Birth On The Brink

Stylistic illustration of two eggs
Philosophers on what new life means in the face of genocide

By Yasmin El-Rifae

I started reading Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth by Jennifer Banks in Cairo last summer, and it traveled with me to the beach. In the car with my family were thousands of cancer cells in my mother’s body, although we did not know it yet. We left the city, driving past roads and neighborhoods being dug up to make way for authoritarian visions of the future that want, desperately, to have nothing to do with the past. When we hit the Mediterranean coast we drove west, passing compound after compound developed to satisfy the Egyptian upper class’s obsession with exclusivity. We drove through one of those gates to the spacious, ramshackle house on the beach, not too far from the Libyan border, that my parents had rented for a week.

In her book, Banks sets out to develop a new framework for thinking about birth by building from Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality. Arendt writes that human beings are “not born in order to die, but in order to begin.” It is in our ability to do something new and to act in unexpected ways that freedom can exist, and this capacity for action is in each of us because we have had the experience of being born.

For Banks, natality offers a critique and a corrective to the ways that we’ve tended to organize our political and philosophical thought. “Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as ‘the second sex,’ birth has a sense of secondariness about it; it has long hovered in death’s shadow, quietly performing its under-recognized labor,” Banks writes in the book’s introduction. “Death has been humanity’s central defining experience, its deepest existential theme, more authoritative somehow than birth, and certainly more final.” While wrestling with our mortality, as we have had to do, we have pushed birth to the background, “slipping past the limits of memory.” 

Banks surveys the natality — the re-invention, beginnings, and futurity — that exists in the thought and biographies of seven thinkers: Arendt herself, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Morrison. 

Beginnings are not about making a clean flight from our histories.

Beginnings are not about making a clean flight from our histories. Arendt, writing after she fled the death camps in Europe, understood that the drive to create a future that denies the past belongs to a politics of fascism. In Banks’ Natality, this historical continuity is most powerfully rendered in the chapter about Sojourner Truth, who made her experience of enslavement and of giving birth to enslaved children a vital part of her abolitionist work as she traveled and spoke around the country.

I read Natality at the sea, the same sea people from Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Chad, Somalia, and Sudan drown in while trying to unwrite a future that seems preordained by war, dictatorship, and poverty. I read it for an hour or so a day while my Alexandrian mother exploded water balloons on the terrace with my gleeful children, or taught them to keep a landmark when in the sea, to learn to be aware of the current sweeping them to the left or to the right. Yes, she did those things the way she had done them with me. 

Arendt took birth as the origin of our acts of creativity, and our ability to survive and make history, but she did not take the conditions of birth or the care and work that reproduction summons as a serious part of the concept. In Natality, this tension appears most clearly in the chapter on Adrienne Rich, whose intellectual and personal rebellion against the institution of motherhood led to Of Women Born. The same year that book was published, Rich critiqued The Human Condition for its abstraction of women’s domestic labor, which Arendt insisted did not count as “public work.” For Arendt, politics necessarily exists in the public realm, where people are plural, and different. But one could argue that we negotiate and act in plurality and across differences even within the most private, nuclear family, and that the social and psychological work that happens there is an essential part of any liberatory project because that is where our psyches are made. When masses appear as such — that is, in revolution, another one of Arendt’s subjects — it is not an orchestrated political movement as often as it is a simultaneous, messy surge of collective, psychic action: an unpredictable act, a beginning in the most natal sense. 

Perhaps it’s a question of the concerns that are foregrounded. Banks writes, “Rich was right: women were not at the center of Arendt’s work…her thinking had been shaped by her schooling in a patriarchal philosophical tradition, but also by the Holocaust… While Rich had been a high-achieving girl living in a prosperous Baltimore neighborhood, Hannah Arendt had been fleeing Nazi Germany during her peak childbearing years. While Rich, the wife of a successful academic, had been hiring housekeepers to help with her chores, Arendt had herself been working as a housekeeper, trying to learn English.” Arendt was also averse to the essential categorizations of the radical feminists of that time. In the humiliations and killings of the Holocaust, she had seen men violently stripped of their patriarchal power. 

One can read Banks’ book as a sort of answer to Rich’s critique. She presents a natality that engages with the work and politics of birth and care themselves. This is a generative move. Banks is careful to situate her book post-Dobbs, and gets into the critique Black women in particular have long made of the mainstream reproductive rights movement in the U.S.: that it must include the conditions of life, and birth, and not only abortion. 

Banks wants to shake philosophy loose of its preoccupation with death, but the book is full of intimate experiences with death as a historical fact. Wollstonecraft lives through the deaths of her friends during childbirth and then her own suicide attempts. She takes seriously a reverend’s advice to examine those losses, to “hold them close.” Her daughter, Mary Shelley, is profoundly shaped by her mother’s work and by her death while giving birth to her as she develops her own pre-occupation with the origins of creation, which will bring us Frankenstein. Toni Morrison writes about a mother who killed her child out of love. 

Death and birth are placed at either extreme of the experience of life as if life were a line rather than a cycle that is part of other cycles, shaping and being shaped by them — the cycles of other lives, of the weather, of the moon, of menstrual periods, and of the manias and depressions of our own minds or of those around us. They may be on either end, but these experiences touch. Women who have given birth have written that it felt like touching death, but we do not know what it is to die: It is the one universal, truly unspeakable experience. 

While closing this essay the genocide in Gaza began.  I am flooded with images of children: trembling, dying, playing in the rubble, burying their siblings. Life, birth, and death have been smashed into one another — bodies, lives, futures, and histories explode in a camp of concentrated pain and suffering in which people have no time to grieve, but in which they continue to live and speak and act. 

For those of us outside Gaza, there is the temporal confusion we experience in collective crisis, in revolution, in war, in pandemic. Events and the humans that create them seem both ahistorical and repetitive, but we understand that the world is changing. The question is how to act in the present moment that will shape the world that’s to come. My question is not what to do — that is variable and differentiated by class, geography, and specific circumstances — so much as how: under which conditions, with which ability and stamina. It is the how, the very ability to act, that this catastrophe — the structure of it, and the structures that produced it — wants to abort. In a way, I’m asking how we might keep finding our natality in the face of so much colonial killing. 

The drive to overpower our own mortality appears throughout the book, from authoritarian violence, to billionaires launching themselves into space.

Death’s unspeakability, unknowability, is part of what makes it possible for us to banish it from our conscious thought. The other book I brought with me to the beach was Jacqueline Rose’s The Plague, a response to the Covid-19 pandemic which brought death into conscious life the way war might, in a world that metabolizes mass grief and then instructs us to hobble along faster and faster. The Plague is part of Rose’s larger argument for a psychoanalytically informed politics, or political dispensation, as a way out of structures of social relation that have brought disaster to us and to the planet we live on. The drive to overpower or avoid our own mortality appears throughout the book; from authoritarian violence, to billionaires launching themselves into space, to the deadly incompetence of most political leadership during the pandemic.   

To think toward ways we might live with death, and about why we must try to, Rose engages Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, and Simone Weil. Freud’s concept of the death drive — that living beings are oriented to death and that people wish to die their own deaths — is central to her argument. Rose tracks Freud’s arrival at this thought back through the loss of his daughter, Sophie, who died within days of contracting the so-called Spanish flu, before her parents could reach her. History strips them of their ability to be together when she passes and Freud cannot accept the randomness of this. In his grief, the idea that we are born with a drive towards our own deaths — even though we cannot consciously think about them — is a balm. 

Rose insists, as Freud did, on straddling the pathways between the internal drives of the mind and the external world in which politics, war, and pandemics take place. The last section of the book is on Simone Weil, who saw colonial violence as an exertion of force that is contingent on people forgetting their own past. As Rose points out, psychoanalysts theorize this process as one of projection, “a way of ridding oneself of anguish which makes it more or less impossible for human subjects, regardless of what they may have done or what might have been enacted in their name, to shoulder the burden of guilt.” Unable to deal with the traumas of our pasts, our unconscious minds want to repeat and return to them, and our actions remain captive to them. This is the work of the death drive in the world. Only by recognizing our mortality, our frailty, Weil writes, will we stop the killing. 

In an essay titled “You Made Me Do It” and published in the London Review of Books in mid-November, Rose brings her analysis to the political violence in Gaza, writing about “…the psychic dimension of politics, the place in the mind where disavowal, the splitting of good and evil, the projection of unconscious guilt deep inside the enemy, first nurture themselves and then bear their bitter fruit… in order to exit this nightmare, we need, alongside the struggle for justice and as part of it, to bring psychoanalytic understanding to the negotiating table. One thing seems clear. None of this will just disappear if we ignore it. You cannot dream the unconscious away.” 

We need it at the negotiating table, but first we also need to get to that table, or to create it anew, and that requires us to act with all of our tools now. Is there a way for these psychological understandings, which live in our intellect but also in our experience and intuition, to help us act politically in this moment? 

In birth and in mothering are powerful pathways to freedom and they have been ring-fenced into the private family.

One afternoon between reading Natality and The Plague, I watched my mother playfully throw herself through the waves to the delight of my toddler, who squealed as she ran in and out of the water. I felt something beyond the preciousness of the moment, or the recognition of time passing. I was feeling the contact point between the newness of my daughter’s life and the certain mortality of my mother: my first world. What I felt was also a threat, and it was not abstract. She had told me something felt off with her health and I had noticed her weight loss. When she came out of the sea that day, her lips were blue. Because of this observed threat, and  because of some other attuned inner sense, her late-stage cancer diagnosis just a few weeks later was a shock that my quieter mind had prepared some strength for. What is summoned here feels connected to the expansion I have felt in my very best phases as a mother: that faced with the terrifying directness of responsibility for another’s life, I could grow to do it. 

This expansion is also connected to my ability to act politically in moments of change. Both beginnings accept their own temporariness, accept loss. Their biosphere needs only the recognition of other human life. In the third month of genocide, my political action needs the other people at the protest, the friend who shares her grief and receives mine in a text message, the gift of witnessing courage in Palestine and beyond so that I can figure out what to do. Political action is public, plural, and grounded in connection and in that way birth and the labor and love that follow could be its origin. This has always been the catch: In birth and in mothering are powerful pathways to freedom and they have been ring-fenced into the private family in a way that Arendt couldn’t help but reproduce. To free them, to make use of them in a way that is alive to our wider struggles for dignified lives and unwritten futures may require a particular kind of feminist abolition, one that deals with the family not only as a site of possession and harm, but as a place where we are made and where we make each other, a psychic territory that moves with us between public and private.

Yasmin El-Rifae is a writer, editor and coproducer of the Palestine Festival of Literature. She is the author of Radius, published by Verso in 2022.

Photo-illustrations by Rachel Mendelsohn.