Towards a New Environmental Ethic in Contemporary Feminist Theory

By Levy, Nadine | Hecate, May-November 2012 | Go to article overview

Towards a New Environmental Ethic in Contemporary Feminist Theory


Levy, Nadine, Hecate


This article explores how new materialist feminism, a recent development in feminist theory, builds on ecofeminist philosophy. It argues that, like later ecofeminist work new materialist feminism disrupts the gendered dualities of nature/culture, animal/human and mind/body, which hinder our relationship to the natural environment and to our own corporeality. New materialist feminism does this by drawing on cutting-edge scientific findings of the body and the natural world that point to a more interconnected and complex understanding of the world we co-inhabit. This article suggests that by engaging with the hard sciences, new materialist feminism undertakes the crucial work of challenging an outdated and largely uncontested version of biology. Such an engagement challenges the commonly held view that the human mind has mastery over the body and the natural environment and strengthens the ecofeminist case for a renewed ethic towards the natural world.

As I write this, my mother is recovering from a fracture to her tibial plateau (knee joint) following a bad fall at home. I have spent the week in emergency departments, (1) doctor's surgeries and responding to her body's needs. I fight with her body. How could this happen at such an inconvenient time, I think? I have a paper to write, essays to mark yoga classes to attend. I fight with my body. My flight/fight response has been activated. I can barely sleep or eat and every now and then a rush of anxiety surges through my body, as if to tell me that danger is imminent. I panic. Has my mother fallen again? Is there something I do not know about her condition? Sitting in the Emergency Department triggers a state of nausea. I try to push it down, but can feel it demanding my attention and insisting I leave the Emergency Department at once. My body and the environment I have found myself in are conversing. They are shaping and influencing each other. Despite my attempt to suppress this relationship, it persists. (2) //// Psychosomatic reactions like the one I experience are important in understanding the link between body and mind and their relationship to the outside world. They disrupt the idea that body and mind are separate and remind us that our interaction with the material world is complex and not always within our control. I stop trying to control my body's reaction. I relax and accept that something mysterious is taking place here. My body is responding to this difficulty in its own unique way--my physiology and psychological constitution are signalling that I am in an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment. I take a breath and allow the process to unfold.

This article is about the unpredictability, and the surprising quality, of our corporeality and its interaction with the surrounding environment.~ It puts forward the idea that neither our bodies nor the environment around us can be controlled by the human mind alone--both possess what Stacey Alaimo describes as a type of independent "agency" (Alaimo pp 244-50). This agency has the power to invoke feelings of terror and confusion, as well as pleasure and excitement. This is a place where the boundaries between nature/culture and mind/body are troubled and transgressed. It is a place where what we thought we knew, we no longer know. It is the moment we realise that we are not as separate and invulnerable as we once thought. Our bodies, minds, nature and culture can no longer be neatly classified

into the discrete and contained categories with which we are most familiar.

These are questions of epistemology, questions which have been taken up by an emerging body of work described as "new materialist feminism." Closely associated with post-humanism, new materialist feminism reworks certain aspects of environmental and ecofeminist philosophy, offering a new perspective on why feminists should make the natural environment a priority. Put simply, the proposition that our bodies and the natural world are in a continuous exchange provides the basis for a new way of seeing and experiencing the world, in both epistemological and ethical terms (Alaimo 238). …

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