Katie Jones - Towards Elisabeth von Samsonow, Anti-Electra: The Radical Totem of the Girl
Elisabeth von Samsonow, Anti-Electra: The Radical Totem of the Girl, trans. by Anita Fricek and Stephen Zepke (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2019)
Bionote: Katie Jones is an honorary fellow at Swansea University with research interests in gender and sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, and life writing.
Swansea University, UK
Conceptualized as the counterpart to Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Elisabeth von Samsonow’s Anti-Electra: The Radical Totem of the Girl installs itself into a complex history, while also gesturing toward her feminist - or perhaps that should be “girl-ist” - position. Anita Fricek and Stephen Zepke, the translators of the English edition, have adapted the German title, Anti-Elektra: Totemismus und Schizogamie/Anti-Electra: Totemism and Schizogamy, thereby underlining the importance of the girl, who has historically been “endowed with lack” and taken for “something neutral more in the sense of a thing than a person endowed with the power for action” (xvi). Simultaneously theoretically rich and playful in style, Anti-Electra conducts a search for pre-Oedipal identification with the mother and, through the mother, to the animal and the earth. Electra is reinterpreted as a symbol of electrification and connection to the “electrified apparatus”: our modern modes of communication and navigation that are multiple and outward branching, in contrast to the downward facing triangular relation characteristic of the Oedipal or Electral triangles.
The book’s opening line gestures towards Luce Irigaray’s writing on sexual difference, in which she calls for a reinterpretation of man’s relationship to God, arguing that the male form attributed to God denies female spirituality and transcendence, instead confining her to the material body. However, while woman is Other within this patriarchal imaginary, she is Other within what Irigaray calls “the sphere of sameness.” In other words, difference is simultaneously projected onto her and absorbed, it has little or no meaning other than to shape constructions of the masculine. In many ways von Samsonow follows this Irigarayan thread, but where Irigaray writes towards twoness (female and male), von Samsonow emphasises multiplicity over the masculinist sphere of sameness.
The first chapter, “Electra as Female ‘Oedipus,’” reads the Electra myth and outlines its unsuitability as the female counterpart to the Oedipal model of masculine development à la Freud and his contemporaries. Electra is a somewhat inactive figure, particularly when compared to Oedipus: she fantasizes about her father, and then fantasizes about matricide, but it is her brother Orestes who commits the murder of their mother, Clytemnestra. In addition to such observations, von Samsonow begins to sketch a correlation between pre-Oedipality and Clytemnestra’s power: “Electra is the daughter of a Great Mother and thus inhabits a world where the mother provides the primary identification” (17). Electra’s story is then used as a frame through which to consider the Athenian triumph over the ancient Minoan culture.
The Minoan era is conceptualized as the pre-Oedipal stage of history, which has been reinterpreted and reframed through a masculinist hermeneutics to defang and obscure the mother’s historical power and agency. von Samsonow considers the implications of Electra’s story of matricide, which reflects patriarchal values, and contrasts it with an eco-feminine notion of a kind of Bronze Age matriarchy, or “Demeter-galaxy,” in which the chthonic, earthy, agricultural mother “was the land” (28). The daughter of such a mother “stands on the shoulders of the mother from whom she grew, like a strong branch from its tree” (28); in other words, upward and outwardly in opposition to the downward facing Oedipal/Electral triangular relation. The feminist implications of the author’s revaluing of maternity recall the work of post-structural French feminists, such as Irigaray - as does the evocative and poetic language. However, the multiplicity and intersubjectivity she advocates implies a somewhat queer position: “Female homosexuality is the path into the pre-Oedipal world of the mother” (17). von Samsonow’s “mother earth” represents alternative forms of kinship; she is witchy and powerful, and her union with the earth and the animal reflects this. The author thus begins her reinterpretation and recalibration of myths depicting unions - Pasiphae’s union with a cow in the myth of the labyrinth, for example. The reinterpretation of female power affirms the relation between the human and the animal, critiquing the totemistic construction of the animal as an Other to affirm an anthropocentric humanity.
Chapter Two, “Radical Totemism and Automatism,” aligns our contemporary use of media and technology with totemism, and reconsiders the implications of an anthropomorphized deity. For example, von Samsonow draws connections between modern genetic engineering, which makes the conjoining of animal cells with the human body possible, and ancient Egyptian embalming processes carried out on humans and animals: “The animal functions as specific and amplified proxy for the human and includes a communicative dimension” (75). The author reads the mummified figure (animal/human) as a protective ancestor, a (perhaps mother-like) container, which projects and is projected upon, it is “a screen broadcasting transmission” (ibid.). Rather than blurring the difference between the animal and the human, this process of alignment forces us to admit that “we do not know what a human is” (76). Through sketching out a position that establishes the animal and the mummy as an ancestral figure, von Samsonow begins to consider the implications of an anthropomorphized God. Whereas in ancient Egyptian religions many of the deities are human-animal hybrids, the transition to anthropomorphized gods heralds the age of the father, which usurps the place of the mother-animal-earth constellation and connection. The consequence of this, according to the author, is that “the female imaginary is put into a state of emergency, because women’s relationship with the prehuman ‘mother’ can no longer be symbolically grounded” (85).
von Samsonow is an anthropologist and sculptor, and her work explores the relationship between the lived and sculpted body. Chapter Three reflects this point, and is entitled “Totemism and Sculpture: Preliminaries to a Theory of Schizosoma.” In this section, the argument transitions from the mummification discussed in the previous chapter to the notion of becoming sculpture, and the place of sculpture in relation to the other arts. The author describes cultural hostility toward sculpture, and the dogmatic and dismissive approach to this art as “form in space,” a position she characterizes as the result of Judeo-Christian propaganda (102). Instead, von Samsonow views the sculpture as a body double and form of “effective schizosoma” (104) - that is, an object that is split from itself. The example used here is the sculptural body placed in a tomb or a temple, inviting the deity or deceased to come to life (ibid.), thereby contrasting with the picture or painting, which merely represents the deity or human. The primary thrust of this chapter reads sculpture in terms of pre-Oedipality; even script “retains a connection to the plastic medium in the depths of its own pre-history” (119). The physicality and materiality of the plastic or sculptural form holds relevance for the gendered hierarchy between painting and sculpture, spirit and body, which is elucidated in this chapter through an examination of the powerful oracular and feminine function of the sculpture; the repression of the sculptural is the repression of the maternal body, and the animal and earth. The eco-critical/eco-feminist potential of this book comes to the fore in this chapter, in which the earth becomes body.
Chapter Four, “The Labyrinth: General Theory of Schizosoma,” re-reads the story of the labyrinth, Daedalus, and his design of the contraption which allows for physical union between Pasiphae, Minos’ human wife, and a cow. In the patriarchal telling of the myth, the sexual act is degrading and reflective of Pasiphae’s corruption, but “before her defamation, Pasiphae and the bull represent the ideal divine couple: the moon goddess together with the white oceanic bull” (150). The interference of the engineer in the divine union reflects a cultural shift that represses the female imaginary. The union, as is well known, produces the Minotaur, which is imprisoned in the labyrinth. As such, the labyrinth constitutes a symbol of the mother/ Pasiphae’s womb; it is a primeval mother, reconfigured and deformed/defamed by patriarchal hermeneutics: the sacrifice of virgins to the Minotaur in the labyrinth reflects fantasies regarding devouring, monstrous mothers, and constitutes the origin of the Electra complex. Like the womb and the totem, the labyrinth contains, but unlike the nurturing containment of the womb, the labyrinth/womb consumes and becomes a feared and abject space. As Samsonow does throughout her narrative, she creates a correlation between the ancient and the modern. In this case, the labyrinth is reconsidered in relation to satellite technology, as the author explores the inborn “satellite” of the body, a force which aids our balance when we dance or run (157). This “satellite” constitutes our connection to an animal spirit or a pre-Oedipal past in which our connection to the animal is closer and more intimate (158): “In contemporary neototemistic media, devices take the place of the animal, and … broadcast the same in the many and become a magnet for post-cultic gatherings” (159). Through such connections, von Samsonow characterises gadgets like GPS and wireless technologies as Electra’s toys. However, these technologies are also technologies of power, used for surveillance and control, and so the girl-ist potential embodied by Electra, the girl, is tempered or deleted by our “global syndrome”, namely the Electra-complex in which the “earth as ‘Mother’ is revalued by the Symbolic order of the father and effectively liquidated” (162).
The final chapter, “The Four Pre-Oedipal Objects,” brings all of the above-described elements into play to further explore and query the disfiguring interpretation of myths that reinstate a patriarchal symbolic order and suppress images of female power and the human relationship to the animal and the earth. Like the repressed maternal pre-Oedipal culture, the culture of the earth is also repressed, and the author asks: “Is agriculture the lost culture?” (169). The union between feminism and eco-ism is thus explicit; indeed, the feminisation of the earth may account for our collective ill treatment of it - the results of a collective Electra complex. However, for von Samsonow, the earth is not only feminine, but must be acknowledged as both masculine and feminine (179).
While Anti-Electra queries the importance of sexual difference, it simultaneously reinstates such difference through the gendered metaphor that informs the work (the Electra/Oedipus split is nothing if not gendered). At times, this gendering obscures the text’s radical aspects for readers who are unconvinced by the tenets of French post-structural feminism, but, like its invert Anti-Oedipus, Anti-Electra constitutes an occasionally uncanny and always fascinating work, which advocates a constellational, schizogamous relationality. This intellectually engaging and witty book will be of interest to art historians, scholars with interests in media studies, and those who are open to be challenged by an exciting feminist revaluation of ancient myths and their relation to the present.
 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. by Gillian Gill (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 321.
Published on: September 22, 2020