Christine Wertheim’s newest book mUtter-bAbel was released in December by Counterpath. Here Amanda Montei interviews Wertheim about her new book.
Amanda Montei: I’ve been working a lot with Mary Kelly’s Postpartum Document in my research lately. For Freud, women never fail to overvalue their children, this is one way they differ from men. Of course, this is a very problematic way of thinking about sexual difference. I think Kelly offers us a very interesting alternative to this assertion. For instance, is the exhaustive documentation of motherhood, shit, eating, care work, affective labor, etc. an act of love? Or, rather, might it be an effort to document the expectation that, as you write in your book, “in modern Western society there is an expectation that children must be satisfied,” and the onus of this satisfaction lies on the (m)other, placing unacknowledged (or invisible) demands on the caregiver?
The first section of your book takes up this theme: the role of the caregiver ((m)other); “the transformation of the care-givers’ vOIce into an Obscene hOwle”; and the subsequent blame of the caregiver for “the inconsistencies of life.” What I’m wondering here is whether you envision the book as a kind of critique on what you call “one of the paradoxes of modern power,” which is that “babies are in control” (of (m)others)? Is this an indictment of the Oedipal relation, of the psychoanalytic family drama, of futurity, of all, or (m)other?
Christine Wertheim: First – about Post Partum Document. I think this is a great Conceptual artwork. Possibly the best. Because it brings humanity into the whole Conceptual Art Movement (by this I mean the specific historical project, not the generalization of the term “conceptual” to all visual art accepted by the “critical” art world) – life, birth, infancy, motherhood, the development of subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, etc. In other words, much of what makes us human. Most of which is explicitly left out of Con Art, in favor of very trivial questions about the nature of Representation, which many mid- to late-twentieth century Oxidental artists and thinkers were obsessed with. Mary brought to the exploration of modes of representation the question of how motherhood and mother-child relations are represented. That is, she wanted to make a classical “Madonna and Child” artwork, but not using iconic means, that is, not having the work “look like” or depict, in the traditional mimetic sense, a woman gazing adoringly at a baby in her arms. (Actually, I have nothing against such images. I think they are great.) But if you want to critique traditional Oxidental image-making, then this is THE image to do it around. And she did it very well –producing an artwork that is mainly composed of indices and symbols, rather than icons; which is what the project of Con Art was all about. Whether in this work she is overvaluing her child I cannot say.
About your second point, YES, absolutely, mUtter-bAbel is a critique of the modern Oxidental family drama in which, in my view, one of the problems is the blaming of the caregivers for “the inconsistencies of life,” and the subsequent “transformation of the care-givers’ vOIce into an Obscene hOwle”; both of which are allied to the “expectation that children must be satisfied.”
There are clearly a number of related, but separate issues here.
First – we expect children to be satisfied by their caregivers – that is, we appear to have lost any psycho-social mechanisms for helping children to tolerate dis-satisfaction. And this leads to huge troubles.
Second – almost all the responsibility for providing this expected satisfaction is placed on the primary care-givers, those who perform the mothering function. Which means it is they who are seen to have failed when complete satisfaction is not achieved. (Though, really what is failing here is the transmission of mechanisms for dealing with dissatisfaction, and that is the responsibility of all the adults, not just the primary caregivers, who constitute only one aspect of the baby’s overall psycho-social environment.)
Third – and I think this is in a way the most troubling issue – is the fact that we (by which I mean contemporary Oxidental society, especially the English-speaking portion, which I think is at the forefront of this social development) we give permission to some people/bodies/psyches to take out their uncontained dissatisfaction/frustration on some others. Specifically, we give permission to those who are seen as what I call the|’sOnes to take out their frustrations on (the bodies of) those who are seen as what I call the-m-Others. This is what leads to the babies being in control, in some sense.
The problem of the relationship and definition of these last two entities, i.e., the|’sOnes + the-m-Others is a central issue in my work and thinking.
You ask whether this is an indictment of the Oedipal relation, of the psychoanalytic family drama, of futurity, of all or (m)other?
What I feel is that the family in Oxidental culture, especially the English-speaking branch, no longer has the classical Oedipal structure, because not only is there no daughter (pro)position, there is also no Father (pro)position. Or, at least, this (pro)-position is very weakened, so that now the main axis of the Oxidental family is a very tense relationship between the|’sOnes + the-m-Others. If you want to look to Greek tragedy for a model, then it is less the Oedipus than the Oresteia in which the central drama revolves around a murderous hatred between the son Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra. (There is a great book called Gynesis, written by Alice Jardine in the 1980s which came to exactly the same conclusion through analyzing US-American postmodern novels by male writers.)
And this relationship is what the Greek Democracy was founded on, because the first legal case, which launched the Athenian democracy (in their mythology/ideology) as a new kind of law and state was a decision tried by a jury over whether it was worse for a woman (and mother) to kill her husband and the father of her children, that is, a man, or for a son/man to kill a woman, that is, his mother. If you haven’t read the play, I’m sure you can guess who won. (The Furies were furious about the outcome, and were downgraded to mere hearth spirits.) And it is getting worse, both the ideology and the acts.
So yes, this is an indictment of the future, because it is an indictment of the present.
Montei: I think the example of Orestia is a really useful one for considering how excess violence gets (re)directed to the (m)other. I wonder then, given what you say about the permission given to some bodies “to take out their frustrations” on (m)other bodies, if your book makes a kind of claim about the political stakes of understanding affect flows. That is, it seems you may be arguing that global violence is at its core a problem of affective distribution or affective economies: ie. if affect is gendered and racialized (in terms of access to anger, frustration, etc.), this directly influences the global distribution of violence, and also normalizes those distributions of violence.
Wertheim: Yes. What you say is right. I do think that this new division of (pro)-positions and permissions – in so far as it is even new – constitutes, as you say, an affective economy that is gendered, racialized and classed, and which distributes and normalizes flows of violence in particular directions. The point is not just that some have access to their violence and frustration, but they are allowed, even encouraged, to act this out on (the bodies of) soMe-others.
Montei: The second two sections explicitly engage with the East African LRA conflict and the killings in Juarez. How do you understand these two conflicts in relation to your explorations of caregiving and language acquisition?
Wertheim: In a way, my main point is less about the family as such, than about a wider social relationship. It is almost as if a new kind of institution is emerging, one that blends aspects of the family with those of class and state. Though it starts within the “domestic” situation where infants are cared for, it doesn’t stop there. Nor does it morph, as in classical analysis into romantic/erotic relations. Rather, the child-mother relation radiates out into a wider social relation that blurs aspects of both gender and generation with class and politics. Maybe you could say it’s a new kind of class dynamic – one not primarily economic. Though this aspect does also enter into the dynamic, it is not essentially based on economics. Rather, it is based on a dynamic of expectation and permission about who should be, who must be satisfied, and who can be held responsible if satisfaction is not provided.
However, we must add a further, very unfortunate, addendum, that those who are held responsible may not just be blamed, they may also have the frustration that comes from unsatisfied expectations taken out on them. I don’t even think revenge is the right term here. It is something more archaic. More like simple infantile aggression. Which ideally should not be repressed. It should be managed, by the infant, as it develops and grows up, with help from the adults. But now, “management,” for those considered to be the|’sOnes seems to consist of simply launching their rage at those considered to be the-m-Others. And the degree of violence permitted in these attacks is escalating massively, as we see in Juarez. This by the way is not a purely Mexican issue. It takes place in Mexico. But it is the product of a global dynamic, or at least a trans-American dynamic in which all those south of the border are cast as the-m-Others in relation to us in the north, who are all collectively cast as the-|’sOnes. Of course, each of these groups have their own internal divisions into sOnes + m-Others, but internationally we in north-America are all the Ones at least in our relations to those in the central and south Americas who, in relation to us are all the-m-Others.
So the US–Juarez/Mexico relation is a great example of a global, public, manifestation of what I am calling the dynamic of |’sOnes + the-m-Others.
Uganda and the LRA and Joseph Kony is also another manifestation of this new in-between institution – in between the family and class or the state. But the Kony manifestation shows even more clearly another aspect of this relationship/institution, namely, what new kind of sOne can emerge within a group that has been subjected to being the-m-Others for a long time and in very complicated ways.
The Acholi, of whom Kony is a member, are a very complex phenomenon who have been constructed historically through the many overlapping processes of colonialism and then the forming of the Ugandan nation state in post-colonial, or neo-colonial times. (Adam Branch has an excellent book outlining this history, and how the Acholi came to be at the epicenter of a global network of very nasty power relations.) Essentially, with the formation of an independent Ugandan state, the Acholi became the-m-Others of the-m-Others. Naturally at least some of the men in this group reacted to this mass-feminisation with a super-macho response. (As are many men in Mexico and the other central and southern Americas.)
But Kony is more than just a macho response to (neo/post)-colonial emasculation, because he is not against the-m-Others. He is the|’sOne of the-m-Others. Indeed, he is the One of the-m-Others. The chosen One. In other words, he is, in my view, a form of the second coming. He is a savior, and he has a direct relationship to the divine, and hence massive spiritual authority. It’s just not quite in the way this has previously been imagined.
One of the most important aspects of Kony’s way of manifesting this new situation is his relationship to the body – to every bodies. It is as if for him the bodies of all the Acholi (who constitute most of those he violates) are extensions of his own, just as for a baby its mother’s body is an extension of its own. Only, in Kony’s case, the body of all the-m-Other Acholi is a body without holes, a body that is somehow stuffed up. A body that needs to be unblocked. In a way it’s as if the baby is burping the mother. Only the mechanism for its doing this is not a simple tapping on the back. Rather the-m-Others’ body here needs to be sliced open to create venting holes – so it can breathe. So he can breathe – and utter words and other sounds. So, with the LRA and all these child-soldiers Kony has created a new kind of Madonna and Child situation – as I said, one in which the child, as the-|’sOne has control over the all of the-m-Others who are the Acholi and their collective bodies.
It is thus a very complex situation which has many dimensions – spiritual/religious, familiar/intimate, and political in both a national and international sense. To me, this situation around Kony is one of the most clear indices of the new institution that my work is exploring.
Montei: Can you speak to the way you envision the genre of this book? How did this project evolve?
Wertheim: In terms of genre, I personally describe the book as auro-bio-graphical. It is an attempt to put both the sounds and the images through which infants think into a form that can be manifest on a paper surface – “infants” in terms of both literal babies, and infants in terms of those “grown-up” babies I call the-|’sOnes. The book is their biography.
In terms of its evolution. I have been working on the-m-Other-the-|’sOne relation for a very long time, as an analytical project. As a poetic project, I actually wrote the book back to front, with the Kony pieces being written first, then the Juarez ones, then the first four chapters on literal babies. At some point, I decided that they should all be in the same book.
Montei: Yes, I remember seeing you perform some of these Juarez and LRA pieces a few years ago, so I know you’ve been researching Juarez and the LRA conflict for several years now. The perceptions of these two conflicts, especially the LRA conflict, have become so skewed in recent years. Do you see these misconceptions as a failure of language? Of image? Something else?
Wertheim: To me my poetic work is a form of practical analysis. And what it analyses is the relations between bodies, language, subjectivity, and gender, and more recently global politics.
And yes, I don’t think a lot of the analysis of either the killings of women in Juarez, or the LRA is that convincing, except Adam Branch’s work on the LRA. The particularly nasty ways in which the women of Juarez are killed is an issue. But I think it has to be seen in the context of the way men in Mexico, and all the central and southern Americas, are collectively feminized/emasculated through global and trans-American political-economies. This is not an “excuse.” It is an analysis. And the resolution will not be found by returning women, in Mexico or anywhere else, to the purely domestic sphere, but in a new way of organizing the intersections of gender, generation and politics. Likewise, for Uganda, and indeed for everywhere else. I have my own visions of what that might be. But it is all speculative. The first thing is for everyone to start facing up to the state we are in now.
Is this situation the product of a failure of language? Or even allied to a failure of language? I’d say it’s more that our current language, by which I mean English – I never speak about what other languages can do because I don’t inhabit any of them well enough to know that – but English or |nglish, as I like to call it, doesn’t yet have terms appropriate to our present situation. The psycho-social dynamics have shifted. But the language hasn’t yet.
Sometimes I think of my work as a form of future-oriented archeology of the |nglish tongue. I’m trying to scrape away the sediments from the old words so that new terms that are appropriate to the new situation can become clear.
And I want to be clear here. I don’t think you can just make-up new terms in such cases. They have to make themselves up. Otherwise, it is just a theory. It’s not a living development of the language itself, which is what is needed – for new language to emerge, not just new theories. For the new situations to speak themselves. Not for us to pontificate about what we think might be going on.
The world, the new psycho-social world needs to reveal itself, and it needs help. But it doesn’t need to be dominated by yet another externalizing discourse.
Christine Wertheim is author of the poetics suites mUtter-bAbel (
Amanda Montei holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, and is currently a PhD student in the Poetics Program at SUNY at Buffalo. She is coeditor of Bon Aire Projects, and editor of the literary journal P-QUEUE. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in Everyday Genius, P-Queue, Gigantic, Joyland, Pi