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Sophie Lewis on Techno-Feminisms and Why Biology is Far Stranger than We Think

In this episode Sophie, author of Full Surrogacy Now and self-defined wayward Marxist, talks about defining good technology for the whole of the biosphere, why the purity of the human species has always been contaminated by our animal and technological origins, why nature is much, much stranger than we think, what that means for the lambs that are now being grown in artificial wombs, and why technologies like birth control and IVF can never liberate women within the power dynamics of our capitalist present.


Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019), hailed by Donna Haraway as “the seriously radical cry for full gestational justice that I long for.” Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (Verso, 2022) is her second book. As a member of the faculty of Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Sophie teaches courses on feminist, trans and queer politics and philosophy, including family abolitionism, Shulamith Firestone, and Kathi Weeks. With the Out of the Woods writing collective, Lewis contributed to the collection Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis (Common Notions, 2020). With Blind Field Journal, she has helped foster communities of Marxist-feminist cultural criticism. Previously, Dr. Lewis studied English Literature (BA) and Nature, Society and Environmental Policy (MSc) at Oxford University; Politics (MA) at the New School for Social Research; and Geography (PhD) at Manchester University.


READING LIST:


Lewis, S. (2021) Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. London: Verso. https://www.versobooks.com/books/3756-full-surrogacy-now


Lewis, S. (2019) "How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans", New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/opinion/terf-trans-women-britain.html


Haraway, D."A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and SocialistFeminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.


Heaney, E. (2017) The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans Feminine Allegory.


Firestone, S. (1970) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution https://www.versobooks.com/books/1853-the-dialectic-of-sex


Lewis, S. and Bell, D. (2015) "(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future", The Disorder of Things. https://thedisorderofthings.com/2015/11/05/why-we-cant-let-the-machines-do-it-a-response-to-inventing-the-future/


Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

In this episode Sophie, author of Full Surrogacy Now and self-defined wayward Marxist, talks about defining good technology for the whole of the biosphere, why the purity of the human species has always been contaminated by our animal and technological origins, why nature is much, much stranger than we think, what that means for the lambs that are now being grown in artificial wombs, and why technologies like birth control and IVF can never liberate women within the power dynamics of our capitalist present.


KERRY MACKERETH:

So Sophie, thank you so much for joining us here today. So just to kick us off, could you tell us a bit about who you are, what you do and what brought you there the questions of gender feminism and technology?


SOPHIE LEWIS:

Yes. Hi, thank you so much for having me on. So I'm a freelance, or I guess you could say independent, hybrid, para-academic with sort of many strings, probably too many strings, to my bow. I teach short courses that are currently online at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. And I encourage anyone listening to look at what's on offer there and register if there are topics that interest them, because it's a fun, non-graded kind of educational, social theory seminar. I do a lot of speaking gigs, which started happening after I published my first book with the leftist publishing house Verso. I also have this unpaid position as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Research in feminist queer and transgender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which is near where I live in Philadelphia, in the US, but you could just say I'm a writer at this point, really. Notwithstanding the 10 years I put into academia, first at Oxford, doing a BA in English literature, and then an MA in environmental policy. Then at the New School in New York, doing another MA in Politics, and finally at Manchester University, doing a PhD in Human Geography. And it's been over five years since I completed that PhD. And it was a strange thing for me, realising one day, after a couple of years of really struggling with uncertainty as to, you know, whether I wanted an academic job, that I was actually the thing I always wanted to be as a child, which is to say, a writer. And somehow I'm just about making it work. Although I should mention that, like many creative labourers in this neo-feudal age, I have a Patreon and supporters that cover more or less exactly my rent. Anyway, you asked, What brought me to gender feminism and tech? And I have a sort of simple answer to that really, which is, Donna Haraway’s 1985 ‘Socialist Manifesto for Cyborgs’, which I read, I think, at the age of 16, although I want to specify I did not understand it at all at that time. But even at 16 years old, I somehow knew overwhelmingly that it was right, that it was true that there was something there about the necessary sort of interpenetration of feminism. And you know, techno-contaminated historicity that was needed and exciting, not to mention the language and the sort of mode of expression and communication and personality, behind this text, that resonated. And I suppose I aspire to have a similar sort of humorous, passionate, kind of, ironically sincere, sincerely ironic approach to my liberation writing.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

I think that that humour is so important because feminism isn't usually associated with humour. And yet the style of writing and for those people who are listening who haven't read Donna Haraway’s ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’, it's an amazing text and really tongue in cheek, but also very serious about the kind of problems with contemporary technology, looking into the future seeing the kind of racialized labour that would be and was a problem. At that time she was just really ahead of the game. I think on that note, you know, here are 3 billion dollar questions, what is good technology? Is it even possible and how can feminism help us get there? And please, we'd love your take on that with or without references to Haraway!


SOPHIE LEWIS:

Thank you. Okay. Initially, when one thinks about this, I think it's easy to be tempted to sort of overthink the technology part of the question and perhaps under think the goodness element, so like, oh, gosh, okay, how do we even define a technology, do we want to define it as simply you know, tools, or applied science or, you know, whatever is designed or Ah, you know, I suppose there are lots of definitions. Or perhaps it's sort of like, quick, quick what good technologies can we think of, you know, perhaps insulin pumps, or dishwashers, or glasses, or smoke-free cooking stoves, or the printing press or the Pill, you know, or vaccines? And the implicit goodness of that list, you know, off the top of my head is, I suppose really humanist, right? I, you know, good tech is tech that saves human lives, or lengthens human lifespans or improves human ‘quality of life’. But I wouldn't be horribly upset if I had to stand by that answer. But as you well know, and by the way, this is a fantastic question to structure a podcast around, the question of goodness in conjunction with technology, is so much more complicated, especially when subjecting humanism to critical scrutiny as a category of thought, from a critical race theory perspective, for example, and when subjecting humanism to the sort of critique that sees it as difficult to disarticulate from colonialism, and especially when trying to define goodness for the whole of the biosphere, and for more-than-human forms of life. So as some species of wayward Marxist, my criteria for desirable tech might be, its affordances for struggles of liberation. So this means - this gets really sticky and difficult, but it might mean, for example - that, you know, I'm not sure how useful it is to put even all the abominable machines of military destruction, guns and so on, simply in some kind of bad technology box, since weapons have been used historically against oppressive forces, and not just by them. Understanding that doesn't preclude naming the reasons for the historical emergence of nuclear missiles or machine guns or whatever, as capitalism and Empire, and patriarchy. But I think unfortunately, once technologies are made, they probably aren't going to be unmade in the absence of a massive generalised effort to unmake the conditions of possibility for their invention in the first place. So I suppose my stance here is hopefully legible as Harawavian, and for empirical and political reasons I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. So empirical reasons and political ones, you know, to do with what is, so the cyborg is a sort of diagnosis of the human animal in its materiality, as well as a sort of orientation and a speculative tabulation to constitute a collective subject. It seems to me, indisputable that feminists must face up to the contaminated, historically situated sort of part-animal, part-machinic character of our very selves and face up to this, otherwise we will ‘be bullshit’, lapse into various species of nostalgic or woundedly attached or queer-phobic or sex worker exclusionary or anti-trans bio-conservativism. A technophobic eco-feminism doesn't just not appeal to me, then, it strikes me as actively harmful. And for instance, in the worldwide assault on transgender children that is underway today, we can trace I think quite easily the influence of a technophobic eco-feminist understanding of the human body as somehow redeemable from contamination or somehow purifyable and somehow metaphysically sexed according to an immutable binary. And, you know, I want to just share that I had this extraordinary encounter in person with Donna Haraway, after I had disagreed with some of her more recent writing about kin-making, and one thing she said to me with the most extraordinary sort of friendship was, yeah, Sophie, you are an eco-feminist, which I think she quite understandably thought would be maybe a bit provocative or unwelcome. And I said, Yes, of course, you know, because you taught me that the Eco, or the sort of the domain of the natural, to which we might refer as feminist is, you know, way stranger than what we could possibly imagine and that we, you know, feminists, you know, need not be afraid of the biological and what it might, you know, dictate. And we don't have a choice anyway, we must, we must engage with the biological.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

I love that about her by the way. Because, you know, I think people listening might think that feminists are trying to run away from biology or essentialism. And you just said something about this, this very beautiful line that people will probably be asking about, which is, you talked about an immutable binary and being metaphysically sexed? Can you just explain to us very quickly, what you mean by that?


SOPHIE LEWIS:

Ah, okay, I'm really interested in some of the work that, for example, the historian Jules Gill-Peterson is doing at the moment. She's the author of, amongst other things, Histories of the Transgender Child, and she's also got work coming out on, you know, the sort of history of trans misogyny. I see it as very much part of a new sort of materialist kind of feminism, that's actually rejecting the idea that feminism was sort of, you know, cisgender first. Maybe I should be answering the question more directly. First, I am sceptical that sex in our species sort of is immutably dyadic and binary in a way that sort of pre-exists or is separable from the social, right. There isn't a sort of natural, binary sex reality that you can actually separate from the language and the thought categories, and the sort of scientific medical edifices that have purported to just identify, but have perhaps instead constructed that self-understanding which becomes very concrete, very material, very real, very sort of palpable, tangible, but nevertheless, isn't sort of trans-historical or forever. And, yeah, you know, Emma Heaney is another extraordinary sort of historian of the way in which feminism became cis, and that this is sort of a turning on its head of the received and maybe mainstream understandings of the category of transgender, as, you know, a parvenu, lately an interloping or novel presence in history, I think. Yeah, it's also quite Eurocentric, and perhaps, you know, epistemically colonial to imagine that gender and sex the world over have been for one thing kind of separable in that way that, you know, a lot of 101 feminist understandings like to just really separate out gender and sex, but, you know, this, this perhaps is not the only way to do it, because it that plays into a clean separation between the domain of the natural and the domain of the cultural right, like we have a sort of sex substratum on which gender then plays. And this isn't really how, you know, truly cyborg understandings of the material-semiotic matrix in which we all swim would have it. So yeah, I think, you know, our embodiment and its sexedness in flux is created - we are all sort of endocrinologically and socially and prosthetically moving and mutually created.


KERRY MACKERETH:

That's a really beautiful way of putting it, that we can be prosthetically and mutually created. And I think some of you know, I also really loved what you're saying as well earlier and through that answer as well about the kind of fetishization of the natural and how that natural has also come to be understood as a kind of naturalised sex binary, which you have really beautifully unpacked there. And you know, I think some of the work that I'm really excited about on this topic comes from my own field, Asian Diaspora Studies, and someone we have on the podcast, Michelle Huang, has this fantastic art piece called, I think Robots, Clones and Aliens. And we're just kind of thinking about the way that this kind of fetishization the natural was also kind of racializing in this techno-Orientalist sense, and the way that certain kinds of like racialized genders become like bound up with technology and that that kind of intertwinement is used to dehumanise and that's my thing work like hers and work like yours, like just is so important. But on this question on fetishizing what is understood to be natural, and how that naturalisation is completely like an operation of power, I actually wanted to ask you about your first book, which came out with Verso, called Full Surrogacy Now, which made real shockwaves when it hit it's a fantastic book, highly recommend checking it out to all our listeners. But could you break down for our listeners, what is the core argument of your book? What is it about? Plot twist, it’s about unpinning the idea of the family, and how do you think technology is going to help us get there or what role do you think technology should play in that?


SOPHIE LEWIS:

Thanks. Yeah, so for surrogacy now, feminism against family, it sounds like it might be a book about what we think of as surrogacy, you know, in the media, including in sort of feminist anti-surrogacy campaigns and talking points, which are often very much of a piece with, you know, anti trans trends and sort of sex work-prohibitionist types of feminism. So, surrogacy in that context is a really stable sort of signifier, it means, you know, a sort of outsourcing of what I would call gestational labour. So that a baby becomes, you know, manufactured by ‘somebody else’, by somebody else other than the baby's parents, right. And that's suppose that you know that then there are lots of bioethical conversations about that, on those terms that are very sort of established, and I was really shocked in a sense in my academic kind of meanderings when I was coming onto this topic, because in a sense, it is a reworking of my PhD work, really. But the panels that I would see at conferences, symposiums would have a really clean segregation between ‘assisted reproductive technologies’ and then questions to do with maternity and family and mothering. Basically, the phrase that I came up with in my head one time was that the phrase assisted reproduction implies that ‘natural reproduction’ is unassisted or it implies that there is such a thing as an assisted reproduction and I think, as you know, a disloyal daughter of Donna Haraway, I really dispute the idea that there could be a form of anthrogenesis, to use a maybe overly fancy word, the manufacture of human beings, I dispute that we could be the makers of one another, in in purely sort of one-to-one individualised ways, right I think, you know, the bad and the good news if you like is that we are constantly at work manufacturing one another. You know, badly if you like, right, we speak about bad technology or good, Full Surrogacy Now has a sort of dual valence, it's on the one hand a description of the deeply sort of stratified reality of planetary reproduction in a class society, right where, you know, racialized and feminised labour is constantly sort of being purchased and brought in to the supposedly autonomous, usually white bourgeois ruling class household to care for its members. You know, there's a lot of actual sociological data on how white upper class families are perceived by basically all of us as literally needing and requiring more care. And so this image of the family as a sort of autonomous organism is such an outrageous sort of fiction, it's incredible that it has sustained. I mean, you could read all a lot of culture as kind of propping it up, right? I am a firm believer in the role in which things like TV have in, for example, legitimising the police, right, there are so many, you know, TV shows that are about identifying with cops. By the same token, I sort of wonder if the private nuclear household would be quite so robust if it weren't for the, you know, millions and millions of representations of it that we have. In reality, if it's fictional, though, that doesn't mean it's not a hugely effective disciplinary frame. So, I suppose I said, it sounds like my book is a book about surrogacy. On the one hand, it's a diagnosis of the bad, uneven and combined outsourcing and distribution of reproductive labour. And on the other hand, it's a utopian cry. Well, a critically utopian cry - critical utopianism being a sort of perhaps decolonial strain within utopian studies that thinks about Utopia almost as a method of negation of the given the naturalised and insists on a kind of negationism, an insistence on a livable world, right. Anyway, Full Surrogacy Now in that, you know, utopian sense is an actualization of the way in which we are each other's harvest. And each other's you know manufacturers, so a comradely mode, beyond the sort of legal and economic fictions of private property and biogenetic-centred kinship in which we would have, you know, communised care, something like that.


What role can technology play in this is a great question. I am techno-open, techno-curious. But also, and I think this is not contradictory, quite techno-pessimistic, in a capitalist present. Right. I think that makes sense, right? I am, as I think you probably know, kind of someone who's poked around in the hospital near my house in Philadelphia, where ecto-genetic technology is actually being tested and developed and researched. So I've written an article about the so called Bio-bag, which is an ectogenetic medium for gestating unborn - I usually never used that word - lambs, right, like foetal sheep. I guess I said unborn because I really think of the ideological drivers behind this research and development as essentially a ‘pro-life’ agenda. You know, the funding from the Trump administration came from parties who are interested in establishing foetal personhood and using this technology very much against the best interests of you know, the people I might call gestators rather than women, because I don't think the two categories need to be assimilated. And so very much with the proponent, the infamous proponent of machine uteruses, Shulamith Firestone, who wrote the Dialectic of Sex before disappearing forever from the scene of feminism in 1970, I'm deeply sort of pessimistic about any role for exogenesis within capitalism or in the absence of a really concerted, you know, massive generalised struggle to wrest control of technologies from the hands of, you know, the proponents of forced gestation right. I'm in the US, the other category that is currently under attack is of course, abortion, right. Transgender children and abortion. I will say, you know, Firestone - I find this very humbling - and I, you know, we're put in the same sort of sentences a lot, right? And I'm very honoured, because I find Firestone extraordinarily exciting and moving. I also disagree with I think, more of her individual sort of statements than not, there is an absolutely unforgivable chapter on race in the The Dialectic of Sex. And there's also a lot of sort of strange machismo and frankly, nonsense throughout The Dialectic of Sex, but I still love it as a critical utopian. You know, bombshell, it's, again, the humour right? Actually, Haraway is perhaps the rightful inheritor of the sort of fine, Firestonian title in our society. But you know, I am sick to death of the way in which Firestone is still haunting the mainstream, liberal imaginary as supposedly this, you know, techno-euphoric, techno-optimistic fan of machine uteruses. Because this is what she actually says. If you don't mind” “cybernation, like birth control, can be a double edged sword, like artificial reproduction, to envision it in the hands of the present powers, is to envision a nightmare”.


Eleanor

Hmm, and if you Google, you know, wombs outside of bodies, or you know, artificial wombs and lambs, I mean, the pictures are horrific, just to warn you. But also, there's that big question, the only question, the really boring question of will artificial wombs be the climax of feminism, will we be freed from our paltry biological wombs? And this - we had Sarah Franklin, that we interviewed a couple of weeks ago as head of sociology at Cambridge - she was like, it's a misreading of Firestone. She doesn't actually say that. So thank you so much for clarifying and for us.


SOPHIE LEWIS:

I apologise for the repetition!


ELEANOR DRAGE:

No, that was extremely to the point and she was trying to say something different.


SOPHIE LEWIS:

Maybe an extra dimension - actually, perhaps I should mention the difficulty of, so you asked me to summarise the arguments for Full Surrogacy Now. And it's always hard because I do try and do so many things at once. One of the steps in the argument is that identifying, you know, the labour of pregnancy as you know, gestational work is not moral praise, because I want to mention this, I feel I aligned myself with the philosopher of anti-work, Kathi Weeks. Thus, my hopes and desires for technology, for example, are that they might play a role in freeing humanity from work. And this, you know, might sound like an idea from the left tendency known as accelerationism. Right, a trend that has sometimes distorted what was originally a rather sort of eco-anarchist idea of communal luxury or luxury communism, and turned it into a sort of high-tech vision of so-called full automation. But, you know, as I mentioned, I think it's possible to be attuned to cyborgicity and be open and interested in the possibility as I call it, I think in in a piece about about ectogenesis elsewhere, the low tech, grassroots, ectogenesis, whilst also being, you know, techno-pessimist about the role that technology in and of itself plays in anything, right even in liberated conditions. I am a member of an ecological writing collective called Out of the Woods. And seven years ago, together with another member, David Bell, I actually wrote a critique of inventing the future, which is the follow up book by the authors of the accelerationist manifesto. And this essay was published in 2015 on the blog The Disorder of Things, and it's entitled, ‘Why We Can't Let the Machines Do It’. And we positioned ourselves as partisans of critical utopia. And we criticised inventing the future for actually espousing the wrong kind of utopianism when it comes to the anti-work possibilities of automation. And one of our main points was simply that it's difficult to see how the technologies enabling automation could be produced or even, you know, self-reproduced without the continuation of what's currently some of the most dangerous and badly, if at all paid, and racialized work on the planet, the mining of raw materials, for example, for which automation looks a long way off. And at the national level, it's hard to see how a demand for automation can be met given the ready low-cost availability of incarcerated people's labour power, which is used, for example, to make circuit boards for IBM and Compaq. So, I suppose that is a more sort of typical sphere in which to think about anti-work, but I actually try in Full Surrogacy Now to extend that to the labour of gestation, right. I don't think, you know, in the spirit and the tradition of wages for housework. But naming something as work is to valorize it per se, right, it's to identify a workplace to struggle in and against, towards a future free of work, right? My type of Marxism is of the school in which the working class is not trying to make the world in its own image or, or rule the world but to abolish itself, qua work that requires workers. And so anti-work anthrogenesis, if you like, is the really tricky question of how to support, resource, make safe and so on, pregnant people, but also perhaps, yeah, keep an eye open, keep a corner of your mind collectively open to things like bio-bags, which might, you know, because we should be utopian about this, you know, potentially, interrupt, share, distribute, you know, take the load off a human pregnancy. I do think if research and resources were poured into the question of, you know, the ability to stop gestating, but simply because one one wants to, because one doesn't want to be doing forced labour, right, unwilling labour, then perhaps we could come up with something, you know, anyway.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Yeah, well, no, thank you so much for that. And I think, you know, you said that in Full Surrogacy Now on the complexities of trying to explain what you're doing in this book is that you're trying to do so many different things. But I think that's the beauty of this work, in which is entwined, you know, such rich analyses about the many different vectors of power that have to be taken into consideration when we're thinking about something as complex as reproductive labour. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast, it's been a real privilege to talk to you. I always love chatting to you. You're such a lively, delightful thinker. And again, I think, at really the forefront of this wave of feminist thinking, which is taking it as hot, not just gender as its memorably maybe being, you know, described or identified within these particular colonialist paradigms, but kind of thinking through it much more expensively in relation to other relations of power, and how there's always constituted so yeah, once again, thank you so much. It's been such a delight to have you here.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our generous funder, Christina Gaw. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry Mackereth, and edited by Laura Samulionyte.

Catherine Breslin / Better Images of AI / Silicon on Black 2 / CC-BY 4.0


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