Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​C​R​.​1​0​.​1​.14 | PDF


Rick W. A. Smith

In Undo­ing Monogamy: The Pol­i­tics of Sci­ence and the Pos­si­bil­i­ties of Biol­o­gy, Dr. Angela Wil­ley pow­er­ful­ly cri­tiques and recon­fig­ures monogamy’s nature. Mov­ing beyond the now well-worn cri­tiques of monogamy’s reifi­ca­tion as “nat­ur­al” with­in main­stream Sci­en­tif­ic dis­cours­es, Wil­ley engages with and sig­nif­i­cant­ly expands upon recent devel­op­ments in mate­r­i­al fem­i­nism, offer­ing pro­duc­tive new ways to rethink the entan­gle­ments nature, cul­ture, and belong­ing. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Wil­ley takes on the sci­ence of Biol­o­gy as a space of care for fem­i­nist and par­tic­u­lar­ly les­bian imag­in­ings, knowl­edge pro­duc­tions, and pos­si­bil­i­ties for liv­ing beyond the sex­u­al, rela­tion­al, and intel­lec­tu­al con­fines of com­pul­so­ry monogamy. Engag­ing with a wide array of top­ics, includ­ing sex­o­log­i­cal his­to­ry, lab­o­ra­to­ry ethnog­ra­phy, poly dis­course, as well as les­bian cul­ture, writ­ings, and archives, Wil­ley offers a com­pelling and affec­tive fem­i­nist man­i­festo that leads us through the lim­its of monogamy to what might lay beyond. Skill­ful­ly engag­ing both sci­en­tif­ic and fem­i­nist dis­cours­es about the body and its embed­ded capac­i­ties for know­ing and relat­ing, Wil­ley offers new the­o­ret­i­cal insights into the pos­si­bil­i­ties of both human and non-human rela­tions where “the pol­i­tics of sci­ence and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of biol­o­gy are not […] sep­a­rate sets of con­cerns” (3).

In the open­ing pages of Undo­ing Monogamy, Wil­ley sit­u­ates her project with­in a geneal­o­gy of fem­i­nist and queer mate­ri­alisms, imag­in­ing new con­cepts of mate­ri­al­i­ty that might emerge from efforts to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reck­on with fem­i­nist, sci­en­tif­ic, and oth­er modes of know­ing the body. Willey’s goal is not only to move past fem­i­nist cri­tiques of social con­struc­tion­ism in sci­ence to enable new engage­ments with mate­ri­al­i­ty, but to evade the impo­si­tion of knowl­edge hier­ar­chies over mul­ti­ple capac­i­ties for pro­duc­ing bod­i­ly knowl­edge. Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cant­ly in her intro­duc­tion, Wil­ley offers an impor­tant the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion on con­tem­po­rary mate­r­i­al fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship, iden­ti­fy­ing an ongo­ing intel­lec­tu­al slip­page between “biol­o­gy” and “the body itself”, and “Sci­ence” and “nature itself”, which has led to the impres­sion that the sci­ence of “biol­o­gy” is an unmedi­at­ed process of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. To take both fem­i­nist and sci­en­tif­ic insights about the body more seri­ous­ly, Wil­ley argues, involves start­ing from a posi­tion that does not take the medi­at­ed process­es of bod­i­ly knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, nor the sole own­er­ship of those knowl­edges by Sci­ence and its prac­ti­tion­ers, for granted.

In the five chap­ters that fol­low, the­o­riz­ing com­pul­so­ry monogamy is at the heart of Willey’s project, but the author also ques­tions basic assump­tions about human biol­o­gy that under­lay dis­cours­es of both monogamy and its pos­si­ble non-monog­a­mous alter­na­tives, assump­tions that Wil­ley links with the racial log­ics of transna­tion­al colo­nial­ism and how they are con­stant­ly rede­ployed in the­o­riz­ing human nature and belong­ing. Wil­ley begins by trac­ing the emer­gence of monogamy as an out­come of nature in 19th-cen­tu­ry sex­ol­o­gy, where monogamy’s nature played a cen­tral role in reify­ing Euro­pean nation­al­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. She then traces the sci­ence of monogamy to con­tem­po­rary research on the behav­ioral genet­ics of prairie voles, the cen­tral ani­mal mod­els upon which pub­lic and sci­en­tif­ic dis­cours­es on monogamy have coa­lesced in recent years. Offer­ing a pow­er­ful and deeply mov­ing fem­i­nist ethnog­ra­phy of one of the US’s lead­ing behav­ioral genet­ics lab­o­ra­to­ries, Wil­ley eval­u­ates the genet­ic and hor­mon­al mech­a­nisms that have been linked with both monog­a­mous behav­ior in voles and the abil­i­ty to form social bonds in humans, and prob­lema­tizes the exper­i­men­tal frame­works through which sex­u­al monogamy and cou­pled rela­tions are mea­sured and made nat­ur­al. Turn­ing to schol­ar­ly dis­course on polyamory, Wil­ley eval­u­ates a vari­ety of queer and fem­i­nist coun­ternar­ra­tives of monogamy’s nature which have instead argued for the fun­da­men­tal nature of polyamory. Wil­ley calls for new kinds of poly dis­course, ones that do not reca­pit­u­late monogamy’s appeals to Sci­ence or envi­sion polyamory as monogamy’s log­i­cal oppo­site in desta­bi­liz­ing the cen­tral­i­ty of cou­pled rela­tions, but imag­ines new naturecul­tur­al ways of see­ing both monogamy and its pos­si­ble non-monog­a­mous alter­na­tives. Mov­ing towards these new poly dis­cours­es, Wil­ley focus­es on excerpts from Ali­son Bechdel’s com­ic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For”, work­ing from the sub­ject posi­tions and embod­ied knowl­edge of les­bians towards the inven­tion of new, anti-monog­a­mous rela­tions. Here, Wil­ley advances a “Dyke ethics of anti-monogamy”, where a cen­ter­ing of “friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, and social jus­tice decen­ters the sex­u­al dyad in ways that polyamory does not” (97). Return­ing to the ques­tion of monogamy’s nature, Wil­ley engages Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erot­ic: The Erot­ic as Pow­er”, to the­o­rize what she calls “bio­pos­si­bil­i­ty”, which chal­lenges Sci­ence as the cen­tral site of pro­duc­ing author­i­ta­tive knowl­edge about the body, and works from the embod­ied knowl­edges of queer women of col­or to under­stand mat­ter and its pos­si­ble rela­tions. Here, Wil­ley bril­liant­ly refus­es a sim­ple denial that there are mol­e­c­u­lar sub­strates for human attach­ment, but insists that mat­ter is inex­tri­ca­bly embed­ded with­in webs of social rela­tion and that bod­ies are always already bod­ies in context.

In Undo­ing Monogamy, Wil­ley takes up the trou­bled but cru­cial work of not sim­ply cri­tiquing monogamy’s nature, but claim­ing Biol­o­gy as a space of fem­i­nist and queer re-imag­in­ings of human and non-human rela­tions. In her epi­logue, “Dreams of a Dyke Sci­ence”, Willey’s unfolds a vision for remak­ing Sci­ence that will flow from occu­py­ing it with fem­i­nist and queer sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, where “the fem­i­nist sci­en­tist will not only ‘be aware’ of the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal; that aware­ness will lead to a fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion of science’s very def­i­n­i­tion” (143). Willey’s dream, there­fore, “is not for a bet­ter sci­ence, but for a dif­fer­ent one” (143).

Dr. Angela Wil­ley is a Five Col­leges Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Women, Gen­der, and Sex­u­al­i­ty Stud­ies whose teach­ing and research activ­i­ties span the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Hamp­shire Col­lege. Wil­ley received train­ing in con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nist the­o­ry and sci­ence stud­ies at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty and the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. Her research cen­ters on post­colo­nial fem­i­nist and queer cri­tiques of cou­pled belong­ing, with a focus on the pro­duc­tive pow­ers of monog­a­mous dis­cours­es and the advance­ment of more liv­able alter­na­tives. Her work will be of par­tic­u­lar val­ue for read­ers of new, fem­i­nist, and queer mate­ri­alisms, as well as those inter­est­ed in fem­i­nist sci­ence stud­ies, his­to­ry and phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence, crit­i­cal behav­ioral genomics, women’s and gen­der stud­ies, and decolo­nial studies.