This text was included in a publication to accompany the exhibition Inside (2017) organised by Rafaela Pandolfini and Stella Rosa McDonald. The publication included texts by Amelia Wallin, Ariana Reines, Audrey Schmidt, Virginia Woolf, Aurelia Guo, Leslie Allison and MP Hopkins, a reading list by Stella Rosa McDonald and images by Rafaela Pandolfini, Senga Nengudi and Hana Earles. I am grateful to Stella for her careful editing of this text.


As members of the human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another.[1]

The boundaries of the body have long been known to be porous. Mikhail Bakhtin, writing on the pre-capitalist world structure of the middle ages, theorizes the grotesque as the breakdown of bodily borders. For Bakhtin, this is most visible during carnival, a collective celebration marked by the fluidity of roles and classes, and through what he terms the “material body principle”; imagery of drink, food, defecation and sex. The state of pregnancy features regularly in grotesque images of the body; for Bahtkin the pregnant, copulating, birthing body is “the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other.”[2]Through pregnancy and the post partum period, the boundaries of the body are let down, fluids flow, a slippage occurs between the internal and the external. Central to Bakhtin’s writings on carnival are the ways in which the single body or subject comes into contact with the body of the state / church nexus; of carnivalesque laughter, he states: “One might say that it builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state.”[3]

Julia Kristeva, philosopher and psychoanalyst, writes, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[4] Following Kristeva, that which is porous and without borders is resigned to the realm of the ‘unnatural’ and the abject. The pregnant body, a composite of cells, bacteria, and hormones, existing in symbiosis with the fetus, is the abject manifested. Pregnancy disrupts and breaches the borders of the body and of the subject. It involves a cyborgian status of being more than one but less than two. This state does not end with birth; mircochimerism is the common experience of fetal cells escaping the uterus and becoming implanted in the organs of the mother, it has been detected decades after pregnancy has occurred.

While fleshy interdependence may well be a trademark of pregnancy and the post partum period, the phenomenon of microchimerism can be mobilized as essentialist rhetoric and fuel for pro-life campaigns, to argue that a mother’s profound and life long connection with her baby is evidenced at a cellular level, and is therefore natural. To consider microchimerism as evidence of the natural bond between mother and infant, not only “makes a reductionist leap to posit that a person's cells are that person”[5], it makes invisible the labour of care. The pregnant body is not orderly, rather, it is a site of contested labour, evolutionary conflict and parasitic relations.

My relation to pregnancy is personal (I have given birth) and universal (I have been birthed). Both births happened by cesarean section in hospitals in Sydney, 28 years apart. “We could say that history ‘happens’ in the very repetition of gestures”, writes Sara Ahmed, “which is what gives bodies their tendencies.”[6] By tendencies I understand not just the particular traits of class, gender, race, sexuality and the intersections thereof, but also the biological tendencies that have shaped how human mammals experience pregnancy and give birth. I learnt I had lived through one such biological gesture — the ‘obstetric dilemma’ —while still in hospital recovering from the birth of my son. The theory goes that the altriciality of human babies is the effect of an evolutionary design compromise: the human pelvis produces narrow birth canals that are unable to accommodate the large neonatal brain. And thus babies are born developmentally premature, before their head span grows large enough to make birth impossible. As a commonly accepted evolutionary hypothesis, this reasons that babies are born into a state of ‘developmental incompleteness’, a state that lead to the coining of ‘attachment theory’. Endorsed by bloggers, doulas, and doctors, attachment theory promotes a literal attachment between the infant and caregiver through baby wearing, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping in order to secure the attachment between mother and infant. As recent studies have argued, the ‘obstetric dilemma’ “persists despite data linking human life history to that of other species” and positions humans in evolutionary isolation from non-human animals.[7] The real dilemma then, is not only an evolutionary battle of the human species, but a tug-of-war between mother and foetus: “a dilemma between competing needs: fetal energy needs and maternal energy”, which begins with conception and ends with the processes of birth. [8]

If, as Marxist feminist Silvia Federici argues, the human body was the first machine developed by capitalism; then the uterus is perhaps the most potent element of the body-as-machine, due to its ability to produce fetal biocapital. In the hands of the state and medical professions, the uterus and the gestating body become reproductive machine, complicit within the machinations of capitalism. The gendered and embodied experiences of birth and raising children —‘maternal labour’ — is obfuscated by all other kinds of labour.  After attending, and failing, what is known as “sleep school” with my then 15-month old son, a visiting nurse responded to my son’s failure to sleep in any bed other than one occupied by me, with the justification: “he’s just really attached to you”. Ahmed writes, “We might note here that the labour of such repetition disappears through labour: if we work hard at something, then it seems "effortless." This paradox — with effort it becomes effortless — is precisely what makes history disappear in the moment of its enactment.”[9]The labour of ‘attachment’ is naturalized as an evolutionary necessity, just as the labour of labour disappears through repetition.

Cells are not personhood, motherhood is not destiny, attachment is not a ‘natural’ (cellular) state of mothers, and human evolution is not autonomous from the evolution of non-human animals. Haraway theorizes that women “have had so much trouble counting as individuals in modern western discourse” because “their personal bounded individuality is compromised by their bodies’ troubling talent for making other bodies, who’s individuality can take presence over their own, even while the little bodies are fully contained.”[10]

The gestating body flows, and is dammed, only to flow again.

[1] Anne Carsen, ’Dirt and Desire: Female Pollution in Antiquity’, Men in the Off Hours, New York: A.A. Knopf, 2000
[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968, p26
[3] Ibid., p88
[4] Julia Kristeva, ‘Approaching Abjection’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader ed. Clive Cazeaux London: Routledge, 2011.
[5] Martin, Aryn, "Your mother's always with you": material feminism and fetomaternal microchimerism, Resources for Feminist Research , Fall / Winter 2012
[6] Sara Ahmed, “Orientations Towards Objects”, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) p56
[7] Holly M. Dunsworth, ‘Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol 109 no. 38. accessed April 6 2017
[8] Ibid
[9] Op cit., Ahmed, 56
[10] Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ed. Anne C. Hermann and Abigail J. Stewart. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994, p301 p253