A politics of holding water is central to struggles around kinmaking, including reproductive justice, migrant solidarity, and indigenous sovereignty
HOW do you bring a body to life? First, you have to have some kind of tank. Filmmakers have frequently depicted Dr. Frankenstein’s adult baby—and knock-off versions of him—in a bath full of electric brine. So, get a tank. Of course, you could just get some friends together and try your luck at getting pregnant. But pregnancy per se is much less commonly thought of as a magical Frankensteinian tank, let alone as creative labor.
To my knowledge, all humans in history have been manufactured underwater: in amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid (in Latin: liquor amnii) is initially a mix of water and electrolytes and later sugar, scraps of vagrant DNA, fats, proteins, piss and, often, shit. As pre-borns, our embryonic mouths, noses and lungs are filled with this “liquor.” We move our tiny diaphragms and intercostal muscles in a dedicated rehearsal of future breathing, but we do not breathe. Nor do we drown. It is said that some escapologists and deepwater divers will try to slow their heart-rates by “remembering” this time before fear—this state of non-antagonism towards water—to calm themselves enough to perform their tasks.
Water typically abandons a pregnancy and drains away—heralding the beginning of pregnancy’s end—because of a signal from fetal body chemistry, which at the same time forces the liquor out of the fetus’s lungs in preparation for their meeting the unwet world. In a C-section, it is a scalpel that releases the water. In each scenario, exit from liquor amnii and the death (by stretching) of the oxygen-providing umbilical cord, trigger an irreversible and rather bittersweet development: the replacement of water by air in certain core pipelines of our anatomies. Yet, even as we become land-dwelling animals for whom drowning is an ever-present danger, humans remain overwhelmingly water.
It might be fine for fetuses—as the countless water births on YouTube attest—but it is extremely dangerous for people to be filled with baby-making water. A person does not suddenly become an amphibian by virtue of becoming pregnant. Yet she (usually a she) is flooded from the inside: control of the circulation overridden, arteries jammed wide-open, blood pressure forced into overdrive. A plug forms, to seal as much as a liter in the vessel that is the amnion, the placental tank.
Gestation, like all labor, is cyborg. It is an unbalanced techno-social co-production involving less than two but more than one. Lest that sound cozy, molecular biologist Suzanne Sadedin is eager to point out that the unborn homo sapiens deploys all manner of “manipulation, blackmail and violence” as its contribution to being made. Deploys against who? After all, as pre-persons, these tiny animals are part of the mother. Though the DNA might be utterly distinct, fetuses are—during pregnancy and for a while afterwards—concretely a part of their holder-nurturers; almost a kind of organ.
The idea that two discrete selves exist in pregnancy seems linguistically necessary to describe what happens there, but it is factually dubious. Given advances in understandings of chimerism (cellular cross-colonization between organisms) and symbiogenesis (interspecies cooperation) in recent years, it almost seems eccentric to believe in individual autonomy nowadays, let alone in fetal autonomy. The word “individual” by definition never referred imaginatively to gestators anyhow. To an extent, bodies are always leaky, parasited and non-unitary: as the vital and varied flora of bacteria in every body, not just gestating ones, demonstrates. In the accounts of earthly life given by biologists such as Lynn Margulis, we are all revealed to be disconcertingly pregnant, multiply-pregnant with myriad entities, bacteria, viruses and more, some of whom are even simultaneously gestating us (or rather, providing some crucial developmental functions on our behalf).
It is impossible to deny, however, that fetuses (themselves full of parasites and symbionts) distinguish themselves. They do so brutally. Whereas in most species the mother’s safety comes first by default, in humans it is very common to extract a live baby from the body of the person its development has killed. So, to say that they are a “part” of the mother isn’t to suggest that human fetuses harmoniously cooperate with their environing flesh, or that they defer to its interests. In our species, embryos tunnel, colonize, control and dominate other tissues that make up the pregnancy-relation. In many ways, human gestator-labor is far more a matter of the body saying “no” to the demands of fetal cells than it is a matter of saying “yes.” And defending against pregnancy’s aggression is why humans have periods in the first place: as Sadedin explains, menstruation is a stupidly costly and elaborate pre-emptive defense mechanism against a possible embryo’s extractive attack. Most animals don’t ever die of gestation. Humans do, though, in droves. Hemorrhage is the most common way—an internal pooling—death by liquid at the site where life tried liquidly to become.
Much has been written on the view of pregnancy, in antiquity, as a dutiful woman’s self-sacrificing encounter with death. To be pregnant was famously conceptualized by the Ancient Greeks as an act of soldierly courage symmetrically counterposed to men’s civic duty to brave death in war. 1 [1. For instance, see the first three chapters of Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction (1981).] And, according to some etymologists, the word “amnion”—the inner membrane of the placenta—is a diminutive of the word for lamb (amnos)… as in lambs to the slaughter. “Amnion” is also said to derive from ἀμνίον, the Greek for a bowl or bucket “in which the blood of sacrificed animals (or human victims) was caught.” Clearly, the Greeks were confused about who the lamb is in the situation, since the last thing the contents of the amnion resembles behaviorally is a little lamb, meek and mild. Furthermore, there are many interlocking bowls and membranes “down there.” The amnion doesn’t fill with blood, ever, except in some types of abortion; menstruation is a feature of the endometrium. The amnion is a sac of water, analogous to the Promethean tank, which in the masculine sci-fi fantasy, is abstracted and scientifically removed from kinship relations. In reality, of course, it can’t be abstracted. It is at the next layer, between the placenta’s outer membrane, the chorion, and the endometrium, that the sacrificial blood is typically “caught” during hemorrhage.
But who holds and catches whose blood? Who rips into whom? Frankenstein or the monster? Gestator or gestatee? It is asymmetrically, transgenerationally both. What’s certain is that monsters rampage, as Mary Shelley wrote, because of a lack of care. Perhaps, in the end, it was the man of science, denied the chance to be a mother, who was the bigger monster on the rampage.
Amniotechnics is the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. It is protecting water and protecting people from water. I want a generalized praxis of this, which doesn’t forget the importance of holding mothers and thwarted mothers and, yes, even wannabe “single fathers,” afloat in the juice; breathing but hydrated; well-watered but dry. I hope it is possible even for fantasists of ectogenetic progeny, like Frankenstein, who have dreamed of a birth unsullied by a womb, to become capable amniotechnicians in time. Their worldviews may not hold water, but I think they too have to be held. It is possible for any of us to learn that it is the holders—not the delusional “authors,” self-replicators and “patenters”—who truly people the world. “Water management” may sound unexciting, but I suspect it contains the secrets to the kinmaking practices of the future.
There’s enough kinmaking needed on Earth to go around—and we’ve consented too much to the privatization of procreativity. Midwives to the front! By midwives I mean all those comradely interveners in the more slippery moments of social reproduction: crossing borders; blockading lake-threatening pipelines; miscarrying. Let’s all learn right now how comradely beings can help plan, mitigate, interrupt, suffer, and organize this banal yet sublime amniotic violence. Let’s think how we can assist in this regenerative wet-wrestling, sharing its burden.
A live birth took place at Standing Rock. It was, reportedly, an event in which dozens of midwives participated. “Our first home is water,” said some of these midwives—for instance Melissa Rose, Yuwita Win, Carolina Reyes—patiently repeating this message to reporters and broadcasters who crowded around; “water is our first medicine.” It is under the banner of “water protection” that 2016’s epochal mobilization of Indigenous people in the U.S. and supporters has taken place: a blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). If there were just one slogan for the mass revolt, it would be the Lakota phrase “mni wiconi”; “water is life.”
Less commonly known is the fact that Mni Wiconi is also the actual name for a potable water pipeline that risks contamination and corrosion, in three places, from the planned oil pipeline. As well as representing an ideology, Mni Wiconi is thus a literal pre-existing infrastructure serving several parts of nearby indigenous reservations: ecology and technics. The need and desire for water-provisioning technology is being vindicated over the interests of swifter fossil fuel transport. It is, I feel tempted to say, a cyborg concept of water—water as social and pre-social, water as companion technology, water as both medium and message—which animates live rebellion against crude oil routes threatening the integrity of Lake Oahe and the Missouri river.
Water rights and reproductive justice are inseparable. The content of this connection, however, is often wrongly associated with a primitivist ecofeminism rooted in colonial and sex-essentialist imaginaries popular among white environmentalists. By way of antidote, the radical midwife Wicanhpi Iyotan Win Autumn Lavender-Wilson (henceforth Wicanhpi) theorizes this relationship with the help of a long line of decolonial science and materialism:
It was through the work of Fanon and Memmi, LaDuke and Deloria, that I came to midwifery. As Dakota people, we understand that “mni wiconi” is not some fluffy abstract concept designed to fuel some hokey pseudo-spiritual practice. [C]lean water has the power to heal, contaminated water has the power to kill.
For me, these words illuminate amniotic water as something that “complexity” theorist John Urry might call a “global fluid.” Rather than equate water with a universal concept of “life,” Wicanhpi approaches liquid as the historic ground of life in particular. Techniques for curating amniotic water, as she suggests, must integrate the dual meaning of “care” (pain and relief) and the double power of medicine (poison and cure).
We have to make sure there isn’t too much, or too little [amniotic water]. From the lead-contaminated water poisoning the children of Flint, Michigan, to cancer caused by PFOA contamination in the water of Hoosick Falls, New York, to Newark public schools giving lead-contaminated water to their entire student and staff population… to the consequences of uranium mining, nuclear waste facilities, fracking, oil spills and outdated public works systems… [water politics] is and has been a lived reality for many Indigenous nations for the past several decades.
Crucial to the practical awareness of pregnancy’s liquid molecular joy and violence is, as Dakota midwives like Wicanhpi suggest, consciousness of its embeddedness in global structures of social reproduction. Pregnancy is bound up with colonialism, white supremacy, capital, and gender—but also resistance.
The work of social reproduction brings forth new hope for revolutionary struggle, but also produces new lives for oppressors to suck and crush. A birth under unlivable conditions can be a kind of obstinacy—a rebellion—but it would be wrong to assume it is always so.
Take the concrete lack of freedom not to gestate faced by thousands of people migrating into Europe from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa currently. Sometimes waters meet water. Following democratically approved policy to stop saving people via Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean has become an open grave. A bad amnion, an utterly unviable one that catches the blood of migrant mothers and babies indiscriminately:
[A]n Eritrean woman, thought to be about twenty years old, had given birth as she drowned. Her waters had broken in the water. Rescue divers found the dead infant, still attached by the umbilical cord, in her leggings. The longest journey is also the shortest journey.
[2. Frances Stonor Saunders, “Where on Earth Are You?,” London Review of Books 38, no. 5 (2016).]
The woman’s name, according to this article, was Yohanna. She and 367 other dead people were found on this particular day in 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa. Had Yohanna made it ashore to give birth, I hope that she would have been okay. Much-needed organizations like Care for Refugee Interim Baby Shelters (CRIBS) are helping get people out of the sea, and the fetuses inside them out of them, while also helping secure the free, safe contraception people are obviously entitled to.
Through CRIBS I know that in some refugee camps in Greece, the rate of caesarean section is up to 90 percent. Even as they perform these dangerous surgeries, which take months to recover from, organizations like the Red Cross are doing nothing to help people who are condemned to endure these conditions indefinitely not to get pregnant again (and again, and again). For this and other reasons (including charges of doctors manually raping) refugees, CRIBS is highly critical of the Red Cross on the ground. There’s nothing wrong with a timely C-section, of course—but mud and rain and sweat and tears and garbage and permanently elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels are not the kinds of healing leaks that a comradely amniotechnician would want to get in the vicinity of a uterus on the run that has been sliced open seven layers deep. The world needs an end to criminally thoughtless cuts, both fiscal and obstetric.
Yohanna was murdered by borders: others are dying because of much smaller and more localized cuts. This call for amniotechnics is an insufficient response to this violence, but I do think we might find that it is revolutionary to direct care towards the technologies we use—pipes and bowls and boats and baths and flood-barriers and scalpels—in order to hold, release and manage water. It is difficult to track what counts as “inside” and “outside” of bodies. Blood and amniotic liquor, baby-food and baby-drink and soil and brains and plants and river and sea are largely water as are people (60 percent of them). Impossible to keep such damp beings cleanly apart, a humane amniotechnics would not be the fantasy of an aseptic separation between all these spaces and entities, but would rather be the art of timing desired or needful openings between them that are savvy, safer, and conducive to flourishing. When is it time to release a boundary? When is it time to keep (cervix-like) a space firmly sealed? When is a bandage ready to come off? How can a city become tsunami-proof?
Coining the term “amniotechnics” is intended to evoke a cyborg ecology of liquid that is métis (experimenting from below) and traceable—from barrier reefs to blastocysts, from reservoirs to individual veins, brains, and kidneys. Maya Weeks, a friend, embodied the idea for me through her lifelong project of caring about oceans and lakes. Weeks is always testing, filtering, swimming in, cleaning up, getting to know and writing about water wherever it sloshes and splashes. “There’s nothing like a swim through a watery wasteland to make you rethink our actions, our stuff (and where we put it), and the relationships we have here,” she has written. “By peering into the ocean of toxic soup, we see our current reality reflected back: we’re actually poisoning the world around us through the ways we relate to each other.”
As Weeks well knows, though, there is no such thing as “pure” water. There never was; we must abandon that false dream. We will always be breathing each other’s vapors, drinking each other’s exhaust or, as Donna Haraway puts it in Staying with the Trouble (2016), “swimming in urine.” (Pregnant mares’ piss is needed to make pills that help menopausal humans—Haraway explores how every being involved could receive care). Another amniotechnical inspiration is GynePunk, the Catalonian “cyborg,” “DIY/Do It Together” laboratory collective that practices mechanical and hormonal contraception, abortion, gynecology, midwifery, endocrinology, herbalism, obstetrics and witchcraft, using 3D printing and ideas borrowed from trans “sex-hacker” Paul Preciado. [3. Preciado theorizes “the liquid and microprosthetic future of technologies for controlling sexuality” in Testo Junkie, trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013) p.216.] Within Preciado’s conceptualization of pharmaco-pornographic capitalism, droplets of sweat, “crystalline mists,” injectables, gel capsules, and hormones (both “naturally” or artificially produced) are all part of the “liquid power” undergirding gender relations. He demands we become better at using and sharing them.
The cause for “water protection” holds not because liquid is benign and romantic but, actually, precisely because it is a kind of frenemy within. Water is very accommodating. It is easy to taint and to flavor and exceedingly difficult to wipe clean of the traces of ignorant deeds. It is by far the greater part of us, yet with just the slightest change of proportion it will drown us; it is entirely dead, yet teeming with the life that can’t exist without it; it is far bigger than us and it is utterly, blithely inhuman. Hold it better, and kinship might grow between strangers. Release it carefully, lest it drown that kin.