Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Reclaiming Ruins: Childbirth, Ruination and Urban Exploration Photography of the Ruined Maternity Ward

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Reclaiming Ruins: Childbirth, Ruination and Urban Exploration Photography of the Ruined Maternity Ward

Article excerpt

For every second of time that passes us now, around four women give birth. Despite the statistics, however, feminist inquiry has comprehensively charted the myriad ways in which childbirth has been forced into silence; rendered unspeakable; and has become alienated from the maternal bodies that perform it, achieve it, and even suffer it. This essay is an attempt to conceptualize this absent presence of birth by imagining childbirth and women's birth narratives to be, quite literally, in a state of ruin. By paying attention to issues of temporal and emotional alienation and the spatio-temporal experiences available in ruins, this discussion will outline the striking linguistic and conceptual parallels between literary-narrative and feminist-theoretical accounts of the effects of medicalization on childbirth on the one hand, and a range of commentaries on the conceptualization and cultural role of ruins on the other. Exploring questions rather than seeking decisive answers, the aim is then to explore how women in the United Kingdom might begin to move toward reclaiming their birthing experiences out of a state of ruin by being granted a glimpse inside the ruined maternity ward itself. The specific example to which I will refer is that granted by photographers called Urban Explorers, whose online display of images taken inside derelict and ruined buildings offer an experience of the hospitalized birth place far removed from that which reduces childbirth to amnesia and silence.

Ruin, Amnesia, and the Removal from Everyday Life: Kevin Lynch's Concept of Ruin

In his homage to detritus, Wasting Away, Kevin Lynch asks twenty-one interviewees to distinguish between a "ruin" and an "abandoned place." Participants made a sharp and often aesthetic distinction between the two, in which ruins were described as "pleasant" and worthy of reverence, while abandoned spaces provoked more abject responses as interviewees associated them with entropy, dereliction, and "death" (Lynch 1990, 219). Nevertheless, participants used other, more complex criteria to discriminate between ruins and abandoned places: criteria not merely based in aesthetics, but rooted instead in matters of spatiality, temporality, memory, and emotional response. Indeed, it is in these more complex responses that clear associations begin to appear between linguistic and imaginative conceptualizations of ruination and the ways in which feminist critiques and feminist-inflected literary accounts of birth have characterized various effects of medicalization on birthing and birth narratives.

First noticeable are respondents' uses of ideas of spatio-temporal distance to characterize ruins. Prevalent in Lynch's account of his interviewees' responses is the notion that ruins set themselves apart from abandoned spaces because of the "passage of time" that has elapsed from the building's original demise to the present day (217). Unlike recently empty buildings, therefore, which Lynch explains are felt to be "more recent and closer to home," it is the "remoteness in space and time" represented by the ruin that apparently neutralizes our affective response to such structures (219, 218). In other words, ruins are seen as ancient and thus divorced from the anxieties of current sociopolitical tensions and tended to be envisioned by Lynch's respondents as "something old . . . disconnected from their own lives" (217). It is here that echoes resonate between the imaginative and linguistic characterization of ruin and a number of the effects of medical intervention upon birth and birthing narratives as described in much feminist commentary and in numerous literary responses to the birthing experience. For instance, Lynch's survey suggests that for a structure to be regarded as a ruin, it must appear detached from the everyday life of the person who beholds it: a remnant of a distant past, far removed from both the sociohistorical and biographical time of the human subject who ponders the ruin. …

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