Complete Forum on Cyborg Uterine Geography

Here – as one combined PDF – is the forum on “Cyborg Uterine Geography” as published in Dialogues in Human Geography  Volume 8 Issue 3, November 2018 with response-essays from Maria Fannin, Robyn Longhurst, Kath Browne and Heidi Nast. We discuss comradeliness, normativity, indeterminacy and the ‘queering’ maternal biology… as well as the limits of a framework of ‘generosity’ for thinking about gestational work from an antiwork perspective.
Cyborg uterine geography

Cyborg uterine geography

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My article, “Cyborg uterine geography: complicating ‘care’ and social reproduction” is now published in Volume 8, Issue 3 of the the journal Dialogues in Human Geography. It is the anchor article in a forum featuring responses from professors Heidi Nast, Robyn Longhurst, Kath Browne, and Maria Fannin – followed by a rejoinder from me. The forum threw up lots of interesting lines of contention around the politics and value of ‘generosity’, the gender of the maternal.

Abstract

Most geographers have sided with ‘cyborgs’ (technonatural subjects) against ‘goddesses’ (e.g. Mother Earth) on questions of embodiment. In itself this provides no justification for the relative dearth (in geography) of theorizing ‘with’ the uterus as a site of doing and undoing; what I propose to call uterine geography. ‘Uterine’ relations are fundamentally cyborg, animatedly labouring and not only spatial but spatializing: they make and unmake places, borders, kin. This includes not only abortion, miscarriage, menstruation and pregnancy (whose transcorporeal and chimeric character is well documented in medical anthropology) but also other life-enabling forms of holding and letting go that do not involve anatomical uteri (such as trans-mothering and other alter-familial practices). Despite our discipline’s ostensible interest in co-production, hybridity and the more-than-human, the ‘doing’ aspects of intra and interuterine processes have tended to be black-boxed in accounts of care economies and social reproduction. The proposed remedy is deromanticization: an approach that critically politicizes uterine relations as historically contingent and subject to amelioration through struggle. Potential aides include Maggie Nelson’s idea that ‘labor does you’, Suzanne Sadedin’s account of gestation’s mutual hostility and the concepts of ‘sym-poiesis’ and ‘metramorphosis’. One notable consequence of this expanded concept of the uterine is that ‘assisted reproduction’, as it is characterized today, ceases to be categorically separate from other kinds of reproduction.

The paper as a whole can currently be accessed for free here.

Some quick reflections on the discussion…

Among the overwhelmingly positive ‘forum’ responses, Longhurst was sceptical of my claim that feminist geographers (and thinkers in the humanities generally) have lacked an active verb to describe the work of being pregnant. Or at least, she doubts that the verb “to gestate” is it, noting that the pregnant women she has interviewed did not talk about “gestating”. Separately, Browne points out that while I assert “a normal prosthesis-free family does not exist,” my actual illustrations involve (exclusively) “trans communalities” and thus, she felt, “queering ‘normal’ remains a latent possibility” in my text rather than a demonstrated reality. Meanwhile, Fannin takes issue with my strategy of adopting biologist Suzanne Sadedin’s agonistic, anti-generosity narration of pregnancy as a way of advancing those aims. Pregnancy, Maria reminds me, is “hardly presented in modern medical contexts as an entirely risk-free process”. Far from iconoclastic, the basic tenets of the “war in the womb” story are actually “overfamiliar” and – as she argues – have to be understood as complicit in ongoing “structural violence aimed at [some] birth givers” in the broader social and political field. In other words: I should at minimum have prolonged my attack on the demonization of pregnancy if I was going to focus so much criticism on its romanticisation. I address this great point in-depth in my rejoinder.

Another risk (Longhurst correctly identifies) is that we erect, in language, a
sovereign subject of gestation that, for most gestators, simply feels like a lie. However, times change. Ironically, the word “gestate” once denoted the heroic action of horse-riding and is etymologically linked to the very ideal of sovereign subjecthood: gest or geste in Old French meant “famous deed or exploit” (as in: chansons de geste). To geste-ate, then, evokes to me a meta-level of action, a doing of doings: a saddling and riding of exploits and exploitations, where the fetus (or fetuses) participate(s) in the gesture. The purpose of this and of my admittedly clumsy use of abstruse language like “metramorphosis” and “sym-poetic,” as Longhurst hopefully perceives, is to get at the uncanny dynamic in pregnancy that eludes a subject/object division. As we do labour, labour does us back. This elusive quality of the distribution of agency in baby-making labour is unfortunately something I do not know how to reference in consistently simple vocabulary. Yet I am convinced of the insufficiency of the commonplaces at our disposal – formulations like “to be with child”, “to be expecting” and “to have children”, which circle around the exterior of the gestating body and conceal its creativity. Even “to be pregnant” only credits the condition passively to the actor who, having failed to be “impregnable,” was “impregnated”. As for the problem of research subjects not volunteering alternative idioms: all I can say is that some gestators do call what they are doing gestating. For me, politically, that’s enough.

Read more – including Heidi Nast’s far more oppositional response to my work – in the next issue of Dialogues.

And in the meantime, here’s a link to my anchor article: Cyborg Uterine Geography.

 

 

 

All Reproduction is Assisted

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Louise Bourgeois, 2008

Belatedly announcing the fact that I am part of a forum at Boston Review, Issue 7.43(3), Once and Future Feminist, sharing space with the likes of Silvia Federici and Andrea Long Chu while responding to an article by the brilliant writer Merve Emre that surveys American infertilities.

The gender of gestating is ambiguous. I am not talking about pregnancy’s deepening of one’s voice, its carpeting of one’s legs in bristly hair, or even about the ancient Greek belief that it was an analogue of men’s duty to die in battle if called upon. I am not even thinking of the heterogeneity of those who gestate. Rather, in a context where political economists are talking constantly of “the feminization of labor,” it seems to me that the economic gendering of the work itself—gestating is work, as Merve Emre says—is not as clear-cut as it would appear.

Read it here.

A response to Julie Bindel (at the Verso blog)

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In what I can only hope is the last time I ever dedicate my precious time and energy to parsing the worldview of RadFems(TM), SWERFs/TERFs (and SERFs – surrogate-exclusionary radical feminists)… I recently wrote a new piece: ‘Not a workplace’: Julie Bindel and the school of wrong abolitionism.

Published a month before the tragic death of veteran sex-working activist Laura Lee, whom it villainises, Bindel’s book The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth excludes trans women from womanhood, LGB rights, and feminism, even going so far as to speculate that Sylvia Rivera was not at Stonewall. Indeed, it systematically paints trans women as enemies of feminism, accusing Janet Mock – among many others – of ‘celebrating’ the connection between trans women and sex work (p.282) as part of an “attempt to merge the identities [?] of prostitution and so-called ‘gender-queer’” (p.279). Not content to blame queerness for calls to decriminalise sex-working lives, Bindel then turns around and levels the claim that trans women are overrepresented in sex work for essential reasons: “part of the whole trans woman identity is about presenting as hyper-sexualised” (p.287). We are ultimately presented with a sinister “pact between trans and ‘sex workers’ rights’”, presumably to foist sexual slavery, organised rape and dehumanisation on the (‘natural’) ‘rest’ of womankind.

Most of the piece is not a review of The Pimping of Prostitution, however. It’s a response to a specific article, published in The Guardian. When Bindel came out with the column in question – “Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace” – my friend and comrade Petra Davis suggested on Twitter that it might be fun to take it apart word by word, i.e.:

  • The INSIDE of a woman’s body is not a workplace.
  • The inside of a WOMAN’s body is not a workplace.
  • The inside of a woman’s BODY is not a workplace.
  • The inside of a woman’s body is not a WORKPLACE.

So that’s what I did. It’s up at the Verso blog. Here is an excerpt:

For those of us who aren’t fans of work (most workers) it might seem encouraging to see someone sticking it to workplaces. Unfortunately, Julie Bindel doesn’t actually have a problem with jobs per se, far from it; she just thinks that some of them go too far. She names a number of biomarkets – Ukrainian hair selling, “the breast milk trade in Cambodia”, “blood banks in India”, and gestational surrogacy “in the global south” – as examples of what she most abhors, namely, prostitution: “the practice of using human bodies as a marketplace”.

The first thing to note here is the selection of ‘workplace’ and ‘marketplace’ in this context (rather than, say, ‘worker’). We should stop and ask ourselves what ends it serves to suggest that a gestational surrogate, blood donor, or prostitute, in particular, becomes a place – more so than a mother, athlete, call-centre worker or restaurant critic – under capitalism. It’s easy enough to see where bioethical concern is coming from: intimate labours, sexual labours, clinical labours, gestational labours all intuitively demand especially robust frameworks of worker control.

Footprinting the Tentacular Womb

Here is the recording of my presentation at the AAG Annual Meeting in New Orleans (April 11th, 2018): Footprinting the Tentacular Womb. This talk was part of the excellent full-day stream “From the Anthropocene to Postgenomics: New Configurations of Body-World“. I’m hoping I manage to make it more or less comprehensible (at least, for people who have some familiarity with the scholarship of Michelle Murphy and Donna Haraway) – although, I now realise, listening back, it ended up very dense. I’m still learning how to give presentations effectively and not cram too much in, but I’m happy that I got so many laughs.

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“Chthulu plays no role for me” (at Viewpoint magazine)

Head’s-up: the brilliant Marxists at Viewpoint magazine published my essay on Donna Haraway. It’s received a hell of a lot of eyeball traffic and even prompted an email from the great DH herself, so, in light of all this engagement, there are likely to be further developments, refinements or perhaps retractions of this critique! Stay tuned.

I remain for reading Haraway against Haraway. For all her chastisement of “bitter cynicism”, and for all her talk of mud and piss and worms, the chanting goddess who has displaced the earlier cyborg, at least in the pages of Staying with the Trouble, is too much of a clean-living misanthrope – and above all, too much of a pessimist – to be a comrade. Meanwhile, her neglected (if not disavowed) framework of cyborgicity becomes a more and more potent heuristic for thinking class composition and embodying its struggles every day. Cyborgs for Earthly Survival! was the slogan Haraway submitted to Socialist Review. That spirit still lives in the interstices of Staying with the Trouble. Part of our task is indeed “not to forget the stink in the air from the burning of the witches, not to forget the murders of human and nonhuman beings in the Great Catastrophes named the Plantationocene, Anthropocene, Capitalocene”. Part of it is, indeed, to “move through memory to represencing;” to grow capable of response; to become kin; and to “stay with” trouble. But the main thing is to make an altogether bigger kind of trouble.

Exciting times…

Amniotechnics

This essay of mine was published at The New Inquiry two months ago. Better late than never to log it on my blog, right? It’s called AMNIOTECHNICS, which is the name of the concept I’d like to explore in a book.

Amniotechnics is the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. It is protecting water and protecting people from water. I want a generalized praxis of this, which doesn’t forget the importance of holding mothers and thwarted mothers and, yes, even wannabe “single fathers,” afloat in the juice; breathing but hydrated; well-watered but dry. I hope it is possible even for fantasists of ectogenetic progeny, like Frankenstein, who have dreamed of a birth unsullied by a womb, to become capable amniotechnicians in time. Their worldviews may not hold water, but I think they too have to be held. It is possible for any of us to learn that it is the holders—not the delusional “authors,” self-replicators and “patenters”—who truly people the world. “Water management” may sound unexciting, but I suspect it contains the secrets to the kinmaking practices of the future.

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If this grabs you, go read the rest of it over at TNI, email or tweet at me with your thoughts and criticisms, and watch this space for a longer version.