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Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual Culture of Childbirth

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In the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in media representations of childbirth across a range of platforms: cinema, reality television and television drama, online video-sharing platforms, pornographic film, and in fine art practice. As yet, however, there is little feminist scholarship on the implications of this new and varied visual culture of childbirth and its relationship to earlier feminist debates about the cultural taboo against the representation of birth. This paper focuses on two contemporary sites: the growing phenomenon of 'childbirth reality TV' and the birthrites collection, a unique art collection in the UK dedicated to the subject of childbirth. We explore the meanings and implications of this new visual culture of birth, and the ways its reception is challenging earlier feminist conceptualisations of motherhood and the birthing body. In particular, we argue that these new popular and artistic representations of birth trouble accounts of the birthing body as abject, and what could be described as the 'abject aesthetics' that has dominated the visual representation of birth. In place of abjection, we conclude by arguing for a more thoroughly social and political account of the place of birth in contemporary culture, based on forms of 'natal thinking', which we suggest that the birthrites collection proposes.
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser
Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual Culture of
Childbirth
Introduction
In the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in media representations of
childbirth, notably within cinema, reality television and television drama, online video-sharing
platforms, pornographic film, and in fine art practice. As yet, however, there is little feminist
scholarship on the meanings and implications of this new visual culture of childbirth and its
relationship to what has been described as ‘the taboo aesthetics of the birth scene’ (Tyler &
Clements 2009; Tyler 2009a). This taboo aesthetics constructs the act of birth, especially the
moment of crowning, and maternal experiences of pain and pleasure in childbirth, as taboo
through the systematic occlusion of these aspects of childbirth in popular, medical and artistic
representations. Until recently, the scene of birth has been represented, but staged around a
series of lacunae, gaps or missing images, particularly of the maternal vagina ‘holding’ the head of
the emerging foetus, and the maternal face in pain and pleasure, such that the birthing subject is
both there and not there simultaneously. As the artist Jessica Clements (2009) points out, for
instance, in relation to her study of medical texts depicting childbirth, ‘the photographs were
cropped tightly on a draped body. They showed hands working on someone inanimate.
Somewhere above the pubic bone or between the legs, scissors cut open a space’ (Tyler &
Clements 2009, p. 134). Outside the important work of a small number of artists who opened up
childbirth as a viable artistic subject during feminism’s second wave1, and the medical, health and
instructional contexts that have allowed, and yet simultaneously ‘confined’ its visualisation,
childbirth has until recently remained ‘the great unseen’ of European culture.
Today the taboo of childbirth is being broken as birth is becoming routinely witnessed
and represented in more graphic and public ways. If, as both European philosophical and
psychoanalytic traditions have variously argued, maternal origin - the fact of our birth - is the
obscene ‘open secret’, which we must psychologically disavow in order to emerge as distinct and
bounded subjects (Beauvoir 1953; Arendt 1958; Kristeva 1986; Baraitser 2009a), then the new
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
graphic visibility of birth within public culture is suggestive of a significant historical and
psychosocial shift that bears close examination. It is not simply that representations of birth have
multiplied and changed, but that the many different forms of public representation of birth raise
their own social and political questions: What, for example, are the implications of birth taking
its place alongside other mundane and everyday subjects that provide material for reality TV?
What does it mean that women can now routinely make and watch home movies of themselves
giving birth, and share those movies with a nebulous online ‘public’ around the world? How do
we understand the emergence of those publics through the millions of ‘hits’ some birth movies
are receiving on video-sharing platforms? What is the significance of the fact that a generation is
now able to watch audio-visual footage of themselves being born? Given the way birth has been
imagined as unrepresentable and unknowable in the history of philosophy, how might the new
visual culture of birth change our understandings of the relation between representations of the
female body, and maternal subjectivity and sexuality? And how might we understand an
emergent feminist politics of these public cultures of birth? Finally, in a more theoretical register,
do theories of abjection, so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work during the 1980s
and 1990s, still offer helpful ways of understanding the simultaneity of over-exposure and
selective sanitisation and normalisation of childbirth in prevailing media and televisual
representations?
This paper explores some of the meanings and implications of this new visual culture of
birth, and the challenges and opportunities it might present to feminist theory and feminist
artistic and media practices. It begins with a brief introduction to the absence of ‘female birth’
within European thinking and its masculinist metaphorical appropriation. It then maps the shift
in media and consumer cultures of pregnancy and birth out of which the current visibility of
childbirth emerges, focusing on the rise of what we term ‘childbirth TV’. Finally, we consider a
unique art collection in the UK dedicated to the subject of childbirth: the birthrites collection. This
small but significant collection of contemporary artwork on childbirth is mobilised as a route
into thinking through the theoretical implications of the visual culture of childbirth. We believe
that the birthrites collection raises questions about the historical absence of images of birth and the
periodicity with which this absence is briefly overturned and then reasserts itself in the history of
art-making. However, we argue that the collection and its ambivalent reception in publicly
funded museums and art spaces must also be read in the context of current reconfiguration of
relations between birth, health and medicine and feminist theory and politics. The birthrites
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
collection, for instance, is housed within institutions of midwifery and gynaecology, due in part to
the difficulties the curators have experienced in getting the collection shown in art institutions.
We therefore consider the ‘place’ of this collection more broadly, examining its symbolic value in
the social and cultural imaginary; its political importance as a growing body of art works about
birth; its function as a mode of questioning about what comes to ‘count’ as art and as feminist
art practice more generally; and its role in understanding what ‘birth’ might come to mean in an
era in which pregnancy and birth now saturate visual culture. Undertaking an analysis of four
artworks from the collection, Hermione Wiltshire’s ‘Terese in Ecstatic Childbirth’ (2008), Helen
Knowles’ ‘Heads of Women in Labour’ (2011) and ‘YouTube Series’ (2012) and Liv
Pennington’s ‘Private View’ (2002-2010), we argue that it is imperative to move away from
characterisations of birth that draw theoretically on abjection for their understanding of birth as
taboo. Indeed, what is striking about many aspects of new popular and artistic representations of
birth is that they have enabled the production of images and audio-visual materials that trouble
an ‘abject aesthetics’ in which the maternal body must be ‘conceived’ and yet ultimately abjected
and erased in order for the bounded human subject to emerge. In place of abjection, we
conclude by arguing for a more thoroughly social and political account of the place of birth in
contemporary culture, forms of ‘natal thinking’ that we contend the birthrites collection suggests.
Spectral Birth
In The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity (1998), philosopher
Christine Battersby notes that:
Reading many philosophers we might, indeed, suppose that man experienced himself
first in isolation from others; that he never had to learn where the boundaries of his own
self, his will and his freedom lie; and that he (or rather she) does not carry within himself
(or rather herself) the gradual capacity to become two selves. [...] This lack of
theorisation of birth - as if birth was just ‘natural’, something that simply happened
before man ‘is’ - might be most evident in some continental philosophers (in Heidegger,
for example, whose theorisation starts with an existent who is simply ‘thrown’ into the
world) (Battersby 1998, p. 18).
In addition to being simply occluded from the philosophical imaginary, when birth has been
theorised or represented within European philosophical, literary and artistic traditions, it is
figured as a masculine property, the gift of men or male gods to male subjects ‘Zeus-given’.
Hannah Arendt (1958) describes this imaginary as one of male birth’ (Arendt 1958, p. 63).
Indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition is littered with male births, metaphorical births imagined as
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
divine acts of creation, in which life is passed from fathers to sons. Michelangelo’s famous
Sistine chapel painting, ‘The Creation of Adam’ (circa 1511) in which the finger of God gives
life, is perhaps one of the most vivid visual depictions of male procreation. Not only do male
gods engender male subjects, but in the work of philosophers from Plato through to Friedrich
Nietzsche, reproductive metaphors, carefully parsed from their feminine form, are mobilised to
describe capacities for producing thought, and for the engendering and reproduction of
philosophy itself. In Theaetetus (360BC), for example, Plato famously describes philosophy as a
labour akin to childbirth, and depicts Socrates as a midwife who attends ‘men not women’ and
who looks after ‘their souls when they are in labour, and not after their bodies’ (Plato, [360 BC]
2008, p. 16). Writing in the 19th century, the same appropriative logic is central within
Nietzsche’s work, where material and spiritual pregnancy are imagined as strictly separate –
women are associated with dumb materiality and men, the unfruitful sex, are pregnant with ideas
(Hough 1997; Mullin 2002). As Battersby (1998) suggests, for philosophy to function sui generis, it
has consistently eviscerated and/or appropriated women’s reproductive capacities.
This foundational ‘matricide’ that inaugurates Western culture is a well-rehearsed
feminist theoretical argument. Feminist philosophers have responded through critique,
attempting to write birth back into the story of subjectivity and politics (Irigaray 1985; Walker
1998; Tyler 2000; Ettinger 2004; Jacobs 2007; Tyler 2009a; Baraitser 2009a; Baraitser 2009b;
Baraitser & Tyler 2010), as well as embracing the psychic function of matricide within some
areas of feminist psychoanalytic writing. For example, within Julia Kristeva’s (1989) influential
theorising of ‘matricide’ is the unconditional condition of life itself.2 As she writes:
For man and for woman the loss of the mother is a biological and psychic necessity, the
first step on the way to autonomy. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine qua non
condition of our individuation (Kristeva 1989, p. 38).
However, other feminist theorists and philosophers have argued that these accounts of maternal
abjection (and the matricide it assumes) relate not to some pre-historic, unchangeable fact but
are, rather, ‘disciplinary norms’ that have been established through processes of reiteration
(Irigaray 1985; Butler 1993). Indeed, over a forty-year period feminist scholars have variously
traced, uncovered and critiqued the appropriation of birth and the correlative abjection of
maternal subjectivity from European histories of thought and representation. The second-wave
of feminism saw a plethora of feminist theologians, historians and archaeologists provide
evidence and arguments about the centrality of matriarchal religions and ‘birth-worship’ customs
and practices in pre-modern societies (Gimbutas 1974; Daly 1978; Starhawk 1979; Göttner-
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
Abendroth 1987). This body of feminist work on matriarchy- whilst currently unfashionable -
forces a reconsideration of the historical origins and purpose of myths and metaphors of ‘male
birth’ and enables us better to question the sexual politics of not only psychoanalytic and
philosophical accounts of maternal abjection, but the ways these discourses continue to shape
material practices that subjugate women.
For example, the 1960s ushered in an era of what Lauren Berlant (1997) terms ‘fetal
celebrity’– a consequence of ultra-sound and other medical imaging technologies, which not only
transformed women’s experience of pregnancy and birth, but impacted significantly on the
sphere of reproductive politics as the foetus became understood as a subject with its own social
and civil rights (Berlant 1997, p. 124). A substantial body of feminist work has critically
interrogated the social and cultural impact of foetal imaging technologies, particularly as regards
to its role in the promotion of ‘pro-life’ politics (Petchesky 1987; Stabile 1994; Morgan &
Michaels 1999). This scholarship has highlighted once more the ways in which maternal
subjectivity is erased – this time by medical visual technologies - which reinforce the idea that the
foetus has an identity that is ‘separate and autonomous from the mother’ (Petchesky 1987, p.
272). As Rosalind Petchesky (1987) argues, ‘the autonomous, free-floating fetus merely extends
to gestation the Hobbesian view of born human beings as disconnected, solitary individuals’
(Petchesky 1987, p. 270). In response to these practices of maternal abjection, Petchesky argues
that feminists should ‘restore women to a central place in the pregnancy scene’ (Petchesky 1987,
p. 278). To do this, she states, ‘we must create new images that recontextualize the fetus, that
place it back into the uterus, and the uterus back into the woman's body, and her body back into
its social space’ (Petchesky 1987, p. 278).
Petchesky‘s ‘demand’ is made in the late twentieth century, when first-person narration
and visual representations of pregnancy and birth, which bear witness to their ‘unique
temporality’ and the specific embodied and affective dimensions of birth, were still largely absent
from both European conceptual paradigms and from visual media (Young 2005, p. 47). This
absence was arguably compounded by a strand of work that emerged out of second-wave
feminism which systematically identified women's reproductive capacities as the lynch pin of
female oppression (Firestone 1970). As Carol Stabile (1994) notes, ‘an overarching goal [of the
Second-wave] was to extricate “woman” from a purely reproductive status’ (Stabile 1994, p. 86).
Indeed, the fear of ‘capitulating to ideologies that reduce women to a maternal essence’ has
continued to limit feminist theorising on reproduction (Petchesky 1987, p. 288). Yet in the
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
twenty-first century we have witnessed the emergence of a new visual culture of pregnancy and
birth, a culture, which, albeit in potentially contradictory and problematic ways, ‘returns birth to
women’.
Risking returning birth to women, and the birthing body to ‘social space’, is also central
to the work of feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero, who in Relating Narratives (2000), develops
an intricate philosophical account centred on ‘who’, rather than ‘what’ we are. Drawing explicitly
on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), she theorises that each individual creates a
residue of events and actions that can only be told in retrospect as ‘nothing but their life story’.
‘The meaning’ she writes, ‘that saves each life from being a mere sequence of events […] consists
[…] in leaving behind a figure, or something from which the unity of a design can be discerned
in the telling of the story’ (Cavarero 2000, p. 2). The story always begins at the point that a
person’s life begins. This and not another; a mother who, by giving birth to him, has generated
the ‘seasons’ of his entire existence, this existence and not another’ (Cavarero 2000, p. 11).
Crucially, the specificity of birth, and of being birthed to this and not another mother can only
be told by someone else who did not participate in the events. The desire to hear the story of our
birth that we cannot remember, even if in some sense we participated in it, points us towards the
fact that we are fundamentally dependent on others for our life story, and hence for our identity,
our ‘who’. We ‘are’ through appearing to others, and therefore through the gaze of others.
Hence our intense desire for our story to be told, for the gathering up of ‘nothing but our life
story’ (Cavarero 2000, p. 2). Although Cavarero insists that it is the birthing mother who is the
first other to whom the existent first appears, there are usually a whole host other others
friends, fathers, grandparents, siblings, midwives, strangers, and now these much wider ‘publics’,
who we could say are being appealed to, to witness and tell the story of our birth.
The new visual culture of pregnancy and childbirth
In North America, Europe, Australasia (and much of Asia) today, if you open a magazine or
newspaper or switch on a television before long you will encounter images, stories and/or audio-
visual footage of pregnancy and childbirth. Indeed, depictions of pregnancy and childbirth are
proliferating within popular culture (notably celebrity culture, reality television, advertising,
cinema and social media), public culture (notably in the arenas of health and medicine) and arts
practice (in painting and sculpture, performance art and video art, photography and mixed
media). Previous claims that maternal representations have been contained within the highly
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
regulated context of medical or religious spheres are challenged by this new ‘maternal media
culture’ (Kristeva 1986). Without denying that ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005) such as disgust,
revulsion, horror, or distaste still circulate in relation to the visualisation of childbirth, this
diverse field of ‘maternal aesthetics’ has transformed previous notions of beauty, taste and
disgust around reproductive bodies and practices. For example, it is important to recall that as
recently as the mid-1990s feminist theorists were able to claim that ‘pregnant bodies - even
clothed - are sources of discomfort and disgust in popular culture’ (Stabile 1994, p. 84), a
statement that now appears nonsensical in the context of the mass-marketisation of pregnancy
and birth and the broader neoliberalisation of reproduction.
For example, in the early 1990s a representational shift took place within popular culture
as the figure of ‘pregnant beauty’ emerged, driven by celebrity and consumer culture. As Imogen
Tyler (2001, 2011a) has detailed, the visual spectacle of the pregnant body, previously confined
to clinics, hospitals and scientific or healthcare manuals – or to the avant-garde or pornographic
margins was suddenly and shamelessly everywhere, on the catwalk, dancing in pop videos,
reading the news, acting in soap operas, featuring in advertising campaigns and spectacularly
visible on cinema screens. If pregnancy was previously imagined as a passive, abject and ordinary
physical state to be stoically borne in private, today pregnancy is a disciplinary ‘body project’
which women are instructed to covet and enjoy. Family photograph albums, which would have
previously discreetly minimised or erased pregnant bodies, now foreground pregnancy, carefully
staging changing body shape in poses that mimic celebrity photo shots. Within online
communities, hundreds of thousands of ‘belly shots’ uploaded by women to track their changing
shape can be found in specially created ‘pregnancy galleries’. Pregnant women are also
encouraged to adopt and participate in a ‘pregnant consumer culture’, which includes buying and
wearing clothes that emphasise pregnant body shapes, joining pregnancy keep-fit classes, and
consuming pregnancy magazines and television programmes on pregnancy and birth. In short,
pregnancy had been ‘discovered’ as a lucrative market opportunity.
If the 1960s marked the rise of foetal celebrity, and the 1990s witnessed the breaking of a
taboo on the visibility of the pregnant body, the noughties have seen the emergence of graphic
representations of childbirth within the public sphere. Childbirth is now visible across a range of
popular media; most notably childbirth has been marketised as mass entertainment in televisual
forms.
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
Childbirth TV
In the US the Discovery Channel’s Birth Day (2003-2012) is one of several hugely popular
television serials, which follow women through late pregnancy and into childbirth. In ‘Roar Like
a Tiger on TV?: Constructions of women and childbirth in reality TV’ (2010) Camilla A. Sears
and Rebecca Godderis offer a critical analysis of 24 episodes of another long-running US reality
TV series, A Baby Story (The Learning Channel, 1998-2012). As Sears and Godderis detail, each
episode of A Baby Story has a tightly scripted narrative, with footage edited into a pre-determined
framework of sequences that produce a highly medicalised narrativisation of childbirth. Sears
and Godderis conclude that A Baby Story reinforces North American ideological norms around
heterosexuality, gender, reproduction and the medicalisation of birth. The same conclusion is
reached by Theresa Morris and Katherine McInerney (2010) whose similar study of US-
produced reality TV depictions of childbirth concludes with the claim that these hospital-based
reality TV programmes depict ‘women as powerless, physicians in control, and technology as the
saving grace for women’s imperfect bodies’ (Morris & McInerney 2010, p. 140; VandeVusse &
VandeVusse 2008).
These content-driven analyses are important since the impact of childbirth reality TV on
wider understandings and experiences of childbirth is considerable. As Petchesky notes ‘we do
not simply imbibe our reproductive experience raw. The dominant images and codes that
mediate the material conditions of pregnancy, abortion, and so forth, determine what, exactly,
women "know" about these events in their lives, their meaning as lived experience’ (Petchesky
1987, p. 280). This argument is supported by ‘Listening to Mothers II: Report of the Second
National U.S Survey of Women’s Childbearing Experiences’ (2006), which represented the
findings of a survey of 1,573 participants who had given birth in a US hospital in 2005. The
researchers found that ‘far more mothers were exposed to childbirth through TV shows than
through childbirth education classes’ (Declercq et al. 2006). What this research suggests is that
childbirth TV not only distorts women’s perceptions of birth but creates a significant amount of
fear about giving birth, which in turn shapes women’s experience, behaviour and ‘choices’ about
childbirth.
In the UK the situation is similar. In 2006 the reality television company Endemol
brought British viewers Birth Night Live (2006), two hours of live television broadcast from a
hospital maternity unit. This was followed by One Born Every Minute (2010), a BAFTA-winning
reality programme, which is currently filming its fifth series. The dramatisation of birth within
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
these hospital-based childbirth reality TV programmes is, like those in the US, limiting in its
depiction of medicalised birth scenarios. Whilst, as British midwife Henrietta Otley (2012)
argues, One Born Every Minute ‘demystifies the delivery suite setting’ and has ‘familiarised the
public at large with the birth process’, the temporality of the editing processes and scripting of
birth into televisual segments has led to what she describes as ‘performance anxiety’ amongst
pregnant women (Otley 2012, p. 25). We might conclude that within much US and British
childbirth TV, women are portrayed as largely passive subjects caught within the processes and
practices determined by local cultural and social, health and medical structures. These televisual
depictions of childbirth are undoubtedly limited in terms of the absence of possibilities they
encode for imagining, experiencing or understanding birth outside of dominant systems of
control and surveillance that characterise obstetric practices in the Global North. Perhaps more
significantly, the fear they create feeds into and reproduces ideas of birth as a ‘crisis’ which needs
to be managed to a successful conclusion by medical experts with the institutional (and
increasingly corporatised) spaces of hospital settings. Responding to this politics of fear,
childbirth educator Vicki Elson created a video essay titled ‘Laboring Under An Illusion: Mass
Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing’ (2009), which juxtaposed one hundred television and
cinematic births with ‘real births’ in order to interrogate the misleading and sometimes
terrorising impact of childbirth television.
In spite of its limitations, it is notable however that the market in ‘birth as entertainment’
television has diversified in Britain in recent years with the types of programming and the types
of women depicted notably more diverse than those found in US studies. For example, alongside
hospital-based childbirth reality shows there has been a growing focus on ‘teen’ pregnancy, birth
and parenting in reality TV and documentary film-making. As their titles suggest, programmes
such as The Trouble with Girls: Three Girls and Three Babies (BBC 3 2009), Teen High Mum (BBC 3
2009), 18 Pregnant Schoolgirls (BBC 3 2009), Underage and Pregnant (BBC 3 2010-2012) and Pramface
Babies (ITV 2009), produce a voyeuristic perspective on the ‘spectacle’ of young and often
vulnerable single mothers (Tyler 2011b). In another twist, in 2012 a nostalgic 1950s-set costume
drama, Call the Midwife (BBC 2012), became ‘the highest-rated original BBC drama series since
records began’, underlying the centrality of childbirth as popular entertainment (Williams 2012).
Interestingly, Call the Midwife not only ‘prompted a 17% increase in applications to midwifery
courses’ but also a protest against declining midwifery positions (Ashley 2012).
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
Whilst we acknowledge the problems and restrictions of genres such as hospital-based
childbirth reality TV, and also the fact that the new visual culture of birth is driven by ‘the
market’, it nevertheless poses a challenge to the abjection of maternal subjectivity from cultural
space, by symbolically ‘returning birth to women’. As Zoe Williams (2012) states, just to see the
drama of birth acknowledged is ‘somehow amazing’ at the same time that this visual culture ‘is
‘fraught with new delusions, new disconnections between the ideal and the reality, new
disappointments waiting to happen’ (Williams 2012).
The birthrites collection
It is the multiple and contested meanings of this new visual culture of birth, and attempts to
critically engage with its meaning through forms of artistic practice, that are at the heart of the
childbirth aesthetics produced by the artists associated with the birthrites collection. The artist Helen
Knowles, one of the originators of the birthrites collection, describes it as ‘the first and only
collection of contemporary artworks on the subject of childbirth’ in the contemporary art world
(Knowles 2010a). The birthrites collection was established in 2009, following an initial birthrites
exhibition, which opened at the Glasgow Science Centre and toured to the Manchester Museum
in 2008. The collection now includes paintings and drawings by Matt Collier and Suzanne
Holtom; photographic work by Hermione Wiltshire, Patrick Millard and Liv Pennington;
ceramics and sculpture by Ping Qiu; wallpaper installation by Francesca Granato and Helen
Knowles; artists’ books by Helen Knowles; and media installations and experimental films by
Jaygo Bloom, Annabel Newfield and Andy Lawrence. In addition, it has recently received a
donation of four works by Judy Chicago, from her birth project, ‘Through the Flower’ (made in
collaboration with a number of textile workers between 1980-1985).
The birthrites collection is currently housed in the UK, between the Midwifery Department
at Salford University in Greater Manchester and the Royal College of Gynaecology in London. A
number of pieces in the collection were originally produced through collaborations between
these artists and birth practitioners such as independent midwives and gynaecologists who came
together to consider the social, cultural and political implications of current birth practices.
Indeed, it is clear that the collection is ‘at home’ within the medical institutional context of
women’s reproductive health, and is regularly drawn on as an important resource by a number of
different groups and organisations, researchers and practitioners for educational purposes
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
around the complex, diverse and politically charged practices of childbirth. By situating itself
within and in relation to the very institutions (those of midwifery and gynaecology) that have
contributed to the current medicalised practices of birth, the birthrites collection has played an
important function in allowing historical and prevailing understandings of birth to be opened up
to reflection, critique and analysis. However, it appears that the collection has been less
welcomed by major public art-spaces, by curators of art shows, or commentators on
contemporary art practice. As Knowles notes in relation to the first birthrites exhibition, ‘we
didn't originally intend to show it in science venues. We intended it for art galleries. But what
we're finding is that there's still a lot of fear around the subject matter’ (Knowles 2010a).
Capturing Crowning
The physical act of childbirth, that most primary element of human experience, has rarely been
explored in fine art, even whilst other socially taboo bodily experiences are now regularly
depicted and communicated for their ‘shock value’. Most taboo it seems is the moment of
separation when the mother is pushing the child out of her body. As the London-based artist
Hermione Wiltshire asks in her work, ‘Why is the actual moment of crowning so difficult to look
at, visualize and think about?’ (Wiltshire 2009). As part of a birthrites-initiated project, Wiltshire
spent time observing women in NCT3 ante-natal classes, and noted the absence from these
classes of images of the moments of birth itself. The NCT teacher felt images of crowning
would traumatise pregnant women, and crowning is also edited out of reality TV depictions of
birth. Wiltshire responded to this absence with the exhibition of a photograph: ‘Terese crowning
in ecstatic childbirth’ (figure 1) reproduced from radical midwife, Ina May Gaskin’s book, ‘Ina
May’s guide to childbirth’ (Gaskin 2003). This photograph is dense with social and political
meanings and in re-presenting this image in the first birthrites exhibition in 2008, Wiltshire raised
questions about the relation between fragile and threatened radical midwifery practices and
equally precarious feminist arts practices.
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Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser, Private View, Public Birth: Making Feminist Sense of the New Visual
Culture of Childbirth
Studies in the Maternal, 5 (2), 2013, www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk
Figure 1: ‘Terese crowning in ecstatic childbirth’ from Ina May's guide to childbirth, Hermione
Wiltshire, 2008, black and white photograph, the birthrites collection. Reproduced with the
permission of the artist.
There is no doubt that there is something shocking about this image its graphic exposure of
the birthing moment seems to cut across the traditional ‘taboo aesthetics’ of birth we discussed
earlier, in which just such a moment is obscured or hidden whilst being alluded to through the
effects of certain stagings of the scene of birth. The photograph certainly creates an affective
disturbance, so much so that curators in the galleries that showed the birthrites exhibition have
attempted to ‘hide’ the image, or have pronounced it too shocking to show. Whilst midwives in
Salford University Midwifery Department, where the photograph now has a permanent home,
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covered the emerging baby’s head, with ‘post-it’ notes in order, we might imagine, to protect the
mother’s privacy in this moment of ‘ecstasy’ and to ring-fence a sacred scene.
Crowning is a scene which many feel we just do not need to, or should not look at. And
yet, we do look. There is something both compelling and disturbing about the ‘thing’ emerging
from ‘Terese’s’ vagina – not yet baby, no longer foetus, radically indeterminate and unknown, it
is clearly the source of her pleasure. We don’t know what, or rather who, that ‘thing’ is. It is
tempting to understand the disturbance this image of crowning creates by viewing it through the
lens of maternal abjection, and the figure of the monstrous-maternal that has been well charted
in the feminist analysis of science fiction and horror films and depictions of ‘alien’ reproduction
(Creed 1993; Braidotti 2002). ‘Terese crowning in ecstatic childbirth’ also recalls the
psychoanalytic writing of Jacques Lacan (1982), who offered an account of the ecstasies of the
mystical saint Teresa as evidence that the sexuality of women is ‘beyond language’ (Lacan 1982).
To illustrate this claim, Lacan argued that Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture ‘The Ecstasy of Saint
Teresa’, in which an angel stands over Teresa with a golden arrow as she reclines in a state of
ecstasy, was all the ‘evidence’ required to prove that female sexuality is ‘unspeakable’ pleasure, a
sexuality ‘beyond the phallus’ which he termed ‘jouissance’. As he writes:
You have only to go and look at Bernini's statue in Rome to understand immediately that
she's coming, there is no doubt about it. And what is her jouissance, her coming from? It
is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics is that they are experiencing it but
know nothing about it (Lacan 1982, p. 145).
Lacan’s account of female sexuality as ‘mute’ is yet another form of abjection and there is now a
rich body of feminist critiques and retorts to Lacan’s misogynistic silencing of women’s sexuality
(e.g. De Lauretis 1994; Grosz 1994; Campbell 2000). Nevertheless, the relationship between
these two Teresa’s, between Bernini’s sculpture ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ (1652) and ‘Terese
crowning in ecstatic childbirth’ is nevertheless striking. Whilst Bernini’s Teresa derives her
pleasure from an encounter with an angel, Terese’s ecstasy is disconcerting because of the
double-reading of childbirth and sexual pleasure which it suggests. In other words, if ‘Terese
crowning in ecstatic childbirth’ shocks, it is because it depicts birth as an intensely sexual and
perhaps auto-affective experience. Its intensity lies in particular in the juxtaposition between a
moment of completion or fullness, and an unmistakeable cleft in both mother (here represented
by the gap between her teeth that is revealed through her delight) and the emerging baby’s
crown. As our eye moves between the mother’s ecstatic face, and the emerging crown, what
draws them together, what relates one to the other is the shared cleft. We cannot, however, hold
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both in view simultaneously. To see one is to lose sight of the other. We have to choose where
our gaze falls in the moment. Had the mother’s face not been visible, had the moment of
crowning remained in the abstract, a generic ‘baby’ emerging from a generic vagina, we would
suggest the photograph would shock less. What is perhaps difficult is to acknowledge, and
therefore what is disturbing in this image, is simply that a birth involves a particular mother
(albeit surrounded by a group of others) – not a mother who has disappeared, who is ‘abject’ or
‘psychotic’ as Kristeva has suggested, in the moment of splitting, but who is fully present in her
ecstasy, and in her specificity.
One of the most striking aspects of televisual dramatisations of birth is that despite the
ways it normalises birth as a medical condition to be ‘treated’ and its depictions of mothers as
‘patients’, it frequently manages to capture and convey the euphoria of birth for women. Indeed,
as the predominately female audience responses to these programmes suggest, it is the
overwhelming affectivity of these dramatisations of childbirth which make childbirth reality TV
such compelling viewing4. Yet despite the saturation of popular culture with these graphic and
often deeply affective dramatisations, the abject response of both midwives and gallery curators
to ‘Terese crowning in ecstatic childbirth’ suggests that ‘crowning’ remains a specifically taboo or
offensive scene which must be censored. By presenting this still image of birth as sexual ecstasy,
one of the questions Wiltshire’s work poses is ‘how do we make “feminist sense” of these
representations of maternal pleasure - and the diverse forms of response these images generate
in different social and viewing contexts’?
Ecstatic Labour
Helen Knowles’ work focuses on exploring and capturing these ambivalent moments of physical
separation and psychological splitting that characterise ‘Terese crowning in ecstatic childbirth’
(Wiltshire 2008). In her current art practice, Knowles engages in what she terms ‘plundering’
cultural images of birth from YouTube videos. In her forays into online birth videos, Knowles is
seeking to capture those moments when birth occurs, producing large-scale screen-prints from
screen-grabs of women’s faces ‘exhaling and reclining at the moment the baby crowns’ (Knowles
2010b). Knowles’ method, making screen prints from a digital projector, is an unusual one. The
process involves finding and watching digital, audio-visual videos of childbirth, capturing still
images from these films, projecting these images onto large pieces of hand-made Fabriano paper
and transforming them into still art-objects: aesthetic and material objects which attempt to
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‘capture’ the act of crowning in its extremity and liminiality. Due to the highly pixelated images
that emerge from this process, from a distance it is possible to glimpse something deeply
pleasurable coursing through these birthing women, and yet the closer you get the image, the
harder it is to make visual sense of the moment they depict. In this sense, Knowles explores the
appearance and disappearance of the ecstatic maternal subject as she separates from the subject
who is birthed, both literally separating out as a series of dots as we move towards the images.
The first series of art-works produced as part of her Ecstatic Labour series, ‘Heads of
Women in Labour’ (2011), consists of four large black and white screen prints of women’s faces
at the point of crowning, captured from YouTube videos (figures 2-5). On the `Heads of
Women in Labour’ series Knowles asks:
Why does the ecstatic image of a woman’s face […] become significant when you realise
it is actually appropriated from YouTube, posted by the woman herself, as a record of
her birth? The intimate narrative of birth played out on the internet is of course ‘family
viewing’ and yet it opens up the taboo yet undeniable link between sex and birth
challenging the separation between women as mothers and women as sexual entities
(Knowles 2010b).
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Figure 2-5: Helen Knowles 2011 ‘Heads of Women in Labour’: Youtube screengrab ‘Chase
Andrews waterbirth’, Youtube screengrab Annabel’s birth, Youtube screen grab of ‘Shiloh’s
quick and peaceful waterbirth’, Youtube screen grab German birth video, ‘Chase Andrews
waterbirth’, all 61cm x 61cm, Screen prints of Fabriano. Reproduced with the permission of the
artist.
Interestingly, childbirth reality television emerged out of a grassroots trend amongst parents to
record childbirth on home video cameras. As digital video cameras have further ‘democratised’
film-making, the movement to film childbirth has grown. The emergence of online video-sharing
platforms (such as YouTube) now means that millions of graphic and often unedited ‘home-
made’ childbirth films can now be viewed online. The feminist geographer Robyn Longhurst
(2009) undertook a small-scale, qualitative research project in 2008, which involved viewing and
making notes on several hundred online videos of birth on YouTube and analysing the
accompanying posts and commentaries about the videos. Longhurst also concluded, perhaps
unsurprisingly, that whilst these films have the potential to open up new ways of perceiving birth
they also typically privilege specific cultural - notably US - experiences of childbirth, and present
a largely homogenous and medicalised perspective on birth practices. However, in her
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engagement with YouTube birth films, Knowles transforms the normativity and banality of
‘disposable’ videos of childbirth, ordinarily consumed online in spaces of privacy, into screen
captured art-works that evoke a ‘sacred’ aesthetic and become tangible material objects, to be
contemplated and considered within the public space of the gallery.
The taboos that unfold from the consideration of the relationship between sex, sexuality
and childbirth in this work, are relentlessly pursued by Knowles. For example, the provocatively
titled ‘“Раждане с оргазъм” Birth with orgasm’ (2012, figure 6)5, is one of a series of large digital
screen prints, in which the pixelated quality of the screen grabs is transformed in screen printing
process into highly textured images of women’s ‘childbirth ecstasy’.
Figure 6: Helen Knowles, 2012 ‘Раждане с оргазъм’ Birth with orgasm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDyUbZW29ts, Four Colour Screen’ print on Fabriano 1/3 95.5.cm x 146cm
2012 Edition of 3. Reproduced with the permission of the artist.
On our reading, this work is about ecstasy in the etymological sense of what it means to be moved
outside of oneself: birthing is depicted here as an extreme and borderline event, but also
paradoxically an ordinary and everyday experience of becoming more than one. As Knowles’
work suggests, this ecstasy is at once captured and uncapturable: in the case of the ‘YouTube
series’ this uncapturability is communicated by the way in which the image ‘dissolves’ into
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incomprehensible details of colour as the viewer approaches and gets close-up to the image
(figure 7). If, as Battersby argues, ‘we are lacking models that explain how identity might be
retained whilst impregnated with otherness, and whilst other selves are generated from within
the embodied self’ (Battersby 1998, p. 18), then Knowles’ work attempts precisely to
communicate the paradox of what is knowable about women’s experiences of birth at the
material limits of self/other relationality.
What is perhaps most interesting about Knowles’ work on the ecstasies of birth is that it
refuses an abject or monstrous paradigm, insisting instead on the experience of birth as a
distinctly erotic and aesthetic experience of creation. At their full size, printed on heavy yet
fragile paper, that are exquisite and glamorous images of women, that hint at Warhol’s Marilyn
Monroe prints (Warhol 1962). Birth emerges here as an experience that poses a distinctly
feminist challenge to the mute passivity attributed to the birthing subject, and to the
appropriation of birth as a metaphor for male artistic creation.
Figure 7: ‘Helen Knowles, 2012 detail of ‘Раждане с оргазъм’ Birth with orgasm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDyUbZW29ts, Four Colour Screen’ print on Fabriano 1/3 95.5.cm x 146cm
2012 Edition of 3. Reproduced with the permission of the artist.
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Private View/Public Birth
Liv Pennington’s performance and photographic piece, ‘Private View’ (2002 – 2010), approaches
the question of birth, its public place, its `commonality’ and its representational politics from a
different perspective from Wiltshire and Knowles. To date, ‘Private View’ as a performance has
taken place in bars and clubs in London, Poitiers, Oslo and Manchester. In this performance,
women who come to use the toilets are asked if they will take a pregnancy test. The indicating
windows of the pregnancy test are relayed live in real-time above the bar on a screen every two-
to-three minutes. As Pennington notes, ‘There wasn’t any sound and the pregnancy tests were
broadcast anonymously. If the women wanted to know their result they would go straight to the
bar. [...] There isn’t any broadcasted sound, just the ambient background noise of people
socialising, flirting, networking, whilst they are drinking and queuing for drinks’ (Pennington,
2010). The photographic exhibition of this work is a composite print of forty different women’s
pregnancy tests from the London performance, combined with text written by the women as
they were waiting to take their test (figure 8).
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Figure 8: Liv Pennington, 2006, ‘Private View’ Digital C type on Aluminium, 80 x 76 cm, birthrites collection.
Reproduced with the permission of the artist.
Pennington’s composite print evokes minimalist art (notably the work of Ben Nicholson) and a
longer tradition of abstraction: of grids, squares and circles, of the repetition of form and the
minutiae of small differences. But here these repetitions of form refer to sticks which have been
peed on by women in toilets of clubs and bars; their differences in colour is a consequence of
their soaking and staining with urine. They are a material rendering, in other words, of hormonal
changes in women’s bodies, and are a consequence of scientific and technological developments
that have transformed the meaning and experience of reproduction. This adds a social and
political dimension to Pennington’s ‘Private View’. The title speaks severally to the non-place of
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birth in the history of art, to the marginality of women and particularly mothers as artists, and to
the making public of birth that has been taking place over the last decade. It is crucial to the
performance that the results of the tests are displayed publically on a screen above the bar. What
is usually a very private moment is graphically displayed in a space of sociality – a space in which
women both participate and are viewed.
Figure 3: Liv Pennington, 2006, ‘Private View’ [detail] Digital C type on Aluminium, 80 x 76 cm, birthrites
collection. Reproduced with the permission of the artist.
The questions raised by Pennington’s work form part of a deeper and longer genealogy of ‘birth’
that includes understanding childbirth and women’s reproductive capacities not as a ‘private’
affair, but as a key site for bio-politics (Foucault 2007). Foucault’s theory of bio-power is
grounded in the idea that a break occurred in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries between
forms of governance that centred on the right of sovereign power to kill, and forms of
governance that focused on ‘the administration and promotion of life-forces such as population
growth’ (Federici 2004, p. 16). However, as Silvia Federici suggests, whilst Foucault offers ample
evidence for this shift, he fails to account for why it occurred. She argues that, ‘if we place this
shift in the context of the rise of capitalism […] the promotion of life-forces turns out to be
nothing more than the result of a new concern with the accumulation and reproduction of labor-
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power’ (Federici 2004, p. 16). This was an historical context in which a new concept of human
beings as ‘raw materials’ for industrial capitalism emerged (Heckscher in Federici 2004, p. 88). If
capitalism needed ways to manage and control the supply of labour, then women’s social role as
the producers and reproducers of labour power (people) made them (along with the colonised
peoples of the empire) the specific targets for the institution of the biopolitical regimes of
control that Foucault described. Federici details the war that was waged against women in this
period, which ‘aimed at breaking the control they had exercised over their bodies and
reproduction’ (Federici 2004, p. 88). This included campaigns of fear and terror epitomised by
the European witch-hunts, the legal imposition of penalties against contraception, abortion and
infanticide, and extraordinary surveillance measures put in place to monitor and control
reproductive practices. What Federici’s work suggests is that theories and practices of maternal
abjection were shaped and effected by the emergence of a system of global capitalism which
required the alienation of women from reproductive labour (Tyler 2013).
Today, a potent mixture of geneticisation, new imperialism and neoliberalism has further
instrumentalised ‘life itself’ (Haraway 1997, p. 143). The surveillance and control of reproduction
is played out through the entrenchment of systems of ‘technocratic childbirth’(Davis-Floyd
1992), the material political struggles of ‘pro-life’ debates and in the wider forms of inequality,
injustice and discrimination daily faced by women in private and public life. Further, whilst a fear
of ‘essentialism’ still pervades feminist theorising around birth, the fact remains that whether a
woman ‘is lesbian, infertile, post-menopausal or childless’, she will still be assigned ‘a subject-
position linked to a body that has perceived potentialities for birth’ (Battersby 1998, p. 16).
It is in this context that a new visual culture of birth has arisen. This visual culture of
birth is undoubtedly driven by neoliberal ideologies of marketisation, yet as the birthrites collection
suggests, it also provides an opportunity for us to rethink the sexual politics of birth. By
positioning the birthrites collection in relation to broader changes in the visual culture of birth, one
of the things we hope to have begun is a shift of critical commentary away from theoretical
paradigms that reproduce the association between birth, maternity and abjection. Indeed, of the
things that is interesting and important about the birthrites collection is the ways in which it refuses
maternal abjection, including the ‘marketisation’ of women’s bodily and reproductive
experiences, by participating in a ‘strategic valorisation’ of the new visual culture of birth as
site/sight through which to restage women’s reproductive autonomy.
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Natal Politics
We are all born. This alarmingly simple statement is derived from Hannah Arendt’s (1958) work
on natality, and emphasises our condition as natals rather than mortals.6 Working against a long
philosophical tradition that has given primacy to the shared horizon of death, in The Human
Condition, Arendt stated that ‘natality and not mortality, may be the central category of political
thought’ (Arendt 1958, p. 9). When Arendt talks about politics, she is referring to the capacity to
speak and act in the public sphere. Natality is distinct from the mundane everyday practices of
mothering, which for Arendt remain tied to the violence and meaninglessness of the private
sphere. In contrast, politics, for Arendt, occurs when people who are equals come together to
discuss and debate their differences, without aim, and without knowing what the outcome of
such debate will be. In this sense, politics is, by definition, always a new beginning, and is
therefore linked with an originary beginning – that of birth itself. Without understanding natality
as the ground of being, we cannot have politics. In defining the capacity to begin as specifically
human, and unique to humans, Arendt follows Augustine’s statement: ‘That there be a
beginning, man was created, before whom nobody was’ (Augustine 354-430 AD [1998]). This
beginning that birth inaugurates, then, is the foundational fact of all thought, politics and action.
Without the potentially transformational category of natality there can be no freedom, no social
change, and no human future. Birth’ can then be understood as an ontological category a
category that brings ‘beginning’ into being. Although Arendt’s notion of natality insists on
separating the concept of birth (natality), from subjects who birth (mothers), and is always in danger of
being read as yet another account of ‘birth without women’, nevertheless, we want to conclude
by suggesting that the new visual culture of birth also calls for a new ‘natal politics’. Without a
natal politics – without, that is, harnessing birth as a symbolic category that gives rise to freedom,
social discourse, action and social change – contemporary visualisations of birth are in danger of
becoming simply banal. Despite the very real and important effects of women sharing visual
birth stories with one another, and of overturning the taboo aesthetics of birth, a natal politics
would insist on natality as not just an experience we have in common, but a metaphor for a
mode of sharing words and deeds in public space that allows for the appearance of
transformational beginnings. This, we would suggest, takes us towards an articulation of a
‘maternal commons’ (Tyler 2013) where recognising what we share, what we have in common, is
also a political act.
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Finally, one crucial way in which such a maternal commons might operate is in the very field of
feminist scholarship on birth and motherhood itself. Too often feminist scholarship and feminist
art practice on the theme of birth and motherhood has remained atomised, each generation
writing as though stumbling into motherhood for the first time, needing to repudiate or overturn
the insights from the generation before, or decrying why their mothers never fully told them
what it would really be like. Whilst the new visual culture of birth might lead to a
democratisation of information and knowledge about birth, there is still a need to resolve these
questions inter-generationally - to recognise that the politics of birth is the politics of generation.
To position birth, and those who birth, at the centre of public life (i.e. to think natality in its
metaphorical significance as well as its potential in material form), we need to find ways for birth
to be inherited not just exposed. Reworking or rather literalising Arendt’s notion of ‘natality’ is, we
have suggested, a useful way of considering the feminist theoretical and political implications of
the losses and possible gains of the new visual culture of birth.
1 For significant examples of feminist art works on the maternal, see for example, Nancy Spero’s Female Bomb (1966);
Monica Sjoo’s God Giving Birth (1968); Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-1985); Frida Kahlo’s My Birth (1932); Paula
Rego’s Abortion Series Set of 8 Etchings Untitled IV (1999), and Louise Bourgeois’ The Birth (2007). For recent critical
feminist writing on maternal art, see Betterton (2010) and Liss (2009).
2 Kristeva’s account of the abjection of maternal origin relies upon her crafting of a deeply ambiguous conceptual
status for motherhood, which is founded in a distinction between the maternal as abstract thing and the maternal as
lived and embodied modes of being (Kristeva 1986). We reject this distinction here (see also Tyler 2009b).
3 The NCT is a childbirth and parenting charity in the UK, which began life in 1956 as The Natural Childbirth Trust,
before changing its name to The National Childbirth Trust and finally to NCT. Whilst its scope has expanded, it is still
strongly associated with 'natural' childbirth today (Roberts et al. forthcoming).
4 Online blogs, such as those collected on sites such as mumsnet, are replete with accounts of the pleasures of the
emotions invoked by childbirth reality TV.
5 Раждане с оргазъм is Bulgarian, and translates as `Birth with Orgasm’.
6 The shift in thinking from mortality to natality is taken up a number of feminist philosophers including Adriana
Cavarero (2000), Luce Irigaray (1985) and Christine Battersby (1998), and more latterly by Rachel Jones (2007),
Alison Stone (2010), Lisa Guenther (2006) and Alison Martin (2002), all of whom focus us on the philosophical
importance of the commonality of birth.
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... El tabú estético se construye en la cultura, en el caso del parto, especialmente el momento de la coronación y las experiencias que citaba Clements pasa a ser tabú a través de la oclusión sistemática de estos aspectos en el arte, las representaciones populares, médicas, o el cine (Tyler & Baraitser, 2013). Es un tabú generado a través de la oclusión visual. ...
Article
Full-text available
This document contains an analysis of the taboo in our society, and how it affects the aesthetic perception we have, first of all, of our bodies, following by the human nude and taking it to other areas. In this work we start by considering what the taboo is, its origin and the main fields in which it develops, to take it to philosophical aesthetics, to our cultural sense of the 'beautiful', and to our perception of identity and beauty. Taboo has a strong socio-cultural component, as an agent and product of culture. Aesthetics, in turn, is closely linked to culture, and therefore, to taboo, and cannot be analyzed, in a holistic way, without taking into account the context that sustains that perception.
... Una mezcla de los humores de la madre y el bebé: sangre, sudor, mucosidad, excrementos, orina, vómito y líquido amniótico. (Tyler & Clements, 2009) El tabú estético se construye en la cultura, en el caso del parto, especialmente el momento de la coronación y las experiencias que citaba Clements pasa a ser tabú a través de la oclusión sistemática de estos aspectos en el arte, las representaciones populares, médicas, o el cine (Tyler & Baraitser, 2013). Es un tabú generado a través de la oclusión visual. ...
Preprint
This document contains an analysis of the taboo in our society, and how it affects the aesthetic perception we have, first of all, of our bodies, following by the human nude and taking it to other areas. In this work we start by considering what the taboo is, its origin and the main fields in which it develops, to take it to philosophical aesthetics, to our cultural sense of 'beautiful', and to our perception of identity and beauty. Taboo has a strong socio-cultural component, as an agent and product of culture. Aesthetics, in turn, is closely linked to culture, and therefore, to taboo, and cannot be analyzed, in a holistic way, without taking into account the context that sustains that perception.
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Against a background of occlusion and medicalized portrayals, the emergent practice of birth photography allows women to see and to depict birth from their own perspective. Thus the delivery room, the digital camera, and the direct encounter between the artisan and her client enable exploring the possibility of alternative depictions in a neoliberal economy, and the significance of professionalism in a field dominated by expert amateurs. Drawing upon interviews with photographers and clients, our analysis highlights three tensions underlying birth photography as a documentary and entrepreneurial pursuit: the formulaic depiction of an extraordinary event; the exposure of an intimate experience; and the commercialization of the sacred. We find that in terms of content, birth photographs present restrained, conventional depictions, suitable for both the family album and the photographers’ social media portfolios. In terms of practice, although desired by their clients, birth photographers’ work is unstable and they must constantly invest in relational labor that balances intimacy and publicness, friending and advertising. We propose the notion of commercial authenticity to capture this contradictory amalgam of disciplined realism, edited documentation, and professional closeness that both clients and photographers expect, produce, and regard as appropriate in the context of artisanal photography.
Chapter
This chapter focusses on the impossibility of ever beginning anew—born, as we are, into an ever developing social and family lineage. The chapter maps the evolution of maternal studies, feminism and maternal performance upon which this book builds. It draws from theories concerning natality and motherhood (Arendt, 1958; de Beauvoir, 1988 [1949]) and performance studies analysis in order to examine how maternal performance can bring the private and domestic into the public and political spheres and render maternal action worthy of consideration. Key concepts from performance studies, feminism, and maternal studies are introduced and maternal methodologies are explored.
Chapter
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The following essay explores a video installation by Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz (b. 1972) titled Labour (2019) which presents us with graphic images of childbirth in reverse viewed from close up. The work casts light on the absence of birthing bodies in photography, moving images or other forms of visual art presented at art institutions, a topic not reflected upon in academic literature. Also, by portraying childbirth simultaneously as dying and killing, Labour starkly differs from mainstream visual culture representations, which tend to evade the more messy and unruly aspect of childbirth. The author situates the work in the context of recent interventions in theory and literature as well as Labour's feminist art precursors. These art works present us with a fearless, uncensored picture of the reality of childbirth in which the possibility that lives are rerouted, and people are damaged both physically and mentally, is palpable. As testaments of traumatic events that resist erasure from memory, these objects of art dissociate themselves from the present dominant ideologies surrounding reproduction to gesture towards an alternative future in which conditions for reproduction would be radically different.
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In this short piece, I reflect on a decade of maternal studies and consider where maternal studies are urgently needed in the next decade. Drawing on my entry into and experiences of maternal studies, I consider three areas of importance: the maternal and the psychosocial, the maternal and popular culture, and the maternal and social inequalities. Following reflections on how these areas have strengthened various lines of inquiry in my work, and expanded academic explorations more generally, I end by considering where now for maternal studies.
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Within a context of intensifying global displacement, the experience of birthing across borders is becoming a reality for many. We catch incomplete glimpses of these realities through countless media snapshots of pregnant bodies in dinghies crossing seas or slung with metallic emergency-blankets. Despite their prevalence, these birthing experiences have not been adequately accounted for in the scholarship on reproductive geographies. In this article, we argue that this relative absence is not a mishap but reflects a deeper geographical bias. The present article seeks to address this gap and has three main aims: first, to provide a deeper understanding of heterogenous reproductive lives, especially as they relate to questions of displacement and precarious citizenship. Second, to offer new participatory and creative methods for understanding these reproductive lives in contexts of acute but also protracted violence. Third, to develop a conceptual language of ‘contraction’ to help grapple with some of the inequities but also mobilities and solidarities across diverse geographies. Finally, foregrounding questions of displacement, this article brings into sharp relief the geopolitics of reproduction and how biopolitical governance is being both experienced and resisted through what Katz calls the ‘messy fleshy stuff of everyday life’ in too-often invisibilised liminal spaces.
Chapter
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Since the mid-1990s there has been an extraordinary proliferation of representations of maternity within popular culture, arts, literature, politics, consumer culture and ‘everyday life’. The fascination with celebrity pregnancy and motherhood, the emergence of ‘momoir’ literary genres, a new emphasis on the maternal in the visual and performance arts and the ascendance of ‘Maternal TV’ reality formats, are indicative of this new visibility. The maternal is no longer confined to traditionally domestic or child-orientated spaces, such as private homes, hospitals, parks and playgrounds,1 but is present in spectacularly public forms: think of British artist Marc Quinn’s 12ft statue of a naked, heavily pregnant, disabled artist Alison Lapper, in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005 (see Betterton, 2006) or pregnant beauty contests (see Longhurst, 2000).
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In this paper I explore a specific historical moment in the cultural politics of feminism between 1973 and 1984, a decade that saw the emergence of feminist arts practice, exhibition and art-writing in Britain and, not incidentally, shaped my own attachment to the women’s movement. How were maternal bodies represented within feminist arts practice? Whose bodies, and in which places? What did maternal artworks try to make visible, and what maternal affects did they invoke? I examine three bodies of work that expose the tensions involved in making the maternal visible in the context of feminism: Hackney Flashers, 'Who’s holding the Baby?' (1978), Mary Kelly, 'Antepartum', (1973), and 'Post-Partum Document' (1973-79), and Catherine Elwes, 'With Child', (1983). Each of these works opened up an important space in the exploration of the politics of reproduction, although it should be recognised that this was still primarily the white maternal body. I shall argue that they were framed and contested in particular ways: in left wing publications that still prioritised class over gender; in institutions of art exhibition and criticism that were hostile to maternal art, particularly by feminist artists, and in feminist critiques of essentialism that rejected direct imaging of the maternal body.
Book
de Beauvoir writes that "humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous human being" "He is the Subject, he is the Absolute--she is the Other" "When man makes of woman the Other, he may, then, expect her to manifest deep-seated tendancies toward complicity. Thus woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definate resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other" "Christ was made a man; yes, but perhaps for his greater humility"
Book
Book synopsis: Despite advances in feminism, the "law of the father" remains the dominant model of Western psychological and cultural analysis, and the law of the mother continues to exist as an underdeveloped and marginal concept. In her radical rereading of the Greek myth, Oresteia, Amber Jacobs hopes to rectify the occlusion of the mother and reinforce her role as an active agent in the laws that determine and reinforce our cultural organization. According to Greek myth, Metis, Athena's mother, was Zeus's first wife. Zeus swallowed Metis to prevent her from bearing children who would overthrow him. Nevertheless, Metis bore Zeus a child-Athena-who sprang forth fully formed from his head. In Aeschylus's Oresteia, Athena's motherless status functions as a crucial justification for absolving Orestes of the crime of matricide. In his defense of Orestes, Zeus argues that the father is more important than the mother, using Athena's "motherless" birth as an example. Conducting a close reading of critical works on Aeschylus's text, Jacobs reveals that psychoanalytic theorists have unwittingly reproduced the denial of Metis in their own critiques. This repression, which can be found in the work of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein as well as in the work of more contemporary theorists such as André Green and Luce Irigaray, has resulted in both an incomplete analysis of Oresteia and an inability to account for the fantasies and unconscious processes that fall outside the oedipal/patricidal paradigm. By bringing the story of Athena's mother, Metis, to the forefront, Jacobs challenges the primacy of the Oedipus myth in Western culture and psychoanalysis and introduces a bold new theory of matricide and maternal law. She finds that the Metis myth exists in cryptic forms within Aeschylus's text, uncovering what she terms the "latent content of the Oresteian myth," and argues that the occlusion of the law of the mother is proof of the patriarchal structures underlying our contemporary social and psychic realities. Jacobs's work not only provides new insight into the Oresteian trilogy but also advances a postpatriarchal model of the symbolic order that has strong ramifications for psychoanalysis, feminism, and theories of representation, as well as for clinical practice and epistemology.
Chapter
In the opening chapter of In Spite of Plato, Adriana Cavarero steals a glance past the imposing presence of heroes and philosophers, to catch sight of Penelope as she sits patiently weaving and unweaving, and weaving together again. As she waits for Odysseus to return, the unbroken rhythm of her movement generates an ‘anomalous’ space, outside the patriarchal order (Cavarero, In Spite of Plato 12). Penelope’s refusal to finish her work holds off her suitors and the possibility of re-marriage. Her endless weaving and unweaving allows her both to retreat from ‘the great events of history — the history of men, of heroes’ (Cavarero, In Spite of Plato 13), and to escape the order of domestic productivity, for her work is never brought to a useful state of completion. The narrative scene is further complicated, on Cavarero’s reading, because Penelope does not turn to the solace that philosophical reflection might offer her in her seclusion: on the contrary, the infinitely repeated process of entwining and undoing is at odds with the time of philosophy in its orientation towards eternal and unchanging Being. Cavarero suggests that the bodily rhythms and gestures of Penelope’s repeated movements instead hold open a space for a female symbolic order that encompasses Penelope and her handmaids, and that is ‘so evidently gendered in the feminine that this life shared in a common horizon allows every woman to recognise herself in another woman’ (Cavarero, In Spite of Plato 30)
Book
The Gift of the Other brings together a philosophical analysis of time, embodiment, and ethical responsibility with a feminist critique of the way women's reproductive capacity has been theorized and represented in Western culture. Author Lisa Guenther develops the ethical and temporal implications of understanding birth as the gift of the Other, a gift which makes existence possible, and already orients this existence toward a radical responsibility for Others. Through an engagement with the work of Levinas, Beauvoir, Arendt, Irigaray, and Kristeva, the author outlines an ethics of maternity based on the givenness of existence and a feminist politics of motherhood which critiques the exploitation of maternal generosity.