By Charlotte Knowles
In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt makes a distinction between the fact of physical birth and the fundamental significance of natality. Natality is not contiguous with the event of physical birth, but is a kind of ‘second birth’, occurring when we enter the public and political sphere. Natality is characterised by ‘uniqueness, action, politics and plurality’ and the capacity to bring about something new. Arendt argues that ‘the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is of acting’.
However, with the pregnancy of Kate Middleton this separation between birth and natality is called into question, and the connection between newness and action is complicated. The imminent child has seemingly entered the public and political sphere before its symbolic entrance into the world as an independent actor, and even prior to its physical birth. The possibility of ‘newness’ associated with the child, seems not to be rooted in action, as Arendt argues, but simply in the idea of the child; with this possibility of ‘newness’ attaching itself not only to the individual, but to the wider royal family as an institution. Thus begging the question whether the mere idea of this impending birth can serve to reinvigorate and renew the institution of monarchy as a whole.
With the royal wedding of Kate and William in Spring 2011, there was a sense – or at least an attempt to convey the sense – that the monarchy had been rejuvenated: rebranded with the smiling faces of a young couple and a bank holiday to celebrate. The monarchy had a glamorous new image that made us forget the fact that Charles has a man to squeeze the toothpaste on to his toothbrush, or that Harry thought it was appropriate to dress up as a Nazi. The public had a real life Cinderella story – or so it was sold to us – and with it the monarchy had another chance at life. The subsequent announcement of an imminent royal baby only goes further to promote this image in the public consciousness – an actual birth surely being the perfect vehicle for a literal rebirth – but does this narrative really ring true when we consider Arendt’s account of natality and birth; can the monarchy be reborn through the birth of this child, or as Arendt suggests, does true newness only accompany the entrance of the individual into the political sphere?
In a sense, it seems that the expectation of this birth has gone someway to reinvigorate and renew the monarchy. There has been much made in the press of the decision to revise the rules of succession so that regardless of the child’s sex it will automatically become third in line to the throne. This is, indeed, a welcome revision to anyone who is not from the 13th Century. The expected arrival of this child as a unique individual has then, arguably, had an impact on the political sphere; with the reform having received final consent from the commonwealth nations only a day after the announcement of Kate’s pregnancy. The succession to the Crown Bill will now be introduced in the House of Commons at the ‘earliest opportunity’ in the parliamentary calendar, so that, as Nick Clegg put it: “if it is a baby girl, she can be our queen.” But can this reform really be attributed to the imminent birth of this royal child and as such count under Arendt’s conception of what it is to be a unique individual; does this really count as a renewal? Although the reform was not caused directly by the child’s actions and thus does not meet Arendt’s criteria of newness in this sense, it can be seen as a response to the possibility that the baby may be a girl, and that presumably the public would not accept that this fact alone would discount the child from one day becoming head of state. However, this perhaps says more about modern society, than it does about the changing culture of the royals, due to the fact that this reform was instigated not as a direct result of royal ‘decree’, but instead is a political and constitutional change for Britain and the commonwealth nations, originating in parliament. Indeed, does the fact that this rule of male succession, still in place in Autumn 2012, not tell us more about the institution of the monarchy than its imminent repeal?
The treatment of Kate in the press since the news of her pregnancy emerged, less than 24 hours ago at the time of writing, has revealed similarly regressive attitudes with regard to the role of women in the royal family. With the Guardian announcing that: ‘During her pregnancy, it is likely the duchess will be attended to by the Queen’s gynaecologist, who is currently Alan Farthing, the former fiancé of the murdered television presenter Jill Dando’. The absurdity and irrelevance of whether Kate’s gynaecologist is or is not the former fiancé of Jill Dando aside, the mere fact that this information has been reported suggests that Kate is being treated more as a mere ‘vehicle’ for our next head of state, rather than an individual who has decided to start a family. This is reiterated when the pregnancy is cast a few lines later as a symbolic gesture – a final hurrah in the jubilee celebrations: ‘The pregnancy will be seen by royal aides, and fans, as an appropriate and fitting end to the Queen’s diamond jubilee year.’
The concern from the outset, then, seems to have been with Kate’s womb. There has been a great focus in the media on whether she was, and when she would become pregnant, with one magazine reportedly speculating ‘whether her recent adoption of a flick-fringe hairstyle was indicative of an imminent announcement’. With these kind of narratives surrounding the royals, and with Kate’s hair getting more media attention than her views on the role of the royal family in modern day life, it seems impossible that the birth of this child can do anything more than propagate fairytale-esque myths of princes and princesses, wrapped up in patriarchal views about a woman’s role in society.
It is impossible for the institution of monarchy to appropriate the newness and uniqueness Arendt sees as accompanying birth in its physical and symbolic form, as newness and uniqueness comes not merely through the birth of an individual, but through his or her subsequent actions in the public realm, and thus cannot be appropriated by an institution merely by association. We should, therefore, not be fooled into swallowing the line that the monarchy has been reborn for the 21st Century, regardless of whether it has a fresh new face in the form of Kate and William, or is celebrating an actual birth with the arrival of the couple’s first child. Instead we should continue to question the outdated institution that looms large over our country and bolsters received notions of hereditary privilege, class inequality and appears to view women as little more than two legged wombs.
Charlotte Knowles is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. She works on Heidegger and feminist philosophy and her thesis is an exploration of Heidegger’s conception of Freedom in relation to theories of autonomy and the question of feminist liberation. Charlotte is an intern at MaMSIE and its associated online peer reviewed journal Studies in the Maternal, as well as being one of the editors for the MaMSIE blog. She is also a member of the Executive Committee for SWIP UK: http://www.swipuk.org/ and recently helped to co-organize the first joint Ireland/UK SWIP conference ‘Politics and Women Across Philosophical Traditions’, which was held at University College Dublin from 9th-10th November 2012.