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Resisting the commodification of motherhood and domesticity


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Writing for he new-ish journal Blind Field, Debra Thimmesch gives a historical account of how the supposedly inviolable sphere of motherhood and domesticity was thoroughly commodified in industrialized Western societies. In addition, she explores how mothers have tried to resist this commodification, principally by collecting sentimental objects that have little market value. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Given that domestic and emotional labor are either unpaid or poorly compensated monetarily, the commodification of motherhood, single and partnered, has created a framework in which reproductive work is both prescribed and rewarded; ironically, the reward or compensation is almost wholly emotional; in short, one has the knowledge of a job well done. So, many of us essentially hoard sentiment. In that respect, I’ve considered whether or not material goods abundant in sentiment or “use value” but devoid of market value might function in aggregate as a form of compensation for otherwise unpaid domestic and emotional labor, the crucial reproduction on which the capitalist system relies yet actively devalues. Our caches of sentimental objects may well function as a counterpoint to property in the capitalist marketplace. Indeed, in her book, Women and Personal Property in the Victorian Novel, Deborah Wynne discusses women’s “intimate relationship” with what she calls “miniature property,” which she identifies as “portable objects rather than real estate.” Such objects, she goes on to argue, are in a sense salvaged from the pyre of Marx’s “bad fetishism” insofar as they function as what Laura Mulvey sees as, argues Wynne, “an armor of fetishistic defence against taboos of the feminine that patriarchy depends on.” In short, both sources of fetishism, “repression of the mother’s body” (Freud) and “erasure of the worker’s labour as value” (Marx) in their different ways “conceal,” says Mulvey, “structures of sexual difference and value.” The “armor” is also camouflage.

Wynne explains the distinction between “good” and “bad fetishism” in relation to the concept of sentimental materialism:

In a society, then, where a valued social identity depends upon the ownership of property, the fetish-substitute for women takes the form of any object which can be possessed as property.

Such objects are, she points out, “unlikely to be directly named as ‘property’.” Unlike Freud’s definition of fetishism, however, women’s fetishism, suggests Wynne, is as much a social as a psychological strategy. Apart from the potential of such collecting or amassing to counter feelings of dependency (upon a spouse for material support), the objects and the act of accrual itself promote a sense of agency and situate the collection in opposition to and outside of the capitalist market economy. By preserving specifically only those items that in one way or another fundamentally resist commodification and are instead the fruits of the socially and economically necessary but unpaid labor of reproduction, the woman, the wife, the mother, asserts the objects’ inviolability in the context of capitalist consumption. Ironically, they are then both inviolable–safe, beyond corruption–and essentially valueless.

Therefore, this transformation to fetish-substitute is arguably an act of subversion and resistance that declares: “These are the only material goods worth preserving.” Not unlike the objects of Walter Benjamin’s “collector,” who rejects the use-value of a given item (refusing it commodity status and, instead, situates it within an allegorical realm of displaced, constructed meaning, of sentimental materialism) maternal objects, including those in my own collection, are transformed or rescued from banality and given a new story: not an allegory of maternal sacrifice but rather of resistance. Far more than a challenge to the commodification of sentiment, of emotion and intimacy, this act of resistance functions as a rejection of the process in which, as anthropologist Nicole Constable puts it, “intimate and personal relations­­–especially those linked to households and domestic units, the primary units associated with reproductive labor” are “explicitly commodified, linked to commodities.”

Image via Blind Field.