Catch us at the Being Human Festival

We’re pleased to announce that Conceiving Histories is part of the Being Human Festival programme in November 2016. The festival is a showcase of current humanities research and there is a great programme of events across the country. The theme this year is ‘Hope and Fear’, which speaks directly into the heart of what the Conceiving Histories project is all about.

FREE – book here. When: 23rd November 2016, 6pm-8pm (includes a wine reception).

Where: Senate House, WC1E 7HU. Show on a map.

Hope and fear are projections of the future. Whether hoping or fearing pregnancy, waiting to find out can be difficult. This project looks at what happens in that wait, in the fantasy space before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility. How does future projection affect our present? This interest in the present and the future is informed by a study of the past. History, it turns out, is a good way of reflecting on how things are for us and how they could be in the future, a reminder that we are not the first to struggle with uncertainty in our own bodies or in our lives.

Conceiving histories will be addressing the theme of Hope and Fear in the history of un-pregnancy through two curious case studies. One looks at an odd fashion from 1792-3 for the Pad, a false tummy which simulated pregnancy. Most of the evidence for it is from contemporary satire, like in this image here which laughs at the idea that, with a Pad, anyone – old or young – could be ‘pregnant’ with this new look. Even the little girl on the left is padded and so is her doll.

Isaac Cruikshank, Frailties of Fashion (1793) ©Trustees of the British Museum
Isaac Cruikshank, Frailties of Fashion (1793)
©Trustees of the British Museum

We look at the ludic celebration of this potentially absurd fashion but ask some serious questions about it. Today maternity fashions are very exclusive. The divide between maternity wear and other fashions is carefully observed. How does this contribute to the other social distinctions we make between women who can have children and those who can’t or haven’t yet? How does this exclusivity make us feel? Can we imagine fashions for today that enable a participation in pregnancy for all? When we look at the comedy in these depictions of this fashion can we reflect on the potential humiliation in not being, or not being able to be pregnant?

Our other case study is darker, responding more to the festival’s theme of fear. It explores an idea for a strange institution, the experimental conception hospital, described in a commentary on a peerage dispute from 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital prphoto-20-09-2016-16-22-30esents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as our project does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.

Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will be discussing these case studies, considering them historically. However, they will also be presenting new artistic responses to them which are helping to shape the Conceiving Histories project. There will be time to ask questions or offer comments on the work presented and a wine reception for more informal conversation.

 

Everyone is welcome and the event is free but you need to book a place here.

At Senate House, WC1E 7HU. Show on a map. 23rd November, 6pm-8pm.

Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Uncaptioned images: © Anna Burel 2016.

You may also be interested in another event, also at the Being Human Festival:

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth, an interactive installation exploring the spatial history of childbirth. Created by architectural historian, Dr Emma Cheatle, see and hear accounts of homes and midwives in the 18th century and lying-in hospitals in the 19th century. Fill in questionnaires or make recordings of your own experiences of maternity spaces.

Find out more about this event here.

Introducing Conceiving Histories

This project came from my own experience of trying to conceive, such a strange encounter with the body in time. This encounter is a constant shifting of both the future, as our desires for ourselves repeatedly take shape and dissolve, and the present, breaking up the present into the phases of the menstrual cycle. The time before it is possible to test for pregnancy is often referred to as ‘the two week wait’. This phrase developed in relation to assisted reproductive technologies: two weeks is the time between the transfer of an embryo and the time you can test to see if the transfer has been successful. The phrase has moved over to cover a similar sized gap between ovulation and testing for those trying to conceive naturally.

Is it two weeks? Because negative pregnancy test results are less reliable than positive ones, for lots of women who aren’t pregnant it takes a little longer, actually, to finally accept that there’s no pregnancy that month. So, two to three weeks? Well yes, except that many women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year, possibly forever. That time can sometimes feel like a waste of energy, a dispiriting and depressingly predictable cycle of the same emotions.

Pocket watches
Waiting… waiting… waiting…

As an academic who works on the past, it struck me that this  wait, with its strange rhythms, swirling impressions and fantasies, symptoms and nebulous signs, was oddly historic. It didn’t feel very modern not to know, to be fed false information by my body, to believe and yet to be so wrong.

So, I began to read. If this is what it’s like today, what was it like in the past?

I am finding that the archives are full with materials about the difficulties of trying to diagnose early pregnancy. Before the advent of home test kits, in the late 1970s, pregnancy testing was usually reserved for particularly hard cases – for people with very irregular cycles for example, or for people with medical conditions for whom pregnancy could be dangerous. Before the advent of reliable pregnancy testing in the early twentieth century accurate diagnosis of pregnancy was often a hard thing to do.

Women, men and medical practitioners were all exposed to this difficulty, the ambiguity of the not yet or just pregnant body. Their desire to know first imagined (and so made possible) the technologies we count on today. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine that people were more accepting in the past; but that isn’t what I’m finding. People were as anxious as we are to know things, like what shape their families would have in their futures.

All the literature on trying to conceive for people today acknowledges the difficulty of this wait. Lots of organisations are hosting and setting up support for people who experience it.  This project seeks to do something a little different: to get into that waiting space, to think harder about the psychological and physiological ambiguity it exposes and, perhaps, to offer people a toolbox – a modern engagement with extraordinary archival materials – with which to manage the wait in their own lives. Conceiving Histories may have started by thinking about the two week wait but it fast moved beyond that to consider all sorts of questions in the time of pre-pregnancy, a broad term which might incorporate trying to conceive, infertility, early pregnancy and the politics of childlessness. Women and men, married, single, gay or straight have babies or don’t and this project is about and for them all, to connect their griefs, joys and frustrations to an extraordinary history.

So, I am working through archival materials and will be writing about them here and elsewhere but I am also working with an artist, Anna Burel, who is interested in some similar questions and has been working for a long time to think about the female body and particularly under medical scrutiny. Together we are thinking about how contemporary visual art, as well as writing of different kinds, might be a way to gather insight into historic materials for use in our own lives.

So check back here to see how our project is developing. There will also be ways for you to get involved, should you want to. In particular, we are hoping to incorporate people’s reflections and reactions to our project into the progress of its research. Let me know (email: i.davis@bbk.ac.uk) if you’d like to be added to my mailing list about events and other project news or leave a comment below to tell us what you think.

 

Featured Image: detail from Le livre de Lancelot du Lac, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 229, fol. 31r.

Launch event at Birkbeck Arts Week

Conceiving Histories will hold its inaugural event in

Birkbeck Arts Week.

Details: Day – 16th May 2016; Time – 6-7.30; Place – 43 Gordon Square. Sign up for a free place through Birkbeck Arts Week

Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will introduce their project, Conceiving Histories, and present a curious case study: an unusual and short-lived late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’, which remodelled the female figure to simulate pregnancy.

We will be looking at some contemporary literary texts and satirical cartoons which celebrated or satirised this strange, prosthetic addition.

The fashion is satirised here in a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank in which women choose their pad – to simulate different lengths of gestation or, in the case of the lady in the far right of the image, twins – from a boutique:

Isaac Cruikshank, Cestina Warehouse or Belly Piece Shop (1793). ©Trustees of the British Museum

Come and find out about and even try on ‘The Pad’.

This is a free public event but space is limited, so do book a place.