Over two days in New York City, the Socialism in Our Time conference presented by Historical Materialism brought together hundreds of scholars, seasoned activists, labor organizers, union members, and journalists, as well as many who were new to or curious about socialism. Both new and veteran leftists connected, discussed, and debated at dozens of panels and workshops.
'Gestational Labor Pains: A Discussion of Sophie Lewis' Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family' was a panel on social reproduction, gestation as labor, family abolition, and struggles for reproductive justice, and sex worker rights. What follows is an edited/curated version of the remarks presented at the Socialism in Our Time conference on April 13th at the James Baldwin School in New York, including a response from Sophie.
Full Surrogacy Now is 40% off on our website until June 10.
Giving birth is commonly called labor. And, as I say in my blurb, the challenge of Full Surrogacy Now is this: What happens if all of human pregnancy and gestation is thought from the labor point of view? If it is all labor, then how can that labor be freed from now global regimes of colonial and commodity exploitation? Lewis takes one of the most everyday things about being human and thinks it through from the point of view of a cyborg communism. This book goes far into places where few gender abolitionists have ventured and brings us a vision of another life.
As Sophie puts it: “We are the makers of each other. And we could learn collectively to act like it.” (19) And what she offers is in her words an approach that is “theoretically immoderate, utopian and partisan.” (21)
The book draws our attention to a tradition of utopian socialist biology, which offers ways of thinking that free us from assumptions about ‘nature’ that are little more than bourgeois ideology masquerading as if they were immutable.
It points us towards the possibility of a gestational communism that could be collaborative, non-proprietary and using appropriate technology. It’s an approach to reproductive labor that puts it in the context of social reproduction, and which pays close attention to how structures of class exploitation, racial domination, patriarchal control and the exclusion of transgender humans concatenate with each other.
What I appreciate most about it is the way it refuses the choice between market-based solutions and state control. The market is great if you are the one with the money and hence the social power. The state is great if you can approximate the norms of individual and social life through which it regulates a people. But if you are not either of those things a more radical approach is called for – and most of us are neither of those things.
So let’s seize the means of reproduction, abolish gender, abolish the family and abolish work. Or at least: let’s think about the technics and the political economy of reproductive labor with that as the only real end-goal worth imagining. Lewis is focused on surrogacy, but her approach seemed immediately connected in my mind to other aspects of our cyborg being, for example the production and maintenance of transgender bodies.
If one were to pick out one thing to ask Lewis about it, to me it would be this: The book is close to a social reproduction theory approach. There, the focus is on the ways in which reproduction (broadly conceived) is the reproduction of labor, so that labor might in turn be productive for capitalist exploitation. But what if one were to view the social formation as more heterogeneous, as not all being fully subsumed or subsumable within the commodity form? What if there are multiple modes of both production and reproduction? What if there are social relations that are a lot queerer, that neither produce nor reproduce in a way that is reducible to social reproduction theory?
If I can be allowed another point on which to press: what if there’s too much attention here to relation of production and reproduction? And not enough attention to the forces of production? What if this Marxism is not quite vulgar enough? Maybe then we could risk the generation of a concept also of the forces of reproduction. One might then get at a materiality that corresponds to the more heterogeneous conception of the social formation, to which I gestured in my first line of questioning.
Jules Joanne Gleeson
In 1972, an essay by a leading radical feminist argued that:
“Biological motherhood has long been used as a reason for condemning women to a role of powerlessness and subservience in the social order. Therefore it is hardly surprising that feminist thinking has had to begin by rejecting physiology as a basis for consideration of ability and by exploring whatever else woman is and might be besides a body with uterus and breasts.
However, I believe that a radical reinterpretation of the concept of motherhood is required which would tell us, among many other things, more about the physical capacity for gestation and nourishment of infants and how it relates to psychological gestation and nurture as an intellectual and creative force. Until now, the two aspects of creation have been held in artificial isolation from each other, while responsibilities of men and women have largely been determined not by anatomy but by laws, education, politics and social pressures claiming anatomy as their justification.”
(Adrienne Rich, ‘The Anti-Feminist’, 1972)
In other words, here in 2019, we can say that Full Surrogacy Now was a long time coming.
It’s customary to open remarks of this kind by praising the hard work that has gone into a book’s production. The transcendent insights which anyone interested in contemporary politics will surely need to get into their system. Its indispensability for a reader trying to keep up with the cutting edge of theory.
While Full Surrogacy Now deserves all that more conventional praise, I’d like to start instead by praising Full Surrogacy Now for its sectarianism. As it’s subtitle, ‘Feminism Against Family’ suggests, this is a partisan text that seeks to both explore the failings of existing perspectives within feminism, and advance a truly revolutionary position. While a thorough and diligent work of scholarship by any measurement, Full Surrogacy Now is also a success as a polemic.
And it succeeds here on two fronts: this book is at once a transformative contribution to Marxism, and to feminism.
Within feminism, Full Surrogacy Now is a breakthrough in grasping what radical feminism is (or at least, what it has become today), and why Marxist Feminism reveals it to fail as an explanatory framework, and fall short of proposing or promoting revolutionary change.
This book has a great deal of use for anyone who has found themselves surveying the feminist movement (especially in Britain, a country we’re both emigrees from), and asking the following questions:
Why is that there are one set of feminist perspectives that call for the abolition of the ‘sex industry’, transgenderism and surrogacy, and another who call for the abolition of the police force, prisons? Why is there such overlap between feminists who refuse to acknowledge sex workers as workers, and those who refuse to recognise trans women as women? Why are radical feminism’s often astute observations concerning the nature of the state so rarely reflected in political strategising, which not only assumes but often encourages policing, systems of incarceration, and surveillance? Why are so many feminist activists previously committed to a wide range of courses increasingly dabbling in, or outright plunging into, discourses most reminiscent of hate groups?
These questions are especially pressing as they weren’t always the case: the quote I began with by Rich shows the kind of curiosity and flexibility which once characterised radical feminist theorising, or at least the best of it.
The same starting assumption that women were not reducible to anatomical components was found in Rich, Monique Wittig, and other luminaries of the women’s movements high tide. Today these insights have been pointedly abandoned by leading radical feminists.
Indeed, as some of you may know, one wing of the British feminist movement even last year hired billboards to declare women “human adult females”.
Those who’ve read Sophie Lewis’s work prior to Full Surrogacy Now (published in venues ranging from Salvage Quarterly to The New York Times) will already know what side she takes in the face of this great rupture. I think it’s safe to call her output among the most spirited and extended in opposing transphobic feminism, and also so-called ‘sex work abolitionists’. In true Marxist form, Lewis not only attempts to shut down these supposedly radical arguments, but allows their idiosyncrasies to play out, and expose the dysfunctional thinking at work in the positions radical feminists commit to.
In particular she focuses on the language of orifices: trans women’s neo vaginas, the work of sex workers, and of surrogates: all reduced to holes
Extending this, Full Surrogacy Now adds to our understanding of the treatment of surrogacy by both a detailed exploration of the (western feminist) campaigns to outlaw it, an elaboration of why the attempts to distinguish between surrogacy and other forms of child-bearing on some ontological level reliably fail, and a still more probing view of surrogacy itself, considered here as a labour process (offensive and exploitative not in some particularly outrageous sense, but as labour always is).
Much of the book is devoted to a thoroughgoing exploration of surrogacy as a practice today. In particular, Lewis focuses on the case of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic, in Gujarat India, run by Dr. Nayana Patel, an especially prominent surrogacy advocate, supporter of the ruling BJP party, shrewd business woman and ‘lean in’ feminist extraordinaire. Sophie skilfully treats Patel’s scrupulous mythical self-fashioning, identifying the socially reproductive labour which keeps Patel’s ‘badass boss’ persona on the road.
Attempting to put Dr. Patel out of a job are an array of feminist campaigners, and other critics of developments in reproductive technology (primarily this means the right, especially religious traditionalists). In many cases protests against surrogacy have been strikingly similar between the right and left, with for instance French Christian campaigners who had previously cut their teeth opposing gay marriage now mobilising surrogacy as an issue with strings of plastic dolls representing the perversion of surrogate labour endangering the sanctity of life, and the child.
A reader familiar with feminist history would notice a familiar story here: concerning transgender issues, sex work (especially pornography) have reached the same conclusion (albeit with rather differing means). In the case of trans people, a dedicated group named ‘Hands Across The Aisle’ has even attempted to foster strategic collaborations between radical feminists, and evangelical anti-feminists. In each case, the issue is an implicit (and perhaps unrealised) elevation of the normative order of things: trans women make a mockery of real women, sex work is not truly work as sex workers are merely holes rather than honest, authentic labourers. And so too, surrogacy is an offence to actual mother-child relations.
Full Surrogacy Now adds another piece to this puzzle by considering the flawed conceptualisations of surrogacy non-Marxian feminists commit to. The book seems to add significantly more heft to the conclusion that the continual overlaps between supposed radicalism, and more overtly traditionalist moralising, are no coincidence. And rather than settle for simply providing an aimless critique, the book follows through into a mode of politics I’m quite familiar with, but will only name here and await further discussion: family abolitionism.
So that’s an introduction to the kind of feminist polemic you can hope to find here.
Within Marxism, the book’s aim is to move us well beyond visions of society where babies ‘come from nowhere’, and instead elaborate on pregnancy as a labour process. Sophie has termed this type of work ‘uterine labour’. And Full Surrogacy Now makes a powerful case for it appearing in both waged and unwaged forms, with the controversy of surrogacy somehow obscuring the commonality which exist between these respective tiers of labourers. The project of this book within Marxism is to redirect scholarship away from the blossoming body of voices that were all too hurriedly opposing surrogacy in an overly simplistic (and also Marxologically unsound) way. Prior to reading Lewis’ work, at events such as Historical Materialism I had often found myself rather unsettled by this kind of perspective, that often seemed interchangeable between the scholars engaged in it, and often blazed powerfully with their rhetoric, before in questions hurriedly backpedalling as the speakers were probed on what surrogate workers had to say for themselves.
In other words they began with their theoretical conclusions and only then considered (or dismissed) a workers inquiry.
In short it seemed like self-identified Marxist scholars were taking much the same tack as the radicals; in fact, waiving their analysis to them entirely. I think that after Full Surrogacy Now, that approach will become a good deal less popular. The account of surrogacy that appears in this book is one that explores in detail and carefully what it means for foetuses to effectively appear as a commodity. Whereas previous analysis generally saw surrogates in terms of victimhood, the extension of neoliberal exploitation, and similar, ‘Full Surrogacy Now’ considers them as a proletarian workforce.
I’ve decided to close this brief preview with a passage that covers both of these agenda I’ve introduced so far: feminism and Marxism. This is a quote which I think is quite striking for appearing in her book almost as an aside, when in a less wide-ranging book it would perhaps have shown up front and centre as the great theoretical breakthrough:
“In my experience one should strive not to make a habit of stooping to refute Julie Bindel, but actually, when it is performed for clinical firms, the work that commercial surrogates do creates value—a technicality that may or may not matter for the purposes of strategizing the struggle of surrogates. Like many forms of alienated labor—commercial boxing, say, or radiohosting—gestational labor power is (consensually) plugged into a hi-tech extraction apparatus that starts it up and cuts it off, in these cases. Needless to say, it is the pregnancy itself that creates the value, even if techniques such as IVF and Csection are required to capture that value in an efficient enough manner to be competitive. When a commercial surrogate miscarries, that value is lost—and clinicians will attempt to deny her the vast majority of her wage. Destroying capitalist value can certainly be of strategic value in the context of collective disputes. Non-value-producing gestators, leveraging their social and cultural status as reproducers of life, can play a powerful role in defending and amplifying the power of value-producing gestators who destroy their product, particularly in the context of a dual strategy geared toward a world freed from the value-form.
Noncommercial pregnancy is a capitalist hinterland. Commercial surrogacy is capitalist industry.”
There will surely be disagreement from some Marxists here, and some will be unhappy to see a reignition of the debate ‘wages for housework’ originally provoked. Difficult questions concerning the Marxologically correct status of the foetus are raised by this line of thinking. But polemical as it may be, this passage clears the way for a much more elevated discussion around child-bearing as a form of labour than we’ve previously enjoyed. So while it sparked my delight as an offensive within feminism, as a point of departure for a contemporary Marxism grappling with labour and the intimate challenges of proletarian embodiment, Full Surrogacy Now is a true breakthrough.
If you’ve been near a television in the last two decades, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some version of a Mastercard “priceless” commercial. With Don Draper-worthy savvy, the McKann-Erickson agency created the credit card ad campaign in 1997 and few others have had such staying power. The original commercial featured a Mastercard-wielding dad taking his son to a baseball game: “Two tickets: $28; two hot dogs and two sodas: $18; one autographed baseball: $45; real conversation with 11-year-old son: priceless.” “There are some things money can’t buy,” the tagline goes, “for everything else, there’s Mastercard.”
Mastercard didn’t pervert the idea of a priceless family experience to hawk consumer credit, the corporation simply used it. Capitalism has long relied on the ideological dichotomization of the commercial from the so-called “natural” (or sometimes “sacred”) aspects of life. There’s nothing anti-capitalist in the idea that there are some things money shouldn’t be able to buy when it comes to the social reproduction of the bourgeois family. It has been a central alibi for exploiting supposed labors of love -- the sphere of historically unpaid women’s work, ascribed as too “natural” to command a price. Just ask the unfinished Wages for Housework movement.
The notion of “pricelessness” has its victims, and not just Mastercard holders drowning in credit card debt. The worst victims of the pricelessness narrative are those workers, primarily poor women, whose roles in society appear to threaten or disturb the flimsy commercial/“natural” binary that keeps capitalism ticking along. Sex workers, for sure, and as Sophie aptly illustrates, commercial gestational surrogates. These sites of labor struggle offer crucial evidence that, if we are to think radically beyond capitalism, the formulation “[X alienated labor] is work!” is necessary but insufficient; we must undo entrenched ideas of what is natural, what is “priceless.”
The full title of Sophie Lewis’s book: Full Surrogacy Now, Feminism Against Family points to how very capacious this text is. But it should also be an immediate signal to readers that this book, which is a book about labor, is not just a call for an improvement in surrogate worker conditions such that commercial surrogacy (and the family form that it maintains) can be defended. Silvia Federici, among others in the Wages For Housework Movement, was explicit that the demand for wages was about more than delivering recognition, improved material conditions and increased autonomy for women in the home (although that too); it was about demanding something impossible for capitalism to meet, which would thus require dramatic societal reconfiguration and redistribution.
Lewis’s call for Full Surrogacy takes on a similar one-two punch. Yes, the text offers a searing critique of the surrogacy industry under philanthro-capitalism and the nauseating myths of that surround it. In this sense ‘Full Surrogacy Now!’ is a pragmatic call for worker solidarity. Lewis writes, “it will be vital to aggressively defend the point that the hatred of a particular form of work in no way justifies attacks on those workers’ self-organization—quite the opposite. We would do better to concentrate on what sex workers and surrogacy workers have actually called for (free housing, medical care, police abolition, freedom of movement and so on).”
But the book’s intervention is in pairing these pragmatic demands with a utopian challenge to put “full surrogacy” into practice every day, to wage an attack on the system of kinship-as-property, to rethink how we might become surrogates, with and for each other. If there is “full” surrogacy after all, there can be no surrogacy, because there can be no original or authentic for which a surrogate is the substitute. There is no natural family; the Mastercard ad wouldn’t make sense! To cite another short passage: “By surrogates I mean all those comradely gestators, midwives, and other sundry interveners in the more slippery moments of social reproduction: repairing boats swimming across borders; blockading lake-threatening pipelines; carrying; miscarrying. Let’s all learn right now how comradely beings can help plan mitigate, interrupt, suffer and reorganize this amniotic violence.”
It’s a leap to move from an argument for worker solidarity, to re-thinking no less than how we kin, how we might belong to ourselves and each other and no one. I think it’s crucial not to misread Sophie as suggesting that it is the job of commercial surrogacy workers in India to rise up and abolish the family for us. It is tricky to combine surrogate worker solidarity with a reconceptualizing of surrogacy and family itself, without risking imposing our utopian imaginings on poor women workers who may not share them.
Lewis’s book is a challenge at a time when The Family and its preservation are being used as grounds to call for much needed socialistic policy. Arguments for reasonable and necessary policies like paid family are made under the rubric of decommodifying, and making possible, “family life”, but holding its contours stable. This is essentially the conceit of the (I think over-hyped—I know Sophie agrees) Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee. Ghodsee reports, using a wealth of studies, that under Soviet state socialism, women were found to score higher on various happiness metrics, most notably “sexual satisfaction.” Provided with more economic independence, socialized child and elderly care, and encouraged to take roles (albethey highly gendered) in the workplace, women were less dependent on a male partner or husband for their livelihoods and less confined to the labor of unpaid caregiving. The evidence and grounds for “better sex” under socialism are only baffling to staunch believers in Western capitalist freedom, who disregard what social safety nets offer freedom from. But Ghodsee’s conservative conclusions (her dream is basically Scandinavia) illustrate the limits of a socialist politics which places its horizon at the amelioration of life for the heterotypical family unit.
The call for just a tad more socialism to soften the blows of free-market capitalism might be appealing in a presidential candidate, given the sorry state of our politics. But it excludes far too many workers, especially women, queer and trans people and people of color. Lewis’s utopianism might not point to an existing political system as a model, but it rightly elevates existing workers as those who must be centered in the fight for something new and better. Sophie’s contribution is to assert that full surrogacy worker liberation (all worker liberation) would require not only fully decriminalization, but an end to borders, prisons, property and all that is naturalized under capitalism tout court. She makes clear that we must start, not end, with more rights, more freedom and less harm for workers.
Perhaps it’s a question of which discourse is appropriate for which situation: with the state as an interlocutor, it makes little sense to speak of family abolition, so perhaps we are best off to use the rhetoric of reproductive normativity -- the preciousness of the family, the children -- to push for much needed resources. The risk, I suppose, is collapsing this compromised navigation of the state with the totality of our politics (imagining just dreaming of Scandinavia!) The challenge is struggling for cyborgian communist utopia – Full Surrogacy! – while appreciating the significance of fighting for socialism in our time.
As alluded to above, Lewis takes a risk in looking to the shop-floor of gestational surrogacy in India and seeing how the roles of surrogate workers conceptually could disrupt how we think about kinship-qua-ownership. But is she putting a politics in these workers mouths that they have not themselves propounded? And can she avoid this trap?
Equally, at a time that the state is tearing apart families at the border, and continues to decimate kinship bonds of poor people of color through mass incarceration, is it useful to talk about being “against the family”? This is not a question of ideas; Lewis makes clear that she is interested in building, not demolishing, loving bonds. Her target is the proprietary capital-F family. Are we not best to leave the rhetoric of “family abolition” to the tired nihilists, like Lee Edelman, and find a better turn of phrase?
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for these brilliant, generous engagements. I’ll proceed back to fornt and begin with Tash’s parting question. As she indicates, family abolition here isn’t about destroying families but about overflowing the bounds of these groupings and overcoming the spiritual and material scarcity at the core of the discourse that reflexively calls them sacrosanct, supreme. It’s about recognizing that kinship as a model for social care is a breeding-ground (pardon the pun) for abuse, and that even where abuse isn’t present it leaves many people out in the cold. We can and should demand better. We can challenge the commonplace, fascoid idea that blood is thicker than water. We can contest the biogenetic and, for that matter, still very much dyadic, marriage-based imaginary about what makes parents parents. Because, insofar as its undertow is inescapably biological, “family comes first” is an explicitly exclusionary, competitive, cryptonationalist and xenophobic notion, and it amazes me that the left has had any truck with it.
The fear is, of course, that the populations who have been on the receiving-end of the violence of the ‘family’ qua legislative norm – the adoption and foster-care systems, Indian schools, the prison-industrial complex, sterilization drives, ‘child-protective’ vice squads – will be further hurt by any attack we make now on ‘the family,’ because they have been denied dignity and recognition as families and deprived of the benefits that are supposed to accrue to them as such. Family, by this logic, means something especially precious to the very people who have been and continue to be excluded from its umbrella. It would be foolish of me to deny that there is something to this. Family ideology penetrates deep, perhaps deeper than any other ideology. Not every theorist of, for example, the dispossession of black gestators from the category of ‘motherhood’ on the American plantation, draws the same conclusions from that legacy. Is motherhood an institution we want to maintain, except remaking it in a universal mode? Or, as others propose (with me among them), do we explode motherhood by proliferating and redistributing the labors of mothering—as Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls them, mamahoods, mamihoods?
There’s another, to my mind much less convincing, line of objection, which says that capitalism has already abolished the family and that, therefore, the task of anticapitalists is to defend it. It’s as though Marx and Engels didn’t themselves call for the positive project of family abolition. It’s very strange to me, the active forgetting of the once-familiar socialist demand ‘abolish the family’. But Melinda Cooper is an excellent antidote: her recent theoretic history, Family Values, shows that the core social unit of contemporary capitalism in the USA is very much the family—specifically, the family in perpetual crisis. Misreading this ‘crisis’ as demise, parts of the left have lately returned to lamenting it, blaming ‘feminism’ for the breakdown of the family and the triumph of atomization, anti-dependency and precarity. But, to quote the brilliant Sarah Brouillette:
“what breakdown of the family, anyway? The apparent post-normativity of contemporary life is entirely compatible with the establishment of new norms. We continue to be form-determined after we no longer see social forms’ normative force. Put simply: the traditional family, which for Cooper is a family coerced into existence by exigency and normativity, is not broken enough.”
At the same time, paradoxically, most actually-existing families (especially but not only the racialized, proletarian, queer iterations that happily cover the earth) don’t even receive the full suite of protections we tend to assume are there to legitimate us. This shores up the Family, as a unit of governance and accumulation. The concrete mechanisms that shore up the Family as a unit of discipline and accumulation are changeable, even ephemeral, but the ideology lumbers on, zombie-like.
I would posit, actually, that Edelman actually isn’t a family-abolitionist so much as a matrophobe. I’m not just being glib: as I read it, his most infamous work isn’t against the Family at all, insofar as it needs that form in order to have something to define its nihilistic brand of ‘don’t care’ queerness against. Ever since No Future launched, it’s been quite clear to many (especially nonwhite, nonmale) critics within queer theory and politics, that an anti-maternal, anti-baby politics will never transcend the repro-normative regime Edelman calls “reproductive futurism.” Because it is simply an inversion of it. I don’t want to spend too much time unpacking this, because I think we’re all agreed here that No Future has—forgive me—no future. But I suspect it’s a useful tool for prising open some of the knots and contradictions in play. To the extent that I “get” what Edelman means by desiring “no future,” though, I would say, it is only the insurgency of a real future—or many futures—that could achieve that end. So, I do absolutely defend “family abolition” specifically, as the name for the pragmatic and revolutionary politics I’m stanning in Full Surrogacy Now. It is a kind of lower-case monstrous more-than-biogenetic family, immanent to queer and anti-white-supremacist life in the present, that will destroy the Family; just as it is “real surrogacy” that will destroy Surrogacy™.
To reply briefly to the related concern about “putting politics in workers’ mouths”: yes, and/but perhaps this is a danger utopian theorizing cannot entirely avoid? I guess I’m operating within a genre of theorizing in which, as radicals, we survey the dystopian realities of market socialization and make a “leap,” as Natasha puts it – squinting to see the latent potential for communist coordination. What I’ve tried to argue is obviously not that the shop-floor of commercial surrogacy, Surrogacy™, is powered by people who share my politics (although I bet some of them do). My contention is that they have a unique perspective on how the ‘sausage’ of natural kinship is made. And in my analysis, where surrogates have organized politically, they have demanded working conditions that render them less temporary, less disposable, less erasable – in short, less ‘surrogate’. There are significant cross-overs with the sex workers’ rights (and liberation) struggle. They want decriminalization, healthcare, and an end to stigma. They might or might not want to co-parent the infants they hand over, but, for instance, they frequently (and rightly so!) expect to be cared for in return by the commissioning parents in an ongoing capacity—as equals, not subordinates. This challenges the private, exclusionary character of naturalized kinship, which is after all what commercial surrogates supposedly produce! While surrogates may not explicitly believe, as the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers did, that children belong to everyone and no one, their struggle as laborers still poses an immanent threat to the system of reproductive stratification on which the ‘naturalness’ of the bourgeois bio-family rests.
To speak now to McKenzie’s comments: yes, I didn’t treat “the forces of reproduction” as much as I originally intended to, at least, not in FSN itself. I have, since, written a piece for Logic magazine about ectogenesis, having poked around the hospitals in Philadelphia, my adoptive hometown, where sheep fetuses are being ‘gestated’ in plastic bags, with a view to starting clinical trials on human beings next year (although the extent to which gestating can be fully, even if temporarily, automated, remains an open question). So, I’ve been chewing more on the question of what role ectogenic technologies might play in alleviating the suffering and coercion bound up in gestational work in its myriad forms; what role such technologies might play in enabling gestational justice. I hope it goes without saying that my departure point in FSN, the fundamental insight that all reproduction is assisted, speaks to the heterogeneity of the forces of reproduction I have in mind. When writing my book proposal, though, I did intend to devote more time to the specificities of anthrogenetic methods, present and future, from mitochondrial transfer and so-called ‘three-parent babies’ to cloning and other stem-cell techniques; fleshing out (agh, it seems I can’t escape these puns) a vision of a heterogeneous distribution of automated and part-automated apparatuses that already exists and yet needs to exist in communized form. The more vulgar Marxism you recommend in this area may end up being central to whatever amniotechnical thing I write next.
I’m genuinely agnostic as to whether my approach “counts” as the social reproduction theory approach. Jules includes me, with some interesting caveats, in her ‘aviary of queer social reproduction’ – and it’s to her (as well as to Michelle O’Brien) that I shall be turning, ongoingly, for answers to these questions as pertains to womb-work and the work of kinship. I didn’t really consciously conceive of FSN as a work of SRT until recently, and I’m curious so to see how it will be received by people more faithfully wedded to the concept of social reproduction than I am. I guess what I was first interested in was the fact that gestation isn’t ‘reproduction’. Not just because, as Haraway teaches, reproduction is an oxymoron, an impossibility, in a species like ours; but also, more vulgarly, because it is clearly production and consumption at the same time, too, and this complexity, I imagine, is why it is blackboxed so often when the components of ‘social reproduction’ are enumerated and ticked off in every essay about mothering-labor. ‘Biological’ or ‘literal’ reproduction is always listed as part of Social Reproduction, but very rarely explored as work. In the 1970s, the line “every miscarriage is a workplace accident” appeared, but I was unable to find anyone who was actually unpacking that; that is, treating all gestational environments as workplaces—albeit workplaces not necessarily fully subsumed under capitalism and the commodity-form. If SRT were concerned only with the reproduction of labor, I think I would struggle to understand its liberatory potential. But I think there is quite a bit of theorizing in that field (is it a field? who knows where its boundaries are?) that is doing something more open-ended, or, as you put it, queer and multiple. I’m really interested in the many things that gestating creates, and could create under different social conditions. As Jules says, my claims about the status of the fetus will not strike every marxist as Marxologically correct (and perhaps I should have stressed that there are different statuses for differently produced fetuses).
People can and, doubtless, will, read the book and dispute my little forays into value-theory, such as the bit Jules read out. It may be clarifying, though, to say that what I have sought to do isn’t to make an incision into value-form debates so much as to contest the frame within which conversations about paid and unpaid gestation take place. What I’ve noticed is that the framing that surrogacy™ clinicians want—whereby surrogacy is distinct and separate from ‘normal’ reproduction—has for some reason been overwhelmingly accepted in academia, hook, line and sinker. Just go to any scholarly conference, you’ll see: surrogacy so often gets put in conversations about infertility and healthcare, rather than in conversations about labor, care, social reproduction, the family. So, part of my contribution, in this book, is to be kind of perverse and pigheaded about cleaving to the gestational workplace and the gestating-ness of gestating, ignoring everything else. Looking for solidarities; rejecting the naturalization of the surrogate/mother split. And, above all, focusing relentlessly on the standpoint of surrogacy workers. After all, thousands and thousands of academic articles are published each year that dedicate themselves to the commissioning or ‘intended’ parents. They’re well-represented. So much so that, sometimes, when I talk about my work, if I’ve employed the second-person pronoun ‘you’ to evoke what surrogacy is about from the perspective of the gestator: “you do a pregnancy for pay…”; I’ll stop talking only to find, when my interlocutor mirrors back to me what they have learned, this second-person pronoun has somehow become the standpoint of the consumer in the industry!—“so, if you want a white baby, you can get one, even if the surrogate you use is brown-skinned.” It takes my breath away every time this happens. We middle-class people in the global North so often really, really don’t even realise that our brains don’t (can’t) identify with the surrogate in the narrative. So what I’ve decided to do is kind of refuse to look at the lead-up to a given surrogacy arrangement (the experience of infertility). And I also don’t look at the aftermath (parenting). I just insist on the bit that gets blackboxed. The gestational labor.
McKenzie Wark is an Australian-born writer and scholar. Wark is known for their writings on media theory, critical theory, new media, and the Situationist International. Their best-known works are A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory. They are Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School in New York City.
Jules Joanne Gleeson is a comparative gender historian writing from a queer perspective about both pre-modern and contemporary societies. She covers a wide range of related topics, from ethics to embodiment. She is an academic worker, queer phenomenologist, Hegelian Marxist, and Londoner currently based in Vienna.
Natasha Lennard is a columnist for the Intercept, and teaches critical journalism at the New School for Social Research. Her next book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life has been gestated alongside Sophie’s and will also be birthed (via Verso) at the beginning of May.
Sophie Lewis, the author of Full Surrogacy Now, is a writer, water-based cyborg and – theoretically – feminist geographer who teaches at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Out of the Woods collective, an editor at Blind Field journal, and a translator of radical works including Bini Adamczak’s Communism for Kids.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]