I am the mother to four children (11 years, 3 years and 2 years, and a 6 weeks old). I have been pregnant six times. As it is perhaps for many (or perhaps, most) women ‘motherhood’ has occupied a complex place in my journey both as a daughter and as mother. I became a mother in my mid-twenties: pregnant at twenty five, motherhood happened when I was not so young and not so old. My life was very different when I had my eldest son. I was unhappy, isolated, and lonely. Soon after my son was born I ended what I found to be a difficult ten year relationship with his father and made a decision to ‘share care’ my eldest son with his father. I would soon regret this decision but shared-care is still in place – a situation that has improved only slightly as my son has developed and matured, but problems with the arrangement continue to this day – stubbornly entrenched. Years later and in a very different relationship and situation I had another son, then two daughters. I am now again in the reflective post-natal time, my baby daugther just 6 weeks old. I am in a reflective mood, dreaming of past pregnancies, past babies – thinking about what motherhood has meant for me and how my maternity continues to evolve.

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

What I want to share here is how drawing helped me to connect and understand my fractured and complicated new motherhood. I cannot think of this time without being almost consumed by what happened after. As joyous as I was to become a mother, I was also, in most other ways very sad. I made decisions that I regret and the consequences of which are still very much felt. As I ended what I experienced to be an unhappy relationship I struggled to come to terms with all that came next which would left me questioning the place for me in my son’s life and completely undermined my.motherhood.

It was during this time, over ten years ago, that I embarked on a prolonged period of ‘working-through’ my maternity using practices such as reading, writing and drawing to reflect on my maternal subjectivity – to think about what becoming-a-mother and being-a-mother meant for me, and what I could learn from this in the wider context of exploring subjectivity. This was about survivial as much as it was about transformation. I needed to understand in order to be-a-mother and to keep hold of my precious boy.  Here I want to share a specific aspect of this working-through – the part where I put some of the ideas and concepts of Israeli born artist, theoretician and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger to work in the understanding of my early mothering experiences. What follows is a brief introduction to Ettinger’s ideas followed by some of my drawings that formed part of the working-through.

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

Bracha Ettinger theories and concepts stem from what she refers to as the matrixial realm – a shareable, psychic dimension that underlies the individual unconscious and experience and is concerned with the intrauterine1 time and space but then transcends it. The womb, the matrix in Ettinger’s terms, is used, not primarily as a ‘natural organ’, but is used as a support for the theorisation of the matrixial field where we develop primal transsubjectivity and subsubjectivity; the ability, in the later stages of pregnancy, to relate to each other as partial subjectivities, co-emerging I and non-I‘s (foetus/baby and mother). The womb is thus used to think through human subjectivity and the possibility of a supplementary2 feminine difference – that is the human potentiality for shareability, as Ettinger writes:

the womb stands for a psychic capacity for shareability created in the borderlinking to a female body – a capacity for differentiation-in-co-emergence that occurs in the course of separation-in-jointness, where the affects and mental waves are continuously reattuned.3

At the matrixial borderspace – there is a meeting point between the becoming-mother and the foetus in the later stages of pregnancy – through what Ettinger calls transsubjectivity I (foetus) and non-I (mother) co-emerge and co-fade. This matrixial time, this intrauterine encounter is concerned with subjectivity-as-encounter or subjectivity as a shared event, between I and non-I. This happens between the partial, not full, becoming-subject and the not-yet, becoming-mother and is different each time it occurs. When it does happen, Ettinger writes of matrixial paths and strings being opened through what she described as the borderlinking between I as partial-subject and unknown non-I(s) and this merged partial subjectivity produces and shares ‘objects’ through vibrations, resonances via borderlinking between the subject-to-be and the becoming-mother. Within this transsubjective zone, matrixial frequencies, intensities and affects (which Ettinger terms the erotic antennae of the psyche4) circulate memory traces.5 These memories may be activated later when the once foetus is now an adult, for example when a woman becomes-a-mother herself, or, in any case these transmitted memory traces of the matrixial time are not forgotten and may potentially be triggered by other events, such as an encounter with art. The memories of this primordial event are not forgotten as the co-emergence from whence they were created is a psychic legacy, as such the new knowledges and the different relation with others is taken forward into the postnatal realm.6

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

The intrauterine interlacing of I and non-I is a process Ettinger calls metramorphosis.7 The importance of metramorphosis is that is gives name to the passage through which matrixial affects infiltrate the unconscious, wherein each matrixial encounter, Ettinger states ‘engenders jouissance, traumas, pictograms, phantasies, and affects and channels death-drive oscillations, libidinal-erotic flows, their imprints and affected traces in several partners, in compassion, conjointly but differently.’8 This sharing is different between the I and non-I. Ettinger writes that the non-I is a premature subjectivity and, also, because of the traumatic value of events, the I cannot fully handle the events that concern them, ‘they fade-in-transformation while my non-I becomes wit(h)ness to them.’9 Griselda Pollock interprets this metramorphosis passage of knowledge as follows:

the process of human genesis is to be understood as generating a specific kind of knowledge, or rather a knowing, which will show itself as re-cognition or re-co-naissance only in retrospect, since for the becoming-infant, the encounter happens too soon.10

In other words, she postulates that an other, starting with the m/Other (the non-I archaic, first of all a becoming-mother, a mother–to-be),11 will take the transcriptions of these imprints, these traumatic events; the m/Other will thus process them by becoming a wit(h)ness to them. Ettinger uses the neologism ‘wit(h)ness’ (witness with an ‘h’ in the middle) to indicate the sense of mutual co-emergence which marks relations with the matrixial borderspace. This wit(h)nessing enables the ‘woman’ (but not only the women, for this is a feminine field accessible to both men and women) as being able to enter into a web of several, partial subjectivities.12 It also sets up metramorphosis as a process that engenders primordial difference which is transformed by the transcription of memories in a ‘poetic-artistic process.’13

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

Ettinger maintains that the inter-psychic communication and transmission between individuals of the I and non-I dissolves individual borderlines so they become thresholds.14 It is at these thresholds that the knowledge is passed. This knowledge or subknowledge, is what Ettinger states we get a sense of in visual arts. It is what Ettinger refers to as compassion and fascinance15 that informs emergence within conaissance (co-birthing) of I(s) and non-I(s), which happens by way of this (affective) knowledge. This compassion relates to a transsubjective co-response-ability,16 inaugurated by and in the primordial matrixial encounter-event. This compassion is where pre-maternal hospitality, empathy and responsibility encounters prenatal not yet-mature responsibility, compassion and fascinance.17 This compassion involves interconnectedness in self-relinquishment and wit(h)nessing (being with), which provides the basis for aesthetical and ethical creativity and ethical potentiality that can evolve all throughout life through new matrixial constellations.18 Such new matrixial constellations can be created by artworking – in the creation of art or an encounter with art.

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

For me, Ettinger’s matrixial theory helped in my understanding of my early motherhood experiences. The matrixial is a theory I have returned to again and again; each time the yields have been different. My drawings are not meant to be an instrumentalisation of the matrixial, nor do they serve as a good-fit in terms of illustrating Ettinger’s theories, as might first be thought. But they are a partial manifestation of a working-through that connect specifically to some of Ettinger’s theories introduced here.

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

Before I became familiar with Ettinger I started to draw. I drew every day for a year – tiny black-ink scrawly drawings held in a series of small lined notebooks. The compulsion to do this ritualistic daily practice emanated from a desire to work-through some of the difficult senses, feelings, emotions, thoughts I had that were part of, or which I associated with, my maternity. The drawings were concerned with exploring those parts of my maternity that I could not access in the writing of others or by writing myself or in the art of others – the pain I experienced that I thought was my own. Griselda Pollock writes that a matrixial encounter makes us feel fragile and vulnerable but she goes on to to say that this does not mean that we should protect ourselves from it19 – there is something of this that I connect to in the practice of drawing; that I am reminded of when I now see these drawings – that trauma is part of what is means to be human.

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009 

Ettinger writes:

In art, the aesthetical working-through bends towards the ethical with matrixial response-ability in wit(h)nessing…Artworking is sensing a potential co-emergence and co-fading and bringing into being objects or events, processes or encounters that sustain these metramorphoses and further transmit their effect. Art evokes further instances of trans-subjectivity that embrace and produce new partial subjects, and makes almost-impossible new borderlinking available, out of elements and links already partially available in bits. These are going to be transformed in ways that can’t be thought of prior to artworking itself, on the way to shifting with-in-to the screen of vision inside the tableau .20

Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009
Paula McCloskey, Untitled, 2009

I am not suggesting that my drawings constitute quite what Ettinger is referring to above; but perhaps, for me at least, they functioned as (part of a wider) aesthetical and ethical working-through of my maternity, as a subjective emergence. Furthermore, the drawings might be thought of as an unconscious or subconscious act of fascinance – an aesthetic affect that functions to prolong and delay the time of the (matrixial) encounter-event. This was not the intention at the time, but reading Ettinger’s ideas has provided a particular understanding of them. Taken as such then, these drawings could be said to be part of a something, that might well be part of a working-through of matrixial differentiating-in-jointness that paved the way to a more ethical way of being, and certainly to an openness to the possibility of being transformed by maternity, by art or indeed by other encounters.

1Ettinger describes the intrauterine as ‘…a “feminine” dimension based on [the] pregnancy pattern.’Ibid., 218.

2‘Supplementary’ to that of the psychoanalysis of the Freud and Lacan. For example, Lacanian theory is concerned with a subjectivity that develops only postnally through a series of cuts, and which is organised around the phallic. The mother-child dyad that exists is the realm of Lacan’s Imaginary, whereas the Symbolic – language is the realm of the postnatal. As highly simplified, according to Lacanian thinking with the threat of paternal castration looming the infant must deny the mother and leave behind the maternal body – the feminine devalued.

3Bracha L. Ettinger, ‘Weaving a Woman Artist With-in the Matrixial Encounter-Event’, Theory, Culture & Society 21, no. 1 (2 January 2004): 18.

4Bracha L. Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’, Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation 5, no. X (2005): 7066.

5Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace.

6Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace.

7Ibid., 140.

8Ibid., 141.


10Pollock, ‘Mother Trouble: The Maternal-Feminine in Phallic and Feminist Theory in Relation to Bracha Ettinger’s Elaboration of Matrixial Ethics/Aesthetics’, 8.

11Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, 66. Also see Bracha L. Ettinger, ‘(M)Other Re-spect: Maternal Subjectivity, the Ready-made Mother-monster and The Ethics of Respecting’, Studies in the Maternal 2, no. 1&2 (2009), http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk/back_issues/issue_three/mother_respect.html.

12Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, 141.


14Ibid., 169.

15Fascinance is an aesthetic affect that functions to prolong and delay the time of the encounter-event, which allows a working-through of matrixial differentiating-in-jointness. For fascinance to take place there must be compassionate hospitality (from the m/Other); that is fascinance takes place only if ‘borderlinking with-in a real virtual, traumatic or phantasmatic encounter-event meets with compassionate hospitality arriving from the other (as m/Other).’Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’, 707. This working-through of the traces of the Other is what Ettinger calls an ‘aesthetical gesture’.Ibid. Ettinger posits artworking and prolonged psychoanalytical healing as both potential instances of such compassionate encounter-events of prolonged generosity Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’.

16Pollock defines response-ability as ‘the ability to respond to the humanness of the other, to her vulnerability, and to any risk of the threat to humanness compromised by the cruelty of violence.’ See Pollock, ‘Aesthetic Wit(h)nessing in the Era of Trauma’, 831. For a more expanded discussion of transsubjective co-response-ability see Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’..

17Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’.


19Griselda Pollock, ‘Femininity: Aporia or Sexual Difference?’, in The Matrixial Borderspace, by Bracha L. Ettinger (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006a), 31.

20Ettinger, ‘Copoiesis’, 706–11.


About Paula McCloskey

I am a researcher, artist and mother of four based in Sheffield, UK. My partner, children and I co-founded and now collaborate on A Place of Their Own – a critical and creative art, spatial and activist practice.

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Website: http://www.aplaceoftheirown.co.uk

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One Response to “Drawing through maternal subjectivity”

  1. Helen Sargeant

    Dear Paula,
    These are such moving and beautiful words, drawings and ideas, they inspired me to make some drawings today see: “Early Morning Drawings”. My eldest son is away at the moment and perhaps I have too much time to think and reflect with only one child to keep me busy. I miss him so, his presence. When it is not really a choice to have a child apart from you, it is one of great endurance to manage each day. Much Love Helen x


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