Before I knew it I was nursing my babe and the smell of frying onion was wafting up the stairs. Spouse and midwife had stripped the placenta of its membranes on the kitchen cutting-board, and now he was cooking a post-partum dinner.
– Cressida J. Heyes, ‘Afterbirth’, Blood
What does placenta taste like and is there substance to the belief that eating it can alleviate or even prevent post-partum depression? Cressida J. Heyes shares her accumulated wisdom on these questions in a concise essay-memoir in Trunk Books’ new collection on blood. Blood is the second of their body-parts anthologies and it’s an even thicker and richer collection of corporeal traces than the delicate and tangled cultural histories offered in their first collection, Hair.
‘Afterbirth’ is one of over 150 essays, short fictions, photographs, art works, poems and other fragments and ephemera. In such a gushing torrent of bloody meditations, singling out one sticky contribution could make for a somewhat skewed impression of the whole, but ‘Afterbirth’ is emblematic of some key themes. In the cultural mythologies and psychic fantasies that take blood as their central motifs, the themes of birth, death, pain, fertility, menstruation and women’s bodies are recurrent. Leonore Tiefer’s story of the excruciating agony of her menorrhagia fibroids that eventually required a hysterectomy is another example concerned with women, decorum, embodiment and pain – the scary, bloody states and substances that fall into the category of ‘the abject’.
As any good gender studies student will tell you, the abject is the human reaction of disgust to the material body and its forms and processes of putrefaction, transformation and decay. Shit, sweat, tears, phlegm, nail cuttings and skin flakes are all bodily traces that inspire physical and psychic repulsion. Abject bodily functions are what French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva in her famous essay, ‘Powers of Horror‘, identified as material reminders of mortality. They’re substances that threaten to break down the distinction between our own bodies and the bodies of others, and which threaten to break down meaning itself. Blood is the abject fluid par excellence – frightening but also endlessly fascinating because of its links with life and death, health and disease, kinship and otherness. However, if the abject threatens to break down meaning, it also inspires an excess of meanings, and the bloodbath of cultural histories, mythologies and vignettes gathered together in the pages of Blood attest to this.
Raya Darcy, for example, muses on the beloved Showtime series Dexter, whose signature narrative and visual pleasures are derived from the oversaturated, sensual, highly aestheticized spilling of blood. For it’s viewers, she argues, this is a lust of blood, not for blood, and Darcy rejects the anxious critical commonplace that viewers share in a perverse desire to reproduce the vigilante serial killer’s own homicidal violence.
A short essay on heroic images of 9/11 by Randal Rogers draws out this paradoxical relationship that audiences have with images of blood in the aftermath of those events. On the one hand, blood donation became a central means for Americans to participate directly in healing the wounds of the nation. But on the other hand, the spectacle of wounded bloody bodies is too stark a reminder of these wounds, and hence, images of it get cut from these films.
Blood in contemporary culture isn’t always about violence, vampires, serial killers or erotic True Blood-inspired fan fiction, although Trunk’s collection contains all of the above. Interspersed with the gothic, the horrific and the mediated are small droplets of blood-related history, technology and folklore. These provide a clue to the Trunk editors’ broader interest in the anthropology of material things – not just body parts, but the technologies, practices and narratives that envelop them. A series of short entries by Eleanor Farmer serve as good examples. Farmer writes about the mooncup and the origins of the word ‘menstruation’, she describes the forensic substance Lumino, which is used in forensics to detect traces of blood not visible to the human eye, and she recounts the folkloric history behind why garlic has been associated with warding off vampires.
Blood has also been rationalized, medicalised, scientifically scrutinised and thoroughly commodified. Did you know, for example, that Leech saliva contains an anticoagulant called Hirudin, which dilates the blood vessels and stops blood from clotting? Sterilised leeches are biopharmed in Wales, supplied to hospitals and still used in medical procedures aimed at restoring venous circulation, according to another entry by Farmer.
The globalised commodification of blood through both the gift economy of blood donation and the legally financed transactions of plasma, body parts, organs and waste tissue for research and transplants (and the black markets that accompany them) are part of a capitalist tissue economy discussed in two separate essays by Tim Dean and Deborah Stains. These present extraordinary digests on the psychic and political resonances of blood in contemporary culture. What Foucauldians might call ‘biopolitics’ Staines calls ‘the carriage of power through blood’, a process enacted in the quarantining of diseased populations to the more quotidian practices of human prenatal screening, diagnosis and selection. As Stains writes, ‘blood’s evocative form – fluid, mobile, and designed to exchange (oxygen, nutrients, toxins) – is easily assimilated by capitalism and re-packaged for consumption’.
Thinking through the erotic and subcultural implications of sharing HIV positive blood, Dean meditates of the extreme intimacy of blood, which may help forge ethnic, civil and kinship ties, but can also threaten too much closeness. As he writes, ‘the fact that blood carries the traces of others’ presence is a source of desire as well as anxiety’. Both figuratively and in the context of blood borne viruses like HIV, blood emerges as the ultimate metaphor and material substance of interpersonal relationality, group sociality, consanguinity and kinship. This explains why blood has also been central to ideas about race and fears of miscegenation and purity throughout history.
Blood is also something we eat in abundance – insatiably or ambivalently. Rebecca Huntley looks back at the controversy that arose around celebrity chef Gay Bilson’s idea of making a sausage with her own blood that would be served as part of the 1993 Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. Bilson’s concept of the personal blood sausage ‘provoked outrage and horror’ and was interpreted as ‘vampirism, cannibalism [and] recklessness at a time of heightened public fears about AIDS, and food wankery taken to extremes’.
Blood answered a lot of questions I didn’t know I was lusting for answers to. Why are nobles described as having ‘blue blood’? Why is the blood in video games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat green? Why doesn’t Edward Cullen from the Twilight novels get his vampiric blood cravings when Bella has her period? Most of these answers are provided in very short pieces, like concise encyclopedia entries of varying genres. They’re very satisfying and the perfect length for reading during the passing of other unmentionable bodily products, which, with some luck, will be the organising theme of the next Trunk anthology. Though the challenge of how to appropriately title that one remains to be seen.
Dion Kagan lectures in sexuality, screen and cultural studies at Melbourne University and is currently researching HIV/AIDS in popular culture.