Tag Archives: Actor-Network Theory

Babies made in Mexico: Understanding the rise and fall of surrogacy markets

By Carolin Schurr, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland and Martin Müller, University of Zürich, Switzerland

Fig 1

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Surrogacy – the term brings to mind stories from the yellow press. Images of celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elton John and Ricky Martin who smile into the camera with their cute babies. They have all become parents thanks to surrogate mothers.

While media focus on the individual stories of joy or drama surrounding surrogacy, we know very little about the networks of people, technology, money, and infrastructure that make reproduction work at a distance in transnational surrogacy markets. In short, what holds the market of surrogacy together and why does it fall apart?

When Latour and Deleuze meet in a Mexican fertility clinic
Based on Carolin Schurr’s long term ethnographic research on the surrogacy industry, our paper ‘Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory: conjunctions, disjunctions, cross-fertilisations’, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, engages with this question. The paper argues that bringing assemblage thinking and actor-network theory (ANT) into dialogue offers novel ways to understand how (surrogacy) markets are assembled across space and why the complex networks of human and non-human actors constituting (surrogacy) markets may fall apart, only to reassemble in new ways. Suggesting three cross-fertilizations between assemblage thinking and actor-network theory, the paper exemplifies along the empirical case study of the transnational surrogacy market how geographers’ work can benefit from differentiating between the two approaches more carefully and thinking systematically in what ways they complement each other.

First, we argue that the empirical toolbox of ANT helps explain how the socio-technical networks of surrogacy markets are stabilized. Or in other words, how surrogacy agencies such as ‘My Baby’ manage that Manuel and Rodrigo from Spain, who want a baby and have the money, meet the oocyte of Anita – an egg donor in Sweden –, the womb of Benita – a young mother of two from Chiapas – and Dr. José in Cancún – whose clinic is equipped with the state-of-the-art medical technology from the United States. But not only do they need to meet, they need to meet at the right time, under the right circumstances. But how does ‘My Baby’ manage to control this global enterprise? It manages to govern at a distance by enrolling the necessary elements in relations and holding them stable for a while with the help of technological devices that facilitate the control and surveillance of the different actors involved.

Second, the paper shows that ANT has increasingly embraced multiplicities and fluidities – central to assemblage thinking – as constitutive elements characterising networks. Surrogacy agencies such as ‘My Baby’ could not survive in the constantly changing legal landscape without network fluidity. ‘My Baby’ foresaw the dramatic changes in India’s surrogacy business when the government passed a new bill in 2012 that restricted surrogacy to heterosexual, married couples. Opening up a new branch in Thailand just in time made it possible for them to continue to respond to the demand of their gay clientele. When the military government in Thailand shut down surrogacy businesses after the Baby Gammy scandal, ‘My Baby’ had just set up a new fertility clinic and surrogacy agency in Mexico (Fig. 2) that has since turned into the latest hotspot for gay surrogacy. The final outcome – the baby – needs to be held constant, but the associations that bring it about have shifted all the time.

 

Fig 2

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Third, we suggest that ANT can benefit from the attention to affect in bringing socio-material relations into being, which is so central in assemblage thinking. The role of desire is key here. Deleuze and Guattari understand it as much more than an individualised feeling of wanting to have something. For them, desire is the distributed production of wishes in an arrangement of humans and things. So it is not only the intended parents’ desire for a baby that is central for the global assisted reproduction assemblage to emerge. This assemblage is produced as much by the hetero-normative imperative of the ‘happy family’ that pervades most societies as it is by the pictures that agencies such as ‘My Baby’ and clinics use to visualize the ‘little prince’ as the crowning glory at the end of parents’ travails (Fig. 3). The desire for profit is the key rationale for agencies and clinics to become enrolled in the assemblage. The desire for wealth and a better life for themselves and their children enroll egg donors and surrogate mothers. In short, desire, in multiple forms, is the central force binding the human and non-human elements of surrogacy together: intended parents, egg donors, surrogates, IVF professionals, airplanes, time schedules, petri-dishes, hormonal drugs and so on.

fig 3

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Cross-fertilizations: ANT and assemblage thinking
For geographers engaged in empirical work, a cross-fertilisation between ANT and assemblage thinking offers the best of both worlds. It brings the tried-and-tested ANT toolbox of concepts to the study of the emergence of order and disorder in a more-than-human world. It sharpens our sense of different kinds of change in socio-material relations that is central to the new fragile markets of bodily commodification. And it does so in a mode that is attentive to the distributed, bodily capacities of humans and non-humans alike.

The price we need to pay for this is a small one, we think. Just as transnational surrogacy markets have challenged the national boundaries of traditional forms of kinship and family-making, cross-fertilizing ANT and assemblage thinking challenges us to leave behind some cherished certainties as we abandon the safe territories of our conceptual homelands.

About the authors:

Carolin Schurr is Assistant Professor of Transcultural Studies at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland and Martin Müller is Swiss National Science Foundation Professor at the University of Zurich.

60-world2 BBC 2015 Thailand bans commercial surrogacy for foreigners

60-world2 Bhowmick N 2013 Why people are angry about India’s new surrogacy rules Time

60-world2 Daily Mail 2011 Nicole Kidman reveals why she kept surrogacy baby a secret at Screen Actors Guild Awards

60-world2 Groskop V 2009 What is the truth behind Sarah Jessica Parker’s use of a surrogate?  The Guardian

books_icon Müller M 2015 Assemblages and actor-networks: Rethinking socio-material power, politics and space Geography Compass 9 27-41  (open access)

books_icon Müller M and Schurr C 2016 Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory: conjunctions, disjunctions and cross-fertilisations Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers  doi: 10.1111/tran.12117 (open access)

60-world2 Pidd H 2010 Elton John and David Furnish have Christmas baby The Guardian 

books_icon Schurr C 2014 Leaps and bounds in Mexico’s reproductive tourism international Journal of Media Travel 

Converging Body and Technology: The Case of Google Glass

by Jen Turner

By Antonio Zugaldia (http://www.flickr.com/photos/azugaldia/7457645618) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s either the most exciting technology product of recent years, or the 21st Century equivalent of the Sinclair C5” (Cellan-Jones, 2013, n.p.).  Google Glass (styled as “Google GLΛSS”) is a wearable computer with a head-mounted display (HMD) that is being developed by Google with the mission of producing a mass-market ubiquitous computer.  Google Glass displays information in a smartphone-like hands-free format, that can interact with the Internet via voice commands.  While the frames do not currently have lenses fitted to them, Google is considering partnering with sunglass retailers such as Ray-Ban, and may also open retail stores to allow customers to try on the device.

When BBC News Technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones took Glass for a stroll on the beach overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, the elderly dog walkers there were more amused about a strange Brit talking to himself than anxious about their privacy, although the majority felt the whole idea was rather more creepy than cool.

According to the report, where Google’s big idea impresses most is as a camera.  The video footage is reportedly also much steadier than what you would gain from a shaky camera phone.  Its strength lies in its ability to capture exactly what you see.  The results are the kind of pictures you often miss with a camera you have to ready for action. And it is this head-mounted technology, combined with the voice commands that raise interesting points for geographers studying the inter-relationship between humans and technology.

It is widely accepted that new technology “increasingly affects/infects the minutiae of everyday life and corporeal existence” (Grosz 1994, 48), and that operating as assemblages, or with co-agents, bodily abilities are altered (Michael 2009).  In his 2012 Area paper, Paul Barrett comments on the use of technology in a very different scenario: climbing.  This paper adds to debates on bodies and materiality concerning how we experience places not only as bodies but as complex assemblages. It engages with the relations between climbers, their kit and the places in which they climb to explore how during the situated practice of climbing, climbers and material artefacts co-evolve resulting in a diverse array of synergies that co-enable the climb. In particular, Barrett focuses upon the use of ‘Cams’.  Cams are spring loaded devices that are placed into parallel cracks in rock faces used to secure the climber’s ascent.  Differing roles and functions emerge and are negotiated between climber, crag and kit. These roles and functions go beyond those detailed by manufacturer-ascribed use-values that define their ‘proposed’ or ‘proper’ role/s and limits within the climber’s safety assemblage. Drawing upon semi-structured interviews with climbers, Barrett uses Actor Network Theory to explore the enabling, situated, contingent and co-emergent relations between climbers and their kit and show how more-than-representational dimensions of their environmental engagements are dependent upon entering into symbolic and synergistic relationships with material others.

In a similar way, Google Glass uses technology to extend both the corporal being of the body and its capabilities of purpose.  It promises to reshape our relationship with the online world – or turn us all into Donna Haraway’s infamous cyborgs.  What is more, the ability to record others discretely in any given space leads us to questions surrounding how these human/technology relationships further invading each other’s privacy with careless abandon.  But that’s another blog post….

books_icon

Paul Barrett (2012) ‘My magic cam’: a more-than-representational account of the climbing assemblageArea 44(1) pp. 46-53.

60-world2Rory Cellan-Jones, Google Glass – cool or creepy? BBC News Technology, 15 May 2013.

books_iconElizabeth Grosz (1994) Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism, Allen and Unwin, London.

books_iconMike Michael (2009) The cellphone-in-the-countryside: on some of the ironic spatialities of technonatures. In White, D. and Wilbert, C. eds. Technonatures: environments, technologies, spaces, and places in the twenty-first century, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, pp. 85–104.

Area Content Alert: Volume 43, Issue 3 (September 2011)

The latest issue of Area is available on Wiley Online Library

Articles

From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste (pages 242–249)
Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather

Public perceptions of jaguars Panthera onca, pumas Puma concolor and coyotes Canis latrans in El Salvador (pages 250–256)
Michael O’Neal Campbell and Maria Elena Torres Alvarado

The value of single-site ethnography in the global era: studying transnational experiences in the migrant house (pages 257–263)
Ruben Gielis

Anthropogenic soils in the Central Amazon: from categories to a continuum (pages 264–273)
James Fraser, Wenceslau Teixeira, Newton Falcão, William Woods, Johannes Lehmann and André Braga Junqueira

On Actor-Network Theory and landscape (pages 274–280)
Casey D Allen

Sinking the radio ‘pirates’: exploring British strategies of governance in the North Sea, 1964–1991 (pages 281–287)
Kimberley Peters

Changing meanings of Kyrgyzstan’s nut forests from colonial to post-Soviet times (pages 288–296)
Matthias Schmidt and Andrei Doerre

Being Angelica? Exploring individual animal geographies (pages 297–304)
Christopher Bear

The role of French, German and Spanish journals in scientific communication in international geography (pages 305–313)
Artur Bajerski

Gardens and birdwatching: recreation, environmental management and human–nature interaction in an everyday location (pages 314–319)
Paul J Cammack, Ian Convery and Heather Prince

Where music and knowledge meet: a comparison of temporary events in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio (pages 320–326)
Robert R Klein

Local nuances in the perception of nature protection and place attachment: a tale of two parks (pages 327–335)
Saska Petrova, Martin Čihař and Stefan Bouzarovski

Actor-network theory as a reflexive tool: (inter)personal relations and relationships in the research process (pages 336–342)
Rebecca Sheehan

‘So, as you can see . . .’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices (pages 343–352)
Paul Simpson

Greening the campus without grass: using visual methods to understand and integrate student perspectives in campus landscape development and water sustainability planning (pages 353–361)
Lee Johnson and Heather Castleden

Participating and observing: positionality and fieldwork relations during Kenya’s post-election crisis (pages 362–368)
Veit Bachmann

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