September 2011 Archives

"Technological quickening" and sonographic discourse


Picture 88.pngThe phenomenon of medicalization saturates the entire reproductive experience, from birth control pills to in vitro fertilization to amniocentesis testing to birth. In general, Western women no longer rely on signals from their bodies to tell them that they are pregnant. Instead, as Barbara Duden notes, "contemporary pregnancies are given to women by physicians whose expertise, grounded in scientific medicine, is aggrandized through technology" (Duden 51). She writes that the milestone of feeling one's fetus move for the first time is also supplanted with an earlier "technological quickening" as one sees the fetus move on the ultrasound screen before ever feeling it move in one's body.

The dissociation of the fetus in one's body and the fetus on the screen puts pregnant women in a unique theoretical space. Many women report "bonding" with their fetus during ultrasound exams, or feeling like, having seen the fetus, they know it better. The visual ubiquity of the ultrasound has fundamentally changed the way pregnant women connect with and theorize about what is growing inside them. It is a constant reconciliation of image with feeling, technology with biology, and science with nature.

Ultrasound, prenatal genetic testing, and fetal personhood

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Ultrasound was introduced into prenatal care in the 1960s. When first introduced, ultrasounds were used in cases of high-risk pregnancy, not as a normal part of prenatal care. Now, this technology is seen as one thing on the extensive and ever-growing list that determines how responsible a pregnant woman is. How often do you hear about a pregnant woman who refused an ultrasound? It has been thoroughly integrated into the experience of pregnancy. In "prenatal interventions that are as normalized as ultrasound, to decline their use poses an enormous burden of proof on those who might want to challenge the norm" (Seavilleklein 76).

In a visual culture such as ours, the fact that ultrasound creates an image is very important. It catapulted us from conceptualizing the fetus as something that was part of a pregnant woman's body to recognizing the fetal image as an individual who might, say, have a Facebook profile or try to sell us Volvos and hamburgers through mass media advertising. By creating this second person out of what was previously one complex person (see Mattingly 13), the concept of "maternal-fetal conflict" really took off. It is important to note that technology itself is value-neutral. It is how a society uses a technology that imbues it with value. As a testament to the power of the fetal image and an example of how a neutral technology has been co-opted in order to control pregnant women: Currently, 14 states have introduced bills requiring a woman to look at an ultrasound image of her fetus before an abortion.

Lit review: The Politics of Science Fiction

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saab.jpgRowley, Christina. "The Politics of Science Fiction." International Feminist Journal of Politics 7:2, June 2005, 319-327.

Another article in support of more scholarship on the interaction between popular culture and politics. In reviewing recent scholarly collections analyzing science fiction/fantasy television and film, Rowley notes the slow but steady legitimization of pop culture objects in many areas of academia as scholars acknowledge that "the popular is political" (320). Fiction can help develop critical thinking skills and create new discursive spaces. Rowley quotes Henry Giroux as saying, "art can contribute to constructing public spaces that expand the possibilities for...political agency, democratic relations and social justice" (320).

Rowley writes that the collections she reviewed "reject the notion that popular culture merely reflects society. As [Jutta] Weldes argues, 'SF is not just a "window" onto an already pre-existing world. Rather, SF texts are part of the processes themselves'" (325).

Informed consent and prenatal genetic testing

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299245275_ee59c8953f_m.jpgThe most common prenatal genetic screening tests are amniocentesis, chorionic villi sampling, and the maternal triple screen, the last of which is performed in "most, if not all, pregnancies" (Ackmann 201). Though this test is not mandatory, a "relatively small percentage" of pregnant women refuse it (Rothschild 203). In fact, not all women know they have a right to say "no" (Rothschild 197). But perhaps this high testing rate is not so surprising. In a technology-driven society, one habitually chooses more information over less, especially in situations as important as pregnancy. It may even be read as irresponsible not to. When interviewed about their decision to undergo amniocentesis, women often express sentiments like this woman's: "It's a feeling that...I have done all I can do that is medically feasible and advisable, at my age, to ensure that any baby I have will be fine" (Rothman 59). In some cases it is less about personal reassurance and more about presenting oneself as a "responsible pregnant woman" who is behaving as expected. One woman admits: "I went along with it because I wanted to be labeled okay (and sensible) for a home birth" (Rothman 52). Prenatal genetic testing has become an expected part of prenatal care, in the same vein as ultrasounds.

In the news 9/26/11

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Recent articles directly or vaguely related to my areas of interest.

Quick hit: the intersection of law and fiction

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In his article "Making Space: Law and Science Fiction," Mitchell Travis looks at the cultural and scientific environment surrounding the enactment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 in Britain, sections 3 and 4 of which ban the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. He argues that simply by coming into being, the law "inspired a new generation of science fiction," including Splice and Oryx and Crake (249). Hybrid (or "admixed") embryos were not a large area of research, so the law, by prohibiting them, created a new mythology around them and created them as cultural objects.

Perhaps even more interesting, Travis argues that the influence went the other way as well--that the law was influenced by fiction. "I would argue," he writes, "that, given the relative dearth of scientific research into the area of hybridity when the HFE Act 1990 was being contemplated, law drew upon the huge and available body of popular discourse in its initial decision to prohibit the admixed embryo" (249). He notes that the figure of the interspecies hybrid has been part of folk mythology for millennia, manifesting itself in the years leading up to the HFE Act in works of fiction such as Alien and The Fly.

Splice: the "evilutionary biologist" as female

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splice-poster.jpgThe 2010 movie Splice is one of the most recent additions to the Mad Scientist canon. Specifically, main characters Elsa and Clive (yep) are "Evilutionary Biologists," splicing together DNA from many different animals, making new creatures in the name of pharmaceutical advancement. Their success with Fred and Ginger, a pair of flesh-covered slug-like creatures who manufacture a protein desired by the company the scientists work for, leads Clive and Elsa to the inevitable question: what if we added human DNA?

They go through with it, and the result is a creature Elsa names Dren who looks more and more human as it—she—grows. During every stage, from deciding to try the splice, to growing an embryo, to keeping the result alive, Elsa is the one pushing Clive to agree to it. She has quintessential mad scientist lines such as "Scientists push boundaries—at least the important ones do."

Lit review: The Cinematic Life of the Gene: Introduction

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CLG-cover.jpgAs I work through secondary sources, I'll post short summaries or key points as a way to share how they are informing my research.

Stacey, Jackie. The Cinematic Life of the Gene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

In the Introduction, Stacey argues that the cinema has proven especially adept at exploring the fears and possibilities surrounding genetic engineering, in part because they are "both technologies of imitation" that "seek to imitate life" (7). Cinema is an art form that can visualize the invisible and create images to analyze the unseeable processes of genetics.

Stacey sees three main areas of cultural anxiety around genetic engineering, mirrored by the three complementary desires leading us to pursue them (10-11):


  1. "To imitate life"
  2. "To secure identity as legible through screening technologies"
  3. "To anchor embodied difference by making it stable, predictable, and visible"


  1. "The separation of sexuality from reproduction;" "the detraditionalization of heterosexual reproduction and the queering of biological processes;" the loss of autonomy/individuality
  2. "Identity theft and genetic impersonation;" the repositioning of kinship
  3. "The destabilization of traditional markers of difference and privilege" (e.g., race, ability)

In their own way, all of the films Stacey analyzes in the book are "preoccupied with this paradox: the impossibility of seeing someone's genes despite the ubiquitous presence of genetic discourse" (11).

Preternatural pregnancy in The X-Files episode "Aubrey"

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aubrey.jpgIn the 1995 X-Files episode "Aubrey," a pregnant police detective experiences spells which drive her to dig up skeletons from a 50-year old murder case that had been missing until then. The murders were committed by a serial killer who carved the word SISTER or BROTHER into the victims' chests. Detective Morrow's pregnancy also brings on terrifying nightmares of the same crimes being committed in the present day.

In the first half of the episode, Detective Morrow's seemingly psychic powers are portrayed as an extreme version of the normal stereotypes of "women's intuition" and "mother's instincts." These gendered "talents" are mirrored by Agent Scully's intuition in guessing correctly that Morrow is in a relationship with her boss and is pregnant. When Mulder asks Scully how she knows this, Scully replies, "A woman senses these things."

What is probably closer to the truth is that Scully is a trained investigator who picked up on subtle interpersonal cues and a trained medical doctor who noticed physical indicators of pregnancy. But in the script it's boiled down to "woman's intuition," because it is assumed women's area of expertise is in relationships, romance, and reproduction. Imagine this hypothetical exchange in which Scully is analyzing a body at a grisly crime scene:

Scully: "The victim's body was taken apart with a chainsaw."
Mulder: "How do you know?"
Scully: "A woman senses these things."
Scully might use the same skills of observation and medical expertise in both situations, but attributing the second to "women's intuition" would likely be read as a joke by the viewer because it is outside what are seen as the natural female talents.

Teleportation as pregnancy metaphor in The Fly

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the-fly-diagram.pngThe increase in technology which allows us to see, monitor, and control pregnancy has only made Western culture more anxious about it. Ultrasound gives us a fetal image, prenatal genetics is progressing to a point where fetal DNA can be sorted from the mother's blood and analyzed, and in vitro fertilization lets us choose which embryos will even make it to the uterus. Yet legislative and judicial actions to control pregnancy and pregnant women have been increasing steadily in recent years.

In the 2010 session, 24 states enacted legislation dealing with reproductive rights, including a Missouri law requiring providers to offer fetal anesthesia to women getting abortions and a Utah bill to classify some miscarriages as murder.1

In the 2011 legislative session, state legislators introduced more than 900 items dealing with reproduction. These include abortion bans to replace Roe v. Wade introduced in 20 states, bills to ban insurance coverage of abortion in 24 states, and bills dealing with substance abuse during pregnancy in 15 states. Twenty states (just so far this year) have introduced ultrasound requirements prior to abortion. These bills require a provider to show the ultrasound image to the woman seeking an abortion (though the woman is "permitted to avert her eyes," in the words of Alabama's proposed bill), showing the importance we give to this techno-image. Legislators enacted 162 of those 900 items as new laws, 49% which restrict access to abortion services.2

This spring in Ohio, a fetus "testified" in a hearing on an abortion bill.

Becoming-animal in The Fly

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The main story in David Cronenberg's 1986 movie The Fly--a man becoming a monster-- is not a new one. Kafka's Metamorphosis shares insect roots, while Wells's The Invisible Man and other mad scientist stories share the threat of science turning against its "creator." But many of these stories, including The Fly, are less about one thing becoming another than about getting stuck in the murky space between.

Seth Brundle begins to experience issues with identity and living within a known category as soon as he realizes he was combined with a fly during teleportation. His computer log shows there was a "secondary element" in the telepod with him. He queries the computer:


The computer, not having been programmed to know the category "fly," responds:


The conversation continues:

Computer: FUSION
Computer: NEGATIVE

Now Brundle is faced with this truth: He is no longer Brundle as he understands that signifier. He is both Brundle and not-Brundle. These two categories cannot be separated; each gene of "new Brundle" contains both Brundle and not-Brundle.

How fiction helps us understand reality

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still from movie Another Earth. Image from Fox Searchlight

The goal of my research is not literary analysis for its own sake; it is to understand how fictional representations of new and future genetic and reproductive technologies reflect and affect the lives of real women. That said, one may wonder why, if the experiences of real-world people are my target, I choose to study them through fiction. It is because I believe fiction gives us a rhetorical device step outside our own reality--a necessary skill for anyone writing laws, funding research, or making one-on-one moral decisions.

The violence of mystical pregnancy

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This video by Laura Shapiro shows the creepiness factor of some of the better-known mystical pregnancies and alien/demon womb invasions in sci-fi and fantasy television.