Sherryl Vint

“Capital Reproduction: Maternity and Productivity”

I argue that biotechnology is remaking our concept of life in ways that undermine the security of the political subject of Western modernity. Life and subjectivity are now both conceptualized through economic logics, as theorized by Foucault in his work on entrepreneurial subjectivity in The Birth of Biopolitics. Yet as Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby have shown in Clinical Labor, the reinvention of work under neoliberalism in the context of biotechnology goes beyond this changed relationship from selling one’s labor power to acting as a manager who maximizes the investment of one’s capacities and energies, as theorized by Foucault. In addition, they note ways that an increasing number of subjects are required to sell not their labor-power or their affective and intellectual capacities, but rather the very biological processes of their bodies. In contexts such as serving as test subjects in pharmaceutical trials; donating replenishable bodily materials such as bone marrow, blood gametes, and breast milk; or in serving as surrogates to gestate babies who will be raised by other families, human biological capacities become part of the bioeconomy. These new conditions for labor and new kinds of extraction of surplus value are predicated on understanding the processes of biological body, not simply its labor power, as the site of capitalist extraction.

My paper will elucidate this shifting regime of vitality as part of a larger transition that I argue reflects the real subsumption of biology under capital. Engaging with this regime through the example of biotechnological maternity in recent sf works, I argue for the usefulness of posthuman theory for understanding the contemporary reality these texts emblematize. This crisis of how to understand the subject speaks to a larger crisis of political representation, such that an increasing number of people fall outside the civic status that “humanity” as a concept was meant to protect from traumas such as being exploited as mere biological resource. Drawing on the films Splice (Natali 2009) and Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve 2018), as well as the novels The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (Meg Ellison) and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Jane Rogers), I will theorize what it means for contemporary biopolitics when human social reproduction becomes not merely a support for capitalism but a marketable commodity. This context, I argue, suggests why so many dystopias about infertility are appearing now, a moment when overpopulation is a larger crisis.

Sherryl Vint is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside, where she directs the Speculative Fictions and Cultures of Science program. Her books include Bodies of Tomorrow, Animal Alterity, and Science Fiction: A Guide to the Perplexed. She is an editor of the journals Science Fiction Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television, and the book series Science and Popular Culture. She has edited several books, most recently Science Fiction and Cultural Theory: A Reader. Her current research project, The Promissory Imagination: Speculative Futures and Biopolitics, explores the exchanges between speculative imagination and material practice in biotech.