Code Societies, A Speculative Oral History: The Cybernetics of Reproduction
February 19, 2020
The following interview is part of a series published with Code Societies, a three-week intensive session in January at School for Poetic Computation in New York City. Now in its third year, Code Societies explores how different platforms and processes—including algorithms, surveillance, social media, infrastructure, and interface—yield distinct modes of seeing, thinking, and feeling, and reinforce existing systems of power. It’s organized by Melanie Hoff, with Neta Bomani and Emma Rae Norton. Each year brings different possibilities, modalities, and configurations, with an impressive lineup of students and teachers from multidisciplinary backgrounds spanning computation, race-studies, performance, and cybernetics, to name a few. Code Societies culminates in a project showcase where students and friends gather to reflect on an intensive three weeks. It also has the rare effect of drawing the outside in, so that even as the cohort is selected each year through a competitive application process, the syllabi and class materials are openly accessible, and the session is carefully documented. Even those outside of the cohort can, and do, eagerly follow along.
This year, Neta also organized an extensive oral history project, which brings the session’s teachers, students, and organizers together to converse and respond to the ideas presented in various classes under the theme of a speculative present and future tense hidden within the prompt of the Code Societies title: code the societies in which you want to live. You can listen to all of the oral histories in full on the Code Societies website, and read excerpts in a printed zine, which was available at the showcase thanks to designer Ritu Ghiya and publishers Irrelevant Press and Lucky Risograph. We’re also running a selection of them on the blog, starting with one between Melanie and Elizabeth Perez, a birth doula and childbirth educator, and a Code Societies student. Facilitated by Neta, Melanie and Elizabeth respond to the class “Cybernetics of Race/ism and Sex/ism” taught by Neta Bomani and Melanie Hoff. This interview was originally transcribed by Shea Fitzpatrick and Neta Bomani, and the excerpt has been shortened, edited, and annotated for clarity.
Hi, my name is Neta Bomani, and I'm here at the School for Poetic Computation in Manhattan, New York, with Melanie Hoff and Elizabeth Perez. I’ll open it up to them to introduce themselves.
Elizabeth: My name is Elizabeth Perez. And if I were to use one word to describe myself right now, I would say I am tired. But I'm looking forward to what this conversation will be.
Melanie: Hi, my name is Melanie Hoff. I have a tightness in my chest [laughs]. I'm grateful to have gotten sick on the long weekend of Code Societies. It was on purpose. I'm really excited to be nearing the end of the third session of Code Societies and really excited for the upcoming showcase.
So what drew you together to have this conversation today?
Melanie: I've been thinking a lot about sex as it relates to reproduction1. As soon as I saw Elizabeth’s application as a birth worker, I wanted to talk to you. I think that birthing is so powerful, but the industry around it is often so horrible [laughs]. Doulas are coming into that really dark space and finding light in it again and taking back what was always theirs to begin with. It's inspiring and I wanted to talk to someone who'd really been there.
Elizabeth: It's complicated, because, you know, often when I share that I’m a doula, or that I do birth work, I feel kind of like a celebrity; I'm just like, ‘Please, no cameras?’ [laughs] Like, leave me alone! This is partly because the work I do is not glamorous. The work I do is necessary, and it doesn't necessarily mean that I want to do it, but I know that it needs to be done. So I have a lot of conflicting feelings about it. My favorite part is when I meet new families that are excited about what's happening to their bodies, but are also legit terrified of what this means to their lives. So I come in there to walk them through it.
I'm now transitioning more into a childbirth educator. I teach in Greenpoint, and at a studio in Soho here and there. Just last night I taught a breastfeeding and newborn care workshop and one of the questions I ask when people introduce themselves is if they know if they were breastfed, and if they were, if they know for how long. A lot of people either weren't breastfed or don't know for how long, so when I close the class I say, 'Okay, now if your parent is alive still, and you can ask them for how long you were breastfed, or if you were breastfed, now that you have this information, that's probably a good idea.' Because providing human milk for your baby is still kind of a counterculture thing to do, and it's really hard if you’ve never seen someone do it or know of people in your family who are doing it.
Melanie: I think that's part of what makes me so interested in it—you're teaching people such sacred information that society should be teaching us, not a boutique in Greenpoint [laughs]. When you teach, people are learning things about their own bodies and their own families, and that’s so valuable, so beautiful. I get a shimmer of that feeling when I teach about having a softer and more empowered2 kind of relationship with the devices we're using all the time, with the computation that surrounds our lives. It feels good to teach a way of refiguring the relationship to something that is so omnipresent and that many often feel like we have no control over.
Elizabeth: That's exactly like child birth? [Laughs]
Melanie: Yeah. [Laughs] Many people feel like they don't have control over the computation that designs their life – this is by design. And people don't know their own bodies and their own maternal and family health for the similar reason that, by design, that knowledge is kind of sequestered...
Elizabeth: I agree that society should be teaching us these things. This is probably why I get so pissed off being a doula, because it's a bandaid. Really, your best friend or your family should know what the fuck's going on and how to be there for you in that moment. Or there should just be better hospital practices. In many ways, I feel like being a doula is about harm reduction, and to ensure that you come out of this as least traumatized as possible, and that we can view the day that your child is born as an actual birthday, the day that you give birth to your child as your birthing day, and that it's joyful. It's intense for a lot of people because they don't trust their care provider or hospital system.
Having a baby can feel like a really isolating experience, but as my doula partner, Yael Borensztein says3, imagine if there was a light bulb that goes on in every apartment at two, three in the morning when someone's in the throes of nursing the first two weeks of a baby's life. That's a lot of light bulbs on, but it still feels like no one's there with you. There's a lot of fear in having a baby for many valid reasons. It's something that I think about because I have a three year old. The goal in being prepared is always to make a wonderful, compassionate, creative, kind, centered child—so that my son can have that homie to play with [laughter]. Because why else would we be doing this?
Melanie: I was thinking about how alone women feel—or the birth people? People who are pregnant—
Elizabeth: You can say birthing people—
Melanie: How alone birthing people feel. It reminds me of some theories of the origin of patriarchy: that, because women were carrying the babies and had a lot of inherent power because of that, patriarchy was invented to try to take that power away.4 We see this reflected in the ways that people are not educated and don't feel supported in pregnancy. The processes that birthing people go through when they are in labor are so cold and so distant from the power that they are harnessing by developing another person. There’s so much contrast and tension between what you're doing and the platforms that are available to support you.
Elizabeth: A lot of my decision to go into this work came from being a child of a Black immigrant woman, who has four daughters, and, I love my dad, but not the best partner, you know? Not necessarily the best dad either. But he's a nice guy? I guess. It's complicated. But my mom was sad as fuck, and as someone who also experienced postpartum anxiety and depression, what your body is doing after you give birth to a child, is trying to achieve a state of homeostasis, it's trying to rebalance itself. When we don't have good care, when we don't have good support, when we are not eating well, when we don't feel safe, there's no homeostasis ever going to be achieved. We call them perinatal mood disorders and they can happen during pregnancy and after birth.5
The other part of it, too, is who gets either the space or resources to address those things. Even me, being in this field, I didn't know where to seek help. There’s just very little support in the truest of sense. I wonder if there were other models of care when people initiate families what our world could look like.
[... Another other thing is that] this type of work, because it's so feminized, because it's for someone's children, and it's care work—but I'm like, 'No, you're going to pay me.' I have childcare, this metrocard costs $127. There needs to be some sort of exchange. Equity is only possible with exchange, I feel.
Melanie: That makes me think of Sylvia Federici and what she says about how women or birthers are made to feel like their gift to humanity is this selfless, caretaking motherhood that they do because it’s their calling. So then it’s like “you can't possibly pay me for that.” Meanwhile, reproduction provides capitalism a literal workforce.
Elizabeth: [...] I have a lot of complicated thoughts about the saying "it takes a village." Like, I have to outsource my village? I have to pay literally a second rent for me to know that my son is safe and taken care of...me, knowing how everything works, I need to give my son the best of the best. And that's so much pressure... New York City is trying to do more than other places when it comes to affordable childcare with 3-K for children between two and three years old. Then there’s universal pre-K for children between three and four.
[...]It’s exciting because I get to choose the clients I work with. If [my doula partner and I] are sitting down with you and you're interviewing us to see if we're your doula team, we're also interviewing you. Because the moment that you call us, I'm leaving my life. I'm leaving my kid with his dad; I don't know when I'm going to be back. So this has to be a true partnership.
Melanie: There are so few relationships like that where you're entering into this kind of long term spiritual exchange that's extremely vulnerable and a lot of work. What else is like that?
Elizabeth: I don't know. I feel really fortunate to know that for many people I was present for the birth of their child... I say the bare minimum is that the both of you are alive [at the end]. But we should be reaching for the stars—like you were so happy, it was maybe even orgasmic right?
Melanie: I've recently understood that orgasming at all is not something that many experience. Studies of American & French self-identified women indicated that 16 to 21% have only once or never experienced orgasm at all.6
Elizabeth: That’s a rough life.
Melanie: Yeah. The circumstances, patterns, social norms, and literacy around our own bodies and pleasure that led to us to believe the "female orgasm is a mystery,”7 that it is so hard to achieve, is the same system that is bringing people in to give birth to other people. It’s like, the full anatomy of the clit wasn't discovered until the ’90s and you're going to expect people to have births that feel good?
Elizabeth: Historically childbirth educators were men—Lamaze [was invented] by a man. So the "heehee hoo ha" way of breathing—that was given to us by a man with a penis. I trained as a childbirth educator with this organization called Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York, and it was founded by women. It's focus is on providing family-centered, evidence-based, and community-designed education for birthing families in NY by training the best educators.8
[...]So there's lots of unlearning, that needs to be done both in terms of the actual science, but also in the treatment.
Melanie: And the why of the treatment. Like, treatments for what reason? Having a good [birthing] experience and having you and your baby be healthy—those rarely seem like the reason choices are made in the hospital.
Elizabeth: Really the reason for [a hospital’s actions are] liability and litigation—
Melanie: I like that you said that you always ask people in your class, ‘do you know if and for how long you were breastfed?’9 and and I guess I also wonder if cis-women would know that answer more than cis-men. Because —
Elizabeth: How does that information get passed on?
Melanie: Yeah. I feel like mothers would tell their daughters more and daughters would remember more because they expected to maybe go through it, whereas people who grow up being coded as boys might be like, 'Oh, I don't need to retain that.'
Elizabeth: There's such disconnect that people have with their bodies, and it gets even more complicated when we're supporting queer families because this system is like, 'I don't even know what to do with you, period, much less if you're thinking of bringing a baby into this world.' If we don't even care about cis women in pregnancy and labor, how do we expect any type of system to care about queer families? That’s a whole thing that I'm now trying to wrap my mind around because I've been doing this work for six years predominately for cis families, and now I am getting more queer couples, and I'm learning a lot but I'm still like, “You're going to a place that doesn't know what to do with you.”
Melanie: It also sounds like there needs to be more realness and support both for people who want to have babies and for people who don't want to have babies.
Elizabeth: I think a lot of that has to do with the value that we place on people that decide to have children. Because if you do have children, and this experience is not a good one, or you're like, hey, maybe I shouldn't have or you have some regret, which is normal, then you're judged for that.
Melanie: It's a catch-22.
Elizabeth: I just think of how every single thing that we've talked about in Code Societies ultimately will affect or impact my son. I think of the world that we're creating—even just with an art piece, I think, can a child also interpret that? And not that a child is incapable of interpreting things, because let me tell you something, these babies, they're on another level [laughs]. But I think of how people can live their life not seeing a child, not interacting with someone who has a child. And then I think of what that life is like then for someone who doesn't understand the needs of the world that is going to occur after them. I think that's why I have a hard time sometimes, because I cannot unsee or undo my role as a parent.
My son's name is Silo, so it's interesting, but I'm saying we can’t operate in silos, right? Just completely in our world, and I'm not judging people for existing in them. But I do think that everything that we're talking about [in class] is to create this world, but nobody is talking about how you're going to include the people who this world is going to be left to. That’s insane to not even think about.
Melanie: That reminds me of my experience in a fine art program for undergrad—the culture around making was so against accessibility. It was like, not even a child, but if a person on the internet can understand and appreciate what you're doing, then what you're doing doesn't even count as art.
Melanie: I was thinking during this conversation about my own mom and birth experience. She was trying to be an academic, finishing her PhD, trying to get teaching positions and then later tenure. She's in economics, so in a field that's dominated by men. She wanted a kid, and I think that part of the reason why she wanted a kid was because she wanted a friend. I think she was lonely and not supported in ways that she needed to be. My dad was helpful but didn't take upon himself the full weight of raising a kid the way that my mom did.
Elizabeth: I feel lucky that I don't have to say that about my partner. In fact, I often feel that he's the better parent. [laughs] He's fantastic, and part of that is because his parents—I have never met such special people. There's something divine about their choosing. He's always gotten love by the men in his family. Which is exactly how our son gets treated by the men in our family. That’s what makes me pissed off when we talked about fatherhood, specifically black fatherhood and toxic-masculinity. That’s not existing in my household, my son gets loved up on.
But I also understand your mom with the guilt of wanting to do her academic work, and then not being there for you guys. I haven't seen Silo in what feels like days because I only spend maybe two or three hours with him in the morning. That's been really difficult to navigate, wanting to explore this new world [with Code Societies] that's calling me about technology. But that means that I'm giving up his time with my son.
Melanie: Well, I'm so grateful that you can bring some of that here, because Code Societies wouldn't know anything about motherhood, about any part of the process of bringing a person into the world, and who we're even making these code societies for.
Elizabeth: Thank you for having me.
 “Melanie’s presentation explored the deep entanglements between sex, white supremacy, reproduction, marriage, and culture as a form of social control. I was particularly interested in the link Melanie drew between eugenics, birth control, and desirability politics. While discussing the ways birth control has been long connected to eugenicist ideology, Melanie also brought up the fact that desirability politics have a direct influence on who gets born. When certain communities are systematically devalued in both intimate and public spheres, this has an impact on who is “allowed,” or encouraged, to reproduce, whose lives are seen as worthy of reproduction. Melanie used the phrase “eugenics of the mind” to discuss the ways desirability politics actually reflect and shape the landscape of reproduction.” - Blog post excerpt by Amber Officer-Narvasa
Neta Bomani is a worker who engages in visual storytelling, direct action and (anti) art practices through organizing and making archives, writings, prints, zines, circuits and workshops. Neta's work has materialized as an organizer of the Tech Zine Fair, an organizer of the School for Poetic Computation, a member of Stephanie Dinkins Studio and a participator in grassroots organizing against prisons and borders in New York City and beyond.
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