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Feminism beyond Humanism: Aleatory Matter in Aristotle’s Reproductive Theory

Emma Bianchi

In this paper, I argue that a reconsideration of Aristotle’s teleological approach to human and non-human phenomena alike may be useful for the contemporary turn to concepts of the posthuman and nonhuman. In particular, the renewed interest in matter and “materialism” on the part of feminist scholars (see, e.g., Alaimo and Hekman, 2008) may be enriched by an in-depth consideration of the notion of hulê as material cause in Aristotle’s philosophical and biological writings.

While many scholars have investigated the links forged by Aristotle between form and matter on the one hand, and male and female on the other, the focus of these studies has been either to diagnose the sexism inherent in Aristotelian metaphysics (see e.g. Lange, 1983; Lloyd, 1984; Freeland, 1998), or to rescue Aristotle from charges of sexism or misogyny (see e.g. Tress, 1992; Mayhew, 2004; Henry, 2007).  However, all these studies take for granted the passivity and subordination of Aristotle’s material cause in relation to form. In this paper I return to the site of sexual reproduction in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals to examine its complexities, and to foreground the portrayal of matter there as not simply passive and obedient (as it appears in the Physics and Metaphysics) but, rather, as unruly and unpredictable. Further, I show how this disclosure of Aristotelian materiality as harboring aleatory potential may be mined for contemporary feminist politics (drawing conclusions aligned with those in Bianchi, 2012).

As is well known, in Aristotle’s reproductive theory the female contributes only the matter for the offspring, while the semen provides the spark of soul and life, form and logos. But a difficulty in this schema immediately appears, for if the male contributes form, how is it possible that a female offspring might result? Aristotle answers that a female is the result of a disruption in the process, an error or fault in the matter due to insufficient heat, which may occur because of some exigency such as youth or old age, or a wind in the south. Such errancy gives rise to a violent destruction and overturning (metaballô), in which the male offspring devolves into its female opposite. Here, the female here is characterized less by passive materiality than by matter’s irrepressible unruliness; its aleatory propensities that Aristotle cannot properly account for within his causal rubric If we also consider the mechanisms of heredity, a series of unaccountable material forces (loosening, changing into opposites, destruction, falling short, mutilation) come into view that disrupt the smooth teleological unfoldings of nature. And indeed, at Generation of Animals 4, 8 778a7 Aristotle explicitly tells us that it is on account of the plural and indefinite nature of matter that natural teleology (at least in the sublunary realm) often fails to unfold as it should, in accordance with the cycles of the heavens.

The female, instead of being identified with nature, is thus the result of material forces that act against nature as a constant yet unpredictable fault or interruption in nature's teleological unfolding toward what is best. At the same time, of course, she is also an essential element within nature, necessary for the teleological continuance of the species. This “feminine symptom” thus traverses both the interior and exterior of Aristotle's teleological system, acting simultaneously with it and against it, and giving the lie to its coherence. Such a conception of the material cause as “feminine symptom,” as simultaneously subtending a teleological metaphysics while exceeding and disrupting it, may be garnered to bolster and enrich contemporary materialist currents in feminist theory. I thus show that at the heart of Aristotle’s profoundly patriarchal metaphysical architecture, feminine matter has a motile, disruptive potential that may contribute bolster feminist political work, and contribute to the dismantling of the arguably still operative sexual metaphysics of passivity and activity bequeathed to us by Aristotle.

Session/Panel Title

The Ancient Non-Human

Session/Paper Number

81.2

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