Susan Falls is a professor of anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design and author of White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing (Nebraska, 2017) and Clarity, Cut, and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press, 2014).
Bare Life, Mad Max, and Futures in Breast Milk Farming
How much would you pay for a cup of White Gold? Breast milk, that most ancient and fundamental of nourishments, is becoming an industrial commodity, and one of the newest frontiers of the biotechnology industry (Pollack, 2015). Many artists and scholars have commented on this fast-developing milk-based biocapitalism. Miriam Simun, for example, staged “Lady Cheese Shop” to engage audiences in critical conversations about the political-economy of sustenance by making and serving cheese made from human milk. Her work targets the meanings of food around the notion of terroir. Simun’s cheese is offered as a quasi-artisanal product in keeping with class-based commodity hierarchies, but her work both naturalizes and makes the entire process strange.
But, like other mass-produced products, human milk traded by commercial businesses is homogenized, blended and standardized; it is deliberately deterroirized. But a la Simun, we might imagine a future in which biocapitalists call on socio-ecological qualities for branded milks to highlight diet (lactose-free!), lifestyle (organic!), exercise (yoga!), environment (country-living!), mental health or intelligence (High IQ!), recalling age-old ideas about the ideal characteristics of wet nurses.
Looking even further into the future, the giddy, fourth installment in the Mad Max film series presents mothers’ milk on par with gas, bullets, and water as a vital, coveted commodity. Mad Max Fury Road follows the bad-ass Imperator Furiosa (played by Charleze Theron) along with several Wives (beautiful young women chosen to have children with the leader Immorten Joe) are chased by soldiers called Half-Lifes as they drive a tanker-truck filled with breast milk through a post-apocalyptic desert landscape. Furiosa and her team escape, mostly, kill Immorten Joe and a bunch of other people (all men), and then return to the Citadel where they seem to be in a position to take control (a plot line surely to be explored in a sequel).
The film presents water, bodies, seeds, oil, and bullets as the primary goods of value. Human bodies, too, are resources. For example, captives identified by blood type serve as “blood bags” to be hooked up to injured “half-lifes.” This writing of the body by the hand of the state reduces human life to a factory for vital fluids, a cinematic exemplar of what Agamben describes as “bare life” if ever there was one. In this same vein, brief but striking scenes of lactating women hooked up to pumps depict womens’ bodies as makers of milk to be served up to elites. Mad Max Fury Road thus works as a powerful critique of the current relationship between citizen and state, the commodification of gendered bodies, and the diminishing potential for agency within surging biopolitical regimes.
These same themes also appeared in White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing, an ethnography of breast milk sharing in the American south, in which women debate the role of governmental and institutional authority over child-rearing, the sacredness of breast milk, and how to best mobilize their own bodies in acts of resistance.
Cheese Shop and Fury Road dovetail with White Gold where sharers quietly but unequivocally ignore mandates issued by authoritative institutions and resist commodification required by the logic of capitalism. But what politics inhere in the acts performed by Simun, Furiosa and milk-sharers? In “Life As Politics,” Bayat (2010) describes “quiet encroachment” as the silent and protracted but pervasive advancement of ordinary people on the space of the propertied and powerful in order to survive and improve their lives; these activities are marked by atomized and prolonged mobilizations with episodic collective action, and characterized by fleeting struggles without clear leadership, ideology, or structured organization (Bayat 2010, 56).
The communities Bayat describes, who tap water or electricity, may not be acting out of an intentional resistance, but out of need, but their actions, nevertheless, may lead to changes in infrastructure or governance. Within the milk-sharing community, some mothers proclaim a critique of authoritative institutions, while others see sharing as simply “helping out.” Either way, it is a de facto enunciation of an alternative value system.
These decentered, what we might even call feminine resistances that are heterarchical, atomized, and indirect, not only fail to align with the conflict structures required by popular film, but exist outside of the models often associated with political change. But, when robust, these heterarchical resistances may turn out to offer a more significant potential to the transformation of the body politic than we had ever imagined.