From Abjection to Natality

This essay was written by myself and Lisa Baraitser for an art catalogue ‘Private View: Public Birth’ on the occasion of an exhibition by the artist Helen Knowles September 2013 at GV Art in London.

I have been working with Helen and other artists connected with the birth rites collection since 2009, when I organised an interdisciplinary symposium ‘On Birth’ at Lancaster University. My interest in this field/ area of research, and my interest in working with artists in this area, is driven by a feminist, critical and political concern with rethinking “labour” and “capital” –but unusually in a way which insists we think “labour” in ways which think childbirth, mothering,  (the sexual politics of social reproduction) alongside more conventional notions of labour as paid work.

There is something fundamental about the social and cultural place of birth and the maternal which I would suggest needs restating, and reclaiming as a ground within all radical projects concerned with re-commoning the world (see also ‘Naked Protest’ in Revolting Subjects which develops these ideas through a critical engagement with Agamben).

From Abjection to Natality: Some Thoughts on artist Helen Knowles “Youtube Birth Series”

Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser

In the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in media representations of childbirth, notably within cinema, reality television and television drama, online video-sharing platforms, pornographic film, and in fine art practice. As yet, however, there is little scholarship on the implications of the new visual culture of childbirth and its relationship to earlier primarily feminist debates about ‘the taboo aesthetics of the birth scene’ (see Tyler & Clements 2009). Outside the important work of a small number of artists who opened up childbirth as a viable artistic subject during feminism’s second wave[1], and the medical, health and instructional contexts that have in effect ‘confined’ its visualization, childbirth has until recently remained ‘the great unseen’ of European culture. Furthermore, if, as a European philosophical and psychoanalytic tradition has variously argued, maternal origin – the fact of our birth – is the obscene ‘open secret’ which we must psychologically disavow in order to emerge as distinct and bounded subjects (Beauvoir, 1953; Arendt, 1958; Kristeva, 1986), then the new graphic visibility of birth within public culture is suggestive of a significant historical and psychosocial shift that bears closer examination.

It is not simply that representations of birth have multiplied and changed, but the fact that so many public kinds of representations of birth are now possible, with each representational form raising a series of social and political questions: What, for example, does it mean that women can now routinely watch home movies of themselves giving birth, and share those movies with a nebulous online ‘public’ around the world? What is the significance of the fact that a generation is now able to watch audio-visual footage of themselves being born? Given a philosophical history in which birth has been imagined as unrepresentable and unknowable, how might we understand the feminist politics of these public cultures of birth? And, in a more theoretical register, do theories of abjection, so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work during the 1980s and 1990s still offer helpful ways of understanding the simultaneity of over-exposure, and the selective sanitization and normalization that characterize many of the prevailing media depictions, and, in particular, televisual representations of childbirth? If not, then what alternative theoretical concepts might we turn to?

Engaging with Knowles’ ‘YouTube births’ series and moving away from the theories of abjection that were so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work through the last two decades, we briefly argue here for a renewed engagement with the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) concept of ‘natality’ as a way of understanding the new visual culture of birth.

The birthrites collection

The artist Helen Knowles is one of the originators of the UK birthrites collection, which she describes as ‘the first and only collection of contemporary artworks on the subject of childbirth’ in the contemporary art world (Knowles, 2010). The birthrites collection was established in 2009, following an initial birthrites exhibition which opened at the Glasgow Science Centre and toured to the Manchester Museum in 2008. The collection now includes: paintings and drawings by Matt Collier and Suzanne Holtom; photographic work by Hermione Wiltshire, Patrick Millard and Liv Pennington; ceramics and sculpture by Ping Qiu; wallpaper installation by Francesca Granato and Helen Knowles; artists’ books by Helen Knowles; and media installations and experimental films by Jaygo Bloom, Annabel Newfield and Andy Lawrence. In addition, it has recently received a donation of four works by Judy Chicago, from her birth project, ‘Through the Flower’ (made in collaboration with a number of textile workers between 1980-1985). The birthrites collection is currently housed in the UK, between the Midwifery Department at Salford University in Greater Manchester, and the Royal College of Gynaecology in London. A number of pieces in the collection were originally produced through collaborations between these artists, and birth practitioners such as independent midwives and gynaecologists who came together to consider the social, cultural and political implications of current birth practices. Indeed, it is clear that the collection is ‘at home’ within the medical institutional context of women’s reproductive health, and is regularly drawn on as an important resource by a number of different groups and organizations, researchers and practitioners for educational purposes around the complex, diverse and politically charged practices of childbirth. By situating itself within and in relation to the very institutions (those of midwifery and gynaecology) that have contributed to the current medicalized practices of birth, the birthrites collection has played an important function in allowing historical and prevailing understandings of birth to be opened up to reflection, critique and analysis. However, it appears that the collection has been less welcomed by major public art-spaces, by curators of art shows, or commentators on contemporary art practice. As Knowles noted in relation to the first birthrites exhibition, ‘we didn’t originally intend to show it in science venues. We intended it for art galleries. But what we’re finding is that there’s still a lot of fear around the subject matter’ (Knowles, 2010). It is this abject fear, and in particular the affective horror associated with birth, which, we want to suggest, is being transformed by the proliferation of new visual cultures of birth.

YouTube Births

As well as working on developing the birthrites collection, Knowles has been sustained and prolific in her artistic engagement with the visual culture of birth. In the series of work ‘YouTube Births’, Knowles is engaged in what she terms ‘plundering’ cultural images of birth from YouTube videos.  In her forays into online birth videos, Knowles is seeking to capture those moments when birth occurs, producing large-scale screen-prints from screen-grabs ‘of women’s faces exhaling and reclining at the moment the baby crowns’ (Knowles, 2010). Knowles method, making screen prints from a digital projector, is an unusual one. The process involves finding and watching digital, audio-visual videos of childbirth, capturing still images from these films, projecting these images onto large pieces of hand-made Fabriano paper and transforming them into still art-objects:  aesthetic and material objects which attempt to ‘capture’ the act of crowning in its extremity and liminiality.  The first series of art-works produced as part of her Ecstatic Labour series, ‘Heads of Women in Labour’ (2011), consists of four large black and white screen prints of women’s faces at the point of crowning, captured from YouTube videos [see images at]. On the `Heads of Women in Labour’ series Knowles asks:

Why does the ecstatic image of a woman’s face […] become significant when you realise it is actually appropriated from YouTube, posted by the woman herself, as a record of her birth? The intimate narrative of birth played out on the internet is of course ‘family viewing’ and yet it opens up the taboo yet undeniable link between sex and birth challenging the separation between women as mothers and women as sexual entities’ (Knowles, 2010) .

Interestingly, childbirth reality television emerged out of a grassroots trend amongst parents to record childbirth on home video cameras. As digital video cameras have further ‘democratized’ film-making, the movement to film childbirth has grown. The emergence of online video-sharing platforms (such as YouTube) now means that millions of graphic and often unedited ‘home-made’ childbirth films can now be viewed online. The feminist geographer Robyn Longhurst (2009) undertook a small-scale, qualitative research project in 2008, which involved viewing and making notes on several hundred online videos of birth on YouTube and analysing the accompanying posts and commentaries about the videos. Longhurst also concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that while these films have the potential to open up new ways of perceiving birth they also typically privilege specific cultural – notably US – experiences of childbirth, and present a largely homogenous and medicalized perspective on birth practices.  However, in her engagement with YouTube birth films, Knowles transforms the normativity and banality of ‘disposable’ videos of childbirth, ordinarily consumed online in spaces of privacy, into screen captured art-works that evoke a ‘sacred’ aesthetic and become tangible material objects, to be contemplated and considered within the public space of the gallery.

The taboos that unfold from the consideration of the relationship between sex, sexuality and childbirth in this work, are relentlessly pursued by Knowles. For example, the provocatively titled ‘”Раждане с оргазъм” Birth with orgasm’ (2012)[2], is one of a series of large digital screen prints, in which the pixelated quality of the screen grabs is transformed in screen printing process into highly textured images of women’s ‘childbirth ecstasy’.

This work is about ecstasy in the etymological sense of what is means to be moved outside of oneself: Birthing is imagined here as an extreme and borderline event, but also paradoxically an ordinary and everyday experience of becoming more than one. As Knowles’ work suggests, this ecstasy is at once captured and uncapturable: in the case of the ‘YouTube series’ this uncapturability is communicated in her work by the way in which the image ‘dissolves’ into incomprehensible details of colour as the viewer approaches and gets close-up to the image  (figure 6). If, as the feminist philosopher Christine Battersby argues, ‘we are lacking models that explain how identity might be retained whilst impregnated with otherness, and whilst other selves are generated from within the embodied self’ (Battersby 1998, 18), then Knowles’ work attempts precisely to communicate the paradox of what is knowable about women’s experiences of birth at the material limits of self/other relationality.

What is perhaps most theoretically interesting about Knowles’ work on the ecstasies of birth is that it refuses an abject or monstrous paradigm, insisting instead on the experience of birth as a distinctly erotic and aesthetic experience of creation. An experience which, communicated in these art works, poses a feminist challenge to the mute passivity attributed to the birthing subject, and to the appropriation of birth as a metaphor for male artistic creation. This intervention is reminiscent of Sharon Old’s birth poem, ‘The Language of Brag’ (Olds, 1980), a feminist retort to the appropriation of birth in the gestating metaphors of male poets.

Reproaching the abject

Without denying that ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005) such as disgust, revulsion, horror, or distaste may well circulate in relation to the visualization of childbirth, we want to start from a different perspective, deliberately distancing ourselves from a discourse that links birth and the maternal birthing body with the abject, even whilst we see that such a linkage is still at work in many aspects of contemporary culture. There is a problem with continuing to engage with abjection, even as an attempt to counter it, as the main theoretical concept for understanding the negative affect that clings to the maternal. As the psychoanalytic theorist Bracha Ettinger argues:

I am categorically opposed to the classical psychoanalytic claim recurrently emphasized by Lacan, Kristeva and others, […] making the womb that which must be rejected as the ultimate abject, and making this abject the necessary condition for the creation of the subject and the psychoanalytic process. It is precisely this mechanism that establishes the mother as an abject (Ettinger 2004, 76).

Similarly, Imogen Tyler (2009, 2013) has exposed the limits of Kristeva’s conceptualization of the maternal as abject and warned against the celebration of this account in Anglo-American feminist theoretical work.

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic account of the subject’s disavowal (abjection) of maternal origin relies upon her crafting of a deeply ambiguous conceptual status for the maternal which is founded in a distinction between the maternal as abstract thing and the maternal as lived and embodied modes of being. […] The appearance of the maternal as abject shapes the perception of maternal bodies and the experience of maternal subjects in the social world: it abjectifies women. Indeed, the break Kristeva posits between the maternal and maternal subjectivities enacts a classificatory violence which is lived (by all women) and is one which feminist politics must refuse by taking theory at its word (2013:112).

Following Ettinger and Tyler, we argue here that it is politically imperative that (both in theory and practice) we imagine the maternal in ways that resist the frame of abjection, which over and again relegate birth and maternal subjects to the status of ‘thing’.

We are all born. This alarmingly simple statement is derived from Hannah Arendt’s work on natality, and emphasises our condition as natals rather than mortals. Working against a long philosophical tradition that has given primacy to the shared horizon of death, in 1958 Arendt stated that ‘natality and not mortality, may be the central category of political thought’ (Arendt 1958, 9). When Arendt talks about politics, she is referring to the capacity to speak and act in the public sphere. Politics, for Arendt, occurs when people who are equals come together to discuss and debate their differences without aim, and without knowing what the outcome of such debate will be. In this sense, politics is, by definition, always a new beginning, a new attempt at moving into an unknown future, and is therefore linked with an originary beginning – that of birth itself. Without understanding birth as the ground of being (clearly distinguished from Dassein, the Heideggarian notion of being-towards-death), we cannot have politics. Arendt suggests that the absence of this primary fact from histories of thought represents a significant lacuna in political and philosophical traditions.  In defining the capacity to begin as specifically human, and unique to humans, Arendt follows Augustine: ‘That there be a beginning, man was created, before whom nobody was’, this being the foundational fact of all thought, all politics and all action. Humans, in other words, come into existence in order to inaugurate ‘beginning’, and it is this capacity to begin that is also potentially transformational – without some fundamental understanding of the place of beginning, there can be no freedom, no social change, and no human future. We are, of course, always born into specific historical and material conditions which we cannot simply alter at will. Our birth is utterly singular in this sense. But it is also fundamentally ‘common’ or shared. Arendt’s insistence on thinking natality as the basis for politics is radical in the context of a European tradition so overwhelming preoccupied with death, loss, terror and mourning, and at the same time this philosophical formulation provides an important counter-balance to understandings of birth that continue to link it to ‘ugly feelings’, whilst ignoring the potential for ‘birth’ to be understood as an ontological category – a category that brings ‘beginning’ into being.

There are obvious difficulties with Arendt’s account of natality in that childbirth (as opposed to the philosophical concept of natality) is an experience ’beyond speech’, and is therefore for Arendt ‘anti-political by definition’ (Arendt 1958, 63). The mother, as material fact, seems to disappear from Arendt’s account. Indeed for Arendt, the public sphere depends precisely on both the unpredictability of the future and the fact that ‘man does not know where he comes from’ (Arendt 1958, 63). So despite the radical break from tradition suggested by Arendt‘s concept of natality, her insistence on separating the concept of birth, (natality), from subjects who birth, (mothers), places her account within a familiar masculinist tradition in which birth only ever appears as ‘birth without women’. Yet a number of feminist philosophers including Adriana Cavarero (2000), Luce Irigaray (1985) and Christine Battersby (1998), and more latterly by Rachel Jones (2007), Alison Stone (2010), Lisa Guenther (2006) and Alison Martin (2002), have attempted to wrestle natality from Arendt and reemphasise the importance of the commonality of birth.


If in theorizing birth we always start with an abject body that must be continually resuscitated, we simply don’t get off the starting blocks. We must begin instead with the impossibility of abjection, precisely because we cannot get rid of our ‘common’ experience of beginning. Natality is richer theoretical frame for thinking birth, and women as birthing subjects. Natality is also suggestive of social and political struggles around birth, struggles which Knowles’ work, and the larger birthrites collection, by dint of its ambivalent positioning between the art world, the medical institutions and popular cultures of birth, poses. In engaging with Knowles’ ‘YouTube Series’, by positioning it in relation to broader changes in the visual culture of reproduction, and beginning to read it through what we have termed ‘natal politics’, what we hope to have begun is a shifting of critical commentary away from an abject paradigm, and towards creative practices of natality.

Works Cited

Arendt, H., 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Battersby, C., 1998. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity. London; New York: Routledge.

Beauvoir, S. d., 1953. The Second Sex. London: Penquin.

Betterton, R., 2010. Maternal Embarrassment: Feminist Art and Maternal Affects. Studies in the Maternal, 1(1-2).

Cavarero, A., 2000. Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. London, New York: Routledge.

Ettinger, B., 2004. Weaving a Woman Artist with-in the Matrixial Encounter-Event. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(1), pp. 69-94.

Irigaray, L., 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman. New York: Cornell University Press.

Jones, R., 2007. The Relational Ontologies of Cavarero and Battersby: Natality, Time and the Self. In: The Other: Feminist Reflections in Ethics. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 105-137.

Knowles, H., 2010. Interview (11 May 2010).

Kristeva, J., 1986. Stabat Mater. In: T. Moi, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Colombia University Press.

Liss, A., 2009. Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Longhurst, R., 2009. Youtube: A New Space for Birth?. Feminist Review, Volume 93, pp. 46-64.

Luxton, M., 2006. Feminist Political Economy in Canada and the Politics of Social Reproduction. In: Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism. Quebec: McGill University Press, pp. 11-44.

Martin, A., 2002. Report on ‘Natality’ in Arendt, Cavarero and Irigaray. Paragraph, 25(1), pp. 32-54.

Ngai, S., 2005. Ugly Feelings: Literature, Affect, and Ideology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Olds, S., 1980. The Language of Brag. In: Satan Says: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Stone, A., 2010. Natality and mortality: rethinking death with Cavarero. Continental Philosophy Review, 43(4), pp. 353-372.

Tyler, I., 2009. Against Abjection. Feminist Theory, 10(1), pp. 77-98.

Tyler, I. 2013. Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed

Tyler, I. & Clements, J., 2009. The taboo aesthetics of the birth scene. Feminist Review, Volume 93, pp. 134-137.

[1] For significant examples of feminist art works on the maternal, see for example, Nancy Spero’s Female Bomb (1966); Monica Sjoo’s God Giving Birth (1968); Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-1985); Frida Kahlo’s My Birth (1932); Paula Rego’s Abortion Series Set of 8 Etchings Untitled IV (1999), and Louise Bourgeois’ The Birth (2007). For recent critical feminist writing on maternal art, see Betterton (2010) and Liss (2009).

[2] Раждане с оргазъм  is Bulgarian, and translates as `Birth with Orgasm’.

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