WHY MATRICIDE?

Amber Jacobs

I am going to begin by asking a series of questions which I hope will sign post the kinds of debates with which I am engaged.

How can theorising matricide contribute to mapping maternal subjectivities, identities and ethics? What does it mean to theorise? More specifically, can the practice of theory making – and in this instance theorising matricide – have ANY productive and potentially usable links with the actual practices of mothering, with being a mother, with having a mother, with thinking about being and/or having a mother and representing the vicissitudes of the maternal realm in culture.

When I ask myself what am I doing when I am theorising or attempting to create new theories – or when asked how what I am doing will or could relate to so called 'lived experiences' or 'social realities' – I can only come up with the notion that theory making in the context of feminism and psychoanalysis is the only way I have found to think through – and hopefully go some way in transforming – the complex relation between the psychosexual and the social – rather than being thought by it.

I must confess that when writing my book on matricide – I did not give much conscious attention in my research to the figure of the actual living so called 'real' mother and the vicissitudes of her practices. The experiential aspect of the maternal realm was obviously present somewhere in my work – how could it not be? Yet it is not clear to me (even now) in what precise form. What I consciously addressed was the meaning of matricide in contemporary theory and culture. I was driven by Iriagary's contention that matricide underlies western culture and epistemologies – but is not acknowledged or theorised. I was driven too by what I saw as an urgent necessity to transform and expand psychoanalytic theoretical paradigms so that psychoanalysis's indispensable insights into the workings of unconscious desire – could be used to theorise a maternal subject position.

I was determined to get beyond the impasse that psychoanalytic feminism found itself in when it could not get beyond Lacan's theory of the symbolic - a theory in which femininity could only function as the limit of representation, as other, and as lack. I was writing and thinking with a force of frustration with the psychoanalytic theories – whose potential I could not abandon yet whose models of femininity and the maternal systematically reproduced the terms of a patriarchal phallic binary model of culture and subjectivity that I sought to transform/and or overthrow.

It was then, through turning to the question of matricide via psychoanalysis, structural anthropology and Greek myth that I tried to go some way to rectify this situation and force feminism into a new stage of engagement with psychoanalysis with a view to hypothesising a different model of the symbolic order that did not depend upon Oedipus and castration as its one and only organising centre.

I wanted to construct a theoretical model where femininities and the maternal could function as active agents of meaning that could generate phantaises and underlying cultural laws which could lead to modes of thinking, speaking, remembering, mourning, desiring, knowing and representing that were not reducible to or organised around the Oedipal structure of classical psychoanalysis. My desire was to theorise a structure that could allow for previously foreclosed ontological and epistemological manifestations to have access to the symbolic order/representation and theory without resorting to essentialism or any sense of a pre given pre symbolic unmediated notion of the feminine.

The Oedipal/castration model – with patricide as its organizing centre – can describe only one aspect of the relation between the psychosexual and the social under western patriarchies. The fierce attachment to this model as the one and only master model/theory in psychoanalysis comprises what I see as an often rigid, heterosexist normative hegemonic monopoly on sanity, on subjectivity, representation and on meaning. This monotheism in contemporary psychoanalysis with regard to Oedipus as the one and only model needs to be contested and rejected if we are going to be able to use psychoanalysis in the service of theorising femininity and the maternal in relation to a specificity rather than as mirror or other to the masculine subject.

I am not suggesting that Oedipus and its organising underlying Law-of-the-Father no longer holds and needs to be replaced – but I am saying that it is only one part of the story and should be able to co exist with other models. Thus, my question is not Why Oedipus? But Why only Oedipus?

The 'law of the father' remains the dominant model of psyche and culture in psychoanalysis and underpins the organisation of western societies. The law of the mother however is an underdeveloped and marginal concept. The occlusion of the law of the mother points to the entrenched status of patriarchal structures underlying our contemporary social and psychic realities. My theorisation of the law of the mother via the matricidal myth of the Oreastia attempts to rectify the marginalisation of the mother and locate her as an active agent for the transmission of symbolic laws that determine our cultural organisation.

The issues then that I try to tackle in my work turn around the question of theorising alternative underlying cultural laws and prohibitions, which inaugurate different passages into symbolic subjectivity, which are not reducible to Oedipus. In this way, we can begin to posit the possibilities of theorizing (rather than pathologising) other fields of desire, sexualities and meanings, different kinship arrangements and their concomitant generated unconscious processes and their symbolic representation.

What is in question then is firstly, a symbolic economy that does not solely refer, in the first instance, to the paternal symbolic function but instead resurrects the mother out of the so-called 'imaginary' pre-symbolic primitive realm and places her within the social arena of language, representation and history. And secondly, what is in question is a non-monolithic model of the symbolic order – a heterogeneous model comprised of more than one process, more than one structure, more than one law that organizes sexed subjectivities. Whilst Lacan theorized a static a historical Symbolic order – organized around an immovable one and only law of the Father to which we must all submit or negotiate – I am proposing a model with more than one structural process/more than one law that can produce subjectivities whose relation to the social symbolic world can no longer be systematically reduced to the phallic function of Oedipalisation.

Matricide is a term that has hitherto been used (in psychoanalysis and feminism) descriptively in a somewhat vague and loose way. It has been used to point to the subordination, the denigration, the marginalisation of and the silencing of the mother in western discourses, or it is used to describe a conscious or unconscious phantasy of wanting to kill the mother. However, all these things: killing, marginalizing, silencing, subordinating, and denigrating are not the same – they are not reducible to one another.

What I found then was that matricide had not yet been theorized as an underlying cultural law functioning to determine aspects of our cultural and psychic organization. It had merely been used to describe a culture where the mother as subject did not yet exist.

(Just an aside here to clarify what I mean when I refer to the mother as subject not existing) ... I am thinking of the large amount of psychoanalytic feminist scholarship that has convincingly deconstructed the many discourses about the mother in the western tradition and has found that the mother only exists as object – object of need, blame, phantasy, love, hate and ambivalence – a phantasised figure either relentlessly idealized or relentlessly denigrated, or turned into a monstrous abject other to be feared – a phallic controlling castrating mother who threatens to swallow up identity. She is nowhere theorized in terms of her own subjectivity, sexuality and unconscious and nowhere posited as instrumental in the transmission of culture and society on the symbolic level. She only exists in the many projections and fantasies generated from the male imaginary that the dominant symbolic order confirms and reproduces.

Whilst the concept of patricide in psychoanalysis theorizes a prohibition/law leading to a set of generative organizing fantasies that Lacan termed The-Name-of-the-Father, matricide has not been translated into such clear conceptual terms.

The dead father generates a creative loss that leads to a process of genealogical transmission of cultural bonds between father and son and between sons forming the bedrock or corner stone of western cultures and kinship systems, as we know it. Matricide however does not seem to be able to produce that same kind of generative loss and instead functions only to describe the symptoms of the ontological dereliction that Irigaray has persistently diagnosed resulting from women living in a 'culture of the same' where femininity only exists as a fantasy or product of the male imaginary.

In my work, I wanted desperately to get away from describing the symptom and get on to theorizing the latent law of matricide that could hypothesize a different kind of loss pertaining to a different phantasy structure that was organized around a different structural center to that of the Name of the Father. That is to say I wanted to move on from using psychoanalysis merely as a way of describing and analyzing the structures of oppression (in a second wave kind of way) – which I think can run the risk of the initial politicized description of the symptom becoming ossified and fixed as an immutable and inevitable truth or prescription.

I wanted psychoanalysis to function in a different way for feminism – a way that would move on from a focus on identifying the symptoms surrounding the mother and the daughter and their exclusion from the symbolic order – a way that would move on from repeatedly producing litanies of symptoms associated with needing the mother, fearing her, blaming her, desiring her, loving her, hating her, and all the complex narcissistic border line neurotic and psychotic processes and phantasies associated to her highly cathected, idealized and denigrated body. The voluminous rich material, clinical, sociological, literary, visual and other that describes the complex symptoms pertaining to the mother and the daughter in a culture that can only theorise the paternal genealogy and sequesters the mother and the daughter to a no-place outside symbolic agency needs to be thought about in relation to an absent or yet-to-be-theorized structural maternal law. That is to say, psychoanalysis needs to stop settling for mirroring and unwittingly confirming the inevitability of the descriptions of the pathologies pertaining to the mother and needs instead to start building a theory that could help rectify the situation.

Matricide then was no longer associated in my work with pathology and description (that is to say – no longer used in describing the manifest symptoms of the marginalization of the mother in cultures and discourses) it was in fact going to become a generative structural organizing concept to be utilized by a psychoanalytic feminism committed to post patriarchal futures and committed to a model of the symbolic and the unconscious that could accommodate a plurality of unconscious structures, a heterogeneous palimpsest of structural psychosexual processes that produced subjectivities that were not reducible to oedipal phallic heteronormativity.

The questions now turned around the hypothesis of matricide as producing a generative loss functioning to transmit a maternal genealogy – a trans-generational unconscious structure or law that could work to mediate the mother-daughter/and or between women relations allowing for the specificities of femininities as active participants in the symbolic process and the transmission of a different cultural inheritance or bond.

Now before I try and explain what my theory of a matricidal underlying law/prohibition consists of – and how I arrived at its definition (via working with myth and structural anthropology) I want to quickly address what could be construed as a potentially utopian thrust in all this – together with a hint of wish fulfilment – the wish or belief that if we theorise matricide we will not only cure all the ills of patriarchy but psychoanalysis will become an empowering politicized tool subverting dominant normative theories, the symbolic will be able to accommodate a multitude of subjectivities organised around different laws other than Oedipus, the mother-daughter relation could be given structural mediation and would thus cease to fall into the destructive dynamics concerning too close proximities, destructive envy, collapsed identifications and separation problems and the matricidal law or law of the mother would produce the possibility a different model of culture – a yet-to-be-future beyond phallic binarism that could finally be pronounced as post-patriarchal ... !!

This is obviously not only a ridiculously tall order but is also totally unrealistic, utopian and has an underlying teleological fantasy of a happily ever after. I want to stress now that these are not my hopes or fantasies for matricide in its theorised form. To my mind – change happens very slowly – the extent to which the dominant structures are internalised and entrenched in the unconscious means that positing any kind of voluntarism whether it be performing gendered identities or theorising a maternal law is only viable if we are rigorous in addressing the complex relation between the psychic (i.e. the unconscious) and the social symbolic structures that it produces or is produced by.

To theorise a structural maternal law organised around a matricidal prohibition will at best create a new space, a new dialogue, a new possibility with regard to the massive amount of work that is to be done in theorising, representing and symbolising the maternal in all its diverse meanings and specificities outside the projections of the male imaginary.

A crucial point – and a point incidentally that I don't think I clarified enough (if at all – in my book) – is that the matricidal law or law of the mother (which I will at some point get around to telling you about!!) that I have attempted to theorise is a law in lower case. That is to say it is not THE Law of the Mother in capital letters mirroring THE Law of the Father in the Lacanian schema. My notion of a matricidal law belongs to a model of the symbolic also with no capital S. (that is to say it does not pertain to some kind of systematic totalising master theory like Lacan's theory). It is not a matter of just adding matricide to patricide, the law of the mother to the law of the father – this would be problematic because it would be complicit with the positing of a model of complementarity, an idealized parental couple functioning to organise a master theory or laws determining culture and subjectivity. What I want to stress is that the matricidal law – or law of the mother that I am proposing is not the one and only maternal law with a capital M – it is actually just one aspect of the laws of the mother which are yet to be theorised and will contribute to the creation of what Irigaray terms the 'yet to be female imaginaries'. The use of the plural is crucial. The Laws of the mother cannot then be reduced to or made symmetrical to the current dominant model of the singular Law of the Father (in capital letters). They function in very different ways.

However, we need, I think, to be tentative in announcing the heterogeneous mutable plural model of the symbolic as the new theoretical aspiration the new 'good object', if you like, because we then risk elevating and idealising these concepts to status of magic words or buzz words which will create a 'better' world. We need to produce a more complex idea of what we mean when we actually use these words. In the current climate of the flourishing post structuralist critical theories which have had a profound influence on the humanities (my work obviously included) terms like 'becoming', 'mutability', 'difference', 'heterogeneous', 'plurality' form a kind of new 'good' orthodoxy. It is crucial – in my project – to be highly specific in relation to these terms and to avoid an overinvestment in them as easy ways to posit a model of an all-inclusive totality – a model of the symbolic or culture where nothing is excluded and hierarchy and binarism are a thing of the past. The very conditions of becoming a subject by definition necessitate profound losses and melancholic identifications and exclusions where there are always remainders, always excluded remnants that are foreclosed from symbolic mediation. What I want to work towards though, is the gradual building up of a field of work or a paradigm that theorises different losses (from that of the castration/patricidal loss) – different ways of negotiating loss leading to different organisations of what can and cannot be structured/included/ seen/heard/thought/said and represented.

So now I hope I have given some sense of my context, of the frame of my work and what is at stake in the debate. Now, I want to give you a brief sense of the how in my project – the instrument of intervention – the strategy or method. And so, we turn to myth.

Irigaray's call for scholars to turn to myth and tragedy because they comprise the root of our symbolic order as we know it is has inspired much important work from different approaches in both feminism and philosophy. Feminist theorists went back to certain myths and tried to foster them for the creation of positive identifications and representations for women. The Demeter-Persephone myth for example was adopted as a so called 'feminist myth' that could give value and explain the dynamics of the mother-daughter relation – and more recently the Penelope myth was rewritten by Margaret Atwood as an intervention into the Odyssey that shifted the emphasis and apparently represented a previously foreclosed aspect of the feminine in the epic poem. There is much value to this type of work but I want to say now that my approach to myth does not work at this level. I want to use myth as a structuring device that can transform the thinking process itself rather than use what is already there to foster so called positive identifications.

Myth – for me – is like a symptom, the delirium of the male imaginary that needs to be analysed as if it were a dream. We need to move from the manifest level of the myth to the latent content if we are to be able to use myth as a politicized instrument of change. If we can uncover the latent hidden repressed content of the myth we can, I suggest move towards deconstructing the male imaginary to discover what has been radically excluded. And in this case it is a maternal law which I found to be the radically excluded latent content of the myth I worked with – that is, the Oresteian myth.

Turning to Aeschylus's Oresteia as my object of study whilst trying to think about the meaning of matricide in western culture and discourses was in some senses an obvious move. It is a foundational ancient myth that tells of a son (Orestes) who murders his mother as a revenge murder for her murder of his father. Clytemnestra, (his mother) had killed Agamemnon (Orestes father) as revenge for her murder of their eldest daughter who he had sacrificed in order to win a war. Father kills daughter, mother kills father, son kills mother. The Oresteia attempts to resolve itself around the question of Orestes' crime in the first court of democratic justice set up by Athena. Orestes, the matricidal son is put on trial. The jury is split down the middle – half side with the mother's cause and half with the father. It is up to the goddess Athena to cast the determining vote. Athena votes for Orestes and in so doing condones matricide and implicitly condones the violence against the daughter by the father. Her reason for siding with Orestes is (quote) 'No mother gave me birth. Never bred in the darkness of the womb. In all my heart I am my father's child'. Orestes walks free and the father is pronounced prime author of identity by virtue of Athena's miraculous so called 'motherless' birth. (Obviously that was a totally condensed potted version)

Following Levi Strauss I contend that no myth can be understood as an isolated narrative or sequence. Myths, according to Levi Strauss, need to be read as an 'orchestral score'. Myths can only be analysed as fragments that overlap and mutate into and with other mythical fragments. Isolating a myth as Freud did with Oedipus and not analysing it in the context of the mythical 'orchestral score' leads to an incomplete interpretation of the myth that can only function on a manifest level.

My work on the Oresteia led me to study it via a structuralist methodology in the context of voluminous associated myths. It was via this methodology that I came across the myth of Metis, Athena's mother who, according to Hesiod, was raped by Zeus and subsequently became pregnant. During her pregnancy Zeus swallowed her whole and kept her inside of him where she gave him advice and council. Some months later Zeus was overcome with headache and then out sprung Athena from his head. After Athena's birth ,there is no trace of Metis – we will never hear of her again. But what we will persistently hear in the myths and tragedies, in poems, opera, philosophy and psychoanalysis is that Athena had no mother. In the Oresteia, Athena's apparent motherless status functions as a crucial justification for the institution of patriarchal law and the absolving of Orestes matricidal crime.

In my re-reading of the Oresteia, I uncover this related matricidal myth – the myth of Metis, Athena's raped and murdered mother– and show that it exists in cryptic forms in Aeschylus's text. In uncovering what I term the 'latent content of the Oresteian myth' I point to the systematic repression of the figure of Athena's mother in all receptions, re-workings and critiques of the myth. The crux of my argument is that the denial of Athena's mother has resulted the prevention of the myth from being effectively used in psychoanalytic theory as a model or structure that can account for fantasies and unconscious processes that are not reducible to the Oedipus/patricidal structure.

By uncovering the traces of Metis in the Oresteian myth we can, I suggest, restore a vital link between these two matricidal myths, whose severance hitherto has resulted the incomplete theorisation of matricide in contemporary critical theories. Psychoanalytic theorists who have addressed the myth and have unwittingly reproduced the denial of Metis – Athena's mother. These range from Freud and Klein to more contemporary theorists such as Andre Green and Luce Irigaray.

So what is Metis's Law? What is this law of the mother that the Oresteia had for so long censored or repressed in its latent cryptic substratum?

(From lack of time I am going to have to explain it in short hand!) Metis's law, which I want to suggest forms just one aspect of the yet to be theorised laws of the mother, functions as a prohibition on the male parthenogenetic phantasy – that is to say the phantasy that the father can procreate alone. This parthenogenetic phantasy underlies the Oresteian logic. Zeus's giving birth to Athena forms the belief or phantasy that is elevated to the status of law and in fact the patriarchal order – as represented in the Oresteia – depends upon it. As soon as Metis is introduced into the Oresteian constellation – the whole of its logic is fractured.

We can see how crucial the resistance to knowing Metis had to be to keep the logic of patriarchy standing. Every statement claiming that Athena had no mother is the manifest lie, the symptom of resistance or blind-spot that points to the desire to repress the maternal law, to repress and transgress the prohibition that dictates to the male child/subject you cannot generate/pro-create alone. Instead this maternal prohibition represented in the figure of the swallowed pregnant woman is incorporated in Zeus and in the myth and in discourse and theory.

Rather than representing the loss that this maternal prohibition should mobilize – the maternal generative function is incorporated, denied and appropriated reducing the mother to a container to nurse the seed (Apollo's words) and giving generative sovereignty to the father. The mechanism of the incorporation of the matricidal law (of metis) that the Oresteia represents finally results in rendering matricide sterile in its capacity to deliver this maternal law.

Irigaray said 'what the Oresteia describes still takes place'. I would change that slightly to say what the Orestiea represses still takes place – the systematic repression of the law of the mother that prohibits the male parthenogenetic fantasy.

Undoing the repression of Metis and bringing to light the law of the mother that she represents means that in future transmissions and receptions of the Oresteian myth a new understanding of matricide, the mother and her law is facilitated and can hopefully be used in psychoanalysis for the purpose of constructing a maternal structuring symbolic function.


I want now to pause to pick up a thread that I left quite near the beginning – that is, the question of the so called real mother, the practices, the experiential, and where this sits with my engagement with the mother in theory, with matricide, with Metis and my hypothesis of the maternal laws.

It is a crucial question that I continually resist confronting face on. In fact, in all honesty I think I am ever so slightly phobic about the so-called real mother (despite being one and having one) and would rather talk about Metis any day ... It is as if addressing the real mother represents some kind of contamination to me, some kind of dead end distraction or primitive fear about being pulled into a kind of collapse into the mother/mothering process rather than being able to think about and theorise/represent it. I become subject to the exact potentially destructive mechanism or phantasy that my book describes and tries to rectify – that is the ubiquitous fear and dread of engulfment in to a mother or into mothering that threatens identity itself, turns thought to mush, forces one into an immediacy which can suggest a kind of borderline state of both madness and the sublime.

When asked for instance how my work on matricide contributes to debates on mothering practices, post natal depression, social arrangements for mothering and work, child rearing, breast feeding etc I kind of flinch with despair and want to shout IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF THAT!!!! A desire to totally refuse (in my intellectual work) that realm of experience and the real and locate my work in the esoteric intricacies of post Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, philosophy etc as though it was a haven – a psychic retreat from the messy concreteness the intense proximities, intimacies, passions, dependencies, and ambivalences, mess chaos, despair and euphoria of doing mothering.

It would seem then that for me, ironically, killing off the so called real mother was necessary in my attempt to theorise matricide and a maternal subject position. The blind-spot in my own work, my own Metis – if you like – is this resistance to or phobia around addressing the real mother which reveals perhaps a kind of internalized misogyny.

Yet it is, in fact, however much I try to avoid it, the question of the real mother and her impossibilities that probably lie at the root of my desire to work on creating a theory of a generative matricide. The crushing sense of having no way in the current culture to know oneself as mother, no way of symbolising, of thinking about it, no way other than to submit to the immediate, to act out on the level of the symptom or the level of banal speech, or internalized misogyny.

The question for me now becomes: How will Metis and her law – and all the other laws pertaining to a maternal structural function that will hopefully be theorised – help us give to the next generation a different structural inheritance so that we are not destined to unwittingly reproduce the terms of the dominant imaginary trans-generationally?

How will Metis and the future yet-to-be-theorised laws of the mother help alter the very parameters of what can and cannot be said and thought, understood and practiced?

 


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