The Maternal Turn: Elissa Marder and Andrew Parker

Having invited Elissa Marder and Andrew Parker to review each other’s books about mothers in critical theory, the editors of The Los Angeles Review of Books learned that the authors had become good friends since they discovered their common maternal interest. Since friends, as a rule, do not review each other’s work, they offered instead to experiment with a collaborative hybrid form — part analysis and part dialogue — as told to, and through, the editors. What follows is the result.


IT WAS NEW YEAR’S EVE in New York City. After what had been years (if not decades) of gestation, Elissa Marder’s book The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction was finally ready to go to press. Sometime around midnight at a party densely populated by theoretically inclined academics, Elissa bumped into Andrew Parker (whom she had known by reputation but had never met) and they struck up a conversation. They began talking, as one does on such occasions, about their recent work. Elissa doesn’t remember who was first to utter the word “mother,” but she soon learned that Andy had also just completed a new book about mothers and theory entitled The Theorist’s Mother. They soon discovered that their two mother books were in the exact same state of completion and were due to be published within weeks of one another. Their mothers had been, as it were, separated at birth. So, as the new year settled in, Elissa and Andy began a conversation — about mothers, about books, and about theory — that has continued ever since.

After the initial shock (“but that’s my mother book you’re talking about!”) wore off, the two resolved to read each other’s books. When they did, they were both struck by the following two thoughts: first, although they share many theoretical premises drawn from deconstruction, feminism and psychoanalysis, their books are also very different from one another; and second, the very fact that both of them wrote books devoted to thinking about the place of the mother within critical theory, at the very same time, must also say something about the timeliness of the topic itself. One of the main threads running through Andy’s book is the notion, inspired in part by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that because the very category of “mother” is irreducibly plural (who can say for sure who a mother is, or what a mother does?), there is, as he puts it, always “more than one mother.” Given that there is always “more than one mother,” why not have more than one mother book with which to engage that irreducible plurality?

The fact that both Elissa and Andy had just completed theoretical books about mothers wasn’t coincidence enough. No, they also chose sculptures by the artist Louise Bourgeois for the covers of their books. Andy selected Blind Man’s Buff (1984), a highly tactile marble sculpture whose impossibly numerous breast-like protuberances mounted on a headless, phallic torso seemed, he thought, a wry if unsettling take on what theorists want from their mothers. Elissa picked a photograph of Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), part of a series of installations that Bourgeois worked on from 1989-1993. A wire-mesh cube with partially glassed-in walls, Cell puts on display a number of mirrors of different shapes and sizes, with the two most prominent facing inward towards each other. Resting on a stand on the floor at the back of the cube is a set of large black marble “eyes” (that could easily be taken for eggs or, again, breasts); another set, doubling the first, pivots on a hinge through an oval aperture in the roof. The ensemble’s assorted parts come together as an allegory — at once surrealist, feminist, and psychoanalytic — of a disturbed and disturbing visuality that fascinated Bourgeois throughout her career-long meditation on maternity. Cell invites us to penetrate the cube’s outer walls only to meet inside the indifferent “gaze” of inanimate objects that do little to reassure us of our own animation. “It’s a camera,” Elissa explained to Andy when asked why she chose this image for her cover. Indeed, Bourgeois’s Cell illuminates perfectly what Elissa will call the “maternal function,” an inhuman mode of mechanical reproduction that shares with photography “a magical and uncanny power to procreate.”

But that, as Elissa’s book sometimes cautions, is getting ahead of ourselves.


The central question of The Theorist’s Mother is how to theorize the very relation between theory and mothers; or, in other words, how to think “thinking mothers.” Of course, the phrase “thinking mothers” can mean either thinking about mothers or mothers who themselves think. Or both. Much of the critical punch of Andy’s book turns on its rigorous and elegant demonstration that both inflections of this question are necessarily bound up with one another. Andy suggests that in order to understand how and why philosophy and critical theory have systematically failed to think about the mother, we must rethink how we understand maternal thinking itself. Thus, on the one hand, he points out that mothers constitute the defining limit of philosophy and critical theory: when it comes to thinking about the mother, the philosophical tradition tends to stop thinking altogether (it blinds itself to the mother, so to speak — hence the choice of cover image). But Andy is also curious about how maternal thinking (that is, mothers thinking qua mothers) might undermine the conceptual fields designated by philosophy and critical theory. For The Theorist’s Mother, these two questions are inextricably related. Philosophers cannot think about mothers because maternal forms of thinking (and here the etymological link between “concept” and “conception” is particularly evocative) challenge the male-centered self-sufficient models of transmission and self-authorized legitimacy, according to which, the philosophical tradition circulates and reproduces itself. Can a mother be a potential subject or object of philosophical inquiry, or is she excluded entirely from philosophy? What role does the mother play in the life and work of the philosopher?

For the most part (although not exclusively), Andy uses the word “theory” in The Theorist’s Mother as a way of differentiating the critical approaches inspired by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud from philosophy more generally. Building upon Michel Foucault’s famous claim, in his 1969 lecture “What Is An Author?,” that Marx and Freud cannot merely be viewed as authors of their own individual works, but as founders of new forms of knowledge and methodological practices (“Marxism” and “Psychoanalysis”), Andy is particularly interested in looking at how these two “founders of discursivity” attempt to construct their self-replicating systems of thought by bypassing the mother altogether (again, the mother as blind spot). However, upon reading their works closely, he discovers that traces of the mother’s absence are curiously imprinted on both thinker’s works and that, therefore, the writings of Marx and Freud present privileged instances of “mother trouble.”

Elissa’s book is no less interested in mother trouble, but the interest takes different forms. Ranging widely in historical time from ancient Greece to Abu Ghraib, The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction surveys an immense maternal archive that includes literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, photography, and film. The book features bravura readings of works by Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Avital Ronell, Derrida, and Freud, as well as chapters on Blade Runner, Frankenstein, and Phèdre. The troubling mother who appears throughout, however, is unlike any we have encountered before.

For one thing, we never saw this mother at the instant of our birth, nor did she then see us, though we often imagine that moment as a certain fact (indeed, as certainty itself). Freud returns often to this primal birth fantasy, perhaps most famously in The Interpretation of Dreams

In some dreams of landscapes and other localities emphasis is laid in the dream itself on a convinced feeling of having been there once before. (Occurrences of déjà vu in dreams have a special meaning.) These places are invariably the genitals of the dreamer’s mother; there is indeed no other place about which one can assert with such conviction that one has been there once before. 

Freud’s “conviction” is astonishing in part because the “one” who “has been there once before” could not yet be the person he or she would become; it is only long after the fact that we project ourselves back to where “we” presumably once were.

If this were not enough to call Freud’s certainty into question, Elissa shows this passage to be even stranger than anyone had previously thought. For Freud is not describing here an occurrence of déjà vu from waking life, which would be the return of something seen before, but déjà vu from within a dream, which would be the return of something never seen at all. Since this latter “something” is the mother’s body, then our origin can never have been experienced as such. As she explains:

[Freud] suggests that when the experience of déjà vu occurs in dreams, it is the mechanical reproduction of an impossible image (the image of our birth) that was seen (but not by any subjective presence) without having been seen. Déjà vu in dreams really means that something real was always already seen before: the very fact of the repetition and reproduction of the image appears, paradoxically, to guarantee the unique status (in time and place) of the event that it ostensibly repeats. In this sense, the reproduction of the image through the dream resembles something like a photographic reproduction of an unphotographable event.

That the body of the mother appears only in this second form of déjà vu has many far-reaching consequences for Elissa. For if we experience our birth as “a photographic reproduction of an unphotographable event,” then the mother we see at our origin is, already, a repetition of what has always and only been an image. Converted thereby into a “darkroom,” Freud’s maternal body is reproductive in the way that photographs are, which is to say (with a nod to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) mechanically. This capacity for self-replication is what Elissa terms the “maternal function,” an uncanny effect whose properties have destabilizing consequences for actual mothers among other women and men.

The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction discovers this function at work in the many kinds of texts that it considers, texts that provide myriad examples “of uncontrollable mechanical repetition and strangely animated containers that defy the confines of any determinable spatial location.” These latter are womb-like images of jars, boxes, tubs, chests, freezers, tombs, caskets, cubes, and cameras that seem throughout the book to proliferate on their own, wreaking havoc with our customary sense of the difference between before and after, or inside and outside. These temporal and spatial disturbances generate especially poignant effects in the two chapters that the book devotes to Camera Lucida. Barthes’s essay on the nature of photography that is also, not coincidentally, an “autobiographical elegy” to his recently deceased mother, Henriette. In reconceiving the photographic process as (in Elissa’s phrase) a “mechanical maternal medium,” Barthes makes it productively difficult for us to say whether maternity is photography’s vehicle or tenor.


In the last chapter of The Theorist’s Mother, “Translating Revolution: Freud, Marx, and the Mameloshn,” all of the threads of Andy’s book come together in a breathtakingly original reading of the role that “the mother tongue” (in both cases, Yiddish) occupies in the writings of Marx and Freud. Picking up on Marx’s striking comparison between a successful revolution and forgetting one’s mother tongue (“In a like manner a beginner who has learnt a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he has assimilated the spirit of the new language and can express himself freely in it only when he finds his way in it without recalling the old and forgets his native tongue in the use of the new”), Andy establishes a powerfully resonant connection between this ostensibly “theoretical” construct and the biographical fact that Marx’s own mother Henriette’s mother tongue was not German, but Yiddish: apparently, she had never fully been able to master German and leave Yiddish behind.

In Freud’s case, the majority of his tellingly funny inscriptions of maternal Yiddish have disappeared in translation. Andy quotes from the new Penguin translation of Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious in order to bring out the latent Yiddish inflections of this famous joke about mothers, language and the pains of childbirth:

The doctor who has been requested to attend the Baroness at her confinement declares that the moment has not yet arrived, and suggests to the Baron that meantime they play a game of cards in the next room. After a while the Frau Baronin’s cry of pain reaches the ears of the two men: “Ah mon Dieu, que je souffre.” The husband leaps up, but the doctor detains him: “It’s nothing. Let’s carry on playing.” A while later they hear her crying out in labour: “Mein Gott, mein Gott, was für Schmerzen! [My God, my God, how it hurts!]” — “Won’t you go in, Professor?” asks the Baron. “No, no, it’s still not time.” — Finally, from the next room they hear an unmistakably cry of “Ai, waih, waih”; then the doctor throws away his cards and says: “It’s time.”

In The Theorist’s Mother, Andy speculates that Freud’s earlier English translators and editors may have felt inclined to remove traces of his reliance on Yiddish inflections from the Standard Edition so that his writings would appear more theoretically sophisticated, and scientifically based, to his Anglophone readers. By uncovering the lost language of the mother in both Marx and Freud, Andy invites us to imagine another history and another future for theory; a theoretical revolution that would not need to sacrifice or deride the mother’s teachings, or her language, would be revolutionary indeed.

The connection between maternity and the mother tongue is explored as well throughout The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, another sign of both books’ indebtedness to deconstruction. Though one might think that nothing new could be said about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Elissa is the first to point out that the novel’s many dead and absent mothers are not only motherless themselves but also foreign. But foreign to what? This turns out to be a highly complex question: 

Frankenstein itself is, strangely, written in translation. While the outermost “frame” of the novel is Walton’s letter to his sister, which is composed in English, the bulk of the narrative is recounted by Frankenstein to Walton in an English tinged with a “foreign accent.” English is not spoken by any of the book’s central characters; the fact that their stories have been transparently “translated” goes largely unnoticed because of the novel’s imbricated structure.

The famous novel about monstrous birth is thus also a novel about the monstrous nature of mother tongues that are always and only foreign: “For the monster, language is, originally, foreign language. Bereft of a mother as well as a mother tongue, the monster learns first that language is foreign, that it expresses primarily what cannot be said.” This lesson helps to make sense of the fact that the very center of the novel is occupied by the interpolated tale of the De Lacey family, which is itself multiply foreign. What the monster learns from this family is that it has neither a mother nor a word for mother. As Elissa demonstrates, this double absence, at once familial and linguistic, “spreads to all the definitions of family relations in the book.” One can indeed say the same about The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which does not flinch — as Victor Frankenstein does — at the consequences of that double absence.


It should not be surprising that significant portions of The Theorist’s Mother are written in the first person. After all, the “theorist” in the book’s title both is and is not Andrew Parker, just as the “mother” refers and does not refer to the author’s mother. It is certainly no accident that the book is movingly dedicated to Parker’s mother, Selma Blossom Cohen Parker. Thus, from the very first pages of the book, Selma’s name accompanies that of the author and, as Andy drolly recounts in the book’s opening chapter, Selma herself plays a formative role in her son’s theoretical development: “I turned to psychoanalysis some twenty-five years ago in an effort to make sense of my mother’s illnesses.”

Remarkably, however, the bulk of that first chapter is not, as we might have expected, a story about how psychoanalytic theory helped Andrew Parker to read his mother’s (sick) body, but rather how she, and her body, actually had something new to teach him (and, by extension, psychoanalytic theory) about how bodies think and, therefore, how to think differently about them. But — and this is the crux of the matter, and one of the central insights of Andy’s book­ — when the theorist-son first decided to speak directly and openly about his mother’s body in a theoretical context, he discovered that there was something scandalous about having done so.

In “Mom, Encore,” Andy retells the story of what happened when, as a budding young theorist, he gave a paper (called “Mom”) at two psychoanalytic conferences in 1985. Much to his chagrin, he discovered that by speaking about his mother’s body, he had inadvertently violated a taboo, undermined his own critical authority, and behaved badly toward women in general:

My audience and copanelists hated “Mom,” rising up as one to accuse me of having laughed at my mother, which, I learned, was not very feminist. […] Crushed that my paper had failed to persuade either of my audiences of what I thought was obvious (Selma, c’est moi!), I was relieved, at least, that “Mom” generated no hate mail when it appeared in print. The exercise at least helped me to appreciate what my mother had been teaching me all the while — that the very model of somatic conversion assumes forms of bodily transparence and passivity that run counter to the psychoanalytic insight that our knowledge and experience do not coincide.

Andy’s point in retelling this story is that the negative reception of his early paper was more indicative of that era’s dominant attitudes regarding feminism and psychoanalysis than it was a response to what he was actually trying to say at the time about the complexities of how somatization actually works. Looking back at “Mom” in The Theorist’s Mother, he concludes that the resistance to his early attempt to reap lessons from his mother’s body may point to a more general (and insidious) eradication of the mother from the body of psychoanalytic theory itself.

One of the most significant aspects of the story that The Theorist’s Mother tells about “Mom” turns around the question of why the figure of the mother is so intensely susceptible to being perceived as an object of derision and contempt in the first place. After all, it is truly remarkable that virtually everyone involved (except Andy himself) apparently felt compelled to defend poor Selma from her theorist son’s (supposedly insensitive) mockery. But he is exactly right to be wondering who was actually laughing at whom here, and what “laughter” even means in this context. Why is it that on those rare occasions when the mother actually becomes an object of theoretical inquiry — that is, when she is neither idealized beyond recognition, nor demonized beyond belief — she risks becoming an object of potential ridicule, from which she then requires protection? From what, exactly, is the mother being protected? Throughout, The Theorist’s Mother intimates that the mother is systematically excluded from theoretical discourse not only because her body, voice, language, teaching, and influence threaten male-centered, father-son, self-referential models of philosophical inheritance, but also because, in recalling the helplessness, passivity, and receptivity of his earliest days, she becomes a source of potential anxiety and shame for him. But it is crucial to remember (and Andy is marvelously sensitive to this) that the shame experienced by the theorist is essentially his and not hers. Moreover, his need to ward off shame — by severing all ties with her body, language, voice, influence — is not only the sign that he has failed to see her as a thinking person, but also that in failing to see her as a thinking person he has lost an invaluable resource for his own thinking.

Where Andy’s book discusses, at times, the actual mothers of actual theorists, Elissa’s focuses more on the “maternal function” and the uncanny effects that it generates in cultural institutions, popular culture, philosophy, art, and literature. The mother in the age of mechanical reproduction is decidedly not the “quintessentially ‘natural’ figure” of origin myths. But neither is she simply aligned with culture: the maternal function operates, as Elissa explains, “at the border between birth and death, bios and techn?, the human and the nonhuman.” Elissa’s mechanical techn? is not added to an already-formed maternal bios; the great novelty of the maternal function is that it imperils the very distinction between nature and culture that the mother had long been thought to ground. Far from being benign, this mother is as sui generis in her properties as is, well, The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Readers may find it intriguingly difficult, indeed, to situate Elissa’s book in the landscape of contemporary scholarship on maternity. To explore “the concept of birth and the ‘maternal function’ independently of the role of the mother as a real person in the life of the child” is, of course, to put boldly aside almost everything that has been said about mothers and motherhood. While wondering how Elissa would read Melanie Klein and other post-Freudians, or what her book might contribute to a burgeoning discussion among philosophers writing after Hannah Arendt about “natality” (the existential condition of having been born), Andy began to imagine a new project that would have been unthinkable without The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: a history of feminist thought about reproduction and mechanism that would pass through Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970) and Gena Corea’s The Mother Machine (1985) to Luce Irigaray’s Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference (1993). Elissa’s mother machine is not Corea’s, certainly, and that dramatic difference in orientation suggests some of the distance travelled by feminism over the past 30 years.

So, then: why was 2012 such a good year for books about mothers in literary theory? A good question, indeed, but also one the authors cannot answer. They surmise, however, that it has something to do with the continuing routinization of the new reproductive technologies, which continue to outpace our social and psychological theories, challenging us to rethink everything we thought we knew about nature, culture, gender, sexuality, kinship, medicine, class, capital, commerce, and the state.

While Elissa and Andy’s books share many things, there are ultimately important differences between their two approaches to “mother trouble.” Whereas Elissa’s book is devoted to exploring the uncanny properties attributed to the figure of the mother (in cultural institutions, popular culture, philosophy, art, and literature) independently of the lives of real mothers, Andy’s book is committed to asking a set of probing questions about how mothers disturb the very possibility of establishing any clear philosophical or critical distinctions at all. Is the mother a concept or a real person? Can a mother be a potential subject or object of philosophical inquiry, or is she entirely excluded from philosophy? What role does the mother play in the life of a philosopher? Is she merely a contingent biographical figure, or does she play an integral part in the philosopher’s work? If the word “mother” can apply both to the person who is endowed with the physical capacity to experience childbirth and as the name for the primary person who nurtures an infant, do we have only one mother? Or, rather, as Andy asks throughout his book, what happens when we begin to recognize that there is always “more than one mother?”