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  • Optical Allusions: Hysterical Memories and the Screening of Pregnant Sites
  • Karen L. Carr

Since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity—which is the second and more profound sense of the narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the others see it, the contour of a body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.1

I am caught, embedded in the footsteps that lead into this moment of time in which I am frozen. There, pushing itself up, out, around, in front of everything else, the large round belly that forces time into position. This is no moment of death; nor is it a moment of life. . . . Caught, transformed, transfixed. . . . A death mask? A memory? A moment in which I will always be living, always be dying. Breath never leaving dust on the glossy surface.

Ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image of the fetus on a screen which is viewed by the patient, the ultrasound technician and (later, separately) the doctor. Like Freud, inquiring into the deaf mind, the ultrasound can be seen as an attempt to investigate the deafness of the pregnant body by producing sight. Sight and sound are linked via the medium of the ultrasound machine itself as well as the doctor who must be on hand to interpret its imagery. Like the psychoanalyst, the doctor is the agential figure. The image, like the memory of the hysteric, may come from the body but once it is brought into being and made visual, it has traversed the line between a “raw” visual conglomeration and into a “real” baby. This transformation of fetus to baby via the image cannot happen without the doctor. Fuzzy gray images floating, fragmented on the screen become hands, feet, penis, mouth, eyes, heart as soon as the doctor interprets them.

The ultrasound technician is caught between patient and doctor in this configuration. S/he may point out bodily parts and confer gender on the fetus, as long as the fetus looks “healthy.” Often, the pregnant woman can diagnose a “problem” herself just based upon the amount of silence in the room. The technician, then, becomes the person with a secret. The “baby” is in effect hidden in and by the image until the doctor can step in to bring it forth and make it clear and whole. It is in the process of revealing that which the patient cannot see that the doctor becomes the first agent of the developing fetus’ subjectivity. Ultrasound, in its opening of the pregnant body, becomes a marker of reality. Once the doctor constructs the image on the screen, sign and referent are brought together. The pregnant body is no longer concealing a private mysterious event; rather, it is holding a “life” that we can check in on—visit—via our ability to see. In the ideological terrain of modern reproduction, this technology functions so as to change fetuses into babies, possible existence into “life” and private into public.

Certainly, the rise of “fetal rights” cannot be separated from the rise in fetal technologies which allow us access to the fetus via images or via the pregnant body itself in uterine pre-partum surgery. Medical technologies which allow sight of the fetus engender a reproductive world in which, much like Foucault’s notion of panopticism, “I am seen therefore I am.” Indeed, Rosalind Petchesky argues that, from the clinician’s standpoint, fetal imaging becomes “a kind of panoptics of the womb.”2

The reproductive (pregnant) body exists as spectacle—it is always a profoundly sighted body that doesn’t exist apart from being seen. There is the external sense of people looking, but...

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