- Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology
The “new flesh” and the “new edge,” as they have been so aptly dubbed in technocriticism, constitute the two major strands of contemporary technological change, with the former referring to biomedical technologies (examples would include genetic engineering and surgical sex changes) and the latter to communications technologies (the mass media and the information highway). For the past twenty-five years cultural critics have focused almost exclusively—and unfortunately in my view—on the “new edge.” Thus I especially welcome Susan Squier’s richly researched and valuable study of that aspect of the “new flesh” that appears to be most troubling to us—reproductive technologies or, as she puts it in her inspired title, Babies in Bottles.
Squier opens her book with compelling present day images of what today we call “test-tube babies,” images that represent conception and gestation outside of the maternal womb with the aid of technology. Tellingly, these are images in which the figure of the mother is nowhere to be found. One of the underlying purposes of Babies in Bottles is to understand the historical roots of this virtual separation of [End Page 227] mother and child and to put, as it were, the mother back into the picture, to assert the prominence of the reciprocal relationship between the pregnant woman and the child she is carrying. In the process Squier draws knowingly on the feminist critique of science both past and present and contributes significantly to it.
With great clarity and with generosity to other scholars and cultural critics, Squier uncovers an important history in the British decades of the twenties and thirties that has decisively influenced our contemporary debates over reproductive technologies. In particular, Squier is concerned with the modern history that anticipates our postmodern moment today when, as she astutely puts it, “gestating woman and fetus are increasingly constructed as deadly adversaries in a pitched battle.” Deftly organizing each chapter around a topic that is of especial interest today (among them, the role of analogy in the production of knowledge, the figure of the cyborg, the rewriting of modernism to include the sentimental romance and the melodrama, and technologies of the visible, in particular the cinema), Squier concentrates in Babies in Bottles on the work of an exceptional and interlocked group of British men and women.
They include Julian Huxley, a zoologist who was also a writer of popular science and involved in the making of scientific documentary films; his younger brother Aldous Huxley who initially wanted to study science and medicine but as a result of a debilitating eye infection turned to writing about the implications of technoscience instead; the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane who in 1923 launched an influential series of pamphlets that debated “ectogenesis,” conception and gestation outside of the mother’s body; his first wife Charlotte Haldane, a feminist editor and novelist who wrote about sex selection and “intersexuality”; and Naomi Haldane Mitchison, the younger sister of J. B. S. Haldane, whose work serves Squier as a striking parable of a feminist science.
This, however, only begins to suggest the wide range of materials and contexts in which Squier grounds her research as she adroitly moves from the present to the past and back again. She refers us, for example, forward to Robert Edward’s and Patrick Steptoe’s 1981 A Matter of Life (their account of perfecting the technique of in vitro fertilization), back to the work of organizations such as the Eugenics Education Society (established in 1907) and the World League for Sexual Reform (founded in 1928), and forward again to the recent report of [End Page 228] the Warnock Commission in Britain which debated the parameters of research on human embryos.
This historical perspective enables Squier to draw many challenging conclusions, of which I can here mention only three. First, she convincingly shows that the link made by contemporary feminists between recent fetal imaging technologies and the invisibility (or effacement) of the woman’s containing body is not at all new. It...