Glenn Beck, the rabble rouser too conservative for even Fox News, has gotten wind of artist and activist Mary Walling Blackburn’s ebook Sister Apple, Sister Pig, calling it “obscene,” saying that he has “not seen something this evil since Nazi propaganda and what they were doing with their children.” Beck read from Walling Blackburn’s ebook on his program, which you can watch below.
But when is a children’s book not just a children’s book, the reinvention of a lost form? Here is Katie Anania’s prologue to the annotated version of Sister Apple, Sister Pig, published in e-flux journal in March 2014:
Sister Apple, Sister Pig, a book of images and text by Mary Walling Blackburn, emulates a lost literary genre: photo-illustrated children’s books of the 1960s and ’70s that cast the child as a protagonist, problem-solver, and model for action in the world. To use this genre is a radical gesture, as modern discourses on abortion have focused largely on the mother’s experience. Nineteenth-century patent medicine companies, for instance, advertised pills for “female irregularity” and “complaints incidental to the female frame.” In the late 1960s, Western middle class consciousness-raising groups sought to understand abortion as an opportunity for women’s self-knowledge. Later third-wave feminists countered this argument by honoring the traumatic aspects of abortion for the mother, seeking to establish “the death of the fetus [as] a real death.” Right-wing activists now concretize this “real death” in the form of bloody fetus photos. Children themselves, however—both living and dead—remained strangely voiceless.
For Mary Walling Blackburn, the child protagonist in Sister Apple Sister Pig does not seek to reclaim narrative power. Rather, this child’s adventures and the photographs that depict them activate a cascade of contingent relations that displace subjectivity and voice altogether. Lee, the non-gendered main character, masks their own face with a leaf of kale and then proceeds to identify the objects that might house, represent, or capture an aborted sister (the titular apple and pig are two examples). No forms cohere; no identities are fixed. Even as Lee constructs and begins to master the surrounding space, superhero comics and costumes offer opportunities to become someone else. The speculative bibliography that follows the text below assures that another kind of shifting will take place: between the given narrative, where surfaces are not always as they seem, and the historical and visual precursors to Walling Blackburn’s intervention.
The text, bibliography, and photographs facilitate brief “acts of noticing” that are much more slippery than the empirical observations generally associated with photography, or with the reasoned acquisition of knowledge. Throughout this text, we are invited to notice things, but since the things we notice are constantly changing, they discredit the idea of truly knowing anything. Thus, we do not properly learn about abortion, and this story reframes the visual politics of this charged topic. Walling Blackburn challenges the religious Right’s positivistic assertion that the image of the bloody fetus—the child at its most literal deathpoint—activates understanding and salvation. The fetus here is neither living nor dead; it resides neither inside the uterus nor in bloody repose on a pro-life poster. Instead of an image of death, Walling Blackburn invites us to observe “the fetus” as constant deflection and change. It is a lateral image, a shifting presence: in short, an undeath.
The e-flux journal published Sister Apple, Sister Pig last March, and Walling Blackburn @mwb collaborated with e-flux on the program Child as Material last November. You can read Sister Apple, Sister Pig here.