March 03, 2005

Family values

thequeen.jpg bree 2.jpg maxinecarr.jpg

Which one is the face of Evil?

Ideology's first task - always, necessarily, accomplished invisibly - is to establish what counts as ideology. That is to say, it operates by naturalizing its own presuppositions and designating opposing political positions as 'merely' 'ideological'. This process is nowhere better exemplified than in the process which Giorgio Agamben, developing, extending and critiquing Foucault, has dedicatedly analysed: the bleeding of the biological-private-domestic into the public-political, i.e. the founding of bio-politics.

In contemporary Britain, the 'working mother' is the figure around which many bio-political configurations are organized. The 'working mother' gives a new spin to the old Hegelian formula, according to which 'woman is the eternal irony of the community'. The idea was that women's labour (in every sense) was essential to the reproduction of the polis, but that women remained outside the community proper, double agents, never fully assimilable into civil society.

Alison Pearson re-stated this position today when she described what the Government has absurdly called 'Sandwich Women' - i.e. working mothers - as 'the filling that holds society together'. They are, then, the filling that holds the community together - but still, it seems, not quite members of that community themselves?

Pearson's comments were prompted by the Government's proposals to extend maternity leave from six to nine months. Now, leaving aside the fact that this means that once again, that non-breeders will have to fund reproductive futurists' lifestyle choices, it is clear that this supposedly 'female-friendly' legislation rests on a number of assumptions, the most pernicious of which is not the belief that the burden of child-care should 'naturally' fall predominantly upon women. No: one of the most dangerous presuppositions is the unargued view that the 'best' (='most natural') way for a child to be reared is in a private domestic space by its female parent.

The language of rights is also double-edged in this respect, as in so many others. The 'right' to have children often seems to operate as a post-feminist way of re-inscribing the female obligation to reproduce. Similarly, the 'right' to maternity leave imposes a social expectation (what kind of a woman, we are invited to think, would not take up maternity leave?)

More than that, though, construing this issue in terms of individual rights distracts from the way in which compelling women to adopt this role makes alternatives to the nuclear family - e.g. collective child rearing by groups of women - both unthinkable and impracticable.

It is, to say the least, by no means self-evident that the best way to rear children is in a domestic space with their mother. I speak as someone whose upbringing was of that type. Being the sole subject of the attentions of a young woman who - as she would now admit - had limited confidence was unlikely to do much for the mental health of either child or parent. A world inhabited almost exclusively by mother and child cannot but be cloyingly, suffocatingly confining: and any security and safety that both experience is inevitably achieved at a high price, namely the coding of the world Outside as a place of uncertainty, fear and loathing. To be brought up partly by 'strangers' and with other children is not only to let some air into the fetid closeted space of the domestic neurosis factory, it is also to go some way to weakening the distinction between what is familiar/ familial and what is 'strange'.

But 'family values', once a matter of stated political doctrine, have now receded from the realm of political contestation to become naturalized. Indeed, a deep commitment to the Family is the closest that contemporary secular Britain will come to a religious conviction.

There is no longer much sense that there could be a meaningful conflict of duties between duties towards one's family and other duties. Much of the castigation of the Queen over her refusal to attend Prince Charles' farce of a wedding has concerned her 'monstrous' rating of her Duty as a monarch and as head of the Church of England over her duties as a mother. Contemporary tabloid wisdom has it that the Queen's 'failings as a mother' make her 'inhuman'. Take, as one example of many, Carole Malone in the Sunday Mirror: 'The fact is that most mothers would die for their children. But one feels that while the queen would happily die for her country, her kids come very low down her list of priorities. And while that makes her a good Queen, it makes her a pretty bad mum and an even worse human being.'

There we have that it then: attaining 'good' human status involves us FIRST OF ALL being committed to our families. But this naturalizing and prioritising of familial obligations, far from being a self-evident ethical Good, in fact means the end of the ethical as such. Ethics and Justice were founded upon the suspension of immediate tribal and animal interests. As Alenka Zupancic has tirelessly insisted, Kant's ethical system, for instance, maintains that the only Ethical acts are those which are undertaken with indifference to one's own ('pathological') interests. So, as the example of the Queen makes clear, obedience to the Moral Law (the empty form of Duty) - particularly in the context of the contemporary bio-political regime - far from producing dumb social compliance, makes people into anti-social 'inhuman' 'monsters'.

In Desperate Housewives at the moment (well, where we are with it in the UK), Bree van de Kamp faces the same 'temptation of the Ethical' in that she has to choose between Justice and loyalty to her son (should she protect him from punishment for his drunk-driving knocking down of Gabrielle's mother-in-law?) To NOT protect him, she is told, would indeed make her a 'monster'.

But the figure of public loathing who is LEAST monstrous according to the current code is Maxine Carr. It was not at all surprising that, in Channel 4's happy-clappy New Age remix of the Decalog (choose your OWN commandment for TODAY!), 'loyalty to Family' should feature. What did Maxine Carr do but act in accordance with that injunction? If it is 'my family right and wrong', then quite obviously one should protect child killers as much as anyone else if they are a member of your family. There is of course no evidence that Carr was aware of Huntley's crimes - on the contrary in fact. But the irrational homicidal loathing to which Carr has been subject presumably has more to do with a violent disavowal prompted by the fact that many are aware that, if they were in Carr's position, they would have behaved exactly as she did.

Posted by mark at March 3, 2005 12:49 AM | TrackBack