Now that We are Persons

By Emma Hedditch, 12 January 2004

An insertion by Emma Hedditch as part of the Mary Kelly project

I have been working with an artist-led project calledMary Kelly since May 2003. The first page of theprinted booklet for the project assembles the followingstatements:

[…] attempts to articulate the politics of site and selfinitially through a radical engagement with ‘cinema’.

Intimacy becomes revolutionary when it becomes adesire to communicate. The lie of alienation scrambledby a flurry of small, purposeful movements.

It seems incredibly important to recognise the strategiesof formation, the processes in which experience andformal representation take place. The former notdistinct from the latter, but as a continuous graspingon the surfaces of the other.

Drawn to an engagement in the interpersonal and organisationaland the consideration of other persons.

The Mary Kelly project

In early discussions for the Mary Kelly project Marina Vishmidt and I met with Josephine Berry Slater who was pregnant at the time. We watched videos from Cinenova and began an exchange. Marina wrote a text around Bred and Born, a film by Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece made in 1983, and Mary Kelly’s Post- Partum Document, ‘an intervention into motherhood and knowledge systems executed by the artist over a period of several years in the mid-to-late 1970s.’ (Marina Vishmidt, ‘Her, Her, Me, It, Them, There: Scripto-Visual, Socio- Economic, Post-Partum, East End, TV?’) Subsequent meetings with Josephine and Marina gave me a feeling of urgency in continuing a discussion on the subject of maternity or the maternal subject. The urgency also came from some other reflections on the relational movement of my own identifications and nonidentifications with a lesbian feminist position, research into women-only organisation and the desire to acknowledge Josephine’s changing subjective experience. I wanted to explore the questions around giving birth, motherhood and how these events produce new selves – in women and those who support them.

Action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore natality, is inherent in all activities. Moreover since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical thought.

Hannah Arendt, ‘Vita Activa and the Human Condition’, 1958 The problem with intervention in labour is that one form of intervention may lead on to another so just by monitoring a woman and confining her to a bed means that she can't move around so much which means that she may have less efficient uterine action, less efficient contractions, the next step on from that is to use a drip to encourage contractions. Labour tends to be more painful if it is induced, and so the use of painkilling drugs is increased. Painkilling drugs may have an effect on the baby and mean that the baby will get distressed and so the consequences of that are maybe moving on to forceps delivery and having to resuscitate the baby. Polly Ferguson, tutor midwife in the film Special Delivery by Red Flannel Film collective, 1991, UK

I am interested in foregrounding the processes and experience of maternity, pregnancy and natality as political time; where such a foregrounding looks at the process and experience in relation to social dynamics that are influenced by things like power, visibility, feelings and identity. Especially when words like ‘identification’, ‘action’ and ‘intervention’ serve as the language of political expression. I want to slow down and put off assimilating maternity into a present political discourse or using it as a metaphor that projects away from the experience of birth, in order to express maternity as a feeling around the subjects of ‘identification’ and ‘belonging’. Care needs to be given to the painful processes of self-reflexivity and the complexities of ‘identification’ and ‘non-identification’ in the experience of maternity, pregnancy or natality. Being pregnant and giving birth, or deciding not to give birth, produces a consciousness that women exchange with others, not as an abstraction but in such a way that the dialogue between people about the reproductive process transforms and shapes social relations, and is simultaneously always affected by where reproduction takes place and the specific political, social and economic contexts that construct it.

If pregnancy is a continual motion, an intermediate and unfixed state where the body performs a function and becomes functional, then we don’t have to identify with it all the time. But pregnancy is also the reflective period in which women contemplate the past and how things are changing in relation to the present, whilst simultaneously projecting into the future, with the present lived experience of growth. Pregnancy challenges the coherence of the bodily experience and throws open one’s subjectivity, before even reaching the decision to give birth. ‘Being’ in the process of pregnancy or becoming pregnant makes it a social action that is part of the female consciousness. But ‘being’ pregnant means women could become alienated from other forms of reproductive processes, labour/social relations, because they are not always alienated from the process of reproduction that is biological reproduction. The film Positions of Power made by Jacky Garstin and Delyse Hawkins in 1983, explains the ways in which women are alienated from the experience of childbirth by medical practices that actually make childbirth more difficult and painful. A demonstration by the Radical Midwives highlights the growing consciousness of women on the subject of home birth and its political weight within the women’s movement of the time. Home Truths by Yvonne Baginsky (1983) records the personal stories of women who wanted to, or succeeded in, having home births. Two particularly contrasting stories are recounted in the film. In one, Celia Meyer describes how she was forced into confinement which then leads to her having her baby by caesarian section. Her account is filmed in one long take and allows her to express her story in detail. In the second story, which corroborates the first, we witness the home birth of Janette Przerwok who is free to walk around and give birth standing up, and the film is edited to incorporate the whole social experience of her birth.

Maternity is a sentiment that you don’t have to be pregnant to feel. The moment of birth is strongly associated with pedagogical functions, where a person introduces the other, the not-yet-thing, into the social. It is a narrative that observes and reassures the new not-yetthing. It delineates itself from the functions of raising or rearing, because it is not really supposed to define or structure anything. The maternal time is mutable, limited and irregular but, despite its precariousness, it continues to exist powerfully as a repressed emotional state located within our psyches as an almost fixed, irreducible location. For Arendt, natality is action whereby each unique being has the potential to start something new; but the new person could be born into a group or nation (with a set of characteristics that constitute its social behaviour), without identifying or having the desire to identify with it. Our own specific relation to identification – the time and place that you are born into – can also shift over time, with the influence of movements within social relations, energy levels and the production of the conditions for living or reflecting. That’s how the present becomes instilled with optimism for the future and plans are made for possible futures which are critical to the present, as a future whose potential will enable belonging.

Belonging is strongly connected to natality, and is inscribed in the idea of connectedness between two separate entities as productive of an aggregate, but talking about one’s own birth implies a degree of separation, which a social self in a social dynamic is supposed to have overcome. Such aggregates produced in natality may need to re-appear and be identified with in order for belonging to exist or be felt again.

In the video Shulie (1997), a documentary made by students at The School of Art Institute of Chicago in 1967, is painstakingly reconstructed by the video maker Elisabeth Subrin. An actress Kim Voss plays the future radical feminist Shulamith Firestone in her art student days reflecting on her feelings of being out of time and place and not identifying with her generation. Through reconstructing the film Elisabeth Subrin attempts to reposition Shulamith Firestone not as an heroic figure but as ‘evidence of one’s erasure in history, or as prediction of one’s future’ (Elisabeth Subrin). Shulie is a project that represents what Subrin identifies with and satisfies some of my desire to know more about what was on the mind of Shulamith Firestone prior to writing The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970, where she attacks the character of a patriarchal world that oppresses women – ‘Women must be freed from the tyranny of their biology by any means available’ – and her vision of ‘cybernetic socialism’ which demands ‘complete technological control of reproduction’. She also wanted to dismantle parenthood whereby children ‘belong’ to their ‘biological’ parents, stating that sexual repression and neurosis is caused by the ‘increasing privatisation of family life’, and ‘its extreme subjugation of women’. When I read The Dialectics of Sex for the first time I was staying at the Copenhagen Free University (an institution whose campus comprises Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen’s flat), and became conscious of how the family structure still operated there. I lent the book to Henriette, and we began a discussion about how she experienced the family in a more complexed way, and extended it to a more radical shift of interpersonal relations. This hinged on the idea of making it feel more possible to be a part of the family without being born into it, and thus opening its structure. Later I lent the book to Josephine and we discussed its boldness and what it would be like to make such projections today. What brings a person to make such radical gestures and how did it affect the feminist movement of the 1970s? The vision to create a safe utopic space for women to define and affirm their separate identity from and relationship to patriarchal structures forms around expressive practices and performances of identity politics that produce places, institutions and ways of doing things for women and by women. Identification with the needs and desires of other women and or feminist politics, at a particular time and over time creates the support and engagement in the interpersonal and organisational as a political field. During some research I made in 1998 around women’s housing issues in London, I read how in the mid 1980s the clinical psychologist Sue Holland acknowledged the feminist influence within London’s council infrastructure. The Women’s Committee of the GLC provided a ‘leap forward’ with greater financial support and feminist solidarity. Her work ‘From social abuse to social action, a neighborhood psychotherapy and social action project for women’ opened the possibility for women to have access to therapeutic intervention, whereby women can move through their psychic, social and political experiences and explore the construction of the self within a social dynamic. One group of ex-clients in White City formed ‘Women's Action for Mental Health’ in a squatted flat as a drop in centre that in addition to offering support to women, promoted mental health as a community responsibility.

In my local park there is a One O’Clock Club. These are held in council owned buildings in some London parks. Each day parents can come from one until four o’clock with their baby or child, to play and socialise. The clubs started in Upper Norwood in 1964 and were founded by Jane Carrick and Bell Tutaev from Lambeth council. In the beginning it was a voluntary scheme, later workers were paid by Lambeth Council and eventually the GLC came to support the groups. Since the abolition of the GLC in 1986, funding became restricted again, but nevertheless the support network still exists. Unlike educational resources for children, the One O’Clock clubs are not postcode dependent, they are seen as play-orientated and emphasise the development of support networks between mothers that draw on the idea of community as an existing pool of knowledge and experience.

In Feminist consciousness-raising groups women tell their own stories. The act of presenting one’s story in public gives it the chance to become politically reinternalised in each person. Each person might have multiple and simultaneous identities and the process of consciousness raising should not be perceived as the consolidation of the whole self or the bringing together of one’s identity, but as a process that incorporates social relations. Each woman’s contribution works to demystify the construction of social groups and situations partly through her description of the process by which she came to be in the group – the result of political motivations and personal decisions.

‘Consciousness-raising groups were laboratories for all the different tendencies of feminism that would later turn around and diagnose those divisions, partially through the readings of Marx and Lacan that Mary Kelly and Laura Mulvey, among numerous others,foregrounded in their practices at that time. To them, the psychoanalytical was intensely political, perhaps due to its conceptual malleability and formatting of social and intersubjective relations as necessarily imbricated at the level of psychic organisation. It was also political because it highlighted the socially constructed nature of women’s oppression.’Marina Vishmidt

A friend in Sweden wrote to me about the historical figure of Ellen Key who believed in conversation and in the work on one’s self, as opposed to lecturing as the way to gain knowledge. In Stockholm in 1885 she started some loosely organised groups called ‘Tofterna’ (The Twelves) that consisted of 12 women and a leader in each group. They met without formalities. Lectures could occur around medicine, social life and other subjects, but most of the time was devoted to conversation.

A friend took a book from the library entitled Off Screen: Women & Film in Italy, edited by Giuliana Bruno and Maria Nadotti. I have been reading how in Italy between 1974 and 1982, there existed ‘150-hours courses’ which were available initially to factory workers and farmers, but eventually extended to housewives and pensioners. These courses included some basic literacy, but the main emphasis was to explore the constructs of knowledge and power. The film Scuola Senza Fine by Adriana Monti records the outcome of collective research at the Affori School and the Gervasia Broxon Cooperative, a women-only group led by Lea Meandri. The film explores the students’ relationship to knowledge, the teacher as connected to the mother-child relationship and some of the traces and causes of emotional and sexual subtexts and tensions – an idea that the group was committed to exploring.

Martina’s Playhouse (1989) is a Super 8 film by Peggy Ahwesh made with her close friend Diane Torr and Diane’s young daughter Martina. Peggy reflects on her experience as part of a women’s study group reading Lacan and Freud and in parts of the film Martina reads some of the texts that Peggy has been reading. Peggy films Martina presenting explanations of images from magazines surrounded by soft toys, her community, interspersed with candid interactions between Peggy and another woman (a young Diane?) who expresses her expectation that she will seduce Peggy. Finally Peggy is brought into Martina and Diane’s world through a re-enactment of the mothering role, but with Diane as the child who must be breastfed by Martina. These women and groups do not name their practices as explicitly political, although on reflection they often acknowledge the significance and impact of the feminist movement in the ’70s and ’80s. But the appearance of the feminist movement coupled with the increased distribution of women’s literature, political writings, film, etc. highlighted the desire for women to identify their own idea of belonging, an attempt to realise one’s selves. The not-yet-belonging fledgling projects that try to experience something close to working on their own terms, like self-institutions, are a far cry from the private, isolated, passive self. They are a refusal, an attempt at the absolute withdrawal from a patriarchal hierachy that decides what it means to act or belong.

‘Theory is the thing that allows you to see by distancing, or, allows you to look at something else. She was a mother; she was using theory and highlighting the function of mediation in the mother-child relationship, the mediation of documentation as well as that of the psychoanalytical schema, or even the mediation of artwork in the site of the most properly feminine creative act, childbirth. But theory was also a means to pleasurably preoccupy herself, to distract her from the daily exigencies of motherhood, amalgamating these with theory to conjugate the maternal position in language and in the social, a node of instability for cultural discourses about nature, about women. Theory allows you to make an object of study. She was also parodying the nature of the scientific gaze, with all the obsessively detailed and methodical record keeping of her child’s daily life. How is the experience different from itself? How is motherhood an experience that unites women, and yet is something that cannot be spoken except through standardised forms? Is motherhood then metonymic for all the ways in which women are divided, that biology and culture do not adhere?

But the ‘third term’ (psychoanalytic theory) works in another way also: Kelly describes it as not just an access into the symbolic, but also as the point of departure from the affective plenitude of early feminist groupings that located the moment of oppression in the subjective, but were as yet unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the feminist community was already stratified by disparities in class, race, age and sexual orientation, among others. But the trope of psychoanalytic theory filters through Mary Kelly’s practice, a device that is always bracketed and figurative, rather than an unexamined trace.’Marina Vishmidt