Gribaldo Alessandra | Gendering the medical gaze: bio-aesthetics of reproductive technology


Reproductive techniques place the female body at the core of the multiple issues of science and contemporary imaginary. We face here a body of bioscience that derives directly from the classical language of clinical anatomy, i.e. a sectioned, open, and internally visible body. This is a body whose sex is precisely identifiable not only with its genitals, but much more with its internal organs, which are utterly different from their male counterparts. Such abstract body, which can be sectioned and observed -but remains at the same time specific, feminine, unique, individual- is the product of a shift of centrality from the body to its internal organs (ovaries, uterus). These are in fact incorporeal organs-signs, and at the same time exclusively female organs. It is a body that becomes a sex, i.e. a female reproductive genital apparatus.
The issue I would like to present is based on an anthropological research performed through an ethnographic investigation and interviews to patients and medical personnel of a private fertility clinic in Sicily. An element that emerges from this work as a peculiar characteristic of assisted reproductive techniques is the importance given to the possibility of “seeing” and following visually the reproductive process. Patients have control and opportunity to look at what is happening in the female body through the scanners that visualize follicules and oocytes production, and in the lab through microscopy techniques that allow visualizing gametes and embryos. In this aspect, the video-technologies of reproductive medicine (microscopy, foetus and embryo imagery, scanners) produce an image of the body that overlaps with its inner reality.
The interviewed people involved in the process of assisted reproduction refer to a knowledge and imaginary –or more correctly knowledge principally constituted by images (of ovaries, uterus, oocytes, sperm, embryos, foetus) - that is at the heart of the discourses. They often mention “beautiful or first quality oocytes”, “perfect embryos, like gardenias”. Such visual knowledge, in continuity with those classification and visual representation schemes mentioned by Focault (1996) and Laqueur (1992), presents some novel characteristics with respect to the past. Classification of the body until the XVIIIth century was based on the exclusion from representation of visual elements because not usable, and therefore on a visibility “filtered through gray” (Focault 1996). On the contrary, contemporary vision of the human body anatomy, via passage through photography and video, renders back colour to representation, and transforms it into an element not only of classification, but even more aesthetic than the images of the past.
The contemporary historical cursus opens up a wealth of novel facets of visibility. Because discourses and visibility are now intimately intermingled, the represented object –the female body- and the image build up reciprocally. Reproductive technologies hold in themselves the contradiction anchored in the contemporary image: the double nature of the image emerges, as exposed truth on one side and appearance opposing truth on the other. Vision produces an invisible reality, an unreachable truth, or, in better terms, reachable only through an infinite regression of visualizations (Strathern 1992).
Nevertheless, if the advent of the era of simulation and codification coupled to the increase in the development of imaging techniques have definitely undermined the idea of image and representation of metaphysical tradition (Baudrillard 2002), the space left by images to interpretation opens up avenues of re-thinking of gender through a sort of ambiguous and unpredictable process of reinvention of bodies, reproduction, identities.