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.

 

 

 

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.

Letters

I’m not really surprised that the LRB has had quite enough of the exchange – in its Letters section – on the subject of ‘Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!‘ My letter in response to Jenny Turner, Emily Witt and Donna Haraway wasn’t published in the latest issue. So, I’m posting it here (scroll down to the end).

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Even more Haraway activity

The New York-based communist collective Red Bloom invited me to speak today as part of its Marxist-Feminism reading group and discussion series hosted in the pebbled garden at the wonderful bookshop Unnameable Books. It was lovely that there were bright green leaves fluttering immediately on hand when we got to the bit about “how like a leaf” the cyborg is. The event went so well, and it was standing room only. The discussion – in small groups – taught me a great deal about the uses of irony and the shifting valence of ‘science’. It was really great. I am thrilled that so many people are enlivened by cyborgicity right now and are doing critical bricolage with its conceptual arsenal. I am including my introductory remarks here.

[I then went on to read the first 2,000 words or so of my essay ‘Cthulhu Plays No Role For Me’.]

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Klein vs Klein

I’ve recently joined the Out of the Woods writing collective so I’m flagging our review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. We called it “Klein vs. Klein” and published it at the excellent The New Inquiry (@thenewinquiry) and re-posted it on OOTW’s home Libcom, where you should also check out the @out_woods offerings for @occupiedtimes on disaster communism and other eco-revolutionary themes.

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A taster of what we had to say:

Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.


Out of the Woods's picture Out of the Woods

A collaborative blog investigating capitalism and climate change.

Behind this blog is a loose collective. We don’t have any agreed positions or perspectives, beyond thinking that climate change is a vital area of investigation. Some of us are scientifically trained, but none of us are experts in climate science or environmental policy. We are learning as we go.

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