I was sitting in an early morning microbiology lecture at Rutgers University, taking notes on pathogenic viruses that cause human disease, when my professor offhandedly mentioned that there continues to be debate in the scientific community about whether viruses are alive. Though the lecture soon returned to an exhaustive step-by-step overview of the mechanism of viral infection, this momentary side comment about the classificatory debate about viruses and life soon indelibly infected my thinking. Viruses provided the initial germ of my research agenda in how they seeded my intellectual attraction to the fuzzy, liminal zones that exist within binary oppositions of living/non-living and matter/life. My undergraduate work in biology generated within me an intense fascination, as well as frustration, with scientific research about the nature of life. While the invention of electron microscopes in the early twentieth century perfected techniques of viewing viruses, a philosophy that could address their relationship to concept of “life” was nowhere to be seen. After realizing that a biology department would not permit me to study the metaphysical question of how viruses destabilize the concept of life, the first challenge I faced in my research was being able to find a discipline that would allow me to speculate on such a theoretical question—one that meditated on science but went beyond science to implore the ontological conditions that make scientific enquiry itself possible.
I found a disciplinary home in women’s studies and feminist theory where I could ask these questions. My microbiology professor’s tangential comment culminated in an undergraduate thesis entitled The Viral Origins of Life, in which I argued that as agents that hover at the boundary of life and non-life, viruses are a symptom of the inadequacy of a concept of life that undergirds and upholds the fantasy of individualism and autonomy. This was the first exercise in my long term pursuit of crafting a feminist philosophy of life. The driving impetus within my overarching research agenda is to tease out the theoretical implications of scientific research in which I can sense an underlying desire to conceptualize beyond assumptions that the forces of the natural world operate through hierarchical dichotomies. The common thread that runs through the philosophies and science I address in my research is their undercutting of conceptual dualisms, such as those between mind and body, matter and memory, life and matter, and especially that of living and nonliving and of active and passive. Feminist philosophy has long argued these hierarchical pairings coincide with a gendered ordering of ideas—and thereby the world—where the first terms, historically associated with masculinity, are affirmed at the expense of the second terms which coincide with the “feminine.” Feminist philosophy has set itself the task of undoing the theoretical subordination of each of the second terms of these binary oppositions in order to reclaim and dynamize the philosophical weight embedded within these subordinated concepts and to subvert conceptual hierarchies that depend on their denigration.
The overarching theme of my current and future research directs itself to a feminist and theoretical reformulation of the relation between matter and life in a way that can account for emergence. In my scholarship, I spotlight philosophical and scientific research that begins with the assumption that becoming is more primordial than being. My dissertation, The Im/material Conditions of Emergence: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of The Origins of Life, argues that majority of historical scientific research (and cultural ideas) of the emergence of life from matter rest on ideas of a life bringing a “vital spark” to matter. I develop a feminist philosophy of life through continental thinkers who give becoming primacy over being in work (Henri Bergson, Ilya Prigogine, Gilbert Simondon, Raymond Ruyer, Luce Irigaray, and Elizabeth Grosz) and origins of life research from the previous and current century. The most famous experiments in the first historical period of origins studies—such as Stanley Miller’s 1952 experiment in which he generated amino acids from inorganic chemical precursors through an electric discharge—utilize a binary, and therefore phallocentric, formulation between matter and life. These experiments are in the background of both general scientific ideas about the origins of life and within the humanities.
My work intervenes into feminist studies writ large. I argue the concept of form in feminist theory needs to be rethought as powerfully as feminist theory’s dynamization of matter within the past two decades. This need to theorize the way form is inseparable from matter is what I term “the im/material conditions of emergence.” If feminist theory is invested in affirming the philosophical weight embedded of evolution, it needs to think of evolution beyond what Bergson describes as a process that moves from the “evolved” to “evolved” and instead re-embed evolution in the realm that which evolves. In this regard, my research argues that symbiogenesis—the idea made popular the late biologist Lynn Margulis which accounts for the evolution of complex, eukaryotic life, cannot account for the evolutionary emergence of life itself. By directing itself the question of how the first single, prokaryotic cells evolved, my research theorizes what the humanities writ large has not (yet) addressed. If modern biology regards the cell as the minimal unit of life, solely focusing on the evolution of eukaryotic cells from prokaryotic cells does not posit the origins of cellular life itself. By developing a feminist biophilosophy rooted in the emergence of life from matter, my dissertation addresses this conceptual void in current scholarship.
My next research project will develop a scientifically-rooted philosophy of the evolutionary origins of animal brains, through the evolutionary birth of synapses the in the “simplest” animals, choanoflagellates (which are the closest living relatives of animals) as well as sponges. Thinking within the liminal zones where microbial life becomes animal life, my motivating question will be whether a strict division can be made between these taxonomic classifications. My essay, entitled “‘The Container Problem’: Irigaray, Primordial Wombs, and the Origins of Life” is forthcoming in A Sharing of Thought and Speech: Scholarship on or Inspired by the Work of Luce Irigaray (edited by Ruthanne Crapo, Yvette Russell, and Brenda Sharp). In addition, my book chapter, “Before the Cell, there was Virus: Rethinking the Concept of Parasite and Contagion through Contemporary Research in Evolutionary Virology” was recently published in Transforming Contagion: Anxieties, Modalities, Possibilities (edited by Breanne Fahs, Annika Mann, Eric Swank, and Sarah Stage).