Perfect Strangers Playing Mothers

| July 20, 2010

What does it mean to be a teacher? Caught between the need to differentiate ourselves as professionals and the need to be recognizable, have we gone the way of the British School of psychoanalysts? According to Adam Phillips, in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, the paradox of the analyst is that they must not be anyone in advance, available for what is to come—the “perfect stranger”—and yet:

Mothers, as we shall see, were used by the British School theorists, as though they were a genus, to provide descriptions of what psychoanalysts were supposed to be doing. They became models for a new profession that had uniquely problematized the question of the model, of the production of paradigms. […] To avert the catastrophe of the potentially endless charade of identifications—and to preclude addressing the question, What do analysts want?—mothers were looked at, or rather observed, for the answers.

Is this not one of the classic roles of teachers? The surrogate mother. Or, as Plato would have it, the midwife. Which is to say, the professional mother.

But is not the professional mother the one who can never go back to just being a mother? There is perhaps something of envy in teachers, marked by covert hostility at times, of ordinary mothers. I cannot do the job of the mother for her…

If only…

Is it not this “if only” that the teacher wields as a profession: the limit becomes the strength, through ritualized reenactment. I am not your mother, I am your professional mother. This does not keep one from dreaming of being there first, of being the pre-oedipal mother.

The return is a cul-de-sac. There is no beginning, only the analysis of the fantasies of beginning, of their wishful improvisation. It is as though, for the analyst, in practice there are two temptations, two extremes: identification either as caricature, playing mothers, or as the willing victim of an open transference; either guru or blank page.

But these extremes are not so much exclusionary as strategic, the Socratic midwife is also the one who knows, more than most, that he does not know.

When the psychoanalytic theorist becomes wary of his omniscience he tends to make a fetish of “not knowing.” “In short,” Bion writes, “there is an inexhaustible fund of ignorance to draw upon—it is about all we do have to draw upon.” The skeptic always boasts.

Few teachers have set the context that would allow them to get away with the fallout from such an accurate boast. In general one must strongly suggest that one is feigning ignorance, out of humility or pedagogy. The implication is that there is always a remainder. Either I do really know or, even better, I know where the secret passage-way lies. The midwife as gatekeeper. But what gets codified in this feigning is not mystery but reliability. Wonder in the service of the pre-ordained.

There is, I think, an inevitable connection between the analyst already in position as the mother—and especially the pre-oedipal mother—and psychoanalysis as the coercion or simulation of normality. And this is the situation, traditionally, when Dionysos arrives.

Using a fantasy about mothers—about the beginning—to foreclose the transference turns psychoanalysis into perversion, perversion in the only meaningful sense of the term: knowing too exactly what one wants, the disavowal of contingency, omniscience as the cheating of time; the mother who, because she knows what’s best for us, has nothing to offer.

All of this to preclude answering the question “what do analysts want?”, or for our purposes, “what do teachers want?” The odd part is that it presupposes we know what mothers want. Or at least, what we want of our mothers. The professional mother is the mother who wants precisely what we want (but don’t know we want.)

Here the most cliche answer for our own wants will suffice, and indeed will often be vigorously defended. I just want to make a difference, for example.

Could it be that part of the satisfaction of this is that we don’t have to want anything ourselves? That is, what teachers might largely want is to be present and receive credit for not wanting anything ourselves. We will be like a mother, but professional.

Which is to say, even more selfless?

In any case, would this not also serve as a front? There may be a specific satisfaction in expressing no personal want, but might this not be the cover for any number of other desires as well? For any number of other identifications and roles having nothing to do with mothering?

Even when we pin it down the role of teacher eludes us.