Troubling Maternity: Mothering, Agency, and Ethics in Women's Writing in German of the 1970s and 1980s

Emily Jeremiah
26 November 2003
210 pp
Paperback: 978-1-904350-10-1

The question of maternity is crucial for feminists, to whom it represents both challenge and inspiration, as it is for many thinkers engaged with the issues of agency, corporeality, and ethics. This examination puts forward the idea of a 'maternal performativity', drawing on the work of Judith Butler and numerous other feminist theorists, to offer new ways of looking at 1970s and 1980s literary texts by ten German-speaking women writers, including Barbara Frischmuth, Elfriede Jelinek, Irmtraud Morgner, and Karin Struck. It argues that as yet, maternal agency has not adequately been theorized - a project which is urgent, given the traditional view in Western culture of the mother as passive - and suggests that Butler's notion of performativity can assist in this task. It proposes a performative conception of both mothering and literature, and links both of these to the question of ethics, which is understood as involving embodiment and relationality. To different extents, all of the texts examined depict mothers as marginal, abject, or insane, thus demonstrating the operations of exclusion, and the need for a maternal agency to be developed and enacted. The idea of maternal performativity is refined in five chapters, which focus, respectively, on community, corporeality, the mother-child relationship, the family, and discursive production. The conclusion explores the ethics of literary practice and knowledge production, and argues that in the light of the developing fields of new reproductive technologies and genetics, it is imperative that we seek new understandings of embodiment, community, and care, a task to which this study aspires to contribute.