Judith Butler talks about radical interdependency, relinquished boundaries and the ‘permeability of borders as a threat to identity.' I will read some thoughts aloud from my research on maternal subjectivity and the mythos of the mother who has, according to Deborah Levy, been ‘fantasised to death.’
I was going to title this talk Now I’m the Stepmother,
An avowal of where i find myself,
to display my folding/unfolding, cyclical passage
through ‘maternal subjectivity’. because I was
Once a step-child, a step-mother was foisted on me,
And can only now avow her desire and ambivalence
At having me foisted on her - an other woman’s child, the fusion
Of two in the body of one, with this man, my father, whose
Vasectomy knot symbolised his reproductive unavailability
And I look like him and desire his attention i
Reified the absent parent and rejected the one who was present
her distance-in-presence signposting her turn towards
An other, of which i am not the product, made flesh,
No Mummy, daddy, me triangulation.
Now I’m the mother with a lover who isn’t the child’s father and
I’m the stepmother to a child who didn’t ask for this
who isn’t an amalgamation
Of his father and me, but his father and the other woman,
his mother, and I have heard him say in jest, in truth,
“Evil step-mother” and I recognise the desire to demonise me
Interloper, thief of his father, and because I don’t feel entitled,
Or that this man is mine, I detach, I move out of proximity, I extract
Myself from spaces caught between the man and the boy:
I am both step-mother and step-child, I border-dwell.
And this is a form of resistance, the mark of which
Is a turning away, an aversion of the eyes, a withholding
Which precludes the intimacy of linking, which keeps the other at bay.
I was thinking about that advert for Worther’s Originals
in which the small boy is seated on grandfather’s knee - a scene of
Next-level Idealised hierarchical patriarchy that acknowledges the
Reproductive cycle, Now I’m the Grandad...a representation of blood-borne
security and wisdom an unthreatening ‘natural’ loving elder, free from ambivalences.
my mother said when my daughter was born: It felt like she was my baby! -
my mother said when my daughter was born: It felt like she was my baby! -
And this felt violent, I am under threat I am undermined, whilst this grandfather
Conducts his role with detached interest, he is not unmade, he has anchors.
I speak from what I have seen, I don’t
Wanna essentialise I am not an academic or theorist, I
Don’t retain ‘knowledge’ I can’t master a subject, I’m
Concerned with articulation i am concerned with the limited
Movement of stuckness, the possibility of agency, love’s
Ambivalences. Embodiment is core: I can’t speculate on what
I haven’t experienced directly or elliptically, something I have smelled
Something I have read into an event, a negotiation, intercourse, discourse.
I am reading and speaking on Love, intimacy and
maternal subjectivity through the prism of its ambivalences
resistances and desires. The inquiry I share with you relates my feeling
for reading and speaking as affective labour. The inquiry is a growth
from the resistances and inhibitions that are part of my sense of self,
potential, my sense of capacity, limit, a sense of being constituted,
also self-made, by desires and boundaries, boundaries that are
fiercely guarded, an enclosed desiring that is narcissistic, I will return.
Affect writer Lauren Berlant describes desire as
‘a cloud of possibility that is generated by the gap between an object’s specificity and the needs and promises projected onto it. Desire visits you as an impact from the outside, and yet, inducing an encounter with your affects, makes you feel as though it comes from within you; this means that your objects are not objective, but things and scenes that you have converted into propping up your world, and so what seems objective and autonomous in them is partly what your desire has created and therefore is a mirage, a shaky anchor.’
The domestic scene, incorporates other forms of labour
cooking and cleaning etc, labours which are complex, gestural, performative
Also pleasurable, whilst also being repetitive, invisible. The domesticated woman/
Mother hides in plain sight. If home ought to be comfort then it fails, falls short.
This morning in Amsterdam I read a Martine Syms article in which the artist
Differentiates between Coalition work and home, holding these zones apart,
Thinking about the ‘art world’ as a moral and political economy and a work
Place, a coalition, quoting an essay called Coalition Politics
“Coalition work is not done in your home,
coalition work has to be done in the streets,
And it’s some of the most dangerous work you can do”
Quite how to separate these zones is beyond me
The home so fraught with the sorts of negotiation that feel like work.
What I am doing is reading.
It is also an extension of eros, a writing that is also the body,
inscribed, a method of border crossing, entering the other.
This writing is also speaking (articulating) and reading.
Writing functions as a secretive mode, poetry elides the risky intimacy,
Writing is coding and obfuscating, even when it purports to be exposing and revelatory,
it withholds a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, it harbours an intent to communicate.
Feminist Reading: a creative, political and critical mode.
a concrete practice, a metaphor for feminist reflexivity.
A means and space of transmission, transformation and imagination.
Speaking: the mode through with we touch without touching,
Articulation conjuring risks, vulnerabilities, high stakes
The higher the stakes the bigger the spoils, risk/gain
Equation: how to manage all of these equations, how to
Not lose touch with instinct, how to not be impoverished
By thought, to not privilege the safety net, caution, self-preservation.
How to yield. How to not leave home, not continue making homes
Which are mirages, structurally unsound, built on hallucination, fantasy.
Desire as in ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, in Freudian terminology,
‘identification’ and ‘object choice’
The mother is overdetermined, even though
she lacks adequate discourse
to make herself legible.
Does the dual process of ‘becoming’ and ‘incorporating’ inculcate the mother
into a dichotomy of over-identification or rejection?
My Ordeal of maternality is constituted by interlocking webs
of identifications, mirrors and resistances
to this or that iteration of maternal love,
in what register is my relation, it’s illegible even to me, but i am too proximate
Like Louise bourgeois drawing: PIC I consume my child, bc
I don’t know what else to do with her, or myself.
What can or can’t I do? How will this or that affect her?
Negotiations with nowness and futurity: How frequently and
with how much integrity can I turn away from her? I must be alone
Even with my guilt, I must be permitted to sink myself somewhere other.
How can I be it without becoming my own mother, reproducing mothering?
If I don’t repeat it what damage am I transmitting?
The paradox of mother-blaming - I reject it and yet I do it. I dread it. It is coming to me. bound.
My own damage carries its own germ. What if she cannot relate to me?
How close can I hold her? Can she be trusted? Can I be trusted?
If I am committed to resistance what else is sequestered by an inability to yield?
I refuse therefore I am.
How is this relation possible beyond the limited and yet
omnipotent scope of Freudian Psychoanalysis, and its instruments,
how death and separation are the foundation of neuroses for which
mothers are biologically condemned. Matter matters, it isn’t all,
mother bearing all of this meaning
stoical and courageous. Pasolini’s Medea calmly dispatching her children
as she bathes and “puts them to sleep”
If the fact of my body gestures towards to my child’s innate trauma
and my awareness is futile,
and even absent fathers are privileged in the the child’s psyche
Father where are you if you were here I would not feel this loss
mother’s narcissism is suffocating
mother’s distance is neglect
mother’s work is troubling
mother’s lover is not my father
where are my sisters,
why this dislocation?
I have extracted myself from the domestic scene to write this talk.
I have only seen my daughter for 3 hours in the last two weeks.
I have written and re-written it in various locations, finally
settling on a format after a conversation. I finished writing this talk
At the Hartshead Moor services on the M62 outside Leeds. It is the site
Of hundreds of curt meetings between mother and father, and small
Children being rushed into cars in the pouring rain.
This talk has an ontological and semantic base:
it is speaking and it is about what seeking could be and what it does. A
union of praxis and language: Barthes said that
‘language is a skin; I rub my language against the other’
I read an essay on Freud in which the
‘language of love’ and the ‘language of work’
are opposed, the former as the pleasure principle and the latter as the reality principle.
These principles, positioned so, seem so pertinent to the maternal question;
love and work are bound together in a dialectical logic,
difficult to think one without the other, even more difficult to disentangle
in the concrete expression,
the material reality of love’s work
affect worlds relating to attachment in the political
should I fall silent on this subject? is it too personal,
does it belong to the private sphere of experience?
Feminist reflexivity reassures me, or gives me permission;
My experience is magnetised to the political.
Freud suggests that (any) labour is sublimated libido -
‘labour is sustained by the energy of repressed love’
in this context I enjoy the conflation of libido with love,
Freud says that ideas are libidinal cathexes…acts of love…
Freud allocates the term neurotic to the conflict between
death drive and pleasure principle, or the operational and the erotic.
I write and speak from that morass. An interview with artist Lisa Carver:
you found it in you to be a really good parent in a really difficult situation,
What did you draw on, where did you parenting instinct come from?
LC: I do think that my ability to deal with all that came out of having dissociative
personality disorder, bc i had separated a part out that was a mother, and that
part had been alive almost as long as i had, and that part could take over at any time
…you can rise to any occasion without internal conflict, bc you
shut down the other parts…
if it was time for me to parent i would shut down the other part,
and the mother part took over. there was no conflict, there was no resentment,
there was no confusion….i really don’t think i was ever truly alive, i was playing roles
and half of me or three quarters of me or nine tenths of me was dead all the time.
Every articulation of some new thought or idea is a sort of
Loss of virginity, with someone I trust, which is more than
Can be said for my actual virginity, discarded on a stained mattress on a
dismal one-night stand in 1998.
I am doing it again, now: perhaps like sex
It will get easier with time: but I now recall how difficult sex is, the idea of sex
at least, its projected gains and losses. We are on the subject of trust, now,
And how do I know I can trust you? The risk is in the no knowing and it is the
Risk that makes speaking, for me, erotic. I may flush. I am vulnerable.
Heat rises up my body secreting in my armpits
prickling my spine, spreading wide from a petrified centre.
This is living, so to speak,
How did I get to speaking when this talk is about reading?
I go here because of bed-time stories.
I have read bed-time stories almost every night for almost 7 years.
As a mode of communication and a mode of intimacy,
it is a sacred, ritualised practice that consists of sharing - psychic link-making -
seduction - I lull my baby to sleep - and physical proximity - our bodies and our voices
touch the other, we assure the other we desire contact, and we/I disavow psychic splitting.
Affective labour and the recuperative practice of reading:
when I read i am doing good as a mother, unquestionably,
as when I cook and feed my child, or otherwise dedicate my time and body to her.
I gave myself over to here in pregnancy and breast feeding, body and psyche -
this was a period of uncomplicated mutual satisfaction, precious, intractable
a love affair, proud wonder, reproductive fascination, the sublime object.
awe tinged with horror: being the mother of a daughter,
and the daughter of a mother: another point of resistance,
‘daughters hate their mothers’ so it goes, how can it be resisted?
Louise Bourgeois writes ‘I woud have been totally unable to deal
With the critisisms of a daughter.’ My mother’s eyes often welling up
When I speak. So much anger. All daughters hate their mother’s - not true, Louise, but you were
‘Garetful to have not gone through that ordeal.’
I couldn't think beyond the nurturing period, intuiting that it would be temporary,
that I would reencounter myself in a potentially singular future,
The possibility of reentry into the world of singularity
rapidly diminishes. I am drinking beer with my friend Claire
warming my back and neck, peace of mind
is suddenly interrupted, I see and hear children, is it because I see?
I am unsettled, and guilt rises up only to be turned over:
I am thinking myself out of guilt. I’m producing my anxiety from out of a complex,
inherited, otherwise absorbed by culture, or a protrusion from a more expanded sense of
shame. I am guilty of abandoning her to her own existence,
I am guilty of exclusion, of the vulnerability of the childless mother;
I realise it is bc no-one knows I am a mother.
There can be no truthful communication; I am fraudulent.
A mother without her child is an aberration.
I have PMT, maybe that’s why there is this lens.
Always interruption, hormonal or other, no go with the flow:
All I seem to be able to yeild to is dislocated awareness,
I orient myself around the impasse - however much I toil over
cause and effect, I know in my bones that there is nothing to be done
beyond ethics, being true to the trajectory of a public-private passage,
undaunted by the prospect of systemic shocks and imaginative conflict
a tentative optimism veins my maternal praxis; it gives space to instability
and attempts to marginalise fear.
I conduct a Reading of these praxes or strategies
via instruments of slippage, equivocation, aporia,
and critique these very instruments,
I have been following Sarah Ahmed’s blog.
i become excited when her texts intersect with my thoughts,
and it is subtle, not quite identification, more proximate
to distant touching across battle lines,
I know I am doing violence to her by extrapolating,
I am following a scent across borders that are guarded,
[abstracting is an act of violence,
narrativising someone else’s experience is worse;
It is in this way that I am complicit in someone’s loss].
Ahmed’s work on vulnerability pained me, i felt it at the sore point
she describes as being the point at which we come to feminism.
her ‘different pieces of broken things’ and the realisation that one can be shattered
(I take the double meaning), exhausted, sorrowful and fragilized by resistance, activism, just living.
I prefer to term the contradictions of maternal subjectivity dialectical than dualist:
the dialectical logic allows for paradox, whilst dualism denies it.
to reproduce seems excessive, selfish, egoic,
whilst simultaneously affecting a serious marginalisation of the self and self-interest;
it creates a cipher for this self-interest.
My child/my self: the ultimate narcissistic object-choice.
Procreation was virtually compulsory for young women right up to the 1980s
I was born in 1981. My mother was 21.
I gave birth in 2009, I was 27.
Maggie Nelson was older, and her ordeal incorporated IVF.
She writes that “I had nearly 4 decades to become myself before
Experimenting with my own obliteration.’
Our decision to reproduce was a counter to the the love narrative,
or the ethics of biological essentialism: it was a form of resistance
To a certain cultural narrative opposed to responsibility, to nurturing, to
The deadening individualism of neoliberal economy,
One of few resistances I can’t quite counterpose to yielding.
And psychic reparation, doing it differently from my own parents
and in the process re-encountering my own child-self,
and making up for some of the losses and negligences,
Shifting process of mutual becoming,
a dynamic of what Maggie Nelson terms
‘radical intimacy, radical difference’.
this exhausting intimacy and the unstable base of a relation that is holding and letting go,
but at the same time always holding, and never letting go, and also,
being held and maintaining the ability to live without reciprocity,
which will become complicated in time.
This fragility at the centre of every love.
WHen everything is stacked against you,
an act of resistance is an act of yielding: a certain force issues
From obstinacy, something happens, the body takes over, there is joy,
A sense of winning, confidence.
I’m meandering through my own territory, in a loosely poetic mode
that is nevertheless the only possible mode for these articulations.
the landscape is domestic (a spatial and psychic space), because I have no position in the world,
and the ethics that inform it, attempts to build a world
find new structures, do things differently…there seems to be no way out of the fact
Of the home, and of the woman inside it, it being her place
And i won’t give it up, I am complicit
This paper centralises the practice of reading and rereading
Itself and its others as acts of intimacy,
motivated by the daily practice of reading stories to my child.
Resistance as a way to alleviate shame
RESISTANCE as a way to forge a life with conditions under which
flourishing seems possible
the fantasy of life congealing into identity,
misreading, mistaking, misallocating;
Analysing, abstracting reducing, distilling, bringing it back in,
I wonder what happens when resistance
meets contingency, how the latter is opposed,
causing the former to do violence to itself again.
to resist in spite of options,
to resist and elide,
to slide underneath and become invisible
to become mute; resistance isn;t necessarily empowerment.
Resistance can be a shield against positive change, transformation.
I speak from its belly, I can hurt me more than you can.
Not my intent, not my will.
What would yielding look like? To what would I be yielding?
like liberation, yielding only exists bc of an opposing force.
the force that opposes yielding is binding in the self,
holding tight, muteness that disavows the erotic possibility of intervention.
knowing the other of me at the margins of
what is tolerable to the resistant me,
and performing a yielding to a
structural other I have previously resisted.
Do I falter because society demands that I give up hope
and return to the fold, start behaving ‘properly’?
Sarah Ahmed takes this up, describing the
affects of confidence diminshment:
to be confident in something is to be confident of something: that what you wish to bring about can be brought about. When I am confident in myself I am confident that I can bring something about. …
To lose confidence can then be to lose strength not because you become physically weaker but because your estimation of what you can do has weakened; you are not sure you can carry that thing; it is too heavy, your arm hurts, you waver; it falls, you fall.
I often leave my home and remake it elsewhere,
Deborah Levy spoke of this in a recent article
in which she articulates a domestic ambivalence
that is familiar to me: she writes
Women put so much of their energy into creating a home: it’s something I respect deeply;
I’ve made a few myself. But there comes a stage, it seems to me,
where women don’t feel at home in their home;
the very place they’ve created is the place they want to leave.
Resistance to structures of domesticity, versus a desire to stay in one place,
that no amount of moving will remedy.
I am moving again, soon.
I moved to Anglesey - Mother of Wales -
to risk being closer to a lover. Proximity, distance, risk
- The radical monogamy of two isolated islands.
I have tasted the monotheism of single-parenthood,
and my next move will reunite me with a co-parenting dynamic
of unusual intimacy. The broken family structure sutured together.
She still draws all of us together, in spite of other others.
My reflection from Island exile is of being a woman
who is predominantly the product of her resistances.
I want to enter into this:
To resist is to exert oneself so as to counteract or defeat,
to withstand the force or effect of, to be resistant to,
to deflect, to oppose, counterpose
to be averse to, to refuse, to be hostile towards.
Feminist resistance - to refuse social/psychic conditions, at least
to resist their reproduction. Maternal refusal is deemed irresponsible.
To refuse induced labour, to refuse lying on one’s back
To refuse structures of family or even mothering;
there are knives everywhere waiting to prick,
waiting for slip ups, waiting to reassure in the register of:
“you tried to contravene the framework, but it cannot be done”
the welcoming back of a frail subject to a normativity that is always there
it is there for you - a structure, a routine, a place you can flourish -
if only you would let go of those ideas, idealistic flights of fancy.
At it’s very worst the message is: I don;t suffer in this structure
so you can violate it; your potential liberation threatens me.
Can I find a exit strategy from discourses that both compel me
and against which i measure my failures?
In Revolt, She Said, Kristeva calls for a restoration of “pride in love, desire and revolt”
as a strategy for the avoidance of a totalising management of social and intimate life.
Revolt as in returning, discovering, uncovering, renovating;
making gaps, rupturing, renewing.
We have to get back to back to the intimate well-springs of revolt -
in the deep sense of self-questioning and questioning tradition as well,
sexual differences, projects for life and death, new modalities of civil society
and so on [...] Put yourself on the line to reciprocally stimulate memory, thought and will.
I was listening to a friend tell the story of a woman who abandoned her children
in Caernarfon North Wales, and fled to Thailand with her lover.
the mother who doesn’t mother is an aberration, remember.
The father who stands in for the absent mother is heroic;
he is presumed to be incapable and is therefore exceeding himself.
We speak of nurturing and the antagonism
between affective/domestic labour and art practice.
The antagonism has an interesting erotic facet: labours of love are opposed to work by Freud;
the sublimation of libido into labour, he says, is what makes labour possible!
I contest the idea that creative work functions
as labour in these terms: writing is erotic because it dissolves
mind/body dualism, coagulates into a charged auto erotic space,
It incorporates the other, the body surpasses agency, who writes this flow?
Speaking of flow, it is virtually impossible when one is
on call; the mother must always be available;
my love for my child makes me resistant to giving this up.
But I desperately wanted to grasp the slippery material of maternal ambivalence
and the animal kingdom kept rising up, the biological surpassing the psychic, the
customary presiding over the possible. A reversal only exposes a most banal hypocrisy,
founded on sexual difference. I am reminded of a conversation with my daughters father:
when I left the city we both lived in, removing her to share a peculiar exile,
I ‘set him free’ from co-parenting, which is to say: I released him [albeit against his will]
from a matriarchal dominion,
mother figure: dictator.
heterosexual family unit: totalitarian state.
against my will.
I described how the animal analogy made me feel like a cow with milk-filled udders,
doped up on oestrogen and progesterone and oxytocin and prolactin and endorphins,
listless and narcotised, like the livestock that inhabited his rural childhood,
how it conjured images of sensual plenitude that are figments, fantasies, fetishes:
his causal iteration of the nature/culture dichotomy,
indicative of the persistence of the idealised mother figure,
of which I am guilty in the register of the personal:
My ability to theorise on this subject of my experience
of daughterhood is impoverished: I saw my mother today
I was enraged. I can’t get a handle on the relation,
Sarah Ahmed writes of
Becoming the cause of your own damage…
To give a cause to damage is to contain a mess, to mop up a spillage. T
he figure of the feminist killjoy is rather like that of the broken jug:
she too flies off the handle, an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger.
Again, the absent mother is an aberration:
this points to a conflation of ontology and praxis:
it is not possible to be a mother and not to mother, or,
the be a mother and not to mother points towards, at best,
to success in the world, and at worst, to deficiency of nature.
What’s more: for the father, ontology and praxis are presumed to diverge:
to be a father is not 'to father',
the expression 'to father a child' has always seemed to me
to encapsulate distance, aiding the mother’s desire
as opposed to fulfilling its own. Ejaculation is its own reward i suppose.
Yet a father is an absolute, symbolic, the law.
I have bemoaned my lack of functional father all of my life
and have reified this symbolic absolute;
[feminist readings of desire produce breakthroughs like this]
concrete and present, coexistent and co-becoming,
mother is violated, perforated with wounds
whilst absentee father is deified, my anti-heroic rapscallion,
the fantasy of unavailability, the eros of distance,
the quality of absence as a space of desire’s deferral,
a remoteness that generates charge.
Mother, so proximate to be suffocating is incapable
of exciting my desire
To return to the animal I am not shocked by this essentialism,
the reference to woman’s proximity to nature
man’s creation of culture; the speaker is a painter,
a husband and father
IN THAT ORDER.
we were not women who had merely ‘acquired’ some children,
writes Deborah Levy in Things I Don’t Want to Know,
speaking to her prenatal self ‘we had metamorphosised [...]
into someone we did not entirely understand.’
I wonder if we were ever really intelligible to ourselves,
which is what first brought us to writing, to feminism, even to motherhood,
paradoxically, for the stakes are so high/to risk our very selves
/to risk a sort of death. Perhaps motherhood is just another cipher
for a sense of sorrow that has always inhabited us,
and we ended up, in de Beauvoir’s words, ‘imprisoned in [our] refuge.’
Marguerite Duras takes up this thread, writing that,
Perhaps women secrete their own despair in the process of being mothers [and wives].
Perhaps, their whole lives long, they lose their rightful kingdom in the despair of every day.
Motherhood renders one’s relationship to violence, particularly ones own, difficult.
Notions of what constitutes good mothering demand a neutralisation of rage,
a rage that mustn’t be witnessed, and is channeled instead
into the enclosed domestic territory.
the dialectic of motherhood, whereby desire and repudiation,
operating as ambivalence, is its only true nature, and its ethics.
not the suppressed rage of domestic tension,
an intensity not of the body but against it,
an intensity generated by four walls,
by the fact of having no place in the world but here.
in the interior.