It feels a little ironic to be reading about breastfeeding right after a mastectomy, but What is Our Role?: Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy was lying on my nightstand and I can’t reach much farther than that at the moment. After three days of bedrest and binge watching, I find myself desperate for something worth thinking about. Flipping through the book, which wanders through topics of research-creation, knowledge production, and (unexpectedly) breastmilk, I get the feeling that the collection is struggling to hold itself together. Each chapter asks a different contributor to weave their personal practice into a big, universal mattering and declare some ultimate purpose to being an artist-academic. I find myself nodding along with a few writers and scrunching my nose up at just as many.

I want to borrow your attention for a few pages so that I might push back against an underlying assumption in What is Our Role?: that any artist’s practices, no matter how personal or particular, can be quickly and easily reframed to speak for a large category of people. In particular, I want to talk about a chapter by Natalie Doonan called “From Bakeapples to Breastmilk: Journeys of a Settler Mama Through Foreign and Familiar Foods.” I’ll look at how Doonan’s chapter attempts to expand her personal methodology into a lesson for all artist-academics, and how broadening her work without carefully situating it within a historical context unintentionally excludes BIPOC and trans people from engaging with her work. Ultimately, my goal is to imagine how I might appropriate Doonan’s work with the “agency of breastmilk” to create a new, inclusive application of her methodology.

First of all, I want to show how contributors to What is Our Role? tend to universalize their work. Most writers attempt to answer the titular question by following the same formula: they spend the bulk of their chapter talking about their artistic practice, then devote a few paragraphs to considering how their practice could be adopted by many to fulfil a larger societal need. This strategy validates artists who work with broad, relatable themes, like Dave Kemp, whose practice revolves around making room for tacit knowledge (a type of knowledge created between a piece of art and its viewer) in academia. Since tacit knowledge is a relevant concept for all artists, when Kemp proposes that the role of all artist-academics is to revive tacit knowledge, I’m happy to entertain the idea. But when Ryan Stec presents his artist-architect-intellectual manifesto as a document that could be adopted by others, I find myself disengaging because I don’t relate to most of those labels. For artists with less broadly accessible practices, universalizing their work tends to just alienate audiences.

I’ll tell you a little about Natalie Doonan’s “From Bakeapples to Breastmilk: Journeys of a Settler Mama Through Foreign and Familiar Foods,” which falls headlong into this trap. Editor Jaclyn Meloche sets up Doonan’s project as a “provocative exploration of research-creation as a methodology that has traditionally omitted maternal identity.”1 In layman’s terms, Doonan identifies as a mother and scholar, and her contribution to the book attempts to understand how the agency of breastmilk shapes her life as an academic. Photos of Doonan are tucked alongside her writing, showing instances where breastmilk blurs the boundaries between motherhood and her work: rushing to a conference with a cooler bag of pumping supplies or typing her dissertation with a baby on her chest.

When Doonan speaks about breastmilk, she speaks almost exclusively from personal experience. Widespread issues faced by people who breastfeed (like lack of dedicated space to breastfeed) appear in terms of her own personal experience (lack of dedicated space to breastfeed at Concordia University).2 Although her multimedia works incorporate multiple women, they seem to function as mouthpieces for Doonan’s thoughts: “Voir le Jour,”3 a ten minute audio-visual collage, combines Creative Commons-licensed photographs of breastfeeding women with short interview clips about breastfeeding in public. The women in the photos are synced with interview clips, but I know the voices don’t belong to the women I see. Instead, the careful control Doonan exerts over the audio editing reminds me that these hybrid people are constructed by her hands, and reflect the shape of her own experiences.

Further, the language that Doonan uses to describe her subjects reveals how narrow her focus is. Phrases like “nursing moms,” “lactating mothers,” and “women’s right to feed their babies in public,” firmly attach the concept of breastfeeding to womanhood. Her work is for women who breastfeed, which (perhaps unintentionally) excludes a large number of nonbinary and transmasculine people who breastfeed. Taking another step back, “breastfeeding moms” excludes people of all genders who might want to breastfeed, but face systemic obstacles to doing so: parents in the global south whose networks of support for breastfeeding have been destroyed by Western corporations hawking baby formula, Black folks who must contend with histories of wetnursing and “mammy” stereotypes, trans women without access to lactation drugs, and Indigenous folks whose babies have been stolen from them under Canada’s birth alert system.4 Labels like “nursing mother” link Doonan’s art and activism firmly to a white, cisgender, settler-Canadian female subject—someone who looks and thinks like the artist.

Despite her exclusive subject position, Doonan still attempts to extrapolate a broad, universal role for the sake of the book, and fails her proposed audience by doing so. She suggests that her work with breastfeeding advocacy fits into a broader context of filling institutions with groups that have been traditionally excluded from academia. In her opinion, the role of artist-academics “is to contaminate... to draw attention to issues of access to academic spaces,”5 and that this contamination begins “by simply asserting our presence through small acts, like identifying ourselves as ‘mom.’”6 Although I think her heart is in the right place, Doonan’s attempt to apply her personal work to everyone excluded from academia is in itself fraught with issues of access. Inviting breastfeeding moms into the institution still leaves many BIPOC and trans folks on the outside (and is it a coincidence that exclusion from one space overlaps so frequently with exclusion from the other?).

I want to go back and situate Doonan’s work with the “agentic food” of breastmilk in relation to groups who have been historically excluded from breastfeeding and academic space. (“Agentic food” is Doonan’s term for food that enters into a mutual, powerful relationship with humans, with the ability to “direct [our] behaviour”7 and “pose challenges to the concept of human dominion.”8) I’ll begin with a question: why is breastfeeding an unexpected action in an institution? Because, historically, educated white people didn’t feed their babies, it was a task performed outside of academic space primarily by enslaved Black wetnurses. The agency of a wetnurse’s breastmilk plays a major role in this system: its ability to completely nourish a baby, and thus free up a white parent’s time for other pursuits, like academia, took priority over Black folk’s agency over their own bodies. To this day, Black people contend with the intergenerational effects of reproductive enslavement with “the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation (60%) and continuation at 6 months (28%) and 12 months (13%) compared with all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States.”9 Where Doonan’s work highlighted the stigma of breastfeeding in an institution as a white woman, an expansive application of her work might consider the roots of this stigma in slavery and anti-Black racism, and its contemporary impact on Black families.

Capitalism is another force keeping breastfeeding out of the institution. When I think of capitalist interference into breastfeeding ecologies, I remember advertising campaigns launched by Western baby formula manufacturers and distributed across the globe in the 1970s. With an economic recession hitting most of the Western world in 1973, corporations were desperate to cut costs and increase revenue. The agentic food of breastmilk was a target on both fronts: working parents were thought to be less productive if they were breastfeeding, and every baby fed on breastmilk was a missed opportunity to sell formula. Companies like Néstle ran ads portraying formula as an easier and more nutritious option than breastmilk, helping to bring formula use to a record-breaking high in the Western world.10 Ads in Southeast Asian and African markets had similar success, but at a devastating cost: as formula reliance skyrocketed, it destroyed networks of community support for breastfeeding and, when combined with lack of clean drinking water and nutritional education in rural areas, increased child mortality drastically.11 Although this capitalist push against breastmilk sparked lasting effects in Western academic workplaces, like the lack of dedicated breastfeeding space on Doonan’s university campus, a holistic look at the effects of anti-breastfeeding messaging shows that Black folks and people of colour are still impacted the most.

I read “Bakeapples to Breastmilk: Journeys of a Settler Mama Through Foreign and Familiar Food” as a snapshot of Natalie Doonan’s deeply personal research-creation practice with breastmilk. I think that setting this work in the pages of What is Our Role? asks the artist to universalize her practice into a lesson for all artist-academics without allowing necessary time for deeper reflection on the ethics of doing so. In offering a work up as universally relevant or relatable, artists have a responsibility to make sure their idea of universality does not default to whiteness and cisnormativity. In trying to universalize her work without contextualizing it, Doonan loses the authenticity that comes from speaking about her own experiences. Instead, she winds up speaking about a breastfeeding-averse world like it is a world that’s averse to her, an educated white woman in the institution, when in reality Doonan is caught up in strings of capitalist greed, imperialism, transphobia, and racism that affect BIPOC and trans people much more severely than they affect her.

I hope that this exercise in reframing and making-room shows there are paths beyond self-centring universal narratives. Personally, I am comfortable basking in the possibilities of being small, of leaving the personal personal, of being valuable to the few and not the many. But when that’s not enough, I hope to commit to broadening practices in dialogue with the world around me in order to imagine a truly diverse “universal.”

What is Our Role?: Thoughts on envisioning a universal that looks like a mirror 

Kitt Peacock , June 12 2021

1.  Jaclyn Meloche, “Introduction: Art and Post-Knowledge” in What is Our Role? Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy, ed. Jaclyn Meloche (Toronto: YYZBooks, 2018), 26.

2. Natalie Doonan, “From Bakeapples to Breastmilk: Journeys of a Settler Mama Through Foreign and Familiar Foods,” in What is Our Role? Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy, ed. Jaclyn Meloche (Toronto: YYZBooks, 2018), 84.

3. Natalie Doonan, “Voir le Jour,” August 16, 2017, video, 10:30,

4. Tessa Vikander, “Several Canadian provinces still issue birth alerts, deemed ‘unconstitutional and illegal’  in B.C.,” APTN National News (Winnipeg) Jan 15, 2021.

5. Natalie Doonan, “From Bakeapples to Breastmilk,” in What is Our Role?, ed. Jaclyn Meloche (Toronto: YYZBooks, 2018), 91.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 74.

8. Ibid, 75.

9. K.M. Jones et al., “Racial and ethnic disparities in breastfeeding,” Journal of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine 10 no. 4 (2015): 186, accessed June 1 2021.

10. Andrew J. Schuman, “A concise history of infant formula (twists and turns included),” Contemporary Pediatrics, February 2003, 91.

11.  Edward Baer, “Babies Mean Business,” New Internationalist, April 1982, 110.