From Face Down

The Oakland-based press Timeless, Infinite Light has allowed us to publish an excerpt from Brian Whitener’s fantastic new book Face Down, which can be purchased here.

From Face Down

In the mid-1850s, a non-ethnically marked lady, Mother, and her partner refused factory work because it meant Unknown Mother would have to give up her paid work in the home. Your Mother felt the ‘family’ as a unified force of production, especially for those without a skilled trade to ply. In 1997, Unknown Mother, in a self-titled U.S. television show, reflected on the path that brought her to leave her childhood love in law school and become a white single female lawyer working at a firm in Boston: “You’re putting the law between us. I choose the law too.” Next century, Mother sat at the end of a long table, slowly pushing the table inside her, smiling and grunting softly.

In 1861, in the city of London, Mother had her last child at age 37. Her five oldest were already working for various masters, older family relations who were contracted specific piece work by factory owners. Those 5 children accounted for over 50% of the family’s total income. In 1997, on her second day at a new job on TV after being sexually assaulted at her old job and then being allowed to quit because the older white male partner who assaulted her was a “rainmaker,” Your Mother stares at herself in the mirror while wearing nothing but a pencil skirt and white bra and hallucinates her breasts growing until they snap her bra straps; later that same day she hallucinates being fucked in the missionary position by her ex and former childhood sweetheart in a huge red coffee cup filled with white suds that mimic the foam of a latte. Next century, Unknown Mother re-enacts this scene with 5 cups made out of the hearts of her employers; in the first cup she drowns a factory owner, while her avatar in the fourth cup sorts through body parts that the audience understands to be family relations and ties them together using rope made of counterfeit currency.

In Britain in 1851, Unknown Mother, like 37% of all (white) women, worked as a non-farm domestic servant; the second-largest occupation for women at the time was needlework. These women earned 60% of men’s wages and most, in addition, worked only part-time. The women who worked in sweatshops and factories were not married, very poor, and young. They did not find work on the open market; rather they were employed with and by relatives, there being a “strong patriarchal aversion” to their working in “close proximity with unrelated men.” In 1997, a young, white female lawyer named non-Mother is followed into the bathroom by her new (male gendered) boss and her character is given 10 seconds of surprised annoyance to represent years of feminist (not trans or gender queer) struggle—the unisex bathroom is a hollowed out utopia deployed in the name of creating plot points through eavesdropping from inside stalls, capitalist workplace efficiency by increasing camaraderie amongst male and female employees, and a great deal of sexual tension while washing hands. Next century, Your Mother could no longer take it and spends a decade slowly, piece by piece, dismantling a bathroom with a needle and taking a photograph of each piece next to her body before dying and reincarnating herself as a wage.

At the end of the first industrial revolution in 1873, Mother and her children struggle to swallow a thin gruel while their distended limbs flounder uncontrollably in yellow, noxious wind. Slowly over the next 30 years, the white family will be fully reconstituted around a single male wage earner. By 1950, only 10% of white women will be engaged in paid labor outside the home. By 1990, that number will increase to 50%. In 1997, the popular USAmerican TV show, Your Mother, bases an entire episode around the premise that for men sex is about “parts,” while for women sex is “mental.” In this same episode, a lawyer defends himself from a sexual harassment charge by arguing that he has OCD which makes him grab, compulsively, women’s asses and Unknown Mother, after explaining how she feels like men do not see her in job meetings, turns into a little girl wearing a purple scarf. Next century, Mother bathes her former step-child who is a daughter’s sister’s lover and aunt’s soon-to-be child: Mother washes their bodies and pulls their indentations out and pushes them back in again, naming each quietly under her breath as she washes, Peyton and Riley, Shane and Taylor, Reagan and Tristan and Drew and Devin…

The Unknown Mother was, before anything else, an image. In the first episode of the Your Mother Show, Mother’s soon-to-be-boss, Lou Grant played by Ed Asner, asks a series of increasingly invasive questions, to which Your Mother finally demands “You can’t ask that.” “You’ve got spunk,” he replies. Spunk, he says. It’s illegal, she says. Fuck the law. Fuck labor. Long live the image of this white lady question mark. The image of Unknown Mother and Her Friend were white but ethnically marked women who made their first television appearances as recurring characters on Happy Days: they were friends of the Fonz, Henry Winkler, who I saw speak at Earth Day in my hometown in the early 1990s. Because I was only allowed to watch one hour of television a week growing up, I didn’t know who he was, but I remain thankful for the multiple hours a week that Mother spent taking me or picking me up from Parnassus and the boathouse of Charon where I supped on compotes of local property taxes. These hours in addition to the hours that Unknown Mother already worked, as a night nurse, as a cypher for the walking dead, as a mercurial katechon, on an obgyn, or on obigyni floor as I learned to say it listening to her at a Formica table in our Unknown Kitchen. I knew as much about Henry Winkler as I did about her work or the women Your Mother worked with—but only my non-knowledge of Henry Winkler was something that was ever legible in any way to any other individual or public forum. This is the negative space against which this entire piece is written. And the negative space of that space is the crossing of whiteness and labor.

The image of Your Mother and Her Friend, while being a show about ethnically-marked, white, blue-collar women who worked in a bottling factory in Milwaukee, was also a show filmed at the end of the 1970s but set in the late 1950s, that is, both George Lucas and Hamlet. A show about women, who, while they were accorded the right to work, had love interests, that is, who we would imagine would not be working for much longer but also a show about women, who while they were accorded the right to work, was a show about voluntary association, about proletarian love that refused to be recognized by the law, the ethnically-marked proletarian gang of friends. In season 5, the show jumps temporally and geographically: to Burbank, California, the last safe haven in the US as plagues of automatized, mechanical locusts descend on Milwaukee, welcome to your future, gift wrapping and service work, take a Valerie Solanas paperback and have a seat. How this image was and also was not Your Mother, how it was also and was not a means for finding Your Mother. What we learned and did not learn about Your Mother and labor and about race and solidarity with workers in the home or in the services that once were located in the home. What Unknown Mothers taught and did not teach us about the law and why it had to be destroyed. Why we had to learn about Mother and non-Mother from an image, instead of Your Mother who in the future would bath us, gently wrapping a tether around our necks. How the Unknown Mother is both fantasy and labor, both law and its dissolution, both image and its unequal opposite.

Mother, or a clinic in how to sit with your legs already crossed

Mother, or how to do the labor that no one else will do

Mother, or a clinic in being, in this case, a white badass with a small ass kitchen because you don’t care about cooking even though you are still good at it

Mother, or fighting for the space to do the labor that no one else will do

Mother, or a clinic in making graceful leaps from your living room to this weird platform, proscenium thing that they built in front of your bay window

Mother, or a clinic in how to create a psychic carapace out of popular culture for your white teenage body to live inside

Mother, or a clinic in how to let your body decay into a shag carpet and become one with your intentional family in the exploding nebula of the eternal recurring condensation of one’s voluntary associations in insurrection

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Brian Whitener

Brian Whitener is a writer living in Mobile, Alabama. Recent projects include De gente común: Arte, política y rebeldía social, edited with Lorena Méndez and Fernando Fuentes (Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, 2013) and as a participant in the translations: Genocide in the Neighborhood (ChainLinks, 2009), The Unreal, Silver-Plated Book (Departamento de Ficción, 2011), and The Empire of Neomemory (ChainLinks, 2013).