Accepted Paper:

Interiority of nature and exteriority of culture: culture of empire and regimes of identity  


Sahar Sadjadi (Amherst College)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues that in contemporary debates over the origins of identity in the United States, the nature/culture dyad is reconfigured as internal/external. It situates this conception of natural as interior, and thus authentic, within the neoliberal governance of social life and the culture of empire.

Paper long abstract:

Today, in the Unites States, the cultural appeal of inborn and natural notions of identity, located in biological entities such as the gene and the brain, is palpable. Based on ethnographic research on biomedical approaches to gender and sexual identity, this paper argues that the "gene and brain talk" relies less on the appeal of biological explanations per se but on particular spatialization of the gene and the brain inside the body, and their temporality extending to prior to the social life. When people emphasize the naturalness of gender or sexuality, they are not interested in the role of air and water and trees and bacteria (elements of nature) in shaping them. The nature/culture dyad is reconfigured as internal/external — the natural conceived as internal, stable and thus authentic and the cultural as external, malleable and thus spurious. I situate this inward turn in American culture and the scientific studies of social difference within the neoliberal governance of social life. I draw on the work of historian Dror Wahrman who traces the emergence of the modern Western self as an innate core characterized by interiority, depth and stability, and the role of natural sciences in such a shift, to the socio-cultural developments of the late 18th century and the crisis of British Empire; I propose that the current regime of identity in the U.S., with its retreat into the self, should be analyzed in relation to the conditions of the Empire.

Panel P100
Revisiting the culture/nature divide under the conditions of global forces