Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come / Portraits of Refusal / Heather Houser

Judith Romero’s “Gisela” from Otras Mujeres: La decisión de no tener hijos. Image courtesy of the artist. 

The expectation to parent endures even as people in many industrialized nations delay childbirth and -rearing or don’t partake in it at all. The persistence of this call to nurture one’s own, which attaches especially to women, is hardly surprising when heard from those who eventually have or adopt children. It’s more surprising how prevalent it is among the childfree, that is, those who have never sought to have children or to raise them as a primary caregiver. Peruse the testimonies in communities like We Are Childfree and Conceivable Future or those in The Guardian‘s “Childfree” series, and note how maternal associations shadow the text. These projects give voice to the experience of foregoing parenting and aim to normalize and destigmatize life without children. They also reveal the matrix of motivations and reasons resulting in the childfree status: a desire to travel—a reason oft-cited by those accusing the childfree of selfishness, hedonism, and immaturity—but also sexual and family traumas; environmental and especially climate consciousness; a desire to cultivate other kinds of making; mental and physical health concerns and how those might impact a dependent; and quite simply, “I’ve never felt it.” That “it” is usually the so-called maternal instinct or the beat of a biological clock ticking toward reproductive destiny. And yet, these stories recuperate the mothering impulse. Women-identifying subjects of interviews and testimonials locate this impulse in their roles as teacher, nurse, dog parent, egg donor, and auntie to siblings’ or friends’ kids. It might be OK not to have or raise children directly, but is it OK not to want to nurture other beings at all? The insistence on a drive to care within this self-identified childfree community underscores that, even as this status becomes more statistically significant, the gendering of care for others persists.

This cluster on “Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come” provides the occasion to ponder the childfree as a posthumanist form of care. To explore this point, I home in on a portraiture project that aspires to erode compulsory care: Judith Romero’s Otras Mujeres: La decisión de no tener hijos / Other Women: The Decision Not to Have Children (2014-2021).1 Romero is a Oaxacan photographer whose projects sometimes tilt toward the surrealist—e.g., Biodenudez—but more often adhere to conventions of portraiture and documentary—e.g., Pasajera en tránsito. Cutting across this stylistic spectrum is Romero’s enduring focus on embodiment, place, and gender and other identity positions.

With Otras Mujeres, Romero aims “visibilizar [las mujeres] y mostrar la compleja realidad que asumen las mujeres que han decidido no ser madres (y decidir sobre su propio cuerpo)” [to make these women visible and to show the complex realities involved in making the decision not to be a mother (and deciding for one’s own body)].2 The series features women of varied sexualities, ethnicities, abilities, and class positions living in Europe and North and South America. The photographs undertake the difficult task of sharing “los motivos que llevan a las mujeres a decidir, libremente, no ser madres” [women’s reasons for deciding, freely, not to be mothers].3 With its ideological and formal commitments, the project contributes to what I identify as the foremost genre of childfree storytelling, especially in its visual and multimedia forms: portraiture and testimony. Like English photographer Zoë Noble’s We Are Childfree project, Romero’s photographs feature one woman in a setting that evokes her desires, occupations, and trials, a first-person composition strategy in which the individual and her intentions, even her autonomy, take center stage. In this respect, the form of Otras Mujeres echoes the lexicon of “choice,” “decision,” and “freedom” that fills curator Rían Lozano’s introduction. This same lexicon rings out in media from childfree communities and merits the scrutiny that numerous feminist scholars, and I following them, have performed on logics of choice and freedom.4 Yet I read Romero’s project as participating in that critique despite the form of the portrait because, even as it remains grounded in diverse forms of individual human embodiment, it opens apertures onto the posthuman by suggesting a no-human future. It invites alternatives to propagating the human and the potential harms of nurture and care.

Among Romero’s subjects is Deyanira, who lifts a beautiful huipil de cabeza, a traditional head covering women of the Istmo region of Oaxaca wear during festivities.5 Native to Istmo, she celebrates the origins to which she returned as an adult in her vibrant dress swept up in the wind on an otherwise unpeopled beach:

FIGURE 1: Deyanira, Playa Aguachil, Ixhuatán, Oaxaca, México, 2017

Guadalupe combs her hair in closeup half-profile in a domestic interior:

FIGURE 2: Guadalupe, Cholula, Puebla, 2019

Claudia G. walks out onto a pier in a somber landscape:

FIGURE 3: Claudia, Cahuil, Chile, 2017

And several people—Gisela, Fabiana—stand in their homes against furniture and decorative objects:

FIGURE 4: Gisela, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2015
FIGURE 5: Fabiana, San Pablo, Brasil, 2014

Alongside this focus on the individual, the project also turns portraiture inside out and mitigates this orientation.6 Though only one person appears in each frame—or no people at all in photographs of objects decorating the subjects’ homes—Otras Mujeres results from collaboration. The settings the artist selects with her subjects engender this collaboration; they reflect the intimacy and trust required for telling one’s reproduction story, especially when those stories violate the norms of family-making on a cis-hetero model. These settings also signify the emotional conditions, whether joyous solitude or contemplation of trauma, that attend and motivate being childfree. Romero and the “other women” move out from the individual to take up the “implicaciones sociales y políticas” [social and political implications] of being childfree. They speak and appear in the frame as a counter to taboo, shame, silence, and invisibility. Their solitude thereby also hails the communities surrounding them in which they have either felt marginalized or have found their place. Self-description appears in lieu of societal prescriptions and proscriptions, yet the testimonies also avoid a misguided solutionism in which childfree is the answer to environmental, labor, economic, and patriarchal heteronormative woes. Romero’s transcribed interviews with the subjects capture these dimensions of the project suggesting that, without testimony, portraiture alone risks representing the privileges—often white, wealthy, and able-bodied—of liberation through choice.

Otras Mujeres attempts to decouple being a woman—in all its expressions—from expectations for other-care without fortifying individualism. For this forum, I approach this effort as a posthuman one that rescales care out from the nuclear family. Ideas of the posthuman often encompass the cyborgian, creaturely, elemental, vegetal, spectral, and technological.

No one expects childfree status to become a universal one, or perhaps only antinatalists who are staunchly against reproduction because it “is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible . . . because life itself is ‘permeated by badness.'”7 Otras Mujeres is certainly not a manifesto renouncing biological reproduction; it suspends the question of the desirability of “scaling up”8 childfree. Yet, in picturing these people alone, despite their lived position as members of couples, polyamorous units, or other kinship structures, Otras Mujeres speculates on that possibility. This deeply humanistic, anthropocentric art marks the “post-” of posthuman as nonexistence and refusal. A refusal that denies care of one sort while it provides another: care for self and for living and dead others. In a “mundo de mierda,” [shitty world] (Claudia G.), not doing, not making, must be considered an ethical and political act. We might think of the portraiture series as a surrogate for collectivity, or a reflection of it. Alone together, solidarity in absence (but not lack), collectivity in childfree.

The violence of a shitty world ramifies from the individual and interpersonal (Lisa refers to her father’s suicide when identifying her reasons for being childfree) to the political (Gisela declares, “Sé que mi decisión tiene un impacto politico” [I know that my decision has a political impact]). Without claiming that forgoing reproduction is itself—or alone—a solution to patriarchal, societal, and environmental ills, Otras Mujeres expands thought on refusal as care beyond the self. Refusal of this sort aligns with practices of radical care. In their special issue on the topic, Hi’ilei Hobart and Tamara Kneese define radical care as “a set of vital but underappreciated strategies for enduring precarious worlds.”9 Refusal is one such strategy of endurance, experiment, empowerment, and resistance that has been theorized and enacted within oppressed groups.10

Reframing refusal as care, even in its radical connotations, has its pitfalls. Hobart and Kneese think through the misuses and cooptations of care within waged labor, heteronormative patriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism, and I struggle to disentangle care, even when it’s couched in the radical, from such abuses and especially from restrictive gendering and sexist exploitation. Care might always open onto harm and constitute a “disastrous process” of its own.11 This possibility catalyzed energetic conversation on the roundtable at the ASAP/12 Conference that generated this cluster. Is care, we asked, a call to harm? Is this the central dilemma of care?

Refusal, and especially reproductive refusal, might seem a way out of the requirement to harm. It all stops here; it all stops with me. Cycles of abuse and of damage, the extension of environmental harm into another generation, a persistent form of gendered exploitation: these dead-end in the childfree. These aren’t statements of purity—there is no innocence—so much as a recognition of harm at the heart of care. Romero’s portraits and testimonies of the childfree remind audiences that bringing a life unasked for—which it must always be—into being is dangerous ethical territory given the threats of climate crisis, violence, geopolitical instability, and the mental strains and pains of twenty-first-century existence.

Additionally, however, these stories figure another side to the coin of a posthuman care through refusal: the harm to self. Posing these women alone in emotionally rich spaces that suggest belonging shores up the wholeness of the person and validates the worlds they constitute, but these images that cut out the rest of the world and are sometimes dark and solemn also carry more sober hints. Losses also attend refusal. While these losses might be worth it, they include the social endorsement that comes with conventional family-making and a particular kind of long-term companionship, among other things. I risk reinforcing some of the scripts and stereotypes held against the childfree in calling these “losses,” but even an unwavering non-reproducer like myself has likely felt these tradeoffs in poignant moments.

The radical always depends on the possibility of risk and loss. Hobart and Kneese’s idea that “radical care can present an otherwise” through its “audacity to produce, apply, and effect care despite dark histories and futures” echoes off of Otras Mujeres. Romero and her subjects present refusal as a pathway to solidarity and caring otherwise, a proposition that appears in the series’ title. The care of remaining childfree is situated in dark histories and futures for many of the people who share their stories in this project and in online and real-life communities. But in refusing to create or sustain another existence, the subjects “dare to thrive in environments that challenge their very existence”12 and envision forms of solidarity in a solitude that opens onto nonreproductive community.

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This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.

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Endnotes

  1. Some news outlets translate the title as Othered Women. More images available at Museo de Mujeres Artistas.
  2. “Judith Romero,” Art-Focus Latinoamérica, 2021, https://artfocuslatinoamerica.com/Judith-Romero/. My translations.
  3. From curator Rían Lozano’s introduction to Otras Mujeres at https://judithromero.mx/otras-mujeres-la-decision-de-no-tener-hijos/.
  4. See Dána-Ain Davis, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Karla FC Holloway, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Sara Matthiesen, Reproduction Reconceived: Family Making and the Limits of Choice after Roe v. Wade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021); Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2003); Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 2016); Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017). See my piece, “Should You Have Kids Despite Climate Change?” Yes! Magazine, October 26, 2020, https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/10/26/have-kids-climate-change/, which anticipates a book-in-progress, Childfree: Reproduction Amid Climate Crisis.
  5. Thank you to Judith Romero for providing this explanation of Deyanira’s dress. Email with author, April 19, 2022.
  6. My thanks to the editors for this phrasing.
  7. David Benatar qtd. in Joshua Rothman, “The Case for Not Being Born,” The New Yorker, November 27, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-case-for-not-being-born/.
  8. Phrase taken from Sean Grattan and Charles Tung’s proposal for the ASAP/12 roundtable that instigated this Cluster: “how do modes of resistance to these systems envision the ways in which care, connection, and forms of futurity scale up to a planetary force?” 
  9. Hi’ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese, “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times,” Social Text 38.1 (2020): 2.
  10. In feminist thought, see most recently, Bonnie Honig, A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021). For indigenous studies and politics, a germinal text is Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (Dec. 2007): 67-80. In the Black radical tradition, see Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2013).
  11. Phrase taken from Grattan’s and Tung’s proposal for the ASAP/12 roundtable.
  12. Hobart and Kneese, “Radical Care,” 3.