Emily Jeremiah. Troubling Maternity: Mothering, Agency, and Ethics in Women's Writing in German of the 1970s and 1980s. London: Maney Publishing, 2003. 198 pp. $82.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-904350-10-1.
Reviewed by Xenia Srebrianski-Harwell (Department of Languages, Philosophy and Speech Communication, Utah State University)
Published on H-German (November, 2005)
Maternity, Feminism, and Contemporary German Women's Literature
The author of Troubling Maternity: Mothering, Agency, and Ethics in Women's Writing in German of the 1970s and 1980s, which is part of the Bithell Series of Dissertations, presents her work as the first to focus extensively on the point of view of mothers in contemporary German women's literature (p. 19). However, Emily Jeremiah's goals, as stated in her introduction, are much more ambitious. In addition to examining the German works as literary texts, she aims at social relevance in two ways. First, she intends to demonstrate that by depicting mothers as marginalized, locked within the confines of domesticity or illness, and powerless, the German texts argue for a need to develop "maternal agency" within society (p. 20). Secondly, she hopes to use her own work as a way to participate in the dialogue that will contribute to re-conceptualizing the dominant notions of maternity within society. Her other major goal is to engage in feminist discourse with the purpose of suggesting new ways to theorize maternity (p. 19) within that realm. Drawing on poststructuralist feminist thought, Jeremiah focuses on developing the ideas of "maternal performativity" and "performative maternal agency" (p. 1), defining the term "performativity" as implying "the possibility ... to effect transformation" (pp. 12-13). She expresses the intent to "demonstrate the links between maternity, agency, and ethics" (p. 1), arguing that maternal performativity is based on the idea of "mothering as a form of ethical behavior" (p. 14). In turn, a fundamental aspect of her conceptualization of maternal ethics are the ideas of "embodiment, relationality, and discursive challenge" (p. 15).
Continuing to discuss her approach in the introduction, Jeremiah acknowledges that she is giving only a passing nod to German feminism, which she believes is limited in its theorizing on mothering (p. 8). Instead, making the claim for the international nature of feminist criticism, she focuses on the views about maternity of various generations of American and French feminists. She suggests that feminist thinking has shifted from essentialist to poststructuralist, which views "maternal subjectivities as complex, shifting, and in process" (p. 9). Among the ideas she discusses in the introduction, and which she then develops in subsequent chapters, are those of subjectivity versus experience, the poststructuralist notion of "competing discourses" (p. 12), notions of mothering as a construct, mother as "origin" (p. 13), the notions of a unique women's language and a specifically "female essence" (p. 5), and the idea that writing as a "performative and ethical maternal aesthetics" (p. 18) involving relationality is an "ethical practice" (p. 18) that can "challenge ... traditional masculine notions of knowledge production" (p. 18).
Five chapters and a conclusion follow the introduction. In each chapter, Jeremiah uses the same approach of addressing a different aspect of maternity, first with a review of feminist thought on the particular issue, and then with an analysis of the German works in relation to these issues. She notes that she has organized her book this way with the intent of simplifying the discussion of feminist thought on each subject. However, an unintended result of this organization may be that the analysis of the German works sometimes appears to be secondary to the discourse on feminist thought, placing the works in a subordinate position to theory. At times it appears that the sole purpose of referencing the German texts is to support the ideas of a particular feminist theorist.
The German works Jeremiah discusses are: Maja Beutler's Fuß fassen (1980), Gisela Elsner's Abseits (1982), Barbara Frischmuth's Die Mystifikationen der Sophie Silber (1976), Amy oder die Metamorphose (1978) and Kai und die Liebe zu den Modellen (1979), Elfriede Jellinek's Lust (1989), Anna Mitgutsch's Ausgrenzung (1989), Irmtraud Morgner's Leben und Abenteuer der Trobador Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura (1974) and Amanda. Ein Hexenroman (1983), Erica Pedretti's Veränderung oder Die Zertrümmerung von dem Kind Karl und anderen Personen (1977), Margot Schroeder's Der Schlachter empfiehlt noch immer Herz (1976), Karin Struck's Die Mutter (1975) and Andrea Wolfmayr's Spielräume (1981).
Chapter 1, entitled, "Maternity, Agency, and Community," treats the notion of the binary opposition of public and private space. After reviewing the views on this subject of feminists from a number of different fields, Jeremiah groups the German works into several categories: texts that relate maternal marginality to social and political issues; those that deal with maternal marginality in terms of psychological analysis; and those that suggest that maternal agency is impossible. She places Schroeder in a category of her own as one who suggests a collective community of women in a "counter-public sphere" (p. 50) and as one who creates a character who is "active, self-reflexive, and relational" (p. 51).
In chapter 2, "Reconceiving the Maternal Body," Jeremiah looks first at both feminist and non-feminist theories of the human body, and addresses the ideas of choice, essentialism, pregnancy and mothering, and sexual difference. She suggests that women achieve maternal agency through physical care of children. She assesses the German novels according to how they approach biology (p. 59) and places them into the following categories: works that deal with pregnancy and birth; those that conflate femininity and corporeality and place these notions outside culture, with the celebration of the body resulting in a kind of essentialism; those that demonstrate "how the body is constructed and manipulated by discursive and material practice" (p. 59), which she sees as a constructionist approach; and those which present the body as "potentially maternal and sexual" (p. 59).
In chapter 3, "Mother and Child," Jeremiah suggests that reciprocity within the mother-child relationship, or "mutuality," is essential for the implementation of maternal agency (p. 84). She looks first at some of the ways in which psychoanalysis has theorized the mother-child relationship and states her intention to "argue for a performative view of mother-child interaction" (p. 84) as "'active and collective'" (p. 87). She feels that all of the German novels reveal that the mother-child relationship is "disrupted by dominant social practices and institutions" (p. 84), that they reveal the need for an "ethics of care" and "the contingent nature of ethical systems" (p. 89). Here the points of division for the works are: those in which the bond between mother and child "is characterized by distance and hostility" (p. 89); those that do not address the idea of reciprocity between mother and child; those that view the mother as origin and therefore outside societal boundaries; and those with a relatively more positive view of the mother-child relationship.
Chapter 4, "Rethinking the Family," notes the importance of the concepts of heterosexuality, masculinity, and paternity. Jeremiah reviews ideas regarding the nuclear family, the "labor/love opposition," shared parenting and heterosexuality, masculinity and paternity, parenthood, the maternal, and different types of family configurations. Focusing on notions of kinship in her discussion of the German texts, Jeremiah places the texts into the following categories: those that view "female-dominated childrearing" (p. 119) as the ideal or reality, those that examine ways to include men in childrearing, and those with a man as the primary caregiver. She concludes that all of the works point to a critique of the position that women are placed into within traditional parenting structures.
Chapter 5 "Mother Tongues," treats the notion of "discursive challenge" as the third necessary aspect of maternal agency. By this Jeremiah means that literary language is a "type of discourse which competes with others in particular sociohistorical contexts" (p. 142). She sees the German texts under discussion as well as her own work analyzing these texts as elements of this discursive challenge. In this chapter, Jeremiah examines feminist thought regarding mothering, identity, and literature, looking at existing images of maternity in literature, at the development of a "matrilineal literary tradition" (p. 144), and at "the exploration of mother as writing subject" (p. 145), and suggests that "the practices of writing and reading" may "challenge traditional ideas concerning self, family, and society" (p. 143). Tying into this discussion the notions of mothers as creative beings and the maternal aesthetic, Jeremiah suggests that maternal writing does not necessarily arise from the mothering experience but is instead a subversive mode of discourse that can be practiced by non-mothers (p. 147). In this chapter the categories she places the German novels into are: those which imply that maternity signifies silence; those that explore other ways of maternity but that eventually come to the conclusion that maternity signifies silence; those that suggest that maternal writing may be significant politically (p. 148); and those in which maternal creativity is not a consideration.
In her conclusion, "Towards a Maternal Aesthetics/Ethics?" Jeremiah categorizes the German texts she has analyzed according to the techniques employed to disrupt dominant discourse: works with a "subjective style of narration" which "expose subjectivity as shifting and fluid" (p. 172); works which utilize the fantastic and mythological and fairy tales to demonstrate the ways in which ideologies and identities are created (p. 172); and works written in a detached style reminiscent of "masculine objectivity" (p. 172) in order to parody that style. Jeremiah suggests that capitalist individualism and recent trends in feminist thought to return to silence (p. 174) may be a step backwards for women, and reiterates that reading and writing, as the means to expressing and exposure to knowledge, are both acts of agency. She repeats her desire that within the social realm maternity be divested of its "mystifications" (p. 180) in favor of a recognition of the performative agency that is intrinsic to it.
Jeremiah places a complex task before herself, and the denseness and detail of her work are testaments to this fact. It is a work most accessible to readers firmly grounded in feminist thought. For those who are not, the short glossary of terms at the beginning of the book is a minimal aid, particularly when Jeremiah does not always immediately define the terms she is using, and because the meaning of one complex term may depend on the understanding of another complex term. The occasional dissertation writing style and multiplicity of Jeremiah's goals for her work also add another layer of complexity. While the discussion of the German works is rendered somewhat disjointed by being broken up over several chapters, and while one might have wished for more detailed discussions of each work, it is understandable that the sheer number of works analyzed along five different parameters precluded this kind of approach. While the discussions of the German works, though sometimes short, can also be very nuanced, Jeremiah's text could be used as a springboard for closer study and contemplation of both her interpretation of feminist thought and of the German literary texts.
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Xenia Srebrianski-Harwell. Review of Jeremiah, Emily, Troubling Maternity: Mothering, Agency, and Ethics in Women's Writing in German of the 1970s and 1980s.
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