FEMSAG –'Feminist Theory After Sex and Gender' seeks to develop conceptual tools with which to address nature-nurture issues pivotal to the current philosophy, science and politics of sex and gender.
The project engages in particular with current efforts in feminist science studies to address biases of sex and gender in contemporary brain sciences, current efforts to open feminist phenomenology up to the lives and experiences of gender-nonconforming people, as well as with the more foundational issue in so-called “material feminisms” regarding what a feminist construal of the very terms “nature” and “culture” might or should look like. It picks up on a specific strand of contemporary feminist thought that has been designated as a “naturalist turn” in feminist theory, and seeks to develop the implications of taking a naturalist stance to the nature-nurture issues that have marked feminist discourse and gender studies more broadly for decades.
About the project
Research topics and questions
Feminist Theory After Sex and Gender (FEMSAG) is a research action that aims to develop philosophical tools to clarify and refine the foundational concepts of “nature” and “nurture”, such as they bear (either implicitly or explicitly) on current understandings of gender and sexuality both in the narrow domain of academic gender studies as well as in the public domain of gender- and sexuality-related law- and policy-making.
The nature vs. nurture issue as it relates to gender and sexuality arises in the context of attempts to identify the causal bases of sex differences in cognition, emotion, behaviour and interests, as well as in positioning in social, cultural, economic and political life. Typically, “nature” has come to serve as a rubric for putatively biological factors, such as selective pressures during evolutionary histories, genetic constraints and drivers on developmental trajectories, types and levels of hormones, and brain structure and function. Conversely, “nurture” typically subsumes all factors acting in a given organism’s physical and social environments to incline its bodily, mental and behavioural development in a certain direction. This supposition of two sets of causal factors conjointly giving rise to extant sex differences among human subjects continues to inflect contemporary gender theory and politics, even as they also often find themselves contesting it.
FEMSAG aims to facilitate dialogue and communication across the boundaries separating feminist theory, social science, natural science and social policy-making through conceptual work based on philosophical naturalism as the chosen analytical framework. Philosophical naturalism asserts a physical, psychological, ethical and historical continuity between human beings and other kinds of living beings, while nevertheless acknowledging both the distinctiveness of the human form of life as well the distinctiveness of the causes of variation among human populations as compared with those responsible for variation among non-human populations. Along these lines, FEMSAG especially finds an opening in a recent trend in feminist theory that has been designated as a “naturalist turn”, epitomized in particular in the work of Karen Barad and Elizabeth Grosz.
FEMSAG thus engages with the most cutting-edge developments in feminist thought (and gender studies more broadly) concerning the concepts of nature (or “sex”), of nurture (or “gender”), and of a putative relation between the two with a view to enhance the conceptual framework in terms of which new policies and reforms concerning gender- and sexuality-related issues are projected. Such issues may include male (sexual) aggression against women, female underrepresentation in key societal and professional domains, and current controversies over how best to promote sexual and gender health and justice for gender non-conforming populations.
The work going into FEMSAG is organized into four work packages (WPs), where the three first WPs together constitute the scholarly component of the project, the fourth one being devoted to the public outreach aspect. The three scholarly WPs correspond to three different domains of current feminist thought and/or gender studies engaged by the project: feminist criticism of neuroscience (WP1), feminist philosophy (WP2) and the phenomenology of gender and sexuality (WP3).
WP2 is in many ways the foundational WP of the project, insofar as at includes a critical dialogue with two leading voices in contemporary feminist philosophical thought regarding the concept of nature, namely Karen Barad and Elizabeth Grosz, and devotes an individual scholarly paper to each of these figures. A first version of the Grosz paper was given as a workshop presentation at the annual philoSOPHIA conference in Richmond (VA), in the spring of 2018, while the Barad paper has been accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) in State College (PA), October 2018.
WP1 is one of the two scholarly wps in this project to address more specific nature-nurture issues, focusing on feminist responses to current developments in the neuroscience of sex difference. The paper that forms the core of this WP has been accepted for presentation at this year’s annual meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA), to be held in Toronto November 2018.
WP3 is the other of the two more specifically oriented WPs of the project, devoted to the phenomenology of gender and sexuality, which is to say, the exploration of how gender and sexuality is lived from an embodied, first-personal point of view. The scholarly output from this WP will be a paper addressing conceptual issues in recent efforts to mobilize the work of phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) in the interest of re-thinking embodiment in a way that respects a wider scope of gender variance than existing feminist phenomenology. This paper has been accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, to be held in Chattanooga (TN), November 2018.
WP4 is projected as a package of outreach activity. It will include accessible reviews of literature bearing on the research in FEMSAG, interviews with faculty and students working on nature-nurture-related topics at my host institution overseas, or other forms of written reflection on the central topics of the project, to be published either as blog entries on this website or as opinion pieces or popularizing presentations in Norwegian press outlets or online magazines. Also projected as part of the outreach effort is an evening seminar, possibly in the form of a panel discussion, at an appropriately public venue in Bergen (such as the House of Literature) as well as a scholarly wrap-up two-day seminar related to the project as part of the official program of the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research at the University of Bergen.
Claus Halberg is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK), and is the project leader as well as the sole investigator in the FEMSAG project. Halberg holds a PhD in philosophy and gender research from the University of Bergen. He has been a fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study, France, and is the recipient of an MSCA-IF grant to fund the work undertaken in FEMSAG. His main areas of scholarly interest include the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of biology, phenomenological philosophy (particularly that of Merleau-Ponty), feminist philosophy and gender theory.
Christine M. Jacobsen is Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK), the project leader for the WAIT project, and Halberg’s supervisor in the FEMSAG Project Consortium (UiB). Jacobsen works mainly in the fields of Gender Studies and International Migration and Ethics Relations. Her work has focused on issues related to Muslim minorities in France and Norway, and in particular on continuities and changes in gendered religious traditions, identities and practices in a context of international migration and secular modernity.
Elizabeth Grosz is the Jean Fox O’Barr Women’s Studies Professor in the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University, and Halberg’s supervisor at the overseas institution hosting him during the project’s outgoing phase. Prof. Grosz holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Sydney, and has held teaching positions at numerous places before coming to Duke, including the Department of General Philosophy at the University of Sydney, the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at SUNY Buffalo, the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz, and the Women's and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous books and articles on critical theory, feminist philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of art and architecture.
SKOK gratefully acknowledges the partnership of the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University, Durham NC (Duke GSF), currently chaired by prof. Priscilla Wald, for hosting Halberg as a visiting scholar during the 2-year outgoing phase of the FEMSAG project, and for placing the mentorship and substantial research experience of prof. Grosz at his disposal. For more information about Duke GSF, please go to https://gendersexualityfeminist.duke.edu
As part of the implementation of the FEMSAG project, two events are planned for the final semester of the ingoing phase (spring 2020). One will be a public outreach one-evening event to be held at an appropriate venue in Bergen, in which topics and issues pertaining to the project will be addressed and discussed. The other one will be a two-day scholarly workshop hosted by and at SKOK as part of its official program. More information on these events will be posted later.
“Feminism, Force and Finitude: On (Mis)understanding Elizabeth Grosz’s Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art”. Paper presented at “Biopower, Biologics, Biospheres” conference, the 12th annual meeting of philoSOPHIA: Society for Continental Feminism, March 22nd-24th, 2018, at the University of Richmond, VA.