Marco Bernardini finished his PhD in Politics at Reading University in 2015 and has been another familiar face to GSRN-ers ever since, so we were delighted to welcome him this week as a presenter. Marco’s talk was a work in progress and sparked some productive discussion.
Marco’s interest in writing about this topic was piqued when he came across some scientific articles announcing the existence of the ‘microgenderome’; a derivative of the ‘microbiome’, i.e. the bacteria living in the gut, the ‘microgenderome’ is a term recently coined to describe the interaction (and the effects this interaction produces) between the sexual biological features of a given organism (such as a mouse or a human being) and the gut bacteria that live in its guts. Marco analysed three articles: ‘Welcome to the microgenderome’ overviews discoveries made in an experiment conducted on mice and it is where this concept was introduced. The other two articles, ‘Support for the microgenderome: associations in a human clinical population’ and ‘Support for the microgenderome invites enquiry into sex differences’, use the microgenderome to advance a novel explanation for the differences in symptomatology men and women affected by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) experience.
After some introductory remarks, Marco started off by proposing that the three articles are underpinned by a number of assumptions: for example, every entity, from human beings to bacteria, is characterized as bounded and in possession of unique ‘essential’ features. And as for sex difference, the articles understand it in reductive terms, as the presence or absence of hormones and/or hormone receptors. He also noted that far from being stable and problem-free, all these assumptions are traversed by destabilizing tensions; these tensions became apparent in later parts of the talk.
Marco went on to discuss in some detail the two articles that address CFS in human beings; the purpose of this analysis was to cast light on the conceptualization of human identity that animates them. He particularly focused on a number of passages that discuss why men and women experience different CFS symptomatology. The articles propose two possible explanations for this: one is that this difference could be due to the way in which men and women are socialized, in other words to their gender identity. Although deemed entirely plausible, the articles ultimately reject this and instead propose a purely biological explanation: it is the unique way in which the microgenderome works in men and women, they say, that would account for differences in CFS symptomatology. Analysis of these passages allowed Marco to conclude that the articles rely on a conceptualization of human identity that distinguishes between gender and biology-based sex identity. In addition to this, a critical reading of these and other passages provided him with a jump-off point of sorts to imagine a type of human identity that problematizes and transcends the cultural/biological, human/non-human, gender/sex and other value-laden dichotomies. Drawing on and developing the internal tensions highlighted at the beginning of the talk, he sketched what this identity would look like and concluded that, while not unproblematic, the payoffs deriving from embracing it could be significant.
We concluded with some Big Questions, and very few concrete answers! Questions were raised about the maintaining of a border between sex and gender, and how these terms are distinguished and conceptualised differently between the arts and the sciences. We discussed at length disciplinary conventions and research cultures which fail to think critically about gender and sex, and how language determines identity more generally. Rather than rejecting ‘boxes’ entirely, perhaps we need to take a critical approach to the boxes we find ourselves in?
Thanks to Marco, and all who attended, we were very happy to see some new faces this week and we do hope you come back next year! That’s all of our scheduled meetings for this academic year – thanks to all who generously shared their work as presenters this year, and all who came along and contributed to the discussion.
Amy and Faye