Diacritics is 50: A golden anniversary is a significant milestone for any academic publication, let alone one that began from a rather eccentric (dare I say punk?) ethos. Rather than the usual toasts or special commemorative issues, we have asked our readers and writers to reflect on the history of the journal. For the third part of our anniversary series, Diacritics editor Karen Pinkus spoke with Zoë Sofoulis about the concept of nuclear criticism and Sofoulis’s essay “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism”
“The metaphor of the planet as fetus makes it a vulnerable entity, the entire future of terrestrial life”: An Interview with Zoë Sofoulis
Dr. Zoë Sofoulis is an Adjunct Research Fellow and associate member at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. With background interests in technology, culture and gender, she researches cultural aspects of urban water.
Karen Pinkus: What was your connection to Diacritics? How did you get involved with the “Nuclear Criticism” special issue or with “nuclear criticism” in general?
Zoë Sofoulis: I believe I got involved because Richard Klein, the then editor of Diacritics, was visiting Santa Cruz. Perhaps he was friends with Hayden White, then Chair of the History of Consciousness PhD program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was enrolled.
In a misjudged move, I sent my parents a copy of the Christmas newsletter I’d prepared for friends, enthusing about the conference and my forthcoming first publication. My conservative father, who knew only of PhDs in the hard sciences, said that if I was to be writing about all these out-of-space ideas with sexual connotations, he’d prefer if I came back to Australia, even without the PhD, rather than “sully the family name” in print. I’d already been toying with a nom de plume and his response led to my adoption of the name “Zoë Sofia,” which I continued to use in U.S. publications for over a decade.
KP: Why the focus on 2001: A Space Odyssey? Had you always meant to write about that film or did you come upon it as a way of thinking about abortion and the fetus?
ZS: It was more like abortion and the fetus offering a way of talking about 2001, which had been the topic of an almost PhD-length honors thesis I’d done in 1979. That thesis established my approach to analyzing the unconscious, irrational, or “mythic” dimensions of high-technology and what I called “science fiction culture.” (Though a decade earlier I had published a short essay in my high school yearbook, critiquing the first moon landing for the dominating masculinism it represented.) My project was to do a kind of feminist psychoanalytic anthropology of my own first-world culture’s myths, interpreting symbols and narratives in much the same way as Western psychoanalytic (or psychoanalytically informed) anthropologists such as Geza Roheim studied myths of non-western cultures. Key references were Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and psychoanalytic historian Norman O. Brown. The concept of “Jupiter Space” came from the honors thesis.
I continued science-fiction studies in graduate school, expanding my work to Melanie Klein and preoedipal psychology, studying Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, science studies and assorted high theory with such luminaries as Donna Haraway, Hayden White, James Clifford, Vivian Sobchack, and Brown, who was working on themes of the apocalypse. When I had the opportunity to participate in the Nuclear Criticism conference at Cornell and was figuring out what to write about, Brown challenged me along the lines of: “The world could end at any minute. What do you most urgently need to say now?” I reflected back on the insights from my honors thesis and on my feminist and anti-nuclear politics in terms of the present context I found myself in: Reaganism and the threat of nuclear war, along with the rabid Christian anti-abortionists and the rising cult of fetal personhood. “Exterminating fetuses” was the result.
Icons of dinosaurs were big in the early 1980s and I had a set of dinosaur stamps. Still do. I’d also done some semi-art, semi-political things on the “Extinction Sux” theme. Thinking of fossil fuels as dinosaur blood, that kind of thing. The nuclear criticism idea (along with potent Californian weed) inspired me to make the dinosaur designs for Richard Klein that appear in the journal.
KP: In your essay you cite a popular work, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. Do you remember why or how you focused on him rather than, say, high theory?
ZS: I’d been thinking about nuclear extinction and other threats to life for years before I read The Fate of the Earth in installments in The New Yorker (to which a housemate subscribed). He defined extinction as the death of unborn generations. During the Santa Cruz floods of 1982 I miscarried early in an unlikely and unplanned pregnancy. I’d never really counted on having children or being a mother, for medical, political, and social reasons. As a feminist intellectual and occasional activist, I had always rebelled against the expectation that women ought to be mothers, or that there is something deeply suspect about women who choose to be “deliberately barren” (one of the misogynistic slurs later hurled against Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister).
Sure, it was a grim trudge through Schell’s scenarios of nuclear winter, but in view of my own recent and unlikely future reproductive prospects I was captivated by his idea that the threat of extinction makes all of us parents of future generations. This was also a good way to think about action for environmental protection (and for teaching, which has its parental dimensions). It seemed a feminist-friendly idea and a way of engaging meaningfully in what we would now call biophilic and future-creating activities without having to be an actual biological or social parent.
I wouldn’t have known quite where to turn for high theory about this. (Though I later found out about Hannah Arendt’s highly relevant meditations on gravity and earth-boundedness in The Human Condition.) High theory didn’t come up as an answer to Brown’s challenge of saying what I needed to say most urgently. What I wanted to figure out is: how can the U.S. right be both pro-nuke and “pro-life”/anti-abortion? I drew on the analytic techniques I’d learned, and my understandings of high-tech myth (together called “the sexo-semiotics of extraterrestrialism”) to understand how that apparent contradiction was constructed and sustained. The secret was to understand the perverse reproductive fantasies at the heart of even the most threatening high technologies, and for pro-choice advocates to concede that abortion was a moral choice, maybe even an immoral one, but one that women ought to have the right to make.
KP: How does your piece read today? For instance, would you think differently about these questions in the light of Bernard Stiegler’s work on technology/the tool? Does the field of writing classed under the term “biopolitics” confirm what you were saying in the early 1980s?
ZS: I have no clues how the piece reads today. It is an enjoyable surprise in my post-career phase that it is being translated into French and Italian thirty-seven years after it was first published.
It was disappointing that it wasn’t taken up more in science-fiction studies. It was described as a “cult classic” at some point, and the journal issue itself was reportedly frequently stolen from Australian libraries, but for all its supposed fans, there were few citations. I suspect people read it and referred to its ideas anonymously as some “feminist” view.
For a while it seemed to have found a place as a standard reference in feminist legal studies discussions of fetal personhood. Male identification with the fetus as astronaut is still a thing, probably. I am not sure if other feminists have taken up my argument about avoiding the moral question by stressing women’s “choice,” whereas I was arguing for women’s capacity and right to make moral decisions for themselves, about reproduction and other matters. That’s still a good argument, I reckon, and relevant today.
It was my first published academic article, and reading it now I am struck by how bold I was, especially proclaiming the project of a sexo-semiotics of extraterrestrialism. It’s the kind of thing blokes do, but I was too naïve in the ways of academia to understand that it is extremely rare for a woman to be recognized as a systematizer or an inaugurator of some minor sub-branch of some area of study, or even for the name of her project to be taken seriously!
Stiegler’s work on technology/tool wasn’t available in English translation until I was entering semi-retirement and had for several years been doing applied humanities research, in projects on driving, public space, and mostly the social and cultural dimensions of urban water management. I’d read Martin Heidegger on technology during my doctoral studies and later Don Ihde’s phenomenology of technics, which I applied to studies of cyberculture and installation and electronic artworks, especially by women, and my psychoanalytic framework extended further back to the neonatal and pre-verbal infant (see Daniel Stern). All of that, plus themes from my PhD on metaphors of discovery, birth and enlightenment in Frankenstein, led to my “Container Technologies” essay in Hypatia (2000).
As for biopolitics: a crucial course in my undergraduate studies was called “Psycho-politics” with readings from Freud, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and Brown, which was supplemented by readings in my feminist reading group, where we read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality as something of an anarcha-feminist treatise. This set me up well for further exposures to the biopolitical as well as the corporeal turn once I got to study in graduate school with Haraway and take seminars by White, Paul Rabinow, and Foucault himself (in his Bay area days).
Biopolitics is a term that potentially covers so much of what is important and what I have cared about, starting in my teens with feminism. Not only how our bodies are shaped and positioned and made to play roles in the operations of biopower, but also, coming from the old Freudian ideas of symbols and sublimation, how the body insists and how body fantasies express themselves even in the most high-tech objects and media. And now, the conversation about anti-extinction struggles of biophilic people and forces against biocidal institutions and practices.
KP: Your essay includes a set of images that seem crucial. Where/how/why did you come to these?
ZS: I score very high on analytic abilities in standard tests (like GSAT), and I think that is down to communications between verbal and visual bits of my brain.
I called the images “analytic comics” (or more likely “comix”) and drew them as shorthand for film myths and images. The “sexo-semiotic” meanings of science-fiction films were often conveyed in the special effects, a kind of cultural dreamwork. Making cartoons of the images allowed salient features to be emphasized without the compelling high-tech gloss of the special effects. It reduces these high-tech mythic images to a semiotic modality, something a historian or anthropologist might create by making a rubbing of an etching in an old church, or in a sketch to record a design on a canoe, an urn, or a cave wall. The images were elements in a visual vocabulary of body fantasies in high-tech myths.
It was too bad that the images I made to accompany a related chapter (“Aliens ‘R’ U.S.”) were never published, but luckily La Bouche Press is going to rectify that in a supplement to their translation of “Exterminating Fetuses.”
In recent years I’ve been much more likely to construct a chart than make a sketch.
KP: We hardly speak of the nuclear anymore. The anti-abortion movement is again center stage in the U.S. As you may know, I edited a special issue of Diacritics on climate change criticism for the 30th anniversary of your issue. There is a new trend of first-world couples deciding not to have children due to climate change and the term “planetarity” has taken on new valences in light of “tech bro”-driven space tourism, terraforming, and urgent calls for the decolonization of a dying world. Do you have any thoughts on the fetus or the star child in light of these shifts (or returns)?
ZS: Congratulations on the 30th anniversary issue being on climate change. Really appropriate. Writing in the context of climate change has taken off in a way nuclear criticism never did.
I joined with Extinction Rebellion in 2019–20 (until the pandemic) and while it attracted people worried about climate who had never been activists before, there were also a lot of veterans from anti-nuclear, peace, and environmental movements of earlier decades. There may be different key topics and movements, but there are rhizomatic connections between them, e.g. in terms of members and who shows up at demonstrations and civil disobedience actions, or even those who just click and donate to campaigns from their desktops.
Isn’t it weird, the way the nuclear (in the sense of weapons) has just retreated into a background normal, just cropping up when a treaty needs renewal or North Korea launches a new nuke? It’s also complicated re: nuclear power, which some see as a helpful part of carbon emissions reduction scenarios, though closures of nuclear plants after the Fukushima clusterfuck attest to its waning appeal elsewhere. Little has changed about the prospects for treating or safely disposing of nuclear wastes. That is, they are almost zero.
For my generation, pollution and the prospect of nuclear war made some of us reluctant to reproduce and it has been poignant, and so sad, to see the return of that sentiment now with respect to climate change—and with even more reason, as the falling apart of the global climate system is reported on in daily news and weather bulletins.
It is amazing that Roe v Wade is still subject to judicial contestation in the U.S., a sign that politics never stopped being biopolitics.
There is a parallel between the fetus as a decontextualized figure, absent its protective and nurturing womb, and the astronaut, a human lacking a planet but with its own amniotic techno-womb. There seems to be a direct line of connection between the older nuclear and space races and the current “tech bro” contests of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk (all of whom could have been like Bill and Melinda Gates and funded life-preserving health projects and pandemic responses). The absenting of Earth, a background narrative of its exhaustion, the exhilaration of getting a god-like view of this shrunken home planet, the adrenaline-fueled macho dreams of conquering and terraforming some other world, the general commitment to “extra-planetarity,” and the massive repression of recognition about an even more intense exploitation of terrestrial resources needed to conduct the space race: all these are depressingly familiar.
The decontextualized fetus who makes a whole world can be read as a symbol of individualism that resonates well with neoliberal understandings of people as merely self-interested homo economicus for whom there was no society, just participation in markets. We are so desperately in need of ways of thinking about connectedness (which is where Haraway, Bruno Latour, and numerous other post-dualists are so helpful and welcome).
My early reading of the star child as a planet-sized offspring of the high-tech logos spermaticos fertilizing the brain-womb (Jupiter Space) saw it as an exterminist image of a masculinist fantasy that negated maternal powers and the living terrestrial context.
In these days of habitat destruction, pandemics, plastics pollution, climate disasters, etc., I would extend Schell’s idea that the threat of extinction makes all of us parents of future generations to include non-humans . . . and the whole living planet, with uncountable species facing imminent extinction. In this interpretation—which I’m a bit uneasy about for its echoes with pro-life, fetal personhood rhetorics— the fetus could be a metaphor of the planet Earth or Gaia, whose abortion truly would be an unspeakable, unthinkable tragedy. The metaphor of the planet as fetus or star child makes it a vulnerable entity, the entire future of terrestrial life, that it is our collective parental duty to nurture and protect.
 Zoë Sofia (Zoe Sofoulis), “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism.” Diacritics 14, no. 2 (1984): 47–59.