“An Equivocal Couple Overwhelmed by Life”: A Phenomenological Analysis of Pregnancy

philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism 4 (1):12-49 (2014)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:“An Equivocal Couple Overwhelmed by Life”A Phenomenological Analysis of PregnancySara HeinämaaTwo conceptions of human generativity prevail in contemporary feminist philosophy. First, several contributors argue that the experience of pregnancy, when analyzed by phenomenological tools, undermines several distinctions that are central to Western philosophy, most importantly the subject-object distinction and the self-other and own-alien distinctions. This line of argument was already outlined by Iris Marion Young in her influential essay “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation” (1984). The other dominant argument is related to the first one, and it states that organic birth is the event that establishes the first experiential separation between the self and the other. On this understanding, the mother-fetus relation would not involve any relations between two corporeal selves; all such relations would be postnatal. This notion has been defended, for example, by Christine Schües (1997; 2000) and Johanna Oksala (2003).1On the other hand, classical phenomenology is dominated by the idea that the rigorous first-person methodology that is essential to phenomenology dictates that the sense of birth must be studied primarily by reflection on the structures of our own recollection or memory. Consequently, the primary sense of human birth would be that of an unattainable limit. This is argued on the basis of the existential fact that we all are born but cannot recall our own birth, or else on the basis of the transcendental fact that the structure [End Page 31] of retention ties each living present to an earlier one and implies that the transcendental ego cannot be subject to generation.2 From this perspective, all analyses and reflections of the experiences of labor, gestation, and pregnancy would be secondary since the sense of birth that these experiences involve is the nativity of another human being and not the nativity of the reflecting self.This paper challenges both the feminist and the classical phenomenological approach. I maintain that careful phenomenological analyses of the experience of pregnancy undermine both notions. Such analyses show, on the one hand, that pregnancy does not imply a nondistinction or self-other fusion but on the contrary involves a specific self-other divide. At the same time, they demonstrate that the sense of birth is more complex than the classical recollection-paradigm suggests and that it includes more components than the signification of an unattainable limit. A proper phenomenology of birth must take into account not only the universal fact that we all are born, but also the equally universal fact that each of us is born from another human being, that is, some other human subject.3 This other human being who “gave” us birth or “from whose flesh we were born” provides us with a unique perspective on our own past, beyond the limits of our own recollection. Her perspective is incomparable to any other external perspective; rather than simply giving us an additional third-person viewpoint on our own organic birth, this one person is able to open a second-person perspective on our pre- and postnatal life and the transition between them—all of which is beyond our own recollection.My argument proceeds by the following steps:First, I develop a fresh discourse on the experience of pregnancy, by studying a set of remarks to be found in Julia Kristeva’s postphenomenological discourse on maternity, on the one hand, and in Simone de Beauvoir’s existential-phenomenological discourse on feminine embodiment, on the other hand. I use these remarks as leading clues for a novel phenomenological study of the experience of pregnancy.4 Contra Young’s influential account mentioned above, I argue that gestation, as experienced by women who live it in the first person, includes a separation between two sensory-motor beings in a nesting relation: the pregnant self and the embryonic other. The alternative account that I provide hinges on my analysis of the experience of fetal movements and the role of touch-sensations and kinesthetic sensations in such experiences. Ultimately, I argue that pregnancy does not erode the self-other boundary or the own-alien boundary but reestablishes both divisions.Second, I compare my account of the experience of pregnancy to Merleau...

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Sara Heinämaa
University of Helsinki


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