Placentations: Agential Realism and the Science of Afterbirths
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According to biological sciences, placentas are transient organs that are necessary for mammalian fetal development and produced by interaction of maternal and fetal cells, a process called “placentation.” The aim of this dissertation is to understand as well as elucidate effects of placentations. I employ an agential realist framework to do this analysis. As developed by Karen Barad, agential realism is a performative theory of the irreducible entanglement of matter and discourse that relates knowing and being as inseparable. Intra-action is the foundational operationalization of agential realism. Unlike interaction, which assumes that agential entities pre-exist their meeting, intra-action refers to the entanglement of mutually constituted agencies. Informed by this ‘onto-epistemology,’ I define placentation as the differential and entangled intra- and inter-species, intra- and inter-cultural, and intra- and inter-disciplinary production of placentas. This definition is ‘naturalcultural,’ presuming that nature and culture are not distinct realms occupied by distinct kinds of beings. Rather, such a duality is a performative effect of what Barad calls agential cuts enacted by the specific apparatuses that are employed to understand it. To understand placentation naturalculturally requires the breaching of disciplinary boundaries that relegate ‘culture’ as a topic proper to the social sciences and ‘nature’ to science. This dissertation breaches these boundaries, and in so doing opens up new avenues for thinking about placentations and their consequences. In order to empirically explore placentations, I interviewed and/or observed 31 scientists who study placentas, and reviewed scientific and other secondary sources. The main findings of this dissertation concern differences made by theorizing placentas in particular ways. Based on these findings, I argue that understanding placentations naturalculturally is not only a more accurate approach than the one predicating dominant scientific explanations, but also prompts new ethical, theoretical, and practical considerations concerning pregnancy, bioethics, environmentalism, health, and more.