Sunday, 12 January 2014

Hannah Cullwick: Victorian Fetishists of the "Filthy" Working Class Body

(Reblogged from summer 2012)
At the turn of the century a wooden box was bequeathed to the British museum with special instructions that it not be opened until 1950; the British Museum turned it down and the box was taken into possession by the Trinity College Library archives. This box  was called "The Munby Box"; it contained hundreds of photographs by Arthur Munby, a wealthy upper-class Victorian philanthropist with a passion for collecting and archiving images of a particular type of body: the broad-shouldered, hard-muscled physiognomy of the working class woman. He "collected" washerwomen, female miners, milkmaids, androgenous acrobats, and women who suffered facial disfigurements - Barry Reay called him a "collector of noseless women". However, most of the photographs are of a woman called Hannah Cullwick, a working class servant who is photographed in a multitude of guises: cross-dressed as a gentleman and a chimney sweep, as a peasant in front of a field scene back drop, as a lady in a fine clothing and as Mary Magdalene, half stripped and praying with head and hands lifted upwards.

After meeting in 1854, Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby  would carry out an illicit courtship that would last over thirty six years. This usual pairing was made even stranger by the fact that throughout these years the two carried out collaborative performances of perversions and fetishistic master/slave role-playing that centred on Munby's fantasies of Cullwick's strong labourer's body in "her dirt". In fact, this was not just "playing" roles but accentuating and making explicit the class divide they were already in: he as the master photographer, she  as the submissive subject of changing forms, devised in part by the two of them. They also both wrote diaries and letters which the other would read. Even after they were married in 1873, nearly twenty years after beginning their secret relationship, they lived separate lives: Cullwick remained a housemaid feeling uncomfortable in the costumes of an upper-class lady. Cullwick continued to pursue a life that was connected to Munby's but also holding onto her separate independence with her own income as a maidservant. After a brief stint of living together, Cullwick got another job away from the city. But the project of their relationship continued with letters, stories and diary entries being sent back and forth.

Part of a servant's job was to become invisible, to go about the daily business of scrubbing dirt, getting mucky and covered in filth while at the same time remaining unobtrusive and unseen by one's employers. In a diary entry Cullwick explains the way that the working servant's body is fashioned by the filthy jobs they perform : "My face was dirty (I'd been cleaning the dirty scullery out) & my arms black'd & my hands look'd swell'd & red, & begrimed with dirt - grener'd as we say in Shropshire. That is, the cracks in our hands ingrain'd with black lead [used to clean grates around stoves, passage ways etc.] & that, so that even scrubbing will not fetch it out, & in cold frosty weather one dare not brush them. I had not worn gloves for years then, not even to see ladies in, so I was without gloves to the lady at Mr Clark's that day. I saw Mrs Green and her daughter look hard at my red hands."

There is shame inherent in the inescapable way that class here is written onto the body of the working class woman. Due to the strenuous labour the body is put under, the working class body is outwardly, visibly, one that works, moves, lifts, scrubs, endures strain so that no matter what clothes are put on, the body is inscribed as poor. This is in marked contrast to the refined leisured body of the middle and upper classes. John Berger's wonderful little essay The Suit and the Photograph points out that the modern suit was designed and intended for a body that does not partake in physical work: the tailored suit is restrictive, form-fitting, meant for the leisured body of a middle class office clerk etc. Arthur Munby, as a Victorian gentlemen of well fitting suits and philanthropic pursuits, did not have a body that had experienced manual labour: perhaps this goes some small way to explain his fascination with the bodies of the working class Other.

Munby, unlike most of his class, did not want the signifiers of class to be made invisible (not that he was in any way interested in equality); in fact, he relished and fetishised these markers of class. Part of the pleasure he found in Cullwick, and subsequently passed on to her, was not be be ashamed of her filthy work and of getting dirty, but to be proud of it, to enjoy and display it. Cullwick's strong body, grimy after fourteen hours of work, was filthy; this excited Munby, and when visiting  her he would ask if Cullwick would stay "in her dirt" for him. His photographs reveal he was particularly interested in her hands and arms as these parts gave the most visible evidence of  doing "a hard day's work", so in many of Munby's pictures, hands and arms are a central focus. In the second and third pictures here, dressed as a chimney sweep covered in soot, Cullwick's strong, large, shapely arms are displayed to full effect. In the picture left, Cullwick is actually lifting her sleeve to exhibit her muscles: as Carol Mavor remarks, "she wore her thirteen-and-one-half-inch biceps as proudly as she wore her dirt".

Interestingly in the first picture in which Cullwick is attempting to "pass" for a gentleman, her hands are hidden from view: a "true" gentleman would have the delicate manicured hands of someone who did not use their hands to earn a living, therefore Cullwick's calluses and the largeness of her hands would give away her class origins. As well as exhibiting Cullwick's strong worker's body in various poses, Munby and Cullwick were interested in class role-play and masquerade. As well a spot of gender-bending masquerade as a gentlemen, Cullwick also costumed herself in ladies' finery - again, to see if she could pass. But, as in the case with the suit and hidden hands, her body seemed to rebel from the restricting confines of these classed clothes, to reveal itself as Other to the dainty idealisation of waifish consumptive Victorian femininity - her body being too large and muscular to successfully carry off posing as a lady. Yet for Munby the vision of a powerfully strong working class body bursting out of flimsy ladies' dresses was itself an exciting frisson of ill-fitting worlds colliding.

Throughout their long relationship, despite its very unconventionalness, Munby and Cullwick had very gendered and classed power relations within their fantasy and sexual lives together. He would be master and she slave. In her diary, Cullwick (who is also writing this passage to Munby as audience) describes how she found a dog collar that she would sometimes wear under clothes to remind herself that she was Munby's (love) slave/object of desire: "Valentines day was while I was there & I slipp'd out in my dirt to get one for Massa. It took me a few minutes to select one. I found one - a dog with a chain round his neck & thought it fit for me." Desire is an difficult thing: can it be said that Cullwick found her sexuality and empowerment through subservience to a man that fetishised filth and a body under duress? Can one say that Cullwick's desire was false if she desired something that dehumanised her?

Unfortunately it is fair to say that having an upper-class lover that valued, and was attracted to, the vital body of a worker would give validation, pride and visibility to one whose class were forcibly treated as invisible. Yet there is something unnerving still in the power relations between Cullwick and Munby: is Cullwick desiring Munby's desire for her, or is she taking pleasure in her own sexuality? Either way, it is problematic; for in denying sexual agency to Cullwick, the assumption is then that, of course, she cannot also posses her own perversions. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick makes clear, there is no true, original or natural sexuality: "to some people, the nimbus of 'the sexual' seems scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others, it enfolds them loosely or floats virtually free of them". This does not mean to say that Munby's fetishistic collection of feminine curiosities is off the hook, but that in the murky and frankly mucky realm of sexuality, Cullwick floats free of my grasp.

Illustrations:

Arthur Munby, Hannah Cullwick As a Gentlemen, 1862
Arthur Munby, Hannah Culwick, cross-dressed as a chimney sweep, 1862
Arthur Munby, Hannah Cullwick and "Female Masculinity", 1867

Monday, 16 December 2013

Defensive Pleasures: Class, Carnivalesque and Shameless

The new issue of One Plus One Filmmakers Journal is out today and includes an article by me, download and read the whole issue here!
Here's an introduction to the issue by Bradley Tuck:
"Where volume one focused on Exploitation cinema and the appropriation of its tropes in commercial and art cinema, this volume changes tact, exploring themes of film exhibition and the Carnivalesque.

The first two articles are dedicated to the former theme. In these articles James Riley and Amelia Ishmael explore the exhibition of underground cinema. From the film festival to the ad hoc DIY screening, these articles adventure into the sometimes foreboding landscape of film screenings. The following articles explore the topic of the carnivalesque, both as an expression of working class culture and queer excess. Frances Hatherley open up this theme with an article on the TV show Shameless exploring the demonisation of the working classes in Britain and mode of politicisation and defiance article, we discover in Shameless, not the somber working class of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, but the trailer trash of John Waters. 
Appropriately, therefore, this articles is swiftly followed by a discussion between James Marcus Tucker and Juliet Jacques on Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls; a film that wallows in the carnivalesque decadence of queer life. City of Lost Souls is a film that springs from a tradition of queer cinema with obvious parallels with the works of Paul Morrissey, Jack Smith, George and Mike Kuchar and John Waters. In these films the life of queers and freaks are not sanitised and “politically corrected”, but celebrated in their debased glory. Continuing our homage to this tradition of queer carnivalesque exaltation we pay tribute to two of its extraordinary female stars. Melanie Mullholland and Bradley Tuck interview Mink Stole to discuss her acting, film roles, theatre and music. Melanie Mulholland follows this with a tribute to the recently deceased Susan Tyrrell, star of Forbidden Zone and Cry-Baby, which is accompanied with art work by Jonny Negron. Finally we close this issue with two articles focusing on a film director, who could arguably be seen as the consummation of this tradition, Bruce LaBruce.

Our journey into the depths of trash, exploitation and cult cinema has brought us to a vast cacophony of different films: gore, commercial exploitation homages, the spaghetti western, blaxploitation, portraits of the working classes in British TV shows and queer cinema. What unites these films is not that they are all utter rubbish (some of them are, in fact, great films), but that they challenge our conventions of taste. In light of this, trash cinema is not so much bad low budget movies, but emerges alongside commercial and art cinema, often interplaying and influencing each other. If films like Jaws and Kill Bill are exploitation films gone mainstream, the films of Paul Morressey, Rosa von Praunheim, Ralph Bakshi and Glauber Rocha appropriate trash aesthetics and exploitation tropes for artistic and political commentary. In this respect trash is not so much a genre, but an emphasis; a way of looking at film that persistently calls us to address and reassess the meaning of taste, pleasure, class and culture. Trash is persistently caught between entertainment and experimentation; between reaction and subversion. Trash is a fluid category that calls for persistent critique and dynamic thought. Enjoy!"

Monday, 2 December 2013

Passing/Out: Education, Race, Class and the Failure/Refusal to Assimilate

Deep into thinking about the PhD at the moment so no free brain space to come up with a proper written post, so instead this is some of the research I'm working on at the moment on the way social stigmas are formed and reinforced in the intersections of race, class and gender in the (predominantly, ie except hooks) British education system.

Bell Hooks: 'Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender; the uncool subject is class. It's the subject that makes us all tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand...Racism and sexism can be exploited in the interests of class power. Yet no one wants to talk about class.'

'At the end of the day the threat of class warfare, of class struggle, is just too dangerous to face. The neat binary of white and black or male and female are not there when it comes to class.'

'Often times I too am afraid to think and write about class. I began my journey to class consciousness as a college student learning about the politics of the America left, reading Marx, Fanon, Gramsci, Memmi, the little red book and so on. But when my studies ended, I still felt my language to be inadequate. I still found it difficult to make sense of class in relation to race and gender. Even now the intellectual left in this nation looks down on anyone who does not speak the chosen jargon. The domain of academic and/ or intellectual discourse about class is still mostly white, mostly male. While a few women get to have there say, most of the time men do not really listen. Most leftist men will not fully recognise the left politics of revolutionary feminism: to them class remains the only issues. Within revolutionary feminism a class analysis matters, but so does an analysis of race and gender.'


'Even as we sat next to the children of black doctors., lawyers, and undertakers in our segregated schoolrooms, no one talked about class. When these children were treated better, we thought it was because they were prettier, smarter, and just knew the right way to act.'

'Throughout my graduate student years I was told again and again that I lacked the proper decorum of a graduate student, that I did not understand my place. Slowly I began to understand fully that there was no place in academe for folks from working-class backgrounds who did not wish to leave the past behind. That was the price of the ticket. Poor students  would be welcome at the best institutions of higher learning only if they were willing to  surrender memory and forget the past and claim the assimilated present as the only worthwhile and meaningful reality.'

'All my notions of higher education were informed by a romantic vision of intellectual hard work and camaraderie, I like most of my working-class peers, was not prepared to face class hierarchies present in academia, or the way information in the class room was slanted to protect the interests of ruling class groups.'

Jo Spence: 'Within weeks of the term beginning I was already filled with shame of what I didn't know, what I lacked. This has never fully gone away despite of all the work I have done since. In this respect, I come from a background where, within state education, I was systematically treated as if I was stupid..Entering higher education for working-class people is problematic if it does not address the realities of our lives, or the ways in which our particular subjectivities were formed'.

'The middle-class mystifies and refines knowledge at the same time it manages to rationalize its activity by convincing us that this is all in the interests of progress and economic growth. Photography as a tool is far removed from such attitudes because it negates elitism...Community photographers are encouraging people to photograph each other, friends and family, then their social environment. This provides immediate feedback for discussion, provides aids for story telling and reading, and makes it possible to look at the world differently. People can discover how to relate to themselves, and to others more positively when armed with images of themselves – images which counteract the stereotypes usually seen in the mass media...The main objective here is to enable people to achieve some degree of autonomy in their own lives and to be able to express themselves more easily, thus gaining solidarity with each other.(Spence 1995:35)

Owen Jones in Chavs
'Being born into a prosperous middle-class family typically endows you with a safety net for life. If you are not naturally very bright, you are still likely to go far and, at the very least, will never experience poverty as an adult. A good education compounded by your parents' 'cultural capital', final support and networks will always see you through. If you are a bright child born into a working-class family, you do not have any of these things. The odds are that you will not be better off than your parents. Britain’s class system is like an invisible prison.' (Jones, 2011:182)

Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction 
'When class fractions who previously made little use of the school system enter the race for academic qualifications, the effect is to force the groups whose reproduction was mainly or exclusively achieved through education to step up their investments so as to maintain the relative scarcity of their qualifications and, consequently, their position in the class structure. Academic qualifications and the school system which awards them thus become one of the key stakes in an interclass competition which generates a general and continuous growth in the demand for education and an inflation of academic qualification....The very rapid growth in girl's and women's education has been a significant factor in the devaluing of academic qualifications.'


Ziauddin Sardar, British, Muslim, writer, speaking of his secondary school history teacher,
'I found it difficult to understand how Mr Brilliant could talk about Victorian England without talking about what Victorian England did to India and Africa. Then I found his account of the “Indian Mutiny” too difficult to swallow. But most of all I resented the fact that he was not interested in my history at all'.

Paul Dash in Foreday Morning,
Dash was born in Barbados and came to school in the UK in the late 1950s, 'To this day I balk at the whole idea of grammar-school education, because there are bound to be many children who, like me, feel excluded, failures merely because of the school they mind themselves in...As an eleven-year-old, I brooded on this inequality, and grew more and more anxious. Instead of turning in on myself and allowing myself to be defeated by exclusion, I vowed to overcome my serious social educational disadvantages by self-education.'  (Dash,2002:113)

Griselda Pollock Art, Art School, Culture: Individualism after the Death of the Artist (1985)
'The hidden agenda is institutional sexism. Let there be no flippant underestimation of what this intimidating and bizarre parody of an education means to women. Some have literal died of the experience...Education has been named as one of the major ideological state apparatuses, that is, not just a place of learning but an institution where we are taught our places within a hierarchical system of class, gender and race relations.' (Pollock,1996:53)

Irving Goffman on "passing" in STIGMA - Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity: 'Because of the great rewards in being considered normal, almost all persons who are in a position to pass will do so on some occasion by intent...The stigmatised and the normal are part of each other; if one can prove vulnerable, it must be expected that the other can too...Shame becomes a central possibility, arising from the individual’s perception of one of his own attributes as being a defiling thing to posses, and one he can readily see himself as not possessing...The phenomenon of passing has always raised issues regarding the psychic state of the passer. First, it is assumed that he must necessarily pay a great psychological price, a very high level of anxiety, in living a life that can be collapsed at any moment.' (Goffman, 1990:108-109)

Monday, 29 July 2013

Liberation That Looks Like a Neon Pedestal: Stereotypes of Surrealism


The Surrealist dictum said "my liberation shall not be your oppression", a hope that the act of liberating oneself could spark an encouragement of collective liberation for the masses, yet in much Surrealist work this unfortunately did not always ring true. Much like in George Bataille's writings, his wish for violent transgressions against the repressive figures of religion, state and the traditional patriarchal family unit, was too often misdirected upon the bodies of people - particularly women, whose bodies represented to Bataille sacred female virtue and chastity etc - this was rather than attacking the institutions themselves. Therefore, in Bataille's world it often was much more the case that "my liberation/ transgression will be your oppression, sorry but my desires come first".

With this in mind, it is worth looking at how their so-called quest for liberation played out in reference to the sources of oppression around them - and as a group of middle-class white men, they often behaved as if blind to class struggles and the fight for racial equality and were by and large pretty homophobic, the nearest form of oppression at hand, that entered into their daily lives of privilege, was the lack of women's rights, the strict gender inequalities and compulsory gendered behaviours of the time. Therefore, with the dictum of the collective over the individual, did the male Surrealist bring women along in their quest for liberation, did they encourage their wives, lovers, friends (if they had female friends that weren't just their mates' wives) to paint, write and to play and active role within the movement? In most cases, no, they did not.

When it came to what to do with one's (er, individualistic) liberation, it was suggested that one route to it was in pursuing an unbound, unchecked expression of one's dreams, fantasies and desires. But in negotiating how such a sexual liberation might actually work, the Surrealist demonstrated a reinforcement of conservative gender roles and negative stereotypes. Hal Foster says of this, 'But most surrealists were men, and men came first in this liberation. They included women, to be sure; indeed, this liberation focused on women, but as sites of desire for than as subjects of desire; women were asked to present it more than inhabit it'. Photography of female nudes as erotic objects dominated surrealism. In this (quite long) post I'm going to look at how the male Surrealists factored women in - this was mostly in the form of depiction rather than women's own expression or creative output. So exploring the representations of women in the art of the Surrealists, to see in what ways if any they reject or reinforce received stereotypes of women. These will be compared with the work of female surrealists of the time and those working later but still influenced by Surrealism, to see if they go further in the abolition of these stereotypes. The emphasis here will be on the photographic works, as photography possesses what Whitney Chadwick describes as an 'intrinsic...claim to document, to have a privileged relation to the real'. This'll be done in five roughly arranged sections that express the subjects and tendencies within surrealist photography; these are the nude, mythical maidens, mirror images, fetish objects and gender masquerades .


The Nude

The nude is one of art history's most institutionalised subjects, so commonplace that it seems women have always existed as objects of beautification and display. John Berger in Ways of Seeing decodes the meanings inherent in art works, revealing the oppressive nature of established art forms that privilege the display of women's bodies for the delectation of the male viewer. At the same time idealising the female form and stripping it of integrity and actuality. The nude is rarely presented as an autonomous subject, instead it is her relation to the viewer as object of visual pleasure. Berger says of the nude, 'Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality'

Man Ray's 1929 solarised photograph The Primacy of Matter over Thought (above) is an example of this positioning of the female form that is easily accessible to the viewing pleasure of the spectator. Mary Anne Doanne comments of this classic pose, 'The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinisation of the spectural position'. The surreal destabilising aspect of this picture comes from the solarisation technique the nude body is outlined not by shadow but instead illuminated with an ethereal glow. The nudes head appears in the bottom left had corner of the picture in the golden section that draws the eye towards it first. The eye then wanders up and left over her reclining body. It is a beautifully composed picture that uses the classical pose of the nude, but also makes it strange, the figure seems to float and glow with electricity. This aligned the nude with technology by its photographic technique of solarisation. The nude has been yoked to genres, themes and subject identifications over the years, Gustav Klimt found fascination in women in, or as nature, painting hair and limbs that behave as if mingling with the natural world, woman as foliage perhaps. All this idolatry of woman as nature, or woman as scared amounted to just another way of objectifying the female form by making it purely decorative and unreal.
Thus Man Ray, despite his technical snazziness, still upheld art historical female objectification by his reluctance to deviate from the established classical treatment of the female body as nude. Conforming to Katherine Conley's statement that: 'The surrealists' sense of beauty and of love in the 1920s and 1930s was at once hopelessness old-fashioned and boldly modern, as though their woman on a pedestal were made of neon'.

The image of the classical nude was deconstructed and mocked by Rene Magritte's painting le Viol (above) in which the facial features of the figure are replaced by that of the female body parts, drawing attention to the objectification of the female body, the highly sexualised indignity of "woman". The breasts stand in for eyes and the public triangle mimics the shape of the mouth, it is an uncanny and aggressive statement about the way women have come to be defined by their sex in western art. Or quite possibly it was simply an exercise in transgression and transformation, or maybe it speaks of Magritte's preference to see the naked female body exposed, rather than deal with a woman's face...The painting can be read sympathetically or cynically depending on ones agenda/gender. The work of Francesca Woodman, coming later than the first early waves of Surrealism, worked during the 1970's reassessment of Surrealism and its rediscovery of maligned female Surrealist's such as Claude Cahun, it is useful to look at her employment of similar Surrealist strategies of destabilising visual expectations, distortions and dream-like projections.

In the untitled work (left) she takes up and shatters the classical attitudes that still inform contemporary western views of bodily perfection; by poking at her body and attaching clothes pegs, she pokes fun at the sanctity and the unreality of the representations of women's bodies in art. Making clear that a woman's body is not actually ethereal or the mysterious other but real and made of imperfect but tangible squidgeable flesh. The choice of clothes pegs links women's bodies with domesticity Forcing the image of the female nude out of its place of erotic idealisation and into the sphere of reality: of the banality of daily routine and the domestic chores of hanging up washing. This shatters one stereotype and takes up another: the place of woman and the home, another area of women's oppression. Both Woodman and Magritte's pictures show how it is possible, by deviating from retrogressive portrayals of the female nude, or making the scene uncanny can be employed to challenge and ridicule the stereotypical depictions of the unreal "beautiful female" form in art.

Mythical Maidens

The Surrealists displayed a fascination with touching thresholds, of taking themselves to the boundaries of sanity, morality and mortality. This was not always done literally but intellectually they were interested in going to the limits, exploring the unconscious and repressed. To use their findings to make sense of themselves by decoding their own fears and desires to better create art works that they felt, rather grandly and naively would free the masses of the bonds of oppressive religious, military and patriarchal norms and laws. That the activity of expression and an engagement with creativity could/would always liberate. The rejection of religious control in favour perhaps of a more existential thinking led the Surrealist to think about death, and a person's psychology as opposed to spirituality and fate. Death was one of the major themes in the Surrealist oeuvre. Conley states: 'The surrealists were attracted to the notion of death and its linkage to eroticism, finding the possibility of confronting their own mortality thrilling and pleasantly terrifying – but only as a philosophical construct'

The Surrealists took inspiration from the Symbolists of the late eighteen hundreds. Due to advancements in science and the waning of religious faith and belief in god, the Symbolists sought refuge in the mysterious, spiritual and the enigmatic. The vamp and the siren are recurring characters in their work. Depictions of the mythical maidens: Salome, Medusa, and Judith are rife, their presence revealing the male Symbolists' fear and desire of women.. The Surrealist can be seen to be intrigued in the same way by these images of deadly sirens, Conley proposes: 'Like all men facing the Medusa, the surrealists felt a mixture of attraction and dread'.

Man Ray's Woman with Long Hair is a dark atmospheric picture. The position of the woman's head and neck looks unnatural and uncomfortable, hanging over the edge of a plinth like a corpses on a mortuary slab. The sanguine facial expression and the loose following wavy hair is the emphasis of the picture. The curved lines of which are exaggerated by the picture being in black and white, the shadows deepening the sense of the unknown and unseen, giving the picture an eerie uncanny quality. The scene is certainly beautiful but also unnerving, it appears to be the scene of death, this yoking together of sensuality and death are problematic: were dead women more beautiful to the Surrealists? If it was simply an eroticisation of death, of an excitement of going to the edge, such is found in the sublime, why was it that only the images of women that could get them there? Ether way, the notion that female passivity, inaction is desirable is established or promoted by this picture.

Jean Delville's Symbolist painting Dead Orpheus makes this link between death and beauty explicit, the light around the figures head bathes it in glowing illumination making it appear something other than a inanimate object but a radiant object of wonder. Norbert Wolf comments on the painting, 'Orpheus' head – his face a metaphor for youthful beauty even in death'. What is troubling about the Surrealists fascination with death, is that it is incarnated and acted out by the figures of "beautiful" women, communicating that death and passivity are preferred or romanticised states of being for women. This is a rather abhorrent fantasy and to allow oneself to take pleasure in these images puts the viewer in a disquieting position. To the Surrealists "art is life", therefore by taking pleasure in the picture one may feel complicit in the dehumanisation of women.


Mirror Images

Mirrors have a very specific function in art, Berger again decodes the hidden agendas or proclivities of artists and viewers, 'You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your pleasure' he continues pointing out the hypocrisy and disingenuous nature of mirrors' symbolism, 'The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight'. Man Ray's Gala from 1947 makes its subject the act of looking, looking at oneself and displaying oneself to be looked at by others. At first glimpse Gala appears to be a rather ordinary classical portrait but on closer inspection there is something dark and troubling about it. Although the face seems serene, the reflection in the mirror is different, darker, the uncanny appearance of a doppelgänger revealing the murky nature of what is usually hidden, the unconscious perhaps.

Gala is quite reminiscent of the Symbolist Franz Von Stuck's painting Sin (left), the figures garment is open down the front of her body, her nakedness is displayed in provocative manner. Her face is in shadow but the expression is that of a leer. The title Sin represents the archaic notion that female sexuality is something that corrupts, provoking men's desire and leading to sin and the downfall of man. Man Ray in expressing the disingenuous nature of surface appearances uses the mirror to reflect something unpleasant about this beatific veiled woman. The choice of garment is telling, the veiling disguises ones body, partially obscuring and revealing tantalises us. The woman's look away from the camera is the process of assuming not to be aware of the camera's gaze while at the same time showing exhibitionist pleasure at being the object of the gaze. In this regard the picture conforms to Berger's hypothesis that by conditioning women to view themselves in the role of spectacle, that arouses them, if the woman is seen to enjoy this attention then they are punished for this vanity.



The position of the mirror in Woodman's photograph is interesting as it in on the ground, out of reach of the viewer, this is quite usual to have the mirror standing in for the look of the viewer. In this picture however, we have no access to the reflection, it is obscured by the figure of Woodman who appears to be springing up from and breaking out of the mirror. As a metaphor for wanting to shatter the view of women as objects of visual pleasure, vanity and the existence of a woman being something visual, elusive a surface image only. The fact that Woodman's face is distorted expresses her reluctance to be a stationary image but indeed the distortion proves she is moving, and an active participant in this picture.

Fetish Objects

Scenes containing incongruous objects are signatures of Surrealism. Objects are given new meanings by becoming the symbols of desire. Jennifer Mundy explains the surrealists' tendencies to fetishise, 'The fetishistic model of desire compounded to the surrealists' trompe l'oeil visual images remembered from dreams and fantasies, and to their specially constructed 'objects with a symbolic function'. In these works the image or object stood in the place of veiled or sublimated impulses or desires...'. Magritte makes these connections explicit in Philosophy in the Boudoir, items of clothing develop the anatomy of the bodies that wear them, the blouse seems to be growing breasts and the shoes some toes. By drawing our attention to these objects we begin to think about the weight of meaning that we attached to objects. In this case Magritte could to be providing a critique of the way woman are seen to be defined by the things they put onto their bodies, that women then become the trappings of gendered dress and thus objects themselves. Magritte's painting could also be an expression of his own fetishist desire towards these items of clothing that may arouse him, reminding him of what lays underneath.

Meret Oppenheim's My Nurse a collection of objects placed together and bound take on the significance of her claustrophobic feelings of desire for her old nanny/ nursemaid who apparently wore very tight skirts in which her thighs would be heard rubbing together underneath! The bound shoes then become fetishised objects endowed with sexual connotations due to their significance in Oppenheim's eroticised memory of her nurse. The surrounding meanings connected to the shoes also seep into this piece, perhaps corrupting the original intentions or even adding to them – that is of high heels' connotations, according to some Feminists of being tools of male oppression of women. Women wearing such shoes cannot move as freely and are often painful to wear. This oppressive and sadistic element is reinforced by the binding of the shoes. To Oppenheim it expressed the thighs rubbing tightly together, but artists are not always in control of the reception their work is met with. A valid reading of this piece, could easily be of male oppression of women; the heels are frayed and soft making the shoes impossible to walk in. The loss of movement producing a passivity, making the women a bound object, served up on a plat to be devoured by male desire. But the memory is Oppenheim's so can't we also say, so is the desire?

Salvador Dali's Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically is an overtly fetishistic construction expressing the mechanism of the suppression of lust, Mundy states 'Dali explored normally repressed feelings of guilt and shame...paraded in the paintings and objects of the Spanish artist who declared that perversion and vice were "the most revolutionary forms of thought and activity"'. The work is constructed of objects that Dali felt symbolically express that of the feminine, red shoes, pictures of shoes, sugar cubes and other domestic objects like the wooden spoon. The way this piece functions is of reading the objects together as a unity; the shoes and the photograph of a couple having sex express Dali's desire for women, while the domestic objects connote his traditional view of women being associated within the sphere of the home. The patch of pubic hair relays his fear of debasement by engaging in sex (Dali was notoriously frightened of sex and lost his virginity fairly late). The patch of hair is situated under the shoe suggesting it is something dirty. The way the objects come together shoes how Dali is perhaps trying to interpret his fetishistic fear and desire with what he associates with women. Feeling free enough to want to exhibit your fears and fantasies can be seen as liberating yet the message can be problematic, Mundy comments, 'The pursuit of the objects of desire was a pleasure to be savoured ad libertam'. This meant that due to the subjective nature of one artist's fantasy they could express them in a way that meant they were free from being held to account. Think of the disturbing nature of Hans Bellmer's desire for prepubescent girls in his dolls...

Gender Masquerades
The dominance of male heterosexuality in Surrealism meant that the representation of women and their sexuality was somewhat limited by Surrealist thought still being very much under the influence of patriarchal attitudes and regulations. One exception to the usually quite narrow minded view of gender and sexuality came from Marcel Duchamp's incarnation as Rrose Selavy. Duchamp put on this persona, met new people and travelled around as Rrose. Tashjian states of this performative gender bending being more than just drag, 'Duchamp's continued association with Rrose in a series of exchanges decisively transforms her portrait into his self-portrait, doubling Rrose the woman into Rrose Duchamp.' the fact of this lived cross dressing perhaps giving more validity to Duchamp's creation, rather than a form of cross dressing that had more in common with parody and the mockery of supposed normative behaviours. She continues, 'In the process we confront a persona that blurs the cultural borders of gender and sexuality, opening up possibilities that we have only begun to imagine'. The fact that this (art) performance was recorded by Man Ray's photography likens Duchamp's incarnation to be that of a living art work rather than just living. The Portrait of Rrose Selavy hides the "tell tell" signs of Duchamp's daily lived gender as male by the employment of shadow and lighting, Tashjian states, 'Rrose Selavy's existence as a woman is reinforced by the authenticity that we attribute to photography'. But, in some ways Rrose is played like a game rather than letting it become too real, always returning to the limitations of the Surrealists who always had the safety of being white, heterosexual middle-class men to return to.

Does Duchamp's gender play go far enough to subvert the binary opposites that gender has been forced into? His dress, hair style and demeanour is that of a clichéd stereotypical women's way of dress that carries with it the marks of woman's oppression in behaviours and dress that act as a masquerade. 'The idea of masquerade, of appearance as artifice strikes at the very heart of the idea of identity inhabited as a natural skin.' It is just as artificial for a woman to 'put on' femininity as it was for Duchamp. Duchamp is conforming to standardised notions of femininity rather than proposing something new and politically subversive. Claude Cahun's cross-dressing amounted to refusing to wear clothes that were obviously gendered, or when she did it was to make obvious the costuming of all forms of dress, with irony and with pleasure. Suleiman states ways in which the form of femininity that is understood as "normal" is in fact as construction, that women perform a kind of daily drag by just conforming to patriarchal expectations, 'The woman 'imitates' the module of femininity she sees presented to her by men, but she does so consciously, even as a parody in a manner akin to that of the quotation'.

Frida Kahlo's Portrait with Hair Cut Off expresses how bound the idea of gender is with style, rather than biology. After cropping her hair, Kahlo is dressed in a man's suit, playing with the idea that you can appropriate the sex of another by simply 'putting it on'. She takes off femininity by cutting off her long feminised hair and puts on maleness by wearing a suit. Within this mixture of socially constructed genders there is much more chance of subverting stereotypes, to allow for a more liberated view of sex and gender that includes all orientations, 'Both body and face trouble any normative sense of gender while being at the same time intensely sexual'. The frisson comes when these two genders come into play together, Kahlo is not dressing up as a man, or going butch, but expressing her own form of Female Masculinity and sexuality.

I've remained interested in the possibilities set up by Surrealism, despite being let down by the fact they never went far enough in challenging oppressive stereotypes of women and so often conformed to them, the fact they refused to entertain anything other than compulsory heterosexuality - all the more disappointing considering quite how much attention they gave to the subject of sexuality! But what they did hope to do was to give everyone agency over their own desires, dreams and fantasies, in theory if not practice. It is unforgivable that women figured only as muse rather than being allowed to enter into dialogues that would've helped these men understand and confront their retrograde attitudes to women. Had women been heard or allowed a voice in Surrealism, they no doubt would have led the charge of this so called liberation. Instead male Surrealists often fell into the attitudes Conley described Andre Breton possessing in his relationship to women, 'he lauds the women in his life: each one offers him a fresh perspective on himself, like a traditional muse. What room is there for actual women as creative subjects in this world view?' There in Surrealism was the seed of possibilities of a truly liberated way to view sexuality and desire in art and life, but it wasn't activated by them themselves - it is clear when looking at some of the second wave female Surrealists, who carried on challenging and pushing for the liberation that was promised them, they who constructed their own art in the gaps the male Surrealists left behind.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Friedrich Engels, Power Relations in 'The Origin of the Family' and The Gendering of Class and the Classing of Gender

Tying in with my conference paper and post last week on the The Classing and Gendering of Self-Presentation here's a good passage by Engels to illustrate this point further. 
We are confronted with this new form of family in all its severity among the Greeks. As Marx noted the position of the goddesses in mythology represents an earlier period, when women still occupied a freer and more respected place, in the Heroic Age, we could fine women degraded owing to the predominance of the man and the competition of female slaves...The modern conjugal family is based on...admitted or masked domestic slavery of women, and modern society is a mass made up exclusively of conjugal families, like so many molecules. In this day and age, man in the great majority of cases, must support and nourish the family, at least in the propertied classes; and this gives him a sovereign authority which does not need legal privilege to back it up. Within the family man is the bourgeois; woman plays the part of proletariat. But in the industrialist sphere, the specific character of economic oppression that weighs on the proletariat is only manifest in all its severity after all the legal privileges of the capitalist class have been suppressed and complete legal equality of the two classes has been established; the democratic republic does not suppress the antagonism between the two classes, the contrary is true: that is what, first of all, provides the ground where the struggle is going to be resolved.

Friday, 21 June 2013

"Cause it's changing in the big sky, Its changing in the big sky now!"

Just found out I have been offered a Fully Funded Studentship for my PhD at Middlesex in the department of Art and Design! One point to us dyslexic and/or working-class students!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Company of Wolves (1984): The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film Part Two


(This post was originally part of an undergraduate essay, I'm not sure if I agree with all of its arguments now, but it's an example of quite an early attempt at writing about masochism, which has been a recurring theme of my work)

Like Hellraiser, The Company of Wolves deals with masochistic desire in an unconventional way. Rather than being concerned with the negative effects of the masochistic desire of its young female heroine, The Company of Wolves shows it to be enabling for her, essential even for her ascension to womanhood. As Gaylyn Studlar writes: 'characters realise their “true” identity within the locus of masochistic desire'. Leo Bersani posits that following one's desire during the nascent stages of life is important in helping one overcome obstacles during the progression into adulthood
I wish to propose that most significantly, Masochism serves life. It is perhaps only because sexuality is ontologically grounded in masochism that the human organism survives the gap between the period of shattering stimuli and the development of resistant or defensive ego structures…Masochism would be the psychical strategy which partially defeats a biologically dysfunctional process of maturation. Masochism as the model of sexuality allows us to survive our infancy and early childhood.
In The Company of Wolves, succumbing to and owning our own desire is what allows us to "make the break" between childhood dependence and the future freedoms of womanhood - or so one hopes.

The idea of that masochism is inextricably linked to exhibitionism is shunned by both Hellraiser and The Company of Wolves: in both films the stage set for these desires is private, or at most features a company of two (this still includes the final scene of Frank’s torture by the Cenobites, as I think the contract is exclusively between Frank and Pinhead). The Company of Wolves’s initial scenes establish Rosaleen’s isolation. There is evident miscommunication between her and her family; the father says “she says I don’t understand her”, while the hostility between the sisters is blatant with the older repeatedly calling the younger a “pest”. The older sister has stairs and vast labyrinthine corridors to scale in order to reach her younger sister locked behind a door. The spatial distance shows visually the metaphysical separation between Rosaleen and her family - this maze-like mise-en-scène can be seen to represent Rosaleen’s mind.

We first see Rosaleen lying in bed - it is daylight and she is wearing her sister’s make-up. The rather sloppy way she has applied it hints at her lack of experience: she is experimenting with the trappings of female sexuality. This I believe is why she is in bed during the day with the door locked - so that she may explore herself in private, for her own pleasure. The interruption by the sister banging at the door can be viewed as the masochistic pleasure of punishment, adding a heightened sensation of indulging in the forbidden. The image of Rosaleen in bed is heavily reminiscent of another fairytale character, Snow White, whose physical description mirrors Rosaleen’s: 'as fair as snow, as rosy as the red blood and with hair and eyes as black as ebony'. This I think is a rather sly play on the fairy tale genre, as Rosaleen is not the typical passive beatific sleeper of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White fame. The very deliberate roundness of the red blusher on her cheeks seems to make itself a burlesque of fairy tale maidens' rosy cheeked beauty. The Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s story of the same name, is a feminist retelling of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood (1697), giving agency back to its heroine, so what we are concerned with here is the psychology of the sleeper.

Sudden darkness fills the room while the camera zooms in on a close-up of Rosaleen’s disordered bed while she sleeps, tossing and turning (antithesis of Snow White’s death-like sleep), groaning as if having a disturbing dream. Despite sleep’s state of rendering one inert, Rosaleen is presented as very much alive: her displeasure is understood by the audience sonically and visually. This I see having parallels with an analyst examining a patient's psyche, looking at the dark desires present in their dreams. This idea is reinforced during the next scene’s dream sequence in which Rosaleen’s sister is killed by a pack of wolves. This fantasy or wish-fulfilment dream could represent a sibling jealousy and desire to be rid of the older, more physically mature sister. I think in wearing her sister’s make-up it shows Rosaleen’s projection and subsequent identification with her, therefore the fantasy of being chased is a masochistic one as it allows Rosaleen to inhabit the position of the person in danger and at the same time be granted autonomy by the death of the sister.

After becoming an only child, Rosaleen is made a red cape, by her grandmother. This fetishistic object symbolises Rosaleen’s imminent maturation, being the colour of menstrual blood and so signifying anatomically functioning sexuality. Even the choice of name “Rosaleen” is suggestive of a small rose bud about to bloom. The sister’s death forces Rosaleen out of aping another’s sexuality, and frees a space within the familial space for Rosaleen to be granted ownership of her own sexuality free of the competition a sexually superior older sister presents. The sibling rivalry is made explicit by the gift of the cape or hood as an act of favouritism, confirmed by Rosaleen’s mother telling her she was always her Grandmother's favourite.

Dreams and fantasies are vital in allowing one to express and make sense of desire. The function of the Horror film shares fundamental links with that of the fairy tale. Both allow the viewer or reader to put him/herself in the position of danger/passion to work out a particular fear or desire. Bruno Bettelheim clarifies the productive role reading fairytales (and, I propose, watching horror films) possesses: 'When unconscious material is to some degree permitted to come into awareness and worked through in imagination, it’s potential for causing harm-to ourselves or to others-is much reduced'. The majority of the film's action takes place within a dream; this awareness allows the audience to decode the symbolism present in the film.

Female masochism sits precariously in a feminist dialectic, as it positions the heroine in the very role it is challenging. As I stated previously, historically, masochism has been seen almost exclusively as a feminine state, when it occurs in men it is explained as having an emasculating effect. Kaja Silverman confirms this trend: 'It is unfortunate but not surprising that the perversion which has commandeered most of the literary and theoretical attention - sadism - is also the one which is most compatible with conventional heterosexuality'. This trend is also more at ease within a patriarchal, sexist society. Yet this film gives new attention to this desire, challenging imposed notions of female masochism being solely characterised by submission to stronger (male) sadistic sexuality. Masochism for Rosaleen is actively enjoying a socially dangerous search for pleasure, dangerous because it is not socially acceptable that women have strong sexual urges, let alone embrace them. The risk is to follow the fairy tale theme further - to be an unconventional woman in that world is to be a witch, and in this one a bitch or whore; both figures are ostracised.

Her liberation from childhood comes in the form of a threat of sexual violence, as Andrea Dworkin might say of the loss of our virginity. Although not necessarily pertaining to actual violence, it is often described within the language of misogyny suggesting a breach, a loss, a breaking-in and the "popping" of a cherry/hymen etc. This threat is personified by the form of the wolf. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim proposes what the figure of the wolf may represent for the reader/audience: 'the wild and destructive wolf stands for all the asocial, unconscious, devouring powers against which one must protect oneself, and can defeat through the strength of one's ego'. I think this is strongly tied to society’s fear of (and longing for) sex. Rather than heeding the warning of possible repercussions, dark strange sexuality is longed for by the individual as freedom to express the self. Instead of a flight or fright from the wolf, Rosaleen welcomes him in - literally, if you consider the detail of giving the wolf her grandmother’s address. Rosaleen’s courtship of sex and danger can be seen by her flirting with the wolf: “at least you’ve got your clothes on” she jokes after having just met him.

The bet between the wolf and Rosaleen seals the contract, the initial stage of their mutually delayed pleasure. Theodor Reik notes that 'Masochism is not, as has been surmised up till now, characterised by the pleasure in discomfort, but by pleasure in expecting of discomfort'. In this more sexually overt version, the wolf does not bother to disguise himself as Granny; instead Rosaleen finds him rocking expectantly in Granny’s chair, his shirt half-open in a suggestive manner. The wolf leaps up and inadvertently steps on Granny’s spectacles; we hear them crunch, then they both look down, their bodies mirrored and close. The repetition of question and answers begins by: “what big eyes you have”- “all the better to see you with” that allows the pleasure and pain of anticipation to build; the connection between foreplay and verbal exchange is implicit as items of clothing are removed piece by piece. Rosaleen gladly throws her red hood into the fire expressing her active desire. After the wolf removes his shirt, offering her his body, Rosaleen then shoots him, revealing our vulnerability when naked. Exposure in the masochistic union seems to require a dose of affection, it is only after Rosaleen feels sympathy towards the wolf (“I never knew a wolf could cry”) that he can shed his skin and reveal his true self. This puts me in mind of Andrea Dworkin’s idea of becoming “skinless” during a compatible sexual union: 'Sometimes, the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualisation, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits. There is no physical distance, no self-consciousness, nothing withdrawn or private or alienated, no existence outside physical touch'.

The last sequence in Granny’s house is climatic; non-diegetic music reaches a crescendo as the wolf bursts forth shattering the glass window. This can be seen symbolically as the severance of innocence and loss of virginity but a simpler reading sees it as an action of 'self-shattering mechanisms of masochistic jouissance'. When the mother opens the door to find Rosaleen’s metamorphosis into a wolf (revealed by Rosaleen's crucifix around the wolf's neck) she does not let the father shoot her child; she allows Rosaleen to escape through the window. The metamorphosis also reflects Rosaleen’s change from child to woman. This scene fairly obviously signifies the Mother letting go of the child who has reached maturation. The wolf grants Rosaleen 'masochistic jouissance' the experience of which allows her break away from familial bonds.

The newly transformed couple run through the wood, triumphant music is heard as they are joined by other wolves forming a pack but the mood of the music alters becoming more sinister and threatening. The camera tracks this forest procession as it enters the house; this visually blends the dream sequence with the supposed reality of Rosaleen’s bedroom scene. The interior of the house has changed; it is now dark and covered in decaying leaves as if nature has taken over. Like Hellraiser, this decay stands for a corroding of boundaries of what is morally tolerated. The wolves breach the safety of the house, bursting in, breaking through paintings (culture, civilisation) and mirror the older sister’s path by rushing up the stairs, literally invading Rosaleen’s reality. The locales of dreams for masochistic fantasies are expounded by Studlar, 'characters in the masochistic text are often not quite sure if they are awake or asleep, perceiving or fantasizing into dream'. This last sequence is a warning of letting desires overcome us. Rosaleen awakens horrified; her masochistic fantasy is ruptured from the safe place of dreams by the wolf bursting through her bedroom window. This ending expounds the often problematic way in which we experience pleasure during the horror film. To keep filmic pleasure safely in context, reinforcement of the borders between fantasy and reality need to happen, via the moralistic cautionary ending. The explorations of dreams through film are safe and important, yet brought into daylight these fantasies are quite simply horrific.

Part One: Hellraiser (1987), The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film