One and Three Readers: Black Documenta Dada Mother

The ancient Greek reader didn’t own his own voice; the act of audible reading dispossessed him of it.

“If he lends his voice to these mute signs, the text appropriates it: his voice becomes the voice of the written text,” Svenbro stresses. “He has lent his voice, relinquished it.” Is there a debt to repay here? What does the text, or its writer, owe in exchange for the voice of the reader? What does the reader gain? Perhaps reading offers her the chance to become another. In this exchange – debt and gift, exploitation, economy, literacy, however you want to call it – she becomes something other than herself (greater than herself, to put it in calculable terms, again). And yet just as she is offered leave of herself, she is simultaneously made most aware of herself, as one is when one is reading, thinking, saying – aloud or silently. Reader: I know I have suddenly switched genders, changed tenses, muddled the meanings of reading – stay with me, though. The act of writing and reading is always about absence and presence, as Svenbro reminds us. Moreover, the ground of our thinking (our writing and reading) remain the same (Athens). Let me be more specific. Sometimes we talk about identity politics, usually as a foil. But it is worth remembering that all hitherto-recorded history is the history of identity politics, properly understood.

I do not mean in the sense of a primordial clash between distinct, fully formed races, nations, classes, or gender, but, on the contrary, the way in which these very identities are themselves produced after the fact to justify the current regime of accumulation. To say that the struggle of workers in a factory is “more real” than the struggle of black people against institutionalized exploitation, or than queer struggle against hetronormativity, is not just unjust, it is inaccurate. In truth, if we were forced to articulate a chronology for the naturalization of socially antagonistic identity assignments, we would have to say that gender appears first, and then race and that class, in the historical sense, happens last, and is modeled on the other two. The phrase “identity politics” is like “afro-conceptualism” in that it marks as derivative what is, if anything, original. A theme that is slightly eccentric but in many ways bound up with the work of mothering is the subject of cleaning. This has been an evolving subject of my photography and one that crops up with remarkable, if predictable, frequency in the literature on motherhood. Cleaning, dirt, chaos, and mess all assume looming and sometimes obsessive proportions in the lives of mothers and women writers.

From one of Elizabeth Smart’s urgent and elliptical lists, alongside “Keep a diary” and “Have a baby” comes the reminder to “Keep Everything Clean.” For Ellen McMahon, the proliferating “giant clumps of dust” by her head, clearly visible from her supine position of retreat from a tyrannical child, are the final confirmation of defeat. And Annie Ernaux, newly married and saddled with all the childcare and housework, cautions herself: “No sweeping, absolutely no dusting – the last vestige, perhaps, of my reading of The Second Sex, the story of an inept, hopeless battle against dust.” From the orgies of ordering and cleaning that often signal the onset of labor, to the despair over the Sisyphean task of containing the entropy perpetuated by small children, or, in Vivian Montgomery’s words “the futile quest for something smooth, unencumbered, untainted,” to the conviction that a dusty floor means resistance and survival, the subject of dirt reveals much about the inner lives of mothers and writers.

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