Friday, May 22, 2015

Try to See It, Try to Feel It:
The Body in the Text ~ Part 2

Visual and Other Pleasures
Laura Mulvey
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989
xvi + 201 pp.

. . . continued from previous post . . .

It is at the juncture of psychoanalytic criticism and art
that Gallop's text meets Mulvey's . . .

The shared concerns of Thinking Through the Body and Visual and Other Pleasures include placing a feminist emphasis on image, discourse, and representation; searching for a politically, strategically, and theoretically correct feminist poetics; attending to the mechanics and raw materials of popular culture -- in conjunction with rethinking a few more canonical texts; evaluating the many real and potential ramifications of the sexism, sexology, sexuality, sexual pleasure, sexual difference, and sexual politics which infiltrate these various texts; representing the embodiment of the subject in history; and allowing the body of lived experience to speak for itself. Both authors relay on a strain of personal narrative to unify the varied essays in their collections. Mulvey, however, is not as autobiographically candid as Gallop. Mulvey refers to her "long and painful struggle with writing," especially in the first person, with a hesitancy that seems never to have inhibited Gallop (Mulvey viii). It is understandable then that whereas Gallop is taken with the pleasure of the textual body, Mulvey prefers to focus on other pleasures, particularly the visual pleasure of the body.

Looking at a chapter from Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text called "Representation," Gallop notes his assertion that the erotic relation to the text, the pleasure of the text, is different from representation, but he, of course, recognizes that pleasure is often representated. It is noteworthy that this is one of the few places in Pleasure of the Text where Barthes mentions other media besides writing. His formulation implies that the relation of representation works the same for the book, the screen, and the picture. Barthes defines representation as a case in which something remains totally inside (151).

Mulvey, like Freud, chooses to view art as a riddle. Reminiscent perhaps of her film Riddles of the Sphinx, the cover of Visual and Other Pleasures features a representation (by Ingres) of Oedipus and the Sphinx. This quintessential of all riddles serves as the binding, the enclosing, motif of Mulvey's text. like Gallop, Mulvey believes that the force which an object (this could be a body or a painting) exerts over a subject is located in the subject's powerful desire to understand the experience of attraction. This premise explains not only the power of the Sphinx and her riddles but also the satisfaction of visual apprehension: "Curiosity describes a desire to know something secret so strongly that it is experienced like a drive. It is a source of danger and pleasure and knowledge. Its pleasure is derived from the fulfillment of a desire to know, either by seeing with one's own eyes or through the intellectual exercise of puzzle or riddle solving" (x). The parallel Mulvey draws between the iconography of the Sphinx and the mythology of femininity is that of the bodily enigma: "the enigma of the feminine under patriarchy," "the enigma of sexual difference" (x), and the "overvaluation of virility under patriarchy" (40). The relation between feminism and psychoanalysis is played out in repeated visual and narrative attempts to read the rebus, solve the riddle, interpret the dream, piece together the puzzle, and finally to understand the mystery of sexual difference.

I say that the motif of the Sphinx, which is also, of course, the motif of Oedipus, encloses Mulvey's text because in the final essay she attempts to go "Beyond the Riddles of the Sphinx," beyond her own earlier work, and beyond the introductory picture which captures Oedipus in a stance of danger, standing before the Sphinx, seeking knowledge. In this depiction, Oedipus is the one who bears the gaze, the eyes of the Sphinx remain hidden by shadow; in fact only her breasts are clearly visible, catching the same ray of sun that highlights the figure of Oedipus (earlier in the book, Mulvey discusses the "recurrent emphasis throughout the films [of J. L. Godard] on images of the female breasts" 54 - 55).
In exploring the core of the Oedipus story -- the conflict between the Sphinx and Oedipus, the conflicts between Oedipus and his parents -- Mulvey hints at the remote possibility that things could have turned out differently, that the unspoken history of women may indeed contain an overlooked mythology: "Thy misty, forgotten epochs of time and mythology in which things might have been other for women return as a ghostly presence" (182). However, her structural analysis does not go as far beyond the predictable and familiar Oedipus as the reader would hope. Although she convinces that "The significance of the act of telling and of narrational patterns in the Oedipus story confirms the importance, dismissed by structuralism, of narrative in myth" (194), she allows the truth hidden in those forgotten mists of time to remain undisturbed after all. Instead of reading the mother's body, Mulvey sticks to a disappointingly traditional reading of the "desire for and fear of a violent father," a reading which, although it does suggest an antidote to the misogyny of the myth, leaves even the ghostly presence of female potential bereft of the power to haunt:
"Looking at the Oedipal myth in detail it is remarkable to what extent it is about father / son relations and how marginal the feminine is to the story. Even though the incest theme can suggest a residual memory of ritual and inheritance that pre - date the fully fledged patriarchal order, desire for the mother is more significant as a symptom of father / son rivalry" (199)
The "enigma of the feminine under patriarchy" is subsumed in this conclusion that the solution to the riddle of the mother can be found ultimately in the father, that the enigma of sexual difference is a stand 0 off of sexual sameness. She leaves the Sphinx and her riddle "still waiting for a 'beyond'" (200). Though women should not be forced to stand behind the phallus, moving beyond the Sphinx is one boundary which they must choose to cross for themselves. Mulvey does not intend to go there for them.

Leading up to this rather inconclusive finale are the five distinct sections of Visual and Other Pleasure. Part I: "Iconoclasm," contains, most importantly, a re-placement of Mulvey's well - known and influential "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In the essay she analyzes two contradictory ways in which cinema satisfies "a primordial wish for pleasurable looking": first, by "using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight"; second, by identifying "through narcissism and the constitution of the ego" with the image seen (18). Also, pertinent to Gallop's study of domination in the work of Sade, is the connection between sadism and narrative which Mulvey draws here: "Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory / defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and an end" (22). "Narrative Cinema" stands here in the broader historical context of several other iconoclastic gestures which characterize Mulvey's approach to unsettling feminine passivity and protesting the "narrow destiny . . . the physical confines of the way women are seen and the way they fit into society" (3). The other essays set forth classic patterns of oppression and identify the male fears, fantasies, and irrelevancies with which women's collective efforts to counter those patterns have been met.

In Part II: "Melodrama," Mulvey offers a fascinating definition of the genre, explaining first the political climate which would encourage its popularity:
"The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (of a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance" (39).
Mulvey's study of melodrama starts with an investigation of its aesthetic form and its ideological function. She draws on this art, and its veneration of familial relations, to illustrate her thesis that sexual differences must be softened in the interest of family life: "The phallocentric, misogynist fantasies of patriarchal culture are . . . in contradiction with the ideology of the family" (40). she also identifies the contradictory nature of melodrama, which can be attributed to the lived experiences on which it is founded and to an established practice of providing films "of contradiction,not of reconciliation" for the female audience, stories which carry the weight of society's unconscious laws (43).

In two essays, "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama" and "Melodrama Inside and Outside the Home," she chooses Douglas Sirk's classic All That Heaven Allows (1955) to exemplify the melodrama's formal and ideological tendencies. Jane Wyman portrays the forty - year old widow, Cary, who longs to choose her young gardener Ron (Rock Hudson) over her aging suitor Harvey, the preferred choice of the socially acceptable Country Club set. Working through her "female desires and frustrations" (42) she transgresses the class barriers and sexual taboos of small - town propriety and must fly in the face of the protestations of her grown children, who would rather have her pick impotence over virility, thereby renouncing her own sexuality and the drives which are embarrassingly (for them) unrelated to her reproductive function. As this brief plot summary suggests, "the melodrama [draws] its source material from unease and contradiction within the very icon of American life, the home, and its sacred figure, the mother" (64). It comes as no surprise either that this is a genre devised to assuage a female audience who have been gagged and left without a voice. It is not only through language that these contradictions finally gain some limited expression, but through language that they have been so successfully suppressed. Mulvey explains the parallel between Sirk's ironic emphasis on women and passion, the family and the home, and the earlier silent melodramatic productions: " . . . the early melodrama's language of signs relates it to the language of the unconscious. the drama gives visibility to material that evades conscious articulation" (73).

In addition to these excellent and provocative discussions of Sirk's productions and the mythologies and aesthetics of melodrama, she also looks at the images of women and sexuality in a selection of films by Jean - Luc Godard, whom she credits "More than any other single film - maker [with showing] up the exploitation of woman as an image in consumer society" (50). Again, this essay considers the visual representation of the female image in political terms. If a woman's contribution to society is measured only according to her sex appeal, if she is of interest only through her sexuality, then what of the woman whose contribution, whose function, is removed from the pervasive centrality of sexuality? Mulvey explains "woman's place in the social and economic order where sexual difference is a matter of division of labour": "The invisible women in factories, homes, schools, hospitals, are formless and unrepresentable" (55). Without form and without image because their roles do not immediately reflect an aspect of their sexual function. Using the imagery of sculpture, Mulvey describes Godard's "consciousness of image as a cultural product . . . [which] gives him access to levels of meaning that the image of woman has acquired in history like the grime on an ancient monument" (55). She notes also the ways in which even his "acute and rigorous" perception fails her expectations, and the contradictions which are still apparent in his depiction of the female form as a sexual signifier. She concludes this section on the social rationalization fo sex roles with a reference to the motif which unifies this collection:
"The social sphere of the family provides a ready - made dramatis personae of characters whose relations are by very definition overdetermined and overlaid with tension and contradiction, destined to act out Oedipal drama, generational conflict, sibling rivalry, the containment and repression of sexuality. The family is the socially accepted road to respectable normality, an icon of conformity, and at one and the same time, the source of deviance, psychosis and despair" (74).
The setting for the familial melodrama is, of course, the home, that private realm where "the text of muteness if produced" (74).

Mulvey extends the juxtaposition of interior / exterior to inform the attempted transformation of experience into theory which she presents in Part III: "On the Margins." This engrossing section is devoted entirely to one essay, co-written with Peter Wollen, on the artists and artistic subjects "Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti," whose work "focuses particular questions about art and politics -- feminist politics, in the contemporary sense, as well as classic revolutionary politics" (83). The historical context and the stimulus for the work of both women is the Mexican revolution and renaissance. Mulvey weaves a readable and informative account of the artistic agenda adhered to by those whose creativity developed and was exercised within these political and cultural movements. Modotti was a photographer, capturing the social life of the marketplace, documenting the political action in the street; Kahlo was a painter of idiosyncratic self - portraits who employed the visual vocabulary of traditional Mexican Catholic art. Mulvey says that "on the one hand Frida Kahlo's work concentrates primarily on the personal, the world of the interior, while Modotti's looks outward to the exterior world" (85).

Modotti & Kahlo

Incapacitated by a tragic accident which damaged her spine, Kahlo lived the greater part of her life and even "painted from her bed, the most private part of the private world of the home" (91). Mulvey ascribes the direction of Kahlo's art to her pain, disability, and enforced confinement: "Her use of metaphor and iconography is the means that enables her to give concrete form, in art, to interior experience. . . . her painting was a form of therapy, a way of coping with pain, warding off despair and regaining control over the image of her crushed and broken body" (92, 102). Though the historical and thematic bases for comparing Kahlo with Modotti are quite strong enough, Mulvey insists on a forced connection between Kahlo's disastrous, crippling accident and the "accident of beauty" to which Modotti was born. Not only does this strained analogy belittle the cruel burdens of Kahlo's misfortune, it also makes Modotti the unwitting victim of that time - worn sexist caricature, the woman who, god help her, is too beautiful for her own good.

Mulvey's pronouncement -- "Beauty is another form of accident, one that is prized rather than feared. Yet it is one which can bring with it its own burdens" (103) -- is simply too reminiscent of the advertisements whose contrite fashion models pleads, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Surely Modotti did not suffer "from the inscription of beauty on her body by others" (105) to the same degree that Kahlo did from the fateful accident which crippled her for life, leaving her unable to walk or bear children. Modotti herself said that "'I could ot possibly see what "prettiness" had to do with the revolutionary movement'" (102), an outlook which makes Mulvey's inept analogy seem an exceptionally contrary disservice to her subject.

However, Mulvey's assessment of Modotti's evolution from photographic model for Edward Weston (famous photographer of the female nude) to a photographer in her own right is good. Modotti worked primarily in Mexico and Germany, selecting "subject matter to reflect her political commitment" (100). Yet she did not want to put photography in the service of journalism or mass media. Mulvey finds in her creations a quality similar to that of "folk art of popular urban art": "Modotti's background had trained her to see a photograph as an art object, to be looked at in its own right, with its own intrinsic value, rather than as one component of a wider mosaic" (1010). What makes this chapter especially satisfying are the visuals which accompany it, two of Modotti's photographs and two of Kahlo's self - portraits. It is unfortunate though that Mulvey neglects to include one of Weston's portrayals of Modotti's legendary beauty.

Mulvey ends her comparison of the two artists with an anecdote of extratextual appearance and "dressing anxiety" (to borrow Gallop's phrase) Frida Kahlo, painter of idiosyncratic self - portraits, is well remembered for the extravagant jewelry and native costumes with which she adorned her body while photographer Tina Modotti goes down in history as one of the first women in Mexico to wear blue jeans! Certainly these are appropriate talismans by which to recall the respective embodiments of "poiesis" by two women who questioned the body's "place in representation and the woman artist's relation to the woman's body in representation" (85).

In Part IV: "Avant - Garde" Mulvey asks the Sphinx "What would art and literature within an ideology that did not oppress women be like?" (111). She quotes from Luce Irigaray, who expresses the anticipation with which we all await the answer: "'What I desire and what I am waiting for, is what men will do and say if their sexuality gets freed from the empire of phallocentrism'" (128). Reviewing some early feminist films and the work of a number of contemporary photographers, both female and male, Mulvey questions the assumptions of patriarchal ideology, the insistence of power relations, the creation of a dominant art and literature, the political difference between the avant - garde and the popular, and the inescapability of gender difference in the formation of culture. She concludes, in Part V: "Boundaries," that "once anatomy is no longer destiny, women's oppression and exploitation can become contingent rather than necessary" (165).

Mulvey's Visual and Other Pleasures, like Jane Gallop's Thinking Through the Body, radically explores what it is in our culture which "raises the masculine to the universal human, beyond gender, so that the feminine alone must bear the burden of sexual difference (Gallop 163). These are exciting texts, which articulate from subjective experience how the reality of the body is all too often suppressed or masked or incorrectly expressed. Both Gallop and Mulvey ground writing in the erotic body, creating a discourse that is noting if not embodied, a comprehensive poiesis which readily explicates the political and psychological implications of their stance. With unmistakable jouissance, these works set forth a feminist theory whish is inspiring in its current applicability and more than a plaisir for the reader who apprehends the text with aggressive engagement.

Thinking Through the Body
Jane Gallop
New York: Columbia UP, 1988
180 pp.

Gallop explains the "suitability" of the cover photograph for Thinking Through the Body, a photograph of a child being born: a doctor's gloved hand grasps the infant's newly emerging head, a monitoring device rests on the abdomen of the mother -- whose face is not visible, and two attendants swathed in masks and shower caps stand nearby. Gallop says, "I chose a photograph that shows the head in the midst of the body. . . . I wanted . . . an image of the body . . . that was not already neatly placed, that might still have some power to disturb. . . . I like the entanglement, the difficulty in sorting out one body from another. . . . Of course, that uncanny little head is surrounded by body for but a brief pause in an irrepressible progress. Things will soon be sorted out into their proper categories: mother, baby, doctor, nurse" (8).
~ See Previous Post ~ Part 1 ~