Non-Reproduction: A Conversation
This special issue of Studies in the Maternal is inspired by a symposium we co-convened in 2013 on 'Non-Reproduction: Politics, Ethics, Aesthetics'. In this editorial, we consider the theme of 'Non-Reproduction' in a conversation that draws on both the contents of this issue and the broader field of thought on the topic.
In our call for papers for the symposium, we asked: 'Is it helpful to draw a conceptual opposition between the reproductive and the non-reproductive? Are there alternatives to this framework?' Perhaps we should begin by considering this question ourselves, and outlining what we understand by the term 'non-reproduction', as well as explaining how we use the term in our work.
SOPHIE JONES: I understand the term 'non-reproduction' as a discursive intervention. Often, when we discuss 'the politics of reproduction', we lose sight of social investments in the non-reproductivity of specific kinds of subjects—for instance, teenagers, older women, the working classes, the incarcerated—and the way these investments intersect with pro-natalism. Liberal feminism has, arguably, resisted compulsory maternity at the expense of fighting anti-natalism: abortion laws have drawn more attention from activists than coerced sterilisation, and rightful celebrations of women's entry into the workplace have often overlooked the way these workplaces are fuelled by indifference to the labour of childrearing. Moreover, some women are encouraged to mother, while the 'wrong' kinds of women are discouraged or prevented from 'breeding'. Is it possible to navigate these chameleonic modes of coercion and prohibition and to embrace non-reproduction as a strategy of feminist resistance? Angela Y. Davis writes in Women, Race, and Class, that '[w]hat is urgently required is a broad campaign to defend the reproductive rights of all women—and especially those women whose economic circumstances often compel them to relinquish the right to reproduction itself.'Can such a campaign be enriched by a project of exposing the negative—of attending not only to reproduction but also to its negation?
It seems to me that, to begin such a project, it is necessary to break down the conceptual opposition between reproduction and non-reproduction. This dichotomy is a key strategy of reproductive control. A recent report in the Daily Mail bemoans the purported 'controversy' that midwives may now play a greater role in abortion procedures.Of course, this isn't a controversy at all if we understand abortion as one point on the spectrum of reproductive healthcare. In my doctoral thesis, which looks at the cultural politics of reproduction in relation to ideas about space and time in 1960s U.S. culture, I write about representations of pregnancy as a state of contingency and indeterminacy that, if understood in this way, undermines the logic of attempts to impose social order through spatial control. In one of the texts I explore, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, pregnancy expresses the tension between the political imperative to imagine the future and the necessity of recognising its unknowability. In the play, which follows an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, Ruth Younger falls pregnant but, having no room in the house for another child, announces that she has made a 'down payment' on an abortion. Later, as the Youngers plan to move to a better house in a white-dominated neighbourhood, they face racist opposition from inhabitants of the new community. Ruth's use of the term 'down payment' initially suggests that reproductive time has been contained by the temporal dynamics of debt and foreclosure that drive the racist property market. However, pregnancy emerges as an unpredictable counterpoint to these structures of control. Ruth does not respond to her sister-in-law's questions about whether she planned to fall pregnant and, even as she appears to change her mind and embrace her pregnancy, she never asserts that she will not go through with the abortion. The stage directions capture this ambivalence, telling us that Ruth is aware of the 'various degrees of goodness and trouble' that the future might hold. The play weaves this reproductive indeterminacy into its broader vision of political imagination, as voiced by the Nigerian character Asagai towards the end of the play. Time, Asagai states, 'isn't a circle—it is simply a long line—as in geometry, you know, one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes'.
The conceptual opposition between the reproductive and the non-reproductive is less relevant here than the contest between foreclosed and open futures.The conservative image of reproduction finds in pregnancy an image of a predictable and controllable future—a future that might as well already be here. This is a powerful association; personally, I find it difficult to detach the sight of pregnancy from the idea of parenthood. But pregnancy, as we know, does not always involve parenthood: consider abortion, adoption, surrogacy, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Reproductive contingency does not have to be either rejected or embraced; the challenge is to acknowledge it, to live with it, and to develop narratives that encompass it.
Can we give ourselves up to the unpredictability of (non)-reproduction? In a society that vigorously promotes individual self-control, the weight of this question is significant. Lisa Smith's paper in this issue, '“You're 16… you should probably be on the pill”: Girls, the non-reproductive body, and the rhetoric of self-control', touches on some of these issues in a nuanced examination of the social norms surrounding the use of the contraceptive pill by young women in Canada. Smith argues convincingly that taking the pill has become a central part of the performance of responsible, youthful femininity under neoliberalism. The expectation that young women maintain a non-reproductive yet sexually active body is, she observes, framed as an invitation to exercise autonomous self-control. However, Smith's interviews with young women suggest that this rhetoric of freedom is at odds with the paucity of options available. Smith's paper reinforces my belief that resisting reproductive control means refusing to dichotomise the reproductive and the non-reproductive; history tells us that neither, contra Lee Edelman, is inherently radical or conservative. Indeed, a feminist politics of (non)-reproduction recognises all the ways in which child-rearing might entail a refusal to reproduce the dominant order. Let's think, then, about reproduction as non-reproduction: the way having children exposes the absurdity and irrationality of our ways of working, bringing new people into the world who might want to change things. Let's think, at the same time, about non-reproduction as reproduction: about relations of care and affinity that flourish outside, or in defiance, of the nuclear family.
HARRIET COOPER: What kind of 'performative' qualities does the coinage 'non-reproduction' have?To propose the theme of the special issue in the negative is to make an implicit and politicised call to think differently about reproduction. The 'non' invites us into the domain of the abstract: with a referent that is a 'no-thing', a space is created. This can be a space for thinking about the hegemony of the 'positive' version of the term, and also a space for exploring what we might want to put in the place of that term . If, as Vivian Sobchack notes, metaphor is a form of 'displacement', then using the notion of non-reproduction metaphorically can dethrone the reproductive and problematise the naturalisation of the connection between the terms 'biological' and 'reproduction'.
I find 'non-reproduction' to be — ironically perhaps — a hugely generative term. I have found it illuminating in relation to my PhD work on the figure of the disabled child. In her discussion of 'rehabilitative futurism', Anna Mollow problematises Lee Edelman's concept of 'reproductive futurism' by arguing that the disabled child is never straightforwardly associated with futurity, and might instead exemplify the negativity that Edelman locates in the figure of the queer.Rather than being lost to the dominant order, the disabled child is — Mollow argues — reincorporated into futurist agendas via the rehabilitative imperative. This idea has fed into my reflections on the impact of rehabilitation in my own life. But recently, I began to think about another way of conceiving of the disabled child as queer. In certain cases, mightn't disability be understood as a non-reproduction of the parental body? I have a physical impairment caused by a birth trauma, which gives me an experience of embodiment shared by no one else in my family. I also began to wonder: how might the arrival of the disabled child disrupt not just biological but social reproduction too? And, in relation to this, what are the advantages of an identity politics that does not run in the family — one that is, in a sense, non-reproductive? These questions intersect with some of those raised by Sam McBean in her paper, 'The Gamble of Reproduction: Conceiving Ada's Queer Temporalities'. McBean argues that Lynn Hershman Leeson's 1997 film offers us a new way of 'conceiving' of feminist history that is capable of valuing both the imperfect reproduction of its own archive in the present, and the female reproductive body, which has sometimes been regarded as an obstacle to women's involvement in the making of history. McBean's compelling discussion of the notion of the flawed copy — which is associated in the film with a digital coding error, but which also has important figurative implications in terms of the way we make use of and pass on our political and cultural inheritance — seems to me to have significance not just for feminism and queer theory, but also for critical disability studies. The concept of reproduction as a 'gamble' also resonates with Sophie's suggestion that we need to be able to 'acknowledge', 'live with' and 'develop narratives that encompass' the notion of 'reproductive contingency'. All too often, narratives which deny this reality are allowed to prevail in contemporary culture.
FRAN BIGMAN: One challenge to the dichotomising of the reproductive and the non-reproductive that has come up in my work is the figure of the aborting mother. Just as the midwives in the Daily Mail article that you mentioned, Sophie, are bound up in a romanticised cult of motherhood by conservative commentators— Lord Alton, a noted abortion opponent, laments that '[i]t is particularly perverse that midwives, who do the beautiful work of helping babies into the world, will now be called upon to end the lives of children'—the 'maternal' qualities of women with children are sometimes thought to exempt them from the category of women having abortions.Abortion opponents stereotype the abortion seeker as teenaged, irresponsible, unmarried, and poor—exactly the figure of the woman cast as a 'reckless breeder,' a double standard created by the clash of an anti-feminist desire to enforce compulsory motherhood with a eugenic fear of over-reproduction among the racially and economically marginalised.
One powerful attempt to destabilise this stereotype is Caitlin Moran's account of her abortion in her 2011 memoir How to Be a Woman. She recounts her feelings when she—the breastfeeding mother of two small children—found out she was pregnant again: 'Not even for a second do I think I should have this baby. I have no dilemma, no terrible decision to make […] my two girls […] are all I want'.She adds that 'to do it again—to commit my life to another person—might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do—to breaking point'. Moran speculates that there are 'good' abortions (those after rape, or for medical reasons) and 'bad' ones (repeat abortions, late-term abortions, abortions after IVF) but 'worst of all' are mothers who have abortions, because they betray their sacred maternal calling as the creator and protector of all life.
I find her argument a provocative challenge to the idea of any hard-and-fast division between the reproductive and the non-reproductive. What if abortion, understood as non-reproduction, is seen to lead to 'better reproduction', in two senses? First, it could mean the better mothering of the children a woman already has, like Moran's two girls. This (re)casts abortion as a maternal act, an act of care, one that can even be directed toward the child-that-never-was. Amanda Mellet, an Irish woman who travelled to the UK for an abortion after receiving a fatal foetal anomaly diagnosis during her pregnancy, writes, 'for myself and my husband, it was an act of love and compassion for our cherished baby'.I believe it is important to see abortion as a potentially reproductive and maternal act, one that better enables a woman to care for the children she already has, or more broadly to care for the people already in her life. Yet there are dangers in over-maternalising abortion; it can become another way of imagining every woman as a potential mother. In Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision that decriminalised abortions performed before the stage of foetal 'viability' in the USA, the pregnant woman is referred to as 'the mother,' which seems to impose an identity on her that she may not accept. This is one case in which it might indeed be helpful to draw a line between the reproductive and non-reproductive.
The idea of abortion as maternal can also slip into a desire to redeem it, to soften its image. There is historical precedent; before slogans about choice and rights in the 1960s, abortion was largely understood, like birth control, as a reproductive act—as one of family limitation and spacing. In the 1930s, when abortion first became an issue of public debate in the UK, only one activist, Stella Browne, argued for abortion as an absolute right; she was even willing to tell a parliamentary committee that she—an unmarried, childless woman—had had abortions.Browne's fellow middle-class co-founders of the Abortion Law Reform Association regarded her as too radical, arguing instead for legal abortion as a means of reducing maternal mortality and a measure of relief for the overburdened working-class mothers of fourteen they claimed to represent. In the twentieth century, and possibly in the centuries before that, most women seeking abortion in Britain have been married women with children. Mothers, especially those with many children, have generally been treated with more sympathy when they sought abortions, having already done their reproductive 'duty'. Although most eugenicists did not support legal abortion, some advocates of decriminalisation cited eugenic reasons; for example, one interwar doctor thought that abortion after the second child should be legal to check the 'multiplication of the least efficient citizens'.
The more we stress abortion as an act of care for another, the harder it may become to see abortion as an act of care for oneself, the second sense in which Moran's story pushes the boundaries of the terms 'reproductive' and 'non-reproductive'. Moran writes that raising another child might destroy her sense of self both in the present and the future. What about abortion as a reproductive act that gives birth to the continuation of that self? By ending a pregnancy that threatens to disrupt a woman's life, abortion can be the means of preserving that life. Historically, many women have not used the medico-legal term 'abortion' for their efforts to restore menstruation, speaking instead of 'putting me right' or 'bringing me round'.
This sense of being restored to one's usual and preferred self is experienced by an Oxford student in Penelope Mortimer's 1958 novel Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, perhaps the first character in a British abortion narrative to be allowed a bright future. She chooses to have an abortion because otherwise she would have to marry a resentful boyfriend she has come to dislike or, at the very least, drop out of university. After the procedure, she 'looked as if she had won a prize: pale, tired, but radiant […] She had never been radiant'.Abortion, however, is not depicted as an entirely empowering, liberating experience. The novel's protagonist, the student's mother, is a depressed housewife who is half-reluctant and half-determined to help her daughter procure an abortion; while the two grow closer throughout the experience, their connection turns out to be fleeting. In my doctoral thesis, which examines abortion narratives in British fiction and film from 1907 to 1967, I argue that abortion in these narratives has often been read narrowly as a defiant, feminist act of non-reproduction. Sometimes, however, as I demonstrate, abortion stories express conservative fears centering on the non-reproduction of a family or class, and sometimes they can be read—if at times only partially—as defiant, feminist stories of the reproduction of the self.
The idea of the reproduction of the self comes through in both Christina Benninghaus's and Gilla Shapiro's pieces on voluntary childlessness in this issue, '“No, thank you, Mr Stork!”: Voluntary childlessness in Weimar and contemporary Germany', and 'Voluntary childlessness: A critical review of the literature', respectively. Benninghaus, in her analysis of visual representations in Weimar Germany and contemporary book covers, demonstrates that the childless-by-choice woman is often depicted as sexy, well-dressed, and affluent, a pattern more ambiguous than it may initially appear: is she selfish for putting materialism above maternity, or is she wealthy, and thus a possible figure of aspiration, because she has decided not to incur the expenses of motherhood?
In her literature review, Shapiro examines four questions: who chooses to be childless? Why do individuals choose voluntary childlessness? What are the consequences of voluntary childlessness? How is this lifestyle stigmatised, and how do those affected respond to stigma? In response to the latter, she discusses findings of a gendered pattern amongst the voluntarily childless: women may be more likely than men to point to altruistic motives, such as overpopulation or doubts about their maternal instincts, whereas men may be more likely than women to cite individualistic reasons, such as financial considerations.
Both Benninghaus and Shapiro reveal a dilemma that any study of the voluntarily childless must consider: while their voices should be heard, asking them to explain why they have chosen not to parent may establish parenthood as normative and their behaviour as abnormal. Studies that reject this normalisation by asking why people choose, or desire, to become parents may further challenge any false dichotomy between the two.
Lee Edelman's No Future, a book that formed one of the main theoretical points of departure for the conference and special issue, makes a point of distinguishing its discussion of the figural child from the experiences of real children. How do we theorise the non-reproductive without bracketing the 'real world'? And what is at stake when we explore the relationship between language and embodiment, or between theory and practice?
HC: I first came to the term 'non-reproduction' with few pre-conceptions and without a sense of being already oriented within a disciplinary field. What could an outsider, working in another field — albeit an overlapping one — bring to the table? My tendency has been to explore the metaphorical resonances of the terms of the symposium, but I am all too aware that this is politically problematic territory. The abstraction 'non-reproduction' is, on the one hand, an expansive and enabling term, yet it also poses a challenge: does the notion of the non-reproductive permit us to maintain a politics informed by the materiality of bodily experience? What are the dangers of thinking laterally — symbolically, even — about reproduction? Is there a risk here of reproducing Edelman's 'overly neat […] formulations' of the operations of reproductive futurism, which Nina Power unsettles by drawing attention to the material reality of family life in neo-liberal Britain?Although 'reproduction' might be classified as an abstract noun (and 'non-reproduction' certainly would be), pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage and abortion are embodied experiences which are invested with personal, cultural and political significance. What do we do to these experiences themselves if we move the discussion into a figurative dimension? Within the field of disability studies, scholars including Vivian Sobchack and Amy Vidali have reflected on the problems associated with using the terminology of embodied experience metaphorically . Commenting on the way in which the metaphor of the prosthetic has become a fetishised object within contemporary critical theory, Sobchack — who uses a prosthetic leg — notes that:
When I put my leg on in the morning, knowing that I am the one who will give it literal (if exhaustible) vitality even as it gives me literal support, I don't find it nearly as seductive a matter — or generalized an idea — as do some of my academic colleagues.
Sobchack's remark raises questions about the ethics of using terms which describe somatic experience figuratively. Toni Morrison reminds us that 'language [is] […] an act with consequences'.There are certainly consequences when we deploy terms which refer to impairment in metaphorical ways — among other risks, there is a danger of 'eliding the embodied lives of disabled people'. Yet Sobchack also cautions against the use of autobiography as a legitimising device, observing that the use of anecdote in her chapter 'is not meant to overvalue the “secret” knowledge that is possessed and revealed by the cultural other who has a real prosthetic'. Perhaps what needs to be considered here — and this is a question that I have only recently begun to explore, prompted by the work of Karín Lesnik-Oberstein — is the issue of how we come to know bodily experience, as well as the status we ascribe to it. In On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood, Lesnik-Oberstein argues that 'experience is […] often defined as a privileged and primary source of meaning'. If, as Lesnik-Oberstein contends, the category of 'personal experience' regularly functions in academic writing as a signifier of the authentic, the real, the natural and the unmediated, how should we (re)formulate the relationship between language and the body? The idea of experience as synonymous with the 'real' seems to resist deconstruction with unusual obstinacy, perhaps because, as Lesnik-Oberstein suggests, we are attached to a particular conceptualisation of emotion as 'resistant to analysis'. In a revealing anecdote, Lesnik-Oberstein tells of a workshop in which her paper on the 'own child' received some criticism for a perceived 'neglect of attention to the pain of infertility'. The author recalls being 'intrigued' and 'challenged' by this feedback, since she had understood this very pain to be the object of her project. Lesnik-Oberstein interprets the comments as arising out of a view of analysis as 'an invasive and “cold-hearted” instrument of dissection and anatomization that does not understand emotion, but negates or restrains and disciplines it'. This dichotomisation of theoretical and emotional registers seems to be intensified when it comes to the subject of the child, as Lesnik-Oberstein suggests, and is in fact precisely what the author seeks to highlight in her analysis of the unquestioned and seemingly 'unquestionable' investment in the 'own child'. This commitment to re-imagining theory — not as inimical to feeling, but as something which works alongside that mode as an illuminating and exploratory companion — makes it possible to think otherwise about the 'own child' as a privileged figure that authorises the cultural embedment of new reproductive technologies. In a similar vein, if the term 'non-reproduction' takes us into the domain of the theoretical, this need not be understood as a closing down of the emotional or the experiential, but rather as a space for an opening out of these registers.
One of the papers in this collection which takes a special interest in questions of mediation, language and embodied experience is Lucy van de Wiel's 'For Whom the Clock Ticks: Reproductive Ageing and Egg Freezing in Dutch and British News Media. Van de Wiel's deft analysis of news media representations of egg freezing draws out the ideological assumptions about women's reproductive 'choices' that are implicit in dominant discourses about this new reproductive technology. The technology itself troubles 'an easy distinction between reproductive and non-reproductive behaviour', since it makes it possible to postpone childbearing without completely refusing it, as van de Wiel argues (p. 1). Her careful reading of the depiction of the ubiquitous 'have-it-all' woman is especially powerful: through it, I have realised that I don't think enough about how this insidious cultural construct has infiltrated both my perception of myself and my view of other women in my social group.
SJ: I was moved to revisit Drucilla Cornell's work on abortion in response to this question about the figural and the literal. Cornell's argument for abortion rights begins in a surprising place for those of us accustomed to pro-choice activist rhetoric: instead of emphasising women's autonomy and self-possession, she draws on Lacan to stress how fragile the process of individuation is and how it is dependent on a form of fictionality. In Lacan's account of the mirror stage, the infant's initial reconition of her image is a projection of an imagined unity; as such, 'there is always a moment of fictionality, of imagined anticipation' in the sense of bodily integrity.This anticipated unity is, for Cornell, a minimum condition for individuation. She writes:
Without the protection of the future of anticipation, the self cannot project its own continuity. The denial of the right to abortion makes such an anticipation of future wholeness impossible for women. What is at stake in this loss are the conditions for even a primordial sense of self (the critical significance of which I do not want to deny).
Cornell's analysis is, perhaps, a call to revisit the distinction between the figural and the literal. Harriet's discussion of the contested priority of somatic experience takes on a new dimension in light of Cornell's suggestion that bodily integrity is, in a sense, always a fiction. We defend abortion rights not because we own our bodies, but because we don't; our sense of self is perpetually at risk of being undone. As feminists, we might find this invocation of risk a risky strategy in itself, but the power of Cornell's argument lies in her recognition of what is at stake when we discuss the right to abortion.
Cornell's reading of Lacan provides a valuable counterpoint to Edelman's. Indeed, in a recent article in Social Text provocatively titled 'There's Nothing Revolutionary About a Blowjob', Cornell and Stephen D. Seely directly contest 'the unpsychoanalytic way in which Edelman mobilizes psychoanalytic concepts' as they move to 'return queer theory to revolution'.Cornell and Seely argue that Edelman mistakenly suggests the 'law' prohibiting homosexuality is real, rather than a fantasy of defence against capture by the jouissance of the Other. Their appeal to Derrida's notion of the future as open promise rather than closed programme resonates with Nick Hocking's article, 'Letting the Skyfall or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love James Bond'. Hocking interrogates the Bond film's apparent anticipation of its critics as an instance of what Jacques Derrida terms autoimmunitary logic. In a skilled and careful argument, Hocking contends that Skyfall, like Edelman's notion of reproductive futurism, only seems to pose a threat to the dominant order. According to Hocking, Raoul, the sinthomosexual villain of Skyfall, does not disrupt the reactionary fantasy of Britishness; rather, his encounter with Bond represents the troubling persistence of a 'destitute imperial mythology' (p. 19). I am struck by Hocking's reminder of 'the anxiety which the openness of a future aspect exposes us to in the present' (p. 17). Once again, it is the future we cannot know, rather than the future we project, that suggests the possibility of the non-reproduction of violent social structures.
FB: In looking at representations of abortion in literature, I have been pushing back against the ways some critics have parachuted in theoretical ideas while neglecting the historical context. Sally Minogue and Andrew Palmer, for example, weave a grand narrative of abortion in British literature from the 1930s to the 1960s as representing increasing empowerment.This overarching argument leads them to emphasise the 'comedic' nature of the abortion scene in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), in which a working-class woman forces gin down her throat, takes an unbearably hot bath, and insists, 'I don't care whether it comes off or not.' Their use of Bakhtin to read the abortion in Sillitoe's novel as carnivalesque, turning the aborting woman into an embodiment of her community, reduces it to what Nicole Moore has termed a 'cliché of abortion plots for working-class women', namely, a story in which that working-class character exhibits, in Moore's words, 'an amusing callous insouciance' about her abortion.
In a broader sense, using the term 'abortion' metaphorically can promote a narrow idea of the experience as the premature, lamentable end of something, while as I mentioned above, women often talked about restoring their period as 'putting themselves right,' bringing back their normal selves. The language we use matters, and often it cuts both ways. To bring in another example from Penelope Mortimer's novel Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, one aborting character's willingness to speak the word 'abortion'—for perhaps the first time in a British literary novel—represents an opening-up of what can be said, but this openness is partly authorised by the medicalisation of both the discourse and the practice of abortion.
In 'Brief Notes towards a Non-Nihilistic Theory of Non-Reproduction', her rousing contribution to this special issue, Nina Power highlights the dangers of speaking abstractly and ignoring historical specificity, arguing that 'we cannot talk hypothetically about non-reproduction without invoking not only the spectre of a grandiose nihilism that would see humanity (rather than capitalism, say) as something to be exterminated, but also the very real experience of people who have had their capacity to reproduce taken from them under duress and often unknowingly' (p. 3). Focusing on the non-reproductive as liberating and radical—which is perhaps easier to do when it remains a theoretical concept—can blind us to the societal pressures that are brought to bear, differentially, on women's (non)-reproductive lives.
In our call for papers for the symposium, we also asked: 'What are the implications of 'non-reproduction' and anti-futurity for approaches to the archive and the preservation of cultural and social documents?' How does the term 'non-reproduction' resonate with practices of cultural reproduction?
HC: In this issue, we feature the work of the multimedia artist Kabe Wilson, which offers a powerful challenge to the conceptual opposition between the reproductive and the non-reproductive in the context of literary inheritance. Wilson has written a novella which takes the 37,971 words of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and rearranges them in a new order to create a narrative about a Cambridge student who, disillusioned by the elitism and racism she finds in the university, finds inspiration in her discovery of the Black Rights movement. In a Q & A at Birkbeck Arts Week about the novella, entitled Of One Woman or So, Wilson observed that the project functions both to critique and to celebrate Woolf's famous polemic. By using the words of the original text, but re-ordering them, the artist raises important questions about the role of reproduction and non-reproduction in literary and critical practices: the new work both bears resemblance to its 'parent' and playfully subverts the parent's words. Meditating on the complexities of viewing Woolf as a maternal figure, and on the need to create a 'non-reproductive' mental space in order that creativity might flourish, the novella's protagonist, Olivia, reflects:
Women, practised observers of the opinions of their mothers. But that woman was not one of the mothers. Childless. A governess, still. And so that we are at liberty to theorize without the need to submit to what came before, I must set light to the original, that life manual of Our Own...
Seeing and hearing about this inspiring work made me reflect on the lack of attention, in mainstream political culture, to the concept of ambivalence. In psychoanalysis, this term highlights the way in which, in our attachments to ideas, to people, to things, we are often pulled in two directions: our feelings are almost always troublingly mixed. I like the way in which the concept of Wilson's Of One Woman Or So works with the mixed feelings we have about what we inherit and about the constraints already placed upon us as we undertake (non)-reproductive creative labour. The piece also foregrounds the structural inequalities which render the inheritance of a particular work more problematic for one individual than it is for another. In so doing, it makes a powerful contribution to a field of literary studies which does not always think hard enough about the politics of its own reproductive acts.
In this issue, we publish materials relating to Kabe Wilson's performance piece The Dreadlock Hoax, in which the artist, dressed in drag as Virginia Woolf, discussed Of One Woman Or So in a speech which iself — we later discovered — was a rearrangement of another work by Woolf. One theme which emerged strongly during the talk, and which again pertains to non-reproduction, was that of 'passing' — a term usually used to describe '“a cultural performance whereby one member of a defined social group masquerades as another” in order to enjoy the privileges afforded to the dominant group'.In this context, the term took on a double significance: firstly, did Wilson's novella pass as 'a work of its own', or did it betray a family resemblance? Secondly, Wilson's drag performance deliberately invoked and problematised a troubling moment in Woolf's life, when she blacked up and managed to pass as a black man. Might 'passing' be understood as an act which is at once reproductive and non-reproductive? To pass successfully is to reproduce a dominant cultural mode. And yet it is also —to adapt Fran's coinage — a 'non-reproduction of the self', in the sense that belonging is predicated on the relinquishment of a part of one's identity. This brings me back to the idea of a non-reproductive identity politics. As someone who usually succeeds in passing as non-disabled, I find myself wondering whether I seek to pass in order to keep something running in the family?
SJ: In our email discussions about this issue's visual section, curated by Rebecca Baillie, we noted that many of the images portray a yearning for maternity. We asked whether it was easier to represent a desire for motherhood than it is to portray the 'refusal or disinclination' to procreate — a challenge that Benninghaus highlights in her paper for this special issue. Yet perhaps, in focusing on content, we were missing out on a more interesting discussion about the constraints of different forms of media. Is art inspired by the disinclination to procreate inherently difficult to reproduce for a journal such as this? Peggy Phelan has discussed the non-reproductive qualities of performance art in the context of reproductive politics: she argues that both performance art and non-reproductive sexuality are devalued. Phelan writes that '[v]alues about reproduction govern ideas about representation and inflect the negative values associated with the nonreproductive and the unrepresentable.'Phelan's work has interesting implications for the interrelation of performance and text in Wilson's Dreadlock Hoax project. Aliza Shvarts' art (some of which Baillie has included in her visual section) is another fascinating case study in light of Phelan's ideas. For her untitled senior thesis at Yale, Shvarts artificially inseminated herself once a month for nine months and took abortifacients on the 28th day of her menstrual cycle. No pregnancy test was ever performed, and no abortion necessarily occurred. The controversy over Shvarts' work has overshadowed its complex exploration of representation and non-reproduction. Shvarts' describes her activity as 'miscarriage' rather than 'abortion', for reasons that recall Fran's discussion of the way abortion was historically spoken of as the restoration of menstruation rather than the definitive ending of a pregnancy. Shvarts writes:
To miscarry, to carry wrongly—that is what I did. Indeed, the entire work was configured to create a physical act so ambiguous and inconclusive that the language applied to it could never be completely felicitous, drawing attention to the force of language itself: the reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, was always a matter of reading.
Shvarts explains that the performance only exists through the language used to describe it.
It would be a mistake, however, to associate this mode of performative non-reproduction only with abortion. Lisa Baraitser's piece in this issue, 'Time and Again: Repetition, Maternity and the Non-Reproductive' reminds us that women's reproductive labour shares this ephemerality, having historically been devalued as meaningless, unproductive repetition. Baraitser draws our attention to the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose 'Maintenance Art' transforms the everyday labour of social reproduction into art with a capital A. The proliferating drive of mechanical reproduction is often described as 'feminine', but Baraitser's reflections on Ukeles highlight the way women's reproductive work is, in Phelan's sense, a non-reproductive performance—transient, unmarked, unrecognised. While I am reluctant to take up the notion of reproductive labour as 'immaterial', the project of marking reproductive labour as labour might, paradoxically, depend on a changed relationship with the unmarked, and with what Baraitser terms 'the temporality of (non)-reproduction' (p. 7).