“I am feeling a little bit nervous, just like you do when you set your child off. But I have absolute confidence that it’s going to do what it needs to do to collect that science. And it’s going to turn around and tell us that it’s ok.” – Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager, NASA. Speaking of New Horizon‘s Pluto flyby, July 2015.
A mother bears the child. Until she doesn’t, which is when she bears the weight of the child’s distance. What makes it possible for the child to explore his ever-widening circle of family and school and social life, is the ongoing sense that the mother is, still, there somewhere, there, at the centre of his universe. This motherly capacity to be close, even while making it possible for the child to explore ever farther afield, is what Winnicott once called the mother’s “everlasting arms” (Home).
One of the things that makes the mother a kind technology is the ever-present potential for failure. A thin, elastic thread marks the way home. (Pluto is 2.66 billion miles from Earth.) The mother is the continuity between our success and failure, victory and disaster. The child aborts the mission and comes back a hero, a “successful failure,” as the crew of Apollo 13 put it when, after enduring near-catastrophic damage to their spacecraft, they made it safely back to earth. That’s what mother means, a perspective from which to see ourselves as successful failures. A worthy project – if only it didn’t entail demanding of someone the impossible task of always being there, while at the same time being what is left behind. As Jacqueline Rose writes recently, “failed mothers are everywhere – overinvested, neglectful, dead” (“Mothers” LRB). And, she continues, “in so far as mothers are seen as the fons et origo of the world, there is nothing easier than to make social deterioration look like something which it’s the sacred duty of mothers to prevent.” It is the mother’s failure, not our own, that worries us. That little guy is going to turn around and tell us he’s OK. But if he doesn’t. Well. What’s really unimaginable is the chance there might not be anyone there to take his call, if he calls. Or to soften the impact of his landing, if he returns.
By thinking about motherliness as a technology and the motherliness of technology, we see the paradox of futurism. The ‘new horizons’ that technology promises are what anchor us to a world we can always come back to. (A mother waiting by the phone.) What the images collected here describe is not a mother earth v. technology duality, nor is it the idea of a particular kind of technology that is especially motherly, or a particular element of mothering that is especially technological. What theses images hold is both motherliness and technology at the point at which they cannot be separated. Transatlantic cables, lines of trajectory, gravitational orbits, switchboards, telecom signals – all manner of everlasting arms, marking the mutuality of, on the one hand, the idea of venturing out, and on the other hand, the idea of the soft return. Motherly horizons, like technology itself, is a kind of closeness constituted by distance, which inheres at the intersection of fantasy and the material world.
“We had a ‘squawk box’ in the home and Marilyn and the kids could use it to hear all of the communications between the crew and Mission Control. It was tough for them, obviously — they could listen to everything that was being said, but they could not talk to us. I know that there were times when Marilyn couldn’t help but be upset — times when maybe the voices of the crew and the voices at Mission Control were raised a little louder than usual. Not knowing if that meant something was really wrong, or if we were suddenly in real danger . . . I know that was hard for all of them.” – Apollo 13 commander, Jim Lovell, describing his family’s experience during the Apollo 13 crisis.
Marilyn Lovell listening to squawk box in her home
*Part of a series called island infrastructures