The Mother-Son and State-Citizen Complex

The Mother-Son and State-Citizen Complex


Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document in Conversation with Susan Silton’s A Potentiality Long After Its Actuality Has Become a Thing of the Past

Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1976) acts as a published, physical record of a six-year project exploring the nature of the mother-son relationship, wherein Kelly meticulously chronicles her son’s physical and intellectual evolution from birth to age six. The work is comprised of six “Documentations,” each claiming a different system of recording growth, and exhibiting both the mundane and formative moments of her son’s cognitive development. In a brilliant display of multitasking, Kelly alternates between perspectives of the child, mother, and third-party observer, in order to display a holistic depiction of her son’s slow advance toward personal independence and maturity, inevitably interlaced with her own sense of loss. Notorious for its inclusion of what is arguably abject, Post-Partum Document begins with an analysis of fecal stains and corresponding nutritional intake, recorded over three months, and ends in the child’s mastery of language, recorded over eighteen months, showcasing the deciphering of shapes and sounds in a diary of preliterate alphabet (prior to the child entering school).

In the Document, the intersubjective object was the speech of the child. The precondition for that investigation—that is, of language—is already put in place, but not as a question of how we come to be speaking subjects . . . Motherhood is itself normally figured as a natural process. Yet the procedures you follow, or set out, seem to cut against any sense of natural flow, seem placed against the instinctual.1

The concept that motherhood is a systematization of nurture, imposed on women as natural by way of societal pressure, factors into Kelly’s experience of mothering as an “everyday cathexis.”2 If motherhood is an institution of authoritative responsibility to which Kelly is bound, then inevitably, language is one of the means by which she operates. Kelly uses language in three distinct ways: as a phonetic tool for decoding the uncivilized nature of the child (as he emotionally expresses his wants and needs, explicitly investigated in “Document Two”); as a method of documentation, in its ability to transfer meaning unto a third-party witness (in the form of a book); and finally, as a mode for exerting authority over the child, as her role embodies the primary source of both knowledge and nurture for the child. In this way, the mother becomes the child’s translator, upon whom he is fully dependent until he can communicate for himself.

Therefore, Kelly is both the perpetrator of the institution, as well as a victim bound to it. She is the first person to introduce the institution of language and authority to her child, yet also the first to experience its effects, as mastery of language is both the goal of her child’s six year development plan and the inevitability by which she feels loss. Once the child has full use of language, the mother’s role as translator is obsolete. In the words of the Swiss semiotician, Ferdinand de Saussure:

No longer can language be identified with a contract pure and simple, and it is precisely from this viewpoint that the linguistic sign is a particularly interesting object of study; for language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a law that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent.3

If the acquisition of language is not explicitly consensual, indoctrinated, instead, by way of systemization, then who is its masterful coercer? If an authoritative relationship between mother and son is instated through a child’s coming into language, then how is this mirrored in the outside world?

Susan Silton’s A Potentiality Long After Its Actuality Has Become a Thing of the Past reflects the nature of the mother-child dynamic through the parallel relationship of the state-citizen. Situated in a time of conflict, the media acts as the state’s principal disciple, protecting and dispensing information unto the public as the formative moments of World War II unfold. The work itself is essentially a two-sided, roughly 22-x-16-inch sheet, folded and mailed to the spectator in a plastic sleeve. The first side informs the viewer of the name of the work, the date and author of the project, and the media source (namely, the New York Times) in a glossy display of bold lettering and red-and-white color blocking. Formatted by edition, the second side is a photographic reproduction of the front page of the New York Times, dated from the 1930s or early 1940s, having noticeably aged in its yellowing, ink smudges, and time-stained edges. In light of the ongoing Holocaust, the spread of Nazi occupation, and the U.S.’s imminent entry into World War II, harrowing events unravel alongside mundanities in a daily context, wherein the language and layout prove particularly unnerving to the contemporary eye. Silton illuminates the institution of language as being distinctly temporal, as to the modern-day viewer, a column titled “M’adoo 3.2% Wine Disgusts Vinters” looks bizarre when placed next to “Herr Hitler’s Hitler’s Nazi’s Hear an Echo of World Opinion” or “Republican Flag Unwept in Reich,” on account of our historical knowledge of the events that ensued. Silton writes that “returning to that era’s quotidian from the vantage point of our own is especially potent and unsettling,” yet it is this insertion of the contemporary into the past which allows for the remembrance of history in its actuality (in its inclusion of the mundane).4 In turn, the juxtaposition also serves as a catalyst for a conversation regarding the role of the press in the dissemination of “truth,” as the project prompts an investigation of language as an institution of authority, the state, ironically, acting as a kind of “mother” to the citizen.

Furthermore, in Silton’s work, the reader (both modern readers encountering A Potentiality . . . and historical readers of the Times.) is told how things are by the media, as the news stories implement language as a systematic approach to the transference of information. The news media is the private citizen’s authoritative source for information, therefore allowing the media to embody the governing authority in the form of the mother. In its documentation of events and incarnation as the primary source of knowledge, the media, like the mother, is the authority to which the citizen will turn whenever they desire to know more. From the news media one learns of the state’s actions, yet the private opinions of the citizen, who is a constituent of that state, have very little influence on such actions. The institution of language allows the mother to choose what information is dispensed and what is not, solidifying her role as the authority on which the citizen is dependent, by means of the system to which they are both bound. A citizen may read of his own volition, yet have no consent in the actions of the authority at hand, and in turn, be forced to experience the enduring effects.

By showcasing World War II-era newspapers, Silton documents the attempt to relay truth through the media’s use of language, much in the same way Kelly attempts to expose the truth behind a child’s journey to language mastery through the linguistic documentation of her son’s little triumphs. Both works operate under transitionary periods, documenting, at the peak of vulnerability, a kind of authority-subject relationship in which the subject has not explicitly consented, using language as mechanism for control of the “truth.” This juxtaposition of power plants the concept of exploitation in both works, as it can be argued that the nature of the relationships portrayed are structurally unjust, and beneficially one-sided in favor of the authority. The power dynamics at work in both statehood and motherhood give rise to a single, nagging thought: How does a state, in the drafting of its citizens into war-like pawns, and the documenting of their failures/successes in the press, compare to Mary Kelly making a “specimen” of her son, through the scientific documentation of his childhood, and subsequent exposition of his youth? To what extent is the institutional system imposed upon us, and to what extent are we complicit in its perpetuation?

To conclude, both Silton and Kelly point to language as a means of deciphering and administering control; the implementation of writing and speech cannot help but provoke questions of exploitation and struggle as evidenced through a subject’s vulnerability in times of war and growth. Quite manifestly, the concept of motherhood binds together both Silton’s and Kelly’s works, as a force that disseminates knowledge unto the unknowing, as well as a manifestation of language as authority. In the words of Terry Smith, shocked displacement ensues “from the realization that motherhood—even motherhood!—was not a natural but social, psychic, linguistic construction!”5  Institutional critique is inherent within each artist’s depiction of a disciplinarian relationship, as language is the institution of “cultural kidnapping”6 that marks entry into fear, identity, and experience.

  1. Mary Kelly and Terry Smith, “A Conversation about Conceptual Art, Subjectivity, and the Post-Partum Document,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Chicago: MIT Press, 1999), 453-455.
  2. Kelly and Smith, “A Conversation about Conceptual Art, Subjectivity, and the Post-Partum Document,” 452.
  3. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, translated by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), 71.
  4. Susan Silton, “A Potentiality Long After Its Actuality Has Become a Thing of the Past,” (2019)
  5. Mary Kelly and Terry Smith, “A Conversation about Conceptual Art, Subjectivity, and the Post-Partum Document,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Chicago: MIT Press, 1999), 453-455.
  6. Eve Meltzer, “Antepartum” in Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 3.
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