Hindutva and the Politics of Maternal Subjectivity

On June 7, 2023, the Gujarat High Court cited the casteist and gender-biased Hindu text Manusmriti during a case involving a minor rape victim who was seven months pregnant. The court argued that historically, it was considered normal for girls to marry early and have children by the age of 17, while also asserting that girls tend to mature earlier than boys. This reference was made while considering a plea from the victim’s father to medically terminate her pregnancy.

What the above case demonstrates is the patriarchal logic of Hindutva, which uses the militarized vocabulary of religious nationalism to convert women into mere vessels for the reproduction of communitarian purity. The trope of the dutiful, self-sacrificing mother – encapsulated in the construct “Mother India” – objectifies the female body as a de-sexualized receptacle of “virtue” and “honor,” making it co-incident with the boundaries of family, community and the nation. The maternal figure symbolizes the distinctiveness of Indian culture from the West, evident in the Allahabad High Court’s observation that Indian youth, influenced by Western culture’s promotion of “free relationships with members of the opposite sex,” struggle to establish “genuine connections”.

The Myth of Primary Relationality

Given a political environment that is increasingly dominated by a maternal conception of nation, what adequate feminist responses can we conceive of? The global intellectual conjuncture is currently structured by the post-modernist rejection of rationality as Western metaphysics, giving rise to a search for alternative onto-epistemological coordinates for radical politics. Feminist strategies have been influenced by this theoretical turn, inflecting counter-hegemonic thinking with a gynocentric focus. Against the background of Hindutva fascism, cultural feminists’ valorization of motherhood as an oppositional node in the system of Western phallogocentrism needs to be evaluated for its political efficacy.

Alison Stone’s book “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Maternal Subjectivity” provides a conceptually systematic and exhaustive defense of maternality as a valid mode of political subjectivity. Our early relations with our mothers are interpreted as the universal “relational and imaginative conditions” that make subjective capacities possible. Modernity develops these capacities in a distorted manner by repressing their relational background. Accordingly, the task consists in pitting the relationality of pre-subjective maternality against the narrowness of modern subjecthood.

Drawing upon Julia Kristeva’s concept of chora, which refers to the affective, energetic, and bodily flows that the infant experiences in the earliest stages of its life, Stone posits the maternal body as both “the emerging other with whom the child is entwined…[and] the overall corporeal context of their entwinement”. The mother is divided between engaging in social life and providing intimate care to the child. This divide is bridged by the presence of “potential space,” a notion which Stone borrows from Donald Woods Winnicott to emphasize the transitional objects and creative fantasies that help the child to tolerate external constraints.

The potential space is co-created by the mother and the child, denoting a higher stage of the chora. In the words of Stone: “Potential space is maternal… because its qualities for the child are those with which… the maternal body was formerly suffused: qualities of containment, affect and its initial expression and inscription, rhythmic regulation, flows between two.” In the chora, the relation between the mother and the child was characterized by a weak form of differentiation, being confined to the driving influence of the former. The potential space expands the relationship beyond the mother by creating an ambiguous zone of “face-to-face interactions and reciprocal, mimetic play between mother and infant, in which they match, mirror, and rhythmically respond to one another’s gestures and expressions”.

The central thrust of Stone’s argumentations consists in portraying maternity as a de-totalizing totality, whose mobility lies in a wholly internal logic of differentiation and connection. As Stone puts it, “differentiation is only consolidated gradually through its successive cancellations and re-creations”. The maternal chora already contains the resources for a “continuous, unbroken evolution…towards two differentiated selves.” Since there are no gaps in the structure of maternity, the space of interaction between the mother and the child becomes “the ‘original third’, ‘nascent presymbolic thirdness’, ‘the energetic or primordial third”. The desire of the mother that relates to the socio-symbolic world is theoretically assimilated into the logic of the maternal space, whose primary relationality allows it to create “a space of its own which it reclaims from whatever larger space it is placed in”.

Due to the emphasis on primary relationality, Stone advances an evolutionist paradigm: in an evolution, things change and move somewhere else within the same space of change. To counter this perspective, we must emphasize the transformative power of revolution. While its original meaning referred to the planets’ circular motion returning to their starting point, revolution has come to carry a political significance. In this context, when entities return to their initial position, that place has undergone a profound and radical transformation. Two philosophical matrices correspond to evolution and revolution: 1) the scheme of idealist circularity wherein a simple terms unfolds itself in its becoming-other, in order to return to itself as a developed concept; and 2) a dialectical scheme of scission wherein every term is exposed to dis-unifying dynamics at the both the beginning and the end.

Stone remains stuck in idealist circularity because she counts the mother and the child as the sum, one plus one. The Two is counted as one by the Three, namely primordial relationality. If this form of relationality exists in a potential form in the pre-subjective capacities of the maternal space, what is it that forces its actual realization? If the child’s identification with the mother as subject of desire and member of social life is automatically incorporated into the internality of the maternal space, then we end up with the incomprehensible vitalism of the maternal body. Thus, we are presupposing the end goal of social relationality at the beginning.

To overcome the dilemma of idealist circularity, we must, as Alain Badiou suggests, conceive of “the pure passage from one sequence to the other, in an irreconcilable, unsuturable lag, where the truth of the first stage gives itself to begin with only as the condition of the second as fact, without leading back to anything other than the unfolding of this fact.” This “unsuturable lag” derives from the fact that the stable relationality of a term is always disrupted by the antagonism of a constitutive lack. Our being is marked by an organic chaos, a pre-maturational helplessness and lack of self-sufficiency that immanently tips over into the collective networks of socio-symbolic interaction. Adrian Johnston labels this bio-material fact as the “anorganicity” of the body, its “impotent, not-one, rotten and incomplete” character.

Hilflosigkeit [helplessness] as a biological state of development of human infants lends support to the theme of humans as preprogrammed to be reprogrammed (as in genetic indeterminism, namely, a coded absence of coding).” Insofar as the immature, needy body of the human being functions as a natural lack propelling it into the denaturalizing trajectories of socio-symbolic structures, reality is always haunted by the specter of non-relationality. The anorganic discordance of human beings is a state of indeterminacy that prevents our arrival at a point of ultimate satisfaction where harmony can be achieved.

By focusing on primordial relationality, Stone freezes maternal space as an organic system, where, on the contrary, a lack of organic unity is present within the most intricate organic structures. This occurs because, once a certain level of complexity is reached a certain system, it tends to produce internal conflicts, flaws, errors, vulnerabilities, disruptions, and strains within its internal operations. That’s why the evolutionist harmony of the maternal space is a retroactive patriarchal fantasy. The initial bond with the mother, whether it be in the womb or during early infancy, does not supply an originary wholeness for the child. Even this supposedly complete bond is afflicted with the negativity of constitutive lack, which acts as the motor for further progress.

The Radicality of Non-Relationship

For Stone, “differentiation…arises within continuous connection”. The mother and the child differentiate themselves from each other within the chora, thus giving rise to the independent existence of the potential space in all its materiality. However, what is it that guarantees that the operation of mother-child differentiation is itself a unified term leading to the co-created harmony of the potential space? From which material point of articulation can we say that the dynamic of differentiation is always-already embedded in the connective space of maternity? In order to the make answer more convincing than an amorphous “primary relationality,” Stone concretizes negativity in “sexuate difference” – the “uterine history” of the infant means that its “primary orientation…[is] towards the maternal and female body”.

The recourse to the maternal uterine environment as the ground of primary relationality avoids facing the consequences of modernity. With the advent of Enlightenment rationality, the determinative power of both natural and cultural materiality is split by the recognition of the ontological incompleteness and inconsistency that lies at the base of our being. This inconsistency is covered by portraying differentiation as yet another constructible term in the discursive universe of the originary maternal womb. Negativity is stabilized as a “movement of the passing-beyond that unfolds inside the one: as the one’s own realization. The one produces its ‘presence’ as or through the ‘interiority of the negative’.” The localization of negativity in the presence of a positivity is possible only if we understand negation “from the internal perspective of its own realization (the having of a determination as the cancellation of any determination).”

Stone says that the “speaker is relationally autonomous, able to exercise speaking agency only out of ongoing dependence on the mother (and others to whom the speaker relates on the mother’s model)”. However, the relationality of the relation is undercut when it is tied to the stability of a “placental economy,” which ensures that all negations are reduced to the self-maintenance of a fixed multiplicity. One has to start with the inexistence of this fixed multiplicity to see the ontological unbinding, the pure multiplicity, at the root of all relations. All negations stumble upon the opacity of a non-relationship, whose externality functions as both the content and obstacle of the internal logic of totalities. When maternal subjectivity is situated in the physiognomy of the void, the conceptual schema of Stone can be accepted with a proviso. The chora, and the potential space do represent the “mutual attunement and responsiveness” of the mother-child relationship. But this reciprocity is a local result and not the totalizing movement of primary relationality. Maternal subjectivity can provide a foothold for universality. But this universality is the eruption of the open-ended dialectic of gaps in a singular discourse, and not the being-there of a seamless whole.

As per Stone, “men and fathers are the second figures for their children psychically, insofar as children inherently have a primary orientation to their maternal figures.” Consequently, the father can only carry out a socio-psychic deepening and differentiation of the original uterine connection that the child enjoyed. However, this teleological continuum is broken when we consider that the maternal body and the child don’t have an immutable meaning. We don’t have two totalized entities coming together in the complementary union of a clearly definable maternal space. Instead of any conjunctive totalization, we have a field of tensions and overlaps, which precedes the constitution of the Two. Both the maternal body and the child are non-all, not fully constituted, but glued together by their point of impossible connection. As Badiou notes, “no totality results from the assumption of a pairing of the two positions, which can be written as: there is at least one non-total term, which escapes the distribution of positions”.

The foregrounding of the negativity of the void enables us to practice a feminist politics that creates a space for a democratic discussion of maternal subjectivity. Instead of tethering the onto-epistemological structure of politics to the cultural substratum of motherhood, feminist modernity suspends all cultural discourses. Insofar as this suspension exposes the wholeness of every identity to the de-completing effects of abyssal negativity, it creates a non-hierarchical arena in which motherhood can be both optional and a legitimate modality of living the indeterminacy of existential projects.

The contours of a politics of feminist suspension can be delineated through a reference to the thought of the Indian social activist Periyar. He distinguished the liberatory goal of birth control from its strictly pragmatic ones, such as “women’s health, well-being of the children, the economy of the nation, the partitioning of ancestral property and so on.” The latter is confined to the slavery of “livelihood,” wherein the responsibilities of maintaining a family prevent the attainment of independence. Family serves as the driving force behind our motivation to work, the necessity to work, and the enabling factor that allows us to work. In opposition to this dull necessity, Periyar says that childbearing should be abolished. When confronted with the worry that humanity will not expand due to such a supposedly anti-natural act, Periyar says that the multiplication of the human race has not brought any benefits to women. In fact, maternity is connected to the illusion that a woman is biologically incapable of living without a man, even though a man can live without a woman.

Rather than seeing Periyar’s remarks as trans-historical statements about women, I suggest that we seem them as conjunctural remarks about a patriarchal-capitalist order based on the privatization of care. In this order, the capacity of women to bear child is naturalized as an inherent feature of their weak body, which consequently is seen as in need of male support. Against this fetishisation of patriarchal connection, Periyar posits feminist disconnection, wherein the possible extinction of humanity is accepted without hesitation. Humanity’s birth as a sexed being is coincident with the loss of eternal life, as only non-sexual reproduction carries the theoretical potential for indefinite existence, particularly in the case of single-celled organisms and clones. Patriarchal capitalism conceals the fragility of sexed life with the myth of non-sexual life, hegemonized by the harmonious relationality of the family and the commodity. Periyar drives a wedge in the reproductive eternity of status quoist fantasies by gesturing toward the absolute inconsistency of our being, by showing how the dominance of the social structure is ridden with the volatility of contradictions. This represents the transition of the subject from its passive alienation in the symbolic order to its active separation from it – an operation that installs the negativity of the void between the subject and the Other. Through a family abolitionist politics, Periyar is able to propagate an ethics of courage in which the subject is willing to lose its own self in the process of constructing something new.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.