that is, that life as we know it is a carbon-based form of life.

In this chapter, I will explain how different forms of energy constrain each other in ways that end up being generative of the elements we know as matter. The particular figuration I want to advance is that energy takes form as substance or matter through its constrained self-relation. This is a very compact formulation, to be sure. But once its meaning is elaborated, it is also very productive. For the constraints on energy that make possible its substantialization as matter are the very constraints that are generative of life processes. To conceive of matter — organic matter and organic processes — in terms of the constraints on the energy that give it form enables us to wrest productive insights from many aspects of contemporary biology, insights that animate the rest of this book.

The Stuff of Matter

One of the interesting things about matter is its uncertain ontological status as substance. In spite of several generations of advances in physics and chemistry that take for granted the energetic qualities of matter, cultural and political theorists — and perhaps the lay public more generally — tend to hold on to a substantialist framework for thinking about matter. Within this framework, matter is a substance with extension, density, and duration. And it is composed of smaller bits or particles that congeal, organize, or become differentiated so as to create the substances and solid objects we experience in our everyday lives. Such a tendency to conceive of matter as substance is, perhaps, part of the legacy of modern atomism, according to which the characteristic movements of gross physical objects are read back into their constituent parts. As with many things from modern philosophy that retain their hold on our forms of understanding, atomism and substantialism accommodate the seeming solidity of objects we encounter: a rock, a hand, an apple. Such objects feel solid — solid and hard, solid and soft, solid and crisp.

Of course, we have also heard tell of electrons, protons, and neutrons, with their electrical charges and subatomic and quantum component parts that might eventually reveal secrets about the origin of the universe. Yet, because it is difficult to think about energy as substance or material, we tend to ignore those findings and gravitate in our common theoretical parlance toward a substance ontology: it just makes better and easier sense of the heft, the weight, the pressure and resistance that rocks, hands, and apples exert as we grasp them. To consider what it might mean to think about matter in terms of energy is a fascinating challenge not only to the ideas with which we often work but also to our experience of ourselves in the world.

The simplest way to begin is to imagine holding two magnets together, not on their sucked-together attracting sides but on their pushing-away repulsing sides. There is a squidgy bouncy quality to the repulsion. The magnets slide around the gap between them; or perhaps it feels like a gap holds them apart. What keeps the magnets apart is magnetic force, which is a kind of energy. Even though magnetic force is a kind of energy, it feels solid when under pressure. Indeed, in our working scenario, we only feel this seeming solidity when we use our hands to hold or press the magnets toward one another. The polarity of the magnets' energies compels the magnets to move apart, and it is when they are compelled by our pushing hands to be in proximity that we experience a sense of solidity or substance. Using the magnets as an imaginative reference point, we should think about matter in this way, as forms of energy whose interrelations are constrained or delimited in such a way as to create what we know as substance.

To think about matter as energy that feels substantial because its movements or shifts are curbed or circumscribed is not to say that the solidity of matter is "not real," as if up to this point we have been mistaken or deluded. Rather, it is to say that the solidity or substantiality of the matter we encounter daily is an effect of the constrained flow and interrelation of energy. Although admittedly, if we were to dig theoretically down to the quantum level, as Karen Barad (2007, 2012; Barad and Kleinman 2012) invites us to do, then we would look at the world through a framework in which it is possible that all that is solid could melt into air (a horrible cooptation of Marx's lovely phrase). For as Barad points out, at the quantum scale, the different dimensions of energy split and rejoin at the same fraction of an instant, so that each quanta both exists and does not exist at the same time: "a dynamic play of in/determinacy" (2012: 214). In thinking through the lens of quantum field theory, then, the solidity of matter might well be a delusion. But since the indeterminacy, instability, and unpredictability of quantum behavior has posed difficulties for scientists who might aspire to integrate it into other branches of scientific research, like biology, I will not dwell in this book at that level of analysis.

So, to formulate a definition that can serve as a reference point for our discussion: energy takes form as matter through its constrained self-relation. What we know or experience as matter is energy whose differentiation produces highly constrained forms of self-relation. Those highly constrained forms of energetic self-relation are the conditions for the generation of various forms of extension, density, endurance, and dimension, some of which are beyond human perception but some of which we humans experience as heavy, light, staid, evanescent, solid, fluid, airy, opaque, or transparent. Some of those forms are hot, some cold; some soothing and some are explosive. And among those forms is a very special one: life.

Our effort to conceive of matter as variegated formations produced through the constrained interrelations of different kinds of energy will be helped along if we refigure or revise our imaginative conception of what an atom looks like. For a long while, atoms have been portrayed via a solar system model: just as our solar system has a sun around which circle various planets (and protoplanets — poor Pluto), so an atom was understood to have a center or nucleus around which orbited little particles known as electrons. It turns out, however, that such a figuration does not do justice to the form and movements of the energy that composes atoms: it makes atoms seem like particles that are made out of tinier particles that themselves are made out of even tinier ones.

Instead, if we consider that the different "pieces" of an atom are forms of energy, then we can think about the shapes, dimensions, and behavior of atoms in terms of the interactions that take place between those different forms of energy (just as in the case of the imagined magnets). As I will show, the movement of the energies that compose electrons, neutrons, and protons — and, yes, that then compose atoms — is not an easy circulation, a lazy circuit, or a gently rhythmic flow. Rather, the movements are constrained and contained, such that they constitute fields or domains that agitate tensely. It is these tense fields of energetic agitation that form the components of the atoms that we can perceive when they coagulate into objects and sensory organs. If we hold in our imagination the thought of those magnets — drawn together yet held apart, repelled from one another but prevented from dispersing, moving and shifting within these dual constraints — we can appreciate better the kinds of energy that compose an atom and the ways that those energies interact to create what we know as matter.

Outline of an Atom

At the center of an atom is the nucleus. The nucleus is a zone or field of energy composed of neutrons and protons. And while neutrons and protons are not as important for my overall discussion as the electrons that circulate around them, there are a couple of features that are helpful to understand. Thus, an outline rather than a lot of details.

Neutrons are particle-like forms of energy composed of a variety of quarks — the quarks are "various" because they are themselves different forms of energy. Neutrons have a mass and no charge. One of the jobs that neutrons perform is the provision of the force (called "the strong force") that holds the protons together in the nucleus. Protons are also tiny particle-like forms of energy composed of a (different) variety of quarks. They have mass, and they also possess a positive charge. In fact, it is because protons have a positive charge that neutrons are so handy. Just as the positive ends of two magnets repel one another, so the positive charges of protons force their separation. Indeed, the conglomeration of protons in an atomic nucleus would violently repel one another but for the fact that they are held together by the strong force of the neutrons. The nucleus, then, is not a still or quiet field. Rather, it is characterized by a trembling tension generated by the neutron's strong force that holds the protons together despite the repulsion that would otherwise push them apart. The constraints on energy in relation to itself gives form to the centers of atoms.

There are a couple of other interesting things to know about atomic nuclei.

First, exactly what kind of substance or element an atom is depends solely on the number of protons in its nucleus. The elements are not differentiated because of some enduring substantive essence — carbon, for instance, is not carbon because it is and remains over time "carbonish." We have to dispel any residual Aristotelian notion of "species" here. Rather, the elements are differentiated — different from one another — because they differ in the number of protons they possess. If we start with one proton, we get hydrogen. If we imaginatively add one more proton to the nucleus, then we get helium. If we serially add one more proton, then one more proton, and so forth, we would, or could in principle, traverse the entire table of elements, with each addition creating an atom of the next kind. We could also, in our imagination, do the reverse and trip down through the table of elements from huge heavy atoms to the smaller ones — all the way back down to hydrogen. The fact that proton count makes each element what it is effects a peculiar and somewhat disorienting de-essentialization of the different elemental forms of matter. The distinctive and what we often think of as identifying characteristics of each element — oxygen, chlorine, silver, or lead, for instance — depend on the number of positively charged protons in an atom's nucleus and the kinds of (energetic) interactions among protons and electrons that that positively charged population makes both possible and impossible. The constraints posed by the ways that energy can relate to itself are what constitute the differences among different kinds of matter.

To appreciate that proton population is what defines an element is to make sense, albeit an anachronistic one, of the completely disreputable but centuries-old and widely practiced art of alchemy, and particularly the effort to chemically transform common metals into gold: if one could adjust the number of protons in the right way, one could create a veritable pile of treasure! Historically, this sort of alchemy was doomed to failure because practitioners tried to use chemistry (which is concerned with electrons surrounding the nucleus) rather than specifically nuclear chemistry (which is concerned with the particles inhabiting the nucleus). But even today, this sort of alchemy is close to impossible — or at least the attempt is not casually recommended. It is close to impossible in part because of the prohibitively enormous amounts of energy required to shove just one additional proton (let alone a whole slew of them) into a nucleus. It is also better not done because the reactions precipitated inside the (tense) nucleus by such an addition are incredibly energetically powerful, difficult to contain, and oftentimes explosively dangerous. Such changes in composition of an atomic nucleus are called nuclear reactions; the energy that is released and that can subsequently disrupt the composition of other atomic nuclei is the phenomenon called radioactivity (Atkins and Jones 2010: 707).


Excerpted from Biocultural Creatures by Samantha Frost. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction  1

1. Carbon  31

2. Membranes  53

3. Proteins  77

4. Oxygen  101

5. Time  119

Conclusion  147

Notes  161

References  167

Index  183

What People are Saying About This

Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine - Susan Merrill Squier

"Samantha Frost offers a clear, accessible, and theoretically invigorated exploration of the life sciences, demonstrating the need for a new theory of the human."

Gene E. Robinson

"Samantha Frost has fashioned an exciting new conceptualization of human nature by creatively synthesizing a deep dive into contemporary biology with mastery of humanist theory. By explicating and analyzing biological discoveries revealing that the boundaries between DNA, self, and the environment are much more fluid than ever imagined, Biocultural Creatures builds an important bridge between the humanities and the sciences."

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