Against (the Grain of) Order

Maddalena Cerrato
Texas A&M University

Volume 15, 2024.

The following text corresponds entirely to the paper I delivered at the “Tracking Infrapolitics” meeting on March 3, 2022. The materials for the presentation were extracted from an initial draft manuscript of my Against Order: Infrapolitics, Autography, Matrianarchy, and Cybercriticism, a monograph that is still under preparation. The manuscript that has kept growing from that initial draft owes a great deal to the verbal and affective reactions to my presentation of these scattered ten pages, and to the conversations that took place over those days of early Texan spring. So, except for a few footnotes, I chose to leave the original presentation untouched precisely with the idea of tracking the historicity of infrapolitics as a space of thinking in which my thought is somehow inscribed. To think the facticity of the imperative relation between thought and existence, infrapolitics cannot fail to consider its own facticity. And its facticity is inseparable from an always contingent and promiscuous space of interlocution like the one that meeting opened. There a certain urgency emerged for me: the urgency of trying to account not only for the radical singularity and historicity of the way thinking relates to existence, but also for what we could call the inherent promiscuity of such a relation. This promiscuity is not limited to the wild atelic intercourse between individuals’ thinking and their existence, but rather it concerns the multiple forms of otherness that breed them both. Our thinking is open and exposed to the autographic incisions of our existential facticity, and the latter is inextricably tied to the existence of others as well as to other existences (human and not). Our thoughts are shaped by direct influences and directed by explicit references, but they are also open and exposed to multiple forms of haunting. These pages try to account for the facticity and promiscuity of thinking always already hidden behind some semblance of order, while they also try to come to terms performatively with the promiscuity of my own way of thinking infrapolitics. The tracking here is more an adventure of disoriented aimless straying of thought, than a philological exercise of a return to an origin. 

December 2023

In the beginning, there was not the origin. There was the place.” 

Lacan, My Teaching 4

1. About the Axiomatic of Order

 “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” The common refrain comes to me from an immemorial past in my grandfather’s voice. It comes already in the form of a ceaseless heedless repetition of an utterance from nowhere. An authorless platitude inscribed in the weave of existence. And yet, it names an inescapable demand and a forlorn lifelong endeavor. My grandfather repeating as a mantra “A place for everything, and everything in its place” echoes a manifold demand/injunction for order to which we are consistently summoned by the voice of common sense. “Find your place!” “Stay in place!” “Put everything in its place!” “Where does this go?” “Put your house/life in order” “You don’t belong here!” “That’s where you belong!” “Where are you coming from?” “This is no place for a kid/woman/foreigner/POC…” “It’s not your place to say…”

Whether you scramble into a place hoping it could be the right one, or you assert your right to be there and justify your existence according to a well-established semantics of belonging; whether you strive to adapt and fit in, or you are overwhelmed by inadequacy; whether you are called to order for a class or a trial to start, or you are ordering a child around, you are equally and inexorably always already involved in sanctioning what I call an axiomatic of order. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” suggests an obvious and almost secret rule. It sounds like a truism that deserves no further attention, yet it also resonates as a precious piece of wisdom, the legacy of a wiser enlightened past on which to rely in uncertain times. It invites no questioning, as it commands thoughtless trust. As I search among the crumble of past experiences and thoughts for traces of this dictum, that is, of its inscription in my own existence, I am seeking an attunement of thought to disoriented straying.

One distinct experience always brings about the striking incongruity of the demand for order. This is the repeated, yet always singular, experience of grief. The incision of death into existence. The bewildering and disorienting exposure to death as death of the other. The experience of the other’s death opens up a breach in the ordered disposition of existence, a rift in the peaceful adherence to the rules of proper placement. The call for order suddenly sounds impossible and almost unbearable.  And yet, a dogged inner attachment to order also becomes manifest in its loss. When the other dies, “you have lost someone.” You lost your parents; you are at a loss; you are out of order and from then on, you shall scramble around to find your place. Motherhood is the originary placement. The mother is the origin as place, and as placing. Your child dies; you lost her; you misplaced her. How could you be in order ever again?

Grief rather than disorder seems to be the other of order.

Initially and for the most part, order and placement seem to govern a planned existence oriented toward goals and animated by tireless wishing and desiring. Initially and for the most part, order and placement seem to govern a spatialized existence defined by birth as its origin and death as its other. Life and death appear to us as alternative placements into and out of existence. The oppositional logic capturing life and death governs existence as order. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” We are placed “between” birth and death. “Everydayness is, after all, precisely the being ‘between’ birth and death” (Heidegger, Being and Time 223).

Order is “the disposition of people and things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method,” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Coming into the world, our existence is always already disposed or arranged in relation to others. Order binds us to others in a disposition involving necessity, responsibility, and dependence. We are taken care; we take care. In life and in death we care. In order, we care. And, care is supposed to follow an order of positions and dispositions, a sequence, and a proper way or path. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Between birth and death, we are in the world with one another. Each of us is called to live according to their position in a pre-disposed sequence of stages and pre-arranged distribution of domains.1 Everydayness is taking care of people and things according to places, domains, spheres, and stages. Each of us is called to respond to the expectations of stages of life, social and professional positions, identitary placements, more or less fictive biological determinations. In everydayness, we are absorbed into compliance with possibilities-of-being that we suppose prescribed to us. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”  Everydayness is mostly about ontic care. Initially and for the most part, care amounts to little more than compliance, and existence can be mapped on a cartesian plane and always potentially solvable through the right equation. People and things are subjects and objects of a pre-disposed calculable commerce of care. Subjects and objects come to existence in the ordered economic and discursive circulation of care.  In the ordered exchange of words and things, each and every one finds its place and needs to return to it. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” The economy of ontic care depends on the disposition of people and things in relation to each other in a “state in which everything is in its correct or appropriate place” (New Oxford American Dictionary). The distribution of people and things, their return to their place, their exchange and circulation that first and for the most part is assumed to take care of Care, all rests on an axiomatic of order. The nomos as law organizing circulation and exchange implies the sense of nomos as original appropriation and spatial disposition to which Carl Schmitt famously directed us. The nomos of home is first nomos of order; the nomos of order is first ap-propriation of the place from which every orientation and disposition proceeds. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

And yet, care exceeds the logic of appropriation and distribution, exchange and compensation. Care exceeds calculation and calculative thinking. As Heidegger’s existential analytic already showed us, care exceeds and precedes the everyday practice of taking care of people and things, as well as the theoretical concerning oneself with the appropriate order of this or that domain.2 Care does not happen between the limits of birth and death, since birth until death. Being in the world and being-together-with signal an ontological opening that always already exceeds the “disposition of people and things in relation to each other.” Care is inextricably tied to this dimension of radical opening, thrownness, ex-posure, and expropriation, to which the “ex-” of ex-istence alludes. This dimension of exposure is neither a stage nor a place in the order, and yet it remains tied to it. Care is the attuned opening of this dimension where the excess of order is given. It is the given possibility of that which exceeds order. What exceeds order is a dimension of freedom depending on death not as what borders existence, but rather what constitutes its ownmost possibility. This dimension of freedom is given only in terms of an aporetic experience of radical singularity that takes place in the passage between order and its other.

How is it with order? What is it about thought and existence beyond the axiomatic of order?  Can thought and existence – both and in their reciprocal implication – untangle themselves from the axiomatic of order that saturates Western episteme as well as it governs our average everydayness? Is there a chance to free birth and death from the grip of the axiomatic of order? Is it possible to recover death in and through birth as experience of freedom?

What is at stake here is neither a comprehensive Theory of Order, nor it is a deconstructive task with respect to a text or con-text in which such an axiomatic would be operative. It is not a matter of negotiating with the axiomatic of order the condition of its own self-disclosure or exposure. It is not first and foremost an exegetic enterprise addressing this or that text or thought about the concept order. What is at stake is first, more of an an-ordered inquiry into the operativity of the axiomatic of order as a pervasive mode of governing our existence and thoughts.

Thought as ordering force; thought as what is ordered and placed. Place and Order; Existence and Thinking. An infinite combinatory series of chiasmatic relations ultimately subject to the mandate of the axiomatic of order. A critique of the axiomatic of order concerns the very ground for thinking, and work in and through the possibility of a displacement of thought.  Displacement with respect to mastery as the logic governing the relation of thought and existence. A displacement with respect to episteme, which – as Lacan notes at the beginning of his XVII seminar:

It’s a funny word, I don’t know whether you have ever given it much thought – ‘putting oneself in the right position,’ in short it is the same word as Verstehen. It is all about finding the position that makes possible for knowledge to become the master’s knowledge.

(Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan 22)

A displacement of thought from episteme is a displacement of thought from its transcendental conditions as condition of mastery. What is at stake is a displacement toward order’s condition of impossibility. Such a displacement is infrapolitics.

But, how can academic writing elude the axiomatic of order when it is expected by default to belong to and to take place within the Western episteme? How can academic writing dodge the axiomatic of order when its own raison d’être depends on the concretion of such an axiomatic into the University and the stringent academic logic of positionality? Can an academic discourse be anything but some kind of master’s discourse? How can one try to trace and map the multiple implications and configuration of an axiomatic of order without subjecting oneself to sanction it further? How can I write without striving for achieving that point at which “finally everything begins to fall into place!”?

Ultimately, the challenge is looking into the operativity of the axiomatic of order while maintaining thought actively engaged with the infrapolitical exercise of stepping-back from it. Although, the operativity of the axiomatic of order extends its implication well beyond the self-imposed limits of philosophy, its critique shall imply a critique of philosophical mastery. A different discursive practice and a different register of thought are necessary in order to inquire into the axiomatic of order, into the extent of its implications, assumptions, and consequences, but also into its different operational registers and their correlation. What is necessary is an infrapolitical displacement on the ambiguous margin of philosophical discourse as discourse of the rational necessity of order stemming from the coupling of the discourse of the master with the discourse of the university.

What does the expression “axiomatic of order” entail? Why not simply refer to the concept of order? With the expression “axiomatic of order,” I am trying to name a broad and intentionally vague mandate entrenched in all levels of life. This is the implicit yet apodictic assumption of the necessity of order as a metaphysical and epistemological commonplace organizing experience as such. It is the assumption all beings (and ideas) can be classified, categorized, and taxonomically organized in a totalizing and hierarchizing objective table or tree. It is the unquestioned belief that our experiences of and through the world fall into distinct realms and spheres, for each of which one or more ordering principles could be set down. It is common sense’s interpreting and classifying individuals’ existence through a logic of belonging and “proper-ty.” Through a commonly accepted – or as Heidegger calls it vulgar– understanding of space and time based on the primacy of presence, the axiomatic of order governs thought and existence in their imperative – and to some extent parasitic – relation.3 The axiomatic of order is the unthought of knowledge, or “a positive unconscious of knowledge”– as Foucault says in the forward to the English translation of Les mots and les choses, which is quite opportunely translated The Order of Things. And yet, its scope exceeds the limits of knowledge as such limits depend on it. The axiomatic of order is the unthought topological dimension of discursive practices. As Heidegger points out at the beginning of Being and Time: “The genuine principle of order has its own content which is never found by ordering, but is rather already presupposed in ordering. Thus the explicit idea of world as such is a prerequisite for the order of world images” (Heidegger, Being and Time 51). In this sense, still in Heideggerian terms, the axiomatic of order is what initially and for the most part guides our everydayness, it is what is always already organizing our understanding of Beings in relation to beings.

2. About the Place

“In the beginning, there was not the origin. There was the place”(Lacan, My Teaching 4).  In the beginning, the order is given. There, in the beginning, there was the place as what is always already given. What is at stake when we consider the question of the beginning of the axiomatic of order, is not its origin as this is axiomatically set, thetically established. Order is always already there in the beginning. The always-already-there is constitutive of order’s axiomaticity. The axiomatic of order is always retroactively operating.  Referring to the beginning as a logical location means already abiding by the axiomatic of order. 

Turning to Lacan’s 1957 “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” one could say that the axiomatic of order is that “discourse in the universal movement of which” we are always already placed.

And the subject, while he may appear to be the slave of language, is still more the slave of a discourse in the universal movement of which his place is already inscribed at his birth, if only in the form of his proper name. (Lacan, Ecrits 414) 

Naming birth – as the historical and symbolical “location” of this logical beginning – gives away the retroactive operativity of the axiomatic of order. We are committed to a place at birth, that is in the beginning. Being born is being placed in a given order. This place is much more than simply “our place in the world,” yet it is also much less. If our place in the world is marked by virtue of a proper name that inscribes us in the movement of a discourse that precedes us, such a discourse depends on “the essentially localized structure of the signifier” (Lacan, Ecrits 418) that Lacan calls the letter

By “letter” I designate the material medium [support] that concrete discourse borrows from language. 

This simple definition assumes that language is not to be confused with the various psychical and somatic functions that serve it in the speaking subject. The primary reason for this is that language, with its structure, exists prior to each subject’s entry into it at a certain moment in his mental development. (Lacan, Ecrits 413) The ontotheological topology of order that precedes us begins with the letter. The letter is the place where the possibility of order is inscribed. The materiality of the letter is the materiality of the place in which order and discourse become possible as well as where they constantly slip into one another. And yet, the letter is not the place of the conciliatory union of words and things, quite the opposite: “For the signifier is a unique unit of being which, by its very nature, is the symbol of but an absence” (Lacan, Ecrits 17) Lacan says in the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter:’”  The very import of what Lacan puts forward under the rubric of the letter consists of undermining the risk of reification of the sign implied in the Saussurean schema. As Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe have noticed very clearly in The Title of the Letter, Lacan’s algorithm breaks up the unit of the sign, brings the signifier over the signified, and puts at the center of the process of signification the bar that separates the signifier from the signified.

The signifier is thus the difference of places, the very possibility of localization…It does not divide itself into places, it divides places – that is to say, it institutes them. This amounts to saying, if you will, that there is not a division because there is materiality, but rather that there is materiality because there is division.

(Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 42-43)

The symbolic closed order of the totality of signifiers constitutes rather than (more or less arbitrarily) re-presents “the proper disposition of people and things.” The signifier does not merely offer substantiality and positionality to a given immaterial signified. Rather the signifier is to be understood as the singular material autonomous divider where order starts. Order begins with the signifier’s institution of places that amounts to their division resulting from a certain resistance to signification. The letter affirms the topological substratum of signification, and it anticipates the possibility of meaning.

Meaning does not coincide with the unit of the sign, but rather insists in the signifier chain, that is the tropic articulation of signifiers according to metonymic and metaphorical connections which the material lack of the signifier enables. The agency of the letter is topological and tropological. The materiality (not substantiality) of the signifier and its autonomy with respect to the signified enable the rhetorical functioning of the axiomatic of order as such. The agency of the letter depends on the bar separating it from the field signified, that is to say that it depends on the signifier’s resistance to signification. As Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe put it “What is primordial (and foundational) is in fact the bar” (36). 

The resistance is inherently enabling, yet such a resistance is just what the axiomatic of order always already conceals.  The placement at birth is, then, the placement in the order of the signifier axiomatically assumed to correspond bi-univocally to the order of the signified. The subject of such a placement is supposed to coincide with itself. The supposed coincidence of thought and existence comes to correspond to the presumed tautological character of meaning as such.

I am thinking, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) is not simply the formulation in which the link between the transparency of the transcendental subject and his existential affirmation is constituted, at the historical apex of reflection on the conditions of science.

(Lacan, Ecrits 429)

The Cartesian subject annuls the resistance, or pretends to do so. It places itself as an existential tautological affirmation and as affirmation meant to purify the foundational ground of science. And yet, the bar cuts across the subject’s tautology.

Is the place that I occupy as subject of the signifier concentric or eccentric in relation to the place I occupy as subject of the signified? That is the question. The point is not to know whether I speak of myself in a way that conforms to what I am, but rather to know whether, when I speak of myself, I am the same as the self of whom I speak.

(Lacan, Ecrits 429).

Lacan’s algorithm of signification breaks up the tautological coincidence of the Cartesian subject with itself. It makes the excess of the axiomatic of order visible at the logical beginning of signification as such. And there is where subjectivity also takes place.

The Lacanian subject is itself an effect of signification as depending on resistance, that is to say, of the function of the bar. This baring enables signification (and so, subjectivity as an effect of signification) right to the extent that it separates two planes: signifier and signified; existence and thought. The resistance of signification opens up a breach, and there, subjectivity takes place as the constant non-passing passage between existence and thought.

What we must say is: I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking.

This two-sided mystery can be seen to intersect the fact that truth is evoked only in that dimension of ruse whereby all “realism” in creation derives its virtue from metonymy, as well as this other fact that access to meaning is granted only to the double elbow of metaphor, when we hold in our hand their one and only key: namely, the fact that the S and s of the Saussurian algorithm are not in the same plane, and man was deluding himself in believing he was situated in their common axis, which is nowhere. 

At least until Freud made this discovery. For if what Freud discovered isn’t precisely that, it is nothing

(Lacan, Ecrits 431 my emphasis)

The tautological coincidence of thought and existence is the result of a ruse, as much as their separation. We delude ourselves that we are situated on the common axis suturing signifier and signifying into meaning. Such a delusion derives its virtue from metonymy and metaphors, that is to say from the tropological dimension of the axiomatic of order. The illusion that there is “A place for everything and everything in its place” – as well as that we belong to such an order, i.e. we have a place in it – depends on the tropes governing the symbolic order. The ontotheological topology of the order is an effect of its concealed tropological operativity, which hinges on the resistance inherent to signification, or the impossible translation of the real into the symbolic.

3. Mother and Metaphorization

I gave her a proper name and metaphorical placement in the given order. I named her Mara. I named her after my mother, in her death. Naming her, I named the metonymical sliding of the daughter out of the mother and the mother out the daughter. The onomastic homage seems to accomplish a metaphorical closure of maternity.  The line of symmetry between Mara and Mara is actually the incision of death. Death is there like the cut necessary to build the continuous flow of the Möbius strip. The incision of death is the necessary condition of the continuous topological transformation of the mother into the daughter and the daughter into the mother. A game of always already an incomplete retrospective and parasitic identification, on which we found ourselves depending, so as to respond to the mandate of the axiomatic of order. “A place for everything and everything in its place!”

In this way, a woman becoming a mother will be the Mother, totally identified with maternity through a kind of murder of her own mother and through an obliteration of that relationship woman to maternity that leaves her, for the present, as the place holder (lieu-tenant) of origin: phallic earth-mother. Or again she will be inscribed or will inscribe herself in this way, in an in-finite genealogical process/ trial, an open count of the discount of origin: whereby she will be “like” her mother but not in the same “place,” not corresponding to the same point on the number line. She will be her mother and yet not her mother, nor her daughter as mother, with no closure of the circle or the spiral of identity. Endlessly encircling the speculum of a primal Passing from inside to outside without ever, simply, being resolved, resorbed, reflected. And with this extra turn, this extra return, this additional twist, both open and dosed, imprinted by each new “birth”- that is and is not identified with her mother, with maternity – she would no doubt be able to “play” her role of mother without being totally assimilated by it.

(Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman 76)

In the axiomatic of order, motherhood means originary placement. The mother is the epitome of the origin as place, and the place as origin. The mother is placing. It is the figure of the origin, and it is the transposition or translation into the origin. The mother’s womb as container and carrier. The mother hosts and delivers. The mother is metaphor par excellence, both as topos and as metaphorein, transference. Exploiting Paul De Man’s discussion of Rousseau’s second discourse, “Paradoxically, the figure literalizes its referent and deprives it of its para-figural status” (De Man 151), in this case the figure of the mother dis-figures the para-figural figure of the origin into an inescapable reality of the body of the mother. The origin becomes a literal fact and a unit of meaning in relation to the figure of the mother. The body of the mother endows the origin with its topological consistency. And yet, the mother herself is conceptualized as the figure of the origin. The closure of the maternal body depends on the conceptualization of the origin as its reference. Her unity and unicity are posited with respect to the figural reference for the origin. In reference to the presumed unity of the origin, the closure of the conceptualization of the mother takes place, and her tautological coincidence with the maternal body enforced. Like Derrida suggests in his dialogue with Elisabeth Roudinesco: “Now the most difficult thing to think, and first of all to desire, then to accept otherwise than as a monstrosity, is precisely this: more than one mother. Supplements of mothers, in an irreducible plurality”(Derrida and Roudinesco 40)

To the extent that the conceptualization of the origin conflates it with the topology of the proper, the maternal body becomes also the original trope on which every metaphorization depends. “The mother of all metaphors is, of course, the maternal metaphor. As is the reverse”(Parker 19), as Andrew Parker suggests in his The Theorist’s Mother. The metaphysical conceptualization of the origin as topology of the proper overdetermines the maternal metaphor. The mother commits the child to the signifier and places her in the symbolic order, her birthplace; she consigns her to the language as a given, her mother tongue. There, through the conceptualization of the mother and over the metaphorization her body, the copulation of language and metaphysics takes place. In the perspective of the axiomatic of order, the maternal body can only be thought as the originary Gestell (positionality/enframing).

Let us now enter into the meaning of this word “to position, place, set” (stellen) so as to experience what comes to pass in that ordering (Bestellen) through which an inventory arises [der Bestand steht] and is thus a standing reserve. To place, position, set means here: to challenge forth, to demand, to compel toward self-positioning. This positioning occurs as a conscription [die Gestellung]. The demand for conscription is directed at the human. But within the whole of what presences, the human is not the only presence approached by conscription. […]

Only what is so ordered that it stands in place and at the ready persists as standing reserve and, in the sense of standing reserve, is constant [an orderable standing reserve]. The constant consists of continuous orderability within such a conscription.

(Heidegger, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures 27).

Confronting the axiomatic of order demands a demetaphorization of motherhood as originary placement and of the maternal body as the original mythical place precursory to any proper placement in the order.  The position of the identity and unity of the origin through the retroactive metaphorization of the mother is one of the fundamental axioms of the axiomatic of order. No less than death, and in an intimate relation to it, birth shows itself as the aporetic border of order. Birth is the passage to order that is impossible because it is only retroactively conceptualized from within order itself.

As Nancy remarks in The Birth to Presence: “presence is what is born, and does not cease being born. Of it and to it there is birth, and only birth” (Nancy 2). The mother gives birth to Being as presence. In always assumed tautological coincidence of the mother with birth as position of the ontic origin, being is thought as presence while the giving of presence, that its presencing or – with Nancy – its continuing being born is erased.  The metaphor of the mother closes order on itself. It allows to think Being with beings, being as a thing. In and for such a closure the giving of Being is erased as it falls in the realm of production. The mother as maternal body is reduced to a site of extraction, her labor extracts labor and places it.  As Luce Irigaray indeed suggests, the maternal body, while it represents the infrastructure for the reproduction of the social order, is symbolically erased. “The social order, our culture, psychoanalysis itself, want it this way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded. The father forbids the bodily encounter with the mother” (Irigaray 39)

The cut of the umbilical cord establishes the mother like the bar that institutes the signifier as place. The cut establishes the originary place posing the signifier “mother.” The cut itself is the result of a metaphorization. For the mother to be one, for the mother to become the lieutenant of the origin, the cut needs to be one. The trope of the cut allows for the metaphorization of the mother as originary metaphor. The cut separating the child from the placenta, that is, from the mother and from herself at the same time, allows for the child to be named and inscribed in the symbolic order (of the father). The cut that leaves the visible mark of the navel on the body of the child is the cut representing its necessary separation from the origin to enter the symbolic order which will then be symbolically repeated in the experience of weaning. This and only this cut represents the cut that brings the child into an ordered world and retrospectively transforms the womb into the vehicle of such a placement. Again Irigaray:

According to this order, when a child is given a proper name, it already replaces the most irreducible mark of birth: the navel. A proper name, even a forename, is always late in terms of this most irreducible trace of identity: the scar left when the cord was cut. A proper name, even a forename, is slipped on to the body like a coating – an extra corporeal identity card.

(Irigaray 39)

That cut becomes the bar that makes signification possible, separating signifier and signified, the proper name and the body of the child bearing the mark of parasitic dependance on the maternal body. The axiomatic metaphorization of the mother as topology of birth works to secure the “game” of order establishing an eccentric localized origin that exceeds the play of the order – while also belongs to it. Such a metaphorization relies on the foreclosure of the dimension of the over-intimate encounter, the parasitism that plays out in the open body of mother, the intimate parasitic bond with the primal womb. “The openness of the mother [ouverture de la mère], the opening on to the mother [ouverture à la mère], appears to be threats of contagion, contamination, engulfment in illness, madness and death” (Irigaray 40).  Paradoxically, the cut closes even more than it opens the mother. It cuts the maternal body to close the mother and to hide the parasitic dynamic relation of life and death that inhabits her.

The plastic transformation of the body of the mother into the maternal body can never be without a cut. Through this metaphorical cut, i.e., the cut metaphorizing the mother as such, the axiomatic of order captures “life and death” into a logic of position and opposition. To the task of questioning such a logic, Derrida dedicated his 1975-76 seminar Life Death. At the beginning of the first session, with respect to “life and death” Derrida suggests that the positional logic governing the oppositional schema of the dialectic of life and death as if it “were a ruse put forward by “life death” in order to conceal, protect, shelter, harbor, or forget — something“(Derrida, Life Death 2). The oppositional schema of life and death that so clearly epitomizes the ontotheological topology of the axiomatic of order forgets and conceals the excess it cannot master. The ontotheological topology of the order starts with the place of life. This place is topographically defined by its limits, namely, by death understood as its outside. Life as place is defined for us by its opposition to death. Life as a place is the result of a metaphorical institution, that is the thetic gesture that posits as place and isolates it from its opposites as unity of meaning.  The topological order begins in the topos of life to the extent that life as place is the destination of the process of production-reproduction as exteriorization. This is precisely the process carried out by the Matryoshka-mother through her body topologically defined as case and container. 

And yet, the multiple ways in which life and death are actually entangled in and beyond the maternal body emerge as a what which is no longer either posited or opposed, as a no-thing exceeding the entire logic of position.

4. The Mother’s Other

I remember sitting with my mom on her bed. I know I was little because the bed is big enough to exhaust the visual background space of that memory. I remember her showing to me her “fake” breast. Her breast reconstructed after a mastectomy. Plastic. Today, I give her the voice and the tone I use with my daughter when I feel the urgency of breaking some important truth to her. It is a tone that bears the seriousness of a preformed revelation and the effort of giving it all in its bare complexity, yet striving to accompany it with the reassurance that it has already been handled. It is the tone I use with Mara every time I answer a question about her twin sister who shared with her a place inside my body for 36 weeks and only lived for 26 days. In my study, I have two pictures of motherhood, each hanging from a pin on a corkboard. My mom breastfeeding newborn me in the clinic bed. I am attached at her right breast; her fingers tap it a little like to help me feed and to make sure I am also breathing through my nose, or maybe to open up more field of vision. I am retroactively thinking that it was that the breast that was cut, the breast I was staring at in my memory while she was telling me about illness and life. But I will not try to find out whether it is actually the case. Then, there is the picture of me still in the operating room after giving birth, or better, after those two little bodies were displaced out of mine. Mara is on my right breast, her face almost sinks in it, and her little hand lies there like on the safe ground of future possession, just like my right hand lightly touches her head. I am not looking at her. On the left side of the picture, a nurse’s arms hold her sister next to me, “baby A” as they were calling her, “Emma Lidia” as we named her, and I am smiling at her. I don’t recall being able to give her any other actual smile after that one. And that smile looks to me like the substitute of the breast that I could never give her. That smile suggests a promise that was not kept: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

This fragment of memory from my earliest childhood years would qualify as one of those screen memories4 to which Freud recognizes the “great pathogenic importance”(Freud 73) at the beginning of a 1899 short essay. And it would probably be safe to assume that an analyst would bestow to it great pathogenic importance and place it as part of the process of identification with the bereaved object characterizing the work of mourning. In this sense, the significance of such a screen memory lies in the retroactive link that it provides between those two pictures; that is, between those two scenes of motherhood.

And nothing is more tempting than indulging in a fantasy of ultimate coherence and venture that the link between the two pictures suggests a circular closure of the work of mourning in the twofold identification where the lost-mother and the lost-child come to coincide with the child and the mother at a loss facing the trauma of losing a loved one and of being thereby abandoned for a successful symbolic re-establishment of the order: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

And yet, somewhere behind the illusion of the tautological juxtaposition of the mother and the maternal body, and behind the ruse/deception of the unicity of the cut, there is an opening for a step back from the maternal body as originary Gestell, which also means a step back from the axiomatic of order. Stepping back from the axiomatic of order demands a practice of thinking that dwells in the excess, the incongruency, and the aporetic rest of its ontotheological topology, that is, the infrapolitical dimension of existence. Such a practice of thinking is an exercise of freedom that depends on an affective register of thinking able to tune itself to the dimension of existence that the axiomatic of order harbors and yet leaves forgotten, hidden, concealed. A singular experience of such a practice of thinking can come through trying to recover the openness of the mother, the inherent multiplicity of the mother and of the cuts that slit the maternal body, and the repeated and continuous topological transformations of a parasitic ambivalent mother-child relation taking place in the opening of the mother. It is a matter of understanding “giving birth” from the perspective of the giving itself of Being as presencing as event of appropriation and expropriation of Heidegger’s Ereignis. It is a matter of making room for Appropriation to take place-time together with the withdrawal that belongs to it. “Expropriation belongs to Appropriation as such. By this expropriation, Appropriation does not abandon itself – rather it preserves what is its own” (Heidegger, On Time and Being 23). This perspective calls us to leave behind giving birth as labor of re-production, as labor reproducing labor through the extraction of a standing reserve to be placed in its proper place in the topological ontotheological order where economic and political equivalences and exchanges can take place.  If there is something like a gift involved in birth, it is nothing like the “present” of life as placement within the economic political order through the maternal body and its metonymic identification with the oikos (house). The gift involved is rather the one Derrida discusses in his 1978-79 seminar Given Time: “There is gift, if there is any, only in what interrupts the system as well as the symbol, in a partition without return and without division, without being-with self of the counter-gift“ (Derrida, Given Time. I 13).


  1. “The broad multiplicity of ways of being-in-the world in which one person can be presented by another extends not only to the well-polished modes of publicly being with one another, but concerns as well the possibility of taking care of things limited to definite circles, tailored to professions, social classes, and stages of life. But the very meaning of such representation is such that it is always a representation “in” and “together with” something, that is, in taking care” (Heidegger, Being and Time 230). ↩︎
  2. “‘Theory’ and ‘Praxis’ are possibilities of being for a being whose being must be defined as care” (Heidegger, Being and Time 187). ↩︎
  3. Here, I am referring to Alberto Moreiras’ essay “The Absolute Difference between Life and Politics” where Moreiras Says: “Infrapolitics is not on the side of the real or on the side of thought, it is rather between them, in the elusive caesura that is constitutive of their relation, and which marks both of them as a reciprocal form of use.
    A consequence of understanding thought as the use of existence—which depends on a certain overdetermination: thought that uses existence and that is the use of existence insists on thinking the relationship between thought and existence—is the immediate emergence of its imperative dimension. One thinks because one must think, thinking is existing and inhabiting, thinking is inhabiting existence, and it is not an option among others, but a human need, even if frequently unthematized. But, if the relation of thought to existence is imperative, then it can be said that so is the relation of existence to thought: that is, thinking inhabits existence, but existence imposes its necessity on thought.” (Moreiras 106)
  4. “Such a memory, whose value consists in the fact that it represents thoughts and impressions from a later period and that its content is connected with these by links of a symbolic or similar nature, is what I would call a screen memory.”(Freud 73–74) ↩︎

Works Cited

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  • Derrida, Jacques. Given Time. I: Counterfeit Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • —. Life Death. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault et al., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.
  • Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. For What Tomorrow: A Dialogue. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.
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  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, Revised edition, New York: State University of New York Press, 2010.
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  • —. My Teaching. London and New York: Verso, 2008.
  • —. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2007.
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