Kirsten Kaschock is the author ofUnfathoms (Slope Editions) and a beautiful name/for a girl (upcoming from Ahsahta Press). She holds a Ph.D. fromUniversity of Georgia in English and is currently a doctoral fellow in dance at Temple University. She lives and writes in Philadelphia.
Artist-as-Mother/Mother-as-Artist: A Metaphorical Resurrection
When we talk about art now, especially radical or experimental art, we talk about war. The artwork achieves, or fails to achieve. It is revolutionary and breaks through barriers, or it falls flat. Postmodern art (of all genres) is valued for its ability to move us forward—to shock, to produce awe. Our zeitgeist is blitzkrieg. Notably, the term avant garde is a military one, and it is precisely this term that makes it difficult to imagine communication with the artist. Either you position yourself behind the vanguard, reaping the benefits of their sacrifice, or you stand opposing them, attempting to cut them down as they hurl their weapons into your culture. The soldiers (the artists) in these metaphors are necessarily silent—and their purpose violent.
Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “The Task of the Translator,” writes:
The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible… (Benjamin 81)
Disregarding Benjamin’s rhetoric of force and penetration, what he is asking for is that languages listen and respond to one another through the translator—an expansion of thought during the act rather than a narrow fidelity to some impossible idea of exact translation.
Metaphors are singular acts of translation. Using the passage above as a template, I would like to suggest that when a metaphor is engaged it has the potential to enlarge either side of the term (as 20th and 21st century war has been aestheticized partially through the use of metaphorical language surrounding both art and war), and that—as a result—both of the concepts artist and mother could grow when conceived in terms of one another. I would argue that Benjamin, in the quoted passage, is joining in “the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallologocentrism” (Haraway 176). I, too, would like to join in the epistemological radicalism both Benjamin and Donna Haraway espouse in their different ways from their different times, but I would do so without embracing all they embrace, and I would do so by retaining something he never considers and that she does not choose to retain: motherhood.
In her 1987 essay, “Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse,” Susan Stanford Friedman provides the rationale for re-examining a metaphor that has been used extensively and possibly overdetermined. She writes: “The context of the childbirth metaphor is the institution of motherhood in the culture at large” (Friedman 51). I would suggest that, thanks to ever-progressing fertility technologies, expanded practices of adoption and surrogacy, the prevalence of both older and teenage parenting, man-identified mothers, the very real possibility of human cloning, non-traditional family structures, and an epidemic of AIDS orphans on the continent of Africa and beyond, the cultural notion of motherhood has been altered greatly in the past thirty years and is ripe right now for a reimagining through art. Yet despite its evolving forms—motherhood, as a term, carries with it a weighty history some feminists might like, on occasion, to be rid of.
Near the end of Donna Haraway’s glorious essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” a model for the way imagination can affect theory, she questions whether the metaphor of reproduction can ever be used as a way forward, out of the binary-positions feminists and others find themselves in:
...organisms and organismic, holistic politics depend on metaphors of rebirth and invariably call on the resources of reproductive sex. I would suggest that cyborgs have more to do with regeneration and are suspicious of the reproductive matrix and of most birthing... We require regeneration, not rebirth, and the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender. (Haraway 181)
Her answer, then, is no.
But I disagree. What I mean to say is that she can imagine what she wants, and reading what she imagines has made me larger in the best ways, but I do not believe that one arrives at either a “common language” (which she claims not to want) nor a “powerful infidel heteroglossia” (which she does) by throwing out the birth-process with the baby. We have very few tools for transformation; we cannot afford to rid ourselves of one of the most powerful of them—motherhood—even metaphorically, only to replace it with technologies that have proved so alienating to so many and are as-yet available to so few. This is not a good recycling practice. (Biological motherhood, however—one type of motherhood—can be an excellent recycling practice—a new human body produced directly from the materials of the old.)
In Of Woman Born, her 1977 meditation on and investigation of motherhood, Adrienne Rich points out another one of the difficulties of thinking mother:
...the vast majority of literary and visual images of motherhood comes to us filtered through a collective or individual male consciousness... We need to know what, out of all that welter of image-making and thought-spinning, is worth salvaging, if only to understand better an idea so crucial in history, a condition which has been wrested from the mothers themselves to buttress the power of the fathers. (Rich 62)
Rich, unlike Haraway, despite the issues involved is not willing to rid herself of mothers, perhaps because—and this is crucial—she is one. She is physically and emotionally aware of the ambiguities of motherhood, and although she is acutely cognizant that it has functioned as both plague and tool of enslavement for women since the dawn of mythical time—and still does in many places—it has also provided for many of them a reason to continue living in those conditions.
I admit it: I, too, want out of gender and all the exclusions that go with it. Sometimes. But the heterogeneity Haraway calls for in “A Cyborg Manifesto” relies on division (otherwise it would be read as homogeneity). Divisions tend to be hierarchized. Without the primary division between gender(s), another division (race, religion, class—already present in Haraway’s essay in nascent form as an assumed access to technology) would emerge as the primary separator: this I believe. Motherhood, however (once it is pried out from beneath its boulder—its history as a tool of patriarchy), provides a location where division itself can be seen as positive, where division creates heterogeneity without necessarily creating opposition. Why, then, must Haraway negate the mother? The answer may lie here:
An origin story in the ‘Western’, humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psychoanalysis and Marxism... The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense. (Haraway 151)
It is true that motherhood has been drawn by psychoanalysis too large, as a seductive stagnation that must be escaped, the motherwomb—a bodied Eden we cannot choose to remain within. Haraway accepts this formulation and rejects the suffocating embrace of the originary mother in order to hold hands with the machine. I understand this desire; yet, I see in her erasure of that “unity” the same rejection of the mother in the process of individuation that she bemoans. I would argue we can and should take motherhood with us—that we should not allow the mother to remain with those who would draw him/her as landscape rather than agent. In fact, by leaving motherhood behind—we lose a fantastic imaginative possibility for community.
In Christine Battersby’s feminist defense of metaphysics, she attempts to construct and normalize a female (not feminine) subject and then walks her reader through the ramifications of viewing the possibilities of female reproduction as central to the subject:
Rather than treating women as somehow exceptional, I start from the question of what would have to change were we to take seriously the notion that a ‘person’ could normally, at least always potentially, become two. What would happen if we thought identity in terms that did not make it always spatially and temporally oppositional to other entitities? Could we retain a notion of self-identity if we did not privilege what is self-contained and self-directed? (Battersby 2)
Instead of an individual always in the process of differentiating him/herself from the community and the world (the motherbody), Battersby posits an individual who can potentially and occasionally engage in the process of literally creating out of him/herself community, and this community—although genetically similar to the mother—necessarily differs from the individual mother in age and possibly in gender. Motherhood, therefore, produces—unoppositionally—diversity.
As her non-mothering metaphor for producing community, Haraway suggests the “network” for her cyborgs, their couplings multiplying the “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (Haraway 150). But pain is lost here during the contestation for “for other forms of power and pleasure”(150), the pain of individuation and motivated loss (of releasing control), pain that the metaphor of motherhood—biological or otherwise—would retain. Why keep pain? Adrienne Rich explains Simone Weil’s insistence that not all pain need be purely negative: “But where it is unavoidable, pain can be transformed into something usable, something which takes us beyond the limits of the experience itself into a further grasp of the essentials of life and the possibilities within us” (Rich 158). By losing the pain of childbirth, of potential child-death, the productive grief of teaching independence and sending children forth into the world, Haraway’s cyborgs may gain a nebulous jouissance; however, I do not think the trade of deep, profound and affecting ambiguities (dependence/independence, pain/pleasure, love/anger) for a circuitous utopian orgy is a good trade. In losing the mother, Haraway’s cyborgs lose a source of art.
Rich explains how this potent ambiguity has been coded into the female body, “the terrain on which patriarchy is erected” (Rich 55):
The woman’s body, with its potential for gestating, bringing forth and nourishing new life, has been through the ages a field of contradictions: a space invested with power, and an acute vulnerability; a numinous figure and the incarnation of evil; a hoard of ambivalences, most of which have worked to disqualify women from the collective act of defining culture. (Rich 105)
The conflicted reading of the female body’s relationship to power is the very thing that has made childbirth, in the past, a metaphor for the artistic process while cordoning women off from art with the rhetoric of mutual exclusion: if babies—no books, no paintings, no dance. However, these renderings often have focused on gestation and birth only (Friedman 51-4). In doing so, their metaphorical use has misconstrued motherhood as merely a biological act. This leads to a difficulty in reading differently gendered presentations of the metaphor. As Susan Friedman notes in her essay on the childbirth metaphor for writing, “female and male metaphors mean differently and mean something different, indeed something opposite” (Friedman 75). Might I suggest that expanding the metaphor from artist-as-birther to artist-as-mother would avoid much of the difficulty of the earlier rhetorical model.
An artist painted as mother would be enlarged. The art process would be seen as an endlessly collaborative act, from inception through production. Children are not produced in a vacuum, and although both mothers and artists can toil in isolation, by linking artistic process to motherhood—this would no longer be viewed as the normative or preferable model for artistic production. By linking these culturally feminized acts (art is not coded in the West as a masculine pursuit though it may be male-dominated), it might become more apparent just how undervalued both processes are. By insisting on a motherhood rather than childbirth model, the responsibility of the artist would extend beyond the moment of artistic completion. As Rich notes, “Woman did not simply give birth; she made it possible for the child to go on living” (101). The artist would begin to view him/herself as more accountable for and to the work produced. This is not to argue for a policing or even a self-policing of artistic creation, but simply a new sense of artistic place within the community. It is heresy, I know, to speak against the privileged standpoint of the outlaw—and I am not; I am arguing that the outlaw/artist already has an oft-denied relationship with both his/her artwork and the community that artwork is released into—and that those relationships, like all relationships, grow fuller with tending.
Mother, viewed as artist, would also flower. Motherhood could move beyond a “becom[ing of] our bodies—blindly, slavishly, in obedience to male theories about us” (Rich 102), and become expressively creative. Instead of procreative destiny, motherhood could view itself as a conscious manifestation of continued choosing. I recognize that most women in the world do not have the luxury of equating motherhood with choice, and that is precisely why I think it imperative that a metaphor that fronts that possibility be in use. The label artist would also allow motherhood to rethink its boundaries. If it is possible to be a mother without having ovulated (as in surrogacy), without having birthed a child (as in adoption), after menopause (plenty of these foster and grandmother-mothers), and without a partner (and these), then perhaps it is time to imagine a motherhood beyond the uterus. North American gender roles within the home have been glacially slow to change; motherhood-as-an-act-of-self-expression might help push that change forward.
Is there a problem with the child-as-artwork that follows? Undoubtedly. Yet, this formulation is infinitely preferable to child-as-accessory, child-as-property, child-as-surrogate-self, and child-as-doll—all of which have real currency in our world. It is a discussion for a later time, but suffice it to say that neither art nor children are completely within the control of their creators and that I see the celebration of this fact as crucial to healthy models of both.
In her rethinking our ways of being in the world in this era, Haraway writes:
Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other... The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of western culture. (Haraway 175)
In reinvesting in motherhood, I do not want to reimagine originary wholeness; I want to imagine division and creation with a difference. Motherhood has marked me as other, and I would use it to mark the world. Motherhood is power. Rich partially explains: “The one aspect in which most women have felt their own power—in the patriarchal sense—authority and control over another—has been motherhood...” (Rich 67). Yet, she does not go on to show how mothers relinquish this power, many happily, upon the growth of the child: this element places motherhood in a different relationship to the power s/he wields than the patriarchal model Rich mentions. The origin myths I want to subvert by retelling are of the twin creators—Mother and Artist. By placing them inside one another, like Russian dolls, I hope to expand the potentialities of both.
When Benjamin describes the task of the translator, he describes the task of both mother and artist—to be profoundly altered and enlarged by what they take inside of them. I agree with his reflection upon the transformative aspect of translation: “It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible…” (Benjamin 81) I would like to start exploring the extent.
We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence... (Rich 285-6)
Battersby, Christine. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Pattern of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. Pimlico ed. London: Pimlico, 1999.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse." Feminist Studies 13.1 (1987): 49-82.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Rich, Adrienne Cecile. Of Woman Born : Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Bantam Books, 1977.