Friday, February 26, 2010

Same-sex Desire in the New Millennium: Identity, Subversion, Assimilation

Michelangelo_Caravaggio_065Caravaggio, Narcissus.  1594-96, oil on canvas, 43”x36”, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome

Assimilation and Subversion

Recently, on Facebook a friend posted the following quote by Françoise d’Eaubonne (1920-2005), a French feminist who introduced the term ecofeminism in 1974.  d’Eaubonne states, “You say that our task is to integrate homosexuals into society, while I say it is to disintegrate society through homosexuality.” This statement is a profound and thought-provoking criticism of the current strategy of gay assimilation which seems to be the primary goal of the Gay Rights Movement at this historical moment.  First and foremost in this strategy is the fight for marriage equality.  And indeed, if 2 men or 2 women wish to get married, their union should be legally recognized by the state and afforded all the benefits inherent in such a union.  Moreover, the repeal of the United States military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is also important within the equal rights agenda.  Again, if a gay man or lesbian wants to serve their country in the military it should be their choice without fear of expulsion or harassment and with an honesty and openness about their sexual identity.

But as d’Eaubonne statement implies, what does it mean for men and women who desire the same-sex to be assimilated within mainstream culture and society?  Should the goal of the Gay Rights movement be symmetry?  Or should same-sex desire strive to foster a new social dynamic that could be described as horizontal rather than hierarchical which characterizes the present dominant fiction* under which we all must live and endure?

*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 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. 

Therefore, the dominant fiction can be understood as a representational system which “functions to arouse in the subject the conventional Oedipal desires and identifications” and continually depicts the Phallus/penis recognition.   Thus, the conventional (or positive) Oedipal scenario of the male subject is structured in terms of identification with the father (with his penis as Phallus) and desire for the mother. Such a model of desire and identification serves to foreground the rigid binary opposition of male and female, to ensure compulsory heterosexuality and to oppress straight women, non-heterosexuals and transsexuals.

Should gays and lesbians, should I as a non-heterosexual, in the words of d’Eaubonne “disintegrate society”, a society defined by the dominant fiction rather than integrate and assimilate into the very society that has long oppressed them/me  with dire consequences both physical, emotional and psychological?

Symmetry, assimilation and integration is for me not the answer for those who practice same-sex desire.  My position in no way disagrees with those gays and lesbians who seek to get legally married, nor those who want to serve openly and with integrity in the United States military.  What troubles me about the goal of symmetry is that it does nothing to restructure or undermine the dominant fiction itself.  In other words, even with assimilation, the binary terms of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, gay/straight will continue to be enforced in which the first term is continually privileged over the second term.

Writing in 1984 Kate Linker in her essay “Representation and Sexuality” states: 

The prevalence of these images (art, advertising etc), their power in prescribing subject positions and their use in constructing identity within the patriarchal order indicate that an exemplary political practice should take as its terrain representation, working to challenge its oppressive structures. However, these discoveries have also revealed the inadequacy of the equal rights or gender equity strategies that informed cultural politics of the seventies. These strategies, based in the elimination of discrimination and in equal access to institutional power, in no way account for the ideological structures of which discrimination is but a symptom…they aim to recover in the direction of complementarity and symmetry, the structured appropriation of women to the order of the same, to the standard of masculine sexuality.  They leave untouched, in this manner, the integrated value system through which female oppression is enacted.

In her essay, Linker is focusing on the struggle for gender equality, but her argument could similarly be applied to the movement for sexual equality.  Symmetry does not account for nor does it undermine the “ideological structures”  (the dominant fiction) which produces the discrimination and oppression of women, non-heterosexuals and transsexuals in the first place.  These are just byproducts of the those very ideological structures and simply solving them with complementarity does not produce real change.

For example, in recent years with the rise of the metrosexuality and the greater visibility of same-sex desire in popular culture, men have become desired objects of the gaze in advertising, art etc. and are no longer just the traditional bearers of the look.  Yet, is this equality?  Does a male pinup account for the centuries of female objecthood? One might look at the way in which advertising that depicts a male object simultaneously recoups this object as a  subject in the end, so that the Phallus/penis equation is resutured and unbroken.  Symmetry does not account for the very structure of representation itself which is based on a privileged male subjectivity that in turn denigrates the feminine, women, homosexuals, lesbians and transsexuals.

Some gay men and lesbians no matter what rights of equality will be gained will be defined by and will still define themselves by this “standard of masculine sexuality”.  For example, the need for many gay men to develop hypermasculine muscular bodies is  in one sense the result of an ideological system in which masculinity is already the favored term within society.   These men seek to transform themselves into a somatic Phallus.  Such a practice exhibits a degree of homophobia and misogyny that propagates a notion of masculinity as natural and biological instead of an authorized construction within the representational system of the dominant fiction.

Identities and Designations

Despite the radical nature of  d’Eaubonne’s position, she deploys an antiquated term, “homosexual”, in order to designate those individuals who practice same-sex desire.  Homosexual is a 19th century medical term that made its first appearance in 1869.  Within this medical model, homosexuality is understood as a disease, as a problem to be fixed and eliminated.  The use of this term also signals the binary heterosexual (which first appeared in 1892)/homosexual in which the first term is coded as normal, positive and phallic in the language of the dominant fiction against the second term which is constituted as abnormal, negative and feminine.

d’Eaubonne’s use of the word  “homosexual” signals how important it is to define ourselves against the definitions of the prevailing ideology.  Homosexual is a historical term/model which has nothing to do with my life or other men like me in the 21st century, although the word is continually used and interchanged with “gay”in the popular media and culture, but they are certainly not equivalent.

“Gay” belongs to another historical moment.  It was used for the first time in 1920 to refer to same-sex desire usually within a subculture context, but continued generally to mean “carefree” and “happy” until the mid-20th century.  At this time, it was also an antonym for “straight” meaning respectable and indicated unmarried or unattached individuals.  Other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress led to a connection with camp and effeminacy.  Stonewall_Inn_September_1969_%28Photo_from_New_York_Public_Library%29 These connotations  served in part to redefine the term to indicate same-sex desire.  By the 1960’s and with the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement, gay definitively came to be understood as expressing same-sex desire by those individuals who enjoyed that desire and by the wider culture.  Gay came to mean more than just a male individual who has sex with other men, but constituted an entire (fictive) community with its mores and customs who were now beginning to demand their equality that symbolically began with the Stonewall Riots of 1969.


How we name and define ourselves is vital in our relationship to the dominant fiction.  For me, gay now serves to designate a particular segment of our (fictive) community, namely rich white men who sometimes adhere to the specific corporeal paradigm of the muscle body.  They favor assimilation through marriage equality, the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and so on.  I was never comfortable using this word to identify myself.  I always felt and still feel like the other’s other.  I would often call myself post-gay

scan0005 When I first moved to New York City in 1990 after graduating from college, I felt alienated from the (gay) life I saw and experienced in the city.  It was not until the mid-1990’s that I discovered my own space of same-sex desire in the fin-de-siècle nightlife of clubs like Squeezebox! and Foxy.  These clubs were liminal spaces of rock and roll, punk and New Wave that sought to undermine and subvert the rules of gender and sexuality enacted by the dominant fiction.


At Squeezebox! queer bands and dazzling, awe inspiring drag performers like Mistress Formika, Sherry Vine, Justin Bond and Joey Arias rocked out in an end of the century eroticism, debauchery and revelry. 

Mistress Formika Squeezebox! 7th Anniversary 2001


Sherry Vine Squeezbox! Anniversary 2001


Justin Bond & Lily of the Valley Sing Bowie at Squeezebox

At this end of the millennium club all subjectivities were accepted and celebrated; you didn’t need to remove your shirt, display huge pecs and guns and dance to mindless, endless dance music to have fun, to belong or to be desired.  Squeezebox! was a collage of conversations (G___ and T___), gropes (as you moved through the crowd), sights (cute, punk go-go boys and girls), spectacles (the night Joey Arias embodied Klaus Nomi in tribute to the dead artist), alcohol (Maker’s Mark and club soda), desire, coveting, kissing (random boys) and sexual assignations (S___ with his entire back tattoo and a pierced cock) that will always remain meaningful to me because it was there that I for the first time embodied myself fully and had a fucking fantastic romp every Friday night.

scan0007 So, in the end of the century malaise and decadence of Squeezebox! and Foxy where lewd abandonment and erotic merrymaking took place,  I favored the word “queer” to identify myself.  Culturally and personally,  it was an attempt and a fairly successful one to recoup a word of derision and negativity and instead transform it into one of empowerment and meaning.  But like gay, queer now seems to me to belong to a historical moment of the 1990’s, to my youth, to my graduate school studies, and  to the specific places where I once caroused.

I still from time to time find queer a useful and provocative way to define and describe myself as outside the mainstream.  (Or is that just nostalgia?)  It expresses a way of looking that is not conventional, a way of seeing beyond the surface, a certain critical consciousness in regard to life, society and culture.  My recent post about my tchotchkes of teenage boys on the telephone is a clear example of this understanding.  P1000184 To most people, these figurines are nothing items: cheap kitsch, made in Japan and probably sold in Woolworth’s for 30 cents.  To me they are  perverse artifacts of the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, a queer item that does not correlate with the dominant fiction and in a small way challenges the definitions of masculine and feminine at a time when such terms were even more rigidly characterized than they are today.

Thus, queer, for me, extends  beyond just my sexual orientation, to a certain weltanschauung.  It enables me to be conscious of my other identities as well: white, male, raised in a upper middleclass suburb and overeducated.  This awareness I hope enables me to be respectful of other’s difference in that I never take for granted my whiteness, my class and my gender.

scan0001 Barbara Kruger Untitled 1986


Though I like queer, it still feels to me in the end to belong to an earlier historical point in my life.  In his former blog The Gay Recluse. the writer Matthew Gallaway (His intriguing, debut novel The Metropolis Case is coming out in January 2011.  Look for it!) sought to go beyond gay and queer and proposed rhetorically and polemically a new term for non-heterosexuals: vexed/vext.  He writes:

While many of you may or may not agree, in either case (0f gay and/or queer) we suspect you’d like to challenge us to come up with something better. After all, these terms have many decades of history/study behind them, and it’s possible to envision a day 100,000 years in the future when they might be entirely divorced from the superficial/derogatory meanings from which they originally arose.

Our solution is vexed.

1. irritated; annoyed: vexed at the slow salesclerks.
2. much discussed or disputed: a vexed question.
3. tossed about, as waves.
4 [Proposed as of 2k9]. non-heterosexual…

Seriously, how much more ‘empowering’ and — especially w/r/t definition number three — poetic is ‘vexed’ than any other alternative? It’s basically like saying: ‘Don’t fuck with me/us,’ while maintaining a certain and appropriate degree of intelligence and impatience (but not anger or violence, which we don’t support) for mainstream convention that frankly needs to be a hallmark going forward in any interaction with those str8s who don’t ‘get it.’

I think the meaning of vexed suits me at this particular instant.  There is a lot of shit to be bothered about right now.  In fact, I am beyond annoyed; I am angry.  The lack of health care reform, the continuing economic problems, the ongoing wars, no national marriage equality are all vexing me.

But beyond my anger, I definitely respond to the poetic and poignant definition of vexed as “tossed about, as waves.”  It engages my melancholic German nature.  It gives expression to how I and others under the terror of the dominant fiction are continually “tossed about” and must resist the ruling ideology’s attempts to deny me, to denigrate me, to silence me.  I am vext.

Additionally, “tossed about, as waves” implies a random fluidity of movement and an unfixed position.  To name oneself vexed/vext is to resist the strict categorizing  that is needed by mainstream culture  for it to function and to enact its laws.  This notion relates to the impossibility of the single self or identity no matter how much bourgeois ideology has tried historically and presently to place each of us in a particular category.  Just think of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis published in 1886.

In contrast, we all have many selves:  our identity with family, our identity at work, our identity with a lover, our identity with a stranger, our identity in the deepest, darkest night.  We are all fragmented, “tossed about, as waves” no matter how much the prevailing culture wishes to constrain us and even at times when it succeeds in this task.

I am vext.


This concept of fragmentation and fluidity could relate, I believe, to the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille’s concept (0r more accurately anti-concept) of the informe, loosely translated as formlessness.  Bataille writes:

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks.  Thus, formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form.  What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.  In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape.  All of philosophy has no other goal:  it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat.  On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

The informe is an anti-concept, a concept with no edge or circumference and thus, it does not purport nor does it have the ability to explain the world, the universe.  The universe as Bataille states does not take form/shape.  It is “nothing and is only formless…something like a spider or spit.”  The informe represents a horizontalization of categories, hierarchies and definitions and therefore, it is a challenge to the dominant fiction.  Formlessness is the “disintegration of society” that d’Eaubonne calls for as the role of same-sex desire rather than integration.  The informe is a revolution.

And how this is ultimately done I am not sure, but a critical and intelligent consciousness is  a good starting point.  But it does mean that while the goal of the mainstream Gay Rights Movement is assimilation, I as queer, as vext must be conscious of and resist (while still being under its control) the perverse system we are meant to  join.  The original pioneers of Gay Liberation, the drag queens, the trannies, the leathermen are being marginalized within the community at best or at worst they are being told to tone it down, so as not to ruin it for the rest of us.  Such actions are shameful.  What is truly needed is an embracing of the informe, of formlessness, in which categories, definitions and hierarchies of desire are shattered and “squashed…like a spider or an earthworm” so that many subjectivities and many desires can exist and live with peace, love, dignity and respect.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Peacocks on Ice

At the end of the 18th century an important event occurred in the history of men’s clothing.  Men changed their mode of dress from the sartorially splendid and elaborate to a more restrained sense of style which continues to this day with the dark suit, white shirt and subdued tie.  This change in the appearance of men’s clothing is called The Great Renunciation and historians believe that the origin and reason for this change is the French Revolution of 1789.  One of the functions of male sartorial display was to designate the wealth and social status of the nobility in the ancien régime.  With the Revolution and its slogan of Liberty, Equality Fraternity, these distinctions of privilege came to an end and a new mode of dress was required and thus, The Great Renunciation took place.

Comte_dAngivillerGreuze Comte d’Angiviller 1763, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So, in contrast to the still ubiquitous dark suit which began with the French Revolution, in what context is it permissible for men to dress like peacocks and display an luxurious dress sense like Comte d’Angiviller as painted by Greuze.  Well, there are drag queens, but this choice is not quite right.  Perhaps, some rock stars would qualify, but maybe Ziggy Stardust was the last and greatest of that breed. buckguard There is still a great sartorial display in the military, particularly in dress uniforms and especially those uniforms worn by European soldiers.  Just think of the uniform of the Beefeaters in the Tower of London or the  Foot Guards that protect  Buckingham Palace. What man wouldn’t want to wear an 18 inch tall bearskin hat made from the real skins of Canadian Brown Bears with a striking scarlet tunic and a white buff leather belt?  Does the hat come in white?  I think that would be more slimming.

Apparently now, male figure skating is another modern arena in which men can wear lavish and elaborate outfits that are all about peacock display and over the top visual appeal.  Like the soldiers that guard Buckingham Palace these outfits are task oriented clothing.  One wouldn’t see these clothes on your average Wall Street executive donning the dark suit of The Great Renunciation.

It should be noted that I am not a die-hard fan of men’s figure skating.   I will watch it now that the Winter Olympics are on, but if there’s a Golden Girls rerun on another channel, there is no contest.  And for full disclosure, I have been to a few ice shows, but I’m not a fanatic nor was going to such a spectacle my idea.

I am, however, interested in the way in which same-sex desire is deployed within mass culture and the popular media.  A January 17th article in the New York Times on male figure skating costumes entitled “Birds of a Feather Wear Bad Costumes Together” not only deploys a fairly obvious undercurrent of homosexuality, but it also manages to register a trace of homophobia.  This homophobia is combined with the idea that same-sex desire is in a sense inimical to the United States and harkens from somewhere outside its borders.

The article uses several “code” words to imply homosexuality without ever naming it  (The love that dare not speak its name) through its descriptions of  the skater’s flamboyant costumes which the story concludes is bad for the sport.  First, the title “Birds of a Feather” immediately refers to the film La Cage aux Folles with its gay narrative and outrageous drag queen character and her equally fabulous outfits.  Other connotations of homosexuality appear throughout the article.  The Broadway musical “Gypsy” is referenced as if the costumes of male figure skaters belong more to the realm of the burlesque and its strippers rather than on the ice.  The costume department of The Metropolitan Opera House is also cited as a way of describing the relatively new showy costumes for male skaters and we all know how much certain ‘mos love opera and a good Broadway musical.

Old time skating veterans, Jef Billings, a costume designer for such skaters as Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming, and Dick Buttons who won the gold medal in figure skating in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics wearing a “classic tuxedolike costume” comment on the new costume trend and they are not happy.  (There is certainly a generation gap operating here.)  Billings states, “I think it’s hurting the sport.  Sometimes you feel like you’ve gone to the circus instead of figure skating.”  Similarly Bottoms states, “Sometimes I feel caught in a wind tunnel in the costume department of The Metropolitan Opera House.”

Billings would like to see the skaters dressed in a “sports uniform, so the technical skill of a skater can be judged simply according to athleticism, line and technique.”  The implication of Billings’ statement is that the fussy, extravagant costumes seen today “feminize” the male skaters and their abilities.  The corporeal wholeness of the skater (masculinity within the dominant fiction) as well as what the article terms his line and his performance (athleticism and technique) are compromised or disrupted by the costume he chooses to wear.  And indeed, the question should be why do current male skaters adopt these type of costumes if they really take away from the skill of their performance?  Obviously, they have control over what outfit they wear on the ice and if they want to be a peacock on ice, why not?

The NY Times article answers this question as well.  “The current outlandish phase is an emulation of the Russians and their one-piece, rhinestone studded costumes.”  According to Billings, Aleksei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic champion wore “more ruffles than a Marie Osmond Collector doll.”  So, this corruption and feminization of United States male figure skaters comes from outside the country.  This sentiment is not quite xenophobia, but it relates historically to how homosexuality/homophobia were deployed by the nation state as a way to promote its own nationalism and psychologically attack its enemies.  For example, in 19th century France male same-sex desire was referred to as “le vice allemand.”  This link between homosexuality and Germany intensified during the 1908 Eulenberg Affair when the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II was beset by a homosexual scandal.

leviceallemand Illustrated front cover of Armand Dubarry, Les Invertis (le vice allemand) (Paris: Chamuel, Editeur, 1898). The illustrator is uncreditedCourtesy Gerard Koskovich.

What I am suggesting with this French/German historical example is that the NY Times article explains the ornate costumes now being worn by American male figure skaters as being precipitated by the Russians, by a foreign other.  In this explanation, there is a collapse in a sense between foreign and homosexuality in which same-sex desire is seen as something which comes from outside the United States to threaten or at least feminize and compromise American male figure skating, masking the line, athleticism and technique of the skaters because of their extravagant Russian inspired costumes.

The leading American proponent of this costume trend, the grand peacock of male figure skating, is of course Johnny Weir.  Weir says in regard to his outfits, “Too much is never enough.”weir  His Olympic short program costume was a dazzling mixture of black, pink, sheer fabric, ruffles and straps.  According to the NY Times article, “The skating world is of two minds about Weir; drawn to his singular personality and graceful style, concerned that his showiness will overwhelm the appeal of his performance.”  To me this statement sounds like straight people (and some gays) telling certain non-heterosexuals to tone it down and not be so flamboyant in order to gain equality or perhaps a gold medal.

In writing this post, I realize that some readers may think I have overanalyzed the Times article, that I am being too sensitive, too queer.  I would argue that as a queer/vext individual I am very attuned to the way in which homosexuality is portrayed and deployed within popular culture.  The article in the Times has a tinge of homophobia and it also plays on  an old strategy of finding a foreign other  (in this case our old enemies, the Russians) to blame for the changes in the costuming of male figure skaters and the dire consequences that holds for the (masculine) integrity of those skaters.  In the end, for me, the more peacocks on the ice, the better.

Okyo_Peacock_and_PeahenMaruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peahen, Hanging Scroll, Color on Silk 1781

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Cabinet of Curiosities: Teenage Boys on Telephones

I recently came across a wonderful blog called The Haunted Lamp which describes itself as “a collage about the unusual for the eccentric. It includes objects, design, art, ephemera and spaces -usually with a unique vintage twist. Expect to see the sculptural, eerie, humorous, magical, and the little bit queer.”  Well, being a bit eccentric myself and more than a little bit queer, it appealed to me immensely especially this post about a Russian figurine of sailors and this other post about sailor cocktail napkins from the 1940’s.  The one napkin depicts a sailor who rides a carousel horse with great enthusiasm.  It reminds me of how representations of sailors are given greater freedom in culture because of the long history of their sexual ambiguity.  I doubt one would see a napkin with a marine riding a carousel horse with such unbound joy.

The Haunted Lamp has inspired me to dig into my own cabinets and draws and reveal some of my curiosities that are also a little bit queer.  When I saw the Russian figurine of the two sailors on The Haunted Lamp, I was reminded of 3 porcelain figurines of teenage boys in my vitrine from Japan made by the J L Co. and  probably dating from the 1950’s or early 1960’s.  Items like these figurines were sold in store such as Woolworth’s for very little money.  What makes these small figurines ( 2.5”x3”) a little bit queer is the fact that the boys are all on the telephones.  Two are speaking on the phone and one is seemingly just picking up the receiver as if the phone has just rung.



In the mythology of the phone and the culture of the teenager which emerged after World War II, was it not teenage girls who were always on the telephone especially while they were babysitting?  These three figurines represent a minor disruption of the gender norms and rules of the dominant fiction.  Boys are not supposed to be obsessed with the phone.


All the boys have that 50’s/60’s clean cut collegiate look: with  crew cut hair, a sweater, loafers and white socks.  Their mainstream appearance makes their gender transgression all the more tantalizing and appealing as if we are witnessing a secret conversation.  Who are they talking to on the phone?  A girl or perhaps another boy? What are they talking about?

And what I also love about these little sculptures is the fact that all the boys are sitting on the floor while using the phone.  Sitting on the floor seems like such a teenage phenomenon, the space of the young.   The boy in the orange pants, for example, has his legs up at an angle as if propping them up on  the invisible wall or couch. 


I often wonder too who was the intended consumer for this small treasures.  Certainly not, teenage boys.  Perhaps teenage girls.  And I wonder when they looked at these figurines did they sense their difference, their queerness?  One can only imagine, but I am glad that these 3 boys now reside in my apartment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Notes on a Film: The Banality of Evil and Das weiße Band, The White Ribbon

Having the day off, I just saw The White Ribbon, an amazing, haunting and beautiful black and white  film by Michael Haneke. The film chronicles a period of approximately one year in the life of a rural Northern German village on the eve of The Great War which broke out in the summer of 1914.  Strange events have been happening in the village during this time.  The village doctor is thrown from his horse  by a thin almost invisible wire that someone has strung between two trees.  A female worker on the Baron’s estate falls through some rotten floor boards in the sawmill and dies.  The son of the Baron is found hanging in the same sawmill, having been severely beaten.  The mentally handicapped son of the village mid-wife is found in the woods, beaten with his eyes severely traumatized.  A barn on the estate is set on fire. 

And the everyday lives of the villagers is no less aberrant or disturbing.  Behind the picturesque village there are numerous secrets.  The Pastor is a severe disciplinarian with his children.  His elder son and daughter lie to him near the beginning of the film and they are each given 10 whacks with a cane.  They are then made to wear white ribbons to remind them that they should strive for innocence and purity.  This is the white ribbon of the film’s title. 

Later in the film, the Pastor suspects his elder son of masturbating and therefore ties the boy to his bed at night. so  that he will not touch himself.  The Pastor berates his daughter in divinity class for her behavior and she collapses.  She extracts revenge by killing her father’s beloved pet bird.  The midwife is having an affair with the doctor who treats her with extreme cruelty.  The doctor is molesting his daughter.  And the Baroness is unhappy with her marriage to the Baron.

All of this might seem like overkill, but Haneke is making a point about how things like religion or love or family life or even children are not really innocent or uncomplicated affairs.  The white ribbon may symbolize purity and innocence, but no one in the film is guilt free except perhaps the school teacher.  In contrast to these sinister undercurrents in the village, the school teacher is well-intentioned and somewhat hapless.  His love of the young girl Eva whom he eventually marries at the end of the movie is sweet and refreshing against all the mayhem of the village and the disquieting events that take place behind its closed doors.

The school teacher is the chronicler of all of these terrible and tragic events.  At the beginning of the film, we hear the teacher’s voice and immediately he is separated narratively from the other characters. He is looking back on these events before the coming of The Great War and he is trying to figure out if his recollection is accurate and how the events of 1913 explain what happened after.

And what happened “after” is the crux of the film rather than the events that are actually portrayed in the narrative.  The “after” haunts the film, its characters and the audience and shapes our reading of The White Ribbon.  The audience cannot help but realize that in 20 short years from the events of the story Adolf Hitler and the Nazis will seize control of Germany, embark on a brutal world war and commit mass atrocities on a scope and scale never before seen in world history.  The children in the film will become the future participants in these events.  They will become full-fledged Nazis or at the very least supporters and soldiers of Hitler. 

This conclusion becomes all the more likely when the audience along with the school teacher realizes at the end of the film that it is a group of village children who caused the doctor’s fall, beat Sigi, the Baron’s son and Karli, the mentally handicapped son of the midwife and set fire to the barn.  It is not some outsider or monster or even an adult.  It is a group of children. 

The school teacher reaches this horrific conclusion and tells the Pastor, father of 2 of the children the teacher believes have participated in and even masterminded the crimes.  The Pastor cannot face the truth.  He threatens the teacher and in the end his and the other children are not held accountable for their actions.

In a sense, the horrific acts of the children in 1913 foreshadow the horrors which are to come or on some level the film or better yet its narrator attempts a (futile) explanation for them.  The cruelty of the children in 1913 is nurtured under Hitler and provided with fertile ground in which to grow and then perform the most horrific acts.  The children of the village are predisposed to the Nazi era; it enables them to continue their cruelty for which they were never punished in the village.

As the narrator, the school teacher relates the events of that year before World War I in a dispassionate and almost banal tone as if unsure of what he actually witnessed or what it means although he does want to know.  The film itself has an even rhythm and tone, perhaps the stoic nature of the German, but its emotions are dampened and curtailed.  For example, the viewer doesn’t see the beating of the 2 boys or the Pastor’s children being punished with the cane.  The only act of violence we do see is the Steward of the Baron’s estate beating his son because he stole a whistle belonging to the Baron’s son, Sigi.  For me, this tone implies “the banality of evil” and how a supposedly civilized nation could so simply and easily descend into madness.

One of the most poignant parts of the film for me was the character of Karli, the mentally handicapped son of the village midwife.  From the moment I saw him, all I could think of was the Nazi program, Action T-4, that began in 1939 and continued until 1941 under which physicians killed 70,273 people who were considered mentally ill or incurable.  As I watched Karli in the film playing, interacting with his mother and his subsequent disappearance and being found beaten, I wondered if the worse was yet to come for him.  Did he survive the Nazis?  Or was he killed because of his difference? 

Hitler’s memo on the subject of euthanasia of the mentally ill reads, “Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death.”  This simple, short memo encapsulates the concept of “the banality of evil”.  Ordinary people (the inhabitants of the village in the film) accepted Hitler’s actions and participated in them seeing their actions as normal or sanctioned.  This is how evil occurs.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Working Hard for the Money: The “Lunch Break” Project by Sharon Lockhart

How does one represent labor especially in the post-industrial United States where a service economy has replaced one of heavy industry?  And how does an artist, usually a member of a rarified class who if successful can sell pieces for thousands of dollars or more, depict a class different than her own, a class that probably has little concern or regard for her artistic production and the art world it inhabits?  These questions are addressed (and not addressed) by photographer Sharon Lockhart in her recent 2008 project entitled “Lunch Break” which was shown at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in from December 2009 to the end of January 2010.  In “Lunch Break” Lockhart focuses her lens on the workers of Bath Ironworks in Bath, Maine. Owned by General Dynamics, the company “is a full service shipyard specializing in the design, building and support of complex surface combatants for the US Navy.”

So, how does Lockhart represent the labor of the Bath Ironworks without it devolving into an (anti)picturesque, sentimental or exploitive depiction?  To prevent this devolution, her strategy is to not represent the actual workers at all, but rather photograph their individual lunch boxes as well as  the independent food businesses run by the ironworkers that cater to their coworkers.

lockhart7 3rd Panel Gary Gilpatrick, Insulator 2008, 3 Chromogenic Prints, 24.75x30.75 each

lockhart1 Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs 2008, Chromogenic Print, 41”x51”

Lockhart’s strategy reminds me of a work by the artist Martha Rosler from 1974-75 entitled The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.  Rosler’s project presents a series of photographs and texts in an attempt to represent the drunks who inhabit the Bowery in New York City. (Of course, now even that area of Manhattan is experiencing gentrification.)  As the title of the piece suggests the artist has little faith that her work can indeed represent the inhabitants of the Bowery. The photographs are images of the Bowery in which the body of the drunk is absent, but signaled through the sign of an empty bottle or bottles of liquor. The accompanying text presents words which are used to describe the state of inebriation.

boweryMartha Rosler The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems 1974-75

These photographs and texts do not intend to depict the drunks of the Bowery, but rather the work is an attempt to counter the dominant discourse about drunks and the means of representation (documentary photography) which is usually used to naturalize this discourse.  Speaking about mainstream images of drunks on the Bowery, Rosler states, “The buried text of photographs of drunks is not a treatise on political economy, on the manipulation of the unemployment rate to control inflation and keep profits up and labor’s demand down, on the contradictory pressures on the institution of the family under capitalism.” Instead, such photographs are meant to position the drunk as a vile individual who has made a life choice and deserves punishment for it. These photographic depictions serve to naturalize and conceal the “buried text.”  Further discussing mainstream images of drunks, Rosler states, “If impoverishment is the subject here, it is more certainly the impoverishment of representational strategies tottering about alone than that of a mode of surviving. The photographs are powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.”

Similarly, if Lockhart depicted the individual workers of Bath Ironworks in a straightforward manner, the “buried text” of the changes in the American economy from heavy industry to a service economy, the military nature of their product, the relationship of the military-industrial complex to the economy as a whole and so on would not be evident.  Instead, you would have perhaps images of patriotic labor building the ships which America needs to defend herself and to project her power around the world.  In this sense, mainstream photographs of labor (which depict actual workers) are already defined within the dominant ideology and this definition does not allow for the complexities of the working class in America.  And one could argue that even Lockhart’s eventual strategy of not depicting the workers themselves is still unable to deal with the complex position of labor and the working class in the United States in political, economic, cultural and social terms.

In choosing to photograph the lunch boxes of the workers, Lockhart has chosen something that is personal and specific to that individual worker in terms of his own taste both in food and the container in which it is carried to work.  lockhart3 While the title of the images identify the worker and his job, the image in no way conveys anything about his actual physical labor. 

In the photographs, the different lunch vessels mimic archaeological remains that tell us something of their culture and civilization, but not everything,  Like in archaeology, the viewer has to speculate about the meaning of these objects and those individuals who used them.  For example, one worker, Butch Greenleaf, a machinist, uses an old woven picnic basket to hold his lunch.  The photograph measures 24.75”x30.75” as do all the lunch box depictions.(There is some humor here: a man named Butch carries a picnic basket to work?!?!?)  The container bears the traces of its use and history in the weathered and rough patina of the wood and the uneven profile of the basket cover as if gnawed away by time.

Installation view, Barbara Gladstone Gallery 2009-2010

The depiction of Butch’s container is in the form of a diptych.  One photograph displays the basket open and the other shows it closed.  The position of the basket in each image does not reveal anything about it’s contents, so our understanding of this worker is based only on the  mute vessel depicted.  We must (0r should we not) imagine the life of Butch Greenleaf.  Perhaps Butch favors old things or this basket belonged to his mother or it is a reminder of happy childhood memories of family picnics.  Certainly this object has  a strong psychological resonance.  Or perhaps the silence of the basket is Lockhart’s comment on her own project: that in the end it is unable to really tell the spectator anything about Butch’s life and labor or that of the other workers.

Also of interest is the diptych format of the Butch Greenleaf basket photograph which elevates this mundane item to something more important and sacred as diptychs were often used to create altarpieces.  There is also the elevation of these everyday objects to the realm of high art in the manner of Marcel Duchamp.  But does this elevation to art or a connection to the sacred through the diptych format remove these objects and their representations from the reality of their existence?  They are taken from their owners, photographed and then returned, but again what do we learn about the lived experiences of their owners?  The artist benefits from these objects in terms of critical attention and remuneration, but the worker is left with only an anecdote.

Another work with the same diptych format displays the lunch box of Mike Dicky, a tinsmith at the shipyard.lockhart8  His lunch box is perhaps reminiscent of his job in its grey metal.  It has a traditional shape and perhaps it is a vintage lunch box once carried by his father or a relative.  The second image in the diptych shows the lunch box from behind.  In both images the container is closed.  It is mute.  It betrays nothing about Mike Dicky except perhaps that he is neat.  The box appears new.  It is not stained, dirty, dented or full of stickers.  The viewer stares at it and wonders what is inside.  What are Mike Dicky’s secrets?  What does he see, feel, imagine about his life, his job?  The viewer is told nothing and again in this silence is Lockhart saying to the viewer in effect, “I cannot represent labor in its truth.”

Two other works by Lockhart lockhart6 for “Lunch Break” are triptychs.  Here is the third panel of Larry Conklin, a welder which depicts a red and white cooler.  The cooler is grimy inside and out perhaps bearing the dirt of Conklin’s job.  It  has a US Navy and union sticker on it announcing his work affiliations.  Conklin apparently likes milk and the two other containers are filled with something we don’t know, but maybe soup, stew or pasta.

The other triptych in the show represents the lunchbox of Gary Gilpatrick an insulator at Bath Ironworks.lockhart7  Here is the third panel of the work which displays his traditional black lunch box covered in stickers and open displaying its contents.  Unlike the lunch box of Mike Dicky, Gilpatrick’s container reveals more about him.  It has a neat appearance.  Gilpatrick has a newspaper and a pencil in his box which suggests that he does the crossword puzzle in the paper.  There is also a magnifier which is perhaps used for the small lettering of the crossword or it indicates that Gilpatrick’s eyesight is not very good.  It also appears that there is a medication bottle in the lunch box.  Perhaps Gilpatrick is older or has a chronic medical condition.  It also appears that he doesn’t have food in his lunch box so perhaps he eats at one of the concessions run by the ironworkers themselves.

The food concessions photographed by Lockhart are run by the ironworkers themselves to provide a service to their fellow workers.  It is a sideline for some workers to make extra money.

lockhart1 Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs 2008 Chromogenic Print 41”x51”

In Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs the viewer is confronted with the barebones, non-aesthetic food concession of Dirty Don who sells hot dogs, cheeseburgers, kielbasa, soda, ice tea and ice cream for low prices.  Posters of baseball players line the wall above.  A fan is randomly placed on top of a refrigerator, but it is not running.  The hot dog maker is in a simple, rough wooden box with a light above it.  The “box” can be locked up at the end of the day. 

Of significance in these concessions  is the honor system of paying.  There is no one “manning” the food stand.  Rather  a customer helps themselves and then deposits there money in the wooden lockbox on the door of the hotdog concession.  This system is a testament to the camaraderie and trust that exists between the workers at Bath Ironworks as well as the workers self-initiative in providing a service for themselves that the company which employs them does not.

lockhart2 Moody’s Mart 2008 Chromogenic Print 41”x51”

Moody’s Mart sells coffee and donuts.  The photograph captures the grime and wear of the space particularly on the three drawers. One of the drawers was perhaps repainted green because that was the only paint around.  There is graffiti on the wall, old stickers on the drawers, and the supplies are stacked and stored in a random fashion.  It is not a place of beauty and there is nothing about this concession besides the coffee and donuts that would lift the spirits of its customers.  There is a danger here that this image seen in the context of a world famous art gallery could be seen as (anti)picturesque by the viewer who revels in the grittiness of the scene, but would have no interest in actually participating in it.  This is no Starbucks.  In the comfort of the art gallery, the viewer can be a tourist in the far from easy lives of these working people, but does not have to really consider the true reality of their existence.

lockhart4 Handley’s Snack Shop 2008 Chromogenic Print 41”x51”

In the photograph of Handley’s Snack Shop a haphazardly scribbled sign on a piece of a cardboard box states, “Please don’t forget to put money in bank”.  The “bank” is just simple can with a hole in it.  There is no sense of design to this space or the other concessions.  They are completely practical and utilitarian.  The snack shop is just a folding table filled with boxes of baked goods and candy.   There are wires hanging from the ceiling.  The wall in the background is full of holes and marks.  It is not pretty nor is it meant to be in the space of a shipyard that builds military ships.

In the end, is Lockhart successfully in representing workers at the Bath Ironworks without the photographs devolving into  (anti)picturesque, sentimental or exploitive images?  I would argue that the depictions of the individual lunch boxes are more successful than the representations of the concessions.  The individual lunch boxes taken out of their usual context, elevated to the level of art (as Duchamp did) or positioned  as seemingly archeological objects of an unknown culture tell (and don’t tell) the viewer something about the worker who owns the particular container.  The silence of some of the lunch boxes is perhaps the way in which Lockhart is signaling to the viewer the inadequacy of her representation of the workers.  Indeed, these photographs tell us nothing about the nature of the work at the shipyard or the history or the economic struggles of the workers themselves.  Nor do they contend with the present economic, political or social situation of the working class in America.

The concession photographs I think are even less successful.  These images can easily slip into the realm of the (anti)picturesque through the dingy, unaesthetic nature of the pictures.  Such “ugly” depictions have a long history in documentary photography.   The spectator can peruse the grim scene without participating in it or having to contend with its reality.

It is important to note that the audience for these works displayed in the high-end Barbara Gladstone Gallery are urban art lovers and intellectuals who are far removed from the lives and tribulations of the employees of Bath Ironworks.  I, like them, am a visitor in the lives of these workers and can never really understand or conceptualize their daily lives.  And furthermore, these photographs sell for thousands of dollars and in no way benefit the workers who are their subject.

In the exhibition, Lockhart showed a short film also entitled “Lunch Break” which consists of a single tracking shot technically slowed down in speed which moves incrementally down a locker-filled corridor.  The shipyard workers eat their lunch on separate benches in this corridor in isolation from one another.  The film is accompanied by a soundtrack that weaves together the workers’ voices, industrial sounds and music.

Lunch Break 2008 excerpt Sharon Lockhart

This video in both form and content conveys the monotony and isolation of the workplace.  The workers do not sit together to share their lunch or a conversation, but simply eat alone and then return to work.  This film in the end conveys more about the psychological state of the workers and through its form allows the spectator for a brief moment to experience the tedium of their day, the deafening noise and its dehumanizing results.  As a representation of labor, it is more telling and effective than the individual photographs.  But still there is no real connection to or examination of the political, economic and social status of these workers and their industry in the United States.   The “Lunch Break” project in the words of the artist Martha Rosler is “ powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Polar Bear Desire Post: Another Painting by Auguste Toulmouche

GerJappolarbear2 Polar Bear porcelain figurine, Japan or Germany circa 1920s-1930s

See the post on Polar Bear Desire here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

“Pull Up to My Bumper Baby”: Kustom Kar Kommandos by Kenneth Anger*

*This post is dedicated to Lawrence LaFountain-Stokes who introduced me to the films of Kenneth Anger nearly 18 years ago. Check out his wonderful new book, Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora.

Kustom Kar Kommandos by Kenneth Anger 1965

In the 1950’s the consumer culture emerging since the 19th century reached new heights after the devastation of The Great Depression. World War II precipitated an economic boom and the reconversion of the economy from a war footing to consumer goods occurred after the horrific conflict. A major component of this revitalized economy was the rise of the automobile. After the war, everyone wanted a car and it became a new technological, cultural, social and decidedly masculine symbol of the United States.

Against this historical context, Kenneth Anger made Kustom Kar Kommandos in 1965. It is an erotically charged film that explores masturbation, sexual intercourse, homoeroticism and the car culture of the 1950’s. In this short film, the masculine archetype of this decade, the Greaser, obsessively and meticulously polishes his customized hot rod with a large white puff in an almost dreamy series of images. Through the actions of the Greaser, the attributes of his specially made car, and the haunting soundtrack of a revving engine and the song “Dream Lover” (originally recorded by Bobby Darin in 1959, but sung in the film by the Paris Sisters from 1964) presents a strange and wonderful narrative of queer desire.

With the sounds of a revving engine, the film depicts a pink background with the word Kustom. The next image shows a custom-made burnt orange hot rod with an exposed engine of shiny chrome, revving and running. Then, the film switches back to the title sequence which adds the word Kar interspersed with a shot of 2 Greasers admiring the engine of the burnt orange car. Then back to the title shot where the final word of the title Kommandos is added.

The title shot dissolves and the opening notes of “Dream Lover” begins to play over an image of a black car door opening revealing car seats of red leather with white leather trim and a brilliant chrome dashboard and stick shift. This shot of the car interior dissolves and then the Greaser, the owner of the car I assume, emerges from behind the car’s open engine. He is wearing a fitted turquoise t-shirt and tight turquoise jeans with no belt. The camera lingers on his crotch, thus signaling the erotic nature of the film from its very beginning.

Every night I hope an pray that a dream lover will come my way.

The crotch shot dissolves and then the Greaser begins to slowly and methodically with an almost dream-like quality buff the already shiny and immaculate car with a large, fluffy white puff. The camera focuses on his repetitive, circular motions with the puff. The incredible shine of the black car and the chrome engine reflects the puff, the arm and hand of the Greaser and at one point his entire head and torso. This act of polishing is clearly and distinctly a metaphor for masturbation or foreplay. One could argue that the reflection of the Greaser in the car (itself an extension of his penis) is like Narcissus mesmerized by his own reflection in the pool of water. He gazes upon his own reflection and pleasures himself with and to his own image. In this sense, the car becomes an almost fetish used to achieve orgasm and gratification.

A boy to hold in my arms, and know the magic of his charms.

Or one could argue that as the Greaser “gazes” at the car, it in turn
“gazes” back at him by showing him his reflection. In this sense, the shining of the car surface can be understood as a symbolic enactment of foreplay- the caressing of a lover in anticipation of penetration and fulfillment. This boy is in love with his car.

‘Cause I want (yeah-yeah-yeah) a boy to call (yeah-yeah-yeah) my own (yeah-yeah) I want a dream lover, so I don’t have to be alone.

But what is the subject position of the Greaser? What is the nature of his relationship to his hotrod besides love/obsession? Cars, like ships are usually assigned a feminine gender. But can a “hotrod” really be feminized? Could it be a “she”? The dreamy, mesmerizing soundtrack of “Dream Lover” sung by the Paris Sisters changes the gender of the song’s original object of desire when sung by Bobby Darin from a she to a he. In this context, the car and the Greaser could be conceptualized as same-sex lovers and the film, therefore, becomes a homoerotic tableau of their sexual interaction.

Dream lover, where are you, with a love, oh so true? And I hand that I can hold, to feel you near as I grow old?

After his obsessive burnishing of the car, the Greaser opens the car door and gets inside. Strangely, he wears no shoes only turquoise socks that match his pants and shirt. The act of “getting in” the car is the act of penetration and the culmination of the buffing foreplay. The Greaser symbolically “fucks” his car.  Intercourse is further suggested by the red seats of the car which in their shape and color are reminiscent of an orifice, either an anus or vagina. 

Someday I don’t know how, I hope he’ll hear my plea, some way, I don’t know how, he’ll bring his love to me.

Sitting in the driver seat, the boy in turquoise manipulates the controls of the car on the dashboard and particularly the two chrome stick shifts with large globular knob heads of this custom-built car. The stick shift is a stand-in penis and this car has not one but two! Is his action a reenactment the rhythm of intercourse?

Dream lover, until then, I’ll go to sleep and dream again, that’s the only thing to do, till all my lover’s dreams come true.

The song ends and once again there is the sound of a revving engine. The camera moves over the top of the car which has a opening or cutout like a sunroof. The movement of the camera creates the illusion that the car is driving away. The scene is then cut and the next shot displays the revving and running car engine of the burnt orange hotrod from the opening title sequence.

Please don’t make me dream alone, I beg you don’t make me dream alone, no I don’t want to dream alone.

In the last shot of the film the Greaser wipes the head casket of the car engine with a rag. This action is the final culmination of the interaction between the boy and his car. It suggests the symbolic cumshot of film. In this final image, the turquoise boy wipes the “cum” from the engine that has just shot its load.

‘Cause I want (yeah-yeah-yeah) a boy (yeah-yeah-yeah) to call my own (yeah-yeah) I want a dream lover so I don’t have to dream alone.

In the end Kustom Kar Kommandos reflects the postwar culture of the automobile which achieved dominance and ubiquity after World War II. It also represents a disruption in the naturalized link between traditional masculinity and the car. It problematizes that link revealing its fetishistic nature or by making that relationship a homoerotic one. Within this homosocial culture, men identify with and indeed “love” their car. It becomes an extension of this penis (mis)recognized as the Phallus. One need only think of the cliché of middle-aged man who buys a red sports car to prop up his “sagging” life.

What is also intriguing is that while the car achieved prominence in the 1950’s, there was also a growing same-sex culture and non-heterosexuals were beginning to demand equality. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis was organized in 1955. These groups pioneered the struggle for same-sex freedom which culminated at Stonewall in 1969. Kustom Kar Kommandos is a testament to a burgeoning gay/queer culture and it’s just a wicked piece of filmmaking.

PS See my earlier post on another Kenneth Anger film: A Disruption of Masculinity: Masochism and Homosexuality in Kenneth Anger's Fireworks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Barthesian Notes on a Photograph: Naked Dress Up by Ben Bale

*Please note that the photograph discussed in this post contains nudity. To see this photograph click on “read more” at the end of the post.


I came across a photograph entitled Naked Dress Up by Ben Bale through a Tumblr post. It depicts an attractive, well endowed, muscular and lithe young man with dark, short-cropped hair and some facial hair. He stands with clenched fists wearing a sheer, checked, frilly apron or dress that barely covers his large uncut penis. There is a necklace around his neck and he wears a leather? bracelet on both wrists. He stares out at the viewer with a look of vulnerability or defiance or perhaps an oscillation between the two.

This photograph at first animated my desire on a physical and visceral level (I was sexually attracted to the subject of the depiction), but also I wanted to understand my imagistic desire for this depiction beyond just lust, beyond just the cumshot. The ability of this image to endure for me beyond ejaculation is in part because it does not devolve into simply pornography. It is an erotic photograph as defined by the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician Roland Barthes in his profound treatise on photography, Camera Lucida, that fosters a desire, my desire, not only because of the image’s visual appearance, but also because it is an intriguing meditation on gender and sexuality. Through its denotation it enacts a series of binary relationships that are mapped onto the fundamental concept of the dominant fiction** masculine/feminine in which the masculine term is always privileged over the feminine. Naked Dress Up (re)produces these binaries in order to subvert and undermine them. My need, my want, my coveting of this image is in part engendered by this critical impulse. It speaks to me as a queer/vext subject and provides me with both scopophilic and intellectual pleasure.

The Phallus and the Penis

The subject of the photograph displays for the camera a masculine body of taut muscles, but it is his large penis which grabs my, the spectator’s attention. It is inescapable. His penis is prominently exhibited for the viewer and the almost covering of the penis by what I am calling the apron-dress somehow enhances its presence. The penis is a testament within the dominant fiction to the subject’s manhood, virility, strength, sexual prowess and to his traditional masculinity. It’s large size may at first make one mistakenly view it as the Phallus instead of a fleshy, defenseless appendage attached to the male body.

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. But does the Bale photograph sustain this (mis)equation between the Phallus and the large cock of the pictured model?

Disrupting the Masculine Display through Feminization

Naked Dress Up does resist the (mis)recognition of the Phallus and the penis by literally feminizing the male body of the subject and metaphorically castrating it through the frilly checked apron-dress “worn” by the model. (The apron or dress in my understanding has been photo edited onto the body of the male model using another photograph of a different model in that piece of clothing. One notices traces of the other photograph particularly in the chest and stomach where the skin is paler and in the right arm of the model where there are ghosts of the arm from the other image.)vargas The sheerness of the apron-dress reminds me of 1940’s pinups by Alberto Vargas. Although the Bale photograph does not have that “come hitherness” like the Vargas, the play on concealing and revealing with the transparent apron-dress seems to operate in Naked Dress Up as well.

Furthermore, my reading of the clothing worn by the male model as an apron is distinct and subjective to me alone perhaps. Its appearance to me as a frilly 1950’s style hostess garment dovetails nicely with the Vargas link and suggests to me the return to a cult of domesticity after World War II. After the war women who had worked and helped win the conflict, were culturally told to return to the home and become real woman again. The sexy apron is a needed garment in this return. It confers the woman a meaning both domestic and sexual.

These two connotations of the photograph serve to disrupt its virile display of masculinity as exemplified by the large cock of the model. The model is positioned as a “pinup”. He is meant to be seen as an object to be visually enjoyed by the spectator. Being the object of the gaze is not the traditional state of the masculine subject in the dominant fiction. Men look, they are not looked at in our culture. (Even now with the rise of the metrosexual, the positioning of men as objects to be visually enjoyed is problematic and often ads for men’s (metrosexual) products attempt to elide this fact by conferring on the man depicted the status of husband and father rather than sexual object although he has already displayed his body in the ad.)

And even though the model stares out at the viewer and clenches his fists which implies action or a readiness to fight perhaps the spectator, his look does not deflect the viewer’s gaze. It may be a look of defiance as supported by the clenched fists, but it is not making us look away. Indeed, he seems to oscillate between challenging the viewer (the clenched fists) and a state of vulnerability (his look and the apron-dress he is (forced) to wear.) The sheer garment barely covers his cock and thereby enhances his “nakedness”, making him more exposed to the gaze of the viewer, more defenseless.

Furthermore, the ghosting of the model from the other photograph used to edit Naked Dress Up continues this masculine disruption. The pectorals in the image seem paler in color to the other skin of the model. This “discoloration” serves to feminize the male body of the subject by transforming pecs into breasts (even though the paler areas do seem to be from another male body). It is reminiscent of a woman who has become tan but her clothing kept her breasts a lighter, more white skin shade.

The left nipple of these pec-breasts is pierced by a small barbell which signals the nipple as an area of sexual pleasure for the model. In the dominant fiction, the pleasure of the male body is supposed to be restricted to the dick and nowhere else despite the fallacy of such a restriction in the actual lived experience of men. What this transference of erotic zones from penis to nipple does is suggest same-sex desire. Often gay men in mainstream culture are still depicted and conceptualized as feminine. It is another way in which the male model in the image is feminized and forced to acknowledge that his cock is not the Phallus because it is not positioned as the supreme locus of gratification. Additionally, the piercing suggests pleasures available beyond the penis which is in itself a liberating act in the midst of traditional masculine sexuality within the prevailing culture.

The title of the photograph, Naked Dress Up, suggests the activity of young girls who put on mommy’s clothes. Boys may “dress up” as well but they always wear the uniforms of traditional masculine archetypes: the soldier, the cowboy, the knight, the superhero. The model does not embody any of these archetypes. Only his muscles, facial hair and enormous dick serve to identify him as a male subject. But this subject position is challenged by the apron-dress he is wearing. In this photograph the dressing up, a playful, fun childhood activity, does not exactly seem voluntary or pleasurable as evidenced by the clenched fists of the model. There is a degree of tension here between the model and the item of clothing he is forced to wear. Indeed, “forced” is the correct term. The original image of this model standing with his big cock was photo edited, made to wear the apron-dress by technology and the photographer, Ben Bale. Bale adorns the model as if he is a paper doll. He is “made up” by the photographer which is a decidedly feminine practice within the understanding of the dominant culture.

Pornographic or Erotic?

The pornographic/erotic binary is the final dynamic enacted by the Bale photograph. In order to explore this binary I once again (as I always do), look to the work of Roland Barthes in his decisive and profound book on photography, Camera Lucida. In the first part of the book, Barthes divides photography into 2 categories, those images that belong to the studium and those depictions that belong to the punctum. Photographs classified under the studium, express knowledge about their subject, whether that knowledge is cultural, social, political, economic and so on. Barthes states:

What I feel about these photographs, derives from an average affect, almost a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimonies or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.

eriecanal3 When one sees, for example, an historical photograph, such as this one of a bridge over the Erie Canal in Rochester, NY circa late 19th century one participates as Barthes says in the image, noticing things about dress, setting, gesture and so on that gives the viewer knowledge or information about a particular time and place, social and cultural custom, etc.

The second category Barthes creates is the punctum which is not just the opposite of the studium, rather the punctum is that which “breaks or punctuates” the studium. It can be a detail within the photograph which “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…this…element…will disturb the ‘studium’ I shall therefore call ‘punctum’; for ‘punctum’ is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole- and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).

The punctum is the detail in the photograph that goes beyond history, culture and even beyond language to an almost pre-Oedipal state. It is a poignant and profound punctuation which disturbs the knowledge of the photograph and takes me, the viewer, to a space outside denotation, outside knowledge. In Naked Dress Up the punctal detail for me is the clenched fists of the model. It is a distraction that “pierces” me. It forestalls and interrupts the knowledge of the photograph: the cultural denotations of the photo shopped apron-dress, the necklace around the model’s neck, the leather? bracelets he wears on both wrists, his enormous cock and his muscular body. The clenched fists undermine the studium of the image namely it’s pornographic nature. For while pornographic photographs belong to the studium, the erotic photograph is purely punctal in nature.

Furthering his definition of the punctum which is itself in a sense beyond definition, is somewhat ineffable and subjective to a particular spectator, Barthes states, “Now, confronting millions of photographs, including those which have a good studium, I sense no ‘blind field’: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond…Yet, once there is a ‘punctum’, a blind field is created (is divined)…” It is the presence of the “blind field that distinguishes the erotic image from the pornographic one for Barthes. He continues:

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 (and even then boredom follows quickly). 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. The punctum, then is a kind of subtle beyond- as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward “the rest” of the nakedness, not only towards the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.

My desire for Naked Dress Up lasts beyond the cumshot it can facilitate and directs me to what Barthes terms the blind field where I animate the image and it animates me. Within the blind field, there exists the “remainder” of the models body- his lower legs, his back, his ass and fantasies of actual physical, sexual contact with this photographic subject. But such a fantasy does not rest purely on the level of the somatic. Rather there is a connection for me to the model beyond just the physical. It is a connection to the humanity of the subject, to his soul and this occurs through the punctal detail of the clenched fists which makes the model more than just the fetishized or a flattered idol of pornography

While the fists signal resistance or hesitation, there is also an openness and a willingness to the depiction which despite the closed hands does not exist in the pornographic photograph. As Barthes states, “…the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it.” While Naked Dress Up might not be completely generous in its nature, it does produce a body which is vulnerable and subject to the look of the spectator, a body which has been feminized. But it is positioned and framed for me not as a mere object, or masturbatory toy, but as “the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.” I experience the subject as a living breathing individual whom I not only desire, but see having a consciousness. Such a relationship to this image, does not occur with my viewing of a pornographic photograph in which the body shown is a mere means to an end- sexual pleasure produced through the cumshot.

And the clenched fists take me even further outside the frame of the photograph beyond the remaining nakedness of the subject and the imagining of sexual encounters with him to a place of struggle and hesitation where we all contend with our own actual lived experience against the paradigmatic constructions of gender and sexuality within the dominant fiction. Even as we realize and understand that these roles and definitions are (false) images, we are still bound and circumscribed by them. They still impact upon our daily lives no matter how secure we feel and often make us feel less than or at worst ashamed.

Naked Dress Up is an erotic photograph in the Barthesian sense, because Bale has captured more than just the naked body of the model as an “motionless object” to be used for sexual pleasure, stimulation and masturbation by the viewer. The framing of this naked male body, its feminization, allows it to be generous no matter how hesitant or subtle. It is for me not a pornographic body which is only desired until ejaculation and then quickly forgotten and discarded. Rather Bale has found the humanity of his subject (the clenched fists) and how we all, men and women, heterosexual, non-heterosexual and in-between, must resist and fight against the sexual and gender paradigms of the dominant fiction. In this way, Naked Dress Up endures beyond sexual gratification and provides me with a moment of utter BLISS.

**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.