Blog Post: Ros Williams

The bloody frontiers of neoliberalism: waste, value and menstruating bodies

Ros Williams, University of York

Mooncups and tampons; two novel inventions to help the menstruating lady in her time of need. These are sanitary devices to aid us in our endless pursuit of female hygiene. Mary Douglas spoke of matter out of place. Where there is dirt, she said, there is a system. The menstrual cycle’s monthly expulsion, though, isn’t just dirt. It’s detested. It’s loathed. Kristeva, Grosz and Martin have all written about this positioning of menstruation as waste, excretion, a symbol of another month of reproductive failure.

Many menstruaters put putrid tampons in scented bags, only to put those bags into a bin. That bin, itself emptied by a specially employed company, is set apart from the standard trash receptacle (this one contains used hand towels that wiped away less egregious detritus). It is subtly tucked away, ensconced somewhere between the toilet and the cubicle wall with a foot pedal so that we don’t have to make contact with it. Menstruation isn’t really spoken about too much. Period product adverts deal in metaphors and euphemisms, colouring everything a benign blue so that we’re as semiotically distantiated from the dirt we’re dealing with as it is possible to be.

This is what makes menstrual blood such an incredibly potent example of the impressive ability of neoliberal energy to turn things so apparently divested of value (at a symbolic, as well as an economic level) into valuable items of exchange.

Certain types of stem cell, potentially useable in a range of therapies, can be retrieved from menstrual blood. As a technique of stem cell sequestration and provision, it’s still in its clinical infancy. Unsurprisingly though, private enterprises in the US already offer to bank your menstrual blood for your exclusive therapeutic use in the future – for a fee! It is a situation saturated with tension, such as moral economies of public and private stem cell banking, and the insurance-like nature of stem cell banking. Nonetheless, it stands as a fantastic example of how bodies (specifically, female bodies) continue to be mined for value in new and remarkable ways that extend beyond the illuminating Marxist critiques offered by Donna Dickenson in the last decade about new reproductive technologies.

The emerging bioeconomies are, as Melinda Cooper argues, inextricable from the neoliberal projects that promulgate them. Here, in the lining of women’s wombs, the contents of their ovaries, and the blood from within their umbilical cords, we see a potentially renewable stock of possible surplus value. This value expresses itself as reproductive capacity at a molecular level, but also as capital that might be amassed from framing such tissues as exchangeable commodities or using them as a basis for new intellectual property.

We can pinpoint instances of the deregulation of research into new scientific terrain (in the US, the ban on stem cell research was lifted by Obama in 2009); we might also weave into this narrative a concern for preempting risk by gathering masses of tissue samples in cryogenic vats just in case. Finally, we might remember David Harvey’s claim that one of the most incredible abilities of neoliberalism is its proclivity to ‘roll back the bounds of commodification’. We can see the undeniable confluence of the projects of neoliberalism – growth sans limit – and the biotechnological imaginary that holds at its core a desire to improve human existence, extend corporeal capacities, and simultaneously derive as much capital from the body as is possible to do so.

Ros Williams is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at York. She blogs here. Check out her most recent post: “Cheerios and the Incoherence of Whiteness.” 

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