Mutual debt, debt unpayable, debt unbounded, debt unconsolidated, debt to each other in a study group, to others in a nurses’ room, to others in a barber shop, to others in a squat, a dump, a woods, a bed, an embrace.
— Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
Today, a brief lull between lockdowns, is for writing.
Instead, I lay on the couch where the fingers of sunlight will catch me and imagine dissolving outwards, into the rays. At night, when the kids cannot sleep, I tell them to imagine their bodies melting into the bed. In bed later, I melt my own body and feel the porosity of self, material and metaphorical. The way it was when they were in my womb and later, as small babies, and we leaked into each other, materially and metaphorically.
Leaking bodies, leaking breasts, leaking ducts, leaking pores, leaking ideas, leaking time, leaking. ‘[L]actating breasts, when they are taken outside the home, are capable of disrupting the borders of morality, discretion, taste and politics; in short, breasts are capable of transforming legislation, citizenship and cities themselves.’1
A few years ago, in an improbably Covid-free world, I rode my bike over to Gertrude Glasshouse early one afternoon to see Jahnne Pasco-White’s becoming with (2019). I haven’t thought of the show for so long, until I am reminded of Pasco-White’s work in an email from Snack Syndicate. Of course! I dig up an old diary and flip through until I find my notes from that visit, a series of words scrawled quickly, almost indecipherable: bleeding, blending, tactile, materiality as in material. Canvases, thick with layers of painted colour in shades of earth and sunlight hang unstretched and unframed from the ceiling, forming ‘soft passageways through the gallery.’2 Refusing to comport to the structure and tradition of the white cube gallery and instead engendering a bodily intimacy that is so often refused us in the public sphere, especially now. Another note in my diary: I kept brushing against the works — shit! The idea that art is there and our bodies are here is deeply embedded. In becoming with the artworks deliberately, materially, encroach upon their surrounds, prompting us in turn to encroach upon them.
I’m going to a disorganising dinner, where poet π.O. will be performing. I’m texting with Georgia beforehand and let her know I’m bringing the kids along, hoping that’s okay. Of course, she replies, I hope they like anarchist poetry! Kids, I note, are inherently anarchist. Sometimes I want to preserve that anarchism, to put us in a bubble and float us away. Or maybe a shack in the bush, up a mountain, on an island, by the ocean, where the salt breeze is strong. But I also know that to opt out would feel like a capitulation. Marx tells us that the way we live in the world shapes the world and so I aspire to something better, something other, even when I inevitably fall short.
In the afternoon, S. and I will pick the kids up from school and we will all walk home together, hand in hand, before the city shuts down once again.
In this brief lull between lockdowns, today is for writing.
A room in Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center is darkened. On one wall is a projection of a performer sitting in an ill-lit room, perhaps a study or a living room. She sits in front of a Zoom session on a computer screen, her left breast attached to a device pumping breastmilk as she reads:
confrontation that may involve people being upset with me / a fight to the death / eating spiders in my sleep and never even knowing it / getting squished to death / my lifestyle becoming illegal / every bug that you see is super pregnant / the blind ardour of Trump’s followers / coronavirus …
On another wall a black screen shows white text in an endless upwards scroll: snakes / spiders / man-eating plants / the catastrophe / the middle seat on a plane / boredom …
In 2017, performance artist Patty Chang began collecting anxieties, a list of her own fears in an age of climate crisis and Trump ascendency. In 2019, she moved from the personal to the communal and began collecting the fears of friends, colleagues and then strangers. The result is Milk Debt (2020–21), a five-channel multiscreen installation featuring performers (some professional actors, some not) reading this litany of collected (and collective) anxieties — all the while pumping breastmilk.
I have not seen Milk Debt in situ. I did watch/listen to it all almost-eight hours of it across the course of several lockdown-induced sleepless nights late last year: ‘Fatigue not as empty, but as open’.3
Milk Debt is performative, of course, and deliberately so. In choosing to show mothers lactating sans baby, ‘pumping’, Milk Debt makes clear that under settler-capitalism breastfeeding is a labour performed, an act of (re)production. In one of the videos, actor Kestrel Leah wearing a red bathing suit kneels in a bathtub; as she reads, the breastmilk she is pumping drips steadily into the bathwater — wasted excess, surplus sustenance.
What Leah is doing has a name: pump-and-dump. This is the phrase used by lactating parents who pump to relieve pressure while they’re away from their baby or trying to ween or because they’ve been drinking booze, and then dispose of the resulting breastmilk. It is also, I learn reading Anuradha Vikram’s curatorial essay to accompany Milk Debt, an economic term used to describe the act of falsely inflating the value of stock in order to sell shares off at a profit. This shared language works to inculcate breastfeeding into the logic of financialisation and (over)accumulation, it ‘reifies breast milk as a rhetorical equivalent for currency.’4
We pump in bathroom stalls and in our offices. We pump backstage and in between meetings. We pump to be free of the feeding schedules of our babies. Free for what? Free to be productive members of society. Free, that is, to work.
The breast pump serves to intensify breastfeeding, materially and metaphorically, as a form of reproductive labour underpinning the capitalist economy. From lactating parent to milk worker: ‘[b]ehind closed doors, the nation begins to look like a giant dairy farm.’5
The breast pump was first patented in 1854 but didn’t transition from medical to widespread use until remarkably recently, with the first home-based electric consumer pump released into the market in 1991. Another plastic commodity, destined after just a year or two of use to go to landfill where it will take hundreds of years to decompose. In the meantime, it will leach its micro plastics into the waterways and oceans that are our lifeline. Scientists have recently discovered that traces of the chemicals found in microplastics are being passed from mother whales to their offspring during lactation.
We pump so that we have time to remember to be anxious.
Early in 2021, the endangered Eltham copper butterfly (thought extinct until 1986) was found in remnant bushland near Montmorency station. The Eltham copper butterfly has highly specific ecological requirements, reliant upon a symbiotic relationship with the Sweet Bursaria plant and colonies of ants from the genus Notoncus. The adult copper butterfly lays its eggs in the root of the plant (and only that particular species); once hatched, the ants guard the caterpillars, escorting them to and from their nest at the roots of the plant so the newly hatched caterpillars can feed on Bursaria leaves. In turn, the ants feed on the sugar secretions exuded from the caterpillars’ bodies
Metabolic processes are ones of cyclical exchange and reliance. The concept of the metabolic rift captures the undermining of this exchange as a result of human endeavour, ‘the material estrangement of human beings within capitalist society from the natural conditions which formed the basis of their existence.’6 Metabolic rifts accompany each stage of capitalist development, wherein the interdependences of social metabolic processes are severed, co-opted into the logic of capital accumulation and extraction.
Breastfeeding entails complex metabolic shifts within the lactating parent, as well as directly impacting the metabolic profile of the breastfeeding baby. Moving beyond the site of the body, breastfeeding is also a practice deeply inculcated into settler-capitalist frameworks and logic. Breastfeeding has always been intricately connected to questions of class; of production and reproduction; of value; of the relationship between sociality, labour and extraction. If a history of tea can be a history of colonialism, a history of breastfeeding can be a history of metabolic rift.
Take wet nursing, an ancient practice that spans cultures and societies up to the present day. Where at times it may have been practised as a form of collective childcare, forging links of milk kinship, it has predominantly been practised as a form of reproductive labour, enforced and for-hire. Wet nursing in slave-owning societies, from Ancient Egypt to the settler-colony of the United States, was both mercenary opportunity — slaves who had recently given birth could be rented out as wet nurses — and status symbol. In other contexts, rises and dips in the popularity of wet nursing were in response to market demands. When rents were high or men were off at war and women needed to work outside the home, poorer women still were sought as wet nurses. Often, their own babies would become sickly and die. Culturally too, wet nursing historically has less to do with reciprocity and care, and more to do with social class norms. ‘The history of breastfeeding fashion,’ explains Christina Hardyment in Dream Babies (1983) ‘tends to be a middle-class thing.’
As wet nursing began to fall out of fashion, so baby formula entered the equation. The first commercial infant formula was developed in 1867, proving to be quite popular in ensuring available workers for the factories of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. Less than twenty years later, there were over two dozen formula brands commercially available. In the 1970s, Nestlé began aggressively marketing formula feeding in former colonies across Africa, Asia and Latin America, manufacturing an outsized need, dressing sales reps in nurse uniforms and giving out free samples that in turn undermined the mutual dependence of the breastfeeding relationship. The result was an uptick in infant illness and mortality across developing nations — a metabolic rift shepherded by colonial logic and in the service of capital.
Today, capitalism has commodified all forms of infant feeding. Even before a baby is born, the prospective parent is inundated with a range of products deemed ‘essential’, marketing that begins in the medical setting. Not to mention the schism between the burgeoning corporate trade in human milk even as acts of milk kinship become increasingly precarious. Since the latest turn of century, private companies have begun to capitalise on human milk as extractable resource, harvested largely from women in developing countries to boost formula products for Western babies. At the same time, informal milk-sharing models — generally human-to-human, often commerce-free and facilitated largely online — are at best frowned upon and, in line with the growing corporate trade, increasingly being legislated against.
The title for Chang’s work, Milk Debt, comes from the Chinese Buddhist principle of the ‘milk debt’, the idea that breastfeeding brings the child and the mother, who ‘provides you with 180 and more measure of milk,’ into a mutual state of constant indebtedness — which is also to say, gratefulness.7 This is not debt as transaction but as a form of mutual responsibility, one that ‘binds us to our history and to the earth.’8
While the origins of the principle are Buddhist, the term itself was coined by anthropologist and activist David Graeber in his deep study Debt: The First 5,000 Years.9 According to the logic of the milk debt, we all begin life with a debt that cannot be repaid. Breastfeeding here becomes a metaphor for a social structure built on obligation and reciprocity and community.
It is as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney tell us: ‘debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual.’10 Debt can be forgotten and remembered but never forgiven because to do so would introduce credit (which is to say, the logic of capital). Instead, debt can be ‘its own principle.’11 Debt as a form of community, of community building, debt as a structure on which to build community so that we are always indebted to one another. Debt as a thread from the past through the present to the future. Debt as entanglement.
For several years now, Chang’s practice has been preoccupied with the flow of liquids: aqueducts, oceans, urine, breastmilk. In Letdown (Milk) (2017), Chang travels to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, a body of water depleted almost beyond recognition by Soviet era-irrigation projects. As she travels, she pumps and leaves her breast milk in teacups, glasses, bowls, photographing them alongside half-eaten meals, discarded tissues, in the halfway places of airports and planes and in motel rooms reeking of nostalgia.
There’s something running through Letdown and Milk Debt, a refusal to separate the body from the world around it, an insistence on transgressing boundaries, on entanglement, on a kind of material solidarity. But where Letdown is a paying of respects, of sorts, a study in mutual resource depletion, Milk Debt is more chaotic but also more hopeful. As I watch Milk Debt I feel lulled, strangely comforted by this litany of fears. It’s not just the matter-of-fact way they are read, or the familiar living rooms and computer screens. It’s the way the work turns individual fears into collective ones, a refusal of the siloing that capitalism insists upon.
If we can trace the history of breastfeeding as one of metabolic rift, social practice wrought as (re)productive labour, Milk Debt asks how we might we also understand it as a framework for metabolic repair. Breastfeeding, like other metabolic processes, is a form of generative debt ‘without credit […] without count, without interest, without repayment.’12 Despite a history of commodification, Milk Debt tells us that breastfeeding can be reclaimed as a practice forged in the social and the collective. In this way, perhaps we can start to think towards an understanding of the act of breastfeeding as outside the language of capital extraction, and instead as a means to attend to, to mend, the metabolic rift — materially and metaphorically. An act neither romanticised nor co-opted, but the beginning (because it is always at the beginning) of a collective fugitive debt of which we can all be a part.
My child breastfed for three years. Now, they go to school and read comics in bed before falling asleep at night. During lockdown last year I taught them to ride a bike through the suddenly-stilled streets of our inner city suburb. Not long ago, on a too-busy day, I forgot my promise to help locate a missing Lego piece in the morning. That afternoon, they wrote me a note and brought it to me at my desk. It was scrawled in red pencil on yellow paper, carefully folder with large lopsided hearts drawn on the front. Dear Sarah, I hope you have a good day. I love you lots. xoxoxoxoxoxoxox. Later, the note dropped from the book I was reading where I was using it as a bookmark and into the bath I was in at the time. I dried it out in the sun the next day and continue to use it as a bookmark, watermarked and streaked in red.
Together, we are forging debts that bind us beyond biology. Debts that we can love.
I’ve not managed to see any of Jahnne Pasco-White’s shows in person since that one in Gertrude Glasshouse. Instead, I have spent the past weeks scrolling through images online, reading essays about her process and thinking about her work. In its material outcome, Pasco-White’s work is so different from Milk Debt. The one is painterly, interior, abstracted. The other is digital, collective, performative. Conceptually, though, their preoccupations are the same. What does it mean to be entangled? Who and what are our lives entangled with? What are the ethics of entanglement? Or perhaps what they are telling us is this: entanglement itself is an ethics.
But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge. The debtor seeks refuge among other debtors, acquires debt from them, offers debt to them. The place of refuge is the place to which you can only owe more …
— Fred Moten and Stefano Harney