It is hard not to love a woman on strike

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 01.06.2020

About Sophie Lewis, a feminist theorist and culture critic

One of the great contributions that Queer culture has made to human life, is the constant critique of social norms. Furthermore, not only do Queers achieve this by their very existence, but they are often the first to formulate and try out alternative models of social life in which the skills of community, solidarity and empathy thus acquired, can be useful to all. An example of this, for me, was Andrew Sullivan, who in his book Love Undetectable (Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival, 1998) transcends romantic love, which is often a source of fierce competition, illusions and even disappointment between partners, and replaces it with social friendship. According to Sullivan, feminism for the first time in human history, has created the conditions for mass friendship between women and men. Gay activism, on the other hand, is also largely a liberation movement for heterosexual men, as their homophobia often simply masks a fear of deep and emotional friendships between themselves.

Another example of Queer tactics for overcoming biological and heteronormative destiny is, for example, drag families, which originally formed as a refuge for the many Queers expelled from their circle of relatives, persecuted and humiliated by society. Such depth of mutual support and love of a self-created "mother" and an adopted "daughter" is rarely seen even in "normal" families. “kinship is always made not given,. . . . ” states Sophie Lewis (1988), a feminist theorist and culture critic, “. . . By the same token, more often than we think, where kinship is assumed as a given, it fails to be made." The denial of what is taken to be self- evident, is at the heart of Lewis' critique of the traditional family and the parent-child proprietary relationship and forms the starting point for her first book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, published last year.

The title and tone of this work is deliberately provocative (it has always been the most effective tactic of Queer communication), but it is permeated by longings for love and companionship, the fulfillment of which is not only hindered but practically undermined by the existing social and family structure. “While the fantasy of “blood” relationality is that it makes adopting one another unnecessary, in reality, as I sought to argue in Full Surrogacy Now, children never belong to us, their makers, in the first place (“the fabric of the social is something we ultimately weave by taking up where gestation left off, encountering one another as the strangers we always are, adopting one another skin-to-skin, forming loving and abusive attachments, and striving at comradeship”

Man is a phenomenon created by the community, and mothers should be all those who practice motherhood, and not just limited to those who become pregnant or are within the framework of existing legal norms.

The seemingly shocking demand to recognize and support the practice of surrogacy (which has also angered many feminists who see this as a new form of slavery in the growing commercial surrogacy market, not to mention the thoughts of all sorts of “traditionalists”) is, in my reading, an invitation to re-distribute the burden of a single biological entity’s motherhood , amongst all the members of his/her future “kith”. (Lewis also suggests reviving the ancient word “kith, with its nebulous senses of the friend, neighbor, local, and the customary”). Secondly, it’s a reminder that if, under capitalism, a human is considered an economic asset, then it’s unacceptable that the work behind this "creation", which is traditionally the responsibility of one person, the mother, continues to be unpaid and life-threatening. All the more so if well-off individuals are allowed to pass on the risks of carrying their future children to the poor, thus exploiting their poverty and vulnerability.
“Astute reviewers, of course, had already twigged this: “Lewis is, demanding more family, not less”,” the author writes in an essay based on her online conversation at the Riga Biennale entitled Mothering Against the World.

As fate would have it, the publication of the book and the anxiety it generated, coincided with the illness and death of the author's long-estranged mother, however, this fact did not shake the validity of her findings, and it merely strengthened them. In her memoirs, Lewis writes: “My mother was, among many other things, an ingeniously gifted humourist, a white anglophile German heterosexual (thrice-divorcée, twice from the same man), a middle-class liberal who was briefly an organized Maoist ‘68er at the University of Göttingen, and a survivor of parental abuse; also, the first in her family to go to university. She was a wilful, though not explicitly feminist, cis woman who, at the age of 42, having achieved perfect bilingualism and a position at the BBC German Service, suddenly changed her mind about not having children, quickly married an Englishman who worked for Reuters, gestated two children in a row, and raised them to puberty with insufficient help from her new husband—and insufficient help from a succession of “au pair girls”: the paid momrades of my childhood. By her own admission, my [Mom] more or less checked out of mothering me, not long after I got my first period, sinking into alcoholism when I was about 11, and she about 53.”

The term “momrades”  is made from the words “mom” and “comrade”, and which Lewis justifies in her essay Momrades Against Motherhood and uses often. She distinguishes two meanings of the word as it appears in urban slang: 1) members who have children (and this could include both the so-called "mothers’" self-help groups on social networks and political associations for various purposes, who wear their motherhood “as a flag”, and 2) comrades who do the lion’s share of support work and reproductive labor in the movement. Lewis emphasizes the contradiction between the two definitions - mothers who are like that because they HAVE children and mothers who become such because they are DOING maternal work.

It’s a contradiction between "mother as an institution" and "mother as a verb", but Lewis expands the notion by asking, for example, whether mothers who have given up caring for their own children (as in Lewis’s mother’s case) can enjoy such fellowship, and whether the companionship shared by mothers would not be more appropriate, for children in the first place.

Ruminating on her mother's death, Lewis comes to the conclusion that on the one hand, her own traumatic experience, the lack of maternal care, could actually have been a form of protest against the usual form of "mother as institution" and the expectations that capitalism heaped on it, and therefore “it’s hard not to love a woman on strike.” But on the other hand, perhaps she needs to do the same work of maternal care for her mother, i.e. she must adopt her mother herself.

Such considerations once again reveal that it is the historically very recent "nuclear" family (equally a product of both Western capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism) that is a deformed form of cohabitation, unlike the ancient and truly traditional extended families, which housed all generations, genders and orientations of relatives, including volunteers and adoptive family  helpers, and, in the best traditions of left utopianism, the more radical forms of the future family that Lewis imagines in her book.

And as the great Queer icon Mama Ru, who was the first to make her adopted family a part of mainstream global pop culture, would say:

"If you can't love yourself,
how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an Amen?”

Sophie Lewis’ lecture took place on June 4, 2020 as part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art weekly Series of Talks and Conversations, which bring together outstanding thinkers, researchers, and writers from various fields.

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