- The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction by Elissa Marder
In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Elissa Marder entitles her most recent book The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction (2012). [End Page 421] Marder’s reproduction, however, contains one substantial modification—in place of the “work of art” (Kunstwerk), we instead find the word “mother.” One might object that an artificial construct (the artwork) and a biological relation (the mother) have little, if anything, in common. Mechanical reproduction, of which photography is a prime example for both Benjamin and Marder, and human reproduction, as figured through the mother’s capacity to give birth, seem to describe two incompatible modes of creation that adhere to the binary opposition of techne and bios, culture and nature. Marder’s ingenuity, however, lies in unsettling this division and exploring the ways in which the figure of the mother giving birth, traditionally conceived of as a defining natural act, becomes entangled with modes of technological reproduction.
In twelve wide-ranging chapters, Marder carefully examines moments in literature, philosophy, photography, film and popular culture in which the mother collides with the non-anthropocentric and technological in unexpected ways, particularly around the question of reproduction. To address the question of why the “figure of human birth is so often expressed in strikingly nonhuman terms” she introduces the term “maternal function,” a deliberately awkward pairing which maintains the productive dissonance between nature and mechanization at work in the concept (2). For Marder, the term names the attempt to “reconcile the conceptual abyss between the apparently self-evident materiality of the maternal body and the radical unthinkability of the event of one’s own birth” (2).
Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Marder’s central thesis is that our birth remains unthinkable to us, not only because we lack direct access to it, but also because it lies beyond the bounds of mimetic modes of representation. While we bear the traces of our own birth (our mere existence seems like the most incontrovertible testament to our presence at this event), we can never access our coming-into-being because that would entail the assumption of a subjectively unthinkable perspective. This means that the story of one’s own birth can only be narrated indirectly and retroactively. Marder couples this insightful structural analysis of the event of birth with a psychoanalytically informed reading which emphasizes our desire to return to and account for this moment of birth, a moment that is both nearest and most irretrievably remote from us at the same time. The non-human enters in different ways at this juncture of the “maternal function,” namely as an indirect link to the event of our birth from which we are constitutively absent.
In three main sections (four chapters each), Marder explores the role of the mother and the “maternal function” through a series of close readings. In part one, “Psychoanalysis and the Maternal Function,” Marder sets the groundwork for her study by placing several of Freud’s texts—including Totem and Taboo, “The Uncanny,” “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” and Wolf Man—into dialogue with writings by Derrida—in particular, Glas, “Fors,” and “Telepathy.” A unifying theme throughout this section is the essential, yet problematic role that animals, as a form of the nonhuman, play in relation to the woman and the primal scene in Freud’s oeuvre. As Marder points [End Page 422] out, for Freud, it “would seem that the figure of the woman is more of an animal than the figure of the man” (66). By replacing the woman, the animal actually “comes to stand in for something in the human sexual experience that cannot be translated, transferred, or communicated at all” (73). Analyzing this displaced association, Marder offers an insightful commentary on the fundamental anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the place of the mother in Freudian metapsychology, and the attempts to quell such angst by conjuring animal substitutes.