Elissa Marder, The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction (New York: Fordham University Press 2012) 320 pp. $35.00 Pb., $90.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823240555
Since the nineteenth century, the prevailing discourse concerning mechanical reproduction has been bound to the question of labour: William Morris, the Art and Crafts Movement, and later Walter Benjamin, were concerned with the relationship between mechanical reproduction and the devaluing of creative labour (ie art), whereas thinkers like Karl Marx, famously critiqued this relationship in terms of economic labour (ie wages). Now, Elissa Marder shifts the prevailing paradigm to consider a different mode of productive labour in relationship to mechanical reproduction: childbirth. Like Benjamin, Marder shares a concern with the principal of reproducibility and its socio-cultural impact. Taking as its point of departure a playful reconfiguration of Benjamin’s famous essay title, Marder’s The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction asks us to consider the cultural status of the mother when the biological maternal function is brought into correspondence with prosthetic modes of reproduction (like photography). Marder’s success is in establishing how this interplay between the biological and mechanical is motivated by an unresolved psychic anxiety about the ‘uncanny status of the mother’ (1), the contradictions of which can be found inscribed in our cultural reproductive practices, such as photography and literature.
Marder views the mother as an ostensibly uncanny figure in the Freudian sense of that which is strangely familiar: the mother is a site for the simultaneous convergence of the familiar (or, perhaps more precisely, the familial) and the ‘radically unthinkable’, and empirically unknowable, event of one’s own birth (2). Marder’s study sets out to illuminate how representations of the mother in art and philosophy have been driven by humankind’s fascination with how the ‘conceptual abyss’ – that is the figure of the uncanny mother – might be reconciled (2). For Marder, attempts at such reconciliation lead to the maternal function being placed at the ‘outer limits’ of what it means to be human: the human event of birth has been – and is – conceptualised and understood through non-human terms of mechanical reproduction. The womb, for example, has historically – since Pandora’s myth – taken the form of various artisan-like receptacles, ‘chests, caskets, jars’ (3), while the act of passing through the womb – the birth event itself – is analogous to mechanical modes of reproduction such as photography. Such technological representations of our birth are problematic: while developing a photograph might be a metaphorical birth of sorts, it is asynchronous, as the image is always already pre-embodied. As such, Marder notes that our attempts to understand the maternal function of birth through mechanical reproduction provide ‘a fertile source for alternative, nonmimetic, nonlinear conceptions of time’, as life and death come into ‘disturbing proximity’ to each other (2). Reproductive cultural phenomenon, such as Victorian post-mortem photography, readily attest to Marder’s contentions here.
Comprising twelve chapters, divided equally into three parts, Marder organises the argument of her book clearly and precisely. In Part One: Psychoanalysis and the Maternal Function there is the initial theoretical construction of the mother as an ‘uncanny figure’ in the Freudian sense. Having located an association in Freud’s writing between the mother and the turbulent and contradictory forces of the psyche, Marder then moves on to read Derrida’s thinking on the crypt, death and mourning, finding therein, an alternative to ‘psychoanalytic descriptions of the maternal function’ (6). In Part Two: Photography and the Prosthetic Maternal, Marder traces how the anxieties concerning the maternal function in Part One are at play in modes of media that approximate the maternal function of reproduction. Consideration is also given here, to the political effect of the maternal function’s destabilising force. Finally, Part Three: Photo-Readings and the Possible Impossibilities of Literature employs the foregoing conceptual apparatus to explore literary representations of the mother wherein the uncanniness of the maternal function renders the mother an unstable signifier of our birth, origin and home.
All but one of Marder’s twelve chapters have appeared in print previously. As such, the book represents the culmination of a diligent and deliberate critical enquiry into the uncanny status of the mother that has spanned several decades of research and thought. Whilst Marder has purposefully structured the monograph to resist a ‘linear presentation’ of its themes, motifs and concepts (8), the inclusion of a conclusion or postscript would have benefited the reader greatly: not in terms of consolidating – or collapsing – Marder’s lines of enquiry, but in signposting where and how they might intersect. Nonetheless, the protracted genesis of Marder’s work attests to the rigour of the critical concepts developed, as well as the breadth and richness of analysis that readers can find advanced therein.
The origins of Marder’s work lie in her two earliest essays on reproducibility and the mother. The first is a 1989 essay on 'The Mother Tongue in Phèdre and Frankenstein' (included as Chapter Ten of the book under review), wherein the mother is associated with 'errancy and exile’, whilst the maternal function itself is depicted as ‘monstrous’ (195-196). Herein, Marder’s fascination with the mother as a contradictory and unstable figure gains traction. The second, is an essay that requires recognition in its own right as being an inaugural piece of criticism on the cult classic film Blade Runner. In 'Blade Runner’s Moving Still' (1992), Marder took seriously the inability of characters – humans and replicants alike – to respond to a seemingly simple invitation; ‘tell me about your mother’ (135). In the film, talk of mothers is displaced by reproductions of the mother – photographs – that tentatively offer up a reproduced, inhuman figure of the mother, as evidence of a human origin. The great irony, in Blade Runner, is that the mother is a disruptive temporal force, not a sign of sanctuary and comfort, as the ‘figure of the mother refuses to guarantee that one is born, and not made human’ (147). In Blade Runner, as in Phèdre and Frankenstein, the reproductive function of the mother becomes culturally confused with mechanical modes of reproducibility. This confusion allows culture to exert pseudo-control and regulation over the maternal function of reproducibility in an attempt to negate the psychic anxiety that emanates from the inherently contradictory and paradoxical sign of the mother. In our inability to speak of the mother, such as in Blade Runner, Phèdre and Frankenstein, we unconsciously acknowledge that the sign of the mother is unruly and movable: in short, the mother in the age of mechanical reproduction brings the referential claims of language into dispute.
Although Marder does not advance an overtly feminist critique of the mother, labour and mechanisation, her arguments are relevant to critics in this field, not least because key terms, such as ‘maternal function’ are drawn from this discourse. For Julia Kristeva, the term maternal function is used to describe ‘the various operations performed by the mother during the birthing process’ (251). Marder transposes the uses of Kristeva’s term from the biological realm of reproduction to the mechanical realm, wherein Marder finds anxieties about the uncanny status of the mother, driven by a fascination with the problematic relation to our own birth, encoded. In locating the maternal function beyond the biological realm, Marder reveals the tacit cultural suspicion of the mother figure as a destabilising, contradictory and unruly force. For Marder, this suspicion has ‘real consequences in the real world’ as society tries to contain the destabilising effects of the maternal function through a misplaced attempt to control ‘real women’ (251). Finally, in the midst of all this mechanisation, a diligent transhumanist critic might well find moments of intersection with the key themes in Marder’s The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Wesley Morrison, University of Nottingham