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Human Actions

Vital Sound/Life Writing

Gavin Steingo

This paper offers a critical analysis of antenatal care with a focus on midwives in various global contexts (North America, Colombia, and South Africa). More specifically, I explore forms of antenatal life inscription (bio-graphy) in relation to the fetus as a sounding object. Through auditory (or sonic-based) technologies such as the fetal stethoscope and the sonogram, the fetus becomes a social object and the womb becomes a space of bios, that is to say, of qualified life. In the process, life is at once inscribed, registered, and constituted as meaningful. But there exist multiple ways of »graphing« bios, of inscribing life. The sonogram, for example, employs ultrasonic waves in order to produce an image of the fetus. The fetal stethoscope, by contrast, transduces the fetal heartbeat to the ear of an attentive midwife, who must then interpret what she or he hears. While both techniques may be considered forms of »inscription« in a broad sense, they use different types of space and generate different conceptions of vitality. This paper investigates various forms of life-writing during the antenatal period, a period when the very question of what and how life is remains radically undefined.