Friday, May 29, 2009

Pregnancy as Absolute Hospitality

Two weeks ago I attended the UO Philosophy conference on Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering, a well-timed (Happy Mothers Day, SB) and often overlooked subject in philosophy (That's right: few Western philosophers ever bore children). Frances Gray, a lecturer from the University of New England in Australia, had a provocative paper called "Original Habitation: Pregnant Flesh as Absolute Hospitality"

Her idea took Derrida's concept of absolute hospitality (The host provides a place for an Other without requiring reciprocation, reparation, a face (unlike Levinas), or even a name. The act of hospitality always involves a potential disruption of the self) in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of flesh and embodiment.

Gray hoped to discuss pregnancy outside the two discourses that currently dominate the subject--religion and science, the former in the trope of the sacred mother (Mary, Gaia, &c) and the latter in terms of bland anatomy. The result was a exploratory meditation on how pregnant flesh provides temporary space for a complete and utterly unknown Other. How does our way of knowing change, she asked, if no one enters the world except through the phenomena of pregnant flesh? of two beings' "assymetrical dependency" on each other? Why has this phenomena been overlooked as the basis of ethics?

Though I doubt Gray would be comfortable with it, I can imagine pro-life advocates appropriating her thoughts, emphasizing the exchange of hospitality between the mother and unborn fetus/embryo/child. Part of me doubts, however, that many pro-life advocates regularly engage with Derrida or Merleau-Ponty, so perhaps she has nothing to fear.

What I found most compelling about her argument was Derrida's formulation of hospitality's desire in the context of pregnancy: "Come over me. Overwhelm me. Disrupt me" etc.

Now if only I can send the card I bought for Mother's Day.

1 comment:

Beth B said...

What a fascinating conference! I hope to hear more about it sometime.

Have you ever read that classic article by Judith Jarvis Thompson, "A defense of Abortion?",Fall02/thomson.htm

She gives a mirror opposite image of mother and unborn fetus/embryo/child; instead of "come over me, overwhelm me, disrupt me," it is "leave me alone, you threaten me, you limit me!"

Here is where I find virtue ethics to be helpful: what kind of person do I want to be? Hospitable? or Unencumbered? If one's ethics depends on one's metaphysic, then the virtue I aspire to is hospitality.