THE HEIGHTENED SYMBOLISM OF MOTHER
The more the commodity frontier erodes the territory surrounding the emotional role of the wife and mother, the more hypersymbolized the remaining sources of care seem to become. And the more the wife-mother functions as a symbolic cultural anchor to stay the ship against a powerful tide. The symbolic weight of "the family” is condensed and consolidated into the wife-mother, and increasingly now into the mother. In A World of Their Own Making, the historian John Gillis argues that the cultural meanings associated with security, support, and empathy—meanings that once adhered to an entire community—were in the course of industrialization gradually focused on the family.17 Now we can add, within the family, these symbolic meanings have been increasingly directed toward the figure ol the wife-mother.
The hypersymbolization of the mother is itself partly a response to the destabilization of the cultural as well as economic ground on which the family rests. As a highly dynamic system, capitalism destabilizes both the economy and the family.14 The more shaky things outside the family seem, the more we seem to need to believe in an unshakable family and, failing that, an unshakable figure of mother-wrife.
iln addition, in the West, capitalism is usually paired with an ideology of secular individualism. As an understanding os life, secular individualism leads people to take personal credit for their economic highs and personal blame for the lows. It leads us to “personalize” social events. It provides an intra-pun і tive ideology to go with an extra-punitive economic system. The effect of the impact of destabilizing capitalism on one hand and inwardlooking individualist ideology on the other is to create need for a refuge, a haven in a heartless world, as Christopher Lasch has argued, where wre imagine ourselves to be safe, comforted, healed. The harsher the environment outside the home, the more we yearn for a haven inside the home. Many Americans turn for comfort and safety to the church. But the great geographic mobility of Americans often erodes ties to any particular church as it does bonds to local neighborhoods and communities.19 In addition, divorce not only creates a greater need for supportive community, it tends to reduce the size of that personal community, as Barr)’ Wellman’s research on networks suggests.20
like other symbols, the symbol of mother is “efficient.” It is not the family farm, local community; or even whole extended farm Iv that does the symbolic work. All the meanings associated with these are condensed into the
symbol of one person, the mother, and secondarily the immediate family. As Smelser observes, Americans entertain a “romance” of family vacations, family homes, and family “rural bliss” and, along with the hypersymbolization of the mother, these have probably grown in tandem with the destabilizing forces to which they are a response.
In sum, the students may have seen in the millionaire s ad, and in the commodity frontier itself, an attack on a symbol that had become a s о i – bolic holding ground,” while all else seemed increasingly up for grabs. The attack on this symbol invites a crisis of enchantment. For, to believe in the wife-mother figure, one must submit to a sense of enchantment, magic, even a sense of being in love as a source of meaning in and of itself. At the same time, through the enormous growth in advertisement, the commodity frontier chips away at just this enchantment too. Is it the mother who is enchanted, the student may be led to wonder, or is it the services that pick up where she leaves off? And through advertising, is the commodity frontier gradually borrowing or stealing the enchantment of what seems like an ever more necessary remaining anchor against a market tide?