Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
Mother Tongues

Mother Tongues

Sexuality, Trials, Motherhood, Translation

Barbara Johnson

ISBN 9780674011878

Publication date: 11/30/2003

Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and Sylvia Plath make up the odd trio on which this book is based. It is in the surprising and revealing links between them--links pertaining to troublesome mothers, elusive foreign languages, and professional disappointments--that Barbara Johnson maps the coordinates of her larger claims about the ideal of oneness in every area of life, and about the damage done by this ideal.

The existence of sexual difference precludes an original or ultimate "one" who would represent all of mankind; the plurality of languages makes it impossible to think that one doesn't live in translation; and the plurality of the sexes means that every human being came from a woman's body, and some will reproduce this feat, while others won't. In her most personal and deeply considered book about difference, Johnson asks: Is the mother the guardian of a oneness we have never had? The relations that link mothers, bodies, words, and laws serve as the guiding puzzles as she searches for an answer.


  • Mother Tongues offers a set of brilliant, interwoven readings of Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Plath, affirming once again Barbara Johnson’s reputation as the most extraordinary of contemporary theorists. In poetry and prose alike, she finds the animated working of a default address, and traces an implicit appeal to the lost maternal or, indeed, to the irrecoverable conditions of language itself. This text weaves its reader into a fine web of writing from which one wants no escape.

    —Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble


  • Barbara Johnson taught in the departments of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and was the Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society. She is the author of The Critical Difference, A World of Difference, and The Wake of Deconstruction.

Book Details

  • 224 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author