51: Sophie Lewis - writer, translator, and feminist geographer
I was first introduced to Sophie’s work by Anne Boyer, whom I interviewed about a year ago. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Sophie before her New York Times article blew up, and she became overcome with inquiries about her new book, Full Surrogacy Now, which will be published by Verso on May 7th. (Tomorrow!) We discuss all this and more in our conversation below.
Sophie Lewis is a writer, translator and feminist geographer living in Philadelphia. Her translations include Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak (MIT, 2016, with Jacob Blumenfeld), A Brief History of Feminism by Antje Schrupp (MIT, 2017) and Unterscheiden und Herrschen by Paula-Irene Villa and Sabine Hark (Verso, 2019). Lewis is a member of the Out of the Woods collective, an editor at Blind Field: a Journal of Cultural Inquiry, and a queer feminist committed to cyborg ecology and anti-fascism. She has published her work, on subjects ranging from Donna Haraway to dating, in Boston Review, Viewpoint magazine, Signs, Dialogues in Human Geography, Antipode, Feminism & Psychology, Science as Culture, Frontiers, Gender Place & Culture, Jacobin, The New Inquiry, Mute, and Salvage Quarterly.
Gracelynn Wan is a Philadelphia-based photographer, illustrator, and designer. Her artwork revolves around humans relationships and explores themes of adolescent emotions and conflicts. She is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania, but is originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
SOPHIE: Well, I’ve just come from a session with my Lacanian psychoanalyst—
SOPHIE: —so it’s been a theme, this afternoon! My experience with my parents was pretty traumatic. But I think pre-puberty was a happy time. As children, my brother and I were very bonded and joyful and precocious. We put on plays. I remember swimming-pools, kiddy-pools, and bath-time a lot—shrieking, splashing, creating tidal waves. I stuck my fingers down the plug of the bath, up the tap, and up my bum. We were generally exploring embodiment in this polymorphically perverse, joyful, unbounded, genderless way. At my happiest, I’m still like that. And I still respond exuberantly to water. My best friend identified me not long ago as a “tropical sea-creature.”
Later, I experienced gender as pretty straightforwardly a violence and a nonsense. I have lots of memories of being really incredulous at the realization that [femaleness] was something I was being disciplined into. I went to a birthday party at the age of eight or something, and put some lipstick on in order to impress my friend. My friend’s dad asked me, “What’s that on your lips?” And then he prevented the girls at the party from playing the shooting game that the boys were doing. I just couldn’t believe or understand that. It sounds really trivial and minor, really, but these sorts of moments multiply. I feel crushed under the layers of them. Anyway, my friend and I ended up in the garage putting our bare vaginas on a football.
SOPHIE: Don’t ask me what that had to do with anything. But I think it was a quiet rebellion, and maybe a way of flirting with each other. There were different national flags on this ball. And my analyst asked me today if we were putting our vaginas on specific countries—
SOPHIE: —but I don’t think there was a specific logic to it. I don’t think I knew where Romania was, you know? I think it was mainly about the frisson of potentially having put our vaginas on the same flag.
SOPHIA: Could you talk about the transition from experiencing these sorts of things to theorizing them? I know Donna Haraway has been a huge influence for you.
SOPHIE: Yeah—I remember reading “A Cyborg Manifesto” shortly before I went to university and finding it incredibly exciting. Even though I didn’t understand it (and probably still don’t fully, to be honest), I felt like it made a lot of sense, this figuration of post-gender womanhood.
It’s not specifically about family abolition, but I think it contains this deeply queer need for a revolutionized mode of social reproduction that a strand of the “small-c” communist tradition carries forward. That’s probably why the Manifesto for Cyborgs was taken up and experienced as a sort of trans text in trans communities all over the world. People have had to learn how to mother each other and care for each other in inter-generational and non-biological models since there have been queer people.
As I’ve mentioned, I bear the wounds of familial trauma, and that’s part of where the theory grows out of. I guess you could say that my sense of the need for family abolition came from an empirical assessment of my personal circumstances.
SOPHIE: But I also can’t separate those experiences from my political desire for the commune.
The ‘psychoanalytical’ explanation for why someone wrote a book is never not political and intellectual at the same time. At the end of Full Surrogacy Now, I include a reflection on my father’s remark during a car ride when I was a child. I asked him whether he would still love us if he suddenly learned that my brother and I weren’t genetically related to him, and he just kind of didn’t say anything. So, the debate about the relationship between love and biogenetics was explicit for me from a pretty early point. The idea that ‘blood is thicker than water’ was clearly a powerful fiction; thinking through its violence and combating its logic was always personal and political.
I truly believe we could do better than the nuclear family. When talking about The Dialectic of Sex, people tend to put the greatest emphasis on [Shulamith Firestone’s] not-very-plausible notion that we could mechanically, literally automate gestation. But that’s only a small part of a book that actually has a lot more to say about the coercion of the private household and how we might organize a more liberated, consensual domestic existence. One where kids might be able to “transfer out” if they’re not happy with the people they’re living with, for instance.
Those were the ideas that really resonated with me. And the slogan “Abolish the Family!” was central to the gay liberation wing of communism throughout the twentieth century. Just this week I attended an archival event here in Philly, at the William Way Foundation [LGBT Community Center], where there were dozens and dozens of queer socialist pamphlets from the last 100 years, and there’s something about family abolition in a majority of them. Different kinds of Marxist sects and sub-groups were all talking about the need to overthrow the nuclear, white, bourgeois family, a demand which I think is unfortunately...not on the table anymore.
SOPHIA: Because it’s not really a living conversation in LGBTQ communities, or that it’s not possible at this historical moment?
SOPHIE: In LGBTQ spaces I think we’re seeing a polarization between those who still pursue an anticapitalist project as part of their queer liberation, and those who prioritize their whiteness and/or class interest in alignment with capitalism. Increasingly, in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, affluent gay people are acting and voting where their money is rather than with their orientation or their historic solidarities or whatever.
But [by saying that conversations about family abolition are “no longer on the table”] I meant on the Left. The argument for abolishing the nuclear family at some point descended to the status of a completely wild-eyed utopianism.
SOPHIA: A sad footnote to that: my boyfriend made this sad comment the other day about how he’s increasingly agreeing with [Niccolò] Machiavelli, who said that a man would more easily forget the murder of his father than the theft of his patrimony. I think about that a lot.
SOPHIA: It seems you are already starting to answer this, but can you talk about how you came to develop the need to write Full Surrogacy Now?
SOPHIE: I am an animal who does critique.
SOPHIE: And I will defend that, you know? Of course, there’s something to the argument that it’s easy to tear things down, but we need to build things up, and so on and so forth. But good critique is a loving act. I felt like I had to intervene because so many different types of bad discourse on surrogacy were dominating. Not just dominating—completely colonizing! Constituting the entire conversation.
Take the very framing of ‘surrogacy’ as a thing apart. I don’t see any justification for segregating the conversation about reproductive technology and the conversation about pregnancy and mothering. Because that just naturalizes and affirms what the capitalist bio-clinicians are saying about their business, which is that it has nothing to do with labor, nothing to do with ‘normal’ ‘biological’ familiality, i.e., it’s just this technological assistant, this fix, this enabler, that can intervene in exceptional circumstances to troubleshoot a hiccup in the process of becoming a parent—if you have enough cash. Whereas in fact, it’s a labor relation that is everywhere already; a labor that is not new. Surrogacy is already present in non-surrogate reproduction.
That’s what I’m trying to point out with my polemical title. It does upset people. Sometimes people completely get the wrong end of the stick and think I’m calling for more surrogacy arrangements. But I suppose I’ve made this bed now, and I must lie in it. Silvia Federici, some of whose work I am obviously deeply indebted to, and whom I very much respect, is deeply against surrogacy.
SOPHIA: I didn’t know that!
SOPHIE: Yeah, who knows, I might still win her round, but as I understand it, she doesn’t think a word associated with “such a perverse practice” can be redeemed. In Italy, it’s very rare to find a feminist who isn’t anti-surrogacy. I don’t want to sound too dismissive of it, but there’s a very deep Catholic cultural element, and I would also say that there hasn’t been the same scale of queer and trans-feminist intervention in prevalent socialist feminism in Italy as there has been here [in the U.S.] in the last 30-40 years. It’s very virulent over there, the “surrogacy debate.” The right-wing government is in power, and the bioethical flavor of the conversation has a deeper pitch. “Baby selling,” “womb-trafficking.” Here, it’s mainly still just the single-issue pro-life fringes who talk like that. Though, under a Trump administration’s second term, I could see that changing swiftly.
SOPHIE: Anyway, I wrote Full Surrogacy Now because I could clearly see various different ways in which I could make an incision in the discourse. And…I need to say this carefully, because we all swim in patriarchal mind-juice, matrophobia is a plague, and I’m wary of my own sexism. But I have to admit that I resist being placed exclusively on academic panels about ‘maternity’, and slightly resent being filed automatically under ‘reproduction’. I am not that interested in maternity per se, you know? It sounds strange to say. But I’m also not really that interested in gender in this book, which is something you flagged at the beginning of this interview. This is a book about labor. People at conferences don’t really get that, even if I try to like scream in capital letters: “This is not a gender talk! You don’t have to put me on a feminism panel necessarily! You don’t have to schedule me in a motherhood slot!”
The danger in saying this is implying that there’s no value in participating in those conversations, when of course there is! And I am in those conversations. But it’s important to me to muscle in on territory where gestating isn’t considered political or economic or technological. Gestation belongs in conversations about political ecology and financial crises, too. And I want to demonstrate, as I hope I have done in my book, that it’s not necessary to say the word “women” in an entire book all about commercial and uncommercial pregnancy. By the way, how do you feel that went…?
SOPHIA: I thought it was really effective. So effective, actually, that if you gave me a version of your book with the word “women” all over, I would have the reaction that I think you want your readers to consider, which is that it upholds this sort of essentialist, “back-to-nature” approach to surrogacy that you’re trying to write against.
SOPHIE: Yeah. I don’t think that “women” as a category is politically useless or needs to be evacuated. But I do think that there are ways of doing politics about deeply gendered forms of work—which, in some situations, pregnancy obviously is—that don't necessarily take up those gendered frames to do battle with. I think we can talk about a diversity of tactics here. There are things to be said about gestating that aren’t surely ‘feminist’ points. And I hesitate again, because the kind of feminism that I advocate for is an anti-fascism, is a communism. It’s not about just women anyway. So what I mean, I suppose, is that there are things to say about gestating that are not… gender-oriented. I was going to say gender-critical, but then I remembered that the TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] have monopolized that term, which...I don't know if you saw, but I had a New York Times article out the other day—
SOPHIA: —Yes, I did.
SOPHIE: —which got me swamped with all the predictable [reactions]. There was a campaign action that they were encouraging people to take, where people emailed the New York Times to complain about the disgrace that was my op-ed. [laughs] It was my first experience with anything like that.
SOPHIA: Is there anything that occurred in the fallout that you learned from or didn’t expect?
SOPHIE: I’m tentatively ok with being unresolved about the ethical parameters of putting myself in a position like a New York Times op-ed, speaking about trans-hostile activism. The whole thing was very abrupt, and I had 48 hours to weigh in on this situation where far-right avowed feminists from the UK had gone to Washington D.C. to harass a liberal progressive trans campaigner. And I was like, it should be a trans woman writing about this and benefitting from the prestige of the vehicle. But then, on the other hand, relatively safe queer people like me need to put their necks out for trans-feminine people more often.
I got somewhat terrified of the backlash, on the second day, when it got a little more frenzied. I was wondering if I’d made the wrong decision, because my partner is a trans woman. She is very supportive of the fact that I wrote [the article], but I was still lying awake wondering if I had created a situation in which [the reactionaries] would harm her—which, thankfully, hasn't happened.
It was also my first experience of being...in those troll crosshairs. At the level of my ego, it was confusing. Transfixing. Like, “they’re obsessed with me.” But they’re not. My friend was very right to point this out: “They’re not obsessed with you, Sophie. They don’t want trans women to exist. Don’t get it twisted. Tomorrow they’ll have forgotten all about your bit.” And it was true! They did. And then I had the very strange sensation of like, “Oh. They don't care anymore…”
SOPHIE: In the aftermath of my article, a few people were saying it was “ironic” of me to use Louise Bourgeois’ images of gestational corporeality to accompany my work on my Patreon and on the Verso blog, given what I think about TERFs. I found that intriguing. Like, really? Spell that one out for me. Why is it hard to grasp that I can both stand up for my trans sisters and be interested in gestating? Quite a few trans women (for instance, Jules Joanne Gleeson) think and write very seriously about womb work. I don’t see any irony, and I think it tells us more about the person making that claim than it does about me. Their horror that someone (me) is pushing gestational justice and trans liberation rather bolsters my argument that the kernel of TERF, SWERF [sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminist] and SERF [surrogate-exclusionary radical feminist] ideology is this idea that we should be cleansing our bodies of contaminating influences so that we can be real productive subjects—not queers, not sluts, not cyborgs, not artificially modified femmes. And underlying all of this disgust is a “wounded attachment” to womanhood, which, if you want to be sympathetic to it, is really sad. We might even speculate that it’s crypto-trans itself, like, stems from a thwarted trans desire, which turns into hate. Yes, I’m suggesting TERFs harbor an unidentified, unacknowledged dysphoria about the experience of being female, which gets redirected as sadistic resentment of anyone who is in some way escaping that fate. Anyone who is brave enough to re-make, re-position, re-identify themselves, despite all the danger that entails. Like: “Wait, no, don’t you realize you have to fucking suffer? Because I am suffering.”
SOPHIA: I was surprised reading your book how visceral my immediate reaction was against your proposition, “abolish the family.” I talked to Sarah Schulman a couple weeks ago, especially about [her book] Conflict is Not Abuse, and since then I’ve been thinking about the ways in which I’m politically inactive because I identify with the state. And I think that, as you rightly point out, the nuclear family is the most deeply-rooted of those kinds of identifications. More so even than romantic love. It’s so hard to imagine the sort of revolution that you propose.
So my question is, when you envision the reproductive utopia that you desire, what kind of force would bind communities together that doesn’t in some way reinscribe the same harmful categories that we’re trying to avoid? Genealogy is obviously the primary one of those categories for you, but I that’s also attached to cultural traditions, for example, and race and gender. What are other ways we could relate to each other?
SOPHIE: My answer is comradeliness. I’m interested in transgenerational forms of care and commitment that are open and critical, yet still attached and engaged—and aren’t blood-bonds or even necessarily ‘love.’ In any relationship where there’s a power differential—like with parents and children—there’s a Harawavian ethics of responsibility that we need to be paying attention to. These relationships are full of violence, irreducibly. And maybe in our anti-violent struggle, we will never get to a point where care relationships are completely nonviolent. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay with the trouble and try.
Crucially, there’s a racial gulf in the way that this slogan [“abolish the family”] operates politically. For me, the best and most compelling theorization of family abolition comes from the nexus of queer and black theory. This is so for obvious reasons. Specifically, in the U.S., in the wake of the experience of slavery and the plantation, there’s a wound in the experience of black kinship. There are many different opinions about what exactly that wound is, and how or even whether it can be healed. But for some black radicals, there is no good reason to try to inhabit the template of the nuclear family. As Hortense Spillers laid out, in America, the heteronormative nuclear family per se was built on enslaved black people—on their exclusion from it. You need those racialized reproducers who are invisibly laboring to make it look like the white nuclear family is a natural entity; a self-sustaining form in nature. Without that—without, notably, the black gestators on the plantation who bore no status of motherhood, parenthood, even womanhood—we wouldn’t have the white American nuclear family operating as the unit of class consolidation and accumulation that it has for several centuries.
It’s a very painful history to trace. And perhaps there’s a good argument that I shouldn’t be speaking to you about this at all. There is an arrogance and an appropriativeness that I risk, given that I am white. It may seem that I am trying to speak across the color line about family abolition, blithely, or in universalizing terms. Hopefully, my book makes clear that the abolition I’m talking about—as Ruth Wilson Gilmore says about prison abolition—is not about destruction but proliferation: an abundance of care relationships. And I will say that my debts and my inspirations in this come from the black queer polymaternalist radical tradition. They come from people like Spillers and Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Angela Davis and Audre Lorde.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
SOPHIE: I think women need to touch each other more and give each other more orgasms.
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