Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Dis/articulating Bellies: A Reproductive Glance

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Dis/articulating Bellies: A Reproductive Glance

Article excerpt


On a Saturday afternoon just out of the city, I sat with a woman who cast herself 'Jane'. Baby 'Jo' and partner 'Mardi' played 'kangaroos' on the floor. We talked, sampling some ways of looking and telling:

I said,"... [and] when you saw the child?'

Jane said, "Well, that was amazing, wasn't it?'

'We cried', said Mardi.

'We did', smiled Jane.1

And so a looking moment was marked and presupposed its hearing. Jane and Mardi expose the shapes of telling set within the heady seductions of'foetal imaging', itself a prevalent frame for the discourses of preformation. Medical imaging/imagining, it is thought, constitutes, and is constituted, within geographies and effects of inscription, forcing us to contemplate the tensions between biology and text. But as well, this is a bigger story-a tale of two women, some technology, and a baby As they recalled their first glance of nine-week-old Jo, the moment of material-transparency was secured within a specific realm of loving and living. I began to wonder about the task of explanation and the dependence upon disclosure implicit in lived negotiations of identity And more. 'Who writes like that-like emotion itself, like the thought (of the) body, the thinking body?'2 Language and rhetoric drive histories of coalescence between doing and telling, casting and speaking, listening and hearing, masking the more elaborate moments of irresolve in what Lauren Berlant has described as 'public-sphere narratives and concrete experiences of quotidian life that do not cohere or harmonise'.3

In this paper, dialogue between the mysteries of difference, 'of differance' and the partiality of critique, hopes to deploy a digressive optic through which to imagine possibilities for a logic of sight surprised by its own luminous inflections. With this, I ask in exploratory terms, 'What might a "foetus" hear from wor[l]ds well placed to deselect?'4


In 1965 Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson published a series of foetal images in Life magazine, and in doing so, encouraged speculation about the truth-value of such work. The article in which the imagery appeared was called 'Drama of Life Before Birth'.5 Nilsson recorded the embryo, and later, the foetus, often to create an impression of linkage with the female body. He did this through a series of quite simple devices such as enlargement and cropping. From these images, contemporary notions of 'foetal space' and 'foetal personhood' emerged as ways to disperse established discourses of individualism and human actualisation-through a perceived absence of dependence on the maternal body, the foetus 'got itself a life'.6

But more than images of the autonomous 'unborn', Nilsson's work stressed the strength of persuasion through strategies of language.7 In the book Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality, Karen Newman writes that all but one of the images were photographed ex utero, having been removed from the uterus and re-staged in a studio setting to reproduce as developing foetuses. She clarifies that Nilsson's

photographs do not dramatise 'life before birth'. [Rather] they are photographs of fetuses obtained through both spontaneous and surgical abortion. Working in cooperation with doctors in Sweden, where many privileged American women of sufficient means obtained abortions during the sixties, Nilsson perfected photographic techniques for chronicling embryonic development.8

Newman offers a number of points about Nilsson's work. One concerns the notion of 'foetal personhood' which operates as a persuasive linguistic strategy where acts of foetal abortion, as one example, are opposed. As visual modes of obstetric and embryological representation, the images have helped to shape social and political debates about abortion practices through the combination of photograph and caption: the aesthetic and the didactic. They work to sustain what Newman terms an anti-feminist rhetoric, or propaganda, of 'pro-life', 'antiabortion' and 'new right' campaigns. …

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