Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Notes on a Photograph

Notes on a Photograph will be a recurring post on The Great Within. In these posts I will look at different vintage photographs which have attracted my interest and awakened my desire. As Roland Barthes would say these photographs animate me and simultaneously I animate them.

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Two attractive, handsome young men pose for the camera either before or after a casual game of baseball. It is the 1920’s or 1930’s. I’m not sure. The setting is perhaps a small town, a park in a residential area. Private homes and trees are in the background of the photograph.

The two men stand close together with their arms around one another in a gesture of intimacy. There is an ease to their embrace. The man on the left wears a hat and has a baseball glove on his left hand. The man on the right holds a baseball in his right hand. They wear the clothes of their time and place. They stare out from the past at me the viewer.

There is nothing else to discover on the level of denotation. The photograph is all surface, impenetrable. All I am sure of, all I can be certain of is that what I see in this photograph has indeed existed. In Camera Lucida Barthes writes:

…every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent…Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation…I call “photographic referent” not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before a lens, without which there would be no photograph…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography…the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: That-has-been…(Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 76-77.)

Barthes conception is simple almost banal, yet disturbingly profound and unsettling. Looking at this photograph or any photograph I, the viewer, am confronted by the sheer magnitude and madness of photography, by its truth: That-has-been.

The two male figures in this particular photograph existed, lived, died. There is a specific narrative here that I don’t know and can never know. All I know is that this pose, this embrace occurred and is forever fixed by the photograph in front of my eyes. They are the “necessarily real thing” without which the image would not nor could not exist. The two men look out at me from the past and tell me nothing except this: their assured existence.

However, on the level of connotation, I can imagine, I can project, I can animate the photograph as it animates me. For me this photograph is erotic. It generates desire. I can imagine that this embrace before the camera lens is indicative of an intimacy which existed beyond the eye of the camera, beyond the frame of the photograph. I can speculate that these two men were connected beyond mere friendship, beyond a game of baseball. In my mind, in the eternity of the photograph, I want them to be homosexuals who are and were connected, who are and were in love, who endure and endured despite the dominant fiction and its potential real life consequences. I want to believe that they stare out at me with confidence and satisfaction in themselves, alone and together. I want them to provide me with a past, a lineage, a history.

07-17-2009 09;55;15AM

To underline how this photograph generates desire for me, I turn once again to Barthes and his understanding of the difference between the erotic and the pornographic photograph. He states:

The presence…of the blind field (what is beyond the frame)is, I believe, what distinguishes the erotic from the pornographic photograph. Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me…the erotic photograph on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame and it is there that I animate the photograph and it animates me. (Barthes, pp. 57-59.)

Pornographic photographs are fragile, mundane; interest in them lasts until the cumshot and then they are useless and discarded. In contrast the erotic photograph endures because it takes the viewer outside its frame to the blind field of continuing animation and desire.

In the photograph of the two men, I am distracted constantly by the large leather baseball mitt worn by the left male figure. It is the fissure in the skin of the photographic image. It is poignant to me. It cuts me and simultaneously allows me to cut, to penetrate the photograph, to animate it with my desire.

The way the glove covers almost the entire torso of the other figure evokes for me possession, touch, physical intimacy, something visceral, something sexual, something I cannot quite name. For me, this formal detail is the punctum of the image. It takes me outside the frame to the blind field and “launches desire beyond what it permits (me) to see…” not only towards naked bodies, to bodies engaged in sex, but to “an excellence of a being, body and soul together.”(Barthes, p. 59.)

Such a desire is not possible with the pornographic photograph. In this photograph of two men, the bodies are generous, available, erotic (expressed for me in the oversized glove). In contrast, the pornographic body displays itself, but is never available. It does not give itself. The desire it fosters is brief, short-lived, ultimately false and in the end unsatisfying. This photograph of tw0 men in an embrace engenders a desire that prevails and provides me with a moment of bliss.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Visibility of Desire: Sex Shop Facades, Pornography, Times Square 1995 and the Body

This essay was written in 1995 and describes a world that no longer exists. This piece is about nostalgia and how the center of New York City was reconfigured into a giant tourist mall. I thought it was worth a dust off and perhaps may spark some interest. The pictures are merely documents, not great photographs. When I took them in ‘95 I had to do it on the sly as I was threatened several times by various store owners.

Since the 1970’s, there has existed a conceptual and physical attempt to “revitalize” Times Square and West Forty-Second Street in New York City (now accomplished), particularly through the efforts of the 42nd Redevelopment Project which was launched in 1981. The concentration of sex-related businesses in Times Square and on West 42nd Street, in addition to crime and drugs. has been understood by both the Project as well as other redevelopment studies to be a central impediment to this “rejuvenation”.

Within these various studies, the pornography business is described as contributing to the “blight” and “decay” of the area. They are a virus which has infected this urban space and caused its decline from former greatness. This language of disease indicates that these reports deploy a traditional model of the city which posits an isomorphic relationship between the body and the urban space. Times Square and West Forty-Second Street are conceptualized as diseased and blighted portions of the body/city which in the discourse of the redevelopment undertaking need to be “revitalized” and made “healthy” and “alive”.

This somatic description of Times Square seems particularly resonant in relation to the porn stores operating in this zone of the city which in a very general sense engage in the production of bodies to be manipulated, consumed and purchased by their patrons. The coding of the “body” as decaying and diseased directly parallels the socially sanctions bodily practices, for example, same-sex desire and sado-masochism which achieve visibility within the sex shop and on its exterior. Such practices are routinely devalued and pathologized in our culture of complusory heterosexuality.

While the production of the body occurs in the products of the sex store such as magazines, videos, peep booths, live nude shows and replicas of body parts, it also transpires on the glittering, flashing facade of this type of establishment. Indeed, the porn shop facade becomes a written geography of the body through its external neon and printed signage which maps not only the spaces of the body itself, but also the sexual desires and behavior of that very body.

This essay will explore the somatic mapping of the sex shop facade and consider the function of this corporeal geography in the context of Times Square as well as in production of the body within postmodern urban society and culture. Does the sex shop facade represent a horizontaling of the body and its sexual practices which disrupts complusory heterosexuality and its concomitant hierarchy of desire? In this way, does the facade participate in the production of Times Square as a liminal space which enables the practice of desires and identities which are socially devalued and negated elsewhere? Who is allowed to participate within the liminality of this space? Is this liminality only available to men, both gay and straight?

And if Times Square is a space of restriction and exclusion, does it function then not as a liminal space, but as a space in which the body and sexuality can be not only produced, but also supervised and monitored? Does the sex emporium exterior operate as a site of surveillance paralleling the larger space of Times Square? Therefore, does the porn storefront reassert and secure the heterosexual hierarchy of desire and the body, rather than disrupt it? Moreover, does this “simulation” of the body within the contemporary urban environment of Times Square in which the porn facade participates “articulate a totalitarian politics of surveillance and control, or its opposite, a subversive dynamic that trespasses boundaries and hierarchies.” (Celeste Olalquiaga, Megalopolis, p. 1)

The consideration of these questions is based on the examination of nine facades of sex shops, randomly chosen, which are located on West 42nd Street and in the Times Square area. Whether it is the elaborate seedy opulence of Peep-O-Rama and Peepland with



their two storey facades and profusion of lights and neon or the more innocuous and more modest single level storefronts of Super Video and the Adult Video store, the sex shop facade shares many common features.Timessquare3 The facade is characterized by both a degree of opacity and extreme visibility produced by the cacophonous nature of the flashing lights and neon. One rarely see into these establishments except through an open door. Portions of the facade usually the windows reflect the possible patron like a mirror as at Peep-O-Rama.



This opaque surface encapsulates the simultaneous, yet primary functions of the facade in terms of concealment and revelation. While serving to insure customer privacy, its opacity enables the facade to act as a screen of information. Instead of images (the main products of these stores), the facade is composed of words in neon or printed letters which are inscribed on the surface of the building. It becomes a blank slate on which information is written (of course pornographic images could not be displayed) in order to announce to potential customers in an optically dynamic fashion the merchandise and services offered by the establishment.


This information includes types of products such as videos, magazines and sex toys, the “bargain” prices of such products and the hours of operation. The storefront also includes details about the services of the emporium such as peep booths and their features such as number of available channels, price and the availability to see your peep booth neighbor in gay “Buddy Booths”, the presentation of live shows of nude girls and the presence of special male sections for gay men.




Although the nine facades examined contain this information, the listing of different categories of videos available for both purchase and individual viewing in a peep booth appears to be the most prominent and consistent feature of the storefronts. A brief description of Peep-O-Rama will serve as a model to illustrate this point. In addition, this description will begin a discussion of the sex storefront as a kind of textual corporeal geography.


The street level facade of Peep-O-Rama consists of a large projecting awning, two windows incorporating neon, an entrance and several other areas containing signage both above, below and to the side of the windows as well as around the doorway. A white sign with red and blue letters located to the left of the windows insures the viewer of getting a good bargain on the latest videos available. It also list three types of video: “Male (meaning gay), Anal and Bondage”.

The window next to the entrance lists four classifications in green,Timessquare1C red and blue neon: “European, Bisexual, Male, S&M”. This list ends with an “etc.” suggesting that the store holds an infinite variety of sexual choices. This suggestion is underlined by the left window which advertises the “64 selections” obtainable in the store’s peep booths.

The narrow blue and white sign running the length above the windows and the entrance promotes again the competitive pricingTimessquare1B of the store and the continuing availability of new video products and describes four kind of videos in stock: “European, Oriental, Spanish, Amateure (sic)”.

The white signs with the red and blue lettering located on the right of


the doorway like the others continue to exhort the bargain prices and new selections offered by the store as well as registering various video subjects such as “European, Japanese, Oriental, Big Boobs, Male and She Male”. The other storefronts examined contain some of the categories found on the facade of Peep-O-Rama as well as others such as “Brazil, Lesbian, Gay, Hardcore, Female, Danish, French, Sweden, Straight, Kinky, Fetish.”

Timessquare3 Timessquare4B Timessquare5AOn the (almost) flat surface of the sex shop facade the geography of space suggested by the designations “European, Spanish, Japanese, Oriental” is metaphorically flattened and conflated with the geography of the body. This conflation transpires through the inscription of specific body parts (Big Boobs, Anal), distinct corporeal structures (She Male, Male, Bisexual) as well as different erotic actions practiced by these structures and specific behaviors involving the body (Bondage, S&M) which in turn produces other body types and evokes somatic areas beyond the genitals.

However, the sex shop facade does not map a single, unified body with a distinguishable sex, gender and desire, but rather it produces a series of separate, although interrelated bodies all which exist on the plane of the storefront. The flatness of the building face maps the body, yet simultaneously it fragments this body into a myriad of parts, desires and identities producing many bodies. Indeed, the 64 selections available at Peep-O-Rama, the 32 selections at Peep Show Center, the 84 selectionsTimessquare6B at Peepland or the 128 selections at The Playground suggest an infinite production of different bodies, acts and desires.

Similarly the consistent emphasis on new releases found on all the facades further underlines this notion of fragmentation through an endless production of ever “new” bodies, practices and desires. Moreover, the use of “etc” at the end of a list of video categories serves to stress the inexhaustible supply of bodies, behaviors and desires which can be produced and needs to be produced by pornography and its architectural manifestation on the sex shop facade.

One could suggest that this infinite multiplication of bodies, practices and desires precipitates a horizontalization of sexuality, replacing a hierarchy of identity and desire with a flat and boundless plane on which all positions can exist simultaneously without value or privilege. The formal elements of the facade appear to support such a contention. No hierarchy can be determined from the placement of sexual classifications on the storefront. The signage is not distinguished in any noticeable or qualitative way in relation to size, shape or color neon or print lettering which would produce a coherent system of value. For instance, the facade of Peep-O-Rama possesses a piecemeal quality which disrupts any notion of judgment or value-laden ordering.

Similarly, albeit in a more orderly format Super Video displays Timessquare3 the bodies and pleasures of its video categories in its main sign and awning in a uniform and decidedly horizontal format which negates any attempt to privilege one body or practice over another. Any body, desire or act can be consumed for $3.99 per video of 25 cents for approximately 30 seconds of viewing time. Hence, the porn facade can be understood as undermining a system of sexuality in which heterosexuality comprises the standard that defines and devalues every other sexual position.

The multiple bodies and pleasures inscribed on the facade of the sex emporium can be enumerated in terms of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of transsexuality. For Baudrillard, transsexuality serves as a model for postmodern sexuality itself and not a discrete individual who exchanges one set of genitals for another. Explaining the concept of transsexuality, he states:

The transsexual is based on artifice whether it is a question of anatomy (changing sex) or a question of variations of dress, gestural or morphological codes which are characteristics of transvestites. In all cases, whether it is a surgical process or transvestism, it is a question of artifice. Today the destiny of the body is to become a prosthesis; it is therefore logical that the model of sexuality may become transsexuality and that transsexuality becomes everywhere the place and space of seduction. (Jean Baudrillard, Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics, p. 20.)

The bodies offered by the sex shop facade become in the sense of Baudrillard a series of prostheses which a potential customer/viewer can exchange in an inexhaustible play of desire just as the transvestite can wear a piece of clothing or the transsexual can change his/her anatomy. The textual bodies of the exterior and the video bodies of the interior are artificial corporeal parts that one can wear like clothing and continually exchange into infinity.

The notion of circulation implicit in Baudrillard’s model of transsexuality resonates with the multiple channels available within the peep booths of the sex emporium and the external advertisement of this feature. The multi-channel peep booth suggests a fluid sexuality of movement. A decisive social and historical event for Baudrillard in the progression towards a sexuality of circulation and transsexuality is the sexual revolution. He states:

The sexual revolution, by liberating all the virtualities of desire leads to this fundamental interrogation: Am I a man or a woman?…The liberation of sex will have the effect of sending everybody on a quest for their “gender”, their generic and sexual identity, with fewer and fewer possible answers given the circulation of signs and the multiplicity of pleasures. It is thus that we suddenly become transsexuals. (Jean Baudrillard, p. 21.)

For Baudrillard, sexual liberation enabled a profusion of sexual identities to exist which had previously been socially sanctioned through the medical and legal system. Yet, the abundance of designations produced, the ever increasing “multiplicity of pleasures” and the ever greater splitting of sexual distinctions has had the effect according to Baudrillard of collapsing the stability and boundaries of any sexual identity, thereby denying the ability of anyone to occupy one position. It is in the sense that we are all transsexuals.

Thus, the delineation of discrete bodies and pleasures of the porn facade cannot secure sexual boundaries and hierarchies. Rather it subverts them by the multiplication of these desires and bodies- the neon “etc” of Peep-O-Rama. Similarly, on the endless peep booth channels, one can fluidity circulate through the somatic pleasures and their practionners on display become a Baudrillardian transsexual.

Furthermore, some peep booths possess the so-called “Quad System” in which patron can view four different videos at the Timessquare8A same time. One image is the size of a medium television screen and the three remaining images are small postcard size insets located on the side of the main screen. The spectator can switch


back and forth between the images in order to enlarge one or continue to move through the remaining number of channels. Whatever his choice, the viewer will always see four different images simultaneously. Such a system like the facade conceptualizes the model of transsexuality in which a viewer can freely circulate between bodies and pleasures without ever remaining in one position.

Although the transsexual model of postmodern sexuality advanced by Baudrillard is strategically useful in discussing the production and display of the body and pleasure on the sex shop facade as a disruption of the heterosexual hierarchy of desire, this concept simultaneously denies social and cultural forces which maintain and continually reassert this very hierarchy. The transsexual model must be considered a utopian project because it does not acknowledge the actual lived experiences of those individuals who practice a desire outside of the heterosexual paradigm and the sometimes punishment which is ensured by such behavior.

One could also argue that this regulation of the public sphere is distinctly masculine in character and functions to restrict movement of women within the urban space. Times Square and its sex shops are distinctly a space of male desire, both gay and straight, which excludes the presence of women through their objectification in pornography. Who possesses the privilege to become a transsexual? Who holds the privilege to subvert sexual boundaries and the heterosexual hierarchy of desire, only to resecure these boundaries and the dominance of heterosexuality after their transsexual journey?

To answer these questions, I again want to examine the discourse on Times Square and sex shops found within four reports which called for the revitalization of this urban area. I want to suggest that these reports maintain the boundaries of sexuality and the heterosexual hierarchy of desire. These four reports reassert heterosexual mastery within the Times Square area and urban space in general by deploying an isomorphic discourse between the body and the city. This isomorphic relation is expressed through a model of disease in which sex-related businesses are conceptualized as a type of virus which has defiled Times Square. According to these studies, the redevelopment and subsequent removal of pornography establishments will render the area healthy once again.

In her essay “Bodies/Cities”, Elizabeth Grosz formulates two important criticisms of this parallelism between the body and the city which are useful in discussing the redevelopment “disease” discourse of Times Square, in addition to the function of sex shops and their facades within that discourse as well as in this urban space.

Grosz asks if the city is like a body, then what is the sex of that body? Not surprisingly, she concludes that the is body is indeed a male body. I would add that this body is also heterosexual. Such a conception of the body of the city is clearly illustrated in a large mural surrounded by flashing lights which comprises the upper register of the facade of Fun City. Against a midnight blueTimessquare7B sky with white stars and a yellow crescent moon, a schematic rendering of the New York skyline is drawn in white. ThreeTimessquare7A architectural landmarks are easily recognizable in the drawing: the Empire State Building, the Citicorp building and the Chrysler building while the other building are more generic urban structures.

A dark haired woman who wears a pink bathing suit and high-heeled shoes is perched on the yellow crescent moon. With her arms behind her buttocks causing her large breasts to be thrust forward, she exhibits a decidedly sexual posture of female availability and passivity. Her posture and her placement on the curving shape of the crescent moon stands in strong contrast to the masculine, phallic nature of the skyscrapers and the other buildings whose myriad of windows seem like a thousand male eyes gazing at this lunar woman. This image asserts a traditional notion of women as passive, as nature to the active, cultural (architectural) activity of men.

A 1978 City University of New York Graduate School study of West Forty-Second Street and by association Times Square entitled West 42nd Street: The Bright Light Zone acknowledged directly the male heterosexual character of this area. In the study the area is described as “largely a male territory…a man’s world of sex shops, action movies and retail stores which cater to primarily male tastes”(p. 24.) According to the report, however, it was first and foremost pornography which maintained the masculinity of the area and kept women form entering this space in large numbers. It states. “Women avoid the blatant female exploitation so evident along Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue” (p. 3.) In order to equalize this imbalance, the study advocated a renewal of the area which would replace the sex shops with “forms of legitimate entertainment.”(p. 3.)

Such a solution seems to replace a visible form of male heterosexual hegemony (porn shops) with a more opaque form of male heterosexual control of urban space. Perhaps a better, albeit fantastical solution to this problem would be for women to begin to participate in and be allowed to partake in the sex trade of Times Square and West Forty-Second Street.

Such actions would be more disruptive of our entire gender and sexuality precipitating the subversion of traditional notions of women, femininity and sex. Such a conclusion is supported by the observations of filmmaker Bette Gordon regarding her visits to porn shops. She states:

I’d go into a (porn) store, walk down an aisle where there were a lot of magazines and only male customers. The minute that I physically inhabited the same space as them in the porn store, the guys moved away from me. They couldn’t deal with a woman except as an object on the page. It was interesting because I felt a kind of bizarre power. That my presence made these guys uncomfortable gave me satisfaction. (Bette Gordon and Karyn Kay in Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, p. 93.)

By intervening in the male space of the sex emporium Gordon is able to disrupt the seamless discourse of male heterosexual supremacy produced within pornography as well as the heterosexual dominance of the public sphere.

The second criticism of the body/city parallelism posited by Grosz concerns its political function. She contends:

It (the body/city parallelism) serves to provide a justification for various forms of “ideal” government and social organization through a process of “naturalization”: the human body is a natural form of organization which functions not only for the good of each organ but primarily for the good of the whole. Similarly, the body politic, whatever form it may take, justifies and naturalizes itself with reference to some form of hierarchical organization modeled on the (presumed and projected) structure of the body.(Grosz, p. 247.)

The process of naturalization occurs in the redevelopment discourse of Times Square and West Forty-Second Street through its model of disease. Within this discourse, pornography and its consumers are understood as a type of infection which has invaded a once vital and central part of the city and like a diseased organ it threatens the body/city as a whole. The site of the virus is the sex shop and it elimination will render not only the area of Times Square healthy, but also the entire city. In order to precipitate its own justification and naturalization this discourse refers to the heterosexual hierarchy of desire in which the very bodies of the individuals who practice non-heterosexual desire are pathologized and characterized to be the embodiment of disease. This understanding is particularly virulent since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. The discourse of AIDS has continually conflated the disease with male same-sex practice as if the (homosexual) body was constitutive of the very disease itself.

The implicit use of the heterosexual hierarchy of desire in conjunction with the explicit deployment of the disease model within the redevelopment discourse additionally serves to secure the paradigm of heterosexuality. One could suggest that this naturalization is a function of the sex shop emporium facade. Out of the nine stores examined only one store, Peep Show Center, lists “straight” as a category on its exterior.

In a sense, the other facades by listing sexual behaviors and pleasures outside of heterosexuality only serve to confirm the normalcy, naturalness and invisibility of heterosexuality. The center can only exist if it continually defines its margins. The storefront of the porn store takes part in this continual definition of heterosexuality by its very absence. Such a conclusion is further underlined by the understanding of Times Square and West Forty-Second Street as a sex zone, a separate sphere where “deviant” sexualities are allowed to exist allow under constant scrutiny and attack. The production of a public sphere of illicit sexuality with defined borders only serves to secure the dominance of heterosexuality in other parts of the city.

The naturalization of heterosexuality that I contend occurs on the porn emporium facade and the support of this naturalization through the discourse of redevelopment counters Baudrillard’s concept of transsexuality in which the proliferation of classifications of desire and sexual identities produces a horizontalization of the dominant hierarchy of desire. For Baudrillard all positions possess equal value and thus no value. Everything is flat, available for 25 cents for thirty seconds or $3.99 for an hour long video.

In contrast to Baudrillard, the French philosopher Michel Foucault has interpreted the proliferation of sexual positions and pleasures and the targeting of those positions and pleasures as sites of investigation for the medical establishment as a kind of prop which enables the centrality of heterosexuality. He argues that new sexualities such as homosexuality which were produced in a sense by nineteenth century medical discourse was:

not so much the enemy as a support; it may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and invisible, rather than disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and effects while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace. (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 42.)

The examination and codification of “deviant” sexual identities by the medical establishment in the late nineteenth century served to naturalize the privileged position of heterosexuality. Repression and elimination (though with real life consequences) were never the goal of these efforts, but rather ever expanding proliferation. Within the discourse of sexuality, heterosexuality was and still remains the invisible term which never requires explanation or definition because it is supposedly natural, self-evident and ahistorical.

Sex shops maintain this invisibility through the codification and reification of the fringes of desire by literally writing this desire onto their exterior. Thus, S&M, Fetish, Kinky, Male (Gay), and Lesbian are inscribed on the storefront surface. Although absent, heterosexuality is always, everywhere present through its production of these “perverse” sexualities. Paradoxically, the sex zone of Times Square and the porn facade are both the site of male heterosexual “transsexuality” as well as the structure which confirms his desire and gives him the privilege of a fluid sexuality.

Therefore, the control of sexuality by the repressive measures (in a sense false, yet with very real consequences) of the medical and legal establishment has been replaced by pornography, the images beyond the facade, which become as Foucault states, “a form of control by stimulation.” (Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, p. 56.) One site of this stimulation is the facade of the porn store with its flashing lights, glittering neon andTimessquare2C tantalizing menu of the internal pleasures available to the (male heterosexual) customer. The storefront serves to exclude women through its spectacular display and confirmation of male desire and female objectification as in the Fun City mural. It reinforces the masculinity of public space and reasserts traditional notions of the woman as a site of sexual consumption rather than as a participant within that very consumption.

The work of Celeste Olalquiaga in her book Megalopolis on the nature of the contemporary urban experience offers a further perspective on the two poles of interpretation which I have offered regarding the signification of the sex emporium facade: the transsexuality of Baudrillard and the control by stimulation of Foucault. Olalquiaga’s notions of contemporary city life problematize both of these interpretations and suggests that the facade of the porn shop and the images which lie beyond it perhaps shift between these positions.

Olalquiaga characterizes current urban life as increasingly pervaded by technology oscillating between a simulative mode of experience and a referential mode. In the referential mode, signification is produced through indexicality. Signs achieve meaning from a clearly defined system of categories and hierarchies.

On the other hand, in simulation meaning is attained through the media which negates any categorical or hierarchical distinctions. One needs only to consider how the proliferation and rapid dissemination of images and texts has collapsed temporal, geographical and even physical distinctions. Pornography is a primary example of this collapse. To an even greater extent the body fuses with the technology of pornography mainly in terms of video, but also with phone and computer sex. The body looks to its own representation for meaning rather than to actual bodies. Therefore, in contrast to reference, in simulation signs derive their signification from one another. In other words, “rather than pointing to first degree references (objects/events) simulation looks at representations of them (images/text) for verisimilitude.”(Olalquiaga, pp. xix, 6.)

In addition to understanding the media of pornography as a form of simulation, a referential loss in terms of the body, Olalquiaga also perceives contemporary urban architecture and space as manifesting this loss in terms of temporal and spatial perception. Describing the experience of this architecture and its setting, she states:

Casting a hologramlike aesthetic, contemporary architecture displays an urban continuum where buildings are seen to disappear behind reflections of the sky or merge into one another…Any sense of freedom gained by the absence of the clearly marked boundaries, however, is soon lost to the reproduction ad infinitum of space- a hall of mirrors in which passersby are dizzied into total oblivion.(Olalquiaga, p. 2.)

The facade of the porn establishment, I believe, fuses both the referential loss of architecture described by Olalquiaga and the same loss of the body found within pornography particularly within the setting of Times Square which itself can be considered aTimessquare10 paradigm of simulation. Times Square is indeed a space of images. As on the facade of the porn store, the body is mapped by the fashion images of this urban area providing false and ideal corporeal models for its spectators. Moreover,


the images of Times Square self-reflexively concern the replication and manufacture of even more pictures and sounds in ads for film and sound recording for an ever expanding play of


intertexuality. Indeed, the centerpiece of this urban space is a large video screen. Within this urban space, technology fuses with the body precipitating its absence.



This somatic vanishing act occurs not only in the external space of Times Square, but also in the interior of the porn emporium as the spectator watches a video screen. Corporeal absence results from the very dynamic of pornographic spectatorship. Simulation in general for Olalquiaga possesses this dynamic in that “the boundaries between what is being watched and who is watching barely exist: performance and spectator fuse into one.”(Olalquiaga, p. 6.) This dynamic of referential loss and the dissolution of boundaries so that one’s identity is effaced appears to be at work on the exterior surface of the porn shop. On one level, somatic absence occurs on the facade as the body is fragmented and displaced by a series of words and positions which splinter identity into ever narrower meanings: Fetish, Kinky, S&M, Bondage, Bisexual so that such meanings have no value as is argued by Baudrillard.

This fragmentation is also precipitated by the reflective surfaces of the porn storefront. As one looks at the neon or printed signs of desire and practice in the windows of the porn store, one is Timessquare1C struck by the reflective, mirror-like nature of this experience. The body of the spectator becomes an image in the reflective glass of the sex emporium. This image is offered desires and behaviors which splinter his/her identity as the viewer moves through the various spaces of pleasure on the facade.


However, a qualification must be made to this conclusion. The facades are mainly composed of words instead of images. More than images, language possesses the ability to fix meaning, produce stable categories and secure hierarchies. Therefore, does the use of language on the porn facade instead of images control boundaries or support heterosexuality as suggested by Foucault? Or does the reflective nature of the facade, its collapsing of corporeal image and text disrupt borders of desire producing the Baudrillardian transsexual? Yet, even if this transsexual possibility exists, is it ultimately negated by the presence of the female body on the facade which stabilizes identity in male heterosexual subject and female object, and refusing the free play of transsexuality?


Furthermore, the facade concretizes the voyeuristic character of pornography. If the pornographic performance and the viewer merge together, which is the object and who is the subject? In a sense, both oscillate back and forth between these two positions. This movement between subject and object, between spectator and image is localized in the eye which appears on numerous sex shop storefronts. By association one could consider the 25 centsTimessquare6C symbol inscribed in a circle (usually in neon), a standard feature of all sex stores which have peep shows as a metaphoric eye or as an indexical sign, the site through which the eye can “peep” as in a keyhole for a modest fee.

Indeed such a correlation is supported by the facade of Peep Show where the red 25 cents neon sign is placed within a yellow neon eye. Does this eye, both symbolic and representational, simulate the eye of the viewer as he “peeps” at the pornographic image? Or is it the “eye” of pornography whichTimessquare9 sees the viewer providing sexual positions which efface his/her identity? Ultimately, does the eye express the “control by stimulation” as a sign of surveillance which monitors perverse sexuality in order to insure the command of heterosexuality?

The questions I have proposed above do not possess definite answers. If pressed to chose one side or another of the debate, I would be inclined to agree with Foucault and see the facades as a site which stabilizes heterosexuality. Yet, there exists I believe a potential for intervention of the kind advanced by filmmaker Bette Gordon which reveals an inherent instability of this subject/object dynamic.

Additionally, one might consider the role of “Male Sections” within the sex emporium and its advertisement on the facade. These sections challenge male heterosexuality, while simultaneously its separation enforces this position. It does nothing to change public urban space as the site of exclusive male desire. In the end perhaps, real intervention and disruption can only be attained through other pornographic mediums such as phone and computer sex where the complete absence of the body enables one to become a transsexual.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Queer Imaging 2: A circa 1918 postcard or once again I turn to Foucault

07-17-2009 10;03;14AMPostcard circa 1918 unused, no postmark

A dapper gentlemen wearing a hat and red bowtie and carrying a walking stick puts his hand to his heart and declares his patriotic duty, but then invalidates this very duty because he might “get all dirty.” Herein lies the humor of the postcard. As a viewer we are meant to laugh at the very idea of this queer/fairy/invert/homosexual wanting to or even possessing the very capacity to fight in The Great War (the trenches) as well as his superficial reasoning to decline enlistment in the military. The humorous nature of the postcard is vacated in 2009, yet the image still presents an intriguing representation of homosexuality in the mass culture of the early 20th century.

The queerness of the figure is signaled not only by the text (“goodness me”, “I’ll get all dirty”) but is also predicated on the visual signifiers of homosexuality displayed by the figure. First and foremost, is the red bowtie. It removes him from the male sartorial realm of his time and evokes difference; but it is important to note that a red tie in the urban spaces of homosexuality circa 1918 was a visible signal of one’s queer identity that was understood by others who shared the wearer’s desires. It helped to form connection, community and culture.

The red tie was not only a sign within the subculture of early 20th century homosexuality, but it was recognized as such by the dominant culture. A New York invert at the time explained:

to wear a red necktie on the street was to invite remarks from newsboys and others…a friend told me once that when a group of street boys caught site of the red necktie he was wearing they sucked their fingers in imitation of fellatio. (Quoted in Gay New York by George Chauncey, p. 52)

The red tie expressed not only the visibility of homosexual men to one another but was also clearly within the visual vocabulary of mass culture.

The operation of the red tie reminds me of the work of French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault. He argues that homosexuality:

was not so much the enemy as a support; it may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and invisible, rather than disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and effects while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace. (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 42 )

The production of homosexuality by the medical establishment, the legal system as well as here in an image of mass culture as deviant, as marginal and as an object demanding visible inquiry and representation was in a sense necessary in order to establish behavioral norms for both sexuality and gender for all individuals. The postcard is a means (small, insignificant perhaps, but still working) by which the center of heterosexuality and its gender regime are established through the margin of homosexuality. Real men fight in wars and are not afraid of dirt, nor do they wear red ties.

The various discourses on homosexuality, therefore, did not seek the disappearance of same-sex behavior despite the dire consequences of its real life attempts, but rather sought proliferation, codification and reification within a definable and discrete individual “the homosexual” which served and still serves to privilege homosexuality within society and culture. This individual needed to be visible.

Specifically, the paradigmatic definition of the homosexual man as a female mind trapped in a male body functioned and still functions to enforce and regulate behavioral norms according to a rigid binary gender system. This binary system of masculinity/femininity is mapped onto and structurally reinforces a binary system of desire. Within these two systems femininity and homosexuality act as negative terms which patrol the borders of gender and sexuality in order to validate and secure the masculine heterosexual term. Misogyny and homophobia are twin practices which accomplish this goal.

After that enjoyable yet vital detour with Foucault, let’s return to the postcard and its signification of homosexual/queer/invert/fairy. Along the red tie, the gesture of hand on heart connotes the figure as feminine. Women are associated with the heart, men are defined by the mind.

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The facial features of the figure, the arched eyebrows which imply a sense of thought (Should I enlist?) perhaps indicate the figure as queer with a suggestion that they are plucked. There is also a hint of color on the cheeks and a redness to the lips which evokes makeup.

And what of the walking stick held up to the figure’s mouth. On one level, a gesture of touching one’s mouth with the fingertips suggests again a moment of deliberation and thought (Should I enlist?).

07-17-2009 10;03;14AMHere, however, the use of the cane with its curved handle and close proximity to the figure’s mouth becomes a mock fellatio and signals the figure as possessing or displaying a feminine erotic zone, the mouth, rather than the typically masculine one of the penis.

All of these visual signifiers along with the text operate together to denote the figure as different, as queer. Humble though it may be, this postcard is part of the discourse of homosexuality which sought to make it visible, to make it the prop which supports and defines the center of heterosexuality and its rigid binary gender regime.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Queer Imaging: A 1920 Postcard

07-17-2009 09;56;59AM Postcard 1920 New York

This postcard combines text and image in order to produce a comic result. It is the representation of a queer which is the crux of this combination and is essential to the production of its humor, a humor which is clearly absent in 2009. However, it still is an intriguing and fleeting piece of mass culture in terms of its historical depiction of homosexuality.

In 1920 within popular culture and queer culture as well, homosexuality was understood as gender inversion. The figure in the postcard displays this inversion while still being understood as possessing a penis. He is unequivocally coded as queer.

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The first indicator of the figure's difference is his stance and the silhouette that it produces. Left hand on the hip, leaning slightly forward, standing on delicate feet emphasizes the smallness of his waist and creates a fullness to his chest which suggests the feminine. The narrow waist is further indicated by the large head of the figure.

The figure wears a man’s suit but the green window pane fabric and yellow vest remove it from the masculine sartorial realm. In fact, a green suit within certain urban spheres at the time was considered a signifier of homosexuality. It certainly expressed its difference from usual masculine attire.

The close cut of the suit at the waist as well as the narrowness and shortening of the pants also deemphasizes it’s masculine character and evokes gender inversion. The fitted cuffed nature of the trousers further signal the figure's sexual/gender deviance.

The combination of the carefully coiffed hair into waves, the high arched almost painted on, perhaps plucked eyebrows, the large nose and ears which stick out give the face an unusual appearance. In part, perhaps the oddness of the appearance is meant to add to the comic nature of the postcard. Yet at the same time these facial attributes serve to code the figure as feminine, as queer especially the eyebrows and the hair.


The facial features of the postcard figure remind me of Oscar Wilde. The prominent nose, the large chin, the manicured hair and the setting of the eyes suggests something Wildeish. Perhaps this allusion was intentional?

Such an allusion is intriguing in terms of viewers of the postcard. In other words, this postcard was intended to amuse a mass culture audience at the expense of the queer, but simultaneously, it could also speak to a queer audience as well through it’s suggestion of Wilde. As queer men began to create a community among each other, the recognition of homosexual historical figures was indeed important. Wilde was of course well known through his writings, his visit to America in 1882 and the notorious trials beginning in 1895.

It is important to note that many men in the beginning of the 20th century who desired other men assumed the identity of the queer along with its visual signifiers in order to deploy what Michel Foucault would call a “reverse discourse.” The language and meanings of oppression were used instead to create a sense of community, interaction and defiance. The figure in the postcard is not just simply an expression of the dominant discourse, it is a sight of resistance as well.

An additional signifier of the figure’s queerness is the handkerchief with a crenellated edge, suggestive of lace. The handkerchief is placed in the sleeve of the figure’s jacket- a feminine location rather than in the masculine breast pocket of the suit jacket. The manner in which the handkerchief dangles out of the wrist conjures up stereotypical images of a lady dropping her handkerchief in order to attract the attention of a man. This allusion again codes the postcard figure as different, as queer.

The cut of the figure’s high heeled black shoes denotes completely the inversion of gender. These shoes are clearly not the type worn by a man in 1920 and allude to the shoes worn by aristocrats in the 18th century before The Great Renunciation. The size of the shoes in comparison to the body and large head additionally imply a feminine delicacy.

The continual coding of the figure as feminine is underlined by the text of the postcard which states: Some men imagine they are aristocrats because they are too lazy to work. Work is a masculine domain with the implication that the home is the feminine sphere. Men who do not enter this domain are lazy at best and queer at worst. They become effeminate, use handkerchiefs in the wrong way, choose gender defying shoes and present an appearance untouched by work.

The postcard text also infers a notion of class. There is a suggestion of the perversion and debauchery of the upper class. The limitless freedom of their time, not having to work, could lead to sexual deviancy. Also, in the early 20th century the relationship of the queer to middle class and working class culture exhibited several intriguing differences. See Gay New York by George Chauncey for an in depth consideration of queerness and class.

In the end, this simple piece of ephemera gives us a frame in which to view a different historical moment and how in that moment same-sex desire was given meaning, was deployed by mass culture and perhaps how it was used in a “reverse discourse” by those it was meant to mock.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Wonder Woman, Adorno and Me

Wonder Woman

In his 1975 essay entitled, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” the sociologist and philosopher Theodor W Adorno states:

The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interest of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstraction bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages its conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives. In the products of the culture industry human beings get into trouble only so that they can be rescued unharmed, usually be representatives of a benign collective; and then in empty harmony, they are reconciled with the general, whose demands they had experienced at the outset as irreconcilable with their own interests.

As this excerpt indicates, Adorno proposes a hegemonic model of cultural production in which the function of the cultural industry (Adorno here means so-called “low art”) is to standardize experience, foster uniformity and reconcile individuals to the dominant system of values and beliefs held by a particular society. This reconciliation is carried out in order to insure the orderliness of this very society.

To achieve this goal, cultural products present disorder or beliefs which counter the dominant ideology in order to resolve this disorder and discount these beliefs, thereby establishing harmony, sameness and conformity.

Thus, within representation or “appearance” as Adorno says, the culture industry presents fictive conflicts for resolution or imaginary rescue situations, images which serve to mask real problems of people’s lives and to inscribe them with a false sense of harmony and catharsis. In actuality, these products only foster the continual production of the same- the same images, narratives and ideologies. In the end, Adorno presents a view of (mass) culture which denies any notion of agency on the part of the consumer of these products. The consumer blindly ingests these cultural goods and willingly participates in their own suturing to the dominant ideology.

While I agree with Adorno that individuals are in a sense constructed by discourses, cultural and otherwise, in which they are enmeshed or subject to by their very behaviors, needs and desires, I am unwilling to conceptualize the “masses” as somehow blindly ignorant and co-opted by the products of the culture industry. Cultural products do, in general propose conflicts or beliefs which are are dangerous to the dominant social order in order to more successfully gut these beliefs and render them harmless, impotent, so that the adherence to the dominant ideology can be carried out with greater efficiency and firmness. For example, an early mainstream film about AIDS, Philadelphia, presents the cultural conflict of the disease in order to reassert the dominant ideology of AIDS in terms of promiscuity, homosexuality and the family.

However, the culture also produces texts that have ruptures and breaks which can function as critical sites of resistance to the dominant ideology. In this sense, one must consider the nature of viewers and producers. In contrast to Philadelphia, the film Postcards from America made by a gay director radically disrupts the ideology of AIDS through both its formal and narrative structure.

To this end, I want to discuss my own relationship to the TV show Wonder Woman which I watched growing up in suburban New Jersey. I loved when Diana Prince (the superhero’s alter-ego) transformed into Wonder Woman by spinning around in the midst of a big explosion and then emerging in her sexy red, white and blue patriotic outfit.

Wonder Woman

I would spin around in the backyard of my parent’s house and become dizzy. Such a program seems to be a prime example of the cultural products which Adorno is speaking of in his 1975 essay. While Wonder Woman can be considered an ideological tool which presents a construction of woman that is fantastical and magical and thereby perhaps oppressive. And here I am thinking about Dara Birnbaum’s 1976 video Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman. http://www.mediaartnet.org/works/technology-transformation/

Yet, my relationship to Wonder Woman as a young queer boy was entirely different. On one level, one might say the Adorno level, my obsession with Wonder Woman could be understood as adhering me to the dominant model of homosexuality current at the time in terms of gender inversion.

It also resonates with other social and cultural definitions of homosexuality, particularly the ideology of the closet. Wonder Woman had an alter-ego, Diana Prince, who is normal in terms of physical strength and power and who conforms to prescribed norms of gender. Her true identity of Wonder Woman is her most closely guarded secret just as my desire (my true identity) to have sex with men was the secret of my childhood and adolescence. In a sense, Wonder Woman and I were both in the closet.

However, this closet was not occupied by guilt and shame. My fascination with Wonder Woman did not suture me to the prevailing ideology of the closet. In choosing Wonder Woman as a role model, I picked a figure who disrupted traditional notions of gender and proudly, powerfully and spectacularly displayed her difference.

For me, the figure of Wonder Woman allowed me to participate in dominant definitions of homosexuality, yet simultaneously she provided a figure for the conceptualization of my own desire and identity which was indeed positive and disrupted the negative discourse of same-sex desire operating at the time. It became in the words of Foucault a “reverse discourse”.

Adorno discounts the potentiality radical use of the products of the culture industry such as my use of Wonder Woman. In part this view emerges out of a belief that the products of popular culture are a real threat to the existence of high art. Indeed, this perspective was formed within a particular historical context in which modernist art was labeled degenerate and so-called mass culture forms were employed by totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, the functioning of cultural objects cannot only be seen as hegemonic, but must be situated in terms of spectators, producers and the historical context of making.

gavin4 Courtesy of Gavin

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Disruption of Masculinity: Masochism and Homosexuality in Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks

Fireworks by Kenneth Anger 1947

Kenneth Anger made the short film Fireworks in 1947 at the age of 20 while his parents were away for the weekend. It is an extraordinary film- witty, erotic and disturbing. What follows is quite a long post (but worth it!) analyzing the film in terms of its display of a spectacular masochism. Along with the text I have added various images of sailors dating from circa World War I onwards which complement and parallel the text but are not specifically addressed within it.

Introduction: A 1961 Misreading of the Film

In order to initiate my exploration of Fireworks by Kenneth Anger, I want to consider a striking and obvious misreading of the visual text by a 1961 spectator of the film named Rolland Howard. This visual misrecognition determines the central argument of an essay written by Howard entitled, “Homosexuality as a Vehicle for Masochism Symbolized in the Film Fireworks”. The essay appeared in the July 1961 issue of the Mattachine Review, the magazine of the homosexual rights organization, The Mattachine Society, which was founded in the early 1950’s.

I am interested in engaging the Howard essay not only its mistake, which produces a negative relationship between masochism and homosexuality, but also in its conceptualization of the construction of homosexuality and masculinity in Fireworks as well as the role of the sailor within these constructions. This engagement will, I hope, facilitate a wider discussion of the film in terms of masochism, homosexuality and masculinity in relation to the historical context of the film.

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Howard’s visual misrecognition of the film occurs in his description of an early sequence that immediately follows the “Pieta prologue” in which a sailor holds the protagonist in his arms as Mary held the dead Christ after crucifixion. Instead of describing one male figure who has perhaps been masturbating or has awoken from an erotic dream which produces a (false) erection, Howard contended that there are actually 2 men within this sequence who have just had sex.

He stated: Visualize: Subject, asleep, nude…his homosexual partner- he might be anybody- asleep beside him. Subject presumably sexually satiated experiences sado-masochistic fantasy (dreams) brought by the unconscious guilt he feels now that the sex-need is satisfied. Such guilt could drive him to alcoholism or to insanity or to suicide, but nature dislikes the cessation of life. Survival is nature’s prime concern, so the subject relieves his guilt by dreaming of self-punishment. (Rolland Howard, “Homosexuality as a Vehicle for Masochism Symbolized in the Film Fireworks”, Mattachine Review, July 1961, p. 6.)

The understanding of the subsequent cinematic mauling of the male protagonist by first one sailor and then a group of sailors is predicated on this misreading of the initial bedroom sequence. For Howard, the beatings are a form of masochistic self-punishment in which the male protagonist dreams of being beaten in order to expiate his guilt for having just engaged in sex with another man.

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However, for Howard, the film not only describes the internalized self-hatred of one homosexual man. Instead it offers a vivid and visceral testimony to the connection between this internal punishment and the external, societal sanction against same-sex desire. These sanctions seek to prohibit or negate the actual experience of the same-sex desire, but also become a type of psychological mechanism of internal disgust that causes homosexual men to punish themselves even prior to societal discipline and even after fulfilling their same-sex desires.

In a sense, Howard identified with the young man in Fireworks because he saw his masochistic situation and identity as common to all homosexual men within his historical frame. Masochism emerging from guilt he argued is “commonly and consistently found” within homosexuality.

According to Howard, then, the film concretizes and makes visible the relationship between homosexuality, guilt and masochism in order to demonstrate the need to disrupt this connecting sequence. At the conclusion of his essay, he wrote, “Awaken from your self-punishing dream, my friend! Look at the young man beside you there and respect him as a worthy human being. Equally important respect yourself as one…Be courageous enough to share a little love with him whether the rest of the world approves or not.” (Howard, p. 8.) The film is, therefore, from Howard’s (mis)perspective, an attempt to destabilize the connection between external sanctions against homosexuality and the internal guilt and masochism which are the result of these very societal factors.

Masochism as an Act of Subversion

In contrast to the negative relationship posited by Howard between masochism and homosexuality, I am not willing to see the spectacular masochism of Fireworks as merely the result of the guilt of same-sex desire. Clearly, my difference of opinion emerges out of a particular historical moment when the ability to disrupt the equation between same-sex desire and guilt is greater than the pre-Stonewall moment in which Howard fashioned his essay.

The picturing of masochism within Fireworks needs to be examined as a potential site of subversion which disrupts the construction of traditional masculinity as represented by the sailors within the film and the foundation of this subject position in the (mis)equation of the phallus and the penis.

The term “phallus” is understood here in terms of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The phallus is not an actual or imagined organ, but rather an unobtainable signifier which generates meaning. Despite the continual imaging of the phallus/penis equation within culture, no one can really possess the phallus because the subject is never at one with language, but always symbolically castrated. Traditional masculinity is predicated on the denial of this symbolic castration and the equation of the phallus with its lesser anatomical stand-in the penis.

This (mis)equation of the phallus and the penis enables conventional masculinity to deny castration and lack as part of the production of all subjectivity while simultaneously assigning this lack a corporeal meaning: the “castrated” female body. Femininity is understood as constitutive of both castration and lack against the wholeness and unity of the masculine male body. It is this (mis)equation which is central to the structuring of sexual difference and its accompanying system of privilege, exclusion and negation in which the masculine body becomes the dominant term.

The construction of sexual difference and the phallus/penis (mis)equation occurs in what film theorist Kaja Silverman designates as the dominant fiction in her 1992 book Male Subjectivity at the Margins. The dominant fiction can be understood as a representational system which “functions to arouse in the subject the conventional Oedipal desires and identifications.” (Silverman, p. 39-40.) Thus, the conventional (or positive) Oedipal scenario of the male subject is structured in terms of identification with the father and desire for the mother. Such a model of desire and identification serves to foreground the rigid binary opposition of male and female and to ensure compulsory heterosexuality.

In accordance with its fostering of positive Oedipal desires and identifications the dominant fiction “offers a seemingly infinite supply of phallic images and sounds within which the male subject can find himself…(and cover) over the lack upon which access to language depends.”(Silverman, p. 44-45.) In other words, the dominant fiction provides both “images and sounds” which seek not only to maintain, but also to promote the (mis)recognition of the phallus and penis to in turn insure male heterosexual power and privilege.

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This equation enables the constitution of orthodox masculinity as being uninscribed by lack as well as further facilitating the construction of sexual difference which is dependent upon the production of male somatic wholeness in opposition to female corporeal disfigurement.

In terms of the film, could one not designate the uniforms of the sailors as “phallic costumes” which serve to foster the identification with traditional masculinity? Does the masochism and the same-sex desire of the main character deconstruct these phallic costumes, thereby challenging the privileged place of conventional masculinity? Does the protagonist refuse to wear these “phallic costumes’? And how is this refusal enacted in the film?

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This deconstruction and refusal occurs through the practice of masochism which is viscerally visualized within the film. Masochism can be understood as a practice which is resistant to the ideals of the dominant fiction. In the male subject, masochism can be understood as “a form of phallic divestiture” that negates the phallus/penis (mis)equation on which rests both traditional masculinity and the social order in terms of sexual difference. (Silverman, p. 10.)

In contrast to the male subject of the dominant fiction, the male masochist “exhibits his castration for all to see, and revels in the sacrificial basis of the social contract. (He) signifies the losses and divisions upon which cultural identity is based, refusing to be sutured or recompensed. In short, he radiates negativity inimical to the social order.” (Silverman, p. 206.) By celebrating his castration, his entry into language, the male masochist dissolves the phallus/penis (mis)recognition, as well as rupturing the male/female opposition of sexual difference. This ecstasy of castration simultaneously denies the social hegemony and privilege of conventional masculinity.

The Construction of Homosexuality and Masochism within the Visual Text

Having defined the potential subversive nature of masochism, I now want to return to its representation within Fireworks and its relationship to the film’s production of same-sex desire. If one discounts Howard’s negative conflation of masochism and homosexuality as a misreading of the visual text, how then does one reconfigure these practices in terms of their relationship within the film? In addition, how does the masochism and same-sex desire of the male protagonist within Fireworks function as a “form of phallic divestiture”? What textual elements foreground this divestiture?

How does the construction of homosexuality fit within this relationship if indeed the object of homosexual desire within the film is the phallus as represented by the sailor? Does this desiring relationship to the sailor enact a reinvestment of the power of the phallus, negating its displacement by the male protagonist’s masochism and same-sex desire? Or does his masochism and homosexuality expose the phallus of the sailor as only being a penis?

Prior to the excessive masochistic display of the main character, Fireworks displays his same-sex desire. His desire is deployed in order to enact a form of phallic disinvestment, thereby fracturing and interrupting orthodox masculinity. The production of homosexuality within the film can be considered descriptively in terms of the negative Oedipus complex as it is discussed by Silverman through her rereading of Freud. (Silverman, p. 339-388.)

In this construction, male homosexuality stands in opposition to the dominant fiction because it reverses the desires and identifications fostered by this representational system. Instead of desiring the mother and identifying with the father, the subject within this model identifies with the mother while desiring the father. By aligning with the mother, the subject within this paradigm of homosexuality is understood to occupy the position of classic femininity in that this model is one of inverted heterosexuality based upon gender inversion.

In occupying this position the subject is defined by sexual receptivity, narcissism and exhibitionism, in other words, the classic feminine position. Silverman states that the receptivity of this subject serves to eroticize the anus and/or mouth, thereby releasing “the male body from its phallic stranglehold” and diffusing erotic pleasure over the entire body rather than just the genitals. (Silverman, p. 363.) This feminine identification of the subject is also emphasized through the act of desiring the father which forecloses a connection to conventional masculinity (desire instead of identification) and thus enables the subject to relinquish what Silverman describes as “the phallic legacy”.

The Visual Text: Prologue

With the Pieta prologue the film begins to foreground a connection between the male protagonist, homosexuality, femininity and masochism. Although the main character in the prologue occupies the position of Jesus Christ, the gender identification of Christ is not stable, but rather one of oscillation between masculine and feminine poles. Indeed, Christ can be seen as an extremely feminine figure in terms of his body which is literally transformed into food like the body of a woman during pregnancy and breast feeding. Finally, since Christ can be considered the ultimate masochist, this opening image foreshadows the subsequent prominence of masochism within the film and its connection to the sexuality of the lead character.

The Visual Text: The Protagonist Wakes

Following the prologue the main character is seen lying in bed. A seemingly large erection forms a sort of tent-like shape with a white sheet that partially covers the figure. However, what appears to be a large erect penis turns out to be a non-Western fetishistic idol. The male protagonist removes the idol, looks at it with an expression of seeming disgust and places it on the table next to the bed.

This sequence constructs an opposition between the potency (in terms of size, hardness) of the lead character’s (false) penis and the actual fictive nature of that organ and its abilities. This opposition can be mapped onto the phallus/penis equation reproduced within the dominant fiction. The phallus, as a signifier of male privilege and power seems to be aligned with the initial (false) erection in contrast to the actual penis of the protagonist.

Yet, this sequence in Fireworks does not seem to suture the commensurability of the phallus and the penis, rather the act of humorous revelation exposes the phallus as separate and distinct from the penis, therefore perhaps disrupting sanctioned masculinity. As P. Adams Sitney states regarding this shot, “He takes out an African statue which breaks the phallic illusion.”( P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, p. 97.)

Thus, the presence of the phallus as corporeally inscribed on the male body and the centrality of that inscription for the production of traditional masculinity is revealed as a work of illusion. Within Fireworks, the phallus is shown as a type of prosthesis which is not naturally inherent to the male body or any body. The denial of the phallus/penis equation by the protagonist suggests the production within the film of a different system of gender and sexuality which challenges the orthodox masculinity of the dominant fiction.

Moreover, the male figure does not appear to want possession of this phallus, not only because he removes it, but also because he does not take it with him when he cruises sailors who inhabit the space behind the door marked “GENTS”. In disavowing the phallus. the male protagonist simultaneously de-emphasizes the penis and suggests the production of another sexual economy in which the male figure is released from his “phallic stranglehold” of sanctioned masculinity and its emphasis on genital sexuality.

The femininity of the male protagonist occurs through a displacement of the principal erotic zone of masculinity, the genitals (the false penis), that is removed, to perhaps other body parts such as the mouth and the anus which would further announce the feminine and homosexual position of the main character. This genital displacement is indicated and concretized by later events within the film.

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The Visual Text: The Protagonist Gets Dressed

After removing his phallus/penis, the young man gets up from the bed and proceeds to get dressed, an action which is meticulously followed by the camera. The camera moves up his pants, momentarily lingering on his crotch as he zips the fly of his jeans as well as subsequently focusing on his shirt as he fastens each button except one and tucks it into his trousers.

The emphasis on the act of costuming seems to be another way in which the figure is coded as feminine even though he puts on “masculine” clothes. As he dresses, the protagonist seems to look directly at the camera as if he was gazing at his reflection in a mirror and watching the act of dressing. The act of self-reflexive looking suggests the narcissistic nature of the traditional feminine subject.

Within this shot, the male figure is shot in depth and framed by the African statue/phallus which is cropped by the left edge of the frame so that only half of it is visible within frame. This image produces distance between the phallus/masculinity of the idol and the femininity/homosexuality of the male protagonist.

In addition, the placement of the phallus aligns it with the fictitious mirror of the camera, perhaps suggesting that the dominant fiction can be conceptualized as a mirror in which the penis is (mis)reflected as a phallus. However, within this shot, the incompleteness of the phallus/statue cut by the frame of the shot appears to reaffirm a gap between the masculine phallus and the feminine position of the main character. Such a point is emphasized by the circular wall hanging which enframes the male figure and is suggestive of femininity as receptacle. Indeed, if one conceives of the dominant fiction as a mirror, it has traditionally never allowed the homosexual man to see the phallus within his reflection, but rather only femininity, just as the mirror has reflected the absence of a penis on the body of a woman as the sign of her lack and sexual difference.

The Visual Text: Beyond the GENTS door

While the bedroom of the protagonist is produced as a space of femininity, the space beyond the GENTS door is the terrain of orthodox masculinity. Within this space of masculinity, the main character is even more profoundly understood as embodying the negative Oedipus complex through the coding of his body as a feminine. Importantly, the sequence within the GENTS space further displaces the penis as a site of erotic pleasure on the body of the protagonist. In place of the penis, the anus and the mouth will become the corporeal sites of sexual excitement and fulfillment.

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In his first encounter beyond the GENTS door, the male protagonist watches a bare-chested sailor flexing his muscles. After this virile display of masculinity which contrasts with the slight (more feminine) physique of the leading character, the protagonist asks the sailor to light his cigarette. This act, occurring after the erotic viewing of the sailor by the main character, can be seen as a fulfillment or climax of this erotic gazing, its metaphoric orgasm.

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However, this orgasm is destined to take place at the site of the leading character’s mouth rather than the genitals. The sexual meaning of the question is quite clear when the sailor as the dominant fiction expects and commands, refuses to give the protagonist a light, to fulfill his oral orgasm, and engages in a mock struggle with the main character. The falsity of this struggle parallels the fake backdrop of a bar which provides the setting for the encounter, thereby suggesting the falsity of the sailor’s refusal.

With a jump-cut the protagonist and his now willing companion are returned to the bedroom and are located in front of the fireplace. Within the bedroom, the cigarette of the leading character is lit by a “flaming faggot” held by the sailor, another example of the humorous nature of the film. The protagonist smokes the cigarette and thus fulfills the desire initiated by the display of the sailor’s body at the site of his mouth rather than his genitals.

The Visual Text: The Spectacular Display of Masochism

Still smoking this cigarette, the lead character is once again cruising within the GENTS space where he notices a group of sailors. Some of them are holding chains and their overall posture suggests imminent danger and violence. Despite this impending violence, the main character does not move, but simply stands and watches the seamen. In fact, he is waiting for the beating which they will inflict on him.

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Within this suspenseful sequence leading up to the vicious bashing and particularly within the beating itself, the male protagonist exorbitantly and spectacularly displays his pleasure in this unpleasure. It signals the completion of the phallic divestiture which began with his refusal of the phallus at the beginning of the film. His body is literally fragmented as is the somatic notion of conventional masculinity as a whole, unified and uninscribed by lack.

The suspenseful nature of this sequence is a further indicator of the main character’s masochism and his pleasure in this unpleasure. Silverman has identified suspense as a primary component of masochistic fantasies as a way in which the fantasizer is able to increase and prolong the pleasurable unpleasure.

This temporal extension for the effect of tension and suspense occurs within Fireworks. Although the gang of sailors appears to understand the presence of the young man and his sexual goal, they do not immediately move toward him or attack him. At first, the seamen walk slowly towards him, some of them swinging chains as an indicator of their intended action, yet still the young man does not move and passively waits for his beating.

The group of sailors then pick up speed; one slows down to grab a metal rod. As they surround the main character, they do not start to beat him immediately, but rather just encircle him. Once again the tension is heightened by the momentary pause in the action. The protagonist drops his cigarette falls to the ground allowing the mauling to begin by the gang.

Moreover, the bashing sequence foregrounds the mouth and the anus of the main character as sites of erotic pleasure. As the sailors strike him, one sailor shoves 2 fingers into his nostrils of the young man. This action causes blood to spurt from his nose and mouth.

The signification of this image revolves around the act of penetration. In allowing his body to be penetrated, the central character is declaring the feminine nature (in terms of cultural constructions) of his body. In contrast, a man within culture enters other bodies. His body is never breached, it remains fictitiously unified, whole and phallic. In this sequence, the central character fulfills the definition of masochism as a form of phallic divestiture.

The site of the penetrating act further suggests this divestiture. Within the image of the pierced nostrils, there is a metaphoric slippage between the 2 holes of the nose and the holes of the mouth and the anus. In a sense, the protagonist is being symbolically penetrated by the sailors at both ends of his body.

During the beating, a bottle, apparently containing milk, is smashed its broken glass is used to cut open the body of the main character revealing some sort of metering device. The young man’s body is completely penetrated, ripped open and exposed, an image which strongly counters the unified body of sanctioned masculinity and its basis in the phallus/penis (mis)recognition as exemplified by the sailors.

The Visual Text: The Cum Shot

Following this shot, the body of the lead character is again whole. His chin and neck are parallel to the picture plane against a dark background forming a arresting abstract image. From the upper left, milk is poured over his mouth, chin and neck.

In the next shot, one sees the torso of the protagonist with no trace of the earlier violation except a trickle of blood. In a very beautiful image, milk pours over the torso, particularly the nipple and washes away the blood.

These scenes stand in strong contrast to the earlier picturing of the brutal beating. Together, they form a moment of healing in which the body of the main character is cleansed and made whole. The cleansing with milk seems to suggest simultaneously the moment of ejaculation and the very next moment in which the shattering nature of sex and orgasm (Freud called sex the little death) is followed by reintegration and unity. Masochism can be understood as a vivid form of this shattering particularly in terms of masculinity in which the (false) wholeness of the male body as represented in culture, its power and privilege, is undermined through the masochistic act.

Fireworks and its protagonist challenge traditional masculinity through the picturing of a different corporeal paradigm and desiring structure. The male body of the main character disavows the phallus/penis (mis)recognition and gains pleasure through this disavowal. Thus, the milk can be understood as the ejaculation of the central character and his visible pleasure in his marginal subject position.

The centrality of the milk also counters Howard’s notion of the mauling as atonement for the sin of same-sex desire. Rather, the visibility of homosexuality and masochism within the film fractures to a degree the conventional masculinity of the sailors. One might also consider the milk as the ejaculation of the sailors, (their se(a)men), a reading which raises issues concerning the role of violence and domination within the sexuality of orthodox masculinity.

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The Visual Text: At the Urinal

The last sequence which occurs within the space behind the GENTS door additionally foregrounds the feminine body of the protagonist. The camera pans across a row of urinals, particularly focusing on the hole at the bottom of the toilets. Clearly, this shot connects with the GENTS label and also suggests the role of the public toilet in homosexual culture. Moreover, this imagery supports the reading of the milk as semen or perhaps urine through the emphasis on a receptacle in which fluid is discharged from the male sexual organ.

Immediately, following the urinals, one briefly sees the lead character reclining on the floor in front of the toilets. His one leg is bent at the knee eliding his penis. His posture, supine and passive, is in stark contrast to the upright and erect urinals. By lying on the floor his body is visually connected with the holes of the urinals which serves to indicate his receptivity, as a receptacle for the fluids of the sailors.

Indeed, the urinal is a device of sexual difference in terms of the act of urination. The protagonist does not stand in front of the urinals as would the sailors rather he reclines in front of them. Finally, it appears as if the recumbent young man is wearing a sailor’s cap. Could this be considered a souvenir of his encounter? Or does it function as yet another destabilization of traditional masculinity by questioning the very gender and sexual position of its original wearer. the sailor?

The Visual Text: A Return to the Bar and the Muscular Sailor

The ambiguous nature of the sailor’s cap serves as the starting point for an examination of the final sequences of the film. Additionally, this ambiguity raises important questions and qualifications about the subversive nature of the protagonist’s masochism and same-sex desire in relation to the conventional masculinity of the sailors. A consideration of the function of orthodox masculinity within the negative Oedipus complex is warranted in order to qualify this relationship.

Within the desiring structure of the negative Oedipus complex traditional masculinity is the erotically-charged and desired object of the subject. In other words, while the subject within this model identifies with the mother, an action which is subversive because it negates “an identification with (orthodox) masculinity (and) obstructs paternal lineality”, the sexual fulfillment and the erotic life of the subject is predicated on the very thing which his subject position is supposed to undermine in the first place (Silverman, p. 36). Therefore, could the “feminine” body and masochistic display of the protagonist constitute a strong negation or destabilization of the sanctioned masculinity of the sailors when it is that very masculinity and body which is desired by him?

The reinscription of masculinity and its concomitant compulsory heterosexuality is vividly expressed by Howard in his 1961 essay on Fireworks. In the essay, Howard enacted this reinvestment by accepting the “difference” between himself and the sailors within the film in terms of masculinity. He accepted the construction of homosexuality as gender inversion, thus securing the dominance of the masculine heterosexual term.

Describing the encounter with the lone bare-chested sailor in the bar, he stated, “We see next a ‘masculine’ type, a sailor, stripped to the waist exhibiting his muscles. This is, of course, virile masculinity personified. Sailors, cowboys, leather-jacketed motorcyclists- all are ‘male’ types, stereotypically reckless, adventurous, courageous. Their appeal lies in our own deep conviction that these culturally admirable characteristics are not part of us…Subject (protagonist) admires this man (bare-chested sailor), or, rather this symbol of masculinity. (What I want to be. and feel convinced I cannot be, I must admire- even worship- in others.) Subject can express his insufficiency and desire only by seeking to submit to this ‘superior’ and desired object” (Howard, p. 6-7.)

Although one can sense an ambivalence in Howard’s writing in regards to the construction of his identity within the dominant culture, in the end, he, like the Fireworks main character, must “submit” to the masculinity of the sailor. Clearly, this submission must be understood as historically contingent, as part of an era prior to the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Yet, still within Howard’s conceptualization, masculinity and heterosexuality are confirmed through this submission and more specifically his acceptance of the inferior and negative nature of his own subject position within the social order. Masculinity is that quality he can never possess, but only “worship” from a distance. Within this social order, homosexuality, femininity and masochism are negative terms which serve to secure masculinity.

However, does the pleasure of the protagonist within Fireworks, his revelation in his own marginality and symbolic castration of homosexuality, femininity and masochism reconfigure this negativity with a subversive agency which fractures masculinity instead of reinscribing it? And does the construction of the sailor present a unified masculinity in structural opposition to the femininity of the main character?

I will now return to the bar room scene described by Howard because it concretizes for him the rigid distinction between the bare-chested sailor, the protagonist and himself. From my perspective, this scene possesses a degree of ambiguity in its construction of the masculine term that perhaps precludes a total reinscription of orthodox masculinity. Although the main character within this scene is constructed by his difference from the masculinity of the sailor (in terms of the protagonist’s physique and the displacement of erotic satisfaction from the genitals to the mouth), thus securing traditional masculinity, this gender position is also strongly destabilized within the scene. By narcissistically gazing at his own muscular body and allowing himself to be both visual and sexual object for the lead character, the sailor enacts a disruption of the solidity and wholeness of his own supposed traditional masculinity. Lacan called bodybuilding the most feminine of practices.

Furthermore, the constructed nature of the backdrop, its blatant falsity, suggests the artificial nature of all subject positions, thereby perhaps rupturing the phallus/penis equation which establishes masculinity within the dominant culture. Possessing a certain anatomy does not predicate a particular position of gender and sexuality, an idea which is fully exemplified by the protagonist’s masochism and his erotic investment of the mouth and anus over the penis.

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Finally, this scene as well as the entire film plays upon the fluid nature of the sailor’s sexuality as it is produced within both homosexual and mainstream culture in terms of representation and lived experience. In this sense, the sailor was already inscribed prior to Fireworks as a site of unstable and ambiguous masculinity.

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The Visual Text: The Roman Candle

At the conclusion of the film, the GENTS door opens to reveal the prologue sailor whose outstretched arms move slowly towards his crotch as if to display his penis. Instead of the expected penis, the sailor reveals a large roman candle which ejaculates metaphorically with sparks and light. This image parallels an earlier sequence in the film in which the lead character exposes a detachable fetishistic idol in place of his penis. In regards to this earlier scene, I argued that the removal of the idol represented a disavowal of the penis and its displacement as the principal erotic zone of the protagonist.

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I also suggested that the idol could be conceived as the phallus and thus its removal enacted a rupture of the phallus/penis equation which founds sanctioned masculinity. Does the action of the prologue sailor at the film’s end continue to enact this rupture? Or does this action instead suture the penis and the phallus by producing a gap between the sailor and the main character in terms of their phallus/penis?

In this regard, the prologue sailor and his ejaculating roman candle not only indicates the protagonist’s desire for the phallic attributes of the sailor, but also constructs a structural gap between the masculinity of the sailor and his functioning, attached to the penis in contrast to the impotent and removable penis of the main character (his femininity). Thus, the image of the prologue sailor seems to reinscribe and consolidate orthodox masculinity through the very defining of the protagonist in terms of homosexuality, femininity (and masochism).


The return of the prologue sailor seems to indicate the return of conventional masculinity and its reinscription. But, I would argue that this reinvestment is neither stable nor complete. The film continually destabilizes the equation sailor/masculine. And more importantly, the spectacular display of the protagonist’s perversion, his masochism and phallic divestiture as well as his pleasure in this perversion, overshadows this return to traditional masculinity and challenges the hegemony and power of the dominant fiction.

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