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This review is part of the larger book review forum of Sophie Lewis' Full Surrogacy Now.
Sophie Lewis birthed a book and named it Full Surrogacy Now. Calling writing a book on surrogacy and labor a ‘birth’ is a crude and easy metaphor, but please bear with me. My friend, a sculptor, says that finishing a piece is like producing a stillborn child, then putting it on the floor and inviting everyone to stare at. Books and publications are similar. Lewis has brought into the world new ideas and new ways to envision the future. Like all births, the act is a contribution shaped by both fear and biology. Rather than merely staring and judging at Lewis’ creation, I want to shift this Author-Meets-Allies forum into a “group doula formulation” and help usher this book into the world. I want to turn these commentaries into “placenta meal” that the readers can share. For those of you not as familiar with ‘woo community,’ or don’t read Cosmo, many believe eating the placenta gives us energy, strength to our extremities, and warmth to the sexual organs. Others believe eating the afterbirth both heals and protects us against ghosts. Geography’s present is haunted by its past (environmental determinism, patriarchy, white supremacy, cis-normativity, etc.). Lewis’ book can help in exorcising these tendencies. From my reading, Full Surrogacy Now’s co-mingling of the geographies of bodies, birth, and activism provides new ways to intertwine political ecology and health geographies, both of which are capable of countering fear and abolishing the family.
The geography of surrogacy
Despite being trained by geographers, Lewis’s book is more intensely engaged in ongoing debates in Marxism, feminism, science studies, and queer theory. Her book is not a close reading of a landscape, a workplace, or an ecology; instead, she goes towards the heart of the debates in geography around socionatures (Braun and Castree, 2001) and social reproduction (Katz, 2001; Mitchell et. al., 2004) to question the underlying assumptions and politics that structure such spaces. Instead of diving into the weeds, Lewis starts from first principles, almost an if/then hypothesis: if Marxist and feminist praxis is true, then we need to abolish the family. From this position, Lewis extends Haraway by suggesting a practice of “amplifying, rather than simply staying with, the trouble.” (p. 139) Lewis wants to amplify the contradictions in labor, children, family, and life — all through seeing the geography of the womb as a shop floor rather than a sacred space that is essentialized and precious. She then takes these arguments to their logical conclusions that may make many people uncomfortable, stating that “What is abortion, if not the refusal to work up an embryo into someone’s kin?” (p. 78) The source of feeling uncomfortable comes from the world, rather from Lewis’ ideas.
That being said, Lewis does directly contribute to many literatures in geography without a direct citational practice. One debate is the continuous discussion around commodities, be they lively, dead, or fictitious – for example, the concept of fictitious commodities originated in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 (2001) book The Great Transformation. Polanyi’s term refers to anything treated as market commodity that is not created for the market, specifically land, labor, and money. Along those lines, Lewis’ book asks: are children property? Whose labor should we talk about? What is the monetary value of a carrying a fetus to term? Lewis addresses the view (with legal precedent in a New York court) that contract gestators “are not selling a baby; they are selling pain and suffering.” (p. 82) Accordingly, Lewis calls on us not to look at a commodity (or a place, a site, or a technology). Instead, we must research and inquire into the processes that lead to the creation of commodity. This puts her in a lineage of what I think are the best geographers, based in process thinking and relational dialectics (Harvey,1996, being one example). Her book is not just about babies or mothers or women. Rather, her politics calls to reduce the pain and suffering of the people who produce life, or at least to give fair compensation for said suffering.
Plural Biologies of the Body
Producing life brings me to my second point around political ecology of health and the body. Lewis is one of a growing number of scholars whose work is neither health geography nor political ecology. These scholars don’t identify with these sub-disciplines, yet they have much to contribute into what coalesced as “Health adjacent” geographers at the 2019 AAG (organized by Juliane Collard, Carolyn Prouse, and Kelsey Johnson). Geographers are great at importing frameworks from outside the discipline; we should heed those geographers, like Lewis, who are working with the trouble and amplifying troubling biologies and politics. These are scholars who write against the long history of “blood and soil” environmentalism and politics, and against any form of essentialism — especially a notion of some pure or essential nature around biology. In this way, Lewis is of the lineage of thinkers such as Haraway (1990, 2013) and Mel Chen (2012), who are drawn to cyborgs, toxicity, and monsters as a bulwark against shame and purity politics.
Lewis’ book is part of a political ecology of health because her project is animated by ecological Marxist and feminist thought and politics, and because it is grounded in the body/biology. She is part of a cohort of scholars openly struggling with the lines between ecology and biology (Mansfield and Guthman, 2014; Wilson, 2015). Lewis gives us a “laboring biology” and centers this investigative practice on how bodies create something new, within a labor theory of value (akin to Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Lewontin, 1996). Lewis borrows words from fiction author Samantha Hunt, whose pregnant narrator (in the short story “A Love Story”) reflects:
“My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how … There’s nothing simple about eyeballs.” (quoted in Lewis, 2019: 128)
Drawing from Maggie Nelson’s theory-memoir The Argonauts, Lewis continues to ask of gestation:
“How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and trans-formative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?”(quoted in Lewis, 2019: 128)
This quote reminds me of the phrase some people say when they see a baby: “oh what a little miracle!” And it is true. That some bodies make eyeballs is wild and a miracle. But also (and this is also Lewis’s argument) it is completely mundane. That doesn’t make it any less miraculous. Centering the strange, wild, and transformative throughout everyday life is central to Marxist and feminist thought. What follows is the next question: where to start organizing?
In 2015, Abby Neely and I published a piece in Progress in Human Geography about the political ecology of health, in an attempt to unify its multiple strands. We returned constantly to the question of childbirth. In the article, we noted:
“In the conclusion of Limits to Capital, Harvey (2006) proposes a synthesis of feminist and Marxist theory and suggests a different material foundation for a critique of capitalism. He writes, ‘The starting point... is not the commodity, but a simple event – the birth of a working-class child’” (Jackson and Neely, 2015: 56, quoting Harvey, 2006: 447).
But, as Full Surrogacy Now shows, this choice of origin-story merely opens up more contradictions and struggles. To bring in a truly collective ecological politics, Lewis gives us the concept of the plural womb. Working in the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis (and Haraway), Lewis elaborates “we are all revealed to be disconcertingly pregnant, multiply-pregnant with myriad entities, bacteria, viruses, and more, some of whom are even simultaneously gestating us” (2019: 162, emphasis in original). This is miraculous, but unwieldly. And here Lewis gives more guidance:
“There is only degenerative and regenerative co-production. Labor (such as gestational labor)and nature (including genome, epigenome, microbiome, and so on) can only alchemize the world together by transforming one another.” (2019: 19, emphasis added).
What this means is a return to dancing with biology — a dance haunted by ghosts of biological determinism. The partner is scary and dangerous, which is why we need more placenta soups, as afforded by books like this. Our collective struggle around the plural womb requires openness. According to Lewis, quoting Iris Marion Young, “The integrity of my body is undermined … I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends, and the world begins.” (Lewis, 2019: 127, quoting Young,2005: 50). This radical openness gives us new possibilities. But when the world turns towards hate and fear, it also exposes our radically vulnerable, alchemized, open bodies to innumerable harms.
Scared and scary families
I want to end with fear, and the family. Full Surrogacy Now covers anti-surrogacy movements, linking the birth of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) to a panel in 1984 “in Groningen where FINRRAGE was founded.” (Lewis, 2019: 39). This group doula-formation centered around “anxiety” and “fear of the so-called ‘Death of the Female’” (Lewis,2019: 39). The TERFs are now calling themselves “gender critical,” but I think we should call them FARTs: Feminism-Appropriating Reactionary Transphobes. As a site of contradictions within feminism politics, the FART node is shaped by fear. It is a reactionary way of thinking which aligns with many conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and alt-right movements. These movements illustrate a creeping fascism deeply rooted in a form of biological and natural essentialism. What Lewis does, in a very logical way, is to break apart these arguments piece by piece to show there is something profoundly hysterical (I’m fully aware of the gendered history of that word) about these anti-surrogacy and TERF positions. My question is (and I’m not alone): what are they all afraid of? Why do they care? ContraPoints, an online pundit and public intellectual, answers my question in a recent performance on “gender critical” feminists (aka TERFs/FARTs). She gives a clear description of their position as “a baroque palace of rationalizations built upon a foundation of pure disgust – just like homophobia, ”decisively linking her target to the wider toxic pantheon of political positions rooted in disgust, hate, and fear, which then champion pure bodies, closed relationships, and segregated nations. In contrast, Lewis calls her project family abolition as a means to overthrow the family out of love, not disgust.
For many, overthrowing the family means losing control of what family is, or what babies are, or what marriage is. This fear, again, is founded in pure reactionary politics: a deep vein of conservative thinking that brings back these old ghosts of biological/environmental determinism. Reactionary fear and disgust area dangerous cocktail, especially when overlaid with ideas of bodily and group purity. Lewis gives us the other option by recognizing that “We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy.” (2019: 20). To counteract this fear of loss, Lewis shows that this doesn’t mean zero-sum thinking, but a future open to more: more relationships, more care, more experiences. Lewis contributes to a long line of utopian writers when she says that “The aim is to use bourgeois reproduction today (stratified, commodified, cis- normative, neocolonial) to squint toward a horizon of gestational communism” (2019: 20). This landscape of plural regenerative co-production and a geography where we make each other are difficult to see when darkened by fear, but Lewis gives us many ideas to create a path forward.
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Other essays from this forum include:
Introducing Full Surrogacy Now, Kai Bosworth and Elizabeth Johnson
Reclaiming Surrogacy, Maria Fannin
Wages Against Gestation Work!, William McKeithen
Will Families be Different in the Future?, Reecia Orzeck
Love, Care, and Comradeship, Alex Loftus
Response, Sophie Lewis