My re-introduction and “viral mothers”

Greetings all.

Yep. I know. Awful. So much for “I’m really going to do this every week now…” — 6 months later….

But here I am.

And I’ve missed this. So I’m taking a chunk out of my stupid busy life to make it a point to write an entry today. Yes, I’m writing this entry at 7:30am. Never fear…I have coffee in hand…so the plan is that it won’t be complete nonsense.

I’ve had a bit of an epiphany concerning the kind of writing I would want to do if I intend to actually do something with this crazy degree I’m getting.

It’s Paula Treichler’s idea that “cultural interpretations of biomedical phenomena and biological catastrophes are important to the understanding of disease in a social world” – and this is truly the knot of my various strands of study. It’s where the vampires and zombies can roam freely with Foucault and Haraway living dis-harmoniously, wreaking havoc in society’s imagined boundaries of disease. It’s my job to blur those boundaries, to help raise the questions about hard science and disease and disaster that don’t get asked enough in scientific contexts. I’m taking my cue from Paula Treichler, Brad Lewis and Bernice Hausman, (my adviser, his friend who teaches at Virginia Tech, who is also my friend’s teacher–small world), Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, etc.

So for my “re-introduction” into the blogsphere, I decided to read an article passed off to be by Brad Lewis…oh….close to a year ago. Good for me that I’ve now read it. (This article is like 10 pages long and the matter of a subway ride if you want a clue into the massive business that has been my life). The article by Virginia Tech professor Bernice Hausman is entitled “Contamination and Contagion: Environmental Toxins, HIV/AIDS, and the Problem of the Maternal Body.”

Hausman addresses a recent (and by recent I’m being broad…like a decade kind of broad) hot button topic in public health, the risks and benefits of breastfeeding. Stick with me here. (More after the fold…)

Medical journals have authors battling out whether to recommend to mothers that they breastfeed their infants or give them formula. For years in the United States, breastfeeding has been viewed almost as a “medicine.” We’ve read about the reported benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding: not only is it supposed to help with development of the infant’s mind and body, the mother’s breast milk contains natural vaccines, as well. The aspect of breastfeeding that is typically left out of medical journals (likely because it is a cultural connotation) is the mother/infant bonding that occurs through this process.

However, medicalization of breastfeeding is not common in all parts of the world. Specifically in areas of the world where HIV/AIDS is more rampant, and the likelihood of mother to child transmission is greatly increased. Hausman conjures the image of the “viral mother” stating that “mother’s bodies are understood as both a location of and vector for HIV contagion” (138). In this context women are not only seen as the carriers of contamination, also the means of spreading the filth from one human to another. In some cultures women are left out of the equation entirely: it’s called “father to child” transmission in which the father “infects” the child through the mother. This view of transmission turns women into a passive object….a passive victim. There is further trouble when formula feeding is removed as a viable option due to lack of reliable and clean drinking water. In a situation like that, the risks of formula feeding versus the risk of HIV transmission via breastfeeding is truly a lesser of two evils type of decision.

Hausman argues that breastfeeding is too important culturally to be reduced to risk/benefit analysis, or to even be medicalized or breast milk hailed as either infection and contamination or totally pure. It’s a dirty, messy process – and yes, breast milk contains good with bad.

Hausman’s “viral mother” might as well become the “vampiric mother” –  in all issues dealing with humans there is the necessary aspect of what we gain from each other in any exchange of fluids – but the real problem is that the mother seems to be eerily absent or unimportant to the discourse concerning breastfeeding. Or as Hausman points out – she’s a location and a vector.

Breast milk can not be “pure” or a “sacrament” – it’s already coming from an unpure body. Hausman argues against this view of breast milk as sacred: “people will rally behind sacraments as something needing protection”

So how can we almost…well…remove the decision to breastfeed from medicine and place it back in the cultural contexts of the mother’s body instead?

The conclusion of Hausman’s article really fascinated me – she states that “HIV/AIDS can be understood to offer us this vision of the mother’s body as contagious and yet necessary” – I fell in love with that phrase.

Contagious and yet necessary. This goes beyond just the problematics of breastfeeding, but takes the mother’s body as a whole. “…positive or negative, infected or infection free.” Hausman seeks to place this viral or potentially infected mother back into a position where she can defend herself.

— “Breastfeeding is a conundrum that represents the contemporary maternal condition. In this sense, all mothers are viral mothers.”

The take away note I guess, is that we live in a dirty world, filled with filth, contamination, toxins, and disease. No infant is safe from any of these, regardless of whether he is breastfed or formula fed. Discourse concerning breastfeeding places women in a pretty precarious position where they are forced to feel as though they aren’t in control of their own bodies.


Okay so it’s a little haphazard and nonsensical – but it’s my first attempt in a long time, with some difficult material, and well…it’s early and I only have one cup of coffee in me.

I’m off to write a memo about the distribution of diabetes in U.S. populations. 😉

Welcome back, reader. Commmmment awayyyyyyyyyy….



  1. Yay! Katie’s back! And she brought boobs!!!

  2. Never leave home without ’em.

  3. […] I stumbled upon a blog written by kjmitchell715 who, according to the posted bio, is a graduate student at New York University working on a Master of Arts centered on Infectious Disease in Film and Literature. Her main areas of study include: Global Public Health, Anthropology, Art and Public Policy, and Bioethics. She writes, in a blog titled, “My re-introduction and “viral mothers”: […]

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