April 20, 2015 / Paula McCloskey
ART AND MATERNAL SUBJECTIVITY: AN ONGOING RELATION
Since I started researching maternity[i] and its relation to art 10 years ago; it still felt that there were a lot less of out there[ii] than there are now. Sure, there were artists, researchers interested in motherhood, in maternity holding a line back to the pioneering work in the 70s; but over the past 7 years[iii] or so there seems to have been a proliferation of groups, conferences, movements, research consortias, exhibition, research, books and so on confidently developing new thinking on maternal subjectivity and exploring ever more diverse maternal experiences. For me, maternity and art are inextricably linked, in terms of my experience, research, practice and subjectivity. This affects how I approach and think about 'maternity' and 'art'; their relation is complex, and my work to understand this relation is ongoing. Perhaps it is helpful to shed some light on this link between art and maternity from my experience, and in doing so offering an entry point into my complex relation to maternity and art, as well as starting to illuminate something of the complexity of the relation, in general terms between maternity and art in this seemingly dynamic and expanding area of research.
My maternal subjectivity is changing. For the first time in a long time I am not pregnant or caring for a small baby. My youngest (of four children) is 22 months old and still breastfeeding. So, although still in the throes of mothering young children, I am no longer thinking about reproducing, and all that entails - the worry of getting pregnant, the worry of staying pregnant, dreaming of new life, hoping for a healthy baby, hoping I can cope once they arrive. This time is behind me, and I am glad of it. I know I have been lucky – overwhelming so, but I am pleased to no longer be consumed by the desire I once had to be pregnant. But this does not mean my maternity is behind me, not at all, just that it is on the move. This affects many things, not least my 'other work' (some paid, some unpaid) - researching, art-making and activism, as for years my maternity and other work were intimately enmeshed. For some time my research and art practice constituted a working-through of my early maternal experience. This seemed a necessity at the time; a compulsion to make sense of who I was, which perhaps deserves some further cursory explanation.
In my mid-20s I became a mother in less than ideal circumstances. I had been unhappy for years. I felt disconnected from other people and the world around me. However, becoming pregnant and then mothering set in motion events that would, over time, see my trajectory change as I re-configured who I was. In its longer version, what might have 'happened' and why is a complex tale. What it might have been in those early months of breastfeeding and caring for a baby that changed me I cannot recall; I cannot remember any individual moments in the way that Lisa Baraitser can so beautifully conjure[iv]. Perhaps a new assemblage of maternal affects[v] penetrated through my consciousness, perhaps something of the otherness of my child, in Baraitser’s terms allowed me to experience myself anew. Whatever it was, the infinite number of variables, of affects, desire, events and encounters that I associated with becoming-a-mother set something in motion which allowed me to start making connections; to eventually re-make who I was, and who I wanted to be in the process of becoming.
Complex Interactions: Art and the Maternal
In those early mothering days, as I started to reach out and make connections, I had, what I would later term, an art-encounter[vi] with the oeuvre of French artist Louise Bourgeois (1911- 2010). This connection with my maternal subjectivity and art was pivotal to the changes that were afoot. Viewing Bourgeois' work had an impact on me that I had not experienced before. I was drawn to the images and moved by them. I was mesmerised by the sensations that beholding the work was able to ignite in me. I was a newly single mother in my mid-twenties when this happened, and a novice in terms of art. I was in the midst of a traumatic time in my trajectory, a time when I felt lonely and lost. Louise Bourgeois' work was something I felt connected to, it made me feel differently about myself and my situation. The feelings, the intensity, the sensations all worked in a way that was new and exciting. I could not let go of this 'happening'. I wanted to understand it, make sense of it and learn from it. I felt that Bourgeois' art in a complex way that I did not comprehend connected to my maternity. The complex connection to my maternity was not a straightforward connection to maternal images in the work; but it was an affective-link to something else.
In trying to understand this art-encounter I latched onto the literal images of the maternal imagery as being the most-likely cause of the encounter. However, pretty much simultaneously to making this causative link I sensed the not-enoughness of this in terms of what actually happened when I encountered the work of Bourgeois. What I mean by 'not-enoughness' is that, in reflecting on the encounter early on there was a lingering ambience that I sensed but which I experienced separately (though perhaps linked) to other maternal imagery and references in Bourgeois' work. Trying to make sense of the work by turning to the literal imagery was, I think, part of a process or attempt to introduce some order to the intensive response. The maternal images offered an accessible solution – I thought I was so moved and affected by the work because it was about maternity and because I encountered the work in the midst of a traumatic episode in my life that was overwhelmingly linked to my maternity. I was confused by the imagery and conflated it with what was happening in my life – having recently become-a-mother in difficult circumstances. The confusion came from not quite accepting this link from my maternity to that of the imagery in Bourgeois' art. I know I did not see her maternity as such nor did I see an image that I related to in my experience. But the sense of something else kept drawing me back to the work and the not-enoughness prevailed. As such, my attempts to try and solve the puzzle of what happened, (why was I so moved by this work?) were overthrown or undermined as the 'something else' that was still there and unaccounted for would simply not go away.
In an analysis[vii] of Louise Bourgeois' Precious Liquids, Griselda Pollock problematises a link made by the art writer Marie-Laure Bernadac between this work to Macrcel Duchamp’s Large Glass and states the connection made is one of ‘influence’, as such, Pollock writes, Bernadac's discussion does not offer any real feminine alternative; leaving its ‘phallocentric script unchanged’. Pollock suggests a way of approaching Precious Liquids that does not lead us into essential femininity but rather opens up the possibility of an unsignified inscription in Bourgeois' practice (as well as other women artists). She reaches this possible position by arguing that artists that are women occupy a double axis; they have to imagine themselves in a relation with the existing cultural field (the phallic) which will be necessarily inscribed in their work, but they may also find traces of another. As she analyses Bernadac's essay, Pollock elucidates a challenge posed by Bourgeois and other women artists of either being ‘read’ with an overfeminised eye (which means seeking those signifiers that we can only claim as ‘woman’, and which in my case meant seeking ‘maternal’ signs in the phallocentric order); or to what Pollock calls an ‘underfeminisation’ – the not-paying-attention-to the feminine in the work in order to avoid reductive feminisation to claim the woman as a ‘serious’ artist. Pollock continues with naming what I relate as being part of my response to Bourgeois, a ‘feminine desire’, She writes that a feminine desire is:
'a desire to find the theoretical means to think a different (non-phallic) difference in the aesthetic inscriptions by artists working in the double space of still phallic cultural codes (of which the maternal signifier is one) and radical semiotic transformations that may open pathways through the aesthetic to difference ‘in, of and from the feminine.’[viii]
Pollock argues that it then becomes what we experience in the work of art that will determine how moved or challenged we are by the play of feminine sexual difference and the intimation of a difference that has yet to be named. This idea of being moved by the complex connection between the feminine sexual difference and the intimation of a difference was one that resonated with me. It helped me to reflect on the art-encounter I had with Bourgeois’ oeuvre, specifically opening up the possibility that there was movement generated by the interrelation or interplay between the maternal signifier and the different (non-phallic) codes in much of Bourgeois' artwork which formed part of my intensive response to the work.
Pollock's essay[ix] in general and specifically when she cited Rosi Huhn, led me directly to Ettinger's matrixial. Pollock and Huhn both invoke Bracha Ettinger's matrixial[x] as that which can be sensed in Bourgeois' work – with this the wavering that I experienced between the maternal imagery and 'something else' was offered a possible explanation. Bracha Ettinger writes beautifully and importantly about the late stages of pregnancy as an affective encounter between the becoming-child (I) and her becoming-mother (non-I). She posits a supplementary organising frame to the phallic entry into subjectivity in her proposal of a transsubjectivity which originates in the intrauterine co-emergence of the I and non-I. Pollock writes that what Ettinger's matrixial offers us is the 'gift that feminine sexual specificity makes to human subjectivity.'[xi] She continues by elucidating the specificity of what Ettinger's matrixial offers to an understanding of subjectivity:
The matrixial as a structure or logic of subjectivity is from the beginning several, an encounter-event, co-emerging and co-affecting between partners-in-difference that remain unknown to each other but share in this pre-birth incest as intimacy that may lay the psychic foundations for our capacities for ethics, hospitality and compassion for the other in their otherness and in my own alterity (radical unknownness).[xii]
Ettinger takes on the pre-natal-subject-to-come in her work on subjectivity – the specific, often (mostly) overlooked and under-theorised, primodordial subjectivising encounter that emerges from female sexual bodily specificity that allows for thinking primarily co-affectively, which has a lasting legacy. As such, the above extract gets to the heart of why thinking of my art-encounter as a matrixial transsubjective encounter-event is important – it provides a specifically feminine logic of subjectivity. It adds into the logic of a transsubjective subjectivity the primordial encounter-event, which, as Pollock reminds us, supplements this logic from the beginning as being several, co-emerging and co-affecting, that may lay psychic foundations for ethics, hospitality and compassion, that[xiii] may be re-activated by a subjectivising encounter – a transsubjective encounter-event, such as an art-encounter.
With this (proposed) transsubjective encounter-event I had with Bourgeois' work I was able to contemplate the possibility of the matrixial affective traces of the work having touched me, generating something, some awareness that something had taken place. These sub-symbolic tunings (that I could not make sense of at first), through the process of what Ettinger calls ‘metramorphic cross-inscriptions that impregnant subjectivity with partial-objects, and objectivity with partial-subjects'[xiv] would, overtime, start to be traced. This encounter-event would lead to a contemplation that would partially connect me to my child, to my maternity, to my-self, to others via relating to the matrixial web and borderspace that exists, not just in me, but in all humans.
It was only by looking directly to Ettinger that I was able to understand what the proposition that Bourgeois' artwork operates in the matrixial field might mean. It was by exploring the specifics of this theory in relation to art that I was able to 'try it on' as an idea, and see whether it fit with what I felt had happened.
The long period of time pre-art-encounter (in which I felt disjointed, disconnected, alienated and separated from the rest of the social world interrupted and perhaps in some ways intensified when I had a baby in difficult circumstances) started to change with becoming a mother, and were galvanised by an art-encounter which was complexly linked to my maternal subjectivity. One of the changes catalysed by these entwined encounters was to not only to look to others' art, but to start making my own. My early art making was directly linked to my maternal subjectivity – it constituted a working-through of some of those aspects of my experiences and thinking that I could not out into words in a daily practice of ink line drawings which spanned a year. As I experimented with art making I was all the time reaching out to new knowledges, new ways of being. I looked to Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari, Braidotti and Ettinger as thinkers who gave me the tools to worked-through my own social, psychic and ecological environments. Working-through my complex (maternal) subjectivity took years, and at that time, the thought of more children seemed distant. My focus was coming to terms with the mother I was, with experimenting with new thinking and art writing and making.
After eight years of having one child, a familiar desire returned. I longed to be pregnant again. I wanted to be pregnant for many reasons. I was getting older. I wanted to heal the losses of my own childhood and my first disrupted mothering experience. I longed for another baby – that life affirming new life. I pushed to the back of my mind concerns about how it might affect my son, my relationship, the planet. I wanted a baby.
I have four children now. With each journey to the pregnancy, the pregnancies (lost and those that went to term), changed not only my physiology, but so much more. They all did (do) something, to my subjectivity. How can co-creating new human life not be transformative? Bracha Ettinger ideas of the transsubjectivity that takes place in the womb - of co-emergence and co-affective borderlinking - for me are persuasive, as is her new thinking on carriance. Ettinger's ideas offer a necessarily complex and creative new language to think through, not a new subjectivity as such but a subjective (or sub or transsubjective) process (one that has oft been ignored in Western metaphysics) that take place in the making of human life which leaves a lasting psychic legacy in terms of how humans might connect with others.
I started writing this post about how I am still (after 13 years of being a mother) in the throes of early mothering. But maternal subjectivity is a process; its dynamic, it changes. The relationship between my maternity and my work – art, activism and research has changed. Similarly to my account of my first encounters with maternity and art; the relation between these two 'concepts' (in a broad sense) for me, continues to be complex, as does my relation to them. But I do continue to draw, a daily practice that is specifically 'set up' as a space/place to contemplate maternity, to work-through what it means for me to be a mother, this form of crude automatic drawing does something that, for me, words cannot. I also work on a collaborative art, activist practice with my partner and four children 'a place of their own' (http://aplaceoftheirown.org/) which is concerned with setting up new encounters, to think about how subjectivity is or needs to change in a time of catastrophic climate change and technological advancements. We do this within the context of our everyday family life, but this is not about or only about documenting the daily grind or the mundane nor is it about a kind of social science ethnography – though these are elements that might be discerned in our practice. What we aspire to do is to engage us all (differently at different times) with an eclectic, collective, praxis of working-through that both employs different mediums and concepts and produces different objects, and conversations. There is a performative aspect to this of course, and perhaps we are following Judith Butler by attempting to - at times - do the family otherwise (but importantly without throwing the baby out with the bathwater). This all stems from a concern we share about the production of subjectivity. Not the traditional subjectivity of western metaphysics, but one that offers a fluid rather than fixed subject and one that allows the subject to change and be able to transform. This subjectivity is contingent, contextual, experiential, multiplicitous, that does not presuppose identity and where subjects are situated and produced. In terms of 'a place of their own' this means we actively seek out or create encounters - meetings or events where we come together with others - humans, non-humans, objects to see what happens, having already 'bought into' the transformative potential of encounters.
My research and practice continues to be concerned with maternity, with how to be a mother, yes, but it is also concerned with how to be with others – humans and non-humans. I am preoccupied with how to re-style who we are, affirmatively through words, action, friendship, making, love and compassion. I want to use my research and practice in maternity and take it beyond my experience to think about new ways of being, new subjectivities, how I might overcome my western privileged self, to change the script, to authentically imagine an-otherness, an other way of being through making and doing.
It was becoming-a-mother and coming-to-art that set in motion a new way to be in/with the world, in terms of relations with humans and non-human others, as well as its affects and essences. What I mean by this is that, in Felix Guattari's terms[xv], it was a process of resingularisation or the creation of an authentic relation with the other that began with a complex interaction of encounters with maternity and art - an affective response, a partial subjectification that created movement enough for evolution to occur – I am no longer what I was. The working-through process of an entangled maternal and art encounter traced above was no less than a Guattarian realisation of autonomy, or of autopoiesis[xvi] or co-poiesis[xvii] which (re)connected me to my-self, my child, with others outside myself (different people, art, discourses, events, times and places); it transformed where I was and it transformed how I moved through the world.
[i] Maternity is taken to encompass the everyday embodied experience of being-a-mother (including my own), as well as the ideas, thinking, practices and behaviours, cultural, political and societal responses relating to pregnancy. Maternity is used to encapsulate maternity as a concept, a metaphor, a myth, a subject position and as a thinking apparatus.
[ii] I am talking from my experience of working in the UK.
[iii] For me, the MaMSIE network (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics) has been an important movement; started in 2007 by Lisa Baraitser and Sigal Spigal it bring together of artists and academics and others. Its first event felt like the start of something - and it was. The MaMSIE events and the Journal Studies in the Maternal played and play a significant role in developing and supporting critical and creative research into the maternal.
[iv] Lisa Baraitser's award winning Maternal Encounters (Cambrdige Univeristy Press, 2006).
[v] Brian Massumi,46 whose writing on affect is influenced by Deleuze and Spinoza,47 proposes, that affect is 'unformed and unstructured, and it is always prior to and/or outside of conscious awareness.'48 This goes some way to explicating the attempt to ‘capture’ affect, its unformed, unstructured, intangible but sometimes tangible presence and non-presence
[vi] For a discussion of art-encounters through a Deleuze and Guattari lens, see Simon O'Sullivan's Art Encounters.
[vii] Griselda Pollock, ‘Old Bones and Cocktail Dresses: Louise Bourgeois and the Question of Age’,Oxford Art Journal 22, no. 2 (1 January 1999): 71–100
[ix] I am wary of giving the impression that Pollock's analysis in Old Bones was an easy way out of the 'problem' I was having with understanding the place of the maternal in the art-encounter. It took some time for me to open up to the idea of Ettinger's matrixial transsubjective encounter-event. I had to work-through Ettinger's ideas, her obscure poetics alongside what was by then the recalling of an event that happened some time before. It is thus now tricky to carve out an authentic route through the process of working-through.
[x] The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
[xi] Pollock, ‘Mother Trouble: The Maternal-Feminine in Phallic and Feminist Theory in Relation to BrachA Ettinger’s Elaboration of Matrixial Ethics/Aesthetics’, 10.
[xiii] Pollock, ‘Mother Trouble: The Maternal-Feminine in Phallic and Feminist Theory in Relation to Bracha Ettinger’s Elaboration of Matrixial Ethics/Aesthetics’, 27.
[xiv] Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, 144.
[xv] Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethno-aesthetic Paradigm , trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1995), 13.
[xvi] Autopoiesis, as in self-creation in terms of a dialectic between structure, mechanism and function. See Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (New York: Springer, 1980).
[xvii] Ettinger, develops a notion of co-poiesis. see Matrixial Borderspace and ‘Copoiesis’, Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation, 5 (2005), 703–713.