Labor Does You

What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors?

An edited excerpt from Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family.

At the Women’s March on Washington, DC, in January 2017, Janelle Monáe warned that those who “have birthed this nation . . . can unbirth it if we choose.” Sigrid Vertommen, theorist of “repro-sabotage,” declared it a brilliant intervention, and it was. In the name of reminding the 500,000-odd people in attendance of their power—both to deal death and to produce life—it made sense to talk about choice. As a queer black artist, Monáe knows better than most that the conditions of possibility for this “choosing” are heavily circumscribed. Gestators’ freedom is circumscribed not only by the policy horrors we’re used to listing on our marches against Trump but also by the less-than-perfect control we possess on an individual level over the work we do with our bodies. The statement “we can, if we choose” strategically exaggerates (un)birthers’ agency.


Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. Verso Books, 2019. 224 pages.

This same tendency—to exaggerate the separation between humans and the things they are doing, as well as the degree of human control—is true of many kinds of theory. The flip side of this ontological anxiety is the fantasy that surrendering entirely to one’s work is a deeply beautiful thing. For most of us, there isn’t much to love about the fact that the labors of creation and destruction move through their subjects more or less independently of their choice. Whom does it serve, in the present, to figure this dissolving of the self in labor as sublime and desirable? Unsurprisingly, women, queers, and people of color have often been the ones to correct these romantic pro-work inclinations. Fighting for a world based on “fulfillment through work” is not a communist horizon, even if that goal remains beloved by some who share the commitment to abolishing capital. Laboring shall no doubt one day be more pleasurable than it currently is; humanity will be free. But the framing of struggle, in the meantime, remains a matter of finding ways to maximally eradicate work, not to enjoy it. And that, in turn, requires recognizing work for what it is—wherever it is—in the first place.

In her memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson revisits the idea that “you don’t do labor. Labor does you.” In other words: How can we know the mother from the fetus, the gestator from the gestation? Bringing this tangled mess of producer and product into dialogue with Monáe’s call for an unbirthers’ revolution is the difficult but necessary task. How does one actually exert the political “choice” to refuse, in so circumscribed and nonsovereign a situation? How do we collectively develop the prostheses, techniques, and technologies that would give us more meaningful forms of agency around pregnancy? How do we do politics with the understanding that politics is also, simultaneously, doing us? And finally, how do we make it reliably OK for our comrades to enter into the many, many situations where they’re being done by labor? Because, while the truth of Nelson’s striking maxim applies first and foremost to the labor of birth, it also describes other work forms: In The Argonauts, it includes her partner’s labor of self-reinvention, the labor of writing, and, in a complicated way, the process of dying.

Certainly the labor of “being in labor” “demands surrender”; it “runs you over like a truck,” Nelson attests. “If all goes well, the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless you will have touched death along the way. You will have realized that death will do you too, without fail and without mercy.” Which is why, when we take up the anti-reproductive struggle in America evoked by Janelle Monáe, we have to develop assistive apparatuses that can ease the process of dying, helping us face up to death’s presence within life in general, and providing for (“doula-ing”) better and more autonomous deaths in specific. It is why we have to face up to the fact that, as Donna Haraway says, “sometimes it’s important to kill . . . it can be a good thing to do.” Birthing and unbirthing the world are overlapping projects. “We’re not idiots,” affirms a pregnant Maggie Nelson in annoyance at anti-abortionists’ way of addressing those considering having an abortion: “We understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.”

The Argonauts describes Nelson undergoing IVF and performing pregnancy at the same time as her partner Harry remakes his sex. The title is the building metaphor for two parallel “gestational” processes, recalling the mythical ship the Argo, which remained itself even as, one by one, all of its parts were replaced while it sailed. In Nelson’s autobiographical critical theory, birth, gestating, writing, parenting, and gender/sex transition are all asymmetrically mutual forms of holding and letting go. They are not meaningful or “worth it in the end” according to some sentimental calculus. They are labor-intensive and ambivalently grueling, boring, and joyous. Maggie and Harry, gestator-gestatees, are simultaneously sailors and sailed vessels, fluid self-birthing and self-un-birthing subjects whose organs, muscles, and endocrine systems move, shed, and morph.

Nelson’s stress in both arenas is firmly on the collaborative character of production, the production, in this case, of selves. Gender transition is not an autonomous process one might achieve alone. Likewise, Chikako Takeshita proposes that what pregnancy produces is “the motherfetus”: an entity characterized, among other things, by self-defense on the part of the gestator against the aggressively colonizing placental cells; an asymmetric but mutually shaping relationship; an antagonistic unity. That is to say, the process of uterine becoming involves a one-way filter (the placenta) yet isn’t a one-way street. At least two new identities are generated. Thoughts to this effect are spelled out by another poet, Minnie Bruce Pratt, in the words she addresses to the fetus hidden inside herself: “The sound of your blood crossed into mine.” Pratt’s account is scientifically accurate. “Microchimerism” is the scientific term for the cross colonization that takes place in pregnancy, whereupon the pieces of DNA left behind by the fetus float around the adult’s body for the rest of their life.

According to Rebecca Yoshizawa, pregnancy is about “intra-action, or the mutual emergence of entities in simultaneous practices of differentiation and connection.” Exactly this could also describe the diffuse productivities of the Harry in The Argonauts who self-administers testosterone, transforming his voice and his very bone mass while sweating skin-permeable testosterone onto (and into) his writerly, gestating lover. Simultaneously, the body of that gender-Argonaut’s “same-sex” parent is being irreversibly colonized by strange DNA in the form of living fetal cells. As such, the famous lines—They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do—require revision, because, biologically speaking, they also apply in the opposite direction. Gestation always implicates actants far more diverse and numerous than the figures implied by the words “mum and dad.”

With her titular ship’s repair-and-maintenance crew, it is as though Nelson is answering Christine Battersby’s complaint that “we are lacking models that explain how identity might be retained whilst impregnated with otherness, and whilst other selves are generated from within the embodied self.” And while the metaphor of the metabolism of the mutant ship is genuinely fresh, it builds on previous descriptions of being pregnant, demonstrating that authorship can only ever be coauthorship, and even including annotations or glosses on theory in the margins of the memoir. For Iris Marion Young—who does not appear explicitly in The Argonauts—pregnancy is one of the things that schools us (unpleasantly) in a communistic sensibility. “The integrity of my body is undermined . . . I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world begins.” Pregnancy occasions, in Nelson’s words, at once “a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body.” Alienation per se is arguably not a problem—indeed, it has proven to be an appealing value to some feminists, notably Laboria Cuboniks, the authors of “Xenofeminism,” a manifesto they even subtitled “A Politics for Alienation.” The point is: Which alienation? In anti-surrogacy feminism and ecofeminism, as Helen Hester notices, gestators are typically encouraged to give ourselves over to (alienate ourselves in) natural childbirth. In this view, “reproductive technology offers a disenchanted alienation, achieved via devolving epistemic authority to medical experts, whilst nature offers a (for some reason vastly preferable) enchanting alienation, achieved via the subjection of the impregnated body to forces beyond its control.” I, with Nelson, reject this distinction between reproductive technology and “natural” pregnancy, and between the two alienations they represent. For Samantha Hunt, too, gestational biology is already a hostile takeover: “I’m ruled by elixirs and compounds I don’t even know.”

But it’s not just that the technophobic, pro-“natural” message is troubling, given the health risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth, and the literal risk of death that rises in proportion to one’s loss of control over a pregnancy. The message fails to grasp the bothness, the cyborgicity, the queerness of the labor experience. The productivity made possible by nature and medicine’s foreign rule is, in many ways, vindicating and miraculous: “My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how,” says Samantha Hunt’s narrator. “There’s nothing simple about eyeballs. . . . ‘Queer’ once meant strange. . . . I am extremely not simple.” Meanwhile, Nelson asks:

How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)?

In a way, yes: But it seems to me that we might also want to regard the politics of gestationality more broadly, in terms of the erasure inflicted on the skillfulness of bottoms (in the sexual sense), the subjugation of that gender-distributed power we’ve called “circlusion.”

The problem that “circlusion” corrects is the over-valorization of agency in our imagining of labor-power, for instance the excessive attachment to our self-image as authors who exert control over their work. Even Marxists who (in theory) know better would prefer to feel they have the upper hand over the labor process. Politically unsettling as it may be, however, it does appear that labor does us. Or so Nelson recalls being counseled several times during her pregnancy. As Marxists, it would make sense to work from this interpenetrative knot as an image of labor. It could serve as the model in relation to which other forms of earthly labor, when we investigate them, may or may not differ. In other words: Rather than seek to shoehorn pregnancy into the falsely simple categories we have to delimit productive work, what if we faced up to the possibility that a far, far wider range of social labors than we might previously have thought are fundamentally akin to gestatedness, gestatingness, marriage, abortion? What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors? What strikes, riots, and occupations would this make possible?

Noncommercial pregnancy is a capitalist hinterland. Commercial surrogacy is capitalist industry.

Notwithstanding the wildness of the labor that “does them,” as things stand, waged gestators are not calling for rescue. This is remarkable, and while they don’t have to command your reverence (as they do mine), it seems clear to me that they deserve the utmost respect. They are not calling for destruction of the industry that exploits their labor (at least, not in shorter order than any other industry). Ethnographies and workers inquiries are quite unambiguous on this point, even as RadFem exponents of Stop Surrogacy Now policy appear unable or unwilling to read them.

The familial status quo is a far more deserving target for “our” opposition. I say “our” here, optimistically, despite being unconvinced that collaboration between revolutionary and cultural feminisms is possible. If revolutionaries want to transform that template, they must act to secure not policy safeguards against Surrogacy™ but rather incentives to practice real surrogacy, more surrogacy: more mutual aid. We need ways of counteracting the exclusivity and supremacy of “biological” parents in children’s lives, experiments in communizing family-support infrastructures, lifestyles that discourage competitiveness and multiply nongenetic investments in the well-being of generations.

Editors’ Note, Vol. 58: Liquid

More flexible than solids but less unwieldy than gas: Of all the states of matter, liquids appear most vulnerable to human manipulation. But who gets to do the manipulating has little to do with physics and everything to do with power.