Ova und Mehr

In Germany, you can see trashy signs all over that summarize the commodity fetish with such acuity that describing them feels indulgent and derivative. I could never come up with anything so apt so who am I to try and appropriate it? Yet, here I am. Every bargain basement, hardware store, and snack stand promises magic beyond the mere fact of their wares. Imbiss und mehr, Parkett und mehr, Arbeit und mehr. Everything is the thing sold, but also more. This could be understood to mean that in addition to the item they have chosen to name on their sign, they also offer other things. Other discreet quantifiable objects that could be named if anyone could be bothered to, but nobody has been bothered, and this leads me to think that it is indeed the intangible promise of the magical “more” that is the point. This isn’t just any old sausage. This is the sausage garnished with metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

One could go on about congealed labor time to the point where it indeed resembles the fat on the now-cold sausage, purchased the night before in a bout of poor judgment, perhaps a state of intoxication, yet still not be much closer to knowing how the tacky excretions of our unconscious and barely conscious desires, resisting our better judgment, our political will, get in the way of a change for the better. Capitalism is. Still, I can’t help but wonder sometimes who are we beyond being its objects. It occurred to me that in the case of genetic materials as commodities the ​mehr takes on a novel, perhaps more complex guise than, say, with the sausage.

When paying for the services of an egg donor, couples apparently pay attention to the educational background of the donor, as if this told them something about the intellectual potential of the genetic material offered. There are services touting Harvard eggs, Princeton eggs, Yale eggs. Paying attention to where the donor is a student (because they often are students, at least in America), comes second to paying attention to looks, and presumably, their similarity to one’s own. Maybe there is comfort in seeing the donor as your own mirror image. In some other reality they could be you. Maybe it is important that the baby looks like it shares your genetic material, which could also be in the interest of appearances unrelated to physical ones. Maybe it’s important that the transaction is hidden, the route to pregnancy covered over by plausible deniability of donation.

Though stuff of the physical world, genes have a metaphysics about them. Science is one thing, but in a world where material conditions determine who you become, anchoring your choice of egg or sperm donor in their perceived genetic stock seems somehow extra-scientific. Ova und mehr. Sperma und mehr.

Is this idea of “genetic stock” a necessary projection? Would some desires not refract into the world without it to act as their prism? Maybe this apparently concrete, but ultimately immaterial thing exists for some so that the colors and frequencies of their wants could be clarified. A genetic profile could be a helpful mythology that brings into relief the conditions out of which our desires arise, but it could just as well be an unhelpful origin story that only serves to obscure the complexity of those desires. Genetic heritage as psychogenesis, as mythogenesis, as pathogenesis.

I started an agency for pairing couples with egg donors, and called it Ova und mehr. People didn’t get the joke, and often asked why the name was in German, but satisfied in my own unseen cleverness, I declined to offer an explanation. My business blended in with other miscellaneous listings websites, ova&mehr.com. And it was true, we did offer more than just eggs; sperm was also on offer, as were nannies. Surrogacy seemed like a step too far, exploitation a more pronounced question mark, physical risks too great, liability an issue. And optics, of course. Our case would have needed to cover so many angles, our position be so foolproof, so armored against criticism, that it would have been impractical, scarcely doable, and in the last instance, not what we wanted to spend our energies on.

Clients were not hard to find. Almost as soon as the service was set up, they emerged, looking for matches. Sometimes couples, sometimes single women, they filled my inbox in hope, sometimes in willful ignorance, often with a hint of narcissism. They wanted eggs that when hatched, would look like them. The donor’s face mattered, but only in as much as it mirrored that of the client. There was unacknowledged contempt embedded in this instrumental approach, with an edge of intergenerational antagonism.

I recruited donors, and they indeed mirrored the clients, not least in their hidden contempt. In the interviews I had with them they could scarcely disguise their disapproval of the other party. Why did they think they ​had​ to have a baby? At their age. I allowed the donors to confide in me, which they did because I didn’t require they perform altruism. I didn’t require they perform it to me, but there was of course a benefit to presenting a narrative of mutual aid to the broader public. It didn’t fool the clients but it made them feel less guilty. They knew about the hormones the donors were required to take, the arduousness of the process. They were probably aware that long-term health effects of donating eggs were unknown–no one was keeping track.

The job paid well because you could only do it so many times, though unfortunately probably not enough times to cover the considerable tuition fees of the universities the donors were attending. They studied in the already resigned hope that they too might one day afford to buy eggs–not that they would, they told themselves and me, but they both aspired to and resented the clients’ comfortable economic standing. I sometimes flinched at the donors’ lack of empathy for the clients. Their class hatred overrode any understanding for the clients’ hard-to-define desire for ​mehr.​ I could see both sides of the situation, and had insight that went beyond just the privileged viewpoint of a go-between. I attributed the success of my business to this insight. That and the potency of the needs and desires at play. The donor’s needs and the client’s desires.

The clients wanted a child “of their own.” It was the best hope they had for something private. Most of them were old enough to have realized that the privacy of the couple-form, it’s promise of exclusivity, was a fantasy, and whether or not one managed to stay monogamous, one could not stay blind to the tentacular nature and social meaning of coupledom for long. Certainly not once the question of offspring came into play. The clients had turned their hopes for something truly theirs away from romance, and directed them into making new life instead. A new life that while not sharing their genes, could be made to look as if it did by a trick of the ​mehr​. And which they had at the very least gestated. As I in turn privatized their desire for privacy, the magical ​mehr​ began to flow into my coffers, my business model mostly relying on ad revenue and a modest commission.

The situation was a little different with the sperm donors. The stakes were lower yet their ambitions loftier. I couldn’t detect any of the sense of resignation that I had seen with the egg donors. In the conversations I had with them, I discovered that they too had a ​mehr​, and not just the one emanating from the arduous labor of their wrists, culminating in ejaculation. In this sense they were closer to the clients than to the egg donors. There was an idea attached to the genetic material they were relinquishing. They were not simply giving, they were also perpetuating their own fantasy life. They were prosumers, if you will. With them, the fantasy was not, however, to do with privacy, not in any sense of immediate possession in any case, but with immortality.

When I read that not one, but several fertility doctors had been found to have used their own sperm to impregnate patients in the 1980s, I felt I had an understanding of what might have gone through their heads. It had surely not been a straightforward case of “doctor knows best,” but something ​mehr.​ A bombastic notion of the superior quality of their genetic material, for sure, but also a sense of divine right to see it perpetuated in the world. When I saw the headline “Jeffrey Epstein Hoped to Seed Human Race With His DNA” in ​The New York Times​, I took it to confirm my thesis.

Many of the sperm donors described to me the feelings of expansion they experienced while ejaculating into the plastic cup, over and over again, as if more and more connected to the world around them each time. They all seemed unaware that they shared these feelings with each other, instead reveling in the imagined uniqueness of their quest for world domination. And to be fair, even I was surprised by the uniformity of this need to live on, in whatever form possible. And while the clients’ desire for possession was attached to the experience of parenting, of not just bringing new life into being, but also nurturing it to maturity, the sperm donors were able to feel they had claimed their corner of the world simply by spreading their precious genetic material. If parenting was in a way facing up to mortality, then the sperm donors had calculated immortality to be reproduction minus parenting. They had no need to care. Care was not their ​mehr​.

Not that care was necessarily just a take or leave kind of thing. Care was also something that could be enjoyed in moderation, if one had the means. Sometimes one could see that a female client worked only so as to be able to outsource care. For them, I had nannies. Nannies were the most innocuous part of my business. Hardened professionals, they had boundaries–and despite their nested positions within private homes–professional networks. I tried to avoid acting as an agent for those who had neither, and who perhaps had had to leave their own families overseas. I half-heartedly told myself that this exclusion was an ethical choice, but in more private moments I admitted that it was a self-serving case of moral hygiene. It was all–their position, my relation to them–simply a contradiction too far for me to face head on.

I got out of the racket eventually and never had children “of my own.” I married a man who already had children, and after all I had seen, being a stepmom seemed like the more virtuous form of parenting. My own fantasy of possession, of holding and being held, unconditionally, had been tarnished by my involvement in the business-side of things. Not that I didn’t love my stepchildren unconditionally, it was just that I never allowed myself to consider them “mine.” I am satisfied with passing the ​mehr​ I’ve made onto the children, giving them an easier ride through life than they might otherwise have had. There is an almost visceral joy to this, which I think is somehow related to the enjoyment felt by a mother feeding their child and then seeing them poo, over and over again, until the bittersweet moment they are old enough to feed themselves. The intra-familiality of this reproductive motion still presents a moral dilemma of some sort, but as I tell myself, I never claimed to be anything other than a capitalist.

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Maija Timonen

Maija Timonen is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her debut book of experimental fiction The Measure of Reality was published in 2015 by Book Works. Her work has appeared in Chicago Review and various art magazines (Afterall, Texte zur Kunst, May, Mute). In 2017 she co-edited a collection of essays, Objects of Feminism, with Josefine Wikström. She has worked as a professor of both artistic research and moving image at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, Finland. She is currently finishing a novel called "Clay-like Substance."