Alison M. Gingeras is a curator and writer in New York and Warsaw, and most recently the editor/author of John Currin: Men. Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York, faculty at The New School for Social Research, and author most recently of Conversion Disorder (Columbia, 2018). They frequently collaborate and write together, most recently on anality, utopian communes, guilt, and the artists Bjarne Melgaard, John Currin, and Jordan Wolfson.
The Mother: Under the Bell Jar
Everyone was obsessed with the “Mother.” We tended to her, feeding her as her breath slowly bubbled up—proof of life—as she grew in our homes. The Mother distracted us from our new interiorities, as she fermented in jars of flour and water—across the borough of Brooklyn, in the genteel climes of San Francisco, and beyond. She was the subject of a thousand social-media posts, vicious memes, and the catalyst for nasty scuffles among the urban bourgeoisie who hoarded bags of tipo-00 flour and organic yeast. Not only did the Mother spawn millions of mediocre sourdough loaves across the country, she helped us cope with the sudden caesura of everyday life. A virus had confined us. The threat of community spread had turned us all inward, so far so that some of us felt like we had been transported back to the nineteenth century, shut into a traditionally feminine domestic sphere where we were compelled to maintain hearth and home while supervising home school (and, since we do live in the present day, juggling endless Zoom calls). Little wonder that our “Mother” problems—the love-hate codependency we developed with our lactobacillus starter jars—became such loaded harbingers of the lockdown.
In those early days of spring 2020, those of us who had the privilege of sheltering in place—unlike the millions of hospital staff, the homeless, and a newly minted class of “essential workers” on the frontlines of the viral unknown—experienced this new condition of forced domesticity as an unexpected rupture in the globalist hive of our neoliberal lives. If the twenty-first-century world had seemed to be accelerating at breakneck speed, a microscopic pathogen had suddenly slammed on the brakes. Life for many was suddenly caught under a covid bell jar. fang (Facebook Amazon Netflix Google) kept the newly confined classes comfortable, leaving uncertainty as the primary symptom of this new plague. When would it end? How would it end? In our newly stillborn lives, to quote Sylvia Plath, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”1 Revisiting Plath, herself no stranger to traumatic self-isolation, provided some depressive echoes for our first phase of confinement.
Yet the Mother continued to haunt us. She was a matriarch whose fourteen-day fermentation cycle mirrored the mandated quarantine period for coronavirus, yet whose infinite divisibility always left her unimpeachable—a little like our president, who had performed the perfect patriarchal yang to the Mother’s slow and silent yin. His daily “China virus” briefings were hysterical, contradictory, cruel, and mesmerizing. He was the Ur-Father spectacle while the Mother was a domestic balm for our collective anxieties. For every crazy tweet that Trump issued in those early days, every individual bell jar seemed to double down on the protection of neurotic familial bonds. The home that we may have spent decades escaping and dematerializing was now the only refuge in the face of the torrent of fake news, counternarratives, speculative science, and sheer fear in the face of this unknown enemy called covid-19.
When the Mother fails, schadenfreude abounds. How many articles declared that finally, all the others, at once, understood what felt like one’s own private experience of unwellness: the hypochondriacs, the agoraphobics, the lonely and bereft, the envious with their incessant fomo, and, most of all, the stay-at-home helicopter mothers and Mister Moms. In this period of collective confinement, symptoms surged forth—along with domestic-abuse statistics, shockingly. For all of our Internet-connected outward-facingness, we had forgotten what we had been spared. Jacqueline Rose writes powerfully and soberly on this future of feminism in the time of covid in “Living Death,” her lead essay for “New Interiorities.” In our new reality we could boldly repurpose the manifesto-like mantra of the trans-woman writer Andrea Long Chu: “Everyone is female, and everyone”—in this moment of forced confinement—“really hates it.”2 Yet if the coronavirus generates a forced femaleness, it should be remembered that feminine interiority was a motor of so much great literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—even if it was also a trap. Alissa Bennett discusses this motor in the work of Patricia Highsmith, a motor that required her to travel at all costs to leave herself behind and write. Despite the triumphs of first-, second-, and third-wave feminisms, here we all were imprisoned again—and the toolbox of mainstream feminist liberation was insufficient to quell our angst about our sourdough Mothers, displaced as it was from the harsh realities of abuse, death, and poverty and the real-life reckoning with Sense and Sensibility in the age of Trump.
As we wrestled with life in this first phase of our confinement, Francesca Woodman’s ghost could be summoned forth as a poignant image of our own privileged (white) feminism. In a rare color photograph that she staged in 1979 as part of a failed attempt to build up a fashion-photography portfolio, we see Woodman grimping up the door frame of an East Village apartment with crumbling seafoam-green walls and flamingo-pink molding. Her frizzy long hair obscures her face, picturing her as an everywoman driven to literally climb the walls. A small oval mirror, reflecting nothing, sits at the bottom of the frame, countering the hard edges of the room, drawing our attention to the void in this charged interior landscape of traditional feminine interiority. Woodman committed suicide at the age of twenty-two, not long after constructing this self-portrait—a doomed icon of a woman struggling for a public identity to lift her out of a suffocating depression. With a bit of our own narcissistic jouissance, we often gazed at Woodman’s dark interiors during these long months
We could track time not by the day we started to forget, but by our knowledge of the organs that we learned [covid] had the ability to inflame: phase one, lungs; phase two, kidney; phase three, heart and circulatory system; and the last, phase four, brain.
We also read the prose of another suicided woman, Ingeborg Bachmann. Though her death was more along the lines of an “accidental” overdose and fire caused by a cigarette fallen on a mattress, one German newspaper declared it to be exactly the kind of thing she would have dreamed up for one of her heroines. With claustrophobic intensity, Bachmann writes of women driven into madness, silence, disappearance, cramped spaces. While these stories can be seen as the epitome of a kind of writing of feminine interiority, something about that isn’t quite right, since Bachmann works at the very limit of language. Her women’s lives are barely spoken, even barely written, as her writing drifts into fragments, bodily symptoms, fits of dissociation, abandoned or lost careers, and crumpled letters. Her unfinished trilogy Ways of Dying took flight from the idea that “fascism begins in relations between people. Fascism is the primary element in the relationship between a man and a woman. . . . in this society war is constant. There’s no such thing as war and peace, there is only war.”3 The coronavirus quickly became the disease most rampant in fascist countries; Bachmann might have argued that that was rooted in the domestic sphere.
For Bachmann’s heroines, their lives reduced to a daily struggle with what she called the “virus of crime”—something that escaped to who knows where by growing so subtle that dealing with it would require the sharpest of minds—vigilance is difficult and the escape inward leaves you all-too-humanly vulnerable to outside forces.4 Indeed, it was very hard to stay vigilant and sharp in our bubbles. As if writing about our loss of a sense of time during lockdown, Bachmann states that “today” is the most impossible of words, a “too gripping” word that makes her “breathing grow irregular,” a word that should perhaps belong only to suicides.5 And every day in lockdown felt like an impossible “today,” forced to rely on Andrew Cuomo, a Governor-Daddy we wouldn’t have tolerated for a second before covid, to tell us, in his joking, patriarchal fashion, that in our untethered reality “today” was Saturday, which he, as we, only knew because his intern had put it on his PowerPoint.
The Body: A Prison Full of Organs
Let’s take a deeper and darker trip through history, diverting into our bodies, thinking of these scenes of domestic interiority amid a shelter-in-place order that continued as the death toll rose to nearly two thousand a day in the United States. The anchorites who emerged in the eleventh century in England and Northern Europe embraced complete confinement. Anchorite women outnumbered men three to one. To be an anchorite meant being enclosed in a room for life, such that the day of one’s confinement began with one’s funeral ceremony. These women sought refuge from the savagery of medieval life, and felt that a life of isolated contemplation could serve as an opening onto divine love that would strengthen them not only spiritually but bodily. In one of the few reports of their routines, they are said to have dug the graves they would eventually be buried in within the very room in which they were cloistered, and then were encouraged to kneel or lie in these graves daily for sessions of prayer. While this seems macabre—just another way of burying a woman alive—anchoritism offered a way to avoid the dangers of childbirth and forced marriage; it gave these anchorite women a position of authority and social standing that rested on them alone. Anchorites—unlike nuns, who were tethered to the patriarchal institution of the Church—were able to write, to invent their own version of religion, creating wild practices of prayer and contemplation. “It is no small irony,” writes Mary Wellesley, “that one of the few ways women could achieve autonomy and social standing was by imprisoning themselves.”6
One of the most famous anchorites was Julian of Norwich, an ecstatic mystic whose writings are fascinating for the immediacy of her relationship to the suffering body. In 1373, when Julian was very ill and preparing herself for death, she received a series of mystical visions. When she came to, she was completely recovered. She went on to write about her “shewings” in the book XVI Revelations of Divine Love, first published in the seventeenth century, over two hundred years after her death. Noteworthy is Julian’s sense of Christ as the mother—not merely like a mother but literally our Mother. For Julian, no other bond could explain the closeness and goodness of our relationship with him. After her encounters with “Mother,” she famously chanted, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”7 When you let go of the fears instilled in you by the illusions of the world, you can be delivered into the calm arms of God, who is always near at hand.
While we may venerate the anchorites as models for the kind of wild imagination and healing that isolation can bring, nothing, sadly, could be farther from our own experience of lockdown. We lack the anchorites’ brave ability not only to become acquainted with the idea of their own death but to do so while looking squarely at the terrifying reality of the deaths surrounding them. (Julian of Norwich, for example, lived through the arrival in England of the Black Death.) For us, that acceptance was only possible by becoming somehow deadened ourselves. Testimony after testimony showed that so many of us were decidedly not well as the pandemic progressed—as important ceremonies of mourning were curtailed, as we took in the sites of mass graves, and as we wrestled with governmental failures that left health-care workers unprepared and unequipped, that exposed with impunity the elderly and already impoverished and neglected Black and Brown families, and that we could do nothing about. Weren’t we practically crying for our Mothers?
As Freud warned us in 1917, failed mourning is a recipe for violent melancholia.
Helplessness overwhelmed an already mounting feeling of collective dis-ease that rivaled Freud’s sense of death-driven civilizational discontent. If the anchorite prisons were the conditions of women having souls, our prisons were showing us a contemporary soullessness that exceeded even the most pessimistic of us. While the anchorite women took possession of their bodies, healed their maladies, and found their Mothers, illness for us meant having to hand over our bodies to the broken machinery of medicine. We now understand that the decision to immediately intubate people whose lungs were ravaged by covid-19, confining them by coma and machine, betting against an 80 percent mortality rate, was medically unsound. We clearly knew next to nothing about this virus, but could only watch as the effects it had on organ after organ revealed themselves. We could track time not by the day we started to forget, but by our knowledge of the organs that we learned it had the ability to inflame: phase one, lungs; phase two, kidney; phase three, heart and circulatory system; and the last, phase four, brain.
It was a prison full of organs—think of Gaetano Zumbo’s anatomical wax Venuses in the Florence natural-history museum La Specola. Kept under glass, their meticulously splayed intestines, wombs, and lungs not only confine them but transfix the female body in a state of permanent scopophilic spectacle. But there is an irony here, as philosopher Paul B. Preciado points out in our interview with him in “New Interiorities”: we are transitioning through different ways of conceptualizing interiority, from the empty body that is a host for the soul, and mirrors the empty rooms of the anchorites awaiting divine intervention or salvation after death, to the body as a pure object for modern science, seen as a collection of organs to be studied and kept alive, without, at times, concern for the person’s quality of life, or for any conception of life beyond biological life. As many recent philosophers have argued, following Michel Foucault, this opened up the body to new forms of governmental control: law became the power not just to engage in war, or to ensure the rights of citizens, but to decide what counts as life and which lives will be grieved. This new war with an “invisible enemy” makes almost 7 million American infections and over 200,000 deaths (at the time of this writing) an acceptable outcome. These lives will not be officially mourned or regretted. As Freud warned us in 1917, failed mourning is a recipe for violent melancholia.8
Preciado ultimately wants to push us past these modes of thinking interiority, or, better, to push us out of them, to see that interiority is now external, just as our bodies have been externalized by technological prostheses, Internet avatars, and the multitude of cultural institutions that prop us up. This is why it is important not to forget that the lockdown was also an entirely new experience, because of technology that made it possible for everything, and we mean everything, to take place in and from the home: school, work, shopping, socializing, even dating. It wasn’t that death or sickness burst the bubble each of us lives in, but that the technological expansion of the bubble was creating new, dizzying contours for interior life.
With every tool we invent, Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, we perfect our bodily organs and remove their limitations. Freud’s vision of modern man in 1930 has reached its apogee: “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”9 Humans, Freud concludes, with his typical sober sensibility, do not feel happy in their God-like state. Who can forget a sudden and irrational rise in anger when the Zoom connection wasn’t steady, as if it always had been and always should be, even though this was a decidedly new reality? No wonder some had to create a paranoid conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was none other than our new souped-up 5G networks making us feel ill—every paranoid fantasy containing a powerful kernel of truth. The classic psychotic fantasy of being a body without organs, an ecstatic sack of skin with an energy unknotted by organ sites, couldn’t be further from our lives in a domestic prison chock-full of and overflowing with organs.
America: Lose Your Mother
Our confinements were suddenly ruptured by the cries “I can’t breathe” and “Momma, I love you.” A viral video showed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer, uncannily named Chauvin, who choked him, knee on neck, while he beseeched his already deceased mother. This video broke through the claustrophobic early days of the covid pandemic, revitalizing the Black Lives Matter movement fighting police brutality and systemic racism and becoming an urgent external call to action, rousing us from our forced interiorities. Our melancholic female confinement, the desperate search for our Mother in a time of radical uncertainty, gods covered in organs, and the coronavirus were conflated in a completely unexpected way. Repeated endlessly on social media (unlike the video of the Rodney King beating of 1991, before the social-media era), the documentation of Floyd’s murder became a catalyst for the perfect reversal of the slogan “Stay inside to save lives” to “Out on the street to save lives,” changing our idea of what it means to save or take a life. It was also now absolutely clear that the coronavirus was killing Black and Brown bodies at a much higher rate than it did their white counterparts.
In showing us history in the present, in real time, the video rendered another form of danger in this country: the streets are not only a place for a pandemic to seethe and spread, but a place where some people can never feel safe, irrespective of microorganisms, because they are killed with impunity. The organs now weren’t just our inflamed bodies, or our umbilical attachment to our iPhones and computers, but suddenly the batons and guns and tear-gas canisters of riot police and armed white-supremacist militia, egged on by the president of the United States. As we contemplated not only George Floyd but Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and countless other victims of our self-created social illness of racism, we began to synthesize the effects of the infodemic that had also driven us inwards. The fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories that fueled the absence of science-based understanding and cohesive policies to tame the biological threat of the coronavirus were also fueling the racial and political polarization of society. The infodemic stoked fears about violence, undermining the grassroots coalitions that began to form as we collectively burst through this period of unprecedented confinement.
It has taken confinement, the threat to life, the loss of markers of identity, exile, guilt, losing our mother, to bring us to this breaking point where we can find something actually hopeful—a “becoming together.”
We were jarred into the realization of our failed state. Joining the massive crowds of protesters marching through cities that had until recently been ghost towns, we blew up the hypochondriacal routines that we had carefully crafted over months. We screamed the victims’ names through our masks, our PPE no longer a muzzle. As a Minneapolis police station burned down, our personal bubbles of self-protective measures and compulsions to follow stay-at-home orders imploded. In a flash identification with Floyd, and by extension with all the descendants of slavery, we were put in contact with those who, as Saidiya Hartman powerfully shows in her book Lose Your Mother, had only known existence in this country by losing all ties to their mother—all of them. To be a Black American was a complete opacity. The limit of being-in-the-world. The heart of darkness. The myth of the mother, Hartman says, is the myth of return, of redemption, of a name, and this myth, at this point in history, is not only impossible for Black Americans, it is pure violence—as in the inherent racism of Make America Great Again.
Hartman wants to stay close to this loss, to excavate this wound—the lack of common ancestry or history or unconflicted narrative. She wants to hold onto this loss against the power of others to determine whether you live or die. This loss, she says, is a “call for freedom, a rallying cry against the imperial states and their soldiers, an admonition to steer clear of the merchants of death and the rich men cannibals, a lament for your dead.” Importantly, “this loss and desire gave meaning to the words we who become together.”10 We all have to acknowledge this loss and its perversion. The value of human life has to be rethought: does “value” apply simply to those who are privileged in their bubbles by birth or by economic success? Is it merely a question of biology, of the life of bodies seen as collections of organs and fluids? Or is it about attachments and dependencies? The privilege of birth, economics, and bodies converge with the problem of racism, which tears a hole in all possible attachments, degrading the value of all life. It is from this hole that a new vision of life must be completely reimagined. We are not in it, we are not out of it, but, to repeat a refrain of Vera’s in Deana Lawson’s stunning portrait, we are “going through it.”
Vera, a name that means “faith,” might give us a sense of this new coronavirus interiority, one that Lawson names “Vera, Lateral Puncture.” It’s the chance encounter of feminine lateral moves, the discovery of a rhinestone bodysuit that also happens to point to Dogon cosmogony: namely, the intuition of how matter behaves through a connection to ancestors. This is not a slavish devotion to information, nor is it female rebellion as the solitude of a room of one’s own, nor is it the question of the sick, enslaved, or phallic body, nor is it even a question of politics, be it protest or procedure. Art, Lawson seems to tell us, moves laterally . . . and, as Miciah Hussey writes in his discussion of Iiu Susiraja’s self-portraiture, it is a body that functions in a network of things, things that vibrate, are an excess that is physical, not just psychic or abstract. Interestingly, both Lawson and Hussey see embodiment of this kind as a piercing of the bubble—a “puncture,” a “barb,” a “gash,” that is a blow to the order of the world, allowing values to become indeterminate again and so, potentially, to be redetermined. This is the possibility of a new extension of interiority into the world, one that can repurpose the objects in it by rendering them strange, as strange as life in the coronavirus womb where we lost our mothers.
It has taken confinement, the threat to life, the loss of markers of identity, exile, guilt, losing our mother, to bring us to this breaking point where we can find something actually hopeful—a “becoming together.” Gone are the bubbles—no longer me in mine and you in yours, or me in my body and you in yours, or me in my state and you in yours. Despite the threats of a second wave of the virus, and the ominous predictions around the approaching election, we can no longer retreat, or passively endure a second lockdown. Our new interiorities are now shared, our agencies are inflamed, our desire to create through puncturing is activated—transforming the old models of passive female interiority into a collective, radically empathetic action.
1Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963 (reprint ed. New York: Harpers Perennial Classics, 2005), p. 237.
2Andrea Long Chu, Females (London and New York: Verso, 2019), p. 13.
3Ingeborg Bachmann, quoted in Peter Filkins, “Introduction: Darkness Spoken,” in Bachmann, The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, trans. Filkins (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. viii. The original is from Bachmann, Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden: Gespräche und Interviews (Munich: Piper, 1983), p. 144.
4Ibid., p. 3.
5Bachmann, Malina, 1971, trans. Philip Boehm (New York: New Directions, 2019), p. 7.
6Mary Wellesley, “This place is pryson,” London Review of Books 41, no. 10 (May 23, 2019). A review of E. A. Jones, ed., Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019). Available online at www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n10/mary-wellesley/this-place-is-pryson (accessed September 24, 2020).
7Julian of Norwich, quoted in ibid.
8See Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, 1917, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1966), pp. 14:239–58.
9Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930, trans. and ed. Strachey, with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1989), p. 44.
10Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p. 234.
“New Interiorities” also includes: “Living Death” by Jacqueline Rose; “Vera, Lateral Puncture” by Deana Lawson; “You Should Leave” by Alissa Bennett; “Pathologically Optimistic: A Conversation with Paul B. Preciado”; and “Resting Place” by Miciah Hussey