‘Neurobollocks’ and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina

Yesterday I was at the KCL History of Science and Medicine reading group which is run by CHH’s Ludmilla Jordanova. We were discussing a piece of writing which I had chosen. It was the introduction to Elizabeth Wilson’s 2004 book Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body. The main argument here is that feminist critics (think Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter et al) spend a lot of time talking about the body without taking the actual mechanisms of how the body works into account. Wilson thinks that feminist cultural critics are mistaken to think of biology, and particularly neurological explanations of events, as reductive. She is making a case for paying close attention to neurological processes within cultural studies in order to expand the understanding of the self which is communicated there.

This struck me as being one end of a spectrum which sees the recent trend for popular ‘neuromania’ (I’ve blogged about Raymond Tallis on this topic before) at its other end. Neuromania means that everything cultural gets explained by (pseudo) neuroscience. This has also been called ‘neurobollocks’ and brilliantly attacked in a recent article in the New Statesman. I, like many, have recently had my attention focused on this apparent trend in thought by feminist writer Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A New Biography.

This book has been widely slated in the press. The review on the Neurocritic Blog says ‘this unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate,’ a review in the New Statesman says ‘Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” is full of bad science about the brain’ and the review on Slate declares ‘Naomi Wolf’s New Book About Her Vagina. It’s as ludicrous as you think it is’ and that in the book, ‘she uses faux academic language, and science.’

The main criticism levelled against Wolf in these reviews is that she is using bad and un-respected science to support her claims. Whilst this is a serious criticism of the book, another question which arises is why she even turns to the science in the first place? Why does Wolf need to ‘wow’ her readers with (pseudo) neuroscience in order to tell us the apparently new and amazing fact which has actually always already been known to anybody with any degree of human understanding? The vagina is actually connected to the mind/brain! Emotions, neurobiological processes and vaginal functionality are interrelated! Wow. Did Wolf really think we need (faux) neuroscience to prove this?

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About Susie Christensen

Susie Christensen is a PhD student in the English Department and Centre for the Humanities and Health at King's College London. Her research concerns modernist literature and late nineteeth/early twentieth century neurology and psychological medicine.
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