White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing

White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing. Susan Falls, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 342 pp.

What does it mean to share human milk in the contemporary United States? In this edgy volume, Susan Falls tackles this question by examining a milk-sharing community in the southeastern United States. Although on the surface, Fall’s second ethnographic monograph appears to be a significant departure from her prior work on the diamond industry, her interest in the valuing processes that render certain objects “priceless” is apparent in White Gold. Contemporary breastfeeding practices are presented against the backdrop of commodification, scientific advances, and the rapid encroachment of life science venture capitalism.

Falls’s theorization of contemporary milk sharing is without a doubt the book’s greatest strength: White Gold invites the reader to see milk sharing as a counter-network emerging from an infrastructure of (milk) distribution, operating as a heterarchy, a flexible, adaptive form of social organization where power is contextual (p. 21).  Falls’s description of milk-sharing as a counter-network, simultaneously nodding toward her feminist orientation and materialist–ontological frameworks, is clever and elegant. Her analysis combines concerns with materiality and sociality—her notion of the human milk sharing counter-network is a nod to Actor–Network theory—to demonstrate how this counter-network simultaneously resists and reproduces capitalist values. This framework holds potential not only for other scholars interested in contemporary human milk-sharing practices inside and outside of the Global North, but for any scholar with an interest in biosocialities, biocapitalism (and its discontents), and the emergence of communities engaged in hidden social practices.

White Gold is divided into six chapters and an introduction, each prefaced by a short artistic interlude meant to create a “semantic ambiance,” challenging the reader to think beyond the book’s more traditional linear argumentation. The images, selected from sources as diverse as medieval and Renaissance depictions of the lactation of St. Bernard to the provocative rendering of lactation in Chevalier’s 1973 Holy Mountain and the architectural drawings of Lebbeus Woods, intend to elicit a visceral response, to make the reader think about the arguments presented in a different way.

In the preface, Falls begins by explaining how she came to study breast milk sharing, stating, matter-of-factly, “My son has more than twenty-five siblings—milk siblings, that is” (p. xi). Calling forth anthropology’s old interest in kinship, particularly fictive kinship, Falls brings a social practice heretofore associated with people “out there” into the intimate space of her own home. The book is unapologetically autoethnograhic, as she explains how her initial interest in human milk sharing began when she relied exclusively on her own local milk-sharing network to feed her two adopted children. The reader shares a certain intimacy with Falls’s journey as she guides us through the history and context of breastfeeding, milk-sharing, and wet-nursing in the Global North alongside her own experiences using social media and her extended social network to locate, screen, and ultimately use gifted human milk.

Following a meditation on the ways in which human milk emerges as a precious, priceless substance, White Gold guides the reader through much-needed background on the sociohistorical context of human milk markets, including the ways in which the creation of infant formula facilitated the transition away from wet-nursing as a largely stigmatized profession toward the emergence of human milk banks dispensing screened, pasteurized, scientifically processed milk. Within this context, human milk sharing appears as a counter-network, in opposition not only to formula but also to the institutional oversight human milk banking represents. At the same time, human milk-sharing exchanges replicate consumer markets, as parents seeking milk may prefer donors who follow particular dietary restrictions and compete with other parents for a limited supply by presenting themselves as particularly “worthy.” In this way, the counter-network of milk sharing both resists and replicates neoliberal capitalist structures.

White Gold follows a fairly clear if perhaps predictable structure, with chapters focusing on the experiences of breast milk donors and recipients (or “donees”), a chapter engaging the motivations and problematics of so-called lactivists, highlighting the ways in which lactivism succeeds in bringing together people who would ordinarily be on opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum, and another on the rise of life science venture capitalism and its implications for breast milk, infant feeding, and milk sharing.

Finally, White Gold persuasively builds to its main argument in Chapter 6, that the counter-network of milk sharing is “free space,” a concept inspired by architect Lebbeus Woods.  A free space is an opportunity, “a terra nova, a new ground of experience, new modes of reason and freedom … what is gained is not necessarily an answer but rather an articulation of the creative potential of paradox and the poetic” (p. 198). In this sense, the heterarchical counter-network is an articulation of a paradox that presents a chance for new modes of sociality. With the rapid encroachment of venture capitalism, however, the future of this counter-network is uncertain. Only time will tell the future of the milk-sharing counter-network, but for now, the idea that milk sharing constitutes the emergence of a new and different way of being in the world outside of the usual framework of neoliberal subjectivity is refreshing, original, and quite insightful.

There are some minor errors in the text, but none are insurmountable—e.g., Falls states that the milk-sharing organization Eats on Feets (EoF) became Human Milk for Human Babies (HM4HB), but HM4HB is in fact an separate offshoot organization. Both EoF and HM4HB continue to operate separately in most states. White Gold’s only real weakness is that perhaps it tries to do too much theoretically. While the analysis of milk sharing as counter-network is as ingenious as it is insightful, it runs the risk of getting lost the shuffle as Falls juggles this framework, not always successfully, with arguments about art and architecture. Chapter 6 was particularly challenging in this regard. While Lebbeus Woods’s notion of free space works beautifully to explain the promise of milk sharing as a heterarchical counter-network, the many pages devoted to explaining the usefulness of architectural theories to anthropology could have been summarized in footnotes.

This small objection notwithstanding, White Gold manages to be readable and theoretically interesting, a rare and admirable feat in an ethnographic monograph. While too advanced for lower-level undergraduate coursework, this book would be a welcome addition to an advanced undergraduate or early graduate-level course in cultural or medical anthropology or science and technology studies.