Thursday, October 16, 2014

Banu Subramaniam

With a life story that is relevant to her choice of research subjects, Banu Subramaniam has shared bits of autobiography in many of the papers she has published. In a 1988 article in Women’s Review of Books, she explains that her movement into the liminal space between academic disciplines, “… all began when I got on the plane at the Bombay Sahar International Airport on a warm still night ten years ago, with visions of donning that revered white lab coat amid a sea of white-skinned, white-lab-coated male scientists studying the proverbial white male rat.” (1)Feeling a growing sense of marginalization in her doctoral program at Duke University, she decided to take courses in the department of women’s studies—from which she eventually earned a graduate certificate, in addition to her PhD in zoology-genetics. Rather than leading her away from evolutionary biology, the tools that Subramaniam acquired studying feminist critiques of science allowed her to return to her home department in a more engaged and political manner.

Since then, she has practiced and advocated a science that is activist, liberatory, and progressive. Such a science is still entirely committed to producing knowledge about the natural world, but with the awareness that this world—and this science—is embedded in society and culture and that this embeddedness must be explicitly recognized and discussed. Early evidence of this orientation can be seen in Subramaniam’s 1998 paper, co-authored with Mary Wyer, “Assimilating the Culture of No Culture in Science: Feminist Interventions in (De)Mentoring Graduate Women.” For this project, three groups (men and women faculty; women graduate students; and women faculty and graduate students) met separately over the course of ten months to discuss their experiences in academia. The attitudes revealed are startling, and the results slightly disheartening. The authors conclude that “to truly transform the educational experience for graduate women, we need to deconstruct a ‘culture of no culture’”—that is, the ideal of the objective and decontextualized scientific researcher—“and name the interpersonal interactions, behaviors, and rules that govern this culture.” (2)

Subramaniam’s writing is exhilarating to read not only for the range and depth of her ideas but also for her enactment of these ideas in a remarkable variety of styles. Three papers published in 2000 excellently illustrate this point. Published in Evolution, "Balancing Selection on a Floral Polymorphism" describes an experiment to determine the mechanism by which flower color polymorphism is maintained in the common morning glory. She and co-author Mark Rausher planted five plots, with proportions of dark, light, and white flowers varying from those observed in natural populations. After monitoring the changes in gene frequency for a generation, they were able to show “the first direct evidence indicating that selection acts to prevent the elimination of the white allele.” (3) The paper nimbly describes their experiment and analysis, giving a clear example of balancing selection at work.

Published in the same year, yet entirely divergent in tone, is “Snow Brown and the Seven Detergents: A Metanarrative on Science and the Scientific Method.” Here she tells the tale of the courageous girl Snehalatha Bhrijbhushan, who travels from “deep within a city in the Orient” to “the land of the kind and gentle people.” Here she enters “the Building of Scientific Truth,” which lies within “the Land of the Blue Devils” (mascot of Duke University). After a traumatic interview with “the mirror” (embodying “the collective consciousness of all the Supreme White Patriarchs”), Sneha decides to enter “the Great Washing Machine” and subject herself to its “Seven Detergents.” To see their effect, you must read the story—but be warned: Subramaniam will implicate you directly by putting before you three alternate endings to the (tragic) tale.(4)

Subramaniam’s third paper from the year, “Archaic Modernities: Science, Secularism, and Religion in Modern India” (Social Text) begins with an evocative jumble of dream fragments, ranging from a filmic depiction of a mysterious Western illness entering India, to squabbles in the corridors of American academia, scenes of religious fervor, school-board renunciations of evolution, and extensive home remodels based on the science of energy flow. These fragments deftly introduce the paper, which explores the rhetoric of religious nationalists in contemporary India, comparing the country to the secular India where Subramaniam grew up. She ends this paper with another dream, less fragmented and more hopeful than the others: "I dream of a world where the project of building a progressive, antiracist, feminist politics within the social institutions of science and religion becomes possible.” (5)

These three early papers provide a good introduction to Subramaniam’s body of works, which has grown in scope yet retained a connection to many of these same themes. Her current research focuses on xenophobic responses to invasive plant species and on how the resulting emphasis on border policing diverts resources away from habitat preservation. Her first publication on this problem was “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions.”(6) This essay also appeared Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), which Subramaniam co-edited with Betsy Hartmann and Charles Zerner. More recently, she and co-author Karen Cardozo related invasion biology to Said’s Orientalism, Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblages,” and Haraway’s “naturecultures,” in “Assembling Asian/American Naturecultures: Orientalism and Invited Invasions” (Journal of Asian American Studies, 2013).

Subramaniam is currently finishing work on a book, to be titled “A Question of Variation: Race, Gender and the Practice of Science,” which will deal with these and other issues. What makes this book (and all of Subramaniam’s work) so unique is that she actually practices the science—in this case, performing field and lab studies of Southern California’s flora and soil—while simultaneously attending to the contexts of language and history from which the science cannot be separated.

This interdisciplinary practice is in line with Subramaniam’s view that “women's studies programs must make it a goal to produce a scientifically and technologically proficient group of students and faculty who are not relegated only to the role of ‘critics’ (important though this is) but are also members of the scientific enterprise, producing knowledge about the natural world, a world that is deeply embedded in its social and cultural histories.”6 Subramaniam has been heavily involved in this project through her participation in feminist science studies. She co-edited a foundational volume of the field, Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation (Routledge, 2001), and has also published more reflective papers, such as “A Conversation on Feminist Science Studies” (Signs, 2003) with Evelynn Hammonds, and “Moored Metamorphoses: A Retrospective Essay on Feminist Science Studies” (Signs, 2009).

"Banu's work has been inspirational to myself and my graduate students," says Rachel Lee, who invited Subramaniam to speak at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women on November 5th. "She is an intrepid experimenter in both the scientific and writerly domains following the example of feminist STS trailblazers like Donna Haraway."

--Devin Beecher
Beecher is a doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCLA. His research focuses on the intersections and spaces between literature and medicine.

On November 5, 2014, from 4 to 6 pm in Royce 314, Banu Subramaniam and Deboleena Roy will give talks in the Life (Un)Ltd speaker series. Titled “Surrogating the Cradle of the World: On the Onto-Epistemological Illusions of Matter,” Subramaniam's talk will focus on an analysis of surrogacy in postcolonial India. By incorporating aspects of caste, as well as genetics and evolutionary biology, she aims to bring new perspectives to the debates of nature and nurture. Roy will speak on “Germline Ruptures: Methyl Isocyanate Gas and the Transpositions of Life, Death, and Matter in Bhopal.” Organized by Rachel Lee, Associate Director of UCLA Center for the Study of Women and Associate Professor in the Departments of English, Asian American Studies, and Gender Studies, this event is presented by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and cosponsored by the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. More information is available on the website:

1. Subramaniam, Banu. 1998. “A Contradiction in Terms.” The Women’s Review of Books 15 (5): 25.
2. Subramaniam, Banu, and Mary Wyer. 1998. “Assimilating the “culture of No Culture” in Science: Feminist Interventions in (De)mentoring Graduate Women.” Feminist Teacher 12 (1): 25.
3. Subramaniam, Banu, and Mark D. Rausher. 2000. “Balancing Selection on a Floral Polymorphism.” Evolution 54 (2): 691–95.
4. Subramaniam, Banu. 2000. “Snow Brown and the Seven Detergents: A Metanarrative on Science and the Scientific Method.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 28 (1/2): 296–304.
5. Subramaniam, Banu. 2000. “Archaic Modernities: Science, Secularism, and Religion in Modern India.” Social Text 18 (3 64): 84.
6. Subramaniam, Banu. 2001. “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions.” Meridians 2 (1): 37.

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