Conflicts within Embodiment Messages within Pregnancy (within Rapp)   6 comments

While reading Rapp, I started noticing some interesting conflicts in embodied representations circulating throughout the rhetoric of pregnancy and authority/responsibility. For instance, Rapp claims:

Feminists have strongly criticized the ‘iatrogenic (medically generated) anxiety’ which contemporary obstetrics in general, and amniocentesis in particular, produce. As many […] have argued, the controlling preoccupations of prenatal and obstetrical health regimes turn pregnancy into a diseased state, sapping women’s confidence in their own bodies’ ability to produce healthy babies naturally. In that process, medical services, overwhelmingly controlled and practiced by male doctors, become indispensible (107).

You could make a strong argument that modern medical practice/rhetoric has instilled this “iatrogenic anxiety” in us all, forcing living into into the space left vacant between illness and non-existence (birth/death). As Zygmunt Bauman says in his Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies, “We do not hear of people dying of mortality. They die only of individual causes, they die because there was an individual cause. No post-mortem examination is considered complete until the individual cause has been revealed. If I defeat, escape or cheat twenty causes, twenty less will be left to defeat me. I can do nothing to defy mortality. But I can do quite a lot to avoid a blood clot or lung cancer” (138).

But it’s interesting to think of (as Rapp claims) pregnancy as illness, as if it’s a liminal state where illness becomes the norm/the assumption, and the goal is to survive this liminal state until you can return to the world of the healthy—a goal that can only be realized with the express aid of medical technology and professionals.

At the same time, Rapp claims:

Notions of women’s embodied responsibility are played out inside an imaginary and bounded female-centered domain, drafting women as the nearly exclusive guardians of fetal and child birth […]it also symbolically aligns women with all the labors of making a nurturant home for the pregnancy and for children while assigning men proprietary interest, but not a practical responsibility, in a pregnancy’s outcome (87-88).

In other words, it’s the women’s responsibility/duty to make sure the fetus survives and is healthy, but she can’t do that without the intervention of medical professionals (mostly men) and technology. So, if the fetus dies or the child is unhealthy, it’s the woman’s fault, and if the child is born healthy, it is due to medicine’s victory over pregnancy (pregnancy as illness).

I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist critic per se, but that just seems fucked up.

This is just one example of where the messages of embodiment within pregnancy are confusing or confused. We’ve already discussed in class how the burden of proof has shifted from the quickening to the sonogram to the urine-stained stick, moving knowledge away from the phenomenological to the technological, and yet a lot of the rhetoric involved with pregnancy, child birth, and child rearing still revolves around notions of women’s intuition, maternal “gut feelings,” and embodied sources of knowledge.

Perhaps the issue itself is in a liminal state, shifting away from embodied knowledge but not yet fully invested the medical/technological. If that’s the case, I wonder how the pregnancy experience is going to be reinterpreted as embodied sources of knowledge become less trustworthy or even recognized.

-John L.

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Posted September 28, 2010 by lamothej in Uncategorized

6 responses to “Conflicts within Embodiment Messages within Pregnancy (within Rapp)

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  1. While reading back through my post, I was struck by another consequence of re-imagining pregnancy as illness. Illness has a powerful way of redefining an individual. Look at cyclist Lance Armstrong, for instance. He won seven straight Tour de France races, something no one else has ever done, but hardly are his incredible accomplishments ever mentioned without a subsequent reference to his battle with cancer. Armstrong is one of the most physically fit individuals on the planet today, and still his former illness is a central part of his identity.

    Illness disrupts the valued order of everyday life, and this sets an enormous task in place: the sick person must re-establish the old valued order, or where this is not an option, he or she must create a new one. So what happens to the vast majority of “ill” patients who aren’t the Armstrongs of the world? According to Bauman, these individuals will suffer from a language gap—an inability to express themselves in the only language available to the “healthy,” the “language of survival.” Illness, therefore, “has no meaning that can be expressed in the only vocabulary we are trained and allowed to use; the vocabulary geared, above all, to the collective and public denial or concealment of that limit to our potency.”

    Pregnancy is an interesting case. It is viewed as an illness; yet, giving birth is often the symbolic representation of “potency.”

    I need to think more about this, but it seems like an interesting moment of conflict to explore (especially the rhetoric being used).
    -John L.

  2. John,

    You identify the conflict well, and it isn’t just rhetorical. It extends to problematize the way women are able to think about issues that relate to our pathologized bodies. How can we think through or outside of a system that is ubiquitous to our very existence?

    Good post. . .

  3. John:

    Rapp’s book and your post had me thinking about the idea of ‘power’ –medicalizing pregnancy shifts the power from women and their supporters to doctors, techs, nurses, and even the genetic counselors.

    Further, the amnio suggests power in that it provides knowledge about the fetus: gender and health, but once the test is performed the women seemed painfully aware of their powerlessness. No power over how long the results will take; no power over the results; and worst of all, no power to correct what is wrong with the fetus.

    The entire process from start to finish tells women that we have less and less power over what used to be solely our domain.

    Elle

    • That’s so interesting. This whole time, I’ve been envisioning the test results as completely empowering for women by giving them the ability to know the unknown and make a critical decision about what they do and do not want…almost the ability to cheat fate, if you will.

      Your approach certainly seems far more valid to me, especially when I consider the problems created by the test results (statistical generalizations being applied to a specific case, the emotional devastation of ‘positive’ results or of actual termination of a pregnancy, etc.). This is a great example of how the old adage of ‘knowledge is power’ can be twisted around in some very strange and unfortunate ways.

  4. This discussion of embodiment seems limited to distinctions between the biomedicalized body (which Rapp, Wells, and many others discuss for sure) and the individual’s experience of that body in a romanticized, premedicalized framework (state of nature?). There also seems to be the whole realm of embodiment studies that we examined in Gallagher’s Philosophies of Embodiment course that could come into play here as well. This would be, oddly, empirical data from studies of pregnancy, but focusing on the phenomenological, embodiment-informed aspects rather than the distinct, instrumentation-informed facts. These would be Hayles’ incorporating experiences playing the game of technoscience, viewed alongside the inscriptions of biomedical understanding. Such accounts may better help men, and anyone else who has not personally experienced pregnancy, to “know” what the pregnant human being experiences.

  5. John L.’s post and this thread nicely anticipate some of Wells’s discussion about the ideology driving OBOS.

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