Marla: Notes on Daddy’s Boy
by Esther Draycott
Synthetic, flexible and non-drying, Marla’s properties make it ideal for the early stages of child development. Non-toxic and non-staining, with a dough-like texture, it can be handled at great length without ever breaking down. It is stiff enough to take intricate forms, and has the appropriate resistance to maintain ridges and holes. It is available in a wide range of shades, none of which will bleed. The heavy manipulation of two or more colours may instead result in the appearance of veins, or sinew. 1
Marla is said to encourage a child’s ability to interpret signs and symbols. A malleable material, it provides a medium through which they may observe, repeat, and manipulate figures and images manifest in their early lives. Marla’s tactile properties—its softness, and vitality—make it appropriate for exploring bodily characteristics of the world beyond the self, often for the first time. How the child identifies their creations, the name they are given, is a critical exercise in deciding the social categories into which these characteristics may fall. 2
If a child sets about making a T-Rex, they will likely call on existing observations and sensory experiences of human bodies as a foundation for that task. Their stylistic choices, driven by curiosity, will deliberately test and disorder such knowledge in a novel process of representation. 3
In the process of making this creature, they will tacitly or explicitly engage with the unhuman-as-category using the limited faculties at their disposal. They may incise the dough-like substance to represent scales, or roll it out to make hunkered legs. They may gently pinch together claws on splayed feet, or use both of their thumbs to impress a deep, wide mouth. 4
- In 1951 paediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term “transitional object” to refer to any object to which a young child forms a particular physical attachment. He used the term transitional to refer to the role of these objects in introducing the child to objects and bodies beyond those with which they are in immediate contact. Soon heralded as one of the most influential psychoanalysts in Britain, transitional phenomena formed a crucial area of his research for a number of years, unpacked at length in his later work Playing and Reality.
- Lauren Berlant referred to genre as a category exerting control over the ways in which an acting and interpreting subject experiences life. Encompassing emotions, impressions and historical contingencies, genres work to manage difficult or conflicting messages stemming from a subject’s encounters with other individuals. Berlant has argued that the genre of the “innocent child” has been fed through contemporary Western society to posit exploration and experimentation as hallmarks of infancy—their appearance in adulthood, by contrast, a sign of deviance.
- In a 1991 paper on the semantics of gender, Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah and Lisa Jean Moore addressed the operation of trans- as a human category as one that attempts, failingly, to delimit a set of marginalised people from a wider public. Instead, they argued, trans- should be understood as a distinctly porous social category encompassing a wide spectrum of bodies and identifications. It should be considered, they continue, the means by which the various forms of power, capital and sociality reproduced through individual bodies are imagined otherwise.
During the pre-communication, breast-feeding stage of infancy, the body of the parent extends from the body of the child like another limb. The assembly and destruction of various bodily forms through Marla is widely taken as a playful reclaiming of omnipotence as this stage passes, and the parent ceases to attend instinctively to the child’s physical needs and wants. It may also be a form of speculation—accounting for a desire to narrate the breaking apart of the body, and the sadness and potential of its composite parts. 5
The child’s use of Marla in this stage is echoed in cultural turns to scenes of monstrous or beastly disfigurement in instances of widespread trauma, such as humanitarian crisis or world war. Both reckon with a moment in which an image of the human as something bounded and unitary is left behind—albeit in the case of the latter, through scenes of astounding horror. Creatures of mismatched limbs and synthetic binds, these monsters make omens of the improvised body. They say: there is no greater threat to humanity than believing me real. 6
Left alone with Marla, a child may make and unmake the T-Rex repeatedly, the scene of her birth imagined time and again in hope of further insight into the unnatural as a way of living. Cuts heave wounds, skin thickens to pelt.
- Kelly Hurley notes that not only do images of the abhuman—humans that have been destroyed or otherwise manipulated beyond recognition—come about periods of accelerated scientific progress, but that equally notable in some of the art and literature is the “obsessive staging and re-staging” of horrific scenes of abhuman birth, death or mutilation. While she reads this creative impulse as a sign of epistemic trauma, the sheer flamboyance of the spectacle signals a cultural category in which thrilling, vertiginous pleasure is taken from imaginative testing of the “morphic possibilities of the body”.
- The father-son relation as the axis of cultural modernity has been discussed by Lee Edelman in his essay Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint. Edelman argues William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has retained its popularity because it continues to demonstrate postmodern psychoanalytic and critical debates regarding the conceptual position of the child as guarantor of human viability. Contemporary subjects that do not reproduce, or are not positioned towards reproduction in this way, are understood as something out of time with humanity—and therefore somewhere outside of its bodily requirements. This view of the non-reproductive subject (a son that fails to imitate the father) is, he argues, “a negativity that haunts the social order”: a constant, abstracted figuring of such subjects as something less than human.
As a child moves through adolescence and eventually into adulthood, the practice of free play of any kind is increasingly looked upon as a symptom of failure to fulfil expectations of their development. In the Western world, these can be traced through patriarchal lines of inheritance. The son as rightful heir to the father also constitutes him as emissary of the gestures and movements that accrete in the father’s body over time. In order to maintain the coherence of this patriarchal line, bodies are officially identified through the successful imitation of actions a child of either gender has observed their parent of the same gender perform.The father’s actions, gestures and movements, purposeful even if not visibly so, are a benchmark of the poise, the sense of inattention, with which the right body is performed. He gives the impression it could be no other way. 7
The failure to fulfil these expectations—due to a failure to imitate the correct gestures with enough precision, or a desire to imitate the wrong person—may be met on the part of the subject with a feeling of dispossession. Marla gives shape to phantom limbs.
- The study of the repetitive actions of the body known as “habitus” was introduced by Marcel Mauss during a lecture at the Society of Psychology, Boulogne, in 1934. There he identified sociality as a driving force behind the practice of imitation, complicating the psychological and biological factors to which human movement had already been attributed. He called the repetition of the father’s actions by the son “prestigious imitation…actions the son has seen successfully performed by people in whom he has confidence, and who have authority over him”. Sara Ahmed later argued that Mauss’s prestigious repetition, as a way of being in society, is “a script that binds the intimate familial to the global order.” The failure or refusal of an individual to imitate, to repeat, the motion of the parent, has been figured for centuries as a pervasive threat to a humanity defined along biological terms.
Regardless of the skill with which it has been applied, Marla’s pliable texture means it retains an amateurish quality. Difficult to handle with precision, its surface is often covered with visible signs of its maker’s touch. These are methods that elucidate, rather than erase, the conditions of their production. Traces of the material remain on the user’s fingers, and their fingerprints stretch across the object’s surface, in a process out of which both subject and object emerge reformed.
A T-Rex made of Marla may, for this reason, be categorised as a form of fan art. Fan art is a product of the close study of an object or figure present in popular culture, otherwise manifest in forms such as erotic fiction or costume-play. Forgoing technical tools and skilful methods as means that obfuscate the maker’s body, fan artists prefer to engage in methods of reproduction that are sensory, instinctive and privately orchestrated. They express forms of love that constitute the object of the fan’s desires as part of the fan themselves. Crude portraits and shoddy imitations, the uneven surface of fan art is alive with needs and wants. It is a form of love that is publicly disavowed. 8
Fan art invokes childhood as a refusal of the epistemologies of adult identification, returning to a primordial scene of childhood trauma to re-imagine the human in fragments. The survival of the object is assured through an ongoing process of transformation, in which subject and object exchange radiant forms. To be a fan is to give the body a new name. 9
- Catherine Grant described fandom as widely pathologised in wider society for its connotations of embarrassing desire and a loss of perspective. Identifying not just figures of popular culture but historical moments and political movements as possible fan objects, Grant argued the practice should instead be recognised for capitalising on desire as a critical faculty. As with any form of love, the attachments nurtured through fandom incorporate a multitude of perspectives that blur the boundaries between academic and intimate knowledge. To be a fan is to feel antagonism, disappointment and distance towards your subject as well as, or rather inherently as a part of, intense forms of love.
- Writing in My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamonix: Performing Gender Rage, Susan Stryker advocates listening to monsters as bearers of revelation. In categorising monsters as outcasts that betray the essential lie of the natural order, Stryker occupies the subject position of monster as a means to make her body legible. Occupying the postures and cadences of romantic depictions of monsters, Stryker implores a human audience to listen to those of her kind. “Be forewarned, however,” she writes, “that taking up this task will remake you in the process.”
Daddy’s Boy is a declaration of love which may appear as a small circle held between two palms. She may appear as a lumpen snout of two bright colours, pressed one way, then another. She may appear as a raised heel incised with a small metal rod. She may appear with wrist extended, three small claws pointing towards small incisions on her torso. They are the mark of human fingernails.
Every attempt at perfection, everything she has ever been before, curled across her skin like fronds. 10
Marla: Irish term derived from marl, also related to marble.
“Though described in great detail by natural historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a designation marl has fallen out of favour—it is too imprecise a term for modern science.” Rowan Lear, Marl: a glossary of the ungovernable, a-n.co.uk, 2018.
Esther Draycott is a writer, based in Glasgow, interested in experimental historiography and reparative criticism. Having graduated from University College London with a BA in History, she recently completed an MLitt in Art Writing at Glasgow School of Art. There she wrote a book, The Collector, exploring the losses, manipulations and repressions of marginalised histories held within bourgeois interiors and Western practices of collecting, which won a Yellow Paper Prize for Art Writing. Her other published writing includes 1979: women’s style in four objects (The Yellow Paper, 2019), exploring second-wave feminist fashion as a critical ontology, and SKIRTS (Glasgow, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, upcoming), considering the erotics of inter- and post-war Glasgow street photography. This year she will begin a PhD at Glasgow School of Art, the University of Glasgow and National Galleries Scotland, funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities. It will draw on central concepts within Black performance theory and queer feminism to consider working-class women’s style as a form of citation in late 1970s and early 1980s Glasgow.