The Body as a Formed Stream

Abigail Favale recently wrote an important essay on feminism’s temptation to incoherence. If, as Favale argues, feminism’s reason for being is to be “a movement centered on the well-being of women and girls,” feminism must have a way to identify who women and girls are. But that identification is precisely what has been called into question in the recent gender wars. Favale traces how the rejection of nature—that women exist as sexed by nature, beyond any socio-cultural conditioning (“gender”)—has “introduced a troubling tension into the feminist movement: how can feminism both depend on and deny the universal category of woman?”

Favale divides mainstream feminism into two categories: radical feminists (RadFems) and transgender-friendly feminists (TransFems). RadFems (also known as TERFS, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists) “spend their days shooting dinky clickbait at the transsexual empire’s thermal exhaust ports,” says TransFem Andrea Long Chu with grudging admiration. RadFems insist that men do not have uteruses and that feminists should not be dedicating energy to protecting trans-identifying natal males, who are interlopers into female-protective spaces. Yet, as Favale notes, RadFems are also committed to an anti-nature ontology that undercuts their goals.

In my response to Favale, I observe that feminism made a fatal mistake by accepting Margaret Sanger’s flawed premise: that women are oppressed not by misogyny and social structures but by their own fertile bodies. As a result, feminism became haunted by a Cartesian ghost that whispered discontent with the female body and with embodiment in general, the movement’s strident sex-positivity notwithstanding.

Of course, feminism’s ambivalence about embodiment is of a piece with the contemporary social imaginary. I will look at that broader context in what follows below by summarizing how the body has been liquidated in contemporary theory, beginning with Judith Butler and then turning to modern biological mechanism. While both lose the living human body, they do it differently: Butler by privileging fluidity and mechanism by privileging the dead machine.

I will then present an alternative view, relying on Plato, Aristotle, and maverick bioethicist Stephen Talbott. I will argue that the body can be seen, as Talbott says, as a “formed stream” in which flow and organization each have a place.

Judith Butler’s Fluid Theoretical Bodies

Judith Butler’s breakout book Gender Trouble foundationally disrupted the feminist consensus of the 1970s and 80s that there was a distinction between biological sex and socio-cultural gender. The latter was assumed to be malleable, while the former was stable. Much feminist scholarship attempted to critique cultural assumptions about gender as arbitrary and oppressive, while validating biological femaleness. Butler threw all of these efforts into turmoil by arguing that both sex and gender were a matter of construction or, as she put it later, “materialization.”[1] Pre-existing social norms concerning sex and gender roles, she argued, create “cultural fictions” that produce “the peculiar phenomenon of a ‘natural sex’ or a ‘real woman.’” But these are only “a set of corporeal styles.”[2] Gender as a socio-cultural phenomenon does not follow from biological sex; if anything, gender creates (or “materializes”) sex.

The materialization of gender is an after-effect of the larger project of subject-constitution through desire, but gender is a particularly crucial effect. As Hegel taught her, honing in on desire means pinpointing the nexus of subject-formation. The subject is not so much a noun as a verb or a process of desire. In Butler’s reading of the Phenomenology of the Spirit (far and away the most important Hegelian text for her), Hegel gives a phenomenological account of the subject as continually losing and reforming its self. This Hegelian pattern forms the template for sexual materialization as well.[3]

In Bodies That Matter, she argues that Foucault presents us with a Nietzschean hylomorphism. Rather than having morphe (form) shape matter, Foucault replaces form with power (BTM 32). As a result, for Butler, the soul is reduced to “an instrument of power through which the body is cultivated and formed” (BTM 33). The proliferating powers expresses themselves through gender norms, which are captured in language (GT 34-46 and 151-93; BTM 223-42).[4] Butler appropriates J. L. Austin’s terminology of a “performative utterance” or a “speech-act” to explain this. In his 1955 book How to Do Things with Words, Austin contributes the valuable insight that language is not simply about expression but also about action; one can really do things with words. A paradigmatic example is marriage, in which the spouses bring the marriage into being by saying “I do.” Another is God’s creating through his words (BTM 13).

Austin did not live to see Butler revive his formulation for a post-modern world; it is likely he would have opposed her efforts. Of his word “performative,” he later said, “It is a new word and an ugly word, and perhaps it does not mean anything very much.” Butler, however, found it invaluable, in part because it gave her a way to talk about power’s action on us. One is as much done in by discursive power as doing things with one’s own power. One can parody and perform, but there is no escaping the normative matrix of power.

In Butler’s speaking of performativity, the word “iterability” is frequently, well, repeated. Why? In a passage in Bodies That Matter, she emphasizes the ongoing nature of gender and identity performances. They are “incessantly reconstituted, . . . subject to the volatile logic of iterability . . . constantly mashaled [sic], consolidated, retrenched, contested, and, on occasion, compelled to give way” (BTM 105). The exhaustion the reader feels at the prospect of such continual repetition and battle is real. But, for Butler, so is the melancholic effort necessary to stabilize gender and identity in a precarious equilibrium before the next assault of power.

An example of a Butlerian performance of gender is Linden Crawford, who wrote in the New York Times that she has an “in-between identity” especially since she began taking testosterone. “On some level, I want people to have trouble reading me” because it will deconstruct their ideas of a sexual binary. “I want to insert a beat into their process, an opportunity for them to question the typical signifiers of gender. The harder it is, the better.” Similar to Butler’s “gender trouble,” Crawford’s goal is a “gender panic.”

The Normative Dead Body in Biological Mechanism

Butler liquidates the body by making it a constant process of repetitive play-acting. While her troubling of gender was novel, the body itself had been troubled long before. Butler dispenses with morphe (form), replacing it with power. Early modern thought had beat her to it by its own ejection of form, which was viewed as an unscientific hold-over of outdated Aristotelianism. What took form’s place was mechanical law, discovered through the close examination of snapshots of matter.

Bioethicist Stephen L. Talbott observes that William Harvey, the founder of modern medicine in the seventeenth century, privileged the examination of the dead or dying body in coming to his ground-breaking proposals on the nature of the heart: “Harvey dissected animals—all sorts of animals: dogs, cats, pigs, serpents, frogs, fish, crabs. And human cadavers. Looking for the secret of the living heart, he was driven by a seemingly inescapable logic toward the dead, dismantled heart.”[5] Harvey was among the first moderns to apply mechanical descriptors to the living body: the heart was a pump, the arteries and veins were tubes, and everything is meant to function like a well-oiled machine.

But what a pump! I will discuss the heart and the limits of the plumbing metaphor shortly. First, more should be said about the literally deadening mechanical approach to the body. It would be foolish to deny that much has been learned through the medicine birthed by mechanistic science. But much has also been lost or misunderstood, in part because, for the body to be a machine, it must turn on and off. And a machine can be studied more closely if it is turned off. But a body-turned-off is a dead body.

Michel Foucault argues in The Birth of the Clinic that taking autopsies of cadavers, a là Harvey, was an intrinsic part of the new medical way of thinking about the body. Death is key, because it is the final rest for the progress of disease, and thus death gives the most reliable interpretive lens through which to sum up a life. As Jeffrey Bishop observes, “The flux of life, the movement of bodies in space and time, finds in the stability of death the ground of medical knowledge. Death is the end of flux, the end of time, localized in the space of the body.”[6]

Even more: because of the loss of final and formal causation in science, medicine was primed to accept efficient control over (dead) matter as its model. The telos of life was not seen to be the good life, as classically conceived, but rather death: man as an anticipatory corpse, to quote the title of Bishop’s book. The snapshot having been taken during the autopsy, the doctor can then view the living body in front of him as the moving image of the snapshot. Thus is the flux of life reconfigured: instead of the Aristotelian notion of life as the activity of the forming soul, and instead of the Platonic idea of time as the moving image of eternity, temporal life becomes the moving image of death. It is not surprising, with such an anthropology, that physician-assisted suicide and even active euthanasia are regularly presumed to be part of a doctor’s job.

Given this anthropology, one could see the valorization of the body’s fluidity in recent theory as an understandable reaction against the body as a moving-image-of-death. But let us ask an important question: might there be a grounding in biology, and not just in “theory,” for the liquid body?

A Formed Stream

Let us return to the heart. Stephen Talbott notes that, if the heart is viewed merely as a pump and the blood vessels only pipes, then that image requires “less than a pound of specialized muscle to propel blood through tiny tubes running [the equivalent of the length of] one side of Interstate 80 from New York to the California shore [about 6000 miles!], and then back again along the other side of the highway.” More weirdly, the majority of oxygen consumed in the heart is used for … heat.[7] If the heart is a pump, it is primarily a heat-pump. Further, if the circulatory system is just plumbing, it is poor at its job, because the system leaks its entire quantity of blood plasma eighty times over the course of a day into the surrounding tissues. That leaves us with a heart as a pump, among whose prime functions are not only to drive blood on its improbably lengthy trip but just as importantly to distribute heat throughout the entity while irrigating its surroundings along the way. If all this seems impossible for a mere pump to accomplish indefinitely, in fact it is, at least up to the time of this writing; artificial hearts—which are truly mere mechanical pumps—function only as stop-gaps while patients await a heart-transplant.

The heart can do what it does because it has a huge assist, namely, the entire circulatory system. It is more apt to say that blood circulates because of the entire circulatory system, rather than only because of the pumping of the heart. The arteries assist by contracting or expanding and thereby changing the blood’s pressure, in dialogue with the heartbeat and often in response to irregular cardiac conditions. Further, eighty-five percent of the body’s blood moves without the need for any significant pressure, namely, in a “‘low-pressure system’” that Talbott describes as including “the capillaries, veins, right side of the heart, pulmonary (lung) circulation, and left atrium of the heart”—a not insubstantial portion of the whole system. This low-pressure blood flow includes the constant oozing from the capillaries into the surrounding tissues and back, as the body remakes that lost blood plasma. As a result, “the force that causes the blood to flow into the heart is the result of work performed by the tissues continually replenishing the fluid volume of the blood.”[8] Flow is as important as structure.

A look at embryology confirms the co-priority of movement with structure. If the circulatory system were best described as a plumbing system, then we can imagine how a good engineer would manufacture it, first by making the mechanism and then by filling it with fluid. But human embryos are not good engineers, because they first create the liquid flows and only subsequently the structures to contain them. “The first blood-like liquid . . . simply trickles through gaps in the tissues,” and once the blood vessels are formed, they trigger the development of the heart, not the other way around.[9]

This interplay between movement and structure leads Talbott to call the body a “formed stream.”[10] He uses the example of a living cell, which is around 75% water. The cell’s primary activities, he argues, “are flows. Even the parts we have been taught (by photographs and textbook drawings) to take as fixed structures are in fact caught up in flows. They themselves are in one degree or another flows.” Noting that a cell’s contents will change perhaps a thousand times during its lifetime, he concludes, “Many of the body’s structures are more like standing waves than once-and-for-all constructed objects.”

And yet the stream is “formed,” Talbott insists, pushing back against modern science’s rejection of form. The whole development and life of an organism, with all its manifold parts passing in and out of being, is nevertheless organized toward the purpose of the life of the whole. Talbott quotes distinguished cell biologist Paul Weiss, who observed,

Small molecules go in and out, macromolecules break down and are replaced, particles lose and gain macromolecular constituents, divide and merge, and all parts move at one time or another, unpredictably, so that it is safe to state that at no time in the history of a given cell, much less in comparable stages of different cells, will precisely the same constellation of parts ever recur.

And yet, Weiss continues, the whole remains relatively invariable, a stream that holds together, that is formed.

Out of many mysteries that Talbott emphasizes, this is perhaps the strangest: the living body is neither an undetermined chaos—for then it would not be a particular body—nor a determined machine—for then it would not be living. Either flow or structure is comprehensible on its own, but this strange mixed thing that is the body’s formed stream pushes our understanding to the limits. As a result, it is easy to see why scientists often take refuge in mechanism and contemporary philosophers in vitalism, staking out territory in one extreme or the other.

Indeed, they are merely reenacting the great dispute between Parmenides and Heraclitus, between stability and flux. Talbott’s resolution of the two in a formed stream is already foreseen by Plato as the latter grappled with his predecessors in the Philebus. To resolve the antinomy, Plato reaches back behind them to “the men of old, who were better than ourselves and dwelt nearer the gods.” These men relay the “gift of the gods” that they received: “All things, so it ran, that are ever said to consist of a one and a many, and have in their nature a conjunction of limit and unlimitedness” (Philebus 16c-d).

The ambivalence of unlimit in this dialogue may seem surprising, since unlimit sounds like infinity to us, and infinity seems to be more divine than finitude. But Plato’s unlimit is not so much infinity as formlessness. Pure pleasure has no natural limit (52c), but this is one reason why the hedonistic morality is so unsatisfactory for Plato: pleasure must be oriented to the good through reason, because otherwise pleasure will be unformed, always becoming and passing away but never truly being (54d-55a). As formative, limit is a reflection of the Good. Thomas Aquinas echoes this when he argues that God is essentially both form (Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 3, a. 2) and infinite (Ia, q. 7, a. 1)—i.e., an essence that, identical with pure being, is infinite without being formless.

Plato proposed that the “intermediate” nature of things existing between limit and unlimit is reflected in the “mixed life” of man striving to live in accord with the Good (23a, 61b). Man has the power to measure, that is, to apply limit.[11] Echoing Aristotle’s presentation of virtue as a “mean,” Plato argues that this measuring and limiting should happen with his own life, namely, in reasoning correctly about the good and living out the good in justice, mixing pleasure and reasoning (61b). Further, the mixed life penetrates down to the relation between soul and body, which “come together in a single affection” in sensation (34a; cf. 33d).[12] This creates an inner harmony between soul and body and between the parts of the soul, which are the conditions for proper action (see Republic IV, 443e2).

Such a well-measured mixture is beautiful and good, Plato argues (Philebus 64d-e), and yet how hard it is to balance on the knife’s edge of measure! Our contemporary extremes continue to bear witness to that. Against them, Plato and Aristotle in antiquity and Talbott today argue in their different ways that we are neither just liquid flow nor merely mechanical structure, but something greater: a union of the best of both, a measured limit of unlimit, or a formed stream.

Streaming Life

Because of modern biology’s original animus against form, which for Aristotle was also the life of an organism, biology remains astonishingly incurious about its central object of study: life. Talbott relates the mechanistic language that biologists use and contrasts it with their simultaneous use of a vocabulary pertaining to life—respond, err, thoughtful, plasticity, develop. He asks: can a corpse “respond” to stimuli? Can a machine have a “thoughtful” interaction with its environment? Yet much modern science persists in contradicting itself, by treating an organism like a living being on the one hand and yet using explanatory categories pertinent only to a complicated machine on the other.

The lack of wonder concerning life is an aesthetic and philosophical weakness. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, “We are accustomed to register these wonders as simple, obvious facts and have become unable to realize to what extent these everyday realities are really the manifestation of incomprehensible mysteries.”[13] Biology refuses to wonder, as Talbott says, “why things don’t fall completely apart—as they do, in fact, at the moment of death. What power holds off that moment—precisely for a lifetime, and not a moment longer?”

Perhaps part of the problem for biology is that “life” is something that cannot be viewed under a microscope or isolated in a test tube, and yet it is the most obvious fact of all; we see it all around us. Life is not a discrete part but the vitality of the whole. How can we both see and yet not identify life? Balthasar argues,

The inside lies concealed within an almost impenetrable veil: no scientific research will ever be able to explain what the vital principle in itself . . . And yet we do have access to the living beings . . . [Life] comes to meet us in them. It emerges from its concealment and exhibits itself to us.[14]

No one can point to life, only to living beings, but by pointing to living beings we in fact see life mediated to us.

This explains the weird blindness of biology vis-à-vis life: by refusing to think in terms of form, biology lost the conceptual apparatus it needed to think about life. Form seemed like some ghostly and irrelevant concept, yet it is no more so than life itself (which is the activity of form). Just as we know life through living things, so we know form, in knowing formed beings mediating form to us.

Life is one effect of form. Another is the synergetic relation of parts to the whole. We see this at the very beginning of a human life. The usual aggressive picture of multiple spermatozoa vying for victory by being the first to penetrate the wall of the ovum over-simplifies the symbiotic relation between egg and sperm and even that between the spermatozoa themselves. Talbott points out that the ovum’s cell membrane is never broken, but rather, in fertilization, it fuses with the sperm, aided by the other sperm attached to the ovum.

Or else it does not. Talbott, quoting embryologist Jaap van der Waal, describes the whole process of fertilization and pregnancy as a dialogue of “Shall we or shall we not?” between egg and sperm and then between mother and embryo. As van der Waal says, “everything might happen, but nothing has to happen.” Talbott insightfully contrasts this dialogical dance with the intrusive process of artificial reproductive technology, in particular the deformation and puncturing of the ovum’s wall with a needle as it sits passively in a petri dish.

What guides this process and then the mysterious development of the embryo is the whole that is the entire organism. In an organism, there is “an active, coordinating agency subsuming all the part-processes and disciplining them so that they remain informed by the greater unity,” what he also calls an “ordering center.” We often think about such biological organization in materialistic and reductive terms, as though our genes must be the thing that forms us. That genetic determinism would mean, as Talbott (or an Aristotelian) knows, that we are making the part organize the whole that includes the part. And, further, what orders the genes? Matter is not organized by itself; attributing such a semi-divine quality to matter is what modern materialism intends, but such self-creation remains as impossible as the mythical “self-made man.” Rather, what forms the matter is the invisible-yet-seen-form, that is, the “greater unity” that is “the ordering center” of the whole organism. Form makes the difference between a living organism and a dead corpse. It is the despised nature rejected by modern feminism, and it is the great reality that eludes both fluidity-crazed theory and death-haunted biology.


I have argued that the static and mechanistic view of the body inherited from early modernity is not adequate to the dynamic reality of our physicality. The body is not a sophisticated machine but rather a formed stream of ordered motion, guided by the whole organism. Nor, however, is the body the aimless flow of theoretical liquid bodies, but is instead structured, marked by a beginning and an end—more truly like an arrow than the convulsive points of the post-modern body.

Modern feminism is committed to Enlightenment anthropology as well as that anthropology’s progeny, gender theory. These loyalties have led it to its day of reckoning, as Favale describes. Rather than oscillating between inadequate extremes, it must, as Favale observes, come to terms with what is real: women, bodies, reproduction, obligations of care. This coming-to-the-real would not mean rejecting completely the fluidity of the body, but rather seeing it as a formed stream. Our desires for flow are not simply wrong, just usually ill-conceived and unmeasured. The way forward is to return to a wonder about life and its mysterious organizing center. That would lead us to embrace the “mixed life” of flow and form, the measured mean between the incoherent extremes of modern anthropology.

[1] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex, second ed. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4-12. Future references will be parenthetical and abbreviated BTM, followed by page numbers.

[2] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2007), 190, 191. Further references will be parenthetic and abbreviated GT, followed by page numbers.

[3] See my “A Wojtyłian Reading of Performativity and the Self in Judith Butler,” Christian Bioethics 26, no. 3 (December 2020): 221–242.

[4] The linguistic construction of sex and gender Butler derives from Foucault, Louis Althusser, lesbian theorist Monique Wittig, and analytic philosopher J. L. Austin, among others. Butler developed her interest in speech beyond the question of gender in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[5] Talbott is a contributing editor to The New Atlantis and a senior researcher at The Nature Institute. I am grateful to bioethicist Lesley M. Rice for directing me to Talbott’s work.

[6] Jeffrey Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse (Notre Dame, IN.: UNDP, 2011), 54, discussing Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

[7] Sixty to seventy percent of the oxygen, to be precise; see Hermann Lauboeck, M.D., “The Physiology of the Heart and Blood Movement: A Reappraisal”, The Dynamic Heart and Circulation, ed. Craig Holdrege, trans. Katherine Creeger (Fair Oaks, Ca.: AWSNA, 2002), 68, 70, as reviewed by Talbott.

[8] Lauboeck, “The Physiology of the Heart and Blood Movement,” 70, quoted by Talbott.

[9] Wolfgang Schad, “A Dynamic Morphology of the Heart and Circulatory System,” in The Dynamic Heart, 80-83, quoted by Talbott.

[10] Steve Talbott, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being,” The New Atlantis, no. 22 (Fall 2010): 27-51 at 37. Elsewhere Talbott attributes the phrase “formed stream” to Novalis, but I have not located the original. Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of the references to Talbott are to this essay.

[11] This definition of measure opposes that by Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things,” understood in a relativistic sense. For an invaluable summary of the importance of “measure” for ancient (especially Platonic) and medieval philosophy, see James McEvoy, “The Divine as the Measure of Being in Platonic and Scholastic Thought,” Studies in Medieval Philosophy, ed. John F. Wippel (Washington, D.C.: CUA, 1987), 85-116.

[12] I am indebted to Paige Hochschild, Memory in Augustine’s Theological Anthropology, The Oxford Early Christian Studies Series (Oxford: OUP, 2012), 24-27 for her discussion of the Philebus.

[13] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic, vol. 1, Truth of the World (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 86.

[14] Balthasar, Theo-Logic 1, 86-87.

Featured Image: Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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