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Conceptions of Being and Belonging beyond nation, culture, and genes

Plakat Adoptive Being

Plakat Adoptive Being

Date: 06.12.2018
Room: FU Berlin, JK 33/121, 10:15–17:15 Uhr
Organization: Dorothea Trotter

To what extent can we conceive of being that responds to and can thrive in some of the challenges of an increasingly globalized and egalitarian world? This was one of the crucial questions in the Lecture cum Seminar, held on 6 December 2018 at Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies. According to Professor John McLeod, who came to us from University of Leeds, one way of doing this conceiving is through literary representations of being adopted, and so on an early winter day, a group of professors, and graduate and undergraduate students gathered in the FSGS to do just this. We saw how from Caryl Phillips in Crossing the River (1993) to Jackie Kay in Red Dust Road (2010), to our individual experiences of xenophobia, biocentrism, or transcultural interactions, the transpersonal and transcultural relations prompted by the circumstances of adoption can provide articulations of being that do not rely on biogenetic or national terms of identity.

While we did identify some possibilities inherent within what John McLeod calls “adoptive being” and the way it challenges normative thinking about bloodlines, nation, culture and identity, we were also faced with the ubiquity of these concepts and the ways in which we simultaneously seek stability within these norms and want to break them down. John McLeod is adamant that adoptive being moves away from terminology surrounding identity, because identity, especially as we understand it today, is so enmeshed in normative constructions of race, nation, and gender/sexuality that little room is left for thinking of being outside of these labels. McLeod used “being” and “personhood” to describe what he was interested in when discussing the possibilities adoption provides for thinking beyond identity.

The Lecture cum Seminar started with a talk held by John McLeod. He opened up with a note on rethinking personhood - a conception of integrity of self that has held since modernity. Then, he moved into a few notes on the history of adoption: It is one, of course, that has not started through colonialism, but its legality has. Throughout history its impetuses have been militarism, imperialism, and globalism. It also occurs as a result of power dynamics with young, usually lower-class women giving up their children and becoming disenfranchised as mothers in the progress, but their children have now experienced upward mobility as a result of it. That is, while we think of adoption as a cultural and familial mobility, it is a question of material conditions as well.

For those who are adopted, their narratives are not necessarily a grieving of self but of thinking new about personhood, communities, and families. There are, of course, the stories of loss - of cultural assimilation that cause these persons to seek out the “rarified landscapes of origin” or move about in “genealogical bewilderment,” as John McLeod said. And while being is more accurately described in “becoming,” a process, there is also a stronger metaphor for being that can be made with a textiles rather than blood networks.

In his talk, John McLeod focused primarily on the example of Small Island and how the relationship of the parents and the parent’s relationship to the child (and when one speaks of parents, one refers to both the adoptive and biological parents) reflected material and racial power dynamics in the UK in the mid-20th century, as well as the rights of certain bodies. One of the things he did with the example was to transition to the unique role of the mothers who give up their children, often because they are forced to, and are often denied their status as mothers thenceforth, as focused on by such directors as Stephen Frears in Philomena (2013). Some recommended readings from the talk were Life Lines by John McLeod (obviously), but also Being Singular Plural (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (2001) by Jean-Luc Nancy, and Where Are You Really From? (2010) by Tim Brannigan.

Some questions I asked myself during McCleod’s talk included how personal history affects the conversations of this topic. In Cultural Studies and contemporary literary studies in which People of Color feature, authors, critics and academics are often expected to position themselves in relation to the topics they are dealing with. John McLeod shared with us an anecdote at an Adoption Studies conference about how he only became interesting to the other presenters when he divulged his personal background.

Some questions by other listeners included the privilege of being documented as an adoptee and how this relationship to documentation can be compared to experiences of (un)documented migration and/or markers of citizenship in certain communities.

In the first block of the workshop, the discussion circled around the terms identity, transculturality, and adoptive being, with “being” understood as a juncture of transpersonal relations, which McLeod understands similarly to Nancy K. Miller as the “process through which the self-moves into and out of the social, psychic and material spaces of relation.” One of the main questions here had to do with “what does the notion of being offer that identity does not?”

Initial responses had to do with affective reactions to being othered and/or racialized, considerations about what it means to be a part of a nation, and, in the specific context of individual participants such as the Korean (strong tradition of only inter-family adoption) or Indian (many adhere to the social stratification system of caste) contexts. “Being” as a term can put into productive tension epistemological and ontological experiences in the world and with others.

Another question we touched on was whether transracial adoption can be discussed in exactly the same way as other kinds of transcultural adoption due to histories of racism. Since, as McLeod says in his book, studies of transcultural adoption in particular reveal tensions between biogenetic and cultural conceptions of identity, do some questions in adoption, such as those of origins and genes, become more interesting if it is a transracial adoption?

This question seemed to connect to the infamous: “Where are you really from?” Which often gets asked to People of Color or people with accents or another marker distinguishing them from an ethnic majority, a native speaker of the national language, etc. It’s ignorance at best (which is still racist) and racial prejudice at worst. However, the question is something that adopted people get asked as well, because of a lack of resemblance with other family members or something similar.

In the case of adoption, “real” often becomes an adjective ascribed to siblings or parents to distinguish them from the adoptive parents. Needless to say, this distinction is unnecessary and even hurtful, because it denies the validity of the family structure and interpersonal connections. It denies the way that adoptive beings and their parents can love each other and the stability of this as a family structure as a contribution to larger community making (assuming, of course, that this model is the one we ascribe to). And, as McLeod touched on in his talk, the unfortunate irony is, that while people prioritize the biological genesis of a person’s being, the biological mother is often denied her motherhood. Especially in adoption proceedings in the 19th and 20th centuries, biological mothers very often keep their giving up of a child a secret out of societal or legal pressures.

Ultimately in the first block, we grappled with what McLeod means with this philosophical notion of “adoptive being” and how it relates to identity politics.

In the second block, the participants were prompted to think more about the literary texts by Philips and Kay and how adoption is narrated/represented in these texts. We had looked already at this in the first block in thinking about how Kay describes both her parents as jokes and emphasized the comical or pathetic in their reunions. Laughter was lachrymose. But also, there was a focus on the way that Kay reiterated her adoptive mother’s habits of talking about people and making up stories, many different versions, for her daughter to have something to believe about herself. Someone noted that the ways Kay and her mother attended to the biogenetic connection were not narratologically different than to another one, that perhaps it is a matter of thinking to what extent adoption (or not being adopted) is “something that happens to you.” The group agreed that it was also important that Kay was the one who was in control of the narratives about herself - which lies in contrast to the ways that others will ascribe characteristics or narratives to someone.

We looked at the quote that Kay describes all human beings as “made up from a mixture of myth and gene” and the group agreed that this was said a little tongue in cheek, since she makes a note about people being like porridge in the line before it. The group also concluded that the expectations we have of a book like Red Dust Road to have a fairly happy ending have to do with genre and its label as a memoir, though Kay subverted this genre a bit in changing the linearity of her telling of meeting her adoptive parents. Rather than build-up the story through a search narrative with the climax of a find, she has found her parents within the first few chapters. Kay also invites the reader to challenge notions of authenticity, especially of the self, with the creative vocabulary of “make myself up.”

In thinking more about the narrativity, contemporary theory such as by Albrecht Koschorke in Fact and Fiction (translated from the German 2012 Wahrheit und Erfindung. Grundzüge einer Allgemeinen Erzähltheorie by Joel Golb, 2018), have come to be used by people in many fields of social activity as a tool for cultural self-fashioning. For Stuart Hall, as shown in his 1996 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” identity is not about “rediscovery but the production of: identity. Not an identity grounded in the archaeology, but in the re-telling of the past” (Hall’s emphasis). These notions of narrative are something Jackie Kay draws upon in her book Red Dust Road, and John McLeod picked up on them in his talk about the narratives of transcultural adoption.

Some points we did not get to get very far into, but would be interesting for future consideration and/or research: to what extent is adoption a queering of the family?; AND what do adoption narratives tell us that non-adoption triad members want to read in these narratives? That is, what needs in family and community narratives do adoption stories, such as those presented in reality shows, satisfy?

Some works to look into that were mentioned during this part of the workshop included: The language of blood (2003) by Jane Jeong Trenk, Following the Tambourine Man: A Birthmother's Memoir (2007) by Janet Mason Ellerby, The Promises of Happiness (2010) by Sara Ahmed, The Imprint of Another Life: Adoption Narratives and Human Possibility (2013) by Margaret Homans, and Hole in My Heart: A Memoir and Report from the Fault Lines of Adoption (2015) by Lorraine Dusky.


10:15 Lecture by JOHN MCLEOD  “Adoptive Being and Postcolonial Writing” followed by Q & A

11:15 Coffee Break

11:45 Block One of Workshop

13:30 Lunch

14:45 Block Two of Workshop

16:30 Coffee Break

16:45 Closing Discussion

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