Feminism and New Materialism: The Matter of Fluidity

Elizabeth Stephens



It is perhaps appropriate that the concept of fluidity should hold such an ambiguous and indeterminate position in contemporary critical theory. Studies of particular bodily fluids – such as tears (Lutz, 2001; Elkins, 2001), menstrual blood (Bobel, 2010; Rosewarne, 2012), breast milk (Giles, 2003) and female ejaculate (Bell, 2010) – have been of central importance to critical theory, in general, and to queer and gender studies, in particular. Despite this focus on particular bodily fluids, the concept of fluidity itself remains strangely uninterrogated. This is particularly strange is we consider how ubiquitous references to identities and sexualities as “fluid and contingent” are in critical theory, usually set in contrast to a presumptive popular assumption that these are unproblematically “fixed and stable.” In this oppositional relation, the “fixed” is invariably aligned with the conservative and normative, while the “fluid” is associated with the positive, progressive, and resistant. The binary of the “fixed” and the “fluid” plays a pivotal role in the conceptualisation of much of the work in queer and gender studies. And yet, despite this, what is meant by fluidity itself is rarely subject to examination. The aim of this paper then is, in the first instance, to undertake such an interrogation. In order to re-examine the concept of fluidity – and to consider the inter-relationship between the conceptual, experiential, and material this concept invites us to consider – it will start by (re)turning to the foundational work on Luce Irigaray on this subject. Such a return is especially timely, given recently renewed debate about the relationship between the conceptual and material within contemporary critical theory as a whole, and within feminism is particular. Much of this work, however, shares a common critique of earlier feminist writing on the material, framing itself as a corrective to a critical tendency to neglect the material in favour of “cultural” or “postmodern” concerns.


Keywords: bodily fluids, body, Luce Irigaray, New Materialism