A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
Nightmares of Another Life
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
Letters by Hanna Hurr
To Those Who Possess Something Extra
Are you my new mommy? In this issue, you are.
“You can’t depend on people who just let things happen.”
― Tove Jansson, The Summer Book
The other day, my friend Antonia and I were sitting outside Bushwick Bakery contemplating our mothers. Her mother recently complained Antonia’s grandmother often tried to smooth conflict over too quickly and pretend as if nothing had happened. Antonia couldn’t believe it; that’s exactly what her mother always did, too. “It's scary to realize that I too am becoming like my mother,” she said.
I’ve noticed it as well; whenever I meet people from back home that I haven’t seen in awhile, they always point out that I look and behave just like my mother. I know I care for people like she does, and I’m also irritable like her. I watch my face in the mirror and notice scars appearing in the same place as hers. I see her feet emerge out of mine and I start to repeat her various ticks, like clearing my throat in this specific way. I demand lots and lots of personal space, just like my mom. Someone close to our family once pointed out that she finds it funny to see men around me or my sister try be all cuddly and close, not realizing that we’re actually cats – the closer you get, the more we’ll be repelled. It’s true.
Why is it scary to realize that you’re becoming your mother? In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Lenú often dwells on this fear. “Is it possible that our parents never die, that every child inevitably conceals them in himself? Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” Lenú’s unhappiest moments seem to coincide with her having children of her own and momentarily starting to limp; it’s like she could feel her body slowly morphing into her mother’s. I think I fear becoming a mother for the same reason; I know I’m cut out for it like nothing else in the world – if I suddenly had a child I know I’d readily drop everything and spend my the next several decades structuring my life around raising it, just like my mother did with me and my siblings. I can’t imagine mothering in any other way. I love my mom, of course. She’s stronger and funnier and more generous and all around a better person than I am. I would also be an insufferable brat if it wasn’t for her. And yet I resist becoming her with all my heart. Instead, I tell myself, I’ll mother projects. I’ll edit articles and take care of friends.
In Susan Sontag’s diaries, fragments about her mommy issues:
“From Mother, I learned: ‘I love you’ means ‘I don’t love anyone else.’ The horrid woman was always challenging my feelings, telling me I had made her unhappy, that I was ‘cold.’
As if children owe their parents love + gratification! They don’t. Though parents owe these things to their children – exactly like physical care.
From Mother: ‘I love you. Look. I’m unhappy.’
She made me feel: Happiness is disloyalty.
Fear of the other going away: fear of abandonment
Fear of my going away: fear of retaliation by the other (also abandonment – but as revenge for the rejection of going away)
My loyalty to the past – my most dangerous trait, the one that has cost me most.”
Mommy issues: guilt and fear of abandonment, a deep sense of belonging but also a desire to reject her and do my own thing. I imagine we all have these but perhaps something went wrong because I moved out already at 17. Perhaps I fear becoming my mother because I know her suffering so intimately, and don’t want to inherit it. I fear her disapproval, her abandonment, so unconsciously I try to stay close enough to not become wholly unfamiliar – both out of loyalty to her and out of fear of being alone. Like her, I tell myself I’m not enough, that others know better, because I know I’ve hurt her when I was a cocky, lively teenage know-it-all. Her pain became my pain too, my guilt. It’s safer to stay in the hole together.
We’ve supposedly come a long way since the 50s, when my mother was born and when Sontag had her first child. But even if the mother is now more respected, motherhood still feels like a trap, specifically because of how it’s been mythologized. Even feminist attempts at praising the mother by describing her as closer to the earth, closer to truth, only further relegated the mother into a kind of prison of selfless care. Now it seems like the only truly shared spiritual holiday is mother’s day – the day we all get to repent our collective sin of turning mothers into machines of reproduction. There’s a silent agreement that she got the short end of the stick, and that most of our mothers would have lived differently if they weren’t told their whole lives that this is all they were good for. In reality, we know that the idea of the mother as a natural caregiver is manufactured.
How can we break away from reproducing the oppression of mothers?
One of the key insights of materialist feminism was that we can’t fully understand production under capitalism without taking into account unpaid reproductive labor, including childbirth, emotional labor, care-giving.
Postmodern feminism and queer theory tried to go further: if motherhood and a gendered division of labor are all constructs, dissolving these categories seems to require finding the thing that causes this engendering, undoing gender. Later, queer nihilism made similar arguments by challenging the very kernel of capitalist reproduction, child-rearing. Lee Edelman argued that the current world reproduces itself via the fantasy of the innocent child, and that we can stop this future by saying no to the child. But, as Joan Copjec describes it in her fantastic book Read My Desire, these too reach a limit. Postmodern queer theory collapses sexual difference into a sexual indistinctness, where cis-normative expressions of gender ultimately are seen as less revolutionary or progressive, and thus part of the problem. It’s almost like they got rid of the mother a little too easily.
Another way of thinking about gender is as a symptom of the failure of language that pre-dates the discursive practice of “masculine” and “feminine”. This is Joan Copjec’s stance. Almost everyone I’ve shared her text with agrees that the argument is dense and complicated, which is unfortunate because I think it’s incredibly valuable for thinking about how both sex and gender are conceived and reproduced. Let’s take it step by step.
How does language fail? There are lots of ways to describe this that usually involve Saussure and an image of a horse, and usually you get a passing grade if you remember that this is the stuff that deals with the sign. But, first of all, let’s acknowledge that the meaning of language changes constantly. Only in our lifetime, the word “queer” has come to carry a whole new meaning. Words mean what they mean not because of some intrinsic connection to the things they are pointing to, but because of their relation to all other words and concepts. As Copject writes, “there are no positive terms, only relations of difference.” Let’s call this rule of language number one, since it describes something we must understand before be can determine the value of words or signifiers.
Now, at first it may seem like this simply means that language is always incomplete, but we can’t stop there. If a word gets its meaning from its relation to all other words, then in order for it to have meaning it needs to assume the complete existence of all other words. When we use a word to convey something and it works, it’s because the word acts as if it freezes the world for an instant to say, only me can point to this one thing. We can call this the second rule of language. This leads to a contradiction:
“The completeness of the system of signifiers is both demanded and precluded by the same rule of language. Without the totality of the system of signifiers there can be no determination of meaning, and yet this very totality would prevent the successive consideration of signifiers that the rule requires.”
Postmodern queer theory agrees with the first part: because sex/gender systems are linguistic constructs, and language is never fixed but always changing, sex and gender too are always in flux. The problem is that we can’t use a rule of language to describe the world. We might know something about the incompleteness of language but we can’t use that to say that what language tries to describe is also incomplete. All we can know is that we don’t know. And yet, language seems to demand that we fix meaning. Language as it applies to sex both fixes and destabilizes it at the same time.
“When we speak of language's failure with respect to sex, we speak not of its falling short of a prediscursive object but of its falling into contradiction with itself. Sex coincides with this failure, this inevitable contradiction. Sex is, then, the impossibility of completing meaning, not (as Butler's historicist/deconstructionist argument would have it) a meaning that is incomplete, unstable. Or, the point is that sex is the structural incompleteness of language.”
When things that are machines fail they usually just break and stop working. But self-sustaining forces like language or the human body can fail in creative ways. For example, if you have a speech impediment, you don’t stop speaking but start pronouncing words in your own way. If you lose a leg, you might get a prosthesis. The failure of language to complete meaning is productive because we can conceal the contradiction via cultural practices that when acted out together gives the appearance of meaning being fixed.
Today’s sex/gender systems are so bonkers. But if we imagine that they emerged because language forever failed to answer questions like: where do humans come from, and why do humans seem to emerge after two people with different body parts have sex, then millennia of violence to force people into fixed categories might make a little more sense.
Insofar as the current world is ruled by the Enlightenment idea that “man” is a free being and thinker and governor of his own destiny, we live in a world obsessed with dividing things up into true and false, right and wrong. Of course, to divide the world into neat categories like this you have to remove yourself from the field of messy production, stuff around life and death, and you also have to make sure you don’t need to be confronted with material needs. This, as we know, was possible thanks to the exploitation of the working class, the subjugation of women to domestic and reproductive labor, and mass enslavement. You also have to be somewhat selective in terms of what you pay attention to, and demote anything that conflicts with your worldview into falsehood, immorality, or nonsense.
One of the things that is immediately downplayed is the modern individual’s connection to the mother. Malcolm Harris put it well in a recent essay for New Republic:
Humans, after all, do not crash-land into existence. The uterus is not a spaceship, even if we’re taught to think of it that way. This is how it looks, Marçal points out, in Lennart Nilsson’s groundbreaking photographs of a fetus, which famously appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1965. In the pictures, a wrinkled baby-to-be floats in a bubble membrane; the background is pitch black, and a cord runs from the baby’s core to... something. This is man before he is born alone into the world, waiting to fall off the tree like a ripe plum. But nothing could be further from the truth: The fetus is entirely enveloped within another human being, and the birth process is called labor.
In the second half of the 20th century, the most successful attempt to oppose a gendered division of labor has been the women’s movement, without which Hillary Clinton probably would not be running for president today. The call for sisterhood taught women to stand up for one another against the male patriarchs and oppressors, to find affinity with each other instead of competing against each other. We’re still living in the aftermath of this, but it isn’t all great. In her essay on Elena Ferrante, Dayna Tortorici writes:
“Hierarchies and competition were the constructions of men, went the thinking, and sisterhood was the great leveler. Camaraderie would undo the self-hatred and mutual hostility women had cultivated over centuries of subordination. But differences between women were undeniable, and not only on grounds of race, class, and sexuality. The regime of sameness also failed to comprehend differences in strength and personality, taste and desire.”
In Italy, the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective found a refuge from this suffocating call for sameness in the “symbolic mother,” which they used as a way to understand how inequality and difference within their groups could strengthen rather than divide. Tortorici continues,
“Missing from sisterhood, the Italians argued, were mothers and daughters, and they questioned whether the insistence on sisterhood — to them most manifest in the political fight for ‘equality’ inherited from the youth movement — was a reaction to ‘the obliteration of the mother in our society.’ Men were the ones who saw women as equals once the mother was removed: after the mother all women were losers, equally available for domination.”
The Italian feminists called this Difference Feminism, as opposed to equality feminism so popular in North America and northern Europe. Shifting the gaze inward, to the difference within the group, instead of outward, to the difference between women and the rest of society, allowed them to be both more cynical about their project but also find a more realistic path towards liberation. In her introduction to Sexual Difference, Teresa de Lauretis writes:
“Freedom, here, is not understood in libertarian terms as freedom from all social constraint. On the contrary, the female freedom which the Milan group envisions for women entails a personal and social cost, a symbolic debt. For if, on the one hand, women owe nothing to men – since women's social survival has required the acceptance of both subordination and irresponsibility on their part, and hence, they state, ‘there is no social contract between women and men’ – it is not the case, on the other hand, that women owe nothing to no one, a belief fostered by the politics of victimization prevalent in the movement. On the contrary, women owe women, and the price of female freedom is the symbolic debt each woman has toward other women, i.e., toward the symbolic mother.”
Members of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective admitted that their writings were in no way unproblematic, and today, over 30 years later, what stands out is the exclusion of trans and queer experiences from their texts. But the texts were written by and for these women, and while the groups included both lesbian and heterosexual women, the texts rarely dealt with sexuality. The point was to liberate women, not tell them what to do.
As a cis white woman – queer-identified but married to a man nonetheless – I know the way I carry myself in the world, the way I speak and interact with people, directly and indirectly reinforces racism, homophobia, transmisogyny, ableism. Sometimes I notice it, and most of the time I probably don’t. And so I struggle with this, how to speak of and understand the world, because I know that I risk hurting people with the metaphors that I choose. Patriarchy fucks with us so deeply. The words that exist are not sufficient to describe the world as we see it – I think this is true to all of us who feel like aliens in this world – and it is difficult to say anything without unintentionally reproducing the essentialist, reductive, fucked-up framework we’re trying to undo.
For this reason, difference feminism feels somewhat conducive to the contemporary situation specifically because of its focus on difference as a source of strength.
Perhaps the most hopeful example of such a labor force is that of black and brown culture producers. Just like the economy depends on mothers, whose “availability becomes the coercive condition of their survival,” (Sexual Difference) the undervalued reproducers of the American economy since the 2008 economic meltdown seems to be in no small part thanks to creative geniuses on the margins like teens on Vine, Snapchat, Instagram and Tinder; artists and musicians and most recently Jesse Williams. This production of meaning is infinitely valuable. These are the people turning sweaty tech startups into unicorns, but also fueling the precariat and validating our experiences so we can continue showing up for work. What is unpaid or undervalued reproductive labor if not this.
This is The Mommy Issue, in which we curl into fetal position and feel some type of way about the mothers in our lives. The mothers who gave birth to us or raised us, house moms and people we just call mom. We’ll look at unpaid labor, all things domestic, invisible power, and the prospects of unconditional love.