Is the world a constellation of atomistic entities, discrete and distinct, or a dynamic adaptive organization of highly interpenetrated phenomenon? This question presents a clash of narratives that has captivated my attention since my undergraduate degree and has shaped my research interests ever since. While my question is an ontological question at heart, the actual ontological status of the world is not my primary interest. My primary interest concerns which narrative is endorsed by whom and the political implications thereof. I have thus explored this question in a number of seemingly disparate contexts—an inherently interdisciplinary journey.
In my PhD dissertation entitled Intelligent Design, Science, and Sexual Politics, I examined the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) which purports that the natural world is too complex to have been produced by undirected natural forces and is best explained as a product of an intentional intelligent agent. ID tends to endorse the individualistic narrative, and it rejects evolutionary theory, which tends to endorse a more dynamic adaptive narrative. There are many reasons why the clash narratives at this site are significant, but one reason that I identified and elaborated on in this project is that the individualistic narrative that ID proponents endorse is utilized to explain and justify a gender perspective that purports a strict gender binary with gender-specific moral obligations. Understanding the function of the individualistic narrative in this context matters tremendously because the ontological commitments of ID proponents grounds a normative stance on various issues in regards to gender and sexuality that fuels political objectives and activities of proponents and allies.
In my MA dissertation entitled “Domination in Ecofeminist Discourse,” I explored how “domination” is conceptualized in ecofeminist theory. Ecofeminism is a branch of feminist theory that, broadly construed, posits that the mechanistic worldview, derived from Newtonian science and its successors, objectified nature as a feminine force to be managed, and in so doing, a conceptual and material link was forged between the domination of nature and women. Ecofeminist theory tends toward the dynamic adaptive narrative and challenges the atomistic ontological narrative of the mechanistic worldview. The clash of narratives at this site is significant because in pursuing the noble objectives of alleviating oppression and pursuing environmental sustainability, there is a risk of dismantling and discarding important scientific developments that are indispensable to the cause but that came from and depend on the rather predictable realm of mechanistic science.
I first discovered the clash narratives of my overarching question during the third year of my undergraduate program. As a classically orientated pianist and teacher, the pedagogical approach with which I was familiar involved learning individual, separate and distinct musical elements: theory, technique, repertoire, history, and performance. In my undergraduate work, however, I discovered the jazz-orientated perspective in which all of these elements are highly intertwined and learning emerges in dynamic communities of practice. The clash narratives was a significant inquiry at this site because it opened a new realm of discovery with the potential to transform my own musical capacity and my students’ as well. I developed a pedagogical approach that merged the two.
Throughout this journey, I have settled on the conclusion that it is less important that my guiding question be answered than that it continues to be posed. Currently, I am investigating the ethical dimensions of endorsing the adaptive systems narrative as a basis of material feminist theory. The New Materialists, as they are sometimes called, posit that adaptive systems narrative provides a non-essentialist and non-dualistic means of conceptualizing the relationships of multifarious agents, human and non-human (including matter itself), in the being and becoming of the natural world. There are a number of ethical issues, however, that have yet to be explored. For example, it is not clear that turning to the complexity of a systems perspectives alleviates essentialism–a central concern of feminist theorists. Perhaps it exacerbates it. It is also very easy to slip into a dualistic framework in which one ontological narrative is pitted against the other. While there is little controversy over the ethics of which issues take priority in contemporary feminists theory, issues such as reproductive technologies, the environment, sexual politics, poverty, racism, among others, for example, there is, as of yet, little discussion of the ethics of complexity within the situated approaches taken to address these issues. As I have demonstrated in previous research projects, the ontological narrative that is endorsed has significant political implications, and exploring these implications remains of interest.
The majority of my research has explored proposed distinctions between the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the more traditional mechanistic understandings of science and the natural world and contemporary complexity understandings introduced by developments in physics and other domains in the early part of the 20th century. At the heart of this distinction is a clash of narratives: one narrative proposes a world of individual and discrete entities which are identifiable by their distinctive differences most poignantly expressed in constructive dichotomies. In this narrative, the atomistic world of nature is passive and inert and the intellectually endowed world of human mind and endeavour is active and aggressive. The alternative narrative proposes a world of multifarious entities (both living and non-living) interacting in multifarious ways so as to produce an emergent phenomena in a dynamic yet stable system of self-organization. In this narrative, entities are highly interpenetrated and boundaries are fuzzy and porous. Matter and nature are understood as agential elements, the intellectual mind is understood as an emergent property of the natural world, and distinctions between the human and non-human world is one of degree and/or perception.
This clash of narratives is significant in feminist studies because within the traditional mechanistic worldview, representations of women have typically been aligned with the passive and inert depiction of matter and nature more generally. Such a depiction has engendered political stratification along the lines of gender, race, and class, among other social identifiers. In my work, I continually seek to show that domination and non-domination is not narrative dependent, and indeed, each can often be supported with the very same narrative. Flourishing, so far as I can see, stems from the simultaneous exercise of bi-focal vision, of steadfast political commitments and dynamic adaptive action.