Marlen Bidwell-Steiner | Arguments on Female Deficiencies in Changing Discursive Clothes:

from the “Humornome” to the Genome to the “Hormonome”.


Explanatory models on Human Nature, or to put it more precisely, on the interaction between body and brain, show significant shifts ever since scientific inquiry focused on the topic. Nevertheless, some aspects remained surprisingly stable over the centuries despite ever more rapidly changing paradigms. One of these argumentative ‘wiedergänger’ is the idea that woman is a deviant variance of the ideal masculine human prototype – irrespective of a presumed “one- or two-sex-model”. The amazing part of this cultural phenomenon of longue durée is its seemingly easy adaption into new scientific contexts. An analysis of the specific re-elaboration of ‘female deficiency’ under shifting paradigms sharpens the view for its rhetorical construction and as such for possible philogynous alternatives.
My intervention will trace important stages within the history of science, namely late Renaissance natural philosophy, positivistic approaches of the 19th century, and finally, recent discourses on the interplay between body and brain. The comparison of knowledge formation on human nature from such distant periods helps to read the history of science not as a mere success story to ever more accurate models but as a discipline which is deeply embedded in the sociopolitical and cultural environment. The structural efforts of late Renaissance philosophers within humoral doctrine of the human body not only offer the prerequisites of modern science, but also a rather fluid and flexible layout open to interpretation and negotiation. On the other hand, physiognomist concepts of the 19th century pave the way for rigid frameworks that stipulate a heredity basis between eugenics and the genome. Today, in the after positivistic science, we can observe another attempt to sketch more complex and permeable models; even so, they remain strangely gender-blind.
To shed light on concepts on the nature of woman between permanence and change I adopt a twofold approach:
Firstly, on a synchronic level, I will confront passages in key texts of the periods in question, such as the Examen de ingenios para las ciencias by Huarte de San Juan (1575), works on female delinquents by the Italian physiognomist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1905) and today’s neurophysiological discourse with their respective contemporary protofeminist to postfeminist counter-models. In so doing, I want to work out the fact that mainstream and counter model draw their arguments on exactly the same scientific grounds.
Secondly, I will point briefly to some striking parallels in the rhetoric of the texts in defense of female equality on a diachronic level. Here, I will elaborate on the fact that the female Spanish philosopher Oliva Sabuco, the so-called Cartesian feminists from the late 17th century onwards and today’s Gender researches (among others Harraway, Braidotti) were all pursuing convincing strategies in subverting argumentative voids within the mainstream concepts.  But as this exemplary history makes evident, the success of these strategies can mostly be observed in limited and temporary changes or in its effect on various subcultures.
Therefore, despite – or, as I want to conclude – just because of the fact that the hidden prejudices in scientific gender definitions always have been convincingly unveiled within their own frameworks, they nevertheless remain vivid “pieces of conversation” and as such help to maintain an uncannily stable gender hierarchy.