Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life by Valerie Hartouni,Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Pp. 175 ISBN 0-8166-2623-5.
Donna Haraway and Valerie Hartouni have both written books that examine cultural representations of cutting-edge science. Their approaches are complementary; Hartouni focuses on reproductive technology and media representations while Haraway's longer work is broader, covering several topics and examining the culture that is science, or, the science that is North American culture.
Haraway's book is an in-your-face cultural analysis and critique of technoscience; the latter being a "heterogeneous cultural practice" (50) and concerned about "worldly, materialized, signifying an significant power." (51) Haraway's breadth does not mean that she has sacrificed detail rather, a number of technoscientific figures are covered and connected, each in its own particularity and context.
The book is illustrated throughout with paintings by Lynn Randolph, which comment on current North American science and society from the points of view of those who find themselves outside that cultural loop, particularly women of colour. The inclusion of these paintings is a provocative counterpoint to the advertisements from biotechnology companies which Haraway analyses in Chapter Two,"FemaleMan _Meets_OncoMouse " and Chapter Four, "GENE: Maps and Portraits of Life Itself". Randolph's paintings supplement and stretch Haraway's analysis in that they offer a visual critique and analysis in themselves, in juxtaposition with the product advertising from the biotech companies. It is refreshing to see a visual critique of a visual image, rather than the more common method of critiquing images through text alone.
Haraway's title reflects the book: the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but each part must be meticulously understood if the reader is to be able to understand that whole. The book is structured through branches of semiotics: Haraway begins by explaining each part of her title in Parts One and Two of the book: Syntactics and Semantics. This is also the grounding theory for her later explorations of cyborg figures, such as the gene, fetus and race, in Part Three, Pragmatics. Part One, "The Grammar of Feminism and Technoscience", explains the import of the structure of her email address title. She discusses the historical, military and academic development of the Internet, and puts forward what it means to be located in the Web, at an email address. Exploring and simultaneously inhabiting the culture and meanings of techno-science, which Haraway argues, is a secularized, Christian millenial story itself, one of the tasks of the modest witness is to read the "...condensed maps of contestable worlds...with mixed and differential literacies and without the totality, appropriations, apocalyptic disasters, comedic resolutions and salvation histories of secularized Christian realism." (11) Haraway's modest witness "...cannot ever be simply oppositional. Rather, s/he is suspicious, implicated, knowing, ignorant, worried and hopeful." (3)
Part Two is the most complex and most fascinating part of the book. Haraway's modest witness is FemaleMan , an antiracist, antisexist figure who can move through technoscientific culture, conscious of racism and sexism therein, and their tropes, and the denigration of bodily experience that became part of the pursuit of scientific objectivity from the 17th century to today. While Haraway is intent on exposing and critiquing the culture of technoscience, and asking whether specific scientific experiments and ways of knowing can become democratic producers of knowledge, she also refuses an anti-science or conspiracy-based political critique. Haraway examines and elucidates patterns without claiming (or blaming) a specific pattern-maker.
For Haraway, there is no neutral position toward technoscience. Everyone is somehow implicated. She describes the meeting between FemaleMan and OncoMouse as a meeting of kin. Haraway's questions are how are they related? What do they share? How can they work for a more democratic techno-science while accepting themselves and each other as products of that technoscience? These questions are posed and answered through histories of science, figures from science fiction, and ethnohistories of laboratory life, among others.
In Pragmatics, the third section of her book, Haraway explores the figures of the fetus, gene and race. While her exploration is of how these figures fit into technoscientific discourses and ways of knowing, Haraway never forgets that these are the sites of power struggles of all sorts (but most often over profits). Both the histories of the development of specific uses of these figures, and of the oppositional practices that have grown alongside are part of her analysis. The continual recognition of the political aspects of technoscience allows this techno-wary reader to read Haraway's book with hope, rather than the despair to which some of the specific technoscience histories Haraway explains lead.
Valerie Hartouni's book is focused on reproductive technologies and their representation in mainstream media, art videos, and judicial decisions. She begins her first chapter, "Impaired Sight or Partial Vision? Tracking Reproductive Bodies" with the example of a man, Virgil, blind from birth, who received an operation that enabled him to "see". Only he couldn't. He had never learned to "see", and so the objects, faces, and colours then visually presented to him had no meaning.
Throughout her book, Hartouni argues that the "objects" which have become seemingly self-evident in our time, such as "mother" and "fetus", are constructed and therefore, seen, in particular ways. "Seeing" a fetus through ultrasound, for example, becomes "proof" that a separate entity who is also a person with rights exists. On the ultrasound screen, there is never any evidence of the living, thinking, person-with-rights within whom the fetus exists. And so the fetus seems alone, vulnerable, unprotected. The dyad that a pregnant woman is, is rarely presented in the media: only the two separate beings, with the woman constructed as a happy container or evil rejector, and no inbetween.
The central preoccupations of Hartouni's book are the definitions of motherhood; how anti-abortion rhetoric of the fetus as a person has shaped the entire choice debate; two judicial decisions on contract pregnancy; the forgotten middle section of The Bell Curve; and cloning. The analysis of the two legal decisions, in particular, show how law reifies social conventions of who should and should not be amother, as well as re-establishing genetic, paternal ties as the most significant in a child's life.
Hartouni discusses ways of seeing reproduction and how these shape the debates over new technologies of reproduction, often striving to maintain the very social conventions of family that the technologies could possibly overthrow. For example, the social view of the acceptable family as one mother, one father, living together with their "own" children, means that in an American court case over custody of a child conceived through a couple's egg and sperm but gestated by another woman, the judge could simply say: "Three natural parents is not in the best interest of the child...I think it invites emotional and financial extortion situations." (91, 148) Custody was awarded to the commissioning couple, as the child was genetically "theirs". The significance of gestation was denigrated. There was no exploration of the potential benefits of three parents, or any notion of cooperation between them. The custody contest was a contest, with only winners and losers, without searching for new solutions to a new problem. The decision was used to reinforce the social conventions of family relationships and of relationships between the races (97). The commissioning couple were white and Asian-American, and the gestating woman was black.
The controversial book, The Bell Curve, is examined by in chapter 6 "'On Breeding Good Stock': Reflections on Herrnstein's and Murray's Bell Curve ". Hartouni focuses on the part left out by the mainstream media, and questions the silence that met Herrnstein's and Murray's suggestion that poor, underclass, single women (read black) should have subsidized "flexible, foolproof, inexpensive and safe" birth control in order to prevent the dilution of national IQ (105). Hartouni states that Herrnstein and Murray are referring to Norplant, six time-release hormone capsules inserted in a woman's arm which will prevent pregnancy for 5 years and while removeable, are more easily inserted than removed. Norplant has been "prescribed" by judges as a condition of probation for women convicted of child abuse (151). Hartouni relates these current "prescriptions" to remedy social ills to the eugenic laws regarding sterilization that were on the books of many American states (and some Canadian provinces) in the 1920s and 1930s. She argues that the silence that met Herrnstein's and Murray's arguments leaves in place "...a set of reasonings and meanings that produces black women's bodies -- indeed, the category 'black woman' -- as the site and source of social pollution and procreative excess, in need of rehabilitation and regulation."
Hartouni's illustration of the ability of anti-abortion rhetoric in the United States to reshape not only the abortion debate, but also routine prenatal care and pro-choice politics is arresting. It resurfaces in different sections of Cultural Conceptions as women become pervasively seen as containers in contests that do not seem to be remotely about abortion, but are rather about child custody, fit parenting and maintaining brain-dead women on life support. Hartouni's work emphasizes the strongly political nature of what is referred to as women's issues or as (private) family values.
Hartouni's writing is straightforward as she follows the threads of stereotypical "good" motherhood throughout the media stories. The connections between the old tropes of racism and sexism with the "new" reproductive technologies are clear anddetailed.
I am interested in the construction of the fetus and how the fetus as a sign moves through the works of both authors. Haraway maintains a certain distance from the fetus. It is surely a cyborg figure, when conceived in a dish, operated on while still inside a pregnant woman, and kept in an incubator if born too soon. Haraway uses the fetal figure as a speculum, an instrument for seeing. This construction of the fetus relies on feminism in the early seventies when seizing the gynecological speculum became a way for women to gain self-knowledge, and, for example, perform early menstrual extraction in self-help groups. It was one way of seizing power. Haraway uses the fetus to begin a discussion of the women's health movement, and the continuing enunciation of what is needed in order for women to have access to health care and better health overall.
Haraway also uses the fetus to lead into a discussion of what she calls the invisible fetus, or, the fetus born to become a baby, and then dying of malnutrition in the slums of Northeastern Brazil. The vast amount of attention focused on North American fetuses while in the womb is contrasted with the death of countless babies in Northeastern Brazil. Haraway emphasizes that both the In Vitro fertilization "miracle" baby and the baby dying of diarrhea-induced malnutrition are postmodern (203). While the techno-baby produced in operating rooms, from super-ovulatory drugs, petri-dishes and plastic tubing, seems to be the most postmodern baby, the baby who dies from malnutrition is also postmodern. The babies of the slums of Northeastern Brazil die from the culture change and dearth of breastfeeding wrought through the changes in employment structure from rural peasant to urban day-labourer, and free baby formula in the 1960s and 1970s. Baby formula is now marketed in developing nations in small packages and in what seems like an endless array of choice: what cannot be chosen by the purchasers is clean water to mix the formula with, nor quite enough formula to fulfill the nutritional requirements of the babies. (207-211)
This use of fetus as speculum shows cultural views of women and their bodies, in their varying localities and particularities. It is a use that exposes dominant discursive practices in reproduction, and poses troubling questions about new reproductive technologies: about how the technologies can/will be used in North American culture, how the technologies relate to current views of the proper family and good mother, their role in dividing rich and poor globally, and how the technologies could be used for a democratic, freedom-enhancing and "experimental" way of life.
Hartouni sees the fetus more as a manipulable political object, currently deployed in anti-choice rhetoric to the detriment of women's choices. The fetus, for Hartouni, is also constructed by law and medicine, which in turn, constructs women as good or bad mother-containers. Once a fetus is a newborn, it becomes a contested object of property. To whom does this newborn belong: the commissioning couple? the mother? the father? the gestator or genetic source? And what do all these terms mean, particularly "mother"? Hartouni asks directed questions and develops specific answers about the varying positions of fetuses, depending largely on which women they are located in, despite the invisibility of these container-women.
Although Haraway is more direct about her use of the fetus as a postmodern sign,Hartouni examines this sign as well. The fetus clearly is a postmodern sign: Barbara Duden has examined how the fetus became a sign in Western culture. Duden shows how the fetus has moved from a position of "not-yet" to "...a unique immune system in real time." (Duden, 1993:10). Historically, fetuses were not unborn children, but hope. It was only once a baby was born, Duden observes, that that particular pregnancy could be understood as an experience of carrying a baby. But once fetuses became visible through ultrasound, they became not solely future beings, but individuals existing in the present. The newness of the fetus as a separate cultural sign, is what may make it, in part, as politically manipulable as Hartouni describes.
As a sign, the fetus is public. Pregnant women experience a particular fetus in a variety of ways: wanted and unwanted; with joy and anxiety; through interior kicks and summersaults unlike anything experienced before; as an expected natural occurence and as illness; and in varying shades between the "opposing" terms presented here. The gap between the public fetal sign and an interior, experienced fetus is wide. Simultaneously, however, that the public sign should affect the interior experience should be no surprise.
The fetus circulates as a sign of potential life not only in anti-abortion rhetoric and the heroics of saving fetuses through innovative surgery. Fetal tissue remains a potential source of life and of reconfiguring life, through transplants, the development of immortalized fetal cell lines and other experiments on fetal tissue.
Haraway refers to Monica Casper's work on the "fetus as work object" (188). Casper analyses fetal surgery and how the medical understanding of the fetus as patient affects medical understanding of pregnant women, and how the pregnant women involved see themselves (Casper, 1995). Hartouni's chapter, "Containing Women: Reproductive Discourse(s) in the 1980s", on brain-dead women "having babies" also refers to this medical view of the fetus-as-patient. Fetuses that are operated on are, of course, particular fetuses, but being worked on in this manner makes them very public.
Haraway situates the fetus within technoscience culture and therefore is attuned to an idea of fetuses as raw material as well as the experimental and laboratory way of life. She clearly sets out the political nature of the fetus and its place in science by reminding readers that one of Bill Clinton's first acts as American president was to remove the gag rule (against abortion) on federally funded medicaid clinics, and permit experimentation on aborted fetal tissue.
Casper refers to fetal tissue as play-doh for scientists (Casper, 1995:191). She argues that, in this situation, instead of technoscience transforming fetuses, fetuses become the tools of technoscientists. Animal models of human diseases are created by transplanting fetal tissue into animals. A very close relative of the OncoMouse (or even, a direct descendant) is a mouse into which fetal blood-generating cells have been transplanted, producing human blood cells in the mouse. (Report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, Canada [hereinafter, 'Royal Commission'] 1993:973). For transplant into humans, fetal tissue is ideal: it has a good capacity for growth and differentiation, it survives in vitro culture and manipulation well, it is less easily rejected in transplant as its im-munities are not developed. (Royal Commission, 1993:975). This is a powerful sign circulating between laboratories and amidst people searching for cures to diseases.
The two views of fetuses, as persons or as fetal tissue to be experimented on, both reflect an elevation of "life" to "Life". There are (at least) two fascinations at work in these constructions of fetuses. The anti-abortion construction presents the fetus as individual life, and one of the goals of its rhetoric is to make the public identify with the vulnerability of the fetus. The potential for life that is the fetus outweighs any actual life being lived; for how embryonic development works -- these are related to potentialities, not actualities.
The second fascination is with control. Anti-abortion activists want to control a specific action that women have taken for centuries, to decide not to bear a child. Biological knowledge, as Evelyn Fox Keller (1996:114) argues, has moved from simple observation to observation always in "anticipation of action". She explains that, in order to understand whether or not one is "really" seeing something under a microscope, manipulation of that something confirms both the sighting and interpretation of it. (Keller, 1996:112-113). Keller states that this movement to an experimental biology was especially important for embryology. The control that comes with manipulation of eight-celled embryos is not just incidental.
It begins to make no difference what is actually done with a fetus: whether it is given birth to, thus no longer as innocent (somehow) as when in a woman's womb, or whether it is aborted and its tissue disposed of (the most common occurrence) or used in various experiments. The circulation of the sign of the fetus shapes, in myriad and contradictory ways, cultural views of women and their actions. The fetus in technoscience reflects social views of women as containers, and even furthers them. The role of race, as Hartouni emphasizes, is as important in the construction of women through fetuses as the role of race in the broad structures of technoscience as shown by Haraway. The public cyborg fetus circulates as a sign of potential life, a sign of what must be controlled, shaped, directed and eliminated in order to preserve social "life" as "we" know it.
Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, trans. by Lee Hoinacki, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Evelyn Fox Keller, "The Biological Gaze", in George Robertson et al., eds. Future Natural: Nature, Science, Culture, London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 107-121.
Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, Proceed With Care: Final Report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, vols. 1 and 2, Ottawa: Minister of Government Services, Canada, 1993.
Rachel Ariss is a candidate for the S.J.D. at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto. Her recent writings on new reproductive technologies include "The Recycled Fetus: Semiosis and New Reproductive Technologies," in Law and the Conflict of Ideologies, ed. Roberta Kevelson (New York: Peter Lang, 1995) and "The Ethic of Care in the Final Report of the Royal Commission on New ReproductiveTechnologies" Queen's Law Journal 22/1 (1996): 1-50.