(re)Writing Cyborgia: (in)Fertility & (ab)Normalcy in Digital & Visual Rhetorical Theory, Methodology, and Pedagogy ~ Session D8


Review by Jason Tham

Read more about session D8 on the C&W conference site.


Angela Haas, Illinois State University
Erin Frost, Illinois State University
Kristin Arola, Washington State University
Barbi Smyser-Fauble, Illinois State University

This panel capitalized on the exigence brought forth by the newly established Gender Caucus at Computers and Writing 2013 to examine the mechanization and medicalization of women’s bodies on- and offline. The resulting narratives contribute to the growing field of cyborgian studies, technofeminism, and cyberfeminist scholarship.

(1) Angela Haas and Erin Frost sought to investigate the rhetoric of and notions about body-monitoring technologies by employing a “bricolage of cyberfeminist, rhetorical, decolonial, visual culture, postmodern, and poststructuralist theories and methodologies.” Specifically, Haas and Frost looked at how power relations are “encoded” into ultrasound technologies, which “colonize” our desire, fear, and alternative strategies for body surveillance.

Haas and Frost argue that the use of rhetoric surrounding fetal ultrasound scanning technology leverages the Western culture of a technologized desire by entering our lives at times when we seek fertility diagnostic tests. The ultrasound procedure, the ultrasound image, and the sonogram, all contribute to our delegation of agency and power to this body-monitoring technology due to our desire of knowledge about our (women’s) in/fertility status. Consequently, this rhetoric of body surveillance results in a new “transparency of bodies” that makes women become “(in)visible even to [them]selves.” Popular cultures including pregnancy guidebooks and mainstream media soon pick up this rhetoric and cast a bad name to a pregnant woman who refuses a fetal ultrasound screening – calling them bad, irresponsible mothers who don’t want to understand the fetus’s condition. And so to gain public acceptance, women then must submit to this “system of initiation” to determine fertility, albeit the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine regards “the use of ultrasound without a medical indication” as “inappropriate.”

Hence, Haas and Frost posit that people being scanned must be critical in determining how screening procedure works and be informed of the purpose and necessity of the scanning procedure. They conclude that we all have a responsibility to interrogate and resist the standardized culture of pregnancy in our society today.

(2) Kristin Arola wanted to look at how women shared their recent pregnancies on Facebook. She aimed to examine these Facebook profile to see how words and images are used by pregnant mothers to share their pregnancy announcements. As the personal body is political, it is also pedagogical. Arola is interested to know who is included and excluded through our rhetorical acts of sharing (on Facebook) and why we should care. While awaiting approval from IRB, Arola’s upcoming research will examine how the world of Facebook (re)shapes our understanding of audience, both audience addressed and audience invoked. From her initial observations, Arola found that people usually post witty status, ultrasound photos, and straight-up announcements to share their pregnancies. Referencing to the work on Ong, Arola would like to investigate how Facebook readers may accept or reject the roles pregnant sharers (writers) wish them to adopt and respond to.

(3) Barbi Smyser-Fauble employed a feminist and disability studies framework to investigate the mechanization of the “traditional” path to motherhood. She posited that the revision of this path and the medicalization of women’s bodies are furthering the practice of silencing. Echoing Haas and Frost’s presentation, Smyser-Fauble reiterated how medical devices like fetus ultrasound screening and other reproductive technologies that exploit the woman’s body further establish expectations for “good” (or responsible) motherhood. Her study emphasizes on how the application of feminist rhetorical frameworks together with disability studies disrupt the normalizing practices of an ableist culture. She played the video “Moms of Multiples are Freaks of Nature” (embed YouTube video here) to demonstrate how mothers of twins are expected to entertain interrogation about their conception. The video also carries a message of judgment on mothers who have conceived twins from IVF. In contrast, only a mother of twins conceived naturally is given an appropriate/good response. Smyser-Fauble insisted that the voices of inclusion are important – voices of women who are infertile on the design of technologies they use. Teachers and students are encouraged to create a collaborative space in the classroom to discuss what it means to be marginalized. This pedagogical philosophy helps teach future professionals to understand the rhetoric of inclusion/exclusion so they don’t keep perpetuating the silencing practices.

Compared to other sessions in this conference, this panel was indeed one of a kind. The presenters have made significant contribution to disrupt the rhetorical velocity of the mechanizing agents in modern technologies, mainly reproductive and body-monitoring technologies. These narratives have changed the way I see the human bodies and made me understand how mechanization and medicalization may affect our composing process, which, in turn, affects others. For as Francois Poullain de la Barre famously claimed in 1673, “the mind has no sex,” early feminism stressed the rationality of the mind; in modern context, we seem to have combined the mind and the body as one unit of living. As an instructor of writing, I am becoming more aware of the generalizations we make in the classroom and how overlooking the assumptions of the human bodies would reinforce the already-revolting gender-role stereotypes. This panel has allowed its audience to reconsider the place of gender in composition studies. I look forward to similar topics being presented in the coming Computers and Writing conference, as these issues offer new trajectories for thinking about gender and differences in the technological context.

Jason Tham is a graduate student at St. Cloud State University and web coordinator at Writing Commons, a free, open educational resource for writers and teachers. He is big into MOOCs, critical literacy, digital and visual rhetoric, and online social networks. www.jasontham.com


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