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Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth

Anja Hänsch

This study investigates long-lasting cultural constructions of childbirth. Four symbolic patterns of childbirth emerge from the analysis of a variety of texts ranging from myths, philosophy, literature and religion to ethics of modern medicine. On a symbolic level «The Supremacy of the Male» attributes the coming into existence of a child primarily to male «pro-creation.» «The Supremacy of the Female», contrarily, relates childbirth to conception, pregnancy and giving birth on part of the woman. «Theoretical, Spiritual and Political Natality versus Childbirth» pictures childbirth as lower in value as the realms of ideas, religion, the political or the arts. In contrast to this, «Harmony between Spiritual/Theoretical Natality and Childbirth» shows that spiritual birth and childbirth can also be intertwined. It is argued that different symbolic patterns of childbirth may imply different gender relations and different views on «life» in general. The theoretical part of the book is based on Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality and on Martin Heidegger whose ideas on death are used for a philosophical conception of the woman giving birth.
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I. Childbirth as Symbolic Patterns, Experience and Performance

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I.  CHILDBIRTH AS SYMBOLIC PATTERNS, EXPERIENCE AND PERFORMANCE

Childbirth can acquire manifold meanings in myths, philosophy, literature and religion some of which here will be grouped together and explored as symbolic patterns. By “childbirth” I mean the coming into existence of a child, which is treated differently by the four different symbolic patterns to be analyzed. These symbolic patterns are rather heterogenous, sometimes attributing the coming into existence of a child primarily to male “procreation” (“The Supremacy of the Male”), sometimes more relating childbirth to conception, pregnancy and birthgiving on part of the woman (“The Supremacy of the Female”). Furthermore, the symbolic pattern labeled “Theoretical, Spiritual and Political Natality versus Childbirth” leaves aside the question of which body – male or female – gives the more important contribution to the coming into existence of a child. Here, rather, childbirth is seen as lower in value as the realms of ideas, religion, the political or the arts. In contrast to this the symbolic pattern “Harmony between Spiritual/Theoretical Natality and Childbirth” shows that some kind of a “spiritual” birth and childbirth can also go hand in hand with each other. The symbolic patterns of childbirth to be analyzed may reflect, stabilize, subvert, change and constitute power relations (e.g. with regard to gender).

This work situates itself in the framework of a specific type of sociological study termed “reflexive sociology”1 which attempts to uncover “the taken for granted structure of the everyday life-world and of the...

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