And Cohen’s work is part of a larger project, BODYWORK, which involved her simultaneous transformation of her body (via a personal trainer) into a bikini model and rebuilding of a German Trabant into a lowrider American car; the results are entered into lowrider competitions. While the work is conceptually interesting in Cohen’s co-articulation of herself as a car customizer and bikini model (the “masculine” and “feminine” positions conflated in one subject), both positions are resolutely normative (white, heterosexualized, conforming to gender stereotypes) and they remain binary; furthermore, the visual images of Cohen’s lush, predictably ideal, young, white, thin body become simplistic repetitions of bad advertisementsfor cars–and nothing, sadly, shifts the images from reiterating exactly the fetishistic structures Mary Kelly warned against replicating.

Anthea Behm, The Airhostess from The Chrissy Diaries, 2005.

Anthea Behm, The Airhostess from The Chrissy Diaries, 2005. Still from synchronized four-channel video installation (parachute by parachutes for ladies), 36 min 56 sec loop.

I would argue that such recent practices seem to appropriate strategies from earlier feminisms without sustaining the politics these strategies aimed at promoting. And the strategies are replicated either without knowing of the earlier models or by knowingly repeating them, but in new contexts in which they do not have the same political effect. The circuits through which images of self-display travel in 2007 are vastly different from those active in the 1970s–a woman artist today can’t simply redo Hannah Wilke’s photographic self-imaging strategies, which around 1975 arguably functioned to ironicize the habitual fetishization of the white woman’s body in Euro-American culture.Looking at Behm’s and Cohen’s pictures I feel a profound sense of melancholy about the lost utopianism of the feminism I knew and loved as I came of age as an art historian in the late 1980s. They indicate that the art world might have reached an impasse in relation to feminism. But, I insist, this is an impasse only if we persist in understanding feminism in terms articulated twenty or thirty years ago. I will end this paper by suggesting that, viewed from a different point of view, the legacy of the extraordinary political shifts engendered by the efforts of artists and theorists working under the banner of feminism from the 1960s through the early twenty-first century can be viewed more optimistically.

Liz Cohen, Trainer, 2006.

Liz Cohen, Trainer, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Laurent Godin
(Paris).

Liz Cohen, Hood, 2006.

Liz Cohen, Hood, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Laurent Godin (Paris).

 

Liz Cohen, Air Gun, 2005.

Liz Cohen, Air Gun, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Laurent Godin (Paris).

Para-Feminisms: Positional Politics 2007

If nothing else, feminist art practice and theory since the 1970s has proven the inexorable way in which the body is always already gendered, sexed, and raced. The body is always already in representation, even when presented “live.” So much is made explicit in the work of artists working today in ways that highlight the social and political positioning of bodies in relation to how they are identified–and this highlighting is precisely what I am arguing we can still link to the legacy of feminisms–via what I want to call a politics of positionality.

A politics of positionality is complementary to my concept of parafeminism as articulated in my recently published book Self/Image: Technology, Representation and the Contemporary Subject. Deploying the term parafeminism, I argue that the most important legacy of feminism is a broader articulation of a politics of positionality across the field of the visual. This politics continues to pivot around the body, but not as a “ground” to be either positively rendered and performed, or critically dismantled, or shielded from a fetishizing gaze–but as a lived and living manifestation of the political effects of being variously positioned (identified) in today’s global economies of information and imagery.

Positionality, then, is definitively not meant to imply a fixed locus in space, a determinable “identity,” or even an identifiable site in relation to ideology. It is indicative of the way in which we continue to “identify” ourselves and others in relation to perceived and complexly interwoven identifications. Positionality is constantly in motion, articulated across social space, diffuse. As I am imagining it here, parafeminism, with this politics of positionality, understands “gender” as a question rather than an answer–and a question that percolates through other subjective and social identifications–sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on which can never be fixed but always take meaning in relation to each other.26

What is new about what used to be called feminism and now (I am suggesting) might need to be called something else is precisely the freedom anyone now has to articulate sexual power in a way that does not necessarily align with a binary logic of male and female. This freedom (which is continually constrained, perverted and appropriated by the marketplace, and is only ever relative) is available because activists and purveyors of culture, visual and otherwise, from the 1950s onward laid the ground for subjects identified as female to begin to break free from their exclusive identification in heteronormative patriarchy with their sexuality (in Freudian or Mulveyan terms, as objects of male desire).27

As cited above, Michel Feher makes a Foucauldian argument that “the body is at once the… actualizer of power relations–and that which resists power….”28 In a culture of visuality such as the modern West, the body becomes visualized as an object of an empowered gaze via fetishism or, as Michel Foucault points out, in the modes of surveillance through which Euro-American subjects are encouraged to internalize our own objectification.29 In a patriarchal and racist culture of visuality, this internalization of the “being seen” has different valances for different subjects. I would stress that the shift from modernism to contemporary globalized late capitalism is one characterized by the degree to which we have internalized our own objectification –particularly those of us identified as women, blacks, lower class, immigrant, queer, or otherwise “other” to regimes of power. Simply reiteratively imaging ourselves to externalize the forces of objectification (per Behm or Cohen) only reinforces the intertwined structures of all fetishisms: sexual, racial, visual, and economic. These practices come across as outmoded in their singularity, in their focus exclusively on a thin, white, young ideal, and disturbingly reactionary in their return to previous modes of presenting the female body as if it can be definitively known–and so owned either by the person identified with it, or by the person who gazes at it.

Renee Cox, Yo Mama and the Statue, 1993.

Renee Cox, Yo Mama and the Statue, 1993. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy Von Lintel Gallery, New York. © Renee Cox.

What I am interested in, finally, are works that I experience as offering something far more radical, and far more attuned to the ways in which we navigate the complexities of global late capitalism–parafeminist works that emphasize a politics of positionality, in which the body is both visualized and enacted but impossible to know. Works such as Cathy Opie’s Self-Portrait Nursing (2004), which depicts her large dyke body breastfeeding her son; Jenny Saville’s recent paintings of cross-gendered bodies, rendered in lush brushy style from awkward points of view; Karolina Wysocka’s loving portrait of the male body (a close-up video loop of a pulsating scrotum, from 2006, entitled Jewel); Renee Cox’s use of her statuesque Black body to push the limits of the West’s fetishism of the female body in works such as Yo Mama! from 1993. These practices both remind us of the force of the body to maintain as well as to resist modes of power and denaturalize how the body, when performed or depicted in the visual field, is experienced and interpreted in terms of a complex web of identifications. In doing so, I am arguing, they maintain what I feel is the most crucial legacy of the feminisms of the 1960s and 1970s: the insistent exposure of circuits of power through which subjects are identified and so positioned in culture, and/or the glorious articulation of sexualized bodies across a range of femininities, bodies that in one way or another enunciate a kind of agency that allows them to speak against the grain of imperial, racist, classist, homophobic, and other forms of discrimination–all of which are inherently also sexist and anti-women. This work is almost always articulated explicitly across and through the body for, as Foucault notes, the body is the field through which power is simultaneously experienced, challenged, and given new forms.

Footnotes

  1. Kimberly Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality has been important to my rethinking of feminism; see her essay “Whose Story Is It Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill,” in Racing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Pantheon, 1992), pp. 402-440. I have co-edited an issue of Signs that deals extensively with intersectionality in relation to visual culture. See my discussion with Jennifer Doyle of intersectionality in relation to feminism in our introduction, “How Does She Look?,” to our co-edited “New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture,” Special Issue of Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 31, n. 3 (Spring 2006).
  2. Michel Foucault notes as much of the women’s movement, noting that its power in the 1960s and 1970s lay precisely in the separation of the question of women’s power from “the discourse conducted within the apparatuses of sexuality,” in “The Confession of the Flesh,” Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), p. 220.
  3. Feher, p. 161.
  4. See Foucault, “The Eye of Power,” in Power/Knowledge, where he notes, that with this “system of surveillance,… [t]here is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself,” p. 155.
Further Reading