Friday, September 29, 2006

Presenting... LactoGrrl!

This is the bones of a talk I (as LactoGrrl) gave today to a USyd postgraduate conference. The great majority of it is taken straight from my Honours thesis, and it seemed to go down quite well I think. Was a little nervous as have never formally presented on this work before. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, most of the questions afterwards came from vet students! The obligatory 'what theory are you using? came up, but I fobbed him off nicely I think. still working out theories that might be useful. If anyone has any ideas, please comment on this blog or email. On with the flow...

I'm Cath, aka LactoGrrl, and I've been asked to discuss my PhD thesis topic. My thesis is in the Media and Communications department, and will have as strong focus on breastfeeding as a way of transmission between bodies, not only of physical and immunological benefits but also knowledges, cultures and kinship. I've decided to use today's paper to analyse my own personal motivations and inspirations for choosing the topic of lactation in general and the more 'non-normative' forms of lactation and breastfeeding in particular. So to begin, a little bit about how I came to choose this area of research, and how it reflects my biography, my beliefs and my curiosities:

In late 2004 I attended one of the fortnightly Gender Studies department seminars. The last speaker was Fiona Giles, and though I can't recall the main thrust of the paper she gave, I was struck by the following quote:

'Unfortunately, it is only in pornography, and some rare examples of religious art, that alternative images of lactation are currently available' (2003: 166).

Defiantly ex-Catholic, a feminist, breastfed baby and pleasure activist, and with an Honours project to propose my interest was aroused. I contacted Fiona, and concocted myself a proposal for a thesis looking at the way lactating bodies were visually represented. Somewhere along the way this morphed into more of a study of the way lactating bodies were constructed as grotesque, spectacular, abject and carnivalesque.

For most people (myself included), lactation has always and only been an activity consciously considered in relation to maternity- a particularly feminine physical phenomenon. Born in the mid-1970s, I was raised with a steadfast belief in the wonders of colostrum and a fondness for recipes from the Nursing Mothers' Association Cookbook my Mum had stashed in a kitchen cupboard. All of the children in my immediate family were breastfed. When my youngest brothers (twins) were born seven weeks premature and ill they endured lengthy hospital stays, and a curious new machine entered our living room at home. I watched as my mother pumped sustenance and hope into bottles to be fed to these tiny creatures in their humidicribs. My grandmother questioned whether breastmilk was suitable for such sick children, and I questioned the thinking that led to such a doubt. Breast is best, naturally.

Years later, I became enamoured with bodily modifications, and configured myself as a Self-Made Freak. Hair every colour of the rainbow, shaved off in parts or no hair at all, dressed as Goth or Punk or Generic Alternative Girl (GAG). A pierced navel started a chain of perforations (both temporary and permanent), tattoos, a scarification, a branding. My favourite body artist explained to me that she would never ink the bellies of young girls, lest in future years they had babies and the process mutated her artwork (though she never mentioned the middle-aged 'masculine' beer-baby phenomenon as a deterrent― or that that mutation might not always be negative). It was for parallel reasons that I found it unthinkable to give my nipples up to the needle. They weren't my own, or at least not only mine. They belonged also to possible babies, to possible lovers, to other people. Eventually I gave in, and two metal bars signified the (at the time unspoken) recognition of the decision that my body would in all likelihood never bear children. I was most distressed when one bar needed to be removed, but later I began to reconsider my one remaining pierced nipple as somewhat Amazonian. One 'maternal' breast for feeding, one 'armoured' breast for fighting. My jewelled nipple to me signified a queer sexuality also, knowingly and unashamedly erect, whilst my unadorned nipple seemed to link back to a time before the question consciously arose. Now it seems that these singular meanings are hopelessly inadequate, and that positioning breasts in dichotomous pairings― passive/active, good/bad, natural/technical, masculine/feminine forces these breasts into pre-scripted parts and prevents spontaneous dialogues. Mammaries are multi-dimensional. My war breast may attack or defend, my milk breast might be a tool to nurture or destroy.

And its not only biological mothers who can lactate, or do. My first experience of adult nursing was rather unanticipated, and raised many questions about the capacities and capabilities of all bodies:

Its late afternoon on Leather Pride Fair Day and I'm strutting the streets in my chap skirt and biker boots. First place in the Best Body Modification competition sees me cock-sure of the queer status of my flesh; my inked Medusa and branded belladonna take on all comers. A friend is having drinks for her birthday, and we meet up in the cocktail lounge of a favourite bar. I'm perusing the menu, tossing up between the passionfruit caprioska and a vodka martini. My friend leans over the table and asks me if I like milk. A simple enough question, and still thinking cocktails I start to answer that I prefer something with a bit more sting as she grabs my hair and puts my mouth to her breast. Others in the group are giggling with ghoulish delight as I am force-fed for a moment or two. My friend revels in the capacities of her transformed self, the ability of her body to provoke and entertain― 'I can squirt it straight across the bar!' And she does. I'm still spluttering with surprise at both the attack and the uncanny familiarity of this action when somewhere in the back of my mind it registers that 'she' was actually 'he' not so long ago, and that the milk I am tasting is a by-product of the same chemical cocktail that has mellowed her voice and rounded her hips. My pierced nipple and scarred flesh don't seem quite so modified after all.

Its not every day that I am breastfed in a surprise attack by a kinky corset-clad transsexual at my local watering hole. The experience left me a little unsettled somehow, like there had been a breach of the boundaries between who and what could properly be connected. She is feeding me her milk, yet I am not her child. My mouth is on her nipple, though I am not her lover. Her bodily fluid is incorporated into my own cells, but we are not family. I am partaking of her flesh, but at the same time she is gobbling up my affect: our bodies simultaneously occupying the places of devoured and devourer. It's all sort of grotesque and a little bit monstrous really (although I tell myself that it is a learning experience). The laughter of the crowd acknowledges all of these elements, and I find myself laughing too. In the carnival space of that moment the whole world is turned topsy turvy and I can't quite tell if I am participant or audience to the spectacle. Either way, I am enjoying myself, but I wonder if this kind of thing is permitted or whether the barmaid is about to call security against our 'drunk' and disorderly throng. Certainly, I feel slightly out of it. And the most intoxicating brew in this bar certainly did not come on the rocks or decorated with a paper parasol. There was something slightly disconcerting about the taste and the temperature of the milk, something that made me feel a slight disgust. But although I squirmed away on initial contact I was soon wondering if perhaps I might be game for another drop. Ah, the sweet push and pull of the abject! It was in some regards a pornographic and unholy display of bodily parts and fluids, yet I came away feeling somewhat blessed. Relaying the story afterwards to my friends, I wished somebody had taken a photo― mostly to affirm to myself that it actually happened. Finally, there was the confusion that this was a body that I assumed not to lactate in the first place. What type of self-induced evolution had incarnated this hybrid goddess?

By the time my I had started my PhD I had come to the conclusion that I needed to try inducing lactation myself. Partly out of a desire to push my bodily limits, but more than anything from a belief that to participate in something is a pretty good way to learn about it. So I started pumping, taking fenugreek, drinking milk thistle and fennel teas and three weeks later my milk came in. I have set up a blog to keep notes of the process, which will later become a chapter in its own right. Once I am producing enough milk I will undertake a number of art projects, from performances to photos to making ice-cream and invisible ink, and include these too. To paraphrase Helene Cixous, I will write myself, and my thesis, in white ink…


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