Anna M. Hennessey, PhD
Writer & Scholar

How Childbirth Became Philosophy’s Last Taboo

The humanities study the human condition, something that begins at birth and ends in death. But if the scholarly production on these two topics is any indicator, then academics are more fascinated with death than they are with birth. While one could argue that the historical domination of white men in the academy is part of the problem, the lopsided coverage of these two monumental endpoints of life is quite complex and cannot be reduced to it. Understanding the reasons behind this suppression requires a rethinking of how we address major life transitions.

Institute of Art and Ideas (essay)

Rebirth and the Eternal Return in Modern and Contemporary Catalan Art and Identity

This article explores how themes of birth, rebirth, genesis and coming into being are present in modern and contemporary Catalan art, focusing on the works of Eugènia Balcells (b. 1942), Xicu Cabanyes (b. 1946), Mari Chordà (b. 1942), Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), and Joan Miró (1893–1983). In particular, the article looks at how these themes emerged for the artists as a way of expressing Catalan identity in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain (1939–1975), as well as following Catalonia’s broader history as a nation without a state in Europe.

Religions: Special Issue – Art, Religion & Philosophy (journal article)

Synesthesia and the city in Ron Poznicek’s paintings of San Francisco

Ron Poznicek’s paintings of San Francisco show the city’s mood on an overcast day, the glistening of a streetlight on rainy pavement, the feel of a car parked sideways on a hill and the loom of a building’s shadowy bulk in a downtown landscape. Viewers do not just see the soft glow of sunlight on Poznicek’s painted streetcars, they feel the warmth of the glow on their faces. The sensation of walking through San Francisco’s fog and mist is palpable when looking at some of Poznicek’s atmospheric paintings of the city on a foggy day. And it is through vision, not listening, that Poznicek’s viewers hear the grate of a San Francisco streetcar on its tracks. The artist’s paintings are synesthetic, tapping into a blend or crossover of the perceptions we experience when in the city.

 The Mission Local
(newspaper article)

Song Landscape Paintings and Daoist Alchemical Body Charts

In the material culture of Song China (960–1279 CE), a synthesis of the human body with mountains and the natural world emerges in the paintings of monumental landscape artists, the writings and paintings of the Chinese literati, Neo-Confucian architectural developments on sacred mountains, Chan Buddhist art, and Daoist alchemical body charts. This paper looks at how mountain-body representations emerged specifically in the visual contexts of Song landscape painting and Daoist alchemical diagrams (or maps tu 圖).

Video presented as part of the Daoist Studies panel “Wandering in Realms of the Sacred: Daoism and Landscape Painting in China.” November 2022 Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Denver, Colorado.

I saw my baby as a river flowing through me, and gave birth

Although art and images have always been important to my life and work, I never thought that looking at an image and then visualising it in my mind could lead to major physiological change in my body. But that is exactly what happened.

Aeon+Psyche (essay)

Chinese Images of Nature, Body, and Cosmos: Visualizing Human Physiology and Homeostasis with the Natural World

A unique representational trope exists in China whereby the human, in its body or character, merges with elements of the natural world. This book chapter shows how representations from different historical and cultural contexts form a subset of this trope, synthesizing nature and the body specifically as pertains to the body’s internal physiological processes. Chinese images, like a language, remind their viewers that the human body is not separate from the natural world and the cosmos but is an integral and homeostatic part of them.

Springer (book chapter)
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Series

Birth, Art, Trauma and Catalonia: The Eternal Return as Cultural Identity

This video shows how through their representations of birth, modern and contemporary Catalan artists have captured a Catalan spirit of an eternal return in the physical form of art. The artists discussed include Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), Joan Miró (1893-1983), Mari Chordà (b.1942), Xicu Cabanyes (b.1946) and Eugènia Balcells (b.1942).

Vimeo (video) Presidential address,
2021 American Academy of Religion, Western Region Annual Conference.
Version with Catalan subtitles presented at the Universitat Catalana d’Estiu available: La maternitat, trauma i naixement en l’art català

Ritual and Art in a Philosophy of Birth

The topics of gestating and being born, as well as those of being pregnant and giving birth, involve complex queries that branch into all areas of philosophy. This book chapter looks at one particular juncture of philosophy, religion, and art as they converge around the topic of birth. The point of convergence occurs during contemporary rituals of birth, when the ontology of art and material culture about birth—their social meaning—alternates between sacred, secular, and re-sacralized spaces.

Routledge (book chapter)

Religion, Nonreligion and the Sacred: Art and the Contemporary Rituals of Birth

This paper looks at the role of art and material culture in the rituals of birth, first taking into consideration research on material culture in traditional rituals of birth and then turning to the primary topic, which is how art in the contemporary rituals of birth often holds sacred meaning even when the ritual is of a nonreligious nature.

Religions: Special Issue – Rituals of Birth and Death (journal article)

Review of Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China by C.A. Cook and X. Luo

In this small, dense book, Constance A. Cook and Xinhui Luo analyze ancient Chinese texts to reveal how the topic of birth was of key importance to understandings of lineage and cultural heritage during ancient China. The authors also explore the more abstract themes of birth connected to mythical creation, internal transformation, genealogy, and cosmic reproduction. Focusing on material in China’s earliest birthing records, which date back to the Shang period (second millennium BCE), the book also includes translation and exegesis of the Chu ju 楚居, a fourth-century BCE bamboo manuscript devoted to the topic of birth and its relationship to royal lineage. The book shows how birth and the birthing body, though deeply marginalized and underrepresented topics within the humanities today, were focal to the cultural and philosophical developments of ancient Chinese thought and practice

Body and Religion (book review)

Representations of Birth and Motherhood as Contemporary Forms of the Sacred

This book chapter explores the use of religious, secular, and re-sacralized art imagery in the visualization of labour and birth and as a ritualistic part of birth as a rite of passage. The chapter also looks at how anti-essentialism in feminism grew in part as a reaction to the alternative birth movement of the late twentieth century.

Demeter Press (book chapter)

Review of Families of Virtue: Confucian and Western Views on Childhood Development” by Erin M. Cline

A growing body of research in fields across the sciences has shown the profound impact that early parent-child relationships have on the physical, social, emotional and psychological developments of children. On a primary level, the architecture of a child’s brain is significantly affected by social experiences with parents and caregivers during the first three years of life. In Families of Virtue, Erin Cline addresses the importance of these findings and relates them to Chinese philosophy, exploring how early Confucian thinkers emphasized a critical connection between parent-child relationships and human development, especially as pertains to moral development.

Dao: Journal of Comparative Philosophy (book review)

Mountains as Humans and Humans as Mountains in Medieval Chinese Philosophy, Art & Religion

This is a short preview to a 3 course video series that explores how mountains are represented as humans and humans are represented as mountains in the art and culture of China’s Song Period, which dates from 960-1279 CE.

Academia.edu Courses and Vimeo (Video)

Mountains as Humans and Humans as Mountains (Part I): The Imperial State, Neo-Confucianism and the Natural World

This video explores art connected to the imperial state of China’s Song Period (960-1279 CE). Of particular interest to this video is the way in which some artists of the Song period represented a merging of human bodies and mountains through their work. In these cases, the political sphere and the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought of the time influenced their artistic production. The video includes a discussion of China’s medieval literati culture.

Udemy Course

Mountains as Humans and Humans as Mountains (Part II): Representation and Alchemy in Medieval Daoism

This video examines how Daoist groups during China’s Song Period (960-1279 CE) developed an important type of representation—the map or diagram (tu 圖) of the body—in which they depicted the human body microcosmically and containing of an inner landscape. The development of these Chinese alchemical representations occurred in close parallel with the rise of internal alchemy, or neidan 內丹. Externalization in the form of mountain-body representations rose as one way through which the process of internalization could be expressed and utilized.

Udemy Course

Mountains as Humans and Humans as Mountains (Part III): Chinese Buddhism and the Art of Liang Kai

This video examines a new style of ink monochrome painting that emerged in China during the Southern Song period (1127-1279 CE), characterized by its spontaneous strokes of the brush. In some of the works, an amalgamation between human body and natural world emerges, and paintings of humans look like paintings of mountains or other objects of the natural world. Of central interest to this video is the artwork of Liang Kai, a reclusive artist who was connected to Chan (Zen) Buddhist communities in and around the Southern Song capital city of Hangzhou.

Udemy Course

When Fascism Won’t Die: Why We Need to Support Catalonia

This article, published immediately before Catalonia’s now infamous democratic referendum held on October 1, 2017, looks at events leading up to the referendum and examines how a purge of government officials never took place when the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1892-1975) ended upon his death in 1975. This leadership has had a lasting impact on how Spain’s government makes its decisions about Catalonia, a region traumatized during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) due to its resistance to Franco’s regime.

Counterpunch (essay)

The Troublesomeness of Metaphysicians: Subjectivity, Objectivity and Aesthetic Relativism

John Ruskin (1819-1900) once described the terms objective and subjective as “the most objectionable words that were ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians.” As part of the humanities, art history has described the post-Enlightenment age as a time marked by these two “objectionable words.” This book chapter examines how both objectivity and subjectivity are integral to the structure of art, as organic as that structure may be.

Hampton Press Philosophy Series
(book chapter)

Review of The Impact of Ritual on Child Cognition by Veronika Rybanska

Veronika Rybanska’s The Impact of Ritual on Child Cognition, published as part of the “Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation” series, develops a new approach to studying the effects of ritual on the cognitive development of children. Advancing an experimental study of ritual in two different cultures, Slovak and Ni-Vanuatu, Rybanska seeks to synthesize her research in an interdisciplinary way, utilizing work in cognitive science on the processes of executive function abilities, anthropological research on ritual, and studies in child psychology on the ability to delay gratification. In doing so, the author’s primary theory is that an individual’s executive function is improved through the participation in rituals, which is also connected to the ability to delay gratification. 

Reading Religion (book review)

Review of God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions

This book grew out of a conference sponsored by the Pew Civitas Program in Faith and Public Affairs at the Brookings Institution in February 2002. The ten chapters of the volume are devoted both to the history of Christianity in China, and to the possibility of religious freedom in contemporary China. The volume also brings attention to relationships between China’s domestic policies on religious freedom and its international position within the global economy, including its December 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Carol Lee Hamrin, former senior Chinese affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of State, and author of the final chapter, suggests that the state of religious freedom in China will affect, for better or for worse, U.S.-China relations. While informative on a historical level, the book acts politically here, warning not only of a Chinese rejection of religious freedom in general, but more specifically of such rejection and the state of Christianity in China.

Epoché: The University of California Journal for the Study of Religion
(book review)

Early Medieval Chinese Painting

After the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Buddhism entered China and flourished during the Period of Disunity (220-589 CE). The arrival of the new religion influenced many aspects of Chinese art and culture. As the Chinese domesticated Buddhism over the course of a few centuries, the writings and practices of Buddhism transformed in China. Similarly, traditional Buddhist art originally developed in India also integrated with indigenous and secular forms of painting in China.

World History Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO
(encyclopedia entry)

The Intellectual Marginalization of Childbirth and Its Real-World Implications

The care, love, and education of children should be of central interest to all concerned with individual cultivation and the bettering of society. Yet work-related achievement is often prioritized over the activities of childbirth or child rearing. We see this priority manifested in both public spending and governmental policies; as well as in our cultural beliefs about the importance of paid work. This paper explores how ignoring birth and parenting on an intellectual level participates in diminishing the topic more broadly on the cultural level, and this has real-world implications for how our societies treat children, women, and families

Journal for Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health
(journal article)

Spinoza, Substance and Subjectivity in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion

This paper assesses Hegel’s (1770-1831) treatment of the difference between subject and substance as found in The Concept of Religion, or the first part of his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827. The paper evaluates the logical soundness at the heart of Hegel’s argument for a dialectical union, mediated by human reason alone, as necessarily at work between God and humanity. 

Journal of Philosophy and Scripture
(journal article)

Representations of the World and Cosmos in Chinese Tomb Décor

Tomb construction in China dates to its Neolithic period (10000-2000 BCE) and continues today. But it underwent significant changes between the end of the Zhou period (1027-256 CE) and the Han dynasties (206 BCE – 220 CE). These changes, which are material, represent the shifting ways in which the Chinese understood their relationships to both world and cosmos.

World History Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO
(encyclopedia entry)

Anna Hennessey, PhD