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17Sep 2012

Vagina: The authorized biography?

Maude Lebowski

I have not read the book. And I don't plan to.

But I thought I should note that Vagina: A New Biography, by the feminist writer Naomi Wolf, has drawn scorn from science bloggers and literary critics alike. The book traffics heavily in neuroscience, we're told, and various parties suggest that Wolf got the neuroscience wrong. In a review in The New York Review of Books, the writer Zoë Heller notes the dangers for those who wade into neuroscience without a life vest:

 Like many who have drunk shallow drafts from the fountains of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Wolf is so excited at the idea of explaining complex, overdetermined features of human behavior with simple reference to the prehistoric savannah or the hypothalamus that she often ignores the promptings of common sense and logic.

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the writer Toni Bentley rips into Wolf with equal gusto and delight. Bentley begins by expressing her relief that Wolf has gotten her orgasm back. "I mean, to lose one’s orgasm at a time like this, what with Syria undergoing mass civilian murder and Romney closing in on Obama, it is really enough to put a liberated gal’s thong in a knot," Bentley writes. And we know we're in for a pretty good ride. While Heller goes after Wolf for her crude misuse of neuroscience, among other things, Bentley goes after Wolf for inanity:

Reading Wolf’s book can ­really make a woman foot-stomping mad about all those lovers who want to have sex the way men like to have sex. Who do you think you are: men? Don’t you know that only the girly-man can really ring our bell? But stay plenty manly while running our bubble baths because “a happy hetero­sexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”

I chose that snippet carefully; it was one of the few in Bentley's review that didn't make me worry about offending Tracker readers or, worse, make me blush.

Now for the more serious critiques of the science. In a review of the reviewsDavid Dobbs, author of the Neuron Culture blog at Wired, notes that neuroscientists, in their excitement about the promise of their work, sometimes offer answers that are a little too simple and too neat to be believed. "Wolf seems to have missed this reality or set it aside," Dobbs writes. He challenges Wolf's assertion that she has discovered revelatory neuroscience that has escaped attention in the public press, correctly noting that neuroscience is one of the most heavily covered areas of science, closely watched by reporters and bloggers and "beloved of university public relations officers."

One of the scientists on whom Wolf relied wrote a long critique of Dobbs's post, and Dobbs responded, point-by-point, in a subsequent post on Saturday.

Dobbs links to the blogger known as The Neurocritic, who tries to take down the neuroscience without taking down Wolf, but almost can't help himself. When Wolf writes that neurochemicals are "vehicles for very profound human truths," he responds, wide-eyed, "I thought neurochemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules." A blogger who could write that has no poetry and will never, alas, know what Wolf describes as "the relaxation and stimulation provided by the set of behaviors a lover uses to arouse his or her partner."

Emma Brockes, in a review in The Guardian, likewise goes after Wolf, who can't seem to find a friend:

In the book, she writes, "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain," a guffy-sounding PR line that sits awkwardly alongside the scientific language. Oxytocin, meanwhile "is women's emotional superpower." The vagina is "not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul." And, finally, "if femininity resided anywhere," writes Wolf, "I would say it resides there, in that electric inward network extending from pelvis to brain." 

I'm sure we can expect more along these lines in the coming days. One serious point: Wolf deserves credit for the courage to write about her most personal feelings, sexual and otherwise. And linking those with broader social and political currents is a worthwhile goal. She just seems to have done all of this very badly. Did she not ask anyone, before publication, to read this book and give her honest feedback?  

As Bentley--no stranger to the confessional herself--writes in the Times, this "should have been an important book. A very important book." In her introduction, according to Heller, Wolf says she had initially planned to write a book "surveying cultural representations of the vagina through the ages." (The Kindle page for the book gives the title as "Vagina: A Cultural History.")

Enough seriousness. One of the first things that occurred to me as I started this post was that pearl of wisdom from Maude in The Big Lebowski: "My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina!"

Perhaps it was a mistake for Wolf to re-classify the book as a biography. "It remains unclear," Bentley writes, "if this biography was authorized."

-Paul Raeburn

 

Comments

Thanks Paul. Fine rundown, and I mean run down, of Ms. Wolf's book. I'm not going to read it either, mainly because even if I intended to it'd be so low in the pile of things I ought to read I'd never get to it.

  But here's what I think. Pause for a moment amid the gnashing over selective or overt mis-use of neurological science that the book seems to reflect. Consider this: maybe it's a metaphor with giggle-worthy foundation. That foundation is that sex makes people irrational. It tends to make people  stupid (the stupid part being more of a male specialty). It's about the big O. Nothing so deranges sense and logic in a brain than the moments just before and during climax. At least, that's been my experience. And the author of this book is apparently among the large fraction of women who enjoys said O's.

   SO! After having not read the book, let us imagine the author's overwhelming, near mesmerizing delight upon encountering the literature on the neurochemical processes that are in chorus during such moments. Yes! Those waves and shivers of sensation and emotion are modulated and orchestrated by specific and pretty well-delineated biological conductors such as dopamine and oxytocin waving their wands over intense episodes of synaptic conjunction. What lovely things they are indeed.

    Well ... the thing about such moments is that they consume reality - everything is suddenly entirely about the right now-ness of them. The very world revolves around them. So Wolf wrote a book that implies that a great congery of neurobiological mechanism, each in reality with multiple purposes and largely not to do with vaginas or males' precious members either, has actually just one core purpose: to light up the skein of connections twixt brain and pelvis. Reality is complicated and boring. Sex wipes out complication and boredom.

  So there you have it. Perhaps Ms. Wolf was so smitten about neuroscience, due to the lens with which she viewed it, it seemed to her to be equally focussed on her, um, item of interest. Like I said. Sex makes people stupid. That merits being pointed out - but it is often a derangement that is cute in an entertaining kind of way.

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