Endurance and Alterability

From the Series: Hormones

Photo by Robina Weermeijer.

Etymologically speaking, hormones excite: appetites, metabolism, growth, circadian rhythms, heart rates, menstrual cycles, spermatogenesis, lactation, or libido, to name but some of the more culturally marked processes they govern. Hormones are hybrid objects that cut across political and sexual economies; transgress distinctions between the organic and the inorganic, the biological and the social; and sit at the uncertain boundary between sex and gender (Sanabria 2016a). Hormones thus reveal the limits of the models that guide much of social analysis and its bias towards “skinned existents,” a phrase Elizabeth Povinelli (2016, 40) uses to refer to the way that bio-ontological thinking entraps objects in membranes as it strives to maintain distinctions between Life and Nonlife.

No matter how far we deconstruct them, however, hormones leave traces. They leach out of plastics or bladders into waterways, accrue unevenly into bodies (human, amphibian, atmospheric), and give tangible shape to our ideas of gender, as the posts by Nayantara Sheoran Appleton and Max Liboiron eloquently reveal. With the global circulation of pharmaceutical sex hormones and the saturation of endocrine disruptive chemicals in our lands and waters, the hormonal regulation of core metabolic functions from appetite to reproduction is now increasingly exogenous to bodies, human and otherwise. The pathways these hormonal cascades flow along have been deregulated in ways that resemble the deregulation of the industries that synthesize them on a mass scale in the first place (Livingstone 2012; Gross and McGoey 2015; Sunder Rajan 2017; Rios 2018).

“We-men” (as my daughter calls us) have been accustomed to encountering hormones neatly packed in often pink, enteric-coated contraceptive tablets or hidden away in the slow-release tube of hormonal intrauterine devices or subdermal implants. The above photograph of a pot of powdered testosterone in a Brazilian clinic was taken as I was grappling with how to account for the highly fungible nature of hormones. Who gets exposed to what kind of hormones and to what ends? What forms of inequality are constructed through what we might call biopolitical hormonal praxes (Sanabria 2010)? As I conversed with the black woman who was working this pot of hormônio, I caught myself shying away from the specks of powder scattered across the workbench and on the skin above her protective rubber gloves. Noting this, she smiled, shrugged, and flicked the testosterone off her forearm. “My cycle’s tudo alterado (all altered), but what does it matter, I’m already sterilized.”

My research has sought out strategies for dwelling on such traces, on their endurance and distribution in the regimes of toxicity that are reconfiguring the “material sustenance of humanity’s molecular recomposition” (Murphy 2008, 696). My interest in hormones, metabolisms, and chemical things began with a research project on sex hormones and bodily plasticity in Brazil (Sanabria 2016a) and extended through one on metabolic disorders and obesity in France (Sanabria 2016b). Through these projects, I came to think of hormones as opportunities to experiment with scale, to trace the moments where biochemical and biopolitical concerns implode.

Much as hormones got “sexed”—their wide-ranging metabolic functions reduced to crudely biologized behavioral traits such as aggression, desire, or bonding (Fausto-Sterling 2000)—the moral panic surrounding obesity led appetite-regulating hormones such as leptin or ghrelin to be profiled as “gluttonous” or “hungry” (Sanabria 2015). Here, we see BigFood actively targeting the biochemical regulation of the body. Hyperpalatable foods are fine-tuned by the food industry to achieve irresistible equilibria of fats, sugars, and artificial taste enhancers that override satiety in ways that some authors compare to addiction (Brownell and Gold 2012). What is striking for the anthropologist is that critiques of this colonization of the senses appeal to a natural body “we” are said to have inherited from the Pleistocene. “Our” ancestors’ ability to maintain fat stores in periods of famine, an ability that has presumably become enfolded into our molecular makeup, has taught “us” to seek out energy-dense foods, a hormonal hard-wiring that is maladaptive in today’s abundant food environment (see also Kessler 2009).

Appleton notes that inanimate objects such as hormones create their own unintended logics. If emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) intended for occasional use in contexts of unprotected sex become a mainstream form of contraception, it is not just a property of the ECP but of the ECP in a context where other forms of contraception may not be accessible. If hormone mimics endure, as Liboiron shows, they endure differently, unevenly, within within the bodies of Indigenous peoples as well as those of settlers. The properties of hormones thus depend on complex global infrastructures and regulatory practices (or their absence), clinical procedures, evidentiary technologies (and their politics), the logics of branding, the pharmaco-kinetics of different regimens for administering hormones, and the active principles that are absorbed into myriad bodies in highly diverse social settings (Hardon and Sanabria 2017). The point is to emphasize the relation between things and their contexts, for in shifting our attention from human agency to the agency of inanimate objects, we need to exercise caution not to leave the question of power behind.

Although physics and chemistry have long done away with the idea of matter as composed of tiny, hard, discrete objects, Western lay understandings (of the kind that make up a good deal of social theory) still tend to view matter in this way. Alfred Whitehead’s (1978) philosophy of nature, on the other hand, drew on a heterodox history of chemical science that focused on the variability of chemical associations and framed molecules as events, not things. The contemporary turn to ontology can be read as a means of critically engaging—if also at times unwittingly reproducing—thes idea of matter as composite stuff that societies mold and project meaning onto.

In her contribution to this session, Liboiron rightly notes that hormones should not be reified as “things in and of themselves.” Yet, although chemical substances such as hormones lack self-contained unity, they nevertheless endure and travel into the pristine environments she so eloquently deconstructs with her (indeed) brilliant students. The juxtaposition of Liboiron’s and Appleton’s contributions show that hormones, in their multiple guises, pose acute methodological challenges for studying phenomena across scales. What I have tried to show is that power is constitutive of scales and of differential capacities to move through scale or to seal oneself off from chemical substances’ scale-bending, toxic effects.


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Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Gross, Matthias, and Linsey McGoey. 2015. Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. New York: Routledge.

Hardon, Anita, and Emilia Sanabria. 2017. “Fluid Drugs: Revisiting the Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals." Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 117–32.

Kessler, David A. 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale Books.

Livingstone, Julie. 2012. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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Rios, Mariana. 2018. “‘There is politics in your shampoo’: On Youth Activism, Endocrine Disruption, and Making Everyday Toxicity Visible in France.” PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

Sanabria, Emilia. 2010. “From Sub- to Super-Citizenship: Sex Hormones and the Body Politic in Brazil." Ethnos 75, no. 4: 377–401.

_____. 2015. “Sensorial Pedagogies, Hungry Fat Cells, and the Limits of Nutritional Health Education.” BioSocieties 10, no. 2: 125–42.

_____. 2016a. Plastic Bodies: Sex Hormones and Menstrual Suppression in Brazil. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

_____. 2016b. “Circulating Ignorance: Complexity and Agnogenesis in the Obesity ‘Epidemic.’" Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 1: 131–58.

Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. 2017. Pharmocracy: Value, Politics, and Knowledge in Global Biomedicine. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1978. Process and Reality. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press. Originally published in 1929.