The Theorist's Mother


In The Theorist's Mother one of our subtlest literary theorists turns his attention to traces of the maternal in the lives and works of canonical male critical theorists. Noting how the mother is made to disappear both as the object of theory and as its subject, Andrew Parker focuses primarily on the legacies of Marx and Freud, who uniquely constrain their would-be heirs to "return to the origin" of each founding figure's texts. Analyzing the effects of these constraints in the work of Lukács, Lacan, and Derrida,...

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The Theorist's Mother

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In The Theorist's Mother one of our subtlest literary theorists turns his attention to traces of the maternal in the lives and works of canonical male critical theorists. Noting how the mother is made to disappear both as the object of theory and as its subject, Andrew Parker focuses primarily on the legacies of Marx and Freud, who uniquely constrain their would-be heirs to "return to the origin" of each founding figure's texts. Analyzing the effects of these constraints in the work of Lukács, Lacan, and Derrida, among others, Parker suggests that the injunction to return transforms the history of theory into a form of genealogy, meaning that the mother must somehow be involved in this process, even if, as in Marxism, she seems wholly absent, or if her contributions are discounted, as in psychoanalysis. Far from being marginalized, the mother shows herself throughout this book to be inherently multiple and therefore never simply who or what theory may want her to be. In a provocative coda, Parker considers how theory’s mother troubles will be affected retroactively by scientific advances that make it impossible to presume the mother's gender.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“I found Parker’s readings of Marx and Freud enjoyable and pleasingly intricate. . . . [T]his book is stimulating and provocative, and is well worth reading for all those interested in the relation between philosophy and maternity.”

- Alison Stone, Hypatia

“In the last chapter of The Theorist’s Mother, "Translating Revolution: Freud, Marx, and the Mameloshn," all of the threads of Andy’s book come together in a breathtakingly original reading…. [His] book is committed to asking a set of probing questions about how mothers disturb the very possibility of establishing any clear philosophical or critical distinctions at all.” - Elissa Marder, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Andrew Parker is one of the major literary theorists and critics of his generation, and The Theorist's Mother is a tremendous accomplishment, a keen and unprecedented argument about how the maternal appears, or fails to appear, within the archives of theory. In his extraordinarily careful readings of Lacan, Lukács, Marx, and Freud, Parker's point is not to reiterate that the maternal is repressed, foreclosed, or displaced, but to show how this structural loss comes to form and disturb the theory. His book is a tour de force, a rich, erudite, and original work by a rare and capacious intellectual."—Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, University of California, Berkeley

"Andrew Parker leads us from Derrida imagining his granddaughter as that philosopher he'd like to have had as his mother to Barthes becoming his mother's mother. Along the way, we revisit the hated mothers of Nietzsche and Marx, the psychosomatic body of Parker's own mother, Pontalis's droll image of the mother we spend a lifetime trying to change because we cannot change our mothers, and the originally ersatz mother. The mother becomes a figure of impossible origin: lacking original meaning, plural, split. As we move from the problem of reproducibility in Marxism and psychoanalysis, through translatability and the problematics of the mother tongue, ending with the pregnancy of Thomas Beatie, the figure of the literal mother has long since collapsed, the mother has never been natural, teleological, or original—the mother we meet with Andrew Parker is queered and invigoratingly plastic."—Penelope Deutscher, author of The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Ambiguity, Conversion, Resistance

"This fascinating and beautifully written book does for maternity what a good deal of theory, starting with Freud, has done for paternity. Andrew Parker shows that many members of the 'male theory canon' have developed strategies to make the mother disappear. He investigates the role of mothers in philosophers' lives and the treatment of mothers in their thought, shrewdly circling around issues of the maternal, the relation of biographical experience to theoretical articulation, and the nature and functioning of authority."—Jonathan Culler, author of The Literary in Theory

Alison Stone
“I found Parker’s readings of Marx and Freud enjoyable and pleasingly intricate. . . . [T]his book is stimulating and provocative, and is well worth reading for all those interested in the relation between philosophy and maternity.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“In the last chapter of The Theorist’s Mother, "Translating Revolution: Freud, Marx, and the Mameloshn," all of the threads of Andy’s book come together in a breathtakingly original reading…. [His] book is committed to asking a set of probing questions about how mothers disturb the very possibility of establishing any clear philosophical or critical distinctions at all.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822352327
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/23/2012
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Parker is Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the editor and co-translator of Jacques Ranciere’s The Philosopher and His Poor and a co-editor of After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Theorist's Mother


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5232-7

Chapter One

Mom, Encore

Rereading, Teaching, and "Maternal Divination"

With this title Encore, I wasn't sure, I must admit, that I was still in the field I've cleared for twenty years, since what it said was that it could still go on for a long time. Rereading the first transcription of this seminar, I found that it wasn't so bad.

[Sous ce titre d'Encore, je n' étais pas sûr, je l'avoue, d'être toujours dans le champ que j'ai déblayé pendant vingt ans, puisque ce que ça disait, c'était que ça pouvait durer encore longtemps. A relire la premiére transcription de ce Séminaire, j'ai trouvé que c'était pas si mal.]—JACQUES LACAN, Encore

Re-reading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere).

[La relecture est ici proposée d'emblée, car elle seule sauve le texte de la répétition (ceux qui négligent de relire s'obligent à lire partout la même histoire).]—ROLAND BARTHES, S/Z

Beware the Crocodile!

First, a timeline for those who may have come in late.

In 1982 Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose published their landmark collection Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, which included texts by Lacan and members of his circle, nearly all of which had never appeared before in English. Among the selections were two excerpts from Lacan's late seminar Encore (1972–73), which, enigmatic even by its author's standards, famously proclaimed that "Woman cannot be said [Ce La ne peut se dire]." Mitchell and Rose wrote long, separate introductions to the collection that contrasted Lacan's maverick views with previous psychoanalytic conceptions of femininity and that explained why, for Lacan, sexuality has everything to do with signs and nothing to do with anatomy. Challenging feminist as well as psychoanalytic tradition in its resolute and unfamiliar antinaturalism, Feminine Sexuality helped change the way its readers would henceforth think about "the body," a phrase that, in all the disciplines of the humanities throughout the ensuing three decades, has come to require little further qualification than an optional application of scare quotes. The volume, in short, was an event. Lacan's death in 1981 had the effect of making it seem like a testament.

In 1985 I wrote a short essay called "Mom" that you will be hearing a lot about in what follows.

In 1998 Bruce Fink published a lavishly annotated translation of the entire Encore seminar, including all eleven original sessions, which appeared under the new title On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. For the first time, Anglophone readers were able to follow Lacan's argument as it developed over the course of the whole seminar; they learned that such puzzling axioms as "there's no such thing as a sexual relationship" (12/17) made much more sense in context. The translation was published by W. W. Norton, the same company that brought out Mitchell's and Rose's volume sixteen years before, though the complete Encore differed further from its predecessor in appearing as part of a standardized series: "The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller." Miller, the director of the department of psychoanalysis at Paris-VIII, is Lacan's son-in-law and, "by a notarized document dated November 13, 1980, the appointed executor of the oral and written work of Jacques Lacan." Fink prefaced his translation with the reminder that Encore "was not a text at all originally, but rather a series of largely improvised talks given from notes. The French editor of the Seminar, Jacques- Alain Miller, had to work from a stenographer's faulty transcription of those talks, and was obliged to invent spellings for certain of Lacan's neologisms and condensations and new ways of punctuating for Lacan's idiosyncratic speech" (viii–ix).

More than a decade since appearing in English, Encore is now widely regarded as Lacan's most important account of the differential logic of "sexuation." The seminar's elaboration of a feminine form of jouissance that exists, as Lacan jokingly put it, "beyond the phallus" (74/69) continues to provoke controversy. But the seminar has also attracted of late another kind of commentary that seems eager to reclaim Encore from its initial auspices:

Existing English-language scholarship on Seminar XX has been based, until quite recently, on the snapshot of the Seminar provided by partial translations of two chapters in Feminine Sexuality. Hence, its almost exclusive popularization as a text on sexual difference to the neglect of its other interventions into philosophy and science. With the advent of the recent translation of Encore by Bruce Fink, English-speaking audiences now have access to a complete translation of the Seminar.... Its complete version reveals as much concern on Lacan's part with the post-Cartesian status of the subject—and the implications of this status for the limits and possibilities of knowledge and jouissance—as it does with sexual difference, and it arguably represents the most sustained and sophisticated work on these themes in Lacan's oeuvre.

What becomes of psychoanalysis (let alone Lacan's recasting of it) when sexuality has been redefined as merely one of its concerns? What could psychoanalysis possibly know that would be besides, or "beyond," whatever it knows about sexuality? What happens to psychoanalysis, and the possibility of its transmission, when the subject is said to be affected as much, or more, by "the limits and possibilities of knowledge and jouissance" as by sexual difference—as if, somehow, these domains were external to each other? When did jouissance stop being sexual?

I ask these questions with some urgency since Lacan's legacy seems to me imperiled if sexuality is regarded as simply a subordinate or regional interest. Sexuality and knowledge have always been near synonyms in psychoanalysis, a conjunction that has never ceased troubling more traditional epistemologies, not to mention psychoanalysis itself. We need only recall Freud on the "sexual researches of children," his recognition that knowledge is erotic from the start, to grasp why psychoanalysis cannot free itself from its own discoveries. After decades of defending the notion that libido comes only in a single masculine flavor, Freud confessed at the end of his life that he still had no clue as to "Was Will das Weib?"—an admission that formally in-completed everything he previously thought about sexuality, that is, everything he thought. Lacan's belated recognition of a feminine variety of jouissance—"something that one experiences and knows nothing about" (77/71)—was a far more avid embrace than Freud's of what keeps psychoanalytic knowledge from ever coinciding with itself. In Encore, indeed, Lacan pledged himself to "the side of the not-whole," to the kind of jouissance "that belongs to that 'she' [elle] that doesn't exist and doesn't signify anything" (74/69): "There are men who are just as good as women. It happens. And who also feel just fine about it. Despite—I won't say their phallus—despite what encumbers them that goes by that name, they get the idea or sense that there must be a jouissance that is beyond. Those are the ones we call mystics" (76/70). This would explain why Gianlorenzo Bernini's sculpture of Saint Teresa appears on the cover of the French edition of Encore: "She's coming. There's no doubt about that. What is she getting off on? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics consists in saying that they experience it, but know nothing about it" (76/70-71). We can certainly object here, as many frequently have, that any equation of mysticism with feminine jouissance risks reinforcing the historical terms of women's subordination. Some may object, too, that any wish to devenir-femme may go only so far—and hardly beyond the phallus. Even so, it is important not to miss that Lacan aligned his own writing with that of Hadewijch d'Anvers and other "female" mystics (of both genders): "These mystical ejaculations are neither idle chatter nor empty verbiage; they provide, all in all, some of the best reading one can find—at the bottom of the page, drop a footnote, 'Add to that list Jacques Lacan's Écrits,' because it's of the same order" (76/71).

This is certainly not a list to which Freud would have wished to add his work. Indeed, we can sense Lacan's satisfaction in imagining himself able to see "everything that Freud expressly left aside.... That field is the one of all beings that take on the status of woman, assuming that being takes on anything whatsoever of her destiny" (80/75). And yet—this is the problem around which this chapter will pivot—feminine jouissance became conceivable for Lacan only at the expense of the mother, who is never not an object of routine psycho- analytic knowledge: "If there is a discourse that demonstrates that to you, it is certainly analytic discourse, because it brings into play the fact that woman will never be taken up except quoad matrem. Woman serves a function in the sexual relationship only qua mother" (35/36). Unlike Woman, in other words, the mother in Lacan always lines up on this side of the phallus. After inciting her child to be the phallus she wants, the mother then fulfills her role—or not—by making it clear to the child that her own desire has all the while been focused elsewhere, "attached to the father." Everything therefore hinges on the quality of the mother's performance, but her desire, inherently erratic, is scary to behold:

The mother's role is the mother's desire. That's fundamental. The mother's desire is not something that is bearable just like that, that you are indifferent to it. It will always wreak havoc. A huge crocodile in whose jaws you are—that's the mother. One never knows what might suddenly come over her and make her shut her trap. That's what the mother's desire is.... There is a roller, made out of stone of course, which is there, potentially, at the level of her trap, and it acts as a restraint, as a wedge. It's what is called the phallus. It's the roller that shelters you, if, all of a sudden, she closes it.

Whatever phallic enjoyment the mother experiences in springing the trap of her desire, we now know that it falls far short of that truly excellent jouissance that most women (and some men) are capable of attaining. On the condition, of course, that they are not mothers. Lacan would seem to know how to tell the difference, though Encore itself refrains from doing so.

But: however much Lacan wants (to be) the woman rather than the mother, we ultimately will find him stymied by the task of reproducing his thought, a task that demands the teaching of what cannot be taught psychoanalytically: the noncoincidence of knowledge and experience. This task will require a version of the body, and a form of pedagogy, other than those conceivable within the institutions of Lacanianism—an impossible teaching body that functions not by the transmission of precepts but by what Lacan once described, elusively, as "maternal divination."


We will discover that Lacan tells this difference by embodying it, though to prepare the way for that conclusion I need first to revisit the essay I wrote in 1985. "Mom" was a reflection on my efforts to understand the nature of my mother's psychosomatic illnesses (what today we might call "somatoform disorders"). Selma Parker was never happier than in the throes of a medical crisis, which meant that she was generally happy in her way: she suffered from migraine, lower back pain, high blood pressure, neuralgia, heart trouble, valium addiction, assorted digestive complaints, and even multiple menopauses—among other ailments and phobias. She was proud that photographs of her ovaries appeared, sadly uncredited, in a mid-1960s gynecology textbook. Lest you think I exaggerate the degree to which she turned illness into a vocation (if not an art), I can attest that she seemed to have contracted a rare tropical disease while never leaving New Jersey (she had read about the disease in a medical manual and simulated its symptoms).

I turned to psychoanalysis some twenty-five years ago in an effort to make sense of my mother's illnesses. It took me almost no time to conclude that she had "converted" psychic trauma into physical symptoms, her body offering itself as a compliant medium "for the symbolic expression of unconscious conflict" that would have gone otherwise unexpressed. That this too is what my mothers' physicians concluded suggests the ubiquity within the medical profession, and within the culture at large, of a "psychoanalytic" understanding of illness as psychosomatic by definition. This understanding has defined psychoanalytic knowledge as early as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), when Freud promulgated his credo: "I believe in external (real) chance, it is true, but not in internal (psychical) accidental events." From that moment, people have died unluckily (in train wrecks, floods, etc.), but psychically they will always have been murdered. Though Freud later acknowledged great difficulty in distinguishing inner from outer causation, his heirs have seldom registered this problem as a problem. To cite just one characteristic example: for the Lacanian analyst Juan-David Nasio, a client's cancerous tumor "is a formation of objet a, a toxic excess of jouissance." Can a tumor ever just be a tumor? Nasio pictures somatic conversion as the flow of phallic libido between the "connected vessels" of fantasy and body. Do these vessels ever spring a leak? Are they always connected to each other? Can the flow between them ever be reversed?


Excerpted from The Theorist's Mother by ANDREW PARKER Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: Philosophy's Mother Trouble....................1
1. Mom, Encore: Rereading, Teaching, and "Maternal Divination"....................29
Beware the Crocodile!....................29
Lacan's Two Bodies....................40
Do Not Read....................45
"Maternal Divination"....................54
2. History, Fiction, and "The Author of Waverley"; or, Fathers and Sons in Marxist Criticism....................57
Family Romances....................57
The Prehistory of the Present....................59
The History of the Father....................68
Fictions: Of Paternity....................74
"The Author of Waverley"....................80
3. Translating Revolution: Freud, Marx, and the Mameloshn....................88
The Mother of Language....................88
The Translator's Hand(s)....................91
Philosophies of Translation....................95
Forgetting the Mother Tongue....................99
The Mameloshn....................103
CODA: Other Maternities....................111
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