The Procuratrix Self, Simone Weil & Lonely Motherhood in Mega-City One

by Lucy Mercer / September 21, 2017

Photo: Lucy Mercer

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What could a Corbyn government offer me to get me jumping up and down? Free childcare that is not dependent on work hours, cheap housing, community spaces. 1494 words / 6 min read

“Revolution, as Marx understood, can have no traffic with inner intimations of unreality” – and – “the marginal presence of the skull – emblem of death lurking beneath life” from Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, hover in my background thoughts when considering the lot of mothers not only under capitalism today but within socialist movements. Beyond the obvious fact that there is nowhere near adequate provision for mothers living today in neoliberal London or ‘Mega-City One’ (this is easy enough for anyone to realise – childcare cover, workplace discrimination, astronomical rents, maintaining private homes, no commons, etc.), there is a greater problem facing leftist movements that is of a philosophical, even theological nature – something that perhaps Jeremy Gilbert’s refinement of Mark Fisher’s “Acid Communism” into “Acid Corbynism” begins to make intimations towards, though shearing off the doctrinal implications and theological history of what has been hazily dubbed as “consciousness raising” seems to me a somewhat dangerous enterprise. What may be most useful in the Acid Corbynist project is the effort to overcome through “technologies of the non-self”, the self of neoliberal capitalism, the self as constituted by ownership.

If this seems too abstract to begin with, a return to pragmatics – as a privileged white single mother who by no means suffers the same stresses as other single mothers I know (shared parenting on weekends, PhD funding, etc.), or full time mothers who don’t get a break, mothers who have more than one child, or children with additional needs – outside of this and our wonderful childminder, who has given me the most support? There are no, as of yet, Corbynite breakfast clubs, community babysitting schemes, reading groups for mothers – in fact, feminist discussion groups are run at art galleries in the evenings, an unlikely locus for stay-at-home mothers, single or otherwise, to gravitate towards. Similarly, Labour activist meetings during which changes might be instigated take place in the evenings, Monday – Friday. So it has been not Labour/Momentum (unfortunately) that has been of vital support to me personally over the last few years, but playgroups in local churches run by volunteers, some of whom are Christian, some of whom are Liberal or Conservative, all of whom have been nothing but warm, helpful and committed to improving the lives of local mothers and their children. Through them I have met and befriended other mums, who with meagre political or state provision build communities of support and collective childcare amongst themselves. Mothers today attempt to cope because they are self-fashioning – not only as individuals but collectively, in creating these unacknowledged structures.

Aside from the obvious difficulty of fighting the necessary battles to gain rights and equality for mothers in terms of childcare, housing and so forth, I believe this problem goes deeper, because as the “inner intimations of unreality” suggest, there is a fundamental unreality attached to being a mother, the matrescence (or matricene!), the maternal state – the procurer of the skull – of death beneath life – that the church understands more in its reverence for the incarnation, cult of Mary, than Marxism does, than is conveyed by pragmatic leftist commentary. In this regard I propose the reinitiation of the term procuratrix – one that manages another’s affairs – not only in the sense of supervising child raising (creating community in the face of oppression) but as an affair of mediating the unreal, the symbolic, of fantasy, that is both superficial and deep. A procuratrix is someone who is in the business of (un)corralling the form of a human towards an attached form of independence, someone engaged in monotonous and often boring work, someone who is also delighted by their work. Though work here too, is the wrong term. Because children are not objects or goods (as much as late capitalist society attempts to present them as so) – they have arrived, nearly out of nothing, for whatever complex reasons, in a form of emergence that is baffling from the moment of conception, an emergence that shatters the former life of the procuratrix – she is born again with every child. The current symbols on offer are not good enough in this regard – within the church too: nobody mentions for example, that even aside from the ‘immaculate conception’, Mary might have actually had a very fucking painful birth and hated breastfeeding.

“Love is not consolation, it is light” says Simone Weil. Every procuratrix is utterly adrift as they work out how to look after their children, she and others form underground networks of comfort and solace to hide from the hard light of their enterprise, in internet forums, in parks. Whilst Weil was not a mother, her particular brand of Catholic Marxism – that is, refusing to enter the institution of the church – has felt to me closer to the state of being a mother than anything else. Her concept of bringing metaxu, bridges between worlds, by publishing Aristophanes in a factory magazine which on one level seems pretentious and stupid, is closer to the desire I feel for the future of socialist movements’ treatment of mothers today – to enable the building of bridges or joinings between worlds that are not simply political. And yet “Weil’s suicidally ascetic life style” (John Updike) is exactly what needs to be escaped from here too. Tom Gann in editing this piece wrote some reflections on this allusion to Weil that are worth simply pasting in verbatim: “it’s also a political problem of loneliness […] the right means for addressing loneliness. Any caring for children for long, long periods, and that usually is motherhood, can be incredibly lonely and isolating. Here, I wonder if Gilbert misses something, for a lot of lonely people, the self is an island, and that loneliness can involve, in the end, its own sort of cancelling of the self. I think Weil’s personal dialectic is also one of a deeply lonely person, and ultimately it’s politically futile, but motherhood perhaps combines all those features of loneliness with organic human relations both with the child and with the mothers with whom one has to build communities of support .” Bravo. Here too, for me Weil’s “The agony of extreme affliction is the destruction of the ‘I’ from outside” raises the spectre of Alice Walker’s ‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’ “I started to wither in that winter and each year found me more hacked and worn down than the year before.”

Becoming a mother is an inherently revolutionary praxis, by leveraging unknown sets of relations from a radical act – the end of one’s prior self. Collectively, this is known as The Republic of Motherhood, as the poet Liz Berry writes. Under capitalism today, one’s life is ruined by being a mother, one gives thanks for being a mother under capitalism. The act of procreation by the working class (and here I designate anyone who works) is an economically, environmentally1 and emotionally unreasonable choice that upends a trajectory of a life, with a mixture of outcomes. The throw of a loaded dice – how to make the weighing of this dice less unfair?

What would a Corbyn-led government be able to offer me to get me really jumping up and down? Free childcare that is not dependent on work hours, cheap housing, community spaces. These are obvious socio-economic improvements. But would they get rid of the social avoidance to face the very strangeness of motherhood on a mental and emotional level? No. And in the end should this continue to be spread across the collective body of mothers or alleviated by another social group, function or institution?

Every procuratrix asks herself – how am I a bad mother? How am I doing things wrong? Whilst continually asking herself these questions she gets on with everything else. Throughout unfathomable human time the extraordinary resilience and potential of women has been displayed in their acts of mothering – motherhood being not a natural state one falls into but performed, self-fashioned, and created. The resulting boredom too, reminds me of Roland Barthes: “Boredom is not far from bliss: it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.” An unreal state, a state verging on both utopia and dystopia. Within reach but far away. A New Socialism must start to take on the complex mental and emotional trajectories initiated by motherhood within the framework of the erasure of private property, even to the extent of – and here again the supervisory aspect of procuratrix feels important – eliminating the toxic viewpoint of owning one’s children. Not owning one’s lovers, partners, friends, not owning one’s children, but giving and receiving from them something like a shared, safe place, near a ‘sea’ (la mer – the sea is a mother of course, and a mother of the imaginary), each retaining agency, freedom and choice.

  1. In imperial core countries, at least, certainly within London’s extensive megalopolis (that is not relegated to specifically to the geographic London)