by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

The images implore us, seduce us, perhaps delude us. No mere verbal descriptions can do them justice. The woman sits in a window frame, low-cut blouse, hot pants, bobby sox, high heeled shoes, glancing out of the window with frustrated expectation, and perhaps also a hint of boredom. The woman, all in black, in semi-shadow, stands leaning by the fireplace, beneath a landscape painting, cigarette in one upraised hand, pensive. The woman lies on her back, head towards us, outstretched diagonally across a hotel bed, frilly white evening dress, pearl necklace, lost somewhere between reverie and exhaustion. The woman sits at the table, empty drink glass in front of her, medium close-up, upper torso and face, black dress with leopard-skin neck and sleeves, tears streaming down her heavily made-up face.

How many times have we seen such scenes before? Cindy Sherman's black-and-white "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-1980) teeter on the brink between cliche and revelation. Overloaded with detail, these pictures are nonetheless fundamentally empty. Nothing is happening, although far too much has already happened or is about to happen. Present time has been drained of its vitality and fullness; it is no longer that living immediacy whose recovery is the utopian promise of every snapshot. Rather, the moment seems to have been emptied out: emaciated to the point where it is only the thinnest of membranes, barely separating a traumatic past from a fatal future. Each photograph is ostensibly a "self-portrait": Sherman casts herself in a series of cliched roles from 40s and 50s low-budget melodramas and film noirs. These women are fragile, lonely, confused, abandoned, wistful, or timidly seductive: not glamorous drag queens like Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe, but humbler stereotypes of a traditional, depressed femininity. They are uncertain, indecisive, achingly passive and vulnerable, unable to act. All they can do is wait. Time is frozen. The film projector has jammed: this single frame, this insubstantial instant, one twenty-fourth of a second, will last forever. The women are caught in the time warp of their retro stylizations: they are defined and constrained by their postures, their make-up, their clothes, none of which will ever change. They are trapped in their images. For what is an image, after all? "A superb power," to quote Blanchot ironically quoting Pascal, "which makes eternity into nothingness and nothingness into eternity."

These women cannot really be called individuals, for everything about them is subordinated to the cliches of genre fiction, and to the standardized rules of feminine behavior. There are as many prosthetic female selves as there are different videotapes of old movies to rent, or different TV programs to watch. Which is why Sherman has to make so many different images, why her serial repetitions produce multiple sets of stereotypes, instead of fixing on just one. The women in the "Untitled Film Stills" are stereotypes, puppets, playing out their pre-assigned scripts. Their inner life is utterly blocked. They are so frail, so vulnerable. They need you, it seems, to complete their story. Save me. Protect me. Penetrate me. Possess me. And so virility rides to the rescue. But isn't that the biggest cliche of all? What's missing from this picture? You say that these women are suffering from "lack," so that you can be the one to fulfill and complete them. But it doesn't work. You find that these images continually slip beyond your grasp, out of your possession. You can't get it up, you can't get the film projector up and running again, you can't supply the missing narratives that would release the trapped figures from their suspension. The stifling intimacy of these scenarios is such, that there can be no referential 'real' in which to anchor them, and no Archimedean point from which to regard them. These images lure you instead into a paralysis as great as their own, into the realm of the unspeakable, the unsayable. This is what Blanchot calls the time of fascination: "the time of the absence of time, the time in which nothing begins, without negation, without decision, where before affirmation there is already the return of affirmation."

These women offer you no point of approach. You can't even really define them as recognizable 'types.' Their presence is too disturbingly indefinite for that. Their faces have congealed into sterile masks of anticipation, yearning, dread, fatigue, insecurity, or boredom. Wittgenstein suggests that such conditions should not be regarded as "mental states" at all. One isn't bored or sad or expectant in the same way that one is cold or hot, or that one suddenly feels a sharp pain, or that one sees colors and hears sounds. That is to say, affects like grief, longing, and exhaustion aren't really 'psychological,' since they are devoid of intentional and phenomenological content. Wittgenstein points out that we quite easily say: "For a second he felt violent pain"; but that it would "sound queer to say: 'For a second he felt deep grief.'" For "grief describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life," but which cannot be circumscribed as a particular mental activity. The "now" of all these emotions--the "now" of the figures in Sherman's photographs--is different from the "now" of sensation and comprehension. It's an oddly impersonal "now," without contours, without discernible limits, and without fixed location. These affects are everyday banalities, they are all perfectly real; only they aren't accessible to our usual powers of self-conscious introspection. They steal over me before I am aware of them, and somehow separate me from myself. They come over me in waves, breaking down my self-possession and self-control. They turn me into a stereotype, drained of interiority, emotionally unbalanced and strangely vulnerable. In short, they turn me into a woman.

But now consider another group of Sherman's photographs, this time in lurid, 'living' color: the "Untitled" series from 1992. Here Sherman is no longer content just to try on Mommy's old clothes; instead, she gleefully mixes and matches the stereotypical, prefabricated parts of "anatomically correct medical-supply-house dolls." Skin and fabric give way to plastic. These prosthetic "self-portraits" are no longer content to suffer passively: they are bloody, violent, predatory, dangerously unbalanced, obsessed with mutilation and disease. Faces are grotesquely masked, wrinkled with age, or distended in (orgasmic or agonizing?) screams. Enormous dolls, part female and part male, offer themselves to the camera in 'fuck-me' postures. Cunts gape open distended with blood and shit, or sprout monstrous erections from which ooze unhealthy fluids. Heads winch apart from their prosthetic torsos, and limbless trunks testify to torturous amputations. This aggressive fragmentation of the body frees organs and orifices from the tedious constraints of organic unity. Cunts, assholes, and breasts reek with infection, crying out desperately to be fondled, penetrated, or milked. These images are a threat--perhaps to the projections of female narcissism, and certainly to the anxious defensiveness of male pricks and egos. But they also carry the promise of strange and novel pleasures. Long live the new flesh. Sherman returns to the autopsy table and remakes human anatomy, just as Artaud demanded.

Vision itself is wounded and infected in these photographs: solicited, embodied, taken hostage, fragmented, shattered. Out, vile jelly. "What happens when what you see, even though from a distance, seems to touch you with a grasping contact, when the manner of seeing is a sort of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance? What happens when what is seen imposes itself on your gaze, as though the gaze had been seized, touched, put in contact with appearance?" (Blanchot). These images leave you no room for detached, disinterested contemplation. They draw you into the scenario, and make you feel sullied by the touch of ocular contact. Nobody can refuse to take part in this orgy. The merest glance, and it's already too late. How reductive of Freud to describe the fear of blindness, of "base matter" touching and tainting the eyes, as a derivative of castration anxiety. In such disarticulated and prosthetic flesh, there can be no hierarchy of the organs or the senses, no privileging of sight over touch or male over female, of cocks over cunts or cocks over eyes. Woman has sex organs more or less everywhere, as Luce Irigaray puts it, and as Doctor Schreber already knew. And in this postmodern delirium, we are all more or less women. A decentered, tactile, polymorphous economy of the flesh replaces the old phallic and visual one. Irigaray's evocation of the fluidity, intimacy, tactility, and volume of female bodies corresponds with Marshall McLuhan's apprehension of the tactile, synesthetic qualities of the new electronic media. Every technological innovation, McLuhan says, implies a radical reordering of the human nervous system. Postmodern experience no longer conforms to the print-centered, phallocentric paradigm of a distanced, objectifying, linear, and perspectival vision. Now, in the age of video and computers, of genetic engineering and prosthetic surgery, the eye touches rather than sees; it immerses itself in the photograph, to be traversed by its erotic and emetic flows, and caressed and violated all along its surfaces.

So this is what it means to be a woman. Femininity, we now realize, is a variable construction, not a pre-given mythological essence. Ladies are made and not born. It's not enough just to have a cunt, or XX chromosomes, in order to become a woman. Genes can be spliced, and cunts, too, are prosthetically manufactured. But how, then, are women constructed? What are little girls made of? "Sugar and spice and everything nice" can be a difficult dish to swallow. It has to be mixed just right, or else it might make you queasy. It must flatter your nose and tickle your palate, melt pleasantly in your mouth and not in your hands, and soothe your throat as it slides smoothly down into your belly. Femininity is less an effect of language or ideology, than it is the result of an actual labor upon the body. Adornment of the surfaces, and penetration into the depths. Hormone balances and cosmetic applications. A rigorous training in posture, gesture and dress. There's a curious ambiguity at the heart of this process, an insidious, fascinating slippage from obligation to desire, from coercion to seduction. I resent it, yet I become absorbed in it. I give way, now to vertiginous ecstasy, now to violent bursts of all-consuming rage. "Happiness in slavery," as Jean Paulhan describes the paradox of Pauline Reage's Story of O, the quintessential novel of feminine apprenticeship. It's an emotional push-and-pull so extreme, so slippery and unstable, that it can't just be called 'ambivalence.' For it's not that I am indecisively torn between different attitudes, so much as that I experience the full strength of incompatible affects at one and the same time. I feel it in my entrails, pushing ever deeper, churning up my insides. It's like being fist-fucked in the cunt and the asshole simultaneously, an intensity almost too great to bear: "they were practically holding hands inside her. Only a thin membrane kept them apart. She could feel them flexing their muscles, turning; even an eighth of an inch of motion made her eyes roll back and her nerve endings ring. There was no way to come on this rollercoaster of sensation. It was an experience more like an orgasm than any other part of sex, but it just kept on happening, peaking, cresting, climbing higher and peaking again" (Pat Califia, Macho Sluts).

These violent fluctuations of affect, these detours of wasted energy, leaving their traces on photographic plates, coursing incessantly through the bodies of Sherman's multiple personalities, also force their way into the viewer's tender and receptive flesh. I can't look at these pictures calmly. I feel myself falling, being sucked inexorably into them, losing my self-possession, gradually letting go. I become what I behold. Subject and object are now utterly indistinguishable, agitated or paralyzed by the same intense emotion. Isn't that what it means to be a woman? Why call it "castration," when it involves a heightening of sensory enjoyment? Doctor Schreber finds the loss of his "virility" a small price to pay for the increase in "voluptuousness" all over his body. And remember the plight of James Woods in Cronenberg's Videodrome. He becomes so passionate and deliriously passive a TV viewer that a vaginal slit opens up in his belly, a handy slot for inserting videocassettes directly. You macho asshole, now you know what it's like to be a cunt. Obtrusive men will ask the Freudian question, "what do women want?" But that's the sort of thing only cops and critics worry about. They'd never address such a question to themselves. It could only be directed at somebody else: somebody whose intimate touch they wish to avoid, but whose behavior they seek to control. And it's not a question we are willing or even able to answer, caught up as we are in the throes of desperation or abject rapture. Bodies pushed to such extremities no longer 'know' what they 'want.' "I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking," as Wittgenstein put it. Like the heroine of a Harlequin romance, or like a hot bitch in a porno flick, I'm absorbed and consumed by the intensities of the moment. There's no room here for a desire that would pause for self-reflection, or demand "recognition," or be predicated upon "lack." Everything implodes into this body, into this image, as into a black hole or a cunt. The feeling is orgasmic, but without that sense of culmination and finality that a 'real' orgasm provides. She might just as well be faking it, for all you know or understand. Men never fathom women's depths, Nietzsche says, not because women are "deep," but because they "aren't even shallow."

So forget your virile anxieties about whether you were able to make me come, about who I am and what I want, about what is authentically real and what is not. A woman's impetuous desire scorns such niceties of masculine logic. So what if I'm faking it? Do you suppose that your oh-so-precious manhood is any less of an imposture? You'd better wake up, babe. Everything is a simulacrum, everything is a cliche. Intuitions without thoughts are blind, or so they say; a passion that doesn't scruple to "know itself" is indistinguishable from an empty stereotype. You've seen it a million times before. I'm always playing a pre-given part, whether by cynical calculation, or because I've been swept up in the heat of the moment. Just like any woman, I'm not responsible for my actions. I'm literally beside myself. I lose myself when you make me come, but I equally lose myself when I act the virgin or the whore, when I flatter your male vanity by pretending that you are the only man for me or that you are able to make me come. "I is an other," remember, and that other is always a pre-programmed social or biological construction.

It's all theater, all feminine coquetry and affectation. Life is a long process of method acting. Try it, you'll like it. Just don't imagine that, beyond all the cliches, beneath all these particulars of sensation, affect, and personality, you will ever discover such a thing as 'yourself.' The obsessive serial repetitions and continual variations of Sherman's images should be enough to disabuse you of that notion. Which is why it's not enough just to "read" these photographs as "critiques," as didactic, illustrational depictions of oppressive gender roles; though plenty of critics have tried. Even Craig Owens, one of the best, argues that Sherman's images work "to expose the identification of the self with an image as its dispossession," and that they force upon the viewer "the urgent necessity of making a distinction" between actual women and the "alienating identifications" imposed upon them by the "false mirror" of mass media. But is that really the story here? The problem lies in Owens' recourse to the old modernist notion of "alienation." For in postmodern media space, there is no longer a self for one to be dispossessed of, or alienated from. Electronic media haven't alienated or perverted or destroyed human nature; rather, we must say that they are human nature. There is no virgin ground; the Outside is also populated by masks and stereotypes. Owens knows this well enough; he acknowledges Sherman's "complicity" with the very forces that perform the social construction and stereotyping of femininity. But the whole situation makes him uneasy. Doesn't such complicity threaten to undermine the very possibility of an oppositional stance? Well, not necessarily, once we reflect that it equally compromises the integrity of the forces of conformity and order themselves. Double agents are notorious for their unstable loyalties; they like to swing both ways. Yes, capitalism can co-opt anything; but co-optation too has its price. Owens tries to resolve the dilemma by invoking "the unavoidable necessity of participating in the very activity that is being denounced precisely in order to denounce it." But isn't that making things a bit too easy? Let us not disavow the abject pleasures that complicity gives us, the urgency with which we are drawn to it, the strange desire that it inspires. It's time to discover the feminine delights of what Jean Genet calls treason.

I don't mean to deny the profoundly feminist import of Sherman's work, quite the contrary. I, too, yearn to become a woman. And woman is never the same. Her explosive proliferation in Sherman's "self-portraits" breaks the links of dependency, ruptures the chain of habit. But this is precisely why we can't confine Sherman's images to a critical awareness of the gender codes they travesty, or reduce them to the lessons and messages they seem to imply. It's not the meat, it's the motion. Politics begins in the ecstasy, suffering, and vulnerability of our agitated flesh. Sherman isn't content just to expose and critique social constructions of femininity; she gets off on the whole process far too much. She gleefully relishes--indeed, she prolongs and reiterates--the violent, intrusive movements of feminine fabrication. She takes a cruel, giddy delight in playing dress-up, in rummaging through heaps of old clothes, in twisting mannequin parts into grotesque new configurations. Bloody menstrual wounds, beautiful flowers of passion. Sherman floods the market with monstrous feminine simulacra. Each new self-portrait is yet another stylization of fetishized femininity, one more prosthetic proxy for an unpresentable self. These stereotypes are inscribed and effaced, again and again, one after another: constructed and deconstructed, affirmed and forgotten, in the same delirious motion.

The violent intensities of Sherman's photographs are thus a product of the most blatant artifice. These pictures obey the first rule of feminine imposture: just flaunt it shamelessly enough, and everybody will think you've really got it. Femininity is masquerade, as the psychoanalysts put it. Like a low-budget horror film, Sherman's work revels in its tongue-in-cheek sensationalism, its ostentatious phoniness, its use of gross and sleazy special effects. Take the images of food and debris from a 1987 series: puke spewed over an abandoned banquet; fat, repulsive worms swimming in snot sauce and heaped on a plate; decaying body parts immersed in beds of gravel and quicksand, lit to a lurid pink or blue. These images may be ludicrously cheesy, but they manage to disturb you all the same. Your own viscera are extracted, and served up to you on a platter. Death and decay are presented for your delectation, just like tits and ass on the Playboy Channel. No alienation-effect at work here; your excitement and revulsion are only heightened when you realize that you've been cheated, that none of this is really happening, that it's all only a spectacle mounted for your benefit. It's just like phone sex and peep shows. The nauseous intimacy of Sherman's sex dolls is all the more obscene for being forced and contrived, instead of spontaneous and open. Anyone with a little experience of s&m knows that the hokiest scenarios are the most effective at pushing bodies over the edge and into an uncontrollable frenzy. You've been a bad girl. Daddy wants to fuck. Mommy's gonna punish you. Lie still and let Nurse give you an enema.

It's all calculated and programmed, it's all just a performance. Yet everything screams vulnerability and pain. Don't even bother to ask whether woman is a product of nature or of culture. Femininity is a mutable construct, not an unchanging essence, regardless of whether chromosomes or social norms do the constructing. Sociobiologists may well be right when they claim that certain gender traits are written in our genes. Is that a problem? Given current levels of technology, it's far easier to rewrite or override the instructions of DNA, than it would be to alter the harsh imperatives of the so-called Symbolic order. Sherman's prosthetic reconstructions of the flesh suggest that anatomy may in fact be our best hope for escaping the "destiny" of gender. As far as feminism is concerned, genetic engineering, hormone treatments, and plastic surgery are all better bets than psychoanalysis. Who needs a cock anyway? "It is man whom we must now make up our minds to emasculate... Man is sick because he is badly constructed" (Artaud). So welcome to Dr. Sherman's operating table. Open up to me. Relax your sphincters. Let the images penetrate your flesh, and burn into your retinas. Make their vulnerability your own. How do you think it feels? This isn't a critique; this is a slide into the depths of abjection. Everything enters through a gash, a slit, an open sore: the mouth, the eyes, the asshole, the cunt. Think of how Bataille describes Madame Edwarda's cunt, the divine shrine at which he ecstatically worships: "a live wound, gaping at me, hairy and pink, bursting with life like a repulsive octopus." Now, there's no turning back. This is not "lack," but overfullness, life lived to its greatest intensity.

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