Monday, April 1, 2013

Life (Un)Ltd Speaker: Elizabeth A. Wilson

Drawing on the resources of biology, evolutionary theory, and the neurosciences to develop new models for feminism and queer theory

A self-declared “feminist scientist” or “scientist feminist,” Elizabeth A. Wilson,  will be speaking at UCLA on May 7 on “Bitter Melancholy: Feminism, Depression, and Aggression.” Her research draws on the resources of biology, evolutionary theory, and the neurosciences to develop new models for feminism and queer theory. 

Wilson is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. From 2011 to 2012, Wilson was a Helen Putnam Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Sydney and her B.Sc. (Honors) in Psychology from the University of Otago. She has also been an Australian Research Council Fellow at the University of New South Wales and held appointments in Women’s Studies and Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, the Australian National University, and the University of Sydney.

Her most recent book, Affect and Artificial Intelligence (2010), is the first in-depth study of affect and intersubjectivity in the computational sciences. In it, she argues that the pioneers of artificial intelligence in the 1950s and 1960s understood intelligence to involve not just the capacity to think but also to learn, feel, and grow. Making use of archival and unpublished material from the early years of AI (1945–70) to the present, Wilson shows that early researchers were more engaged with questions of emotion than many commentators have assumed. “If you’re trying to build an agent that works with humans on a regular basis, building an emotional robot makes the interaction more flexible and robust,” Wilson said in an interview with Emory Report. “These were concerns from the beginning.”

In Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (2004), Wilson argues that key evolutionary concepts like coadaptation and organic affinity may in fact hold immense value for contemporary feminist and queer thinking. In her review of Psychosomatic and other recent books in Feminist Studies, Myra J. Hird calls Wilson’s book “engagement with science at its best,” going on to praise the book’s central tenet that “soma and psyche do not correspond to different ‘realities’ of the body.” In a review in symplokē, Elizabeth Green Musselman also lauds Wilson’s approach: 

Western feminism has a history of ambivalence about how to handle its culture’s entrenched commitment to mind-body dualism…In her fascinating and innovative book, Elizabeth A. Wilson cuts through this Gordian knot [soma/psyche] with a scalpel edge. Wilsons turns her critical eye specifically on the conversation—or rather, lack thereof—between neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Neuroscientists, she says, have committed themselves to a nervous system without a psyche, while psychoanalysts (feminist and otherwise) have committed themselves to a non-biologized psyche. Bridging the gap left by this disciplinary specialization and uncritical acceptance of dualism, Wilson argues provides surprisingly liberatory possibilities.

Wilson’s upcoming book, Gut Feminism, continues her scholarly enterprise with a feminist analysis of biomedical theories of depression. Looking at medical data about how antidepressants traverse the body, Wilson notes that the effects of such drugs for controlling depression are not limited to the brain but also impact the network of nerves involved in the gut: “Antidepressants don’t just go straight to the brain and nowhere else.” In this project, she has been looking at both the pharmacology of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and the neurobiology of the viscera.

Rachel Lee, CSW Acting Director, invited Wilson because this current work addresses some issues that CSW’s ongoing Life (Un)Ltd  research project is exploring this year: food and metabolism. “Elizabeth Wilson’s work has been at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities/social sciences,” says Lee. “While Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity had introduced a way of thinking masculinity and femininity as not grounded in biological differences, Wilson noticed that one of the effects of Butler’s emphasis on a non-biologically foundationalist approach to sex/gender/heteronormativity was a knee-jerk reaction against delving into biology or using biological evidence. Wilson pushed back against that knee-jerk reaction.  She started inquiring into the psyche and mind not just through psychoanalysis, in the Freudian tradition, but also looking at neurology—the material bases of the brain, the neural networks, and so forth. I’m very excited to hear what she has to say about feminism, depression, and aggression.”


“Elizabeth Wilson: Scientist Feminist Creates New Models of Inquiry,” Emory Report, February 7, 2011,
 “Feminist Engagements with Matter,” review by Myra J. Hird, Feminist Studies 35: 2 (Summer 2009), 329-346,
“Pyschosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body by Elizabeth A. Wilson,” review by Elizabeth Green Musselman, symplokē 13: 1/2 2005, 347-349,

Selected Publications by Elizabeth A. Wilson
”Another Neurological Scene,” History of the Present 1:2 (2011), 149-169.
“Underbelly,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 21:1 (2010), 194-208.
Affect and Artificial Intelligence (University of Washington Press, 2010)
Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (Duke University Press Books, 2004)
Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition (Routledge, 1998)



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