Michelle Murphy: Feminists in Science and Science Studies

Michelle Murphy is Professor in the History Department and Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, Director of the Technoscience Research Unit, and co-organizer, with Natasha Myers, of the Toronto Technoscience Salon.

 Murphy is a historian of the recent past and technoscience studies scholar whose work focuses on environmental politics, technoscience, chemical exposures, infrastructures, capitalism and economics, race and colonialism, and reproduction from the 20th century to the contemporary through feminist, decolonial, anti-racist, postcolonial, political economic, and queer approaches. She is most recently the author of the forthcoming book The Economization of Life, from Duke University Press.

Amanda Modell, FRI graduate affiliate and PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, interviewed Professor Murphy about her research in feminist technoscience.

Amanda Modell (AM): Could you describe the path you've taken to your current work? Did you think when you started out that you would end up where you are today?

Michelle Murphy (MM): I had no idea that I'd end up here at all. It's a bit of a surprise. I was the first person in my family to ever go to university, and I was studying in the sciences and I found myself ranting against “capitalist imperialist racist science!”…but without a lot of tools to be articulate about that.

I remember we did this debate and it was broadcast on public TV and they edited out every single thing I said, like "It's capitalist racist genetics!!" I knew what I was talking about, I was right, but I didn't have tools to explain myself. That was in the mid eighties when feminist science studies was just coming into being, so I could find a Donna Haraway essay or feminist biologists like Ruth Hubbard. So that set me on a path. I'm kind of second generation feminist science studies, because there was something on the shelf for me to read. I definitely didn't think that I'd go to grad school or anything like that. It was a surprise all the way through.

I'm from Winnipeg, my family is Métis and white, and I can really see in hindsight that I've benefited from white privilege in terms of my career trajectory. Thinking retrospectively about what has felt like a struggle and a surprise is to think about my accountabilities to those structures of white supremacy that have helped me get to where I am today, so that part's not a surprise.  

AM: Can you say more about how you had those realizations or what prompted those for you?

MM: In the 1980s the biology department at the University of Toronto had a group working on an evolutionary theory that was called reproductive strategies. They were asking questions like, how do mallard ducks rape as a reproductive strategy? Also I remember a test exam question that asked us to conjecture on the evolution of the human female breast. It was so sexist!

I was reacting to what was a very sexist and racist milieu of evolutionary theory. I was trying to wrestle with what was being taught in the classes I was taking at the time. That's when I began to find feminist science studies and develop an ability to critique what I was learning.  

My undergraduate degree is in biology, women and gender studies, and history and philosophy of science and technology, so I found the tools to critique this thing that I was passionate about. I loved the life sciences.

AM: You mentioned your own privilege and coming to terms with the ways in which you've benefited from white privilege.  Do you think you were aware of that all along the way or do you think that has become more apparent to you?

MM: I did my PhD at Harvard in the history of science, and when I went there I realized I felt like a fish out of water, and I got a window into an incredible elitism and how it reproduced certain kinds of knowledges. At that point I began to actively incorporate the question of whiteness into my research and my thinking. How is whiteness shaping science?  

In the 1990s Evelyn Hammond formed a wonderful working group on race and science at MIT, and I joined that group as a graduate student. There I built a website called RaceSci, to collect syllabi and bibliographies before there were searchable databases, to constitute an anti-racist science studies as a presence in the world. I also did what I called guerilla programming; with other people like Adele Clarke we organized 21 successive panels on race and science at 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science), trying to insert anti-racism when 4S was really a place of tremendous whiteness. The question of whiteness is something I took up in my first book on sick building syndrome, and in my other book Seizing the Means of Reproduction, so that has been a recurring question for me.  

AM: And I know your third book is about to come out so you’ve had quite a research trajectory.  Are there are other similar threads or abiding concerns in your work?  What are the questions or sites of concern that persist for you?

MM: There are two main areas I've been working in. One is environmental justice, environmental politics and chemical exposure. How do we come to presence the effects of capitalism in our lives, and how are those effects invisibilized? That's been an abiding question from my dissertation to the Economization of Life, the forthcoming book you mentioned, as well as my current research on alterlife and the ongoing aftermath of industrial chemicals.

How do we historicize the ways that the violence of capitalism is invisibilized, and how do we include a wide range of practices amongst people who are purported non-experts in the struggle to render those relations something that can be intervened in?

The other theme would be questions of reproductive politics and reproductive justice. There I've been really interested in reproductive justice as you might normally think of it in terms of questions of reproductive health, birth, family planning, and population control, but I've also been very interested in asking the question, "Why do we think we know what reproduction is? Why do we think we know where it begins and ends?" In fact there's a wonderful rich world of thinking about the relations of reproduction, in which the idea that reproduction happens in your body is actually quite new. The idea of reproduction as confined to the body dates to the 1980s. Before that reproduction was always something that happened in the aggregate or the relation.

AM: Now I’d like to switch gears and talk about your Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto.  Can you speak to the process of establishing that unit, and what your experiences have been like with it?

MM: I think the most important thing is we have been very non-institutional in the making of the Technoscience Research Unit. So we don't really care if you're a student at the University of Toronto or York or Queens or our school of art and design. We don't care what department you're from. What we care about is building intellectual community. So that has been important and has brought up questions of how do you meet in an institutional space if you’re trying to be extra-institutional in your community-building? Space has been a really difficult thing for us. When we find spaces at the University of Toronto they often feel very formal or I have to borrow them from a discipline. We have moved a lot of our things into art spaces that are not affiliated with any university whatsoever in order to invite people who aren't in universities to participate.

I don't know if you've read Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's book, The Undercommons? They take up this question of study. What does it mean to undertake study, to undertake intellectual exploration and experimentation and friendship, despite the university? The most crucial thing has been having a collaborator who's been willing to put in the labor with me over the years, and that's been Natasha Myers at York University. Having at least one other person and then building, so other people want to put in the energy to move the chairs, to bring the hummus, to work on the website.  Almost all of it has come without a budget line, but out of what we want to do, trying to support each other in doing those things. The university can be strangely hostile to intellectual life. They want you to pay to use a room, or pay to use a video recorder. You can record something on your cell phone! You can meet at someone's house, you can meet at a bar. DIY has been a guiding ethic - we're not going to wait for your permission to do it, we're going to just do it.  

One of the questions of the Technoscience Research Unit is, "What can feminist technoscience be? What is it and what does it become and what are its politics and what are the disciplines and the urgencies that might shape it?" So it’s about seeing science studies not as a discipline but as an unfinished conversation about the politics of technoscience and its relation to feminism and antiracism and decolonial projects. The Undercommons really resonated with what we've been doing in the Technoscience Research Unit and the Technoscience Salon in trying to steal the spaces that have been stolen from us.  

AM: The longer I'm in university, I’ve become aware of the really bizarre real estate politics of being in a room that is otherwise empty twenty hours a day. I really appreciate the refusal of that jockeying for real estate, and also just being with questions. Because I know with FRI we're thinking, "What does transdisciplinary feminist research look like?" For a while we were getting requests for definitions but thought it better to describe examples rather than acquiesce to the request to define.

MM: The formulation transdisciplinary has its own limits, right? It assumes relations between disciplines, but as we know so much contestatory knowledge making is excluded from disciplinary spaces.  

It's interesting to think about how even our ways of thinking about intersectionality can carry the baggages and boundaries of disciplinarity. And when you're organizing an event or a study or an experiment, there’s also the question of who's invited into that space?  Is it just for people at the university?

Some of the people who might have a lot to bring to those questions don't see their knowledge reflected in a disciplinary formation. They're not organizing their knowledge by this university taxonomy. So it's interesting to think about how the university asks us to imagine our possibilities through particular units. What does it mean to refuse institutionality and do things a different way?

AM: That leads me to the genre of the salon. Can you describe that a little bit more? Why a salon, and what has that come to look like over the course of its tenure?

MM: We started just trying to figure out who was in Southern Ontario who might want to think and play with us about the politics of technoscience. It was about community building, explicitly extra-institutional. Once we did that for a year, Natasha Myers and I began to have themes that we wanted to explore every year. The format of the Salon is  thinking together in experiment, in play, in a social space as well as an intellectual space. It's about building relations and at the same time it's also has a pedagogy to it. We're trying to mix across ranks, disciplines, institutions.

The idea of a salon has an intellectual component and a friendship component and the idea of extra-institutional intellectual spaces with a sense of play and pleasure to them. What does it mean to center play and pleasure and friendship in talking about really difficult things? We ask people not to read a paper but bring a thought in process and think out loud with us about something hard. We have a couple presentations in that form and then we have a couple people mixing, they're stirrers. Their job is not to ask questions of the speakers but to add to and mix up what we've heard, to stir up a collective conversation,  rather than Q&A. A salon format is one in which you're all supposed to be participating in the conversation.  

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