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#special issue: Becoming a Mother

Marina Vishmidt /// All the virgin eyes of the world are made of glass

“Up to now, no policy has been developed for researchers who become pregnant during their research period. In reality, there is a need for such policy. “
– Policy Board Minutes, Jan van Eyck Academie, October 2007

A becoming-mother’s work is never done

In thinking about motherhood in relation to the manifold of contemporary work, we are waylaid at once by diverse paths and traps:  the mother as the prototypical subject of always-on exploitation (with its attendant risks of central subject and subjectivised narrative of capital’s shifts); the production of motherhood as a growth industry and a moral panic (with its attendant risks of hearkening back to an authentic free-range motherhood prior to the strictures of the nanny state). 

Up to now, no policy has been developed for researchers who become pregnant during their research period. In reality, there is a need for such policy. – Policy Board Minutes, Jan van Eyck Academie, October 2007

A becoming-mother’s work is never done
In thinking about motherhood in relation to the manifold of contemporary work, we are waylaid at once by diverse paths and traps:  the mother as the prototypical subject of always-on exploitation (with its attendant risks of central subject and subjectivised narrative of capital’s shifts); the production of motherhood as a growth industry and a moral panic (with its attendant risks of hearkening back to an authentic free-range motherhood prior to the strictures of the nanny state).

In 1979, Mary Kelly materially extracted nature from motherhood by showing it as from the beginning inscribed into language, in her case the language of the laboratory and Lacan.  But motherhood, or the figure of the mother, can also be de-naturalised by attending to its positive production within capital, as the alibi of impersonal exchange, the reservoir of the qualities to humanise impersonal exchange, to produce a worker inured to the “personalised domination” and the glad sacrifices of the outsourced workplace, whether we’re talking union-free companies or the worker’s body.  As Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James delineated some time ago, housework does not exist in a vacuum. They pointed out very prettily how the system of capitalist wage labour is unsustainable, unthinkable, without the unwaged labour of reproduction, or, production of labour power.  But nowadays, when Wages for Housework can ignominiously be said to be achieved through the booming domestic service industry,  [1] the perspective needs to be adjusted somewhat.  Care labour is global big business, economically and symbolically. The division of labour it enacts is endemic, and cannot be isolated from the more general advance of vulnerability in state and informal networks of social provision. Rather than performing what would seem to be by now ritualistic analyses of how qualities conventionally assigned to motherhood – patience, docility, self-sacrifice – now become templates for the model worker, it might be interesting to see what the effects of breaking down the social role of the mother as such would imply for the social organisation of labour and command.  Without being hemmed in by the untenable  political or conceptual hiatus between care as compensatory and care as revolutionary, we could start to connect the division of labour to the production of individuality, the production of individuality to the commodity form, and back again to the individual as the sustaining myth, and the utopian promise, of the general equivalent, a parallel trope to the free investment of time and affect that neither desires nor receives monetary recognition. This is the time-honored ambit of the mother.  Ultimately, it starts to look like the topology of ‘desiring production’ in the land of the value form, thus it might be useful to mark out a few rough contours to the discussion.  If we look at motherhood as a description of a particular mode of social organisation, first we need to address the individual as an economic category, with ‘economic’ in its myriad senses.

In order to further ground this operation, there may be a point to briefly observing that motherhood cannot be re-negotiated within capitalist social arrangements, or only in the most cosmetic way and for the most privileged of social groups, for the reason that everything in capitalism can be de-naturalised except the law of value.  The extraction of value can only be displaced; say, from stay-at-home mothers to immigrant nannies, de-territorialised, commodified and dispersed, like social relations online.  So the free (care) labour of the mother and care as a general characteristic of contemporary exploitation in the personal investment it requires, can only be dissolved when capital is.  This owes, again, to the perpetual see-saw between nature as outside to capital and nature as a luxury item in capitalist relations of production. Most tangibly,  care labour, in the contemporary scene, can only be de-commodified straight back into patriarchal social relations when the welfare state dissolves, since this dissolution is predicated on the structural assumption of risk by those who have the most to lose, with care marketised for those who can afford it, absorbed as traditional unpaid work for those who can’t.

Becoming-anything

What will follow now will be a first tentative hypothesis (albeit one already undertaken, to somewhat different ends, by Paolo Virno) on how alienation can be thought in some kind of effective (rather than ‘inevitably’ aporetic) disjunction with the pre- and trans-individual.  A strange whim, to think alienation without the individual, and to re-evaluate species being by recourse to singularity.  It could be objected that that way lies the multitude, but the multitude always had the air of a hasty conclusion.  Before even dropping the vocabulary of ‘individuality/collective’ for ‘singularity/multitude’, where does the individual come from?  For Gilbert Simondon [2], the individual is the always-contingent outcome of the process of individuation, rather than a self-contained given of social life preceding all interaction.  This individuation is generated, not suppressed, by collective experience, which has a temporal (historic) as well as intensive (situated) dimension.  Each subject is a mixture of the pre-individual, or generic, and what becomes individuated in collective social practice, and this collective social practice can be termed the trans-individual, the articulation of the generic and particular, the common and the singular, as contingent moments. It is this creation of political and living forms that could potentially constitute a shared sphere of lived experience beyond representational politics, which entails an additive scheme of atomised individuals who are unrelated except in the act of being represented.

Such a ‘non-State public sphere’, turning as it does on the concept of the individual as a function of collective processes, has immediate implications also for a social role like ‘motherhood’ , with all its ideological burden of privacy and infinity of care.  As the narrators of ‘biopolitics’ have long observed, Marxist ‘ideology’ is but one of a range of social constructivist approaches to the formation of ostensibly immutable human predicates such as gender, race, and also family.  A quick reference to motherhood as a site of population control strategies running from criminal justice to immigration to benefits administration might be apposite here. From which it emerges quite pristinely that motherhood as a function of state or quasi-state agencies and motherhood as a function of trans-individuation signify completely different political situations.  We can think of the early Soviet experiments with neighbourhood childcare facilities, workers’ housing, as attempt to void the bourgeois family romance.  The family as a means of production in the overall project of re-deploying the individual as the fully human being of Marx’s post-capitalist Erewhon, ideally.  Although programmatically feminist goals did not loom large for the Bolsheviks, the collectivisation of private life was a principle ignited by the desire to recapture ‘species being’ from the alienation of capitalist work, an attempt to prototype a new individual as the function of a new socius.  The intensity of the affective capacities lavished on private life, away from meaningless and rationalised labour, could now be re-directed to expand over the whole of a historically unprecedented social field waiting to be built.  But this rubric turned out to have its dialectic convolutions as well; witness 1924’s Aelita, Queen of Mars for a vision of Communist world-building not only perfectly compatible with, but emotionally sustained by, the happiness of the nuptial hearth.

In Common Use

In revisiting the revaluation of the individual in epochs of political innovation, the overcoming of alienation by the socialisation of functions habitually linked to the individual, with the aim of freeing up the masses for participation in the construction of their new world looks to be crucial.  But the transitivity, the becoming, the relay between the individual and the relations that constitute it, seems to be elided.  Perhaps it is this elision of transitivity that prepares the ground for the congealing and re-stratification of the social situation that hosted these experiments in full humanity.  Is it possible to oppose transitivity as a strategy of tension to the constant fluctuation of commodified sociality? Becoming a mother becomes an opportunity to suffer, but also confront, the paradoxical determinations that turn children into both biological invariants for women and emblems of lifestyle.  In this it is a microcosm of capitalist individuality tout court, that differences are encouraged so long as they don’t hinder surplus value extraction; and not only a microcosm, but the optimal site where free labour (as in freely given and as in unpaid) is socially valorised.  In this perspective, a revolutionary time sees the mother-nature develop into a mother-function, accessible to anyone, just as the individual is a moment of an incalculable skein of encounters.  This would be transitivity of human existence, but it would be inseparable from the transformation of life as it is lived in capital, the subjectivities thereby produced, the division of labour here in force.  And here the concepts of Simondon and of Marx do start showing an uncanny isomorphism:  if we consider ‘alienation’ not as a loss of the essence of the human, but as a loss of the power to decide what the human is.

 

1. Such a flagrantly reductive statement can only be justified by the lack of space here to get into a more comprehensive discussion of the problematic aspects of addressing transitional demands that presuppose revolutionary situations to national governments, in the 1970s and even more now.  This is not to negate the strategic virtues of formulating and mobilising around certain demands that seem excessive in the current regime of exploitation – undoubtedly it’s better to have a statutory minimum wage, national health care, etc, than not, institutions which at the time they were first implemented were decried as socialist subversion across the board – only that demands like Wages for Housework, and, much more problematically, the basic income, are much less likely to cripple capitalism than to afford it shiny new biopolitical control facilities, all other systems of governance remaining in place.

2. Not having any English translations, sparse as they are, of Simondon to hand, I derive my account from Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude, especially pages 78-79 in the 2004 Semiotext(e) edition. See also the rich interview with Virno by Jun Fujita Hirose in issue 136 (March/April 2006) of Radical Philosophy, “Reading Gilbert Simondon:  Transindividuality, technical activity and reification”, which originated many of these thoughts.

 

Marina Vishmidt is a writer, once based in New York, then in London, now in Maastricht.

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