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.
In the second part of the book, “Photography and the Prosthetic Maternal,” Marder turns to different media that assume the place of the animal nonhuman as found in Freud. An emphasis is placed on the photographic medium, specifically via a reading of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs and Barthes’ Camera Lucida (which serves as an “autobiographical elegy to his dead mother” ). In these chapters, Marder adopts a psychoanalytic perspective that centers on the question of shame, the question of the referent, and the unruly dissemination of photographs. Among the several innovative chapters in this book, the reading of Blade Runner in chapter seven stands out both in its originality and persuasiveness. Marder demonstrates that the question of origin and the mother lie at the heart of the film, which is dominated by interactions between non-human “replicants” and humans who are naturally born, and that photography plays a central role as the (uncontrollable, mechanical) testing site that decides between machine and human.
In the third section, Marder returns to literature, via Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the recent writings of Hélène Cixous. Chapter ten stands out in particular because of an unexpected temporal and spatial detour as Marder compares the concept of a mother tongue as presented in Racine’s Phèdre and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Marder contends that both texts undo the idea of a mother tongue as a home or secure place of origin, for all language marks the departure from the mother and also the “desire to speak recalls an impossible desire for the mother” (196). To learn to speak a language means to give up your origin and find a home in the foreign; therefore the term “mother tongue” is contradictory.
In this book, Elissa Marder manages to bring together an astounding array of primary material extending from canonical literature, to current events, and even including popular media such as film and photography. By re-imagining the critical potential of the maternal for our post-humanist age in this set of provocative engagements, Marder addresses some of the most important current debates in media theory, continental philosophy and gender studies. [End Page 423]