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The Amniotic Face: Prenatal Bodies, Digital Technology, and the Semiotics of Determination

First session: Facing Visualization

30 mrt. 2023

Massimo Leone, University of Turin

The construction of a person’s sexual, genital, and gender identity precedes birth, and it starts with the imaginaries and apparatuses that antecede conception, it continues with those that surround and shape pregnancy, and apexes at the moment of birth and the social interactions it spurs. Throughout this whole process, sexual, genital, and gender identities are molded through configurations of power that have remote roots in the social, political, and economic systems in which birth is embedded, and that transform the procreation of an individual into an occasion of ideological perpetuation and reinforcement. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler famously unearthed the violence of discourse that imposes the transformation of an ‘it’, the phenomenologically unsexed pre-persona, into either a ‘she’ or a ‘he’. Karen Barad, in Meeting the Universe Halfway, deepened the analysis of the material apparatuses that enforce the social attribution of sex, genitality, and gender, interpreting medical ultrasound techniques through the paradigm of a quantum reading of the relation between object and observation, the fetus and its technological visual representation. Given this theoretical framework, the paper will update the analysis in relation to the new technological assemblages that, around birth, concur to the social imposition of sexed and gendered embodiment. It will focus, first, on the passage from 2D ultrasound to 3D ultrasound, and more and more to 4D ultrasound, which introduces time and movement in the visualization of the fetus. It will consider, second, the application of computer graphics for the digital manipulation of 3D and 4D ultrasound visualizations of prenatal bodies. Third, it will expound on how artificial intelligence and deep learning are now increasingly applied to the extraction and visualization of patterns from pre-birth ultrasound data. Fourth, it will dwell on the ways in which this digital imagery of the prenatal body enters the discourse of the myriads of apps that, more and more, both incarnate and shape the parental and social imagination of the fetus. Throughout the investigation of this complex assemblage of technologies, bodies, and ideologies, the focus will be on the prenatal shaping of the face as a more and more central element in the biopolitical techno-rhetorics that normalizes the construction of a sexual, genital, and gender identity, also thanks to the new possibilities of digitally seizing and staging the countenance of a fetus. At the same time, throughout this biopolitical and techno-digital journey, the paper will seek to have i mind the ethical perspective of those prenatal bodies that, currently denominated ‘intersex’, trigger the fibrillation of these complex socio-technical apparatuses, and excruciatingly contribute to reveal their normative nature. From a more theoretical point of view, the question addressed will be the following: is there a place of dignity and agency, in the more and more efficient machine of digital determination of the prenatal bodies, for indetermination? Can this be differently conceptualized, and according to a non-derivative, non-derogative, and non-negative axiology, in which determination actually reveals itself as the rhetorical convention shaping the meaning of the phenomenology of a reality that is, on the contrary, consubstantially and ontologically various? Can not only language, but also meaning, and especially the technical apparatuses that channel the reality of the bodies into non-quantum determination, be ‘re-quantized’ into technologies of variety, which do not pinpoint the ontology of the body but let it shine in the vibrance of its indetermination, in the luminous nebulose of resonating connections in which a body fluctuates? Prolonging the reflection of Peter Sloterdijk on the placenta as a sphere and reflecting on it from the perspective of techno-biopower, which turns it into the ultrasound, 3D, 4D, social media, and AI frame of determined sexuality, genitality, and gender, can these images and their technical matrixes be differently interpreted, stressing the liquidity of the amniotic surrounding instead of the sonar-spotted genitalized face, facialized genitals of the body? “ἀμνίον” also meant, in ancient Greek, the “bowl in which the blood of victims was caught”. There is, then, in the etymology of “amniotic”, a semantic root that hints at encirclement and sacrifice; but is this the only possible interpretation? Is the amniotic the place in which the variety of nature is sacrificed to the gods of cultural determination and its power declension? Is the fetus like an enemy submarine, to be spotted and identified like those underwater vessels for the warlike detection of which the ultrasound was first invented and implemented? Can we, on the contrary, let the human body freely swim in a new amniotic liquid of variety, and can even technology, perhaps the non-binary quantum computation of the future, be shaped to exalt not only determination and calculus but also variation and poetry? And can the arts, in particular, contribute to the liberation of the ultrasound and its current AI empowerments into a new matrix of prenatal musicality?

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