Language in Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” and Mary Kelly’s “Post-Partum Document”
The Woman Constructed
Language in Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document
Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) opens with forty-five seconds of unwavering eye contact, the artist’s face partially obscured by the sign she holds up like a clapperboard. The artist, who is also the performer in this short video, then puts on and identifies the trademark uniform of a housewife: “Apron.”1 On the table before her, a variety of kitchen utensils are neatly laid out. Like a mother teaching her child the alphabet, Rosler moves alphabetically through the kitchen tools (which include “chopper,” “knife,” and “tenderizer” among others), picking each item up as she names it. In this demonstration, where the linguistic articulation of each utensil follows its visual representation, it is fitting that the apron comes first, not just because its initial letter begins the alphabet, but also because it is a visual signifier of the sexual division of labor—the homemaker’s defining costume—signaling that feminine work is about to take place.
Watching this alphabetic presentation, the viewer is reminded of his or her own entry into language, when he or she was taught mnemonic devices (“A is for apple”) to become accustomed to the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified. In this performance, Rosler assumes a maternal, pedagogical role as she teaches the viewer a familiar language, one characterized by its oppressive relationship to the female subject. Rosler’s piece, however, is not a genuine instructional video: She knows that the viewers are already familiar with the cooking utensils she’s presenting. Her patronizing presentation is therefore a parody of the role she plays. With its static camera angle, domestic setting, and instructional format, Semiotics of the Kitchen is in the form of a primetime cooking show. However, Rosler’s body, which is both robotic and violent, disrupts the formula. After each appliance is presented both linguistically and visually, Rosler acts out its domestic function, but with a rageful twist. For example, after presenting an ice pick, she savagely stabs the table four times, then calmly returns it to the appropriate spot, like a well-behaved housewife. Throughout the piece, Rosler is reserved and detached, except for when she demonstrates how each tool is used. These violent outbursts puncture the context of domestic complicity and gentleness. In their exaggerated violence, her demonstrations transgress the gestures associated with each domestic utensil.
Wielding the household appliances with cool-headed anger, Rosler transforms them into weapons. Teetering between a mock-educational video and a parodic cooking show, Rosler performs and critiques the “transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.”2 In using these familiar tools with an unfamiliar rage, Rosler’s condescending presentation becomes a way to expose the language of food production as an oppressive, sexist force and to illuminate its alternate meaning of rage and violence. It asserts not only that the feminine subject is constituted by language, but also reveals linguistic designation to be a limiting and inadequate medium for critique.
Released within a few years of Semiotics of the Kitchen, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-79) is a six-part documentation of the first six years of her son’s life. Constructed of Kelly’s meticulous recordings, the Document includes feeding charts, fecal stains, transcribed conversations, found objects, her son’s infantile writing, and more. It was shown as an exhibition at the ICA in 1976, and published in book form in 1983. Unexpectedly, the artist’s maternal presence is not as potent as it would be in most feminist works of this period. While Rosler embodies and reclaims the feminine role, Kelly assumes the withdrawn, masculine role of psychoanalyst and author. Aware that Kelly’s work deals with her child and herself, the reader is unsettled when the work is not overtly feminist or even personal, but instead proliferated with psychoanalytic theory (most notably, Lacanian diagrams).
At the heart of Post-Partum Document is, as Lucy Lippard write, the “intentional ‘conflict’ between patriarchal sources (Marx/Freud via Althusser/Lacan) and the feminist analysis.”3 Why does Kelly deliberately employ these “theoretical puns,” which complicate the Document’s status as a feminist artwork?4 In the preface to the book version of Post-Partum Document Kelly preemptively answers this question:
Some readers will undoubtedly ask, why Freud, why Lacan? Why endorse their ‘patriarchal’ authority? In one way, for me these texts are a means of working through a difficult experience –– secondary revision, in the psychoanalytic sense. This is not exactly a recourse to rationality as authority. It expressed a more fundamental desire to know and to master.”5
Kelly, acutely aware of the patriarchal status of the thinkers she uses in her text, re-appropriates their theories for her own feminist agenda. By being a female mouthpiece for masculine psychoanalytic theory, Kelly is slyly critiquing and poking fun at it. She also uses psychoanalytic discourse to disguise her domestic, feminine identity (a necessary camouflage in order to be taken seriously as a female artist) while actually displaying it boldly, most notably with images of her son’s “dirty nappies.” By employing this dense, theoretical language in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, she cleverly fights back against its oppressiveness.
At first glance, Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document share little in common. In terms of form, the two conceptual pieces couldn’t be more opposed. While Semiotics of the Kitchen mimics a feminine entertainment show, Post-Partum Document is an exhibition-book hybrid loaded with patriarchal theory; it is detached, academic, and inaccessible. These two works are more than stylistically opposed: They are also in direct conflict. While Semiotics of the Kitchen is performed using the female body (the artist’s own) Post-Partum Document rejects and critiques this form of feminist art. In the preface to the Document, Kelly claims that “to use the body of the woman, her image or person is not impossible but problematic for feminism.”6 The image of the female body, so habitually sexualized across media, can be easily transformed into parody, making any representation of the female body “extremely vulnerable to sexist appropriation and exploitation.”7 Post-Partum Document consciously avoids the possible appropriation of the female body by denying the reader any pictorial representations of it. Already disorienting in its contradictory use of patriarchal theorists, Kelly’s work is made even less identifiable as “feminist art” due to the absence of the feminine body. Conversely, Semiotics of the Kitchen presents a familiar feminism, in which Rosler’s womanly body, and the language oppressing it, is reclaimed through the rewriting of kitchen tools as weapons.
Although they seem to be in opposition, Semiotics of the Kitchen and Post-Partum Document are in fact bound together by the same agenda. Both conceptual pieces explore and uphold the idea that femininity, just like language, is constructed through social relation; rather than being essential, it is created through difference. The conceptual works reveal and critique how language constructs the feminine identity, using as their foundation Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea that meaning arises from a social system. Saussurean linguistic theory posits that when words “correspond to concepts, it is understood that the concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.”8 To Rosler and Kelly, the subordinate female identity is constructed in relation to the male identity; it is the “Other” because it is not the subject, coded male.
In Post-Partum Document, the connection to Saussurean theory is unmistakable. The sixth section of the Document records the period in which Kelly’s son begins to read and write. This section, which explicitly deals with the construction of language, demonstrates Saussure’s argument that linguistic meaning is made through difference. In the child’s “prewriting” state, which consists of scribbling purposefully, the letter “X” initially represents a “universal grapheme class.”9 As he cannot yet distinguish the letters, Kelly’s son sees “X” as symbolic of all graphemes. Suddenly, in ref. 6.6020, “O” enters—the opposition of “X”—and from this one binary (“straightness versus roundness”10) emerges a whole graphemic system.
The Document goes far beyond linguistic illustrations of Saussure’s theories, however. Kelly links her son’s entry into language to his introduction into the sexual binary: “It is at the moment of our entry into language that we take up a feminine or a masculine position in the symbolic structure of our society . . . Learning to speak is dependent on the ability to conceptualize absence and establish differences.”11 Through experiencing her son’s introduction into language, the mother is reminded that her own feminine status is socially constructed. Thus, motherhood, the arena of womanhood that has always been seen as essential to the female identity, is dismantled in Post-Partum Document. The Document suggests that the maternal is not natural but instead a social, linguistic, and psychic construction.12
As evidenced by the title of the work, Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen also draws inspiration from the theories of Saussure, the founder of semiotics. In Rosler’s piece, which employs the feminine body, the grammatology of the kitchen is symbolic of the social ordering system of the sexes, in which women are placed into domestic, unfree roles. Semiotics of the Kitchen makes this connection by highlighting the alphabetic structure (A-Z) as socially constructed.
Although both works seem to deconstruct the idea of an “essential” femininity, Mary Kelly wouldn’t agree. The author of Post-Partum Document has critiqued feminist art that uses the female body (like Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen) precisely because she believes it implies a pre-social femininity: “[The] type of feminist art which focuses on the female body, most often the artist’s own… leads to a practice which is very diverse, but which could be characterized as being concerned with excavating a kind of essential femininity, either cultural or biological.”13 Both women use language to examine the role it plays in oppressing them. However, while Kelly’s work is a “critical response” 14 to body-centered feminist art, Rosler employs this very type of art to bypass the linguistic restrictions she is critiquing. After verbalizing each kitchen tool, Rosler fights back against the oppressive household lexicon through violent action. In using her body, she enacts a form of critique that language doesn’t make available, weaponizing the domestic symbols at her fingertips. Alternatively, both the form and focus of Kelly’s critique is language. She is aware of the “inadequacy of . . . descriptive systems,” that using language to interrogate itself is an ultimately cyclical and futile tactic.15 Although her work centers around linguistic restriction, it also exhibits a rare linguistic freedom in that its futile self-interrogation is employed intentionally.
Discussing Semiotics of the Kitchen, Rosler stated that, “When the woman speaks, she names her own oppression.”16 But in her work, Rosler doesn’t simply name her own oppression (the language of the household); she also finds a way to usurp it by employing its absence. The most striking example of this is at the end of the video: Without speaking, Rosler folds her arms across her chest, makes a face at the viewer, and shrugs cryptically. Juxtaposed against the linguistic confinement showcased throughout the video, this mute, unrestrained action circumvents the social ordering of language and, despite its indecipherability, presents physical freedom as language’s natural alternative.
- “Martha Rosler – Semiotics of the Kitchen 1975,” video, 1:05, Everything Has Its First Time, Oct 18, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZympOIGC0.
- “Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/88937.
- Lucy Lippard, “Foreword,” in Post-Partum Document (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), xiv.
- Lippard, “Foreword,” xiv.
- Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), xxii.
- Kelly, Post-Partum Document, xxi.
- Margaret Iversen, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Own Desire: Reading Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1981), 76.
- Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, translated by Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1992), 117.
- Kelly, Post-Partum Document, 165.
- Iversen, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Own Desire, 84.
- Kelly, Post-Partum Document, xii.
- Mary Kelly and Terry Smith, “A Conversation about Conceptual Art, Subjectivity, and the Post-Partum Document,” 457.
- “Mary Kelly,” Mary Kelly interviewed by Terence Maloon, Artscribe, No. 13 (1978), 76.
- “Mary Kelly,” Mary Kelly interviewed by Terence Maloon, Artscribe, No. 13 (1978), 76.
- Kelly, Post-Partum Document, xxii.
- “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” Martha Rosler, Electronic Arts Intermix, EAI.org.