By Catalina Barroso-Luque
How do notions regarding gender, motherhood and reproduction emerge from and within new scientific technologies? How does language re-produce and consume these different bodies?
Reproductive Technologies is a six-month reading group intended as a prolonged conversation towards a sustained event in July 2018. It is being hosted by Market Gallery, an artist-run space in Glasgow’s East End. The project’s participants include Market Gallery’s programming committee, local residents, Scottish-based artists and researchers, and young mothers. The selected texts respond to reproduction in a variety of ways, and explore the position of bodies in systems of production and reproduction.
Getting started with Paul Preciado’s ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ and Antonio Regalado’s ‘A New Way to Reproduce’
The first reading group session sought to construct a platform from which to open up a conversation about the complex relationship between changes in textual bodies; changes in the representation of bodies in literary texts, and technological changes in the biological construction of human bodies. During this session, the group read ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ by Paul B. Preciado, and ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ by Antonio Regalado. Preciado’s text served as an introduction to the ways in which discourse, language and biotechnology are caught up with the engineering, production, and policing of different bodies.
‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ focuses on how, within sexual, social, and cultural forms of reproduction, we confront the most critical dimensions of power. To explain the relationship between power and technologies as they are utilized by political regimes to regulate the collective ways of capturing, distributing and reproducing life, Preciado describes three historical types of power technologies. First, there is the necropatriarchal power regime, under which only the male body is a fully sovereign body. This is followed by modernity’s heterosexual-colonial regime, during which political and (supposedly) anatomical categories of race and sexual difference were developed, regulated and employed in such a way as to easily transplant social constructions, such as the nuclear family, which function as forms of cultural colonization, and support the development of the the labor force of industrialised nation-states. The third regime is the pharmacopornographic regime, defined by the mapping and manipulation of genomes; the invention of the concept of gender; the use of hormones and surgery to alter the body; and the increasing instances of mass destruction. At the brink of possible mass extinction, Preciado asks for an evaluation of the evolution of linguistic codes of social and cultural reproduction as key elements to consider in any investigation of the uses of power. He advocates learning as the cultural analogue of genetic recombination and as a way of collectively mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.
To contextualize ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, which summarizes recent advancements in biotechnology and the conceptual realm in which they operate. One of the recent biological developments Regalodo describes is the advancement made towards the production of artificial gametes and reprogramming of iPS cells into ovules.
Regalado recounts Reijo Pera’s personal interest in utilizing genetically identical stem cells to solve infertility, having herself become infertile as a result of ovarian cancer. However, Regalado fails to probe deeply into the complex possible implications of such developments. These technologies have led to a heated debate regarding the permissibility of editing human embryos to eliminate serious disease, versus the potential co-option of such technology by bio-medical investment firms.
Read alongside ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group found Regalado’s article highly problematic – especially when he intervenes in the description of scientific research with personal information about particular individuals, with the aim of engaging the reader through empathy. Regalado’s position, language, personal anecdotes, and continuous anthropomorphisation and impartition of subjectivity onto individual bodily components exemplify how traditional (often patriarchal) cultural codes and Western ideals seep into scientific agendas and come to shape research strategies. This is exemplified in Pera’s comment on natural reproduction, with its implicit disregard for non-heterosexual couples: “I might be naïve, but I think the way to have a healthy child is still two people get together and you have wine and dinner.”
The group’s discussion centred particularly on the relationship between gender and reproduction, exploring how new technologies both challenge and discursively produce the natural facts of and assumptions about sex and human reproduction. Here, one participant generously shared her research into the history of gender deconstruction and the disciplining of the female body, as explored through her position and experience as an artist and mother. Another participant recounted how early test trials of the pill in Latin America left many women in her family infertile, prompting her to look into the many adverse effects of hormonal contraception. Case studies in ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, when correlated with the reading group participant’s own histories, raised ethical questions regarding the uses and potential effects of new reproductive technologies, and how power is exercised to produce clashing realities.
Reading Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’
The fraught relationship between gender, reproduction, agency, and family bonds was further discussed during the group’s second meeting. In this session, the group read ‘Bloodchild’, a short story by Octavia Butler about a man who becomes pregnant with an alien, insect-like race. Set on an unknown planet to which humans have emigrated, the story follows Gan (an adolescent human), his family, and extended ties with Gatoi, a member of the ruling alien group. Playing on themes of surrogacy, infertility and gendered identity, Gatoi’s alien species cannot reproduce on their own, so they implant their eggs into male humans, making them into living incubators – a service mankind must provide in order to be able to inhabit the foreign planet. Being close friends with Gan’s mother, Gatoi has requested that Gan become a carrier for eggs. At first, Gan is content with his role as a carrier. However, after watching another man go into labour, he comes to question his own willingness to serve as a carrier.
Butler’s harrowingly violent description of labour resonated greatly with one participant’s overtly carnal experience of giving birth. Comparing such vivid and simultaneously ambiguous imagery with filmic representations, the group turned to sci-fi Hollywood films that feature themes of pregnancy, parasitic infection and technological replication. The group exchanged views about the placement of the body in technology within films such as Alien and The Matrix, looking into how these forms of mass media reproduce, shape and thrive on shared collective fantasies based on a primal fear of the foetus as parasite. Having read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ and ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group addressed the conceptual constraints and assumptions about the maternal body that underlie biological theory and that are shared within both Hollywood imagery and a long philosophical tradition that has relegated the mother to the passive agent.
One of the group’s participants, with a background in film studies, noted that Hollywood’s view of pregnancy as a pathologized phenomenon seems to be tied up with mass fears of contamination on personal and national levels, as evidenced during the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and by the current growing xenophobic tensions in Europe and North America. The parasite is presented as a foreign presence that infects its host, thus breaking away from the boundaries of both the human individual and the social body, and problematizing notions of bodily unity, group identity and sovereignty.
Here, the group felt that the idea of community becomes quite important, since the first community – the family – is at stake. The traditional nuclear family unit is one structured through the father’s ownership over the children, ensuring that lineage, property and genetic continuity are maintained. In Butler’s story, this is played out through Gatoi’s relationship with Gan’s family, within which she is positioned simultaneously as a visiting ruling official, a friend and a family member. As Gan describes, “T’Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the preserve” (Butler, p.3). “She parcelled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people.” (p.5). Complicating things further, Gatoi’s egg had once been implanted into Gan’s late father’s body, making her and Gan’s relationship appear both incestuous and reminiscent of customs where marrying within one’s kin allows for property to be kept within the same social group.
The ambiguity over ‘belonging’ and ‘belonging to’ that is played out in the relationship between Gan’s family and Gatoi places notions of family bonds in a murky in-between space of property, affinity, ‘love’ and social construction. Such a position questions Gan’s degree of agency within his prescribed family role and his choice to become a carrier. The group felt that Gan’s resolution to be impregnated ‘out of love’ comes to mirror socio-cultural models, which engender a naturalized view of romantic relationships whose ultimate shared motivation is that of having children. Such models thwart the self-determining nature of ‘choosing’, making the decision to procreate a of consolidating romantic, family and social bonds.
Positioning kinship, and the bodies involved within it, within the shared scope of property and genetic resemblance triggered a conversation regarding the transposition of free-market economics onto scientific agendas, which regulate and reconfigure the human body. For example, Hardy Kagimoto, CEO of Healios a Japanese biotech company, declared to Regalado: “if eggs could be made from human iPS cells, the supply would potentially be limitless, perhaps leading to what is sometimes called ‘embryo farming’.” Much like the humans living in the preserve in Bloodchild, Kagimoto’s statement depicts the biological body as a territory to be colonized, owned, sold and policed. More alarmingly, rendering biotechnology into a service analogous to chicken farming or personalized online shopping platforms, conflates the body into a disposable material and malleable code homologous to low resolution images and mass-produced consumer products.
Within this dizzying topology of interconnective and conflicting forces, which we are all entangled in, the group then asked: how can we find possible ways of rethinking reproduction as a complex, multilayered and heterogeneous phenomenon, which operates between and across bodies, sexes and genetic material? In his article, Preciado suggests, “Learning, a process that could be considered the cultural analogue of genetic recombination, is our individual and collective way of mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.” With this aim in mind, Reproductive Technologies will next be looking at the way in which power is exercised in liberal democracies through biopolitical forms of governmentality, reading as a cohort ‘Organs Without Bodies’ by Rosi Braidotti.
Braidotti, Rosi, ‘Organs Without Bodies’ in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 167–188.
Butler, Octavia, ‘Bloodchild’, in Bloodchild And Other Stories (Seven Stories press, 2005), pp. 1–32.
Preciado, Paul B., ‘BAROQUE TECHNOPATRIARCHY: REPRODUCTION’, Artforum International, 1 Jan. 2018, www.artforum.com/print/201801/baroque-technopatriarchy-reproduction-7318
Regalado, Antonio, ‘Synthetic Human Reproduction Could Be a Whole New Way to Make Babies’, MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 29 Jan. 2017, www.technologyreview.com/s/608452/a-new-way-to-reproduc.
Catalina Barroso-Luque is a Mexican artist and curator. Her practice revolves around psychology and how distinct technologies of language production suggest different models of subjectivity and initiate new experiences of embodiment. Catalina holds an MFA from the Glasgow School of Art and Fine Arts BA from Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design. She was the 2016 Graduate Fellow at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, and the 2013 Artist Residence at Artspace New Haven (CT. USA). Recent artistic projects include: The Persistence of Type, Glasgow International 2018; soft.lipid.love, Chalton Gallery (London, 2018); Salón ACME (Mexico City, 2018); Dry Rotting Bodies, Civic Room (Glasgow, 2017); A Loving Aneurysm, Glasgow Woman’s Library (Glasgow, 2017); Fictional Matters, Centre for Contemporary Art (Glasgow, UK. 2016). Catalina is currently Programme Assistant for the Edinburgh Art Festival and a member of Market Gallery’s Programming Committee where she leads the Reproductive Technologies reading group.