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eng: 1/Maternal Politics
eng: 2/Maternal Politics
eng: 3/Maternal Politics
eng: 4/Maternal Politics/Bibliography
fr: 1/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 2/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 3/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 4/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 5/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 6/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 7/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle
fr: 8/Un Manifeste Cyborg: Science, Technologie et Feminisme Socialiste à la fin du XXème Siècle (Notes)
fr: Comment nous avons bloqué l’OMC
fr: Cyborg Manifesto
fr: OncoMouse
fr:1/ Le cyberféminisme différemment.
fr:2/ Le cyberféminisme différemment.
fr:3/ Le cyberféminisme différemment.
fr:4/ Le cyberféminisme différemment- notes
fr:ts1/ Theresa Senft
fr:ts2/ Theresa Senft
nl: Een heks bij de Wereldhandelsorganisatie
nl: OncoMouse
nl: Technologieën van het nomadisme of een epistemologie van het kraken
nl:1/ Cyberfeminisme met een verschil
nl:2/ Cyberfeminisme met een verschil
nl:3/ Cyberfeminisme met een verschil
nl:4/ Cyberfeminisme met een verschil- noten


eng: 3/Maternal Politics

Irina Aristarkhova

Originally written for and published

in Russian in the collected volume of new Russian anarchist movement

"Against All Parties"

(edited by Oleg Kireev, Moscow, 2000)


6. Pre-Oedipal definitions of motherhood, its critique and its use

For the past few decades these notions (mother and motherhood) have been actively discussed in feminist literature, especially in the works of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ethical implications of the maternity and motherhood have been explored by Cornell and Levinas, among many others. In addition to the fact that their ideas are meant to transform the contemporary discourse on ethics and subjectivity, they have direct relation to engendering alternative political strategies and concepts. Unfortunately this political dimension (that relates to direct political action), often remains unexplored, producing all too sanitized split between theory and practice, rendering both of them unproductive and frustrated. To a certain extent this relation is what I am trying to trace in this essay.

Levinas uses relation to the mother as a door that opens onto ethical and religious dimensions. However, maternal relation is only a passive possibility, though the one that opens itself up to allow the appearance of the realm of the social and cultural. The same for Kristeva – the experience of motherhood is pre-Oedipal, that is, it exists outside the establishment of culture and society, though finds itself in the foundation. It is only an origin of the ethics and politics, both of which come ‘after’, as a result, leaving a mother behind. Just like for Kristeva, maternal is pre-social and pre-cultural for Levinas too, it is also pre-natural.

Main function that mother serves for Levinas, and that is fundamental to our political analysis, is its alternative relation to others. With mother’s help, Levinas can relate to others outside enemy/friend dialectics, making impossible possible – overcoming ontological situation of singular Being thrown into the world by no one. Earlier we discussed political implications of this split, according to Schmidt. In case of Levinas, it becomes even more general – mother is placed such so as to highlight that ethical relation is prior to ontological. Though mother herself is not placed anywhere within the realm of the ethical.

When the maternal is left, in order to touch the ethical highs, we ask ourselves – why? Why is mother left behind, why ‘home’ has to be guarded to keep it locked? And why mother is positioned within home in the first place? Maternal function, as Irigaray puts it, serves as a basis of social and political order, the same for the order of desire, but mother herself is always limited by the necessity. As soon as necessity – individual or collective - is fulfilled, often there is nothing left from the maternal function. There is also nothing left from this mother’s energy to fulfill her own desires and needs, especially in its religious and political, social dimensions. (Irigaray, 1987)

It is clear that in some sense (re)claiming the political as maternal and vise versa is to go against the grain of all traditions, political and philosophical, as ‘tradition’ itself is based on leaving the mother (fundament) behind in the first place. I will come to this point later in relation to the activity of CSM.

Since ‘traditionally’ mothers are asked "out" of civil and military societies, from culture as such: what must be left of them is an idea of mother, translatable into Motherland and Homeland. She herself is only welcomed as a metaphor. Thus, in Levinas writings from late years, the notions of the feminine and the maternal merge: they incorporate private sphere, intimacy and home. "Woman is a condition for a recollection, interiority of the house and habitation…It is a figure whose presence is almost an absence, that provides the first welcoming within the field of intimacy – this is woman..." (Levinas, 1980:128, 155).

Rendered as interiority, mother must remain outside the social and religious fields, and cannot be (simply cannot be - by all definitions) a political activist herself, without references to masculine political subjectivity. Mother represents ‘the unspoken’ and ‘the pre-cultural’. Everything that is ‘before’ - before Self is articulated in (body) language. This Levinasian position undermines his claim to achieve new ethics of difference (against the ontological tradition of sameness), since it starts from acknowledging and then subsuming the difference of the mother. It exiles mother from the realm of political, social and cultural, and especially theological. It appropriates maternal experience to go onto another level – the level of the ethics and proper relation to the other and his face.

Many have argued that Western tradition is a matricidal tradition (Irigaray especially, and after her Kornell, 1991; Oliver, 1998, and others). Mother is symbolically annihilated for reproduction of our cultures, where reproduction becomes a political metaphor (e.g., in Marxist terminology). Therefore, active embodied presence of mothers simultaneously as mothers and political activists is indigestible by political realm that is based on metaphors or ideas of ‘care for all’ – earth, productive forces, working class, motherland, that are taken from its own conceptions of motherhood, just to leave it behind. This coming back of mothers into the political, and not as literary or philosophical genres, but also as embodied activist politics, forms "unbearably effective" phenomenon. Especially it works well in post-Soviet Russia, where it is possible to capitalize on and incorporate fragments of two strong, albeit competitive, formations that used image of the Mother: Old Orthodox Christian and Soviet.

7. CSM Political Innovations and Effects.

On the one hand, success of Maternal Politics is boosted by a particular socio-cultural importance that "motherhood" and "mother" enjoy within Russian Orthodoxy (I would stress here that CSM is hijacking these formulations for their own political struggle rather than taking it uncritically as valid definitions of motherhood. It is one of the many tactics they employ from existing cultural context, and the question whether participants actually believe it or not is irrelevant to their action). On the other hand, "governmentalization" of women’s position in Soviet times introduced the formulation of the Soviet woman as an active political subject. For example, Kristeva noted that Eastern European socialist countries recognized women as social-political subjects, that allowed women there ‘to grow up without slave mentality and a sense of submission and rejection" (Kristeva, 1987:117). Despite of the problems with Kristeva’s statement (any political recognition in Soviet times was a problematic concept and could be treated rather as a wish, not to mention that being named subjects, on par with male subjects, does not really change status quo of sexual indifference), it is clear that no more no less but symbolically, on paper, Soviet female citizens (grazdanki), were assumed to be active political subjects under this process of governmentalization (I have argued elsewhere that this process started long before Perestroika, under Bolshevik rule - Aristarkhova, 1995, chapter 3). And indeed, Solders’ Mothers borrowed heavily from their Soviet female predecessors in many ways.

At the same time, we also inherited forces that insist "mother should remain silent" (Irigaray), that makes CSM’s injection of maternal articulated experience into the political activist sphere transformational for political activism. Chalier claims that for Levinas "maternal body knows subjectivity by its blood and flash". However, ethics for women, if exists at all, could only be "being mother" and nothing more (Chalier, 1991:127). Mothers from CSM made this ‘nothing more’ into the resource to politicize maternal position, finding a way out of political crisis of representation and affiliation.

Maternal politics does not rely on acceptance and faith into party ideology or "party line", as the notion of mother allows "some mothers" to enact corporeal identification with each other without elimination of their differences. It provides a platform for their political activism without a need to sign or claim anything common "through conviction". Mothers do not need to sign "Law of being Mother" or "Maternal Programme". Therefore the question of affiliation is not an issue, it is only a question of embodied politics. Who would ask mother about her "code" or "Programme" of being one? Their code is "ideal" and "beyond" political ideology, since most ideologies try to reach the impossible – ethical force and justification of motivations as only mothers have (by definition – love and care FOR OTHERS, not one self). It is common for political parties and groups to mimic caring, sacrificial image of the pre-oedipal fantasy (like in Soviet slogans "party cares for you as mother").

When one represents another one, he (!) positions himself on the same level as another one, as the same as him, similar to him. Sameness is the basis of representation so far, and the situation of difference usually undermines representational politics. More one is the same as those whom one represents (in class, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, disability, age, etc), more he assumes the right to represent others. It all changes when Soldier’s Mothers come in. They do not represent other mothers who love their children, they represent those who are radically different from them, but whom they are connected to through the symbol of motherhood – any actual or potential soldier (who has ever had a mother)3 . They claim all of them as their potential children, though they might differ from those whom they represent in any socially and culturally meaningful aspect – ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, etc. Kin relations usually are not even included into political realm proper as they belong to "family law", but in any case most of the time they represent "someone else’s children". That’s why in their case the question and problem of representation and its crisis does not undermine their struggle and activism (though it has to be negotiated every other day, it is not something that comes with the name, but through embodied action, and adjustment of its tactics and strategies).

Maternal politics seems to take upon itself traditionally "passive maternal function", through dissolving itself actively in maternal love, making it a source of its political struggle. Mother’s Love as a political origin for activism.

Many have criticized this engagement of motherhood as a source of any kind of politics. Much of feminist political writings, especially Western ones, considered motherhood to be an obstacle to a woman’s political activism, especially in its current social and cultural forms. CSM in this case undermines the view, under which traditional notion of motherhood is rejected as social, religious, or cultural construct or stereotype. Even for French feminists to become socially and politically subjectivized would mean to reject current notions of motherhood. While CSM actually does the opposite – it puts it into the center of its political agenda without defining it or discussing it. What does it bring – to put traditional notion of motherhood, that has been stripped of all communal meanings and confined to the silence of the pre-oedipal, Home, Heimat, house, dwelling, intimacy as such – to place it right in the middle of political struggle within military machine? Indeed, Soldiers’ Mothers ground their politics in the embodiment of maternal experience, and they place such ‘reductive’ singular function upon their action. They take the risk. They show how effective this tactic is, as a new political strategy, if it is used in a situationist manner. By trial and error they are constantly fine-tuning their tactics. Who, when, and how is doing maternal politics brings as much to the result as full understanding of its limitations and dangers, and preparation to face them.

In order to be effective, maternal politics comes from the specific context, and to be extremely mobile and flexible to respond to it. As a result, their political actions questioned universalist sweeping generalizations in discussions of maternal practices in Western and Russian theories of motherhood – be they psychoanalytic post-Lacanian, post-structuralist, Marxist or Russian Orthodox. In post-Soviet predominantly Orthodox context, that is still blind to its own ethnic and religious heterogeneity, CSM is not de-subjectivizing mothers (alternative suggested by Irigaray and others within Catholic context), but re-subjectivizing them (since they were already made into subjects by Soviet government). Embodying motherhood with its body politics, Soldiers’ Mothers unsettle the force of reproductive and maternal metaphors used within political sphere (especially in Russia where reproductive terminology of Marxism with its laws and spirals of reproduction and self-birth is so wide-spread). They enact and use structures traditionally positioned far away from embodied motherhood, though based on it (for example, army and economy have always been in need of the "young").

CSM actions place the problem of position and place of mother/hood at the center of legal and ethical questions, shifting it from family planning issues into the questions of government, military practices and the law itself. By putting themselves into the center of these spheres, displacing attention from "mothers" onto "children – all citizens", they avoid family / community dualism radically and productively. Without question, CSM creates new forms of political subjectivity that opens up a possibility of the ethical relation to the maternal from others and the maternal towards others. It is well known that Irigaray, Cornell and others work on re-formulating the notion of mother/hood in terms of maternal ethics and in law. However Maternal embodied Politics in form of CSM forces us, theorists, to constantly localize our conceptions and negotiate them with existing innovations of political activism and its practices. Only then we can radicalize the process of building up alternatives to existing political crisis grounded in friend/enemy paradigm.

No doubt, it is possible to pose other criticisms to CSM and its activity, and to my notion of "Maternal Politics" born out of their work. One can claim that their actions reproduce sacrificial norms of motherhood, when mother is defined through altruism and self-denial. One might also claim the opposite – their work reveals that motherhood has always been sadistic and egoistic, as mothers need their children to validate themselves, using them as property or exchange value. It is possible to claim that it is political reactionism and such organizations are not stable. Certainly, what they do is unique and cannot be seen as a simple exercise of a few people. What’s important for me that it has worked effectively and ethically for a decade in a situation of political stagnation and crisis of Russian political system, and Western party politics as well. While many activists resort to old types of representational politics or "no exit" pessimism, act of political innovation and success of Soldiers’ Mothers allows us to widen our horizon of political resistance, both practically and conceptually. There is nothing safe in the field of political activism. However, Soldiers’ Mothers are not struggling to be taken into custody to bring attention to themselves or to exercise their human rights of protest and free assembly and that’s all. They have managed to slowly dismantle Soviet military machine, with the help of others, both within and outside it, and have been productive in this sense. I am writing this short essay not to moralize, but with a feeling that there is a lot to learn from them, and to learn about possible alternatives in the field of political activism.

Soldiers’ Mothers did not simply adapt traditional political structures and methodology as many other women’s organizations have done. They use specificity of post-Soviet context to engender maternal politics, without leaving behind embodied experience of motherhood (their own or by another mother), but putting it in the center of their struggle for radically others than themselves. I think they successfully and innovatively have embodied in post-Soviet Russia what Foucault called "specific intellectual" as they go into the most protected social spaces, undermining its claims – the social institution of army that serves as a training ground for out societies.

It is clear that idea of affiliation and party / group politics has to re-incarnate itself, and members of CSM have mothered new politics where kin heterogeneity not only grounds everything, but also survives and mutates. This is a positive and not nihilist or nostalgic alternative to contemporary crisis in party politics. It is not an alternative of "brotherhood" that still borrows from the mother without acknowledging her – that is, there is no ethics to be born. This is not a "Third Way" either. "Third" usually conceals that there have never been "two", but only the one like me, and the one who is not like me, and right now I do not feel I can do this anymore. CSM shows we can be brave to try "not one" as well, innovate in political activism positively, corresponding to the most difficult, ethical issues.

3. It would be interesting to mention Maxim Gorky’s novel "Mother" (written before 1917 Russian Revolution) that was elevated to the first and best "Bolshevik/Soviet" literature by Lenin. Mother is positioned there as a ‘foundation’ of Bolshevik party that has to be left behind or even sacrificed if party needs it. In some sense, mother is passing her children to another mother – Party, after her role is fulfilled.

last modified: 20/11/2002 @ 09:47
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