- The Infant as Biopolitical Absence:Materiality, Viability, Mortality
Outside the context of the biomedical sciences, the category of the infant remains profoundly undertheorized. This absence is striking in light of the dramatic rise of childhood studies scholarship across the humanities and social sciences during the past three decades. While interdisciplinary work in childhood studies has called attention to the inherent politicization of children's experiences and subjectivities, little to no interest has been directed toward the particularities of the infant as a biopolitical formation. Certainly, for anyone invested in a nonessentialist approach to bodily difference, on the one hand, and a feminist ethics of pro-choice embodiment, on the other, the figure of the infant poses numerous problems. Not only does it seem impossible to imagine the category of infancy outside a biologically deterministic framework, but so too does a rejection of such essentialism in the name of "reclaiming" infant subjectivity produce an uncomfortable proximity to pro-life fetal personhood arguments. In an era marked by an increasing assault on reproductive rights, the stakes of interrogating these assumptions are high. Nonetheless, it is precisely in the wake of their omission that other issues emerge, a problematic that must be understood in relation to the history of the category of infancy itself.
While the terms infant and infancy date back to the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, modern medicalized discourse surrounding newborn life begins to appear only in the very late nineteenth century, when the term neonatal is coined in 1894.1 Even still, it can be argued that the instantiation of the infant as a biopolitical subject does not occur until the 1920s and 1930s, when a Foucauldian "explosion" of variegated terminologies and techniques of corporeal management aimed at infants swept the nation,2 including the formal establishment of neonatal care at hospitals; the implementation of new diagnostic technologies to determine dates of conception; the invention and use of the "trimester" framework of pregnancy; and the circulation of the principles of scientific motherhood. While the dates of the arrival of these phenomena track with the conventional rise of institutionalized medical authority in the [End Page 881] US, they also appear strikingly delayed when compared with the ascent of generalized concerns over the welfare of children and women that appeared at the core of Progressive Era politics in earlier decades. More curious still, they lag forty to fifty years behind the founding of pediatric medicine; in fact, prior to the commissioning of the first national statistics on infant mortality during the 1920s, infants were often either omitted from or grouped indiscriminately with older children in medical literature.3
In what follows, I consider how oversights in historical understandings of infant subjectivity are multifaceted and would benefit from recent insights in biopolitical materialist theories that foreground interactional posthuman ontologies. In particular, I draw on scholarship by Stacy Alaimo, Susan Hekman, Karen Barad, Chikako Takeshita, and Mel Y. Chen that focuses on the boundaries of in/animate, non/vital, and in/organic ontological forms. Proposing a more expansive understanding of liveness beyond the familiar object–subject dyad, this work has begun to enable a reconsideration of materiality, embodiment, and selfhood that is especially productive for historical studies of medicine and science. Toward this end, and in pursuit of considering the "origins of biopolitics," this essay reaches back to mid-nineteenth-century attitudes toward infant life, to enable a longer view of biopolitical mattering. In doing so, I favor the term viability over vitality, in order to demonstrate how the infant becomes imagined as a liminal subject, whose liveness is articulated as a precarious potentiality rather than an inevitable fact. As an example, I explore an 1866 medical text on infant dentition, which illustrates the interlocution between "normative" processes of infant development (e.g., teething) and the pathologization of infant mortality. Understanding these tensions relies on a reconsideration of bodily materiality.
In Material Feminisms Alaimo and Hekman assert the urgency of attending to "lived experience, corporeal practice, and biological substance." Arguing that an anti-essentialist hyperfocus on the "discursive realm" has made it "nearly impossible for feminism to engage with science in innovative, productive, or affirmative ways," Alaimo and Hekman...