This is the editorial note to The New Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 18: Family Planning. View the full table of contents here.
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“The most merciful thing that a family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Thus wrote Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, in a 1922 pamphlet entitled “The Woman Rebel.” It has stayed with us as a popular bit of anti-abortionist propaganda, illuminating the supposedly depraved underpinnings of family planning. And yes, family planning was enlisted in quite a lot of projects: not just women’s rights but also “poverty reduction”—eugenics for, in Sanger’s own words, “a cleaner race.” The utopian aims of such projects were linked to heavy-handed efforts to control social “pollutants”—low IQs, too little money, too many people—through the disciplining of the family. For a better world, let the state help you make your family just the right size, shape, and color.
In this issue, our writers consider family planning—the intersection of care and social control, of love and fantasies of the future. Whose future? Whose fantasies? Elliot Aguilar looks at the growing trend of genetic self-discovery and the myriad programs that offer consumers glimpses of their heritage in African nations or ancient Rome. Aguilar untangles the threads of genetic identification, investigating the suitability of DNA evidence for creating families, tribes, and identities.
But often, the choice is not ours. In the efforts to create clean streets and healthy families, somehow poor bodies are always in the way. The legitimate fear of poor communities is that institutional racism will deny them families. In North Carolina, involuntary sterilization of poor women, mostly African American, ceased only in the 1970s. During India’s mid-1970s state of emergency, as Kartik Nair details in “Temple of Womb,” underclass urban men were bribed and coerced into “voluntary” sterilization programs. Ironically, the same cheap video technology that spread the boiling fear of underclass virility would also permit the uncontrollable propagation of B movies and other entertainment regarded as subversive by the state.
As Sophie Lewis notes in “Labor Pains,” Indian women are now contracted to serve as wombs for white Western children, becoming entrepreneurial proprietors of their alienated reproductive function, undermining the possibility of a commons that might unite women across geographical and class lines. Instead one group of women is made to serve another, and must threaten self-harm and infanticide to mark their resistance. How does one strike for better terms when the only way to halt work would be to destroy the body?
In “Prescription Strike,” Ayesha A. Siddiqi explores another kind of Western occupation and the distrust it engenders: the deployment of U.S. intelligence in Pakistan. Aid workers have been murdered abroad for providing polio vaccinations and some families reject aid altogether. Siddiqi points out that popular perceptions of aid workers are intertwined with perceptions of that other “for your own good” force: Western interventionism. “The families refusing vaccines do so with the logic that a country launching drones with one hand, can’t be trusted offering aid with the other.”
A woman, wrote Sanger, “goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born.” You would think family planning would address the burden of her carrying this risk alone. Yet behind much family-planning intervention is not female empowerment but the underlying assumption that women can’t be trusted with something so momentous as reproduction. (In Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a woman in contractions is wheeled into a hospital room crowded with machinery. “Doctor, what do I do?” “Nothing dear! You aren’t qualified.”) For this issue, Maya Gonzalez interviews filmmaker Irene Lusztig about The Motherhood Archives, an experimental documentary-in-progress exploring propaganda directed at pregnant women.
Before a woman ever becomes pregnant, however, she is a Young-Girl. Is motherhood the cure? With misogynistic irony (or is it ironic misogyny) the Tiqqun collective’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl offers the Young-Girl as the ideal consumer subject of neoliberalism. Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern flip the manifesto on its head with “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child,” which likens Tiqqun to timid, indecisive male-graduate-student types who shy away from now mandatory affective labor and posits the figure of a motherly Grown Woman as these Man-Children’s dialectical counterpart. Why not, instead of irony and disavowal, a recognition of the positive potential of social reproduction and care work; why not a Preliminary Materials for a Theory of Motherhood?
Hannah Black, in her “Theory of the Hot Babe,” delineates the alternative, a subjectivity both blank and self-regarding, incapable of conceiving or participating in a family, plastic and wombless.
In the reviews section, JW McCormack takes on book two of Karl Ove Knausgård’s epic autobiographical My Struggle, subtitled “A Man in Love.” Love and family are for him a freely chosen insanity. The writer claims “we are most unalike as children and most similar when dead. In the middle, love restores the madness we are born with and gradually cured of.”
But for younger people, family may be an asylum in a more literal sense. Hikikomori, regarded by its first diagnoser Sait? Tamaki as a “family disorder,” describes the severe withdrawal into homebound silence by an epidemic number of young Japanese people. Max Fox reviews Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, published by Tamaki in 1998 and finally available in English, exploring the connection of hikikomori to the labor market and to the invention of adolescence. Have we all become as disposable as a teen bagging groceries, as a teen sent to war?
In the end, the family is less a haven in a heartless world than an arrangement that has focused a hundred efforts at social improvement on the locus of relationships supposedly spun of love and affection. We take up only a handful of the resulting tensions and contradictions. It will take more than a village to sort them out for good.