Lay, Mary M., Laura J. Gurak, Clare Gravon, & Cynthia Myntti. Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.


In their “Introduction: The Rhetoric of Reproductive Technologies,” the editors invoke the term “body talk” to describe the locus of this edited collection–that is, the rhetoric we use as a culture to talk about (and make sense of) the intersection of the body and technologies. Focused specifically on reproductive technologies, the editors frame the collection within the Foucauldian concepts of bio-power and normalization, processes through which abnormalities are continuously named for the purpose of creating a norm that works to control and delimit individual bodies. Within the scope of the various reproductive technologies discussed throughout the book’s chapters, these processes of normalization result in the construction of a normative feminine body, as well as normative reproductive processes, which function through their distinction from the non-normative/”defective” feminine body to contribute to the subordination of women. The editors spend the introduction briefly discussing various trends which the intersection of reproduction and technology have produced and that are illuminated in the book’s chapters. These trends include:

  • the construction of medical technology as the site of authority about women’s bodies
  • the construction of an autonomous and vulnerable fetus
  • the use of technology as a means of protecting and gauging the viability of the newly protected fetus
  • the role of a woman as needing to protect her vulnerable fetus
  • the naturalization of both fertility and infertility
  • increased emphasis on women reproducing
  • increased technologization of formerly natural processes

Overall, the chapters in this book another dimension to bodily concerns about the natural. While normative rhetorics of disability might cast the natural/normal in a positive light, reproductive technologies cast the natural as something that can be improved on, made more efficient, or even something that is undesirable in the face of man-made technologies. In her afterword to the book, Robbie Davis-Floyd refers to this phenomenon as the “one-two punch” of reproductive technologies, a term she defines as the processes through which reproductive technologies simultaneously destroy natural processes and reconstruct them as cultural processes. In other words, when the introduction of reproductive technologies creates problems, further technologies are developed and deployed to address the problem, ultimately resulting in the naturalization of reproductive technologies.

Davis-Floyd, along with several of the book’s other contributors, also argues that while increased reproductive technologies appear or claim to have increased women’s choices, they have actually foreclosed a number of possible by choices by making women feel that if the technology exists, it must be taken advantage of—a phenomenon that not only affects how pregnancy and birth progress, but also affect how women deal with infertility. The proscribed processes that emerge likewise create a particular normative way of talking about pregnancy, childbirth, and fetal development that makes the experience one that is both mechanistic and potentially problem-ridden, necessitating a medical intervention. Non-normative discourses that talk about women’s intuition, their embodied knowledges, their psychic connections with their fetuses (what Davis-Floyd refers to as interior technologies) are written off entirely. Thus, reproductive technologies not only delimit women’s choices, but also their ways of knowing and understanding their own experiences, and the cultural capital given to medical discourses also effects what is thought of as acceptable research with regard to reproduction.

The collection is divided into three different sections which explore, respectively, the historical grounding for current discourses on reproduction, medical models of reproduction, and legal issues raised by the use (or resistance to) reproductive technologies. While the chapters in the book represent a variety of approaches, historical work, rhetorical/discourse analysis (particularly focused on the way women’s bodies and reproductive systems are represented in language), and ethnography are all methodological approaches that stand out in the collection as a whole.

Chapters of Interest:

Chloe Dipencrock’s “God Willed It! Gynecology at the Checkout Stand: Reproductive Technology in the Women’s Service Magazine, 1977-1996”: Uses Burke’s pentad to identify a “fairytale” narrative that runs through stories of infertility treatment in women’s magazines and the way these stories work as a persuasive frame for encouraging women to participate in experimental infertility treatments. She links the appearance of case histories of women’s use of infertility treatment with consumerism, encouraging women to “buy” the technologies that will help them have babies, even if it means buying another woman’s body.

Laura Shanner’s “Bodies, Minds, and Failures: Images of Women in Infertility Clinics”: An ethnography of an infertility clinic focused on the representation of women in the literature it disperses and the language used to talk about them in the clinic itself. Her concern is with the effects that these representations have on the women who receive infertility treatments.

Lyn Turney’s “The Politics of Language in Surgical Contraception”: Looking at the language used to talk about surgical contraception to female patients. She is concerned both with the way that the literature on surgical contraception for patients differs from that distributed amongst medical professionals and the lack of women’s voices included in this literature. She argues that the construction of this literature ultimately gives women a false sense of the procedure and persuades them to undergo the surgery without full knowledge of its side effects or implications.

Quotable Quotes:

“This produces a set of paradoxes: women cannot make fully informed choices without receiving technical information. However, because the information comes from a medical-technological establishment that operates on both technical and patriarchal biases, these biases, not the values of the women making the choices, structure the information.” (Celeste Condit 139)

“The perceived identity of the female self and body need not be negative, as classical philosophers would have us believe; instead, women’s insights may reshape our thinking about the mind-body problem at a broader level, leading us to understand ourselves phenomenologically as embodied beings rather than analytically as a poorly defined interaction of mysterious substances.” (Laura Shanner 158)

“What we are concerned with in relation to surgical contraception, in the broader sense, is medical discourse that structures much of our reality, not only in relation to fertility and sterility but also in terms of normative behaviors around sexual practices and, more generally, in terms of the day-to-day activities of individuals.” (Lyn Turney 163)