At a time when new reproductive technologies like AI and IVF have become commonplace, women’s interest in preserving their bodily tissue in an attempt to maintain fertility in the future, is surprisingly contentious. Oocyte cryopreservation, or the freezing of ova for the future preservation of fertility, operates at the crossroads of multiple corporeal temporalities; its practice references and redefines ideas of ageing that far predate the technology’s recent success. In this presentation I will discuss the history of ideas grounding the relation between normative attitudes towards bodily time—or ageing—and practices of knowledge production in the medicalisation of the female reproductive cycle.
Menopause, as the nexus of fertility’s finitude and the gender politics of ageing, is a starting point for understanding this history. The mid-nineteenth century entrance of menopause into medical discourse is a process “through which prescriptive [...] ideas regarding health and normalcy are being developed” and in which age normativity becomes lodged in an appeal to contesting models of reproductive anatomy (Zylinska 2009: 21). Rather than drawing causal links between the present and the past, I analyse the mechanisms of organising, observing, interpreting and treating the body as source of medical knowledge and the way in which these are employed to affirm or rework social norms of age and gender. My reading centres on the first English book-length publication on menopause by E.J. Tilt in 1857 with Foucault’s concept of the medical gaze, in which I read layers of perception, spatio-temporal normalisation, moralisation and combining the latter two, the promotion of (self-)surveillance by anticipating physical futurity. Its constitutive encounter with death shapes the medical gaze’s relation to corporeal time and has implications for the different readings of the female midlife body. Developed with these temporally-informed gynaecological gazes, I will argue that almost all writing on menopause already has in it a claim about ageing.
The constitution of divisions between midlife health and disease in relation to contesting conceptualisations of menopause implicates different understandings of ageing as an organising and dividing principle in diagnosis, treatment and classification of bodies. In so doing, Victorian gynaecological discourse couples the pathologisation of reproductive ageing with the inscription of social norms onto the body’s temporal schemes. Moreover, the moral force of the medical gaze becomes apparent the employment of temporal and spatial normalisation and constructions of futurity in the pre-, post- and menopausal body. Building on the notion of “biomedicalisation,” I will use menopausal history to conceptualise “new forms of agency, empowerment, resistance, responsibility, docility” that emerge from oocyte cryopreservation, which are predicated on imagining the body’s futurity through a history of ideas (Clarke 185).
Clarke, Adele E. and Janet K. Shim, Laura Mamo, Jennifer Ruth Fosket and Jennifer R. Fishman. “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific Transformations of Health, Illness, and U.S. Biomedicine.” American Sociological Review. 68.2 (2003): 161-194.
Zylinska, Joanna (ed.). The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. New York, NY: Continuum, 2002.
Lucy van de Wiel is a funded PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, under the supervision of Prof. dr. Mieke Bal, Prof. dr. José van Dijck and dr. Esther Peeren. Her research focuses on the changing understanding of ageing and the reproductive body as displayed in public, political and medical discourses surrounding oocyte cryopreservation. It is the first book-length cultural study on the technology of freezing human eggs.
Lucy holds a BA (English Language and Culture, distinction) and Research MA (Cultural Analysis, distinction) from the University of Amsterdam. She pursued postgraduate studies as a HSP and Fulbright grantee in Rhetorics at the University of California, Berkeley and was Graduate Research Assistant of Professor Judith Butler. Lucy did an internship at UNESCO, Paris, worked for the executive boards of the University of Amsterdam and the Free University Amsterdam and has been a 3-year member of the accreditation committee of research masters for the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Prior to the start of the PhD project, she graduated with distinction in the MA Film Curating at the London Film School and London Consortium, University of London.
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