‘Pregnant bodies – embodied pregnancy’ held by Internationales Kolleg Morphomata

The image

Industrial iron ball in black and white to represent ‘pregnant bodies’. Apt.

The title

Surely a contender for Worst Tautology Award?

The blurb

Satisfies following criteria:

  • Word ‘woman’ etc carefully excluded
  • No mention of sexual reproduction
  • Eye watering amount of wibble

Fails:

  • Six laugh test

This two-day workshop focuses on the topic of pregnant bodies and the relation between biographies, gendered life-writing and embodied pregnancy. Bodies are in a constant process of transformation and change. They are neither fixed entities nor simply objects, and may be regarded as projects that are constantly in the process of becoming and un-becoming. They are experienced by social actors with various intersectional identities, are represented and narrated in public and private contexts. Among the periods and stages in which bodies are particularly discussed in terms of their transformative capacity and reproductive qualities is pregnancy.

Pregnant bodies experience themselves as both facilitators and participants in a creative and transformative process, and engage in a dialectic relationship with the ‘unborn’. Depending on the various perspectives, the unborn may be interpreted as fetus, child, body, life, etc. Out of this intimate relationship arise different gendered configurations; for example, the processes of (re)producing bodies/subjects establish and transform relation- ships and hierarchical structures among the social actors involved, producing ‘mothers’, ‘fathers’ and ‘children’. Further, pregnant bodies are often considered to be sites of public interest, as is shown by the current debates about, for example, abortion and (single and trans) parenthood; they are policed, medicalized and/or essentialized in different cultural contexts. Embodied experiences of pregnancy have also been transformed, for example by the different technological visualizations of the unborn, e.g. the development of fetal ultrasound imaging.

From the blurb also shown in the screenshot above

The place

The two day workshop was hosted online by the Morphomata, which is an extremely wanky – sorry prestigious– college, part of the University of Cologne, Germany.

The academics

All idiots obviously. But none more so than our own homegrown gender woo savant Sally Hines who dodged attending the conference literally at the last minute crying sickness. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

The talks

Introduction by Antonia Villinger (Modern German Literature, Bamberg), Sinah Kloß (Social and Cultural Anthropology, Bonn) and Günter Blamberger (Modern German Literature, Cologne)

The conference was due to take place in the Morphomata’s Library in May 2020, but of course was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Professor Blamberger explained that we were going to look at cultural configurations of pregnancy and ‘perhaps birth’ (the idea of abortion never strayed far from their lofty minds) and acknowledged that whilst death was often meditated upon in literature and art, pregnancy rarely was. Stay tuned to find out why it isn’t wims! Or rather, don’t.

Blamberger said that the pandemic presented ‘very difficult’ circumstances to academics in which to write a paper. Yeah all those endless hours at home in front of a computer is a real pisser for any writer.

The conference was the brainchild of two incredibly woke women, Antonia Villinger and Sinha Kloß, the latter of whom described herself as having an interest in body modification (mainly tattooing looking at her website). Kloß told us that previously pregnancy had been described as ‘exclusively female’ and that looking at its ‘performative aspects’ and ‘technical innovation’ was a relatively new thing (except for Frankenstein’s Monster and a dozen other literary examples, though I’ll give her ‘performative aspects’).

Villinger said that ‘pregnant bodies’ were framed at ‘being at risk’ and that medicine interfered by ‘affirming gender’ on ultrasounds, but later complained that ultrasound was used to sex select males in preference. Which is a teeny bit cis-sexist, don’t you think?

Keynote: Sallie Han (Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oneonta, NY)
The Climate of Pregnancy – Keynote speech

The keynote speech was given by an anthropologist, Sallie Han, who began with the pathetic lip service ‘Land acknowledgement’ to the Mohawk tribe, and more generalised ‘sorries’ for American racism and the country’s contribution to climate change. Her final apology was that she was going to use the words ‘pregnant woman’ and ‘mother’, but wanted to make it clear these were just traditional connections to the words, and didn’t mean she thought they meant something. She said it took her a year to write the paper she was about to read out (but later contradicted herself saying the main theme of the paper had occurred to her just a month earlier). Just a few minutes in, I had already started eyeing her designer scarf and wondering about cost, etc.

[The] triad of pandemic, racism and climate change as the context of our collective habitation and I suggest that pregnant bodies and embodied pregnancies ought to be at the centre of our interest and concern. One last preparatory note is that when I use a term like ‘pregnant women’ or ‘mothers’, it is done so deliberately because the gendering of reproductive biologies and ideas and practices of society and culture as female and feminine is significant. This understanding of gender is critical to the points I make here about the climate of pregnancy. Recognising that sexes and gender are not determinative of each other, I also will occasionally refer to ‘pregnant people’ as well as ‘parents’ in this talk.

Sallie Han’s introductory paragraph aaaannddd sleep

The main thing that Han wanted to impress upon us what that the ‘pregnant body’ represented ‘multitudes’ and ‘multiplicities’ (the more obvious binary situation of mother and child having to be avoided by all, at all times, during the conference). The phrase ‘lived experience’ of being in the womb was a phrase I thought I’d never hear – who the fuck remembers being there?

Han wanted to relate the ‘pregnant body’ experience back to the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and said that we knew this from Greek scholarship (as if the elements aren’t the bedrock of nearly every culture). Balancing the humours, it was said, was the key to good health and women were typically thought to be ‘wet and cold’.

Earth

The earth was thought of as typically female and, according to the UN, 37% of all agricultural workers are currently women. She was even more excited to let us know that over 50% of workers in ‘small scale fisheries’ are women too, forgetting the big and medium scale fisheries and the fact that fishing isn’t done on land. The earth was overpopulated and women had a choice to make (remember it’s always women’s responsibility and don’t dare mention that men putting a johnny on might solve a huge multitude of problems).

Air

Air pollution was another problem for ‘pregnant bodies’ as it caused pre-term births and low birth weights. Her comments were apparently based on a study of traffic pollution in Los Angeles, but she did not link the study. Air pollution was also racist and tellingly George Floyd’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe’. The Black Lives Matter movement cares about ‘reproductive justice’.

Fire

Australia had had a lot of wild fires recently. (Yep. And?) There had been record warm temperature and record cold temperatures. Han expressed anxiety on what impact different sorts of weather might have on ‘pregnant bodies’? Also, white middle class women had excluded black, brown, disabled, lesbian and trans women out of feminism.

Water

Did you know that most of the Earth’s surface is water? Of course you did, you learnt this sometime in childhood, or alternatively you looked at a map and worked it out all by yourself. But did you also know that most of the human body is made up of water? (Bangs head)

In 2016 women from American Indian communities campaigned against the Dakota access pipeline. In 2019 Bangladesh ruled that rivers were equal to people. In 2015 the people of Flint’s water supply was poisoned with lead. Unbelievably drinking poisoned water will harm an unborn baby and affect breast milk. Who knew?

This was the perfect chance for her to go all sciency and talk about amniotic fluid and water babies, but she missed the boat.

Question and Answer

First question was along the line of: Was the ‘pregnant body’ more dominant over the foetus, or is there a borderlessness? Is birth a moment of separation, or is that a Eurocentric idea? Is it necessary/useful to draw attention to the pregnant body?

Pregnant bodies can help us understand all bodies, came the answer, because all bodies are not singular, and yes a connection remains there after birth (i.e. Han obviously didn’t want to appear as if she was indulge any ‘Eurocentric’ ideas).

(Just as an aside, how can anyone not regard birth as a separation. Not to deny that there is a deep mother-baby connection, but if you can’t actually see that a separation occurs, you actually need a new pair of glasses.)

I have to say I didn’t understand the gist of the second question but Han answered that bacteria only becomes a disease when it comes into contact with a human body (ha! nice comparison). Also, ‘pregnant bodies’ were policed. Said without a shred of irony.

Third question was from Kloß, she was interested in the humours theory of being hot/cold wet/dry and achieving a balance between those things, did that mean then that a ‘pregnant body’ becomes more balanced or unbalanced?

Hm, um, ah work life balance is important, scrabbled Han, realising that she had been led up the garden path to contradiction cottage. Um well not really balance but harmony was more important. Harmony is a more broadening term and a healthy pregnancy is really a harmonious one. (Many of statements and questions led me to believe that the women had never experienced pregnancy which is not a great start for a discussion on pregnancy given its ubiquity.)

Tanja Stähler (European Philosophy, Brighton)
Carrying a World Inside While Finding One’s Own World Turned Upside Down

Talk cancelled, speaker ill. Much relief as conference shortened by half an hour. We will just have to close our eyes and imagine the jumble of words tumbling over our heads instead.

Claire E. Scott (German Studies, Gambier, OH)
Threatening Maternal Bodies: Annegret Soltau’s Performances of Pregnancy

Scott started by telling us that she had an academic interest in murderous mothers. She wanted to talk to us about a German performance artist, Annegret Soltau, and her art video installation of her own pregnancy, part of which you can watch here (Phase 3 – Hope) produced in 1986. Scott warned us that:

Pregnancies, woman and motherhood are all linked terms here, because they are linked for the purposes of Soltau's artistic project, but as we all know they don't have to be necessarily linked, and I am actually very anxious to hear some of the papers later on which assumes that they are not.

Meaning the penny hadn’t dropped yet that Hines had done a bunk. Ha, ha. I myself was still hopping mad that I had missed a virtual date with Whine O’Clock.

By way of introduction, she spoke about the German Empire’s concept of ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ (children, kitchen, church) and how this had been used in Nazi ideology and propaganda (she had removed the swastika in the top left hand corner of the image that I have re-presented, no reason given, but did draw our attention to it).

You know things are bad when a Nazi propaganda poster is more humanising than the discussion you’re listening to.

Scott spoke at length on her interpretation of Soltau’s work and was mainly interested in what she perceived as the violent nature of it (as I have not seen the full work, I cannot comment). However, she did show us a still of a man appearing to push a heavily pregnant Soltau and then we saw actual video of Soltau herself pretending to fall over a bit. This excited Scott to think that something very dangerous was happening I think, but it didn’t look particularly worrying in my opinion, more stagey than anything.

In the still photos Scott showed us from ‘Phase 8 – Ansprache’, we saw Soltau touching her own body, her breasts and pregnant belly. Scott informed us that in the video Soltau punches herself in the belly repeatedly, and really digging in, which apparently demonstrates her agency and control. If true, it just goes to show that the word ‘art’ often does some heavy lifting, but given her hysterical reaction to the ‘falling over’ and scythe scene, I remain dubious.

In the question and answer session, the focus of interest was on whether the scythe over the belly in Phase 3 (see end of the video linked above) represented abortion and whether a ‘non-pregnant body’ might be the same after an abortion (well no because, – oh never mind).

Scott felt abortion was a theme of the work, which suggested to me that she hadn’t fully digested the quote attributed to feminist philosopher Mary Daly (translated into German) at the beginning of the video. I couldn’t find the original quote in English, but I translated it back roughly as:

the predominant religion across the planet is patriarchy and its real message is necrophilia

A woman from the audience said that the theme of violence reminded her of medical interventions, like the use of ultrasound, and wanted Scott to elaborate on ‘medical violence’.

Hold on tight, it’s about to get even more mad.

Christine Kanz (Modern German Literature, Linz)
On Producing Male Mothers: Figurations of Male Birth in the Historical Avantgarde

The last talk of the day was given by Christine Kanz on the subject of the novel ‘Mafarka the Futurist‘ by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, which by most accounts is a badly written and thinly veiled racist misogynist manifesto, by one of Mussolini’s greatest supporters and the founder of the Futurist movement.

According to Kanz, Marinetti had an erotic attachment to the Sudanese woman who had to wet nurse him. Quite how his memory went that far back is questionable.

The novel itself apparently features mass rapes, glorification of colonisation, overt racism, and of course a creation of a son without the involvement of a woman; the resultant child has wings like a plane and a black face which the father character hates.

Kanz talked an awful lot about the book and I found myself wondering why her focus was on a subpar novel so few people have read, rather than genuinely popular stories around male creation myths, like Pinocchio, Frankenstein, or even body horror films like the work of David Cronenberg and the Alien series. She should have begun with the Adam and Eve story and worked forwards.

Kanz also talked about the stunt pulled by a performance artist, in which a character ‘Mr Lee’, claimed to be a pregnant man and diarised his fictional pregnancy over a course of a year – ‘Of course Mr Lee wasn’t pregnant,’ said Kanz – but then she said this:

In fact modern reproductive medicine is able to let men become pregnant now.  We know that and it would be possible that there are not enough men around who would like to get all the hormone therapy and to bear all the consequences of male pregnancy.  

The talk ended on that bombshell. I have no idea whether this was a genuine comment and she really thinks that men can now give birth, or a reflection about the hormone therapy that women who have taken testosterone have to endure in an attempt to re-instigate fertility. It could just have been a sarcastic comment. I genuinely have not a clue.

Q&A included someone asking if it was possible to do a queer reading of the novel, to which the answer was obviously yes (recently cancer got queered so no one and nothing is safe now). Then finally someone asked Kanz (whose specialism is German literature – who better to ask) whether cloning would be possible without the need for parents or developing a gender. Kanz answered ‘yes’ and explained that it was a big debate and she didn’t quite know which side she was on. So perhaps she does believe men can squeeze a baby out of their peens after all.

Sally Hines (Sociology, Sheffield)
Trans Pregnancy: An International Exploration of Transmasculine Practices of Reproduction

As explained at the beginning, sadly Sally (and I do mean that) was unable to attend the conference. Was so looking forward to hearing her explain how ‘transmasculine’ women reproduce. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on the culmination of Sally’s fascinating and in-depth research, here is – no doubt – what she was planning to say.

  • They have sex with a sperm producer, or
  • They pay to have ordinary artificial insemination, or
  • If they have taken testosterone, they have hormone therapy to restart their menstrual cycle. They then have a double insemination load injected directly into their womb to massively increase their chances of pregnancy, or
  • They use the international market in baby buying and buy eggs and/or sperm, and engage an amoral surrogacy company for an extortionate amount of money to exploit a poor/desperate women to have a baby, just like a famous TIF did recently.

Thank you for attending my TED talk.

Conclusion

How is it possible to spend nearly three hours discussing ‘pregnant bodies’ in relation to cultural depictions and fail to mention the most obvious thing? It wasn’t just that they glossed over the story and figure of the Virgin Mary, they didn’t even mention it. The Virgin Mary is easily the most recognised story of pregnancy, perhaps in the world and for all time. I don’t know if it was avoided by deliberate choice for being ‘Eurocentric’, or some other nonsense, or whether they just as daft as brushes. It’s the kind of cultural amnesia which is now so bog standard I could have predicted it.

With regards to more modern depictions, I have to admit I struggled to think of a single pregnancy story told in a modern novel, though on Googling they are out there. Shame a bunch of academics couldn’t do the same and discuss those, but then that would mean delving into ‘chick lit’ (i.e. popular novels written and read by women) and how distasteful is that?


There was a second day to the programme, which I did not attend.

The planned programme for the second day.

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