Already on Common Ground

Being in a Department of English Language and Literature, it is not surprising that most people, both within and outside of academia, assume that I work with English Literature. I do teach English Literature across the syllabus, but my own research as a Critical Theorist asks questions about assumptions held in all disciplines. For that reason, perhaps oddly, I do not have the same ideas about literature that some of the other organisers of this workshop may have: for me, all texts are analysable, and literature is not, for me, ‘richer’ or more ‘complex’ or more ‘creative’ or more ‘powerful’ by definition, even though I know it may be felt or assumed to be so for many readers, academic or otherwise, and in whatever discipline.

Vice-versa, also perhaps oddly, I also therefore read ‘scientific texts’, for instance, in the same way that I read ‘literary’ texts. I am above all interested in how, for me, any language, in any text, brings consequences with it, even when the writers of those texts did not intend this and may not be aware of it at all. Interestingly, this way of reading is often viewed as odd in both the sciences, social sciences and humanities, so that I sit somewhat to one side of all the disciplines while meddling in them all!

To give an example: in my book On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (2008) I considered how despite the large amount of writing on reproductive technologies (such as IVF, ICSI, surrogacy and so on) in a range of disciplines, the one issue almost never addressed is the question of what the child is that is desired through such technologies.

There are books and articles on genetic interventions or ‘designer babies’, but that is not my point. My question is what kind of child are reproductive technologies supposed to produce as opposed to the child of, for instance, adoption or fostering? The common and wide-spread reply is that people want a child ‘of their own’. But what does this mean? Nowadays, the assumption is often that ‘passing on your genes’ makes a child ‘your own’. But even if genetic links are assumed to make children inevitably ones’ ‘own’, then exactly how and why? To examine this issue I consider in the book writings from anthropology, especially on kinship, from psychology and gender studies, from philosophy and ethics and from genetics and medicine and law.

I neither seek to ‘correct’ the definitions in these fields of the child of reproductive technologies, neither do I seek to condemn them. But I do seek to demonstrate that there are many and various views, and that knowing this may help the many people engaged with these technologies, whether as prospective parents or medical professionals or therapists and counsellors, to be able to explore better their hopes for and assumptions about the child that they all seek to produce, and how and why.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory

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