About Samantha Frost, Ph.D.: Dr. Samantha Frost is Professor of Political Science, Gender and Women’s Studies, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A transdisciplinary scholar whose work creatively engages with the life sciences to reimagine how we understand politics, Dr. Frost received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Scholarship to gain advanced training in biology. Dr. Frost is author of two books, Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human, and Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics, which received the First Book Award from the Political Theory Division of the American Political Science Association, and dozens of articles and book chapters.
Dr. Frost is also co-editor of the edited volume, with Diana Coole, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, the former director of the Bio-Humanities Initiative through the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois. She is currently at work on the collaborative art project Untidy Objects with artists Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted by the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. Dr. Frost received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Rutgers University and her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in political theory and criticism and begin to study its connections to feminist scholarship and gender studies, science and technology studies, and critical perspectives in posthumanism and new materialism?
[Dr. Samantha Frost] As an undergraduate I studied political theory and feminist theory, so right from the very beginning I’ve been interested in political theory and questions of embodiment. Once I graduated, I didn’t really know what else to do because all I’d really done was be a lifeguard and do political theory. I decided to attend graduate school and I continued to do more political theory and feminist theory there. That’s where my interest came from — it’s always been there since I started doing undergraduate and graduate work.
I have always been interested in bodies because bodies and the way that people treat bodies, inhabit bodies, and live bodies has been really important to a lot of feminist theorizing, and when I was in graduate school I read a whole bunch of stuff, of course, but Thomas Hobbes really struck me because bodies count a lot in his materialist philosophy. I recognized that in feminist theory there had been this equation between women and bodies and men and minds. That was the analytic framework in the 1980s for thinking about feminist theory. It turned out that Hobbes thinks that everything is body and he’s quite clear that everyone has a body. Using the prevalent feminist framework wasn’t going to be helpful for figuring out what was going on in his texts. The thing is that even though he talks about bodies and embodiment and matter, a lot of the secondary literature on Hobbes at the time said that’s irrelevant to his arguments about politics.
I’ve always been a little bit perverted in the sense that I really hate it when people tell me I can’t think or do something. That became the basis for my dissertation: why can’t we allow ourselves to think about bodies in relationship to Hobbes? I do a lot of work in that dissertation and my first book [Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics] picking apart the various theoretical assumptions in play, such that we have to keep refusing Hobbes’ materialism in order to make sense of his political theory. I undid those, and rebuilt the whole thing so that it made more sense to me.
After I got tenure with that book, I decided that I didn’t want to exclusively be a Hobbes scholar for the rest of my life, but I am really interested in this materialism stuff. I became interested in asking how our assumptions about embodiment and the materiality of ourselves constrain the way we imagine what it is to be a person and how we think about politics, life, and social life.
I noted to myself that Hobbes himself had a very broad education, and he did natural philosophy which was the version of science in the seventeenth century. Part of the reason he was able to do the work that he did was that he trained broadly in many, many fields. I thought, if I want to keep thinking about materiality, embodiment, politics and subjectivity, I need to be like Hobbes and I need to understand the natural philosophy of today. In other words, I need to study molecular and cellular biology, so that I can understand what bodies actually are instead of just understanding them in the dominant terms of political theory and feminist theory.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has this amazing program called the New Directions Fellowship and they give funding to faculty members to train for a year, year and a half, two years, in a field that’s going to be relevant to their new direction. I took molecular and cellular biology courses for eighteen months full-time, which was an amazing experience. Then I had to figure out how to reconcile everything I learned with my theoretical brain. That’s the biocultural creatures book [Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human].
In the humanities and the social sciences, the idea of what was happening in the life sciences was a bit of a boogeyman. I think humanists in particular had worked with this notion that anything to do with biology is deterministic. They kind of shied away from it. There have been a bunch of feminist theorists like Elizabeth Wilson and Elizabeth Grosz who have been pushing against that notion. I wanted to take seriously what’s going on in bodies while they’re living. When we look at the scales of biological processing, we can see that what it means to be a person is actually really different. Because we are porous and we are processual, we can’t really define the self in terms of a bounded entity that has integrity. This porosity calls into question our sense of what change is and what instigates change and how the environment shapes who we are.
Paying attention to all the little processes that make us who we are as people–that situates my work in a genre of theorizing that’s often-called posthumanism. Posthumanism is basically this notion that, in our theoretical and legal work, the idea or concept of the human as an exceptional creature is often used to explain or justify certain kinds of prerogatives that are destructive and violent in many ways. Part of the work of posthumanism is to tease apart this notion of exceptionalism and say, “Well, actually we’re animals, we are creaturely, we are made of matter, we are driven by passions and thoughts and affects and, in that sense, we’re not defined by the various characteristics people have historically used to justify creating humans as a moral category with more dignity and more worth than other creatures and nonhuman things.”
I would distinguish my work from Science and Technology Studies (STS) a little bit. I think that STS scholars do amazing work showing how political and ideological assumptions inform scientific practice and the way that scientific research is taken up socially and politically and theoretically, and I use their work a lot to check and make sure I’m not making mistakes. But what I do in my work is say, “Let’s say this is a good account of what’s actually happening. What does that mean for our understanding of what it means to be a person, what it is to be alive?” It’s much more of a critical, creative appropriation as opposed to a critique.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you mentioned, your research interests led you to receive secondary training in molecular and cellular biology, which was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, and which you later put into practice as Faculty Fellow and Director of the Bio-Humanities Research Initiative, and in authoring your book Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Could you tell us a bit about the interdisciplinary work you’ve conducted in the bio-humanities, and why forging connections between the natural sciences and the humanities has formed such an important part of your research?
[Dr. Samantha Frost] I think of the bio-humanities as the effort to critically and creatively appropriate the insights of the life sciences to reimagine human being. Again, this is how it’s different from STS. It’s not about critique. It’s about imagination, theorization, and trying to understand what it is that we do.
The Bio-humanities Research Initiative…What was it? It was a fellowship, it was a group, we hung out together for two years. We were trying to think about what on earth the bio-humanities is and how you do it.
It’s really hard to think across the sciences and humanities. They’re really different languages, it’s a really different domain, the scales are different. They embody quite different objectives and ways of looking at the world, and there aren’t very many methodologies for thinking across those domains outside of ideological critique. I had some postdocs, I had some graduate students, and I had some undergraduate interns, and we spent years reading. There was also a speaker series where we had, for example, a scientist who talks about hormones plus an STS person come who talks about hormones, and they would each give a short presentation and talk to one another, and they would try to have a conversation, so we could start to see how to have a conversation if you’re a humanist and also a scientist.
We had some people from the University of Birmingham come and we did a workshop on transdisciplinary methodologies. That’s the kind of work that we did: trying to figure out how to do that work. It was really hard. We didn’t actually produce anything. I think people went off having learned a lot, but we didn’t produce a document or anything. I think everyone scratched their heads and thought, “This is really useful.” I think meaningful work is coming out of it but we didn’t ourselves produce a document. We had several conferences. It was a really amazing experience. It was an effort to really think.
It’s not only how you do it, but how do you not do what you’ve been doing before. It turns out many of the concepts we have are so common sense to us that we don’t see how they frame what we’re doing. A lot of the work that I do, particularly when I’m writing, is I really have to suspend my assumption about where the ideas are going to go, so I can let the logic or the pattern of what I’m writing about unfold. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you could go in one direction, but you think, “The theoretical concept says this is what should happen instead.” You follow the easy trail, and then you know what’s supposed to happen, and there’s a little bit of relief because now you know what to do, but what you’ve done is have your thinking process constrained by an unspoken assumption.
Our ideas about embodiment and biological processes, the relationship between our body and our mind, the relationship between our body and the world, there are so many cognate concepts that are kind of caught up in this, and much of the time we just don’t think about how the concepts we use and the things we’re aware of have been fabricated historically over a period of time. A lot of my work is not just writing ideas but trying to suspend a whole bunch of ideas so I can write my ideas and not be trapped by unspoken assumptions.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your recent publication, The Attentive Body: How the Indexicality of Epigenetic Processes Enriches our Understanding of Embodied Subjectivity ,” has important implications for understanding communication, as it argues for understanding epigenetic processes as semiotic, or communicative, in nature. Could you describe the idea of the “attentive body,” and how you see this attentiveness reflected in epigenesis? How does reframing biological processes as semiotic transform or challenge our paradigmatic understandings of communication?
[Dr. Samantha Frost] What am I trying to say with the idea of the attentive body? In our conventional understanding of what it means to be a person, perception happens through the neurological system. We have sensory organs, there’s the nervous system, information comes in, we process it. There are some people who work in cognitive psychology and a version of philosophy that’s called enactivism, which argues for the concept of an extended perceptual system, comprised not only of the nervous system but also the way we move our body and the materials and objects in the world. They expand our sense of what perception is and that gives us a better sense of how people are responding to the world and therefore how they’re thinking and how they might act. But even this notion of extended cognition, as it’s sometimes called, presumes or relies on the neurological system and the peripheral nervous system.
Epigenetic processes are sort of like this, if you’ll allow me to be a bit reductive: let’s say you are a person and you experience various stressful experiences in your life. Those stressful experiences generate various kinds of hormonal responses and those hormones generate chemical signals that tell your cellular structures you need to make more of certain proteins so you can do better next time. Those chemicals then generate or put into place various post it notes on your genes that say, “Do this more, do this one less.” Then, more of certain kinds of proteins are produced that enable your body to respond to the world it’s encountering.
Epigenetic processes are the molecular signaling processes by which your genes are used and transformed so your body is responsive to the world. What I do in that essay is say, “Isn’t it strange that the patterned logic of epigenetic processes — that is, if you map out the pattern of what’s going on, it actually maps really well onto this notion of the index that Charles Sanders Peirce articulates?” Basically, it suggests that we could say they’re indexical. What does that mean? It means that epigenetic processes are means by which our bodies are generating meaning out of the environment, out of the world, out of our experiences of the world. Our bodies are anticipating that this same world with these same features will keep existing. Our bodies transform the way they build and rebuild themselves so that we’re better able to meet that environment.
So, my argument is that epigenetic processes are a form of perception. They are a form of meaning-making, a form of interpretation that is happening in ways that are not managed by the neurological system. Epigenetic processes are a non-neurological form of perception and meaning-making, which is so cool and really weird. If you think about yourself as a perceiving being, we tend to think in terms of our thinking processes and our nervous system, but with epigenetic processes, that form of interpretation, perception, and meaning-making is happening everywhere. It’s a really distributed form of perception, which totally messes with our sense of what a self is, where a self is located, who is doing it.
Epigenetic processes can be provoked by material things like toxins, nutrition, heat, starvation, as well as social encounters, like the stresses of microaggressions — racial microaggressions, gender microaggressions — perceptions of inequality in the workplace, anticipation of discrimination. These are all imaginative and social and cultural. And they all have profound effects on our epigenome, on our epigenetic processes, which means then that our bodies — we, ourselves as embodied beings — are actually interpreting the world and making meaning of the world in way more ways than our theories actually allow. It means the world is actually meaningful for us in ways that are way more profound and extensive than we can allow if we think about meaning-making as something that happens only through the neurological system and through language.
I find that very fascinating. Part of what I’m trying to do in my work, having thrown that little idea out there is say, “Well, if our understanding of politics is premised on a notion of shared meanings and contest over meaning and values, if our conceptual apparatuses shut down our sense of where meaning is or where meaning-making happens, then what happens to our sense of politics if we open up this other domain of meaning-making and interpretation?” Part of what I think it does is make more things political than we had previously thought.
I’ve been thinking about processes of racialization and how processes of racialization have carry-over effects physiologically so that people who experience processes of racialization also suffer from higher incidence of hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes, metabolic disorders. But because we have this very constrained sense of the political, those health effects are construed as personal, as a result of personal habit or luck, whereas they’re actually political in origin, because they’re about the relationship between the body and the world and social space.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Last year, you began the two-year long collaborative art project entitled, Untidy Objects, with visual artist Amber Ginsburg and sculptor Sara Black. Could you tell us a little bit about this art project and its aims? What do you think visual art allows us to explore about the politics of subjectivity that might not be available to more traditional academic research?
[Dr. Samantha Frost] First of all, Sara and Amber do really cool work all the time and it’s really fun to work with them. One of the reasons we work so well together is this: they have been interested in thinking about materiality and time and subjectivity, and I have been interested in thinking about materiality and subjectivity. In my own work, because I’m interested in challenging and refiguring the concepts we use that we don’t understand, sometimes I get to a place where I don’t have the words or the concepts for what I want to say because I’m undoing them. To invoke them in my writing would be to reinstate them when I’m trying to undo them. Part of the idea behind this project is that we don’t necessarily have to use words because we’re using materials instead.
We did a lot of reading together on all kinds of things – about affect, and plants, and plant communication, and forestry, and some literature from Native American studies and new materialism. Then we began to work with this field: a living sculpture, the Untidy Objects sculpture, that’s basically a series of ecosystems that are interconnected. The idea is we’re trying to create a space where people will be compelled to think in more expansive ways about political subjectivity. In other words, it’s a space that encourages them to include the trees, the soil, microbes, the birds, the butterflies, and the bees within our understanding of who is a citizen or a political agent.
I don’t mean political agents in the sense of the new materialism, which views everything as having agency. Instead, I meant it in the sense that they ought to be included in the polity. They’re also citizens and therefore should be included in our deliberations. It’s a little bit like, in that sense, a conceptual cousin to [Bruno] Latour’s work in The Parliament of Things, which is his big compositionist manifesto.
It’s a lot of planting work, and we’re still doing a lot of reading, and we’re trying to figure out how to pose the questions that we’re trying to pose and how to pose them through this space.
It’s sited in a space behind the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. It’s very cool. It was sort of dead space before and now it’s full of life and there are so many different ecosystems. There are food sections, herbs and fruits and vegetables and nuts, and there are buggy sections, and mushroom sections. It’s all very vibrant with life. It’s a beautiful space to be in. We’re now in the process of trying to curate that space more specifically so that people can experience what we want them to experience, so they will gain insights, so it won’t necessarily be like a theoretical point that’s written out, but instead something experienced as an affective or phenomenological shift.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you might give to students who are interested in new materialism, posthumanism, and the bio-humanities and their relationship to political criticism and feminist politics, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication or a related field like political science?
[Dr. Samantha Frost] I was really fortunate because I got to do a whole course of study, and it’s hard to do that when you’re a graduate student because you have to go through your disciplinary training. It’s hard to do a double set of training. What I would say is, push against orthodoxies old and new. When you see something and it feels like someone or some concept is telling you, “You can’t ask this question, this isn’t what we say,” push it. Then, if it turns out that question is about something that’s not supposed to be done in your field, take a class in it. At least you’ll have a bunch of material and knowledge acquisition in this thing you’re not supposed to know about, so you can, like a wobbly tooth, piddle and poke away at that orthodoxy that’s constraining your thinking so that you can then push it, undo the assumptions, challenge the assumptions, and rearticulate the space of possibility for thinking.
It’s really scary, because when you’re a graduate student you’re dependent on your advisors. You have to either have a really great advisor who’s willing to say, “This is so not allowed, but go ahead it’s very exciting.” Or, you have to do it, not on the sly, but you have to say, “I know you don’t want me to do this. I’m going to do it anyway, and I promise I won’t mess anything up.” Then you can mess it up quietly later.
Orthodoxies are settled so quickly. If you look at some of the stuff on the new materialism there’s all this policing about what counts as proper new materialism, and whether it’s really good, or really thinking, or this, that or the other. It’s so tedious. I can tell you two articles that are really great that give you a nice overview of materialisms and open up space for thinking; one is by Vicki Kirby, and it is a book chapter called “Matter Out of Place,” and one is by Christopher Gamble, Joshua Hanan, and Thomas Nail called “What is New Materialism?” Both articles map the contemporary scene of materialism not in terms of its orthodoxies — are you allowed to say this or not? — but in terms of the patterns of its questions and what they mean.
I think those are really useful because they show the theoretical conceptual stuff that’s going on as opposed to the politics of orthodoxy. I think it’s really important for graduate students to know what their arguments are, and to really examine the places where people are trying to shut stuff down. Open it back up again. Try to figure out why people are so scared to think this. What are they resisting? If these two things can’t go together, why? Is it impossible or is there something else going on that’s making us think we can’t have these two concepts touch one another? That’s where I think you get real thinking happening.
Thank you, Dr. Frost, for the wonderful discussion of your research on the politics within biological processes of perception, and for your insight into new materialism!
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