Fraught Epistemologies: Bioscience, Community, and Environment in Diasporic Canadian Literature

Title: Fraught Epistemologies: Bioscience, Community, and Environment in Diasporic Canadian Literature
Authors: Tania, Aguila-Way
Date: 2015
Abstract: This dissertation examines the intersection between diasporic subjectivities and scientific knowledge production in the works of Shani Mootoo, Madeleine Thien, Larissa Lai, and Rita Wong. I read these authors as participating in a burgeoning scene of diasporic Canadian writing that draws on concepts and tropes derived from the life sciences to think through a broad constellation of issues relating to contemporary diasporic experience, from the role of biogenetic discourses in the diasporic search for ancestry, to the embodied dimensions of diasporic memory and trauma, to the role of diaspora communities in the decolonial struggle against the emergent forms of “biopower” that contemporary bioscience has enabled. As the first study to address this burgeoning topic in diasporic Canadian literature, this dissertation asks: Why are diasporic Canadian authors taking up bioscience as a key topos for the exploration of contemporary diasporic experiences? How is this engagement with the life sciences re-shaping current conversations about diasporic kinship, memory, and embodiment, and about the role of diasporic communities in contemporary struggles for environmental justice? Complicating frameworks that understand bioscience only as an instrument of what Foucault calls “biopower,” I argue that the works of Mootoo, Thien, Lai and Wong prompt us to rethink the ways in which queer, feminist, anti-racist, and environmental struggles might constructively interface with the life sciences to challenge emergent forms of biological essentialism and biopolitical control. I demonstrate that, by using bioscientific tropes to highlight the complex and open-ended life processes that shape the human body and the wider environment, these authors construct epistemologies that attend to the global networks of biopower through which neoimperialism operates while also acknowledging the interconnected ways in which living organisms and material substances destabilize these global flows. I argue that, in so doing, these authors position diasporic knowledge production as a crucial locus for the rethinking of relations between politics and ecology, and between humanist and scientific ways of knowing, that science studies scholars like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour and decolonial critics like Boaventura de Sousa Santos have identified as a central to contemporary struggles for environmental justice. Each chapter explores the work of one diasporic Canadian author in relation to a single, historically specific site of scientific knowledge production. Chapter one examines how Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night combines notions of gothic excess with a materialist emphasis on the material agencies that inhere through bodies and environments in order to disrupt the gendered and racial discourses propagated by imperial botany. Chapter two explores how Thien’s novels Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter draw on current debates around the neurobiology of memory and emotion to grapple, on one hand, with the fragmentation induced through diasporic trauma and, on the other, with the uncertainty of global risk culture. Chapter three examines how Lai’s Salt Fish Girl disrupts popular and scientific discourses concerning the genetic basis of diasporic ancestry to advance a model of kinship that is rooted not in a shared ethnic heritage, but in a shared immersion in a complex web of interactions that includes genetic, evolutionary, and environmental forces. Finally, chapter four examines how Rita Wong’s forage mobilizes contemporary debates around the spread of genetically modified organisms to stage a productive encounter between diasporic, Indigenous, and scientific knowledges. I argue that, in the process of engaging with these various scientific debates, these writers stage trenchant critiques of the colonial legacies and neo-imperial investments of contemporary bioscientific culture while also modeling more fruitful, ethical, and hopeful ways of engaging with scientific knowledge.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -