A comradely politics of gestational work: militant particularlism, sympoetic scholarship and the limits of generosity – Sophie A Lewis
Complete combined pdf here.
Complete combined pdf here.
My article, “Cyborg uterine geography: complicating ‘care’ and social reproduction” is now published in Volume 8, Issue 3 of the the journal Dialogues in Human Geography. It is the anchor article in a forum featuring responses from professors Heidi Nast, Robyn Longhurst, Kath Browne, and Maria Fannin – followed by a rejoinder from me. The forum threw up lots of interesting lines of contention around the politics and value of ‘generosity’, the gender of the maternal.
Most geographers have sided with ‘cyborgs’ (technonatural subjects) against ‘goddesses’ (e.g. Mother Earth) on questions of embodiment. In itself this provides no justification for the relative dearth (in geography) of theorizing ‘with’ the uterus as a site of doing and undoing; what I propose to call uterine geography. ‘Uterine’ relations are fundamentally cyborg, animatedly labouring and not only spatial but spatializing: they make and unmake places, borders, kin. This includes not only abortion, miscarriage, menstruation and pregnancy (whose transcorporeal and chimeric character is well documented in medical anthropology) but also other life-enabling forms of holding and letting go that do not involve anatomical uteri (such as trans-mothering and other alter-familial practices). Despite our discipline’s ostensible interest in co-production, hybridity and the more-than-human, the ‘doing’ aspects of intra and interuterine processes have tended to be black-boxed in accounts of care economies and social reproduction. The proposed remedy is deromanticization: an approach that critically politicizes uterine relations as historically contingent and subject to amelioration through struggle. Potential aides include Maggie Nelson’s idea that ‘labor does you’, Suzanne Sadedin’s account of gestation’s mutual hostility and the concepts of ‘sym-poiesis’ and ‘metramorphosis’. One notable consequence of this expanded concept of the uterine is that ‘assisted reproduction’, as it is characterized today, ceases to be categorically separate from other kinds of reproduction.
Some quick reflections on the discussion…
Among the overwhelmingly positive ‘forum’ responses, Longhurst was sceptical of my claim that feminist geographers (and thinkers in the humanities generally) have lacked an active verb to describe the work of being pregnant. Or at least, she doubts that the verb “to gestate” is it, noting that the pregnant women she has interviewed did not talk about “gestating”. Separately, Browne points out that while I assert “a normal prosthesis-free family does not exist,” my actual illustrations involve (exclusively) “trans communalities” and thus, she felt, “queering ‘normal’ remains a latent possibility” in my text rather than a demonstrated reality. Meanwhile, Fannin takes issue with my strategy of adopting biologist Suzanne Sadedin’s agonistic, anti-generosity narration of pregnancy as a way of advancing those aims. Pregnancy, Maria reminds me, is “hardly presented in modern medical contexts as an entirely risk-free process”. Far from iconoclastic, the basic tenets of the “war in the womb” story are actually “overfamiliar” and – as she argues – have to be understood as complicit in ongoing “structural violence aimed at [some] birth givers” in the broader social and political field. In other words: I should at minimum have prolonged my attack on the demonization of pregnancy if I was going to focus so much criticism on its romanticisation. I address this great point in-depth in my rejoinder.
Another risk (Longhurst correctly identifies) is that we erect, in language, a
sovereign subject of gestation that, for most gestators, simply feels like a lie. However, times change. Ironically, the word “gestate” once denoted the heroic action of horse-riding and is etymologically linked to the very ideal of sovereign subjecthood: gest or geste in Old French meant “famous deed or exploit” (as in: chansons de geste). To geste-ate, then, evokes to me a meta-level of action, a doing of doings: a saddling and riding of exploits and exploitations, where the fetus (or fetuses) participate(s) in the gesture. The purpose of this and of my admittedly clumsy use of abstruse language like “metramorphosis” and “sym-poetic,” as Longhurst hopefully perceives, is to get at the uncanny dynamic in pregnancy that eludes a subject/object division. As we do labour, labour does us back. This elusive quality of the distribution of agency in baby-making labour is unfortunately something I do not know how to reference in consistently simple vocabulary. Yet I am convinced of the insufficiency of the commonplaces at our disposal – formulations like “to be with child”, “to be expecting” and “to have children”, which circle around the exterior of the gestating body and conceal its creativity. Even “to be pregnant” only credits the condition passively to the actor who, having failed to be “impregnable,” was “impregnated”. As for the problem of research subjects not volunteering alternative idioms: all I can say is that some gestators do call what they are doing gestating. For me, politically, that’s enough.
Read more – including Heidi Nast’s far more oppositional response to my work – in the next issue of Dialogues.
And in the meantime, here’s a link to my anchor article: Cyborg Uterine Geography.
CN: transphobia, reproductive biology.
What I’ve today posted on my Patreon is, in the first instance, an expansion – complete with handy URLs – of a spirited lesson about gestational biology and liberatory politics I composed on Twitter (on my @reproutopia account), which gained some attention. By way of publicly schooling some self-styled Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (remember those? my podcast appearance sought to shed light), I tweeted an epic thread – which you can go read here if you like – firstly revealing how TERFs had exposed themselves, in the ugly act of gloating about trans women dying from pregnancy, as not knowing the first thing about human pregnancy. I followed up with my thoughts about gestational liberation.
The <<post>> is for patrons only for the next 10 days. It will become open-access subsequently.
Interested? Click here:
Read my blog post – ‘Gestators of all Genders, Unite!’ – here. It is part of a whole series Verso are doing around the International Women’s Strike, which, as I suggest in the post, could also (perhaps more generatively) be called the gender strike.
Say it loud: we can affirm our non-desire to work even if we don’t work hard. Even when it comes to making babies who will die if we stop working. Though much bodily reproductive work ends up not being productive for capital (in either the immediate- or long-term), we can deploy the term ‘gestational labour’ literally. The particularity is that, just as gestation’s products take a while to emerge (babies have to grow up), work stoppages in this sphere generally don’t have any immediate impact. Their blows are delayed. Omit to bathe, feed and clothe your dependents on March 8th, and cynics may well snigger: nary a capitalist seems to be quaking in her boots. Extend that strike just a few more hours, however, and workers needed for the production of profits today and in the next decade start to sicken and fade.