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.
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