Your womb, the perfect classroom: pre-natal sound systems and uterine audiophilia

Thompson, Marie (2021). Your womb, the perfect classroom: pre-natal sound systems and uterine audiophilia. Feminist Review, 127(1) pp. 73–89.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141778920958671

Abstract

In this article, I explore the auditory technopolitics of prenatal sound systems, asking what kinds of futures, listeners and temporalities they seek to produce. With patents for prenatal audio apparatus dating back to the late 1980s, there are now a range of devices available to expectant parents. These sound technologies offer multiple benefits: from soothing away stress to increasing the efficiency of ultrasonic scans. However, one common point of emphasis is their capacity to accelerate foetal ‘learning’ and cognitive development. Taking as exemplary the Babypod and BabyPlus devices, I argue that prenatal sound systems make audible a particular figuration of pregnancy and gestational labour that combines divergent notions of responsibility and passivity. Contra the equation of neoliberalism with self-control and individualism, I argue that prenatal sound systems amplify neoliberal capitalism’s elision of personal, maternal and familial responsibility. As reproductive sound technologies, prenatal sound systems facilitate maternal–familial investment in the pre-born as future-child. Consequently, financialised notions of inheritance are substituted for biological inheritance. Drawing attention to the common rhetorical figuration of the sonic as womb-like, furthermore, I argue that prenatal sound systems exemplify what I refer to as uterine audiophilia. By treating the womb as ‘the perfect classroom’, prenatal sound systems imply an intense maternal obligation to invest in and impress upon the future-child, while also envisioning the pregnant person’s body as an occupied, resonant space. Cohering with a fidelity discourse that posits the reproductive medium as passive container and a source of noise that is to be overcome, uterine audiophilia relies upon politically regressive conceptualisations of pregnancy. I thus argue that these devices mark the hitherto under-theorised convergence of auditory culture, technology and reproductive politics.

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