This essay is part of the forum on Social Reproduction


See Heidi J. Nast’s most recent contribution to Society & Space Where’s the Difference? The Heterosexualization of Alterity in Henri Lefebvre and Jacques Lacan here.


This paper identifies two geographically uneven economic developments that have worked to sideline the biological (child-bearing) and social maternal: the industrial machine (the Machine) and commodity markets. In facilitating mass production, the Machine has worked to render human labor (and, by reproductive implication, the biological maternal) redundant, while mass commodity markets have increasingly assumed dyadic (maternal) care-giving functions. Growing maternal obsolescence is globally evident, today, not only in declining total fertility rates (TFRs) and smaller family sizes, but in the considerable reproductive savings that have accrued to those privileged enough to be freed from the biological family. Most of these savings have been directed into marketized non-reproductive recreational domains that treat the body to an array of pleasures. The contradiction, here, is that both evolution and social life depend on the dyadic care afforded by the maternal. Without it, the human species becomes extinct, along with the binary sexual difference on which it has depended (see Grosz, 2011).

But there is another contradiction that is geographical in nature and has to do with the fact that the Machine was initially made the privileged preserve of supremacist industrial nation-states, as were the majority of mass commodity markets that Machinic waged labor made possible. In keeping the Machine and markets away from the enslaved and colonized, Machine-deprived (agrarian) populations were compelled to rely on the maternal body for the labor needed to survive, this characteristically leading to higher TFRs in colonial and postcolonial areas. Maternal redundancy has hence taken on racialized spatial proportions (Nast, 2015).

After the 1973 oil crisis, financial interests sought factor savings by relocating the Machine to thousands of export processing zones world-wide, taking advantage of those formerly colonized regions with higher TFRs (or, in the case of China, a large population created through earlier pro-natalist policies). Much of the labor needed in these zones was pooled there through structural mechanisms of dispossession, especially the leasing or purchase of traditional, communal, and common lands through foreign direct investment (FDI). Foreign direct investors thus came to feed off the reproductive labor of racialized other-mothers, producing enclaves of racialized hyperexploitation that I refer to as “neo-industry.” Dispossessed other-mothers and their children sought additional means of survival by migrating within and across borders to take up reproductive tasks inside privileged domains, again at highly race-discounted rates. The biologically intact other-mother in this way became productively and reproductively essential to precisely those regions and demographies most invested in the maternal’s Machine- and market-led replacement.

This essay explores the sexed and supremacist geographical-biological implications of maternal alienation and how its unevenness can be used productively to queer notions of kinship. I begin by drawing on an unlikely theorist, Friedrich Engels, who in 1883 speculated on how the maternal body has historically operated to ontologize value, partly owing to its extraordinary power to curate the human. Maternal ontologies of value obtained for millennia until the sexed-competitive making of patriliny and private property. I combine his insights with those of Jacques Lacan who pointed out that the human infant requires far more dyadic care than other species to become independent, this dyadism having dramatic psychical effects. Much of this care has historically derived from the maternal body, its biological armature suited evolutionarily to infant and child survival. Even so, care has also always been social, with potentially anyone able to care-give. It is in this opening between the biological and social that the queer maternal emerges as a force of radical kinship and care. The final section looks at how, in order for this radicality to unfold, the fetishized proportions of the nation-state and self-contained household need to be un-done. To the degree that the dyadic maternal is necessary to life and the living, it opposes the death-producing, sexed-competitive tendencies of private property which has colonized both body and world.

Re-scaling and re-ontologizing conception: from the maternal body to paternity and the logos of private property

In 1884, only one year after Marx’s death, Engels published, The origins of the family, private property, and the state (Origins, 1884). Unlike any other work that he or Marx had written previously, Origins identified and linked the biological abilities of the maternal body to shifts in political economy. Drawing on Marx’s Ethnological notebooks and an array of anthropological and historical texts of his time, Engels argued that the sexed and biological peculiarities of human reproduction made maternity vital to early human life and that, in the earliest of human contexts where monogamy was absent, it would have been difficult if not impossible to determine paternity. And with no way to ascertain paternity, fatherhood as an identity would have held little, if any, value.

Those in Paleolithic and Neolithic contexts expressed the maternal’s importance through female fertility figures, including fertility dolls, figures that similarly came to populate settled agrarian societies. The maternal became the focus for a range of vital materialisms as well as the means of marking lineage. Moreover, matriliny became the first social medium for territorializing kinship and focusing wealth, a conclusion that has subsequently been borne out by feminist anthropology scholarship (e.g., Leacock, 1983; Arunima, 2003; Nongbri, 2010; Wu et al., 2013).

Engels goes on to show that, as kin groups began accumulating greater levels of surplus, certain violences began to be leveled against the maternal body to both make paternity more certain and patriliny possible. Techniques for patriliny’s making included female-only seclusion, veiling, concubinage, monogamy (for women, only), and patriarchal marriage institutions. Patriliny’s meaning and force could never have taken off, however, without effecting new means for ontologizing and territorializing value outside the body of woman. This was accomplished early on through endeavors exacted outside the territory of a matriline and included such things as slaving (the taking of other-mothers and their children as a man’s own) and the expropriation of the lands and matrilineally produced wealth of others. Slavery, raiding, and warfare thereby became instruments for sexed-competition through which men could lay claim to the wealth-generating productive effects and reproductive forces of the maternal body. Legitimating the siphoning off of maternally-generated goods and life required that a new value-ontology be instituted, one that would de-link the maternal from wealth’s generation. This new ontology, Engels claims, was private property. Through private property, the maternal body, as the progenitor of all territorialized labor and value, was subsumed into abstractions of personal ownership.

Identifying the origins of private property in sexed competition terms allowed Engels to propose that merchant cities and early states were essentially massive spatial experiments wherein masculinist patrilineal objectives could be fashioned and intensified in relative peace, separated from the life-ontologies of the agrarian maternal. New gestational spaces emerged to energize private property’s progress: bank and treasury; senate chamber and polis; military tent and university; board room and study; laboratory and factory. Engels’ re-envisioning of political economic change (for instance, the making of mercantilism) as an effect of sexed competition and, hence, sexual difference can be usefully thought of in the context of capitalism in terms of the different meanings of capita. At the most basic level, capita refers to the head, which “crowns” through the maternal body during vaginal birth. This meaning is reworked through the rationalizing and masculinist logos of capital to become a mark of abstract ownership (c.f. Irigaray, 2012).

Indeed, it could be argued that this difference points not only to changing ontologies of value but to changing bodily and social locations of value’s bodily and social conception. In industrial capitalism, this is partially seen in the enormous emphasis placed on the racialized generativity of the thinking/abstracting/conceiving head—whether of science, enterprise, or the state. Such generativity was complemented by rendering the male working-class body exceptionally productive, even though the Machine would come to do most of the work (c.f. Foster, 1997; Theweleit, 1987). (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. The bodily migration of conception from the maternal womb to the masculinist head and body, capitalistically combined. To the left is the famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin, next to his sculpture, Le Penseur (The [Male] Thinker). To the right, the muscular, bare-chested lieutenant of the capitalist factory owner of Charlie Chaplin’s (1936) Modern Times whose job it is to adjust various machinic levers. (Sources: The Lamp, vol. XXVIII and Modern Times © Roy Export S.A.S. Scan.)


The Machine and supremacist geographies of population decline

Colonial areas were used as source areas for industrial raw materials to feed the Machines of industrial nation-states (except in transatlantic non-waged slave contexts, where the Machine was very differently deployed). Accordingly, colonized and enslaved populations benefited little from the Machine’s superior productivity, benefits like the shorter work day, less arduous kinds of labor, higher wages, and reproductive savings. Consequently, only “industrial” bodies and nations experienced favorable terms of trade, higher standards of living, greater leisure time, and superior means of war. Machine productivity effectively became a celebrated means for racially ranking and ontologizing nations and bodies.


Figure 2. Global Total Fertility Rate Decline 1950-2050.


By the end of the nineteenth century, industrial nations in the west and in Japan were seeing consistent TFR declines, by the 21st century many rates dropping below 2.1, the level required to reproduce a nation given stable life expectancy. The ability of the Machine to create and supply mass markets, and the higher wages that came to Machine workers, made a big difference to the making of sex, for now waged adults could thrive with or without procreating a family, the traditional basis of household production. That is, workers could now purchase what was required. The contradiction in this is that profit rates depended on the growth of consumer-oriented populations, but now TFRs of these populations were falling. Hence, marketing became a major industry in-itself, bent on expanding and intensifying individual consumption rates in domains of recreation (contra procreation) to make up for shrinking family size. In so doing, the market intensified its maternal (dyadic) care-giving characteristics, providing for consumer needs and pleasures while teasing out new ones. Machine and market forces simultaneously invented new commodity ways and means for experimenting with, and spatially and temporally incubating, alternative libidinal economies, apart from the procreational household. The freedom to live outside the confines of procreation worked in tandem with the homosociality of the factory floor and the two world wars to make and secure gay identities (see D’Emilio, 1983; e.g., Chauncey, 1994).

Still, until the 1973 oil crisis, the nuclear family that sustained industry pre-dominated, making recreational sex of limited economic importance. The oil crisis changed this. With FDI flowing into colonial elsewheres and as supremacy re-organized itself in-place, the biological binaries that supported Machine life became geographically unhinged. Geographical supremacies re-established themselves in two intersecting ways: the procreational lives of racialized other-mothers were mined for industrial and post-industrial labor, their deeply discounted bodies subsidizing the geographically privileged “post-industrial” body, which now became the terrain for proliferating niche commodity pleasure and purchase.

Unhinging geographies of procreation

The global reorganization of biological reproduction has had everything to do with the oil crisis and the re-location of industry to former racialized colonies where fertility rates were kept high and labor costs low. The super-profits of racialized (neo-)industry, which have come from paying workers a fraction of what previously went to their privileged counterparts, were leveraged by ploughing the surplus into new financial instruments, including consumer loans and credit cards.

Neo-industry’s deep racial discounts have since been passed along to formerly privileged industrial subjects in a number of ways, especially: favorable pricing mechanisms; liberal access to credit; and the making of new marketing and vending channels, such as megamalls, superstores, multi-store outlets–and, in the mid-1990s, the Internet. Racial subsidies hence became essential to keeping former industrially-privileged lives intact, despite de-industrialization and heightened social and economic precarity. Further, they helped to underwrite a range of new racially privileging service-oriented businesses and employment and the related making of vernacular entrepreneurialism. Seemingly anyone with cultural capital and access to an e-commerce site or Internet domain could start an online business (e.g., eBay or Etsy) or use the Internet to source the cheapest materials and products internationally (Amazon, TaoBao, Alibaba). The racialized megaprofits that initially accrued through FDI consequently impelled not only the making of highly skilled and remunerated tiers of finance-related employment and lesser tiers of service work; they also provided new cost savings and creative opportunities across a labor market diversified and drawn together by precarity. Thus, even if the supremacist equation of “industrial man/nation = Machine” dissolved, supremacy did not. Instead, de-industrialized nations became re-racialized as superior centers of finance and service, the industrial Machine moving on to become a racially wounding device.

Another layer of racialized discounts and subsidies was to be found in domains of social reproduction. In this case, the same land alienations enacted through FDI and (in the case of the USSR and its satellites in the 1990s) the breakdown of centrally planned socialist states, caused many other-mothers and their children to migrate nationally and internationally in search of remunerative work. Rendered surplus and “illegal” through various nation-state means, these subjects found work carrying out reproductive tasks, whether in elder care, sexed care, child care, housekeeping, landscaping, construction, or garbage picking. Their presence has forever changed the labor market, dramatically expanding what has been on reproductive offer. The magnitude of these racialized discounts made a range of reproductive goods and services newly affordable to many, the discounts adding further to the reproductive savings of those in former industrial nation-states. Such gains have allowed the market to cultivate desires for recreational pursuits further and the means by which to pursue new research terrains for maternal retrenchment, especially in the gendered field of reproductive robotics.

Neoliberal feeding on regions with high TFRs therefore effected a new international division of maternal labor. The racial contours involved are not at all dissimilar from those that operated prior to 1807 when African women were relied on to remain in situ to procreate the children over which transatlantic slave owners would lay claim (Since slave owners considered reproductive costs a dead loss, the purchase price of African slave women and girls was discounted. It was only after the 1807 ban on slave trading, when slave owners decided to focus on growing their slave stock reproductively, that slave women and girls assumed a greater market value than slave men). Similarly today, it is in situ maternal discounts that sustain privileged “post” industrial lives, including those of privileged children who increasingly serve little to no (productive) purpose and whose biological value lies largely in the market.

That said, the mother-child dyad is not becoming obsolete only because the Machine has been re-located elsewhere (the need for children as factory labor in de-industrialized contexts has diminished) or because the initial shocks of de-industrialization and unemployment caused many to stop having children altogether: It has had also to do with the fact that the job of privileged populations is now to consume what is being cheaply produced elsewhere. Given declining fertility rates such consuming tasks have become more difficult to carry out.  Markets have had to work even harder to intensify consumption, which they have done through maternalizing means that are profoundly infantilizing.

Big Babies: the racialized infantilization of consumption and the geographical unhinging of the market and Machine

Just as the market came to assume the maternal function in industrial and, especially, financialized (post-industrial) contexts, so racially privileged populations have come to occupy the position of the child. In this sense, the dyadic intimacies of mother and child have been replaced by intimacies borne by the market-and-me. Marketing forces now strain to anticipate, serve, and create bodily needs and pleasures, deploying a range of infantilizing practices to do so. At the same time, the market is responding to the emotional needs of those most disaffected by de-industrialization, especially racially privileged men who have had the most to lose (for the US, see Case and Deaton, 2015 and 2017). The latter’s alienation has become the basis of scholarly work variably framed as “crises of [white] masculinity” and of new interdisciplinary fields of academic study, especially Masculinity Studies.

Market intimacies have become commonplace, luring us with promises of love and care. To wit, hotels and resorts, airlines and bus lines, and “foodie” and fast food restaurants that assure consumers that they are special, speaking through imaginaries of (maternal) recognition, comfort, investment, and attention (c.f. Tompkins, 2012). All these endeavors have depended on the racialized discounts discussed above, provided for instance, by the minoritized maids who turn down hotel bedsheets (and who are often made to leave a special little pillow note) and menialized kitchen and janitorial staff.

New popular cultural practices have crystallized privileged affective need further. One of the most dramatic of these is cuddle therapy, a western phenomenon involving privileged city dwellers (mostly, but by no means entirely, white men) who want to be held in nonsexual ways. The first cuddle group emerged in Manhattan in 2004, the facilitators holding other cuddle parties later that year in Los Angeles and Washington DC (Gilstrap, 2004). Cuddling has since become popular across the US, Canada, Britain, South Africa, Australia, and most European nations (for a partial list of countries, see,, and; see also Cox, 2016). A tier of cuddling entrepreneurs and professionals have come into existence through medicalizing cuddling’s effects and by rationalizing its procedures. Within an extraordinarily short period of time, cuddling has become accepted amongst many as a natural means of producing oxytocin (the “hug” hormone) and as a kind of social work in which trained professionals (some of whom are social workers) lead workshops, offer certification and, most recently, organize cuddle conventions. Similar kinds of paid cuddling phenomena exist for Japanese men in Japan.

The commodity infantilization aimed at either “spoiling” the customer and/or addressing the “real” emotional needs effected by atomized life, now striates the identities of most racially and economically privileged subjects: personalized nail salons, colonics, massage “therapy,” flotation tanks, adult Snuggie blankets, spanking and domination in “dungeons.” Infantilization is arguably behind the rise of one of the most interesting new fields within academia, Cuteness Studies (Dale et al. 2016).

To the extent that infantilization perverts the aims of the heteronormative, it could be seen as radical or “queer.” What could be queerer than cuddling with a stranger, being fed a bottle (or suckling on a real breast) in an adult nursing relationship, or being coddled by cute (kawaii) Japanese “maids” in Japanese “maid cafes” made to look like children’s spaces. This question is a crucial one. For as Butler (2009) enjoins us, non-procreative lives to some degree disrupt the heteronormativity of capitalism and are part of a “queer art of failure.” But what happens when the non-procreative has become mainstream and when markets thrive off perversity? When potentially everyone in de-industrializing supremacist contexts has to varying degrees been freed from the child. The “real” queer becomes hard to identify. This dilemma is partly evident in the lengthening of the representative acronym of queer identities defined by sex: L, G, B, T, Q, I.  Singletons, asexuals, voluntary amputees, and polyamorists (among others) have similarly claimed stable identities. As a result, a number of advocacy communities, like UC Davis’ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual Resource Center, have taken to publishing lengthy glossaries of identity terms.  Science has played its own capitalizing part in this proliferation, researching and developing possibilities for rendering the body mechanical (robotic and cyborgic), surgical (breast implants, labiaplasty, sex change, breast removal), transgenic, and surrogate.

To the degree that widespread freedom from procreation speaks to lives no longer tied to the economic exigencies of production, it is liberating, the accumulation of reproductive savings allowing for lives to be creatively spent otherwise. But this freedom, and these savings, are fundamentally undemocratic, a manifestation of the newest capitalizing tier of empire-building that relies on trans-nationalizing the procreational powers of racialized (cheapened) other-mothers. It is in light of this un-freedom that the radical-as-queer needs to be re-examined. In the following section, I review how the special evolutionary characteristics of human infancy open the maternal up to queering, the potential of which is greatest in precisely those non-procreational (perverse) contexts where maternal alienation is the most advanced.

The maternal and geographically unhinging the a/sexual as queer

The vast majority of dimorphic species reproduction still takes place outside capital markets and machinic forms of production, despite corporate incursions into everyday planetary life. The maternal body, which has played a formidable part in the continuation of almost all dimorphic species, has assumed special biological and social importance for the human (c.f. Irigaray, 2012): it not only curates and feeds the unborn to which it later gives birth; it has historically operated as a source of dyadic sustenance and recognition for years following parturition. This latter is prefigured by biology, not only in terms of the uterine relationship, but in terms of the way that the maternal body is oriented towards protecting and sustaining the infant, e.g., the anti-bacterial coating that the maternal body delivers to the child as it exits the vaginal passage, the antibody-rich breast milk, the production of which the child can activate through its cries.

This dyadic relation has been enhanced through evolutionary processes. In particular, as Freud (1926) and, later, Jacques Lacan (1938) emphasized, the human infant is born the most prematurely of any species and has almost no survivalist instincts. It takes weeks before its eyes can focus on a face, months for it to lift its head or sit upright, and at least a decade before it can survive socially on its own. Its utter vulnerability and dependence (or as Butler might say, its precarity) is there in its first “cries-to” upon birth, cries that hail the (m)other into existence and into its orbit of care, regardless of whether or not that (m)other is its biological own or made up of one person or many. It is the importance of meeting these cries dyadically through swaddling, holding, feeding or playing, that the vitally and relationally queer nature of life is realized and the child comes to recognize itself and thrive.

The existential necessity of dyadic care has profound psychical consequences for the human. For the psyche registers “need” not as a singularity, but as a “call to” the (m)other, which splits the psyche into two such that need is always haunted by desirefor the (m)other (here, I am drawing only partly on Lacan’s understanding of the doubly alienated ego).  Regardless of life circumstances (war, famine, agrarian or industrial contexts, and so on), this “call-to” the (m)other remains–its intransigence asserting not only the split nature of the unconscious, but the libidinally, queerly open character of the bodily ego to dyadic recognition and care. Thriving, in this scenario, becomes not about needs being objectively met but about being recognized and called to life through the (m)other and about the (m)other allowing herself to be called to life through the child. Dyadic recognition is what effectuates the vitality of care, not the identity of the care-giver. (Here, I differ somewhat with Butler’s (2009: 6) assertion that recognition is necessarily mutual and therefore less useful a term than apprehension. Lacan uses the term méconnaissance to point to the impossibility of any sort of mutual recognition).

Given the widespread and unevenly deleterious effects of maternal alienation, this queering today holds special significance. For not only have the Machine and market infantilized those with the most privilege and siphoned off the procreational energies of racialized other-mothers for privileged productive and reproductive ends, they have been mobilized to control the increasingly untenable levels of geographical and social contradiction. Repressive containment of these contradictions has seen the accelerated growth of the arms industry, the prison-industrial complex, private and public surveillance, and the militarized and technologized securitization of assets. Regardless of location, then, we are all “failing to thrive,” a vague medicalized condition typically associated with the neglected child and the elderly, even if these failures are differently maternally inflected. (This thinking about thriving parallels Butler’s (2009) on precarity, but also departs from it in my emphasis on the dyadic as perhaps the most important affective psychical element for interpellating that precarity).

My point is that if it is through subsuming the (m)other that the death-producing flows and financialized abstractions of capital have accelerated, then it is only by queering her presence dyadically that the planetary human can recover. The resources for maternal queering are everywhere. One of the most important lies in the spectacular reproductive savings that privileged lives have accumulated and which the market has largely hijacked. These savings are essential in that they represent libidinal energies that could be directed anywhere and (m)otherwise, away from the colonizing forces of the market and Machine. These savings are important in that they manifest a racialized debt that holds deeply dyadic proportions.

The nature of this debt is recognizable, however, only if the same maternal queering of the biological operates on the nation-state, a biologized (supremacist) spatial device that has purposefully divided the world into fetishized parts. Its biologism is what has partly allowed the puny nuclear and post-nuclear (non-procreative) family of industry and post-industry to be celebrated as self-sustaining, which is of course a geographical lie. Today, the reproduction of the privileged household relies increasingly on the biological and social labor of racialized other-mothers made distant through the obsessions of the nation-state. Operating queer-maternally beyond the biologisms of both family and nation pries open the obsessive foreclosures of their making, allowing a range of new dyadic forms of recognition and care to be libidinally and geographically released, in this way re-ontologizing value through the maternal. Maternal queering becomes not only about the dyadic expending of libidinal energies, then, but about expanding its geographical and biological reach.

Queering the maternal

The manifold forms of maternal alienation that characterize supremacist reproduction, today, are most alive in privileged non-procreational contexts wherein life depends on the racialized procreative labor of other-mothers. The geographical contradictions involved make it clear that nonheterosexual forms of reproduction in-themselves have nothing to do with un-doing supremacy’s binaries and everything to do with racialized geopolitical economic circumstances that have made for very different kinds of lives.

Until we are all replaced with robots and all production is automated, those most privileged (however that is differentiated in future) will depend on the biology of other-mothering to create the racially cheapened labor that assembles cars, picks tomatoes and strawberries, cuts hair, and manicures nails. And until the paternalistic logos of capitalism is dissolved, non-normative recreational lives—sexual and otherwise—will continue to be paid-for and subsidized by the procreative labors of other-mothers. Commodity domains may make it look like the maternal body and biological binaries are irrelevant to late capitalist life, but this is a geographical lie.

The acceleration of planetary death means that maternal queering is imperative. It, alone, has the ability to confront the sexed-competition impelling masculinist conceptions of the Machine, market, and nation-state. Maternal queering does not involve celebrating or promoting procreation in-itself, nor does it involve only sex. It is, instead, a process of re-operationalizing the maternal as a device-for care that ensures that planetary life becomes worth living, a tenet that Marcuse (1964) argues is the basis of all critical theory. This emphasis is in keeping with Butler’s (2009) argument that it is not life-in-itself that should be of concern, but the making of favorable conditions of and for life. Given the horrors of present global circumstances, this will require that supremacist subjects (those who receive supremacy’s benefits, whether they are asked for or not) engage in de-privileging forms of masochism that take pleasure in thinking and working to “stay with the trouble,” as Haraway (2016) has intimated in other species circumstances. Re-imagining how we might stay geographically with the trouble of caring-for and recognizing—allows us to think much more radically about who are our kin and the difference that maternal queering might make (Figure 3).

Figure 3. What should be on the Washington Mall. Queering the maternal means recognizing where the geography-households of kinship lie, something that requires interrogating masculinist-supremacist divisions of rule. Supremacy is a sexed-competitive circuitry of desire bent on effacing the maternal (biological and social) and, only secondarily, on exploiting maternal progeny in domains of production. Its connection to sexed difference means that supremacy is unconsciously driven and highly affective. There is great pleasure taken in replacing maternal ontologies of fertility with masculinist ontologies of private property, the pleasure of victory heightened spatially through masculinist elaborations of the state. This ontological shift is the precondition for replacing life as a site of dyadic value and care (capita) with values for private property and masculinist profit. In this sense, capitalism is only the most powerful abstractive and elaborate means of supremacist elaboration (photographic collage by author).



Dyadic recognition and care-giving obviously operates within a highly politicized Symbolic order, any consideration of which would significantly complicate my discussion. The politicization of care is evident in Lacan’s (1938) earliest work on mirroring where he theorizes that the mirror is never about “real” recognition, only misrecognition (méconnaissance).[1] Over the ensuing decades, Lacan’s ideas about mirroring changed in ways that complexified the politics at stake. He began to see mirroring as part of a larger psychical register (psychical way of knowing), which he called the Imaginary–a realm of the small “o” other, which I refer to in this paper as the (m)other. The Imaginary, he reasoned, plays across the life course, operating through a visual economy larger than the dyadism of the mirror and made up as much of images as it is of (me-oriented) imaginings mediated by various means of signification. He referred to signification as a separate register, the Symbolic, that imposes itself as a kind of law (Law) and that helps the subject to articulate demands even if fails to convey desire. Because the strictures and opacity of the Symbolic can make it appear overwhelmingly powerful, he also referred to it as the Other.

The changing ways that Lacan thought about mis/recognition over the decades is clearly relevant to the subject of this essay. His work on the confluence of the Symbolic and Imaginary, for instance, clearly shapes my discussion on how the market (as an instrument of the Symbolic, of the Other) has maternalized its goods and services, creating an Imaginary of belonging and identity dominated by the Other of the Machine and commodity form. My discussion of commodity-infantilization likewise speaks to the marketized collapse of the Imaginary into the Symbolic, consumers coming to find (m)otherness through attachments borne by commodity purchase.

While Lacan’s complications about recognition have theoretical bearing, here, I have chosen to not thread them through my ideas about the queer maternal. I have done so partly because of the word limits of this paper, but also strategically in relation to my own theoretical predilections. For, in the end, this paper asks how to think better about the sexed competition of private property, which works to dissolve maternal ontologies of value, replacing them with a masculinist logos of death, the geographical contradictions of which have crescendoed to unsustainable heights. I accordingly do not dwell on the fantastical nature of the drives, for instance, but on the social and geographical contradictions of inequality and scarcity that today threaten planetary (including human) life.[2]

These threats have made for a completely different kind of infantilization than what I have described for privileged subjects: for the dispossessed, infantilization is not about a marketized commodity “fussing over,” but about a social death produced through the systematic de-recognition of subjects through Symbolic and Imaginary means (See Oyewumi 2016, 85). In this context, anxieties that one is “falling apart” are primarily grounded in the material realities of scarcity and the filling of immediate needs, not in neurotic references to an earlier infantile state. That is, there is an urgency today that requires direct action through radically queer practices of maternal care-giving and recognition. Such urgency has inspired numerous persons similarly, but needs greater scholarly elaboration and focus. It could be argued, for instance, that Harriet Tubman’s making of the Underground Railway for US slaves involved a queering of dyadic care, the maternalized activities of recognition and care ripping a hole in the Imaginary-Symbolic fabric of white supremacy. I would argue that this care-giving had less to do with the Symbolically laden fantasies of the drives than the biological and evolutionary realities of maternal care, shaped psychically through sexual dimorphism and infant prematurity. That is, there is a certain materiality and objectness of maternal recognition that resists being entirely rerouted through the Symbolic, even if the Symbolic of slavery produced the scarcities and bare lives involved.

This essay should therefore not be taken as announcing something unusual or extraordinary or as a naïve universalization of need. What it is saying is that the reproductive contradictions of Machine and market presently kindling planetary destruction make a return to the sexed binaries of human evolution and masculinist competition impossible to avoid. These have in fact created a third binary, one in which human life is being competitively set up for death. The grounded material realities of these binaries need greater theoretical credit and parsing before any vigorous queer maternal love can be made.


Many thanks to those who read and commented on this work, especially Temi Famodu, Allison de Fren, and Max Andrucki. Thanks also to the University Research Council of DePaul for funding the copyright permissions of Figure 1 and to Nikki Vigneau for her research assistance and map making.



[1] This is because the mirror image presents a way for the infant to see or imagine itself egoically as whole and coherent, its recognition of wholeness assuaging anxieties about its own bodily insufficiencies and dependencies. The bodily egoic process of identification is narcissistic in that its integrating benefits come at the expense of the other. That is, it operates by appropriating (misrecognizing) the figure of the other (the image) as “me”.

[2] Talking about the drives, moreover, would require greater elaboration on how the confluence of the Imaginary and Symbolic (and the Real—his third register) helps to meter who is recognized, why, and how. This would, in turn, entail a discussion of Lacan’s differentiation of need from demand and desire. Demand refers to how the Other (the Symbolic) formulates and addresses need through linguistic signifiers. The imposition of the Other on the prelinguistic “demands” of the infant forecloses and bars from consciousness what it is that the child (or adult) really wants and for which it will forever long, namely, the undoing of its bodily-spatial alienation from the maternal. Desire, then, is that surplus affect that remains after demands are met. It is a desire-for that can never be filled through any Imaginary or Symbolic means. Hence, the subject is doubly castrated: from the mother (the Imaginary) and through language and/as the law (the Symbolic). These dual disappointments drive the human into the world, the subject at one level doomed to forever engage in futile libidinized attempts to fill an existential emptiness that can never be filled. Lacan makes this emptiness real by considering it as a kind of negative object, the objet petit a (See Lacan, 1973; Kirschner, 2005; Vanheule, 2011).

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Heidi J. Nast is Full Professor of International Studies. Her theoretical and empirical interests lie in ontologies of life and fertility across different cultural and geopolitical economic contexts. She has worked cross-culturally and internationally on agrarian, mercantilist, industrial, and “post-industrial” economies, drawing on critical social theories that work across categories of the psyche, sexuality, race, gender, and the animal-human divide.