Philosophy’s Mother Trouble
. . . what is neither subject, nor object, nor figure, and which
one can, provisionally and simplistically, call “the mother.”
—PhiliPPe lAcoue- lABArthe And JeAn- luc nAncy,
Retreating the Political
The Theorist’s Mother proposes that what unifies the otherwise dis-
parate traditions of critical theory and philosophy from Karl Marx to
Jacques Derrida is their troubled relation to maternity. This is a very
large claim, to be sure, and perhaps also an obvious one: has anyone
ever been spared a troubled relation to maternity? Even so, “mother
trouble” has not typically been recognized as a defining feature of
Theory (in its familiarly capacious sense) beyond the forms of its
inherence in the work of particular theorists. The mother is seldom
included among the customary topoi of philosophy, even as philoso-
phers rely heavily in their discourse on the tropes of maternity. As a
synonym for “beginning,” the word birth appears in every conceiv-
able context in the official histories of Western thought—except for
parturition. Marx is in one respect an arbitrary origin for this project,
given that he was hardly the first (nor will he be the last) to wish to do
entirely without the mother. However much Sigmund Freud would
have liked simply to follow suit, he invented his own procedures for
making her disappear. Where Martin Heidegger assumed that Dasein
has no gender, we may infer further that it had, for him, no mother
either. Friedrich Nietzsche, Emmanuel Levinas, and Derrida were all
unusual as philosophers in the explicit interest they took in mater-
nity, though the various forms of their attention have irritated many
of their feminist readers. And yet feminist philosophers and theorists
have been no more immune to mother trouble than their canonical
counterparts. Indeed, more than a generation after the first births by
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