Another critical theorist with a keen interest in the work of Edelman and the (non?)future of the progressive-feminist project is the social theorist and senior lecturer at Roehampton University, Nina Power. Power’s paper, Motherhood in France: Towards A Queer Maternity?1 Tackles the question of ‘queer motherhood’ that is, critical questioning of the validity and importance and value of motherhood itself, especially if questioned by mother’s themselves. Just like Edelman and Berlant, Power utilizes psychoanalysis rather than more traditional philosophical methodologies to examine both Edelman, society and the concept of “queerness” and contemporary motherhood within various social structures. She begins her task by affirming the obvious fact that, though feminism and queer theory are distinctive philosophical schools, they are “partners” in a wider progressive effort. In Motherhood in France, Power’s wrote, “The relationship between feminism and queer theory has often been remarked upon in recent decades, sometimes with pride, sometimes with resentment. The parallels between anti-essentialist ideas of gender, the exploration of the ways in which oppression and resistance work in theory and in practice [to] make feminism and queer theory close partners, even if feminism sometimes complains that queer theory has stolen the covers and has left it out in the cold.” Oh, the excoriating parturiency of intersectionality! One can already hear the disceptation of the feminists: “You’re not being female-inclusive enough!” and then, the queer theorist’s rebuttal: “Well, you’re not being queer-inclusive enough; queer men require inclusion too!” Ouroborous eats his own tail and Power – to her credit – realizes it.
She then cites Edelman, using his work as a launch-platform for the rest of her article, noting, “A certain strain of queer theory, most notably the work of Lee Edelman, has in recent years pushed hard at reclaiming certain accusations levelled at ‘queers’ in the past, namely that those described as ‘queer’ are guilty of being anti-child, and of not ‘believing’ in the future. Edelman provocatively takes up this image of non-futurity and states defiantly that ‘the queer comes to ﬁgure the bar to every realisation of futurity, the resistance internal to the social, to every social structure or form’. Edelman’s project is an attractive one in many ways, even if his argument about non-futurity depends upon a characterization of both left and right political projects that necessarily neglects those aspects of particularly left-wing movements that are also non-futural.”2 Again, Power’s critique proves incisive as she realizes Edelman’s pitfall, namely, that he is a leftist whose philosophy negates left-wingism as such.
Yet, she is a feminist and as a consequence moves into alignment with Edelman’s deracination of The Child by critiquing what she describes as France’s “fetishized national maternity.”3 To circumvent this fetishization, Power posits a “queer maternity,” which she describes as a project which would be, “less a celebration of non-heterosexual reproduction (that is, a celebration of ‘queer mothers’ or ‘queer motherhood’), than an attempt to think about what it might mean to refuse motherhood from the position of already being a mother,and to ask whether, in a context in which motherhood is increasingly dominating the definition of what it means to be a woman, there is any resource for queer theory (and for its link to feminism) in defending the negativity of the mother who refuses to play her role.”4 We would here pause to note that motherhood is part and parcel of “what it means to be a woman” precisely because it is a biologically mediated function which only women can do. To attempt to deconstruct The Image Of The Woman, along the lines of inherent biological functions is, of necessity, to negate feminimity-as-such (in the very same way dispensing with the Child obliterates all futurity) given that all those norms which subtend the image would, of necessity, require obliteration. Power’s first move, then, is akin to promulgating the notion that the concept of The Man must be denatured of all connection to the male-body’s ability to produce sperm. One cannot move freely in the domain of the conceptual (The Woman) when one roots one’s concepts to objective realities (impregnation, pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing).
Having laid out her (wayward) blueprint, Power then proceeds to chastise Edelman for focusing upon The Child to the neglect of women generally in his book, No Future. She also seeks to dispense with Edelman’s notion of Sinthomosexuality5 and instead look to the force of the mother herself as the subject who would negate the future. We should pause here to note that there is a significant performative difference between taking the position that a woman should be left unmolested to make the decision to resent her children and remove herself from any future participation in their lives, and, affirming it as a desirable thing for women to do. Power, citing the radical feminist, Corinne Maier6, takes up the latter position, stating, “Maier’s starting point —namely that it is better not to have children (or at least, that it may have been better not to have had children, from the standpoint of someone for whom it is too late), that it is possible to resent one’s own children and, indeed, wish that they had never been born, is an unacceptably queer sentiment that opens the gates to a raft of subsequent questions that question the symbolic order as a whole. When Maier writes, ‘[l]isten, your marvellous babies have no future because every child born in a developed country is an ecological disaster for the whole planet’ (No Kids, 1–2), she is breaking with the fantasy that every child is a positive addition to humanity as a totality —indeed, she hints that it is the most privileged children who are precisely those who bear the weight of the destruction of the future even as it is those same children who are most invoked as those for whom contemporary politics should be ‘working’ for.”
Maier’s critique is emblematic of what we can dub envirocracy, that is: a political theology revolving around the worship of the environment itself, by itself. In other words, a contemporary variation of earth-worship, veneration of the mother goddess; this metaphysical framework is appealing to feminists for several reasons, principally, the long-standing history of the anthropomorphic genderfication of the earth itself. The association between The Feminine and The Earth can be traced to Mari7 (also known as Mariamma, Marimman and Mariaai), a South Indian Mother Goddess usually associated with the Hindu deities, Parvati8 and Durga9. A common strain of thought which runs throughout Hinduism is that all of the female deities are manifestations of a singular but many-faceted female mother goddess who was responsible for the creation of the world. The basques also worshiped a goddess named Mari who was transmogrified into Mary after the rise of Christianity to further the efficacy of pagan conversions. Such beliefs can be traced back even further to the widespread emergence of representational art which occurred around 35,000 years ago; the well known ‘venuses’10 of Dolni Vestonice, Willendorf, Lespugue and Laussel also exemplify such early folk beliefs. We might theorize that the prevalence of association between the concept of The Feminine and the earth, or some portion of it (trees, oceans, land, etc.), occurred as a consequence of the social arrangements of hunter-gather society. Males of ancient tribes would sally forth in search of sustenance and then bring forth both discipline and food; they were thus, ‘seasonal’ insofar as they were more transient and distant than the ‘earthen’ females, who would stay behind to tend to their children and their domiciles. The notion of distance then, likely played into early neolithic gender associations wherein those aspects of each gender which most mirrored some aspect of nature were symbolically externalized. The most obvious examples of this thesis include the archetype of the sky-father, distant, powerful and temperamental and the earth-mother, close, nourishing and protective. Regardless of the reasons for the emergence of such beliefs, they continue to permeate even the most secular and rationalist of creeds, as Maier’s commentary well attests. The obvious problem contained with Maier’s eco-essentialist philosophy is that the earth as such can not care about itself. A philosophy which places the environment of humanity above humanity itself can not but help to develop an anti-human tinge, regardless of the intentions of it’s creators and promulgators. Furthermore, the notion that one’s “marvellous babies have no future because every child born in a developed country is an ecological disaster for the whole planet” is, on it’s face, false. A ecological disaster is, by popular definition, a catastrophic event which occurs to the environment because of human activity (such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster), yet this definition is rather too narrow, given the fact that, though certain forms of human activity can cause massive upsets to ecologic niches, the environment itself naturally generates catastrophes, such as tidal waves, mudslides, volcanoes and forest fires; even something as seemingly innocuous as slightly too much or too little rain for a sufficient period of time can spell the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of living organisms and the complete and utter transformation of a given ecology. Indeed, every single time one washes their hands, the individual is committing a microbial genocide! Every swathe of water and soap about the human hand, an ecological erasure. Where then to draw the line? Naturally, at what, itself, can draw lines: humans.
The curious tendency for earth-mother ideologies to subtend The Image of Man via veneration of all that is outside of it, then, necessitates a conceptual impasse that, when put into practice will always generate performative incontinence. For, when Power takes Maier’s earth-worship as a “useful (non-)partner to Edelman’s sinthomosexualism to combat the reduction of woman to mere reproductive machines she is, whether she realizes it or not, erasing the-woman-as-such. I suspect that Power’s realizes some portion of the truth of this as she chastises Maier for her hyperbolic language and then quotes the French philosopher, Elisabeth Badinter, who, in a interview with Der Spiegel said of the back-to-nature feminist movement, ‘They want women to breastfeed their children, saying this will protect the babies against allergies and asthma and protect the mother herself against breast cancer. . . Two years ago, our environment minister seriously even suggested introducing a tax on disposable diapers. . . This movement is ideologically driven and is leading us back into the 18th century, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his model of the ideal mother. It’s a bit like trying to reawaken the slumbering mammal inside women. But we women aren’t chimpanzees.’
Badinter is quite right and, oddly, given the context of the paper, in stark opposition to Maier’s anti-natal, anti-female, pro-ecology position. However, Power then quotes Badinter again, noting that Badinter believes that to tie motherhood to biological instinct is “profoundly ideological.” It is, rather difficult, to claim that motherhood, something which is inherent to every single society in history “profoundly ideological.” Now, one may well make the case that certain forms of motherhood are directed by ideology but the ties which a mother has to her child, the commitment and sacrifice, seem to be “hardwired.” The North American Killdeer11, for instance, after the hatching of its eggs, will pretend it has a wounded wing to entice predator’s away from its nested young. Female giraffes will regularly sacrifice themselves for their younglings whilst female octopi will defend their eggs, even if that means forgoing food. These are but a few examples of mothering instincts in nature; but if it is instinctual, such behaviors should be accessible before or outside of motherhood and, upon further investigation, this is precisely what one will find. Female voles12, who had never had sex, were dosed in a laboratory experiment (which has also been conducted on various other animals) with oxytocin13, what the researchers found was that the dosed voles, within only half-an-hour, were caring for vole-pups, despite the fact that those pups were not their own. A similar experiment was conducted by Marlin, Mitre, D’amour, Chao and Froemke and published in the science journal, Nature14. Other experiments involving rats dosed with oxytocin antagonists showed the precise opposite results; block the oxytocin, block the maternal instinct. One could go on for quite some time with tomes full of such examples; due this fact, it is clear that Badinter’s assertion is foundationally flawed, moreso when one considers the evolutionary implications of a ‘non-hardwired’ maternity impulse, for those species who have low-birth rates (such as humans) typically invest considerably more resources into the prospective young then species who reproduce rapidly and profligately (such as spiders). If humans had never developed a nurturing and protective maternal instinct our chances of survival and propagation as a species would be considerably lowered, given the fragility such a species-wide change in interrelationality would engender. Human young would have been left to their own devices, barring the intervention of male paternality, but even still, the fathers of such children would have to hunt and would not be able to devote as much time to the care-taking of their children as the mothers would be able to provide. Thus, in such a arrangement, human children would be almost invariably malnourished from lack of breastfeeding and also considerably more vulnerable to predators, such as bears, wolves and so forth, given the lack of social unity and protection from their mothers.
Neither Power nor those she quotes within her paper grapple with these issues to a sufficient degree. Power then jumps, rather suddenly, to Marxism, quoting (yes, she loves quoting people to make her point) Judith Halberstam, who wrote, “We need to craft a queer agenda that works cooperatively with the many other heads of the monstrous entity that opposes global capitalism, and to deﬁne queerness as a mode of crafting alternatives with others, alternatives which are not naively oriented to a liberal notion of progressive entitlement but a queer politics which is also not tied to a nihilism which always lines up against women, domesticity and reproduction. Instead, we turn to a history of alternatives, contemporary moments of alternative political struggle and high and low cultural productions of a funky, nasty, over the top and thoroughly accessible queer negativity.”15
Power then finishes her piece with the following,
“Here queer theory can be a useful ally: if we accept the constructed nature of all sexuality, including the most ‘obvious’ forms, we can go further and remark that there is something similarly constructed about the consequences of sexual behaviour and the positions that follow: ‘childless’ (or ‘childfree’ as the revised, more afﬁrmative version would have it), ‘motherhood’, ‘maternal’ and so on. Clearly there is much that is learned about these positions, much that is down to the cultural reception of this behaviour and whether it is valued or punished in a particular culture. Both Badinter and Maier are responding to what they see is an overwhelming celebration of motherhood in the French context, and the lack of jouissance that results when one is unable to ‘feel’ like a ‘good’ mother, or enjoy one’s children. But maybe there is a deeper jouissance to be found in resentment, and a kind of reawakened feminist rage against the order and the culture that would celebrate the importance of children but not that of those that bear them.”16
It is here that Power really goes off the rails in affirming not just what she calls the “constructed nature” of all sexuality (it is hard to ascertain exactly what that means; if taken literally it is a quite useless concept) but also in positing “reawakened feminist rage” (was it ever even slumbering?) as the solution. If one were convinced that a given set of concepts were wholly socially constructed then the optimal solution would be to begin devising new and more positive social concepts to take their place. As we have already stated, Power and the long litany of authors she cites are simply mistaken about the relationship of motherhood and biology and, as a consequence, can not but help form utterly misbegotten notions because of it. Yet, even if one simply does not care about the biological rootedness of maternal instinct (one should) or of the notion of the feminine, it is quite reasonable to raise the very same objection which we previously raised against Edelman, namely, that affirmation of childlessness leads invariably to social dissolution. Furthermore, the Maier’s negative-motherhood (ie. I must act as a mother but I hate it) is bound, if taken up as a profligate social norm, to lead to the same kinds of problems which Maier, Edelman, Berlant and Power collectively argue against, namely, the exclusion of vulnerable groups as their views either explicitly condone or simply do not condemn the marginalization of The Child; that is, a social paradigm that seeks to emancipate itself from the bonds of the ‘fascism of the baby’s face’ can only do so by literally conflating the baby, The Child, and thus, the future, with jack booted oppression. A project rooted in a negation of all that subtends it’s foundation cannot help but fail, however much it might rage.
1Nina Power, Motherhood in France: Towards A Queer Maternity? Edinburgh University Press, 2012
2Nina Power Motherhood In France: Towards A Queer Maternity? p. 1-2
3Nina Power, Motherhood In France: Towards A Queer Maternity? p. 2
4Nina Power, Motherhood in France, p. 2-3
5Sinthomosexuality is a term deployed by Edelman to describe the child-averse, future negation of his project.
6Corinne Maier is a prominent French psychoanalyst, economist & feminist, well known for her provocative book, No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not To Have Children (2007).
7See, The Hindu Mother Goddess In Indian Sculpture for further reading concerning Mari.
8Parvati or Uma, is a Hindu deity associated with fertility and romance. She is also the wife of Shiva.
9Durga , also known as Adi Parashakti or Devi, is a Hindu deity associated with protection and combat against evil.
10The ancient ‘Venuses’ were small, carved human figurines featuring exaggerated female features (breasts, hips, etc).
11A small brown bird with a white underbelly, native to North and Middle America; so-named because of it’s cry.
12Diminutive rodent, similar to a mouse. The creatures are sometimes referred to as ‘field mice.’
13Oxytocin is a peptide hormone involved in the control pair bonding, parenting and sexual arousal. It is also crucial to female lactation.
14See: Oxytocin enables maternal behavior by balancing cortical inhibition, Nature, Vol. 502, April 23, 2015.
15Power, Motherhood in France, p. 8-9
16Power, Motherhood in France, p. 10