The Conditions of Emergence: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of The Origins of Life

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2020

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This dissertation explores the limits of feminist theory in terms of what questions it can address, and does this by reimagining the relation feminist theory and late nineteenth and twentieth-century continental thought can have with scientific research concerning the origins of life. I argue that a phallocentric scientific and theoretical framework—in which one term, one mode of being, is privileged and becomes the “universal” at the expense of all others—is incapable of addressing the emergence of life out of matter on Earth. A phallocentric theory of the origin of life posits a hierarchy between life and matter and understands them as fundamentally opposite to each other. In such a framework, life and matter are always external to one another, and matter is denigrated at the expense of life. In creating a division between matter and life, phallocentric approaches to the origins of life create a dilemma for themselves because they need to pinpoint exactly when life emerges, in other words they need to answer and explain exactly when “inanimate” matter is animated or penetrated with a logos of life. Building on the feminist science studies tradition that examines the relation between metaphor and science, The Conditions of Emergence studies how certain strands of origins of life research are beginning to question whether scientific work rooted in metaphors of light, energetic stasis, and autonomous self-birth can attend to the question of how cellular life first emerged from matter somewhere between 3.8 and 4.2 billion years ago. In lieu of these metaphors, theories of origin concentrating on deep-sea vents re-embed life’s cellular beginnings within a geochemically volatile ancient Earth through metaphors of darkness (rather than light) and gestational birth in inorganic wombs (rather than within narratives where a cellular body brings itself into being). I argue that thinking about and trying to conceptualize a dark proto-intrauterine space that is bioenergetically never at rest and rooted within the geochemical forces of the Earth as the origins of cellular life generates, perhaps for the first time, a feminist philosophy of life. The relation between matter and life is the litmus test I use for what kinds of contemporary scientific research—while not explicitly feminist themselves—have potential implications for a feminist philosophy of life. I read contemporary origins research through the writings of a number of theorists or philosophers, such as Henri Bergson, Ilya Prigogine, Gilbert Simondon, Raymond Ruyer, Luce Irigaray, and Elizabeth Grosz. Across four chapters, I engulf key debates in origins of life studies—the evolution of metabolism, the invention of the first cellular membranes, and the birth of genetics, and the beginning of heredity—in a far-from-equilibrium fluid milieu that creates the possibility for their emergence.

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Dahiya, Annu (2020). The Conditions of Emergence: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of The Origins of Life. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20951.

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