Chemical relations: a humanistic glossary of hormones

Andrea Ford explores the social and humanistic aspects of hormonally-active chemicals in a forthcoming co-edited collection Hormonal Theory: A Cascading Glossary (2024)

Illustration of snakes entangled in foreground and girl and dog in background
Illustrations in Hormonal Theory: A Cascading Glossary (2024) created by Elsa Paulson and commissioned with a Creative Commons license by the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society (Wellcome Trust) and Australia National University

Form follows function, as the design maxim goes, but function also follows form. We appreciated the results of experimenting with this relationship in our new edited collection, , part of Bloomsbury’s Theory in the New Humanities series and edited by myself, Andrea Ford, alongside Roslyn Malcolm, Sonja Erikainen, Lisa Raeder, and Celia Roberts. It plays with the format of a biomedical glossary of hormones, with nineteen short entries arranged alphabetically. Each nominally discusses a certain hormone or hormonally active chemical, without any subtitle. The book’s structure is designed to appear unremarkable, but we found that this format did more than serve as an organising convention for pieces treating on the social and humanistic aspects of hormones. We developed the collection working from the idea of the cascade, and, somewhat paradoxically, the tidy format helps produce this messy concept.

Hormones cascade into one another within bodies in complex physiological processes, in which the biological cascades into the social and vice versa. Hormones are inextricably entangled with the ecologies composing and surrounding bodies, ecologies influenced by humans but also by non-humans and supra-human industries, ecologies that we engage with deliberately and inadvertently as individuals. The idea that hormones could be isolated into discrete entities was, at the outset, counter to our understanding of what they were. Yet, we liked the idea of playing with the convention, pushing on it to see what might happen.

There are a few other humanistic glossaries out there, notably Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova’s Posthuman Glossary (2017) and its 2022 sequel, which are part of the same Bloomsbury series. But such glossaries usually feature concepts, whereas ours discusses material entities. This of course begs the question of what the difference is between the material and the conceptual, an ancient debate familiar to philosophers of all sorts – and it is on this ambiguity that the collection rests. It is similar in this respect to Timothy Neale, Thao Phan, and Courtney Addison’s short collection An Anthropogenic Table of Elements (2019) in Cultural Anthropology, which encompasses entities as diverse as cement, mould, PFAS (a category of manufactured chemical), ice, seeds, and silicon, all of which they claim are ‘elemental’ to life in the Anthropocene. They call these “ontologically provocative substances.” We find that the substance of ‘hormones’ is, itself, ontologically provocative, as is ‘hormones’ as a category. What makes a material substance coherent as such? What work does this supposed coherence do, as opposed to other ways of dividing up the bio-social-ecological world of relations?

Illustrated woman with a tattoo of chemical compound on forearmThe glossary format allows us to play with these questions. Because the order is simply alphabetical and not thematic, we mix things often considered distinct, masking some differences and thereby allowing other differences to become significant. We abandon the overdetermined distinction between “sex hormones” and other types of hormones, allowing sex, gender, and reproduction to emerge in hormonal complexity. Entries describe hormonal cascades among humans and animals, influenced by our surroundings and their affective qualities. We do not separate endogenous and exogenous hormones – those produced in the body versus synthesized in a lab or factory. This allows for rich discussions that tease apart differences in supposedly “bioidentical” hormonal drugs or that celebrate how manipulable our hormonal bodies are, as well as pieces illustrating how blurry this distinction is, for example when hormones produced in a body are collected for use in other bodies. Pregnant mares’ urine used to make hormone replacements for menopause is a classic example, and the collection includes a lesser known one about Catholic nuns donating their post-menopausal urine to assist in other people’s conception.

Among exogenous hormones, the glossary also doesn’t distinguish between those intentionally encountered or embodied, namely pharmaceuticals (including DIY drugs and off-label uses), and those unintentionally encountered or embodied, often considered environmental toxins (endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs). EDCs are ubiquitous in post-industrial landscapes, not least because many of them were taken as pharmaceuticals, and either are excreted and taken up in other bodies or have effects that were unforeseen, such as the drug DES causing severe deformities in subsequent generations. Most EDCs were intentionally used for non-pharmaceutical purposes and had serious unintended consequences, such as the pesticide DDT (both DDT and DES feature in glossary entries). This raises questions about ‘side effects’ and collateral damage, how effects come to light over time and in context, and who defines what relations are ‘primary.’ Many of the cascades in the volume highlight how inadequate individual choice and consent are as frameworks for thinking about hormonal intentions.

A glossary is so ‘neutral.’ Its organization seems like a non-organization, a simple tabulation of what exists instead of an interpretation – like the mythic objectivity of the sciences themselves. So, in a way, using a glossary allows us to reorder social science and humanities insights: by putting relational complexity ‘back’ into little boxes, we see the contents newly. I sometimes imagine ‘reality’ as a watercolour, diaphanous and shifting, easily influenced and able to be parsed in many ways from many perspectives, and this collection’s organisation as a grid superimposed on the watercolour; but rather than forcing little monochrome boxes, the grid cuts things in a strange way that highlights what shapes the colours make or how they bleed into one another.

Illustration of a pregnant woman with an IV drip and a chemical compound in backgroundModern chemistry originated in the highly rational periodic table, which conceptualizes chemicals as discrete entities; these origins indicate a ‘functionalist bent’ that Michelle Murphy (2017) claims still underwrites the problematic governance paradigms across the world today, as if chemicals themselves were good or bad actors to be regulated instead of dynamic relations that materialize via their complex reactivity with living and non-living beings. A table – or a glossary – obscures how complex and unequal our entanglements with hormonally active substances are. It is hard not to talk about hormones in universalizing, abstract terms, as in the titles of the entries: “Oxytocin,” “Adrenaline,” “hCG,” “Follicle Stimulating Hormone” … Yet repurposing the glossary form with “an ironic stance toward the functionalism and naturalism of the chemical sciences” (Neale et al 2019) aligns with Murphy’s call for new methods to track and narrate “the infrastructure of chemical relations that surround and make us” (2017, 496). A subversive glossary, its bait-and-switch character offers tidily isolated components but delivers an irreducible milieu of relations.

For all its seeming order, and indeed because of its seeming order, the glossary format in Hormonal Theory highlights how impossible concepts like ‘agency,’ ‘nature,’ or ‘balance’ are when it comes to hormones. It exposes these as fantasies, inadequate to the task of accounting for and producing hormonal relations. Across the entries we see complex pharmacological situations, from how self-gynaecology using the phytohormones in city park plants evades social pressure to use harmful contraceptive drugs yet exposes people to toxins, to an alternative Patient Information Leaflet enabling the user of puberty blockers to weigh various potential social, biological, and psychological effects of off-label use for gender affirmation. We see multiple faces of given hormones, from how oxytocin can be therapeutically stimulated in autistic children by horses, to how its synthetic cousin can interrupt birthing bodies’ receptivity to their environment, to how it comes to be featured in a ‘neurobiological love complex’ that will encourage heteronormative family-making. We see that paragon of manliness, testosterone, used to ‘restore’ older women’s sex drive, and the rapid transmission of adrenaline from snake to dog to human in a patch of dry grass. We see cascade after cascade, both watercolour and grid, both order and its subversion.

About the Author

Andrea Ford is a cultural and medical anthropologist at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores childbearing, periods, endometriosis, hormones, and ‘FemTech’, more broadly investigating how ideas about gender, bodies, knowledge, nature, and technology shape the culture surrounding medicine and reproduction.  She also practices as a birth doula and is dedicated to working towards reproductive and environmental justice. Her monograph Near Birth: The Doula Phenomenon and American Values is under review, and her work has appeared in journals including Cultural Anthropology, Engaging Science, Technology and Society, and Medicine Anthropology Theory.

References

Braidotti, Rosi and Maria Hlavajova, eds. 2017. Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Braidotti, Rosi, Emily Jones, and Goda Klumbyte, eds. 2022. More Posthuman Glossary. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Neale, Timothy, Thao Phan, and Courtney Addison. 2019. “An Anthropogenic Table of Elements: An Introduction.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, June 27.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

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