[Readings] The Mothership, By Mark McGurl | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

The Mothership

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From Everything and Less, which will be published next month by Verso. A version of this essay appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of American Literary History.

There is a case to be made for self-published Adult Baby Diaper Lover erotica as the quintessential Amazonian literature. It depends what aspect of Amazon one decides to put at the center of one’s inquiry. Is it the great quasi-imperial sprawl of the company’s many technical and logistical achievements, its seemingly unbounded ambition to multinational if not multiplanetary commercial presence? Or is it instead the cozy scene of consumption, of fulfillment, the home?

To the extent it is the latter, this erotic genre, featuring the infantilization of the hero and hypermaternalization of the heroine who lives to suckle him, provides a concentrated image of the company’s fabled “customer obsession”: the way it attempts, as the mother does with her child, to minimize the delay between demand and gratification. Doing so, it inspires in the customer a sense of dependent well-being, or commodity in the archaic, affective sense.

In “Help Wanted: Adult Baby Diaper Lover,” from The Mommy Claire Chronicles: Part II, a handsome jerk nicknamed Chris Alpha is lured into the bathtub by an older woman he thinks he can seduce, Mommy Claire. Instead, it is the first step in his rapid transformation into Little Girl Chrissy:

She took extra care drying me off and it’s strange but I could feel the love in her effort . . . I closed my eyes, enjoying her attention. That’s when I felt the soft smooth skin of her breast against my face. It was very comforting and when her nipple grazed my cheek, I did what came natural, suckling her into my mouth and feeding like my inner child needed nourishment. Mommy Claire cuddled me while I nursed on her breast and it felt wonderful. If I had any concerns in life they were gone at that moment. It truly was blissful.

It’s all so sweet, though not without its menace, as that loving care becomes a kind of bondage. Indeed, with its shifting of the dom role from the alpha male to the mother, presented here as the ultimate service provider, ABDL erotica is a reminder that Amazon’s customer obsession is ultimately an investment in its own market power, a posture of servile domination. Turning the image of patriarchal power as depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey inside out, the mommy-dom is in some ways a softer agent of customer loyalty possessing, as this text has it, “some magical quality that made me feel all safe and warm inside, a place I never wanted to leave.”

Mommy’s erotic ministrations are retractable at a moment’s notice, leaving in their wake an image of wholesomeness. This is the wholesomeness of mother love and also of domestic provision via Amazon, which nobody would accuse of being a sexy company, as cheerfully phallic as its logo might be.

The fate of Amazon, like that of any business, will ultimately be determined by how successfully it profits off the labor of its hundreds of thousands of employees. What makes the company distinct is its penetration of the home, the scene not of production but of social reproduction.

One of the interesting things about the labor of care is how entwined it tends to be with consumption, as when a mother cooks and serves a meal to her family. One wonders how deeply entwined social reproduction and consumption are from a broader perspective. We know of course that, come the twentieth century, the relation of capital to the working class was complicated by its recognition of the latter as a source of growth in consumer demand often funded by credit-card and other debt. In the cauldron of the so-called consumer economy, at the risk of crisis, any accounting of the “necessities” of life must gradually become more generous if more stressful in their attainment. Consumption is not simply the terminus of the line of production. It is a laborious origin point in its own right, as necessary as any other, in the perpetual motion of a circuit more complex and far-reaching than the strictly accumulative one leading from investment to reinvestment.

Is the woman buying groceries for her family a consumer? Yes, but she is also a reproducer, which is to say, an unpaid laborer doing the work that has to be done if the world is to continue. And what about the single person pouring herself a bowl of cereal? Does it make sense to say that she is, in that act, performing an act of unpaid labor to maintain her status as a wage earner? Why not, since it is hard to see how the self-reproduction of the labor force is any less reproductive than housework done for others? How about when she reads a book on her Kindle on her lunch break—a self-indulgence that might be keeping her sane, readying her to endure the rest of her shift? Can reading, which we might think of simply as cultural consumption, become visible as a kind of reproductive labor? And what if the novel she’s reading turns her on? Is masturbation at bedtime part of the homework she does to ready herself for more wage work the next day?

These examples suggest a new frame within which acts of cultural consumption might be understood, one that can help us see Amazon as the protagonist of contemporary literary history. If the keynote of Amazon’s performance is the digital dissolution of the book into the general consumer economy, as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” becomes the “Everything Store,” this does not mean that literature in the Age of Amazon no longer participates in the construction and maintenance of our collective and individual identities, only that that construction is continuous with self-maintenance in a grosser, corporeal sense. The scene of social reproduction is perhaps most crucially the one in which babies are born and raised, where family members are fed and clothed, but it is also a scene of intensely embodied cultural reproduction.

Recent literary-sociological methodologies ask the properly economic-sociological and materialist question of where and with what institutional support literary experience comes into being such that it can even begin to have ideological force. In this case, setting the scene of literary consumption in the home, it asks what the utility of literature might be from the reader’s perspective, what it does for her as part of a repertoire of self-care such that it is perceived as a worthwhile expense of money and time.

In Edan Lepucki’s 2014 novel, California, most of the commodities of our consumer culture are gone. Lepucki’s take on the postapocalyptic genre briefly came to fame in the context of Amazon’s notorious dispute with the publishing conglomerate Hachette over e-book pricing. Lepucki’s novel was offered as an example of a young writer falling victim to Amazon’s thuggery. Appropriately enough, in the ruined southern California of her novel, all commodities are very expensive, and, for the protagonist, Frida, some achieve talismanic power as tokens of vanished plenitude: “In a world so disconnected from the past, her connection to these objects had been her only strategy for remaining sane. It still was.”

By the end of the novel, fearing for her unborn child, Frida has moved with her husband Cal into one of the restricted communities dotting the wasteland where life retains a militant semblance of middle-class normalcy. Hers is called Pines, but there is also one up north started by Amazon, another by Walmart. The attachment to random domestic commodities she felt amid the scarcity of the wild was in retrospect only the first step in a return to the exploitative, Amazonian model, justified now by the needs of children: “Frida knew she was thinking only of her own family, that she had begun to see them as special: separate from the rest of the world with all its attendant suffering and corruption. Maybe it was wrong, but it was the choice she had made.” While it does not celebrate this choice, the novel does not seriously challenge it either, as though it wants, as literary fiction so often does, to remain realistic even as it envisions a radically altered world. Can a mother in her situation be expected to do anything other than, in effect, sign up for Prime? Dream on.


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