Comps 12: Order Of Things

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1970.

Reading Foucault be like... 

Reading Foucault be like... 

Michel Foucault’s the Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, discusses the breaking down of things (history, knowledge, man) into a certain order. In unpacking this ‘order’ Foucault is able to point out a series of assumptions that make up the orders (systems) through which we navigate our lives. Using a archeological methodology to analyze a series of historical epistemes, The Order of Things, seems ultimately about turning a dialectical eye to the systems through which knowledge is constucted and performed. 

Any task to summerize the variety of thoughts, concepts, and explorations of this two part book would be futile. A summary would merely scratch the surface of the breadth of this book, and more to the point, I’m not sure I really understood it all. Instead, this blog post will focus on bringing forth and defining key terms that foucault introduces in this book, as well as a brief analysis of his methodology, intentions, and general conclusion. 

Foucault describes the intervention of The Order of Things eloquently: “An inquiry whose aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theory became possible; within what space of order knowledge was constituted; on the basis of what historical a priori, and in the element of what positivity, ideas could appear, sciences be established, experience be reflected in philosophies, rationalities be formed, only, perhaps, to dissolve and vanish soon afterwards (Foucault, xxii). In other word, Foucault seeks to analyze make visible the order of things; order being defined as the unconcious, normalize way things are structured or arranged, and ‘things’ being history, knowledge, man, or what Foucault calls the human sciences. 

order: “at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront once another, and also that which has no existence except in the gird created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression (Foucault, xx).

Foucault goes about this analysis through an archeological approach. This approach differs from others methods of analyzing history and knowledge, because it seeks not simple to define something, but discover, in a genealogical sense, where it came from; what brought it into being. Archeological thought takes stock of a thing’s own context and time, and must ““must examine each event in terms of its own evident arrangement” (218). Yet is is ultimately interested in structures and orders that brought something into existance; ideologies upon which something is foudned. “The archaeological level of investigation is the level of thinking in a project which is concerned with what made something possible (31).

In thinking about the order of things archeologically, foucault brings in the word Episteme. This is the discovery of archeological thought; the order of things relates to its historical episteme. “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice” (168).

The episteme is what constitues the majority of the book. 

pre-Classical period was structured on the episteme of resemblance. 

  • Naming/words: “it gives us a finger to point with, in other words, to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other words, to fold one over the other as though they were equivalents.”  (10)
  • signatures
  • Language

“Classical” period was around the episteme of representation

  • The whole Classical system of order, the whole of that great taxinomia that makes it possible to know things by means of the system of their identities, is unfolded within the space that is opened up inside representation when representation represents itself, that area where being and the Same reside. Language is simply the representation of words; nature is simply the representation of beings; need is simply the representation of needs. The end of Classical though – and of the episteme that made general grammar, natural history, and the science of wealth possible – will coincide with the decline of representation, or rather with the emancipation of language, of the living being, and of need, with regard to representation. 209
  • Grammar/ Natural History/Analysis of Wealth
  • the “Modern” period (the 19th century to about the 1950s), in which deep, dynamic historical explanations became important
  • Thus, Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist, in the space they left blank, in the deep gaps that separated their broad theoretical segments and that were filled with the murmur of the ontological continuum. The object of knowledge in the nineteenth century is formed in the very place where the Classical plenitude of being has fallen silent. 207
  • Sade’s characters correspond to him at the other end of the Classical age, at the moment of its decline. It is no longer the ironic triumph of representation over resemblance; it is the obscure and repeated violence of desire beating at the limits of representation (210)
  • to classify… will no longer mean to refer the visible back to itself, while allotting one of its elements the task of representing others; it will mean, in a movement that makes analysis pivot on its axis, to relate the visible to the invisible, to its deeper cause, as it were, then to rise upwards once more from that hidden architecture towards the more obvious signs displayed on the surface of bodies (Foucault, 229). In other words, “organic structure intervenes between the articulating structures and the designating characters – creating between them a profound, interior, and essential space (Foucault, 231)” and thus, “the very being of that which is represented is now going to fall outside representation itself (Foucault, 240).”
  • A rupture in language: “At the moment when language, as spoken an scattered words, becomes an object of knowledge, we see it reappearing in a strictly opposite modality: a silent, cautious deposition of the word upon the whiteness of a piece of paper, where it can possess neither sound nor interlocutor, where it has nothing to say but itself, nothing to do but shine in the brightness of its being.” (300)
  • No doubt, on the level of appearances, modernity begins when the human being begins to exist within his organism, inside the shell of his head, inside the armature of his limbs, and in the whole structure of his physiology; when he begins to exist at the centre of a labour by whose principles he is governed and whose product eludes him; when he lodges his thought in the folds of a language so much older than himself that he cannot master its significations, even though they have been called back to life by the insistence of his words. But more fundamentally, our culture crossed the threshold beyond which we recognize our modernity when finitude was conceived in an interminable cross-reference with itself. Though it is true, at the level of the various branches of knowledge, that finitude is always designated on the basis of man as concrete being and on the basis of the empirical forms that can be assigned to his existence, nevertheless, at the archaeological level, which reveals the general, historical a priori of each of those branches of knowledge, modern man – that man assignable to his corporeal, labouring, and speaking existence – is possible only as a figuration of finitude. Modern culture can conceive of man because it conceives of the finite on the basis of itself. Foucault, 318
  • The rupture in language that sundered apart the thing and the word, produced a gap between “man and himself,” as he is now occupied by trying to think that gap, to think the unthought, his own otherness to himself and the otherness of the Other. thus, “Modern thought has never, in fact, been able to propose a morality. But the reason for this is not because it is pure speculation; on the contrary, modern thought, from its inception and in its very density, is a certain mode of action (Foucault, 328).”


A. Order: historical organic structures related by analogy of function
B. Signs: failure of representation
C. Language: impure medium; literature as showing being of language
D. Knowledge: fragmentation into 3 realms: formal; empirical; philosophical

Finally in the final sections of part two, after introducing some thinkers and figures that aided the epitemological shift into the modern era, Foucault turns to the human sciences and discusses man biologically, ecoonomically and philosophically. Now, I had trouble with this section, so I will turn to a summary I found online, by John Protevi, that I think is particularly useful. 

“The key to the human sciences is their breaking the philosophical link of representation and consciousness (361). They do so, however, w/o escaping “the law of representation.” They bring unconscious structures to representation: they explain how life, labor, language are unconsciously represented by psychological, social, and cultural man. They explain how function, conflict and meaning are structured by norm, rule, and system so that man represents to himself the forces that determine him as object. The human sciences “treat as object what is in fact their condition of possibility” in a “quasi-transcendental unveiling” (364). But this success is that of knowledge, not that of science (366); they are in the vicinity of the sciences, borrowing their models from them, but their epistemic position forbids them that title. But this is not a negativity; the human sciences have their own positivity.

He closes Part two by discussing the counter-sciences: psychoanalysis, ethnology (social anthropology) and linguistics. 

Ultimately, Foucault’s goals seem to be in creating a Archeology of Knowledge (the title of his next book). He’s curious in how things evolve along a path of thinkers, and epistemes; nothing is for granted, nothing is given, and yet defining orginins is a stragely circular business. By this I mean, not only is there at times a chicken and egg aspect to some of Foucault’s analysis, but also that to explore the Modern Episteme, he must start with the Classical one. And to address the classical Episteme, he must look to pre-classical thought. History starts and stops where and when the researcher does, they say. Regradless, Foucault’s exploration brings some complex thoughts together with culture, to discuss origins and their difficulty to in down:

“Generally speaking, what does it mean, no longer being able to think a certain thought? or to introduce a new thought. Discontinuity – the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up till then and beings to think other things in a new way – probably begins with an erosion from outside, form that space which is, for thought, on the other side, but in which it has never ceased to think from the very beginning. Ultimately, the problem that presents itself is that of the relations between thought and culture; how is it that thought has a place in the space of the world, that it has its origin there, and that it never ceases, in this place or that, to being anew? (50)

Comps 11: The Obscene Body/Politic

Schneemann, Carolee. “The Obscene Body/Politic,” Art Journal 50.4 (1991) 28-35. Print. 

Schneemann’s essay was a wonderful test to read alongside Elinor Fuchs’ “Staging the Obscene Body”; it puts into question how the pair are differently defining obcenity in connection to the female body. This essay is a history of Scohneeman’s work, and the outrage, riots, attacks and closures that surround it. She points out the integral sexist contradiction implicit in the female body, and further, asks productive questions that help reimagine, rehistoricize her body, and feminist politics. 

Schneeman begins by discussing the resistance to her work early on, as well as basic contradictions in how she used the female body, as well as how she started using her own body as material. She is caught by the paradox of the female body: “My sexuality was idealized, fetishized, but the organic experience of my own body was referred to as defiling, stinky, contaminating” (28).  This essentializing contradiciton is what spurs her and others to make work: “Women artists explore erotic imagery because our bodies exemplify a historic battleground—we are dismantling conventional sexual ideology and its punishing suppressions—and because our experience of our bodies has not corresponded to cultural depiction” (28).  In Scohneeman’s words, the body becomes “visual territory” with “flesh as material” (28). 

She reflect that in this effort to use the body as art, she was either put in the role of the pornographer or the “emmisary of Aphrodite;” categories which strip her of all social or political power and agency (29). She laments the need to pull a scroll out of her vagina, but felt compelled by “the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress” (31). She points to the fact that her performances from the 60s continue to illicit emotions in viewers and theories suggests that there exists in them “latent content the culture is still eager to suppress” (31). In other words, she is active is exploring the ‘difficult’ terrain that patriarchal society has deemed inappropriate, and make visible the sexism at the heart of those value judgements. 

In closing, Schneeman reflects on why her works are deemed ‘obscene’ and whether that has to do with her body as material or with her as artist/agent: 

If my paintings, photo- graphs, film, and enacted works have been judged obscene, the question arises: is this because I use the body in its actuality-without contrivance, fetishization, displacement? Is this because my photographic works are usually self-shot, without an external, controlling eye? And are these works obscene because I posit my female body as a locus of autonomy, pleasure, desire; and insist that as an artist I can be both image and image maker, merging two aspects of a self deeply fractured in the contemporary imagination? (33)

Comps 10: Staging the Obscene Body

Fuchs, Elinor. “Staging the Obscene Body.” TDR 3.1 (1989): 33-58. Print.

In “Staging the Obscene Body,” Elinor Fuchs uses the sacred body of Carolee Schneemann as counterpoint to the ‘obscene’ performance art and theatre pieces of the 1980s. The “sacred body” is replaced by the obscene one: “aggressive, scatalogical, sometimes pornographic.” Confronting her own ambivalence towards the obscene body, Fuchs explores performances, art pieces, and bodies in order to map her own placement in the contemporary debate on obscenity. 

Fuchs begins by providing a brief summary of the pieces she is ‘ambivalent’ towards: Deadend Kids, Route 1 & 9, Deep Inside Porn Stars, The Birth of the Poet, Prometheus Project, and Karen Finely. In exploring these pieces/people she asks, “what ‘value’ (besides shock value) to place upon obscenity and pornography in these theatrical contexts” (50). Throughout these explorations, she provides concise histories, and contextualizes the nature of her ‘ambivalence’ towards the obscene body. “Whose pleasure is being staged?” she asks of Deadend Kids, while describing a blatantly sexist scene that ‘fails’ out of its theatrical and political context. “Who and what is being distanced?” she asks of Annie Sprinkle’s performance in Prometheus Project

Using Bataille’s “Crack in the system,” Fuchs unpacks her ambivalence and the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women/feminists on which it is based. “The ambivalence I experience within and about this work, my sense of danger as a ‘good’ female spectator, results from a crack in this system, the systemic division of women into opposed sexual pools, and the replication of that division in an elaborated system of values within each female consciousness (51). As such, Fuchs confronts her own assumption that feminists and women can only do work ‘one way’, and through an acceptance of sex-positivity and agency of these works, she further notes the patriarchal and classist nature of her worries. There is privilege in not being challenged in theatre. There is privilege in assuming a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing feminist or political work. “These performances exposed… the privileged and protected circumstances of most theatre… the disturbance, the risky melting into each other of the polar conventions of patriarchal female representations, was for me the greatest violation. I was forced to see the ‘crack’ in the patriarchal system of female socialization and in my own socially conditioned, deeply inscribed mental formations— literally confront this abyss in the cracks of the female body (54)” 

Doing my own naked solo show, I have been confronted with many women like Fuchs: women who sense danger in what I’m doing; women who sense I’m doing feminism ‘wrong’ or that I cannot see the larger patriarchal implications of my choices. This seems to me a deeply reductive approach to the political possibilities of ‘obscenity’. As Fuchs states, the assumption that a women who chooses to use the obscene body in her work has not thought through the politics of the gaze, or the gender implications, is incredibly insulting. I also find Fuchs’ use of the word ambivalent to be equally insulting and strange; she clearly expresses outrage in response to certain descriptions…. but only gives ‘ambivalence’ in her article. Continuing on this train, I’m confused by her exclusion of ‘shock value’ as a value worth looking at: why should ‘shock value’ not be valuable? What further assumptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminism does this project, and by extension, what assumptions of about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theatre lie beneath them? 

It is commendable that Fuchs is able to see the patriarchal and class-based foundations of her ‘ambivalence’. Her ability to look beyond her emotions (or lack thereof?) to see the sexist and classist assumptions she makes about value is unique. That said, I’m curious to dig even deeper; where do we begin to define something as obscene to begin with? How does she justify the separation between Schneemann and Finely? These are questions that remain important to me as I continue to unpack the assumptions that Fuchs makes, hoping to as she suggests,  “work at the edges of the sexual ‘space-off’,” to see “through contradictions to find the unrepresented but present terms of a new construction” (54).


Comps 9: Cyborg Manifesto

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Australian Feminist Studies 2.4 (1987): 1-42. Print. 

Donna Haraway introduces the cyborg as a new model for human experience and feminist politics. Speaking in the language of irony and blasphemy, the cyborg is “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature from fiction” (291). The brining together of a series binaries, dialectics, or assumed contractions is the major intervention of Haraway’s work; “ this chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries, and for the responsibility in their construction” (292). 

“We are cyborgs,” Haraway tells us. “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics” (292). The cyborg explores unlikely bedfellow and productive couplings that may happen in the breaking down of boundaries between fiction and material reality. She institutes 3 critical boundary breakdowns: (1) Animal and human: “the cyborg appears in the myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed” (293); organism and machine: in a world where our machines are increasingly live, and humans increasingly inert, what good are the distinctions between machine and organism;  and physical and non-physical: “the ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs is precisely why these sunshine-belt machines are so deadly. They are hard to see politically as materiality” (294). In transgressing these boundaries, and in “potent fusions” Haraway attempts to do progressive political work:

From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and body realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. … Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monitors and illegitimate; in our present political circumstance we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance an recoupling. 295

The crux of Haraways move away from binaries and boundaries is a move away from identification. She argues convincingly that categories of ‘feminist’ and ‘women’ have begun to be more exclusive than productive; that “taxonomies of feminism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s experience” (297). She suggests a move together affinity over identification. In this, she strives for a socialist feminist model that includes and understands domestic labour, and one that does not see sexual objectification as marxian labour. It is deeply essentialist to see women as simply alienated from her product through the processes of objectification, as opposed to someone who “does not exist as a subject, or even a potential subject, since she owes her existence as a women to sexual appropriation” (299). Further, “there is not room for race (or much else) in theory claiming to reveal the construction of the category of women and social group women as a unified or totalizable whole” (299). 

Haraway suggests the network as a solution to the problem of generalizing feminist taxonomies. Her goal is to learn how to read webs of power and social life, what she terms the informatics of domination. As such, the dream for a common language is thrown out, and the mission of the “struggle for language, and the struggle against perfect communication, against the ode that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallocentrism” (312). There is no goal to make a totalizing theory, but rather, an exploration of boundaries, and the building of a political language. 

In essence, cyborg politics/myths/imagery suggests two central arguement. First, that “the production of a universal, totalling theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality” (316). Second, that “taking responsibility for social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, ands means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of our daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all our parts” (316). 

This essay is a stark refusal of some of the feminist manifestos and politics of the 70s that sought to place women and female bodies in connection with the earth, nature and the goddess. These hugely essentializing, often white, feminist practices sought to demonize men, and make mythic the female body and its practices. Hearsay rejects this. She embraces difference. She asks for a politics that does not give answers, but rather dives into history of oppression to begin a new politics. A hybrid, cyborg politics. 

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualism in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. … an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of supersavers of the right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bounded in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.


Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin” (314). 

COMPS 8: Laura Muvley, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. 

(first published 1975)

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is a seminal piece in discussing the elements of voyeurism and fetishistic scopophila that make up the narcissistic male gaze. Mulveyusespsychoanalytic theory as a “political weapon, demonstrating the way th unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (833). Her ultimate goals are to deconstruct the pleasure of the gaze, and in doing so, “leav[e] the past behind without rejecting it” and in doing so, “conceive a new language of desire” (835). 

Mulvey begins by defining the pleasure in looking. First, there is scopophelia; associated with the filmic illusion of looking into a private world. This pleasure is derived on sexual instinct. Second, there is a narcissistic scopophelia; the pleasure of recognition, or identification with the image. This pleasure is about ego libido. Both these pleasures assume a male audience or gaze; they assume that the women acts as image and the man, the bearer of the look. “Woman stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of the woman still tied to her image of bearer of the meaning, not maker of the meaning” (834). 

Mulvey sets up a number of dichotomies to explore this concept of woman as looked-at, and man as bearer of the look. First, she suggests there’s a sexual imbalance— in the pleasure of looking men are active and women are passive. Here, we often see the image of the woman as fragmented, still or close up. This active/passive binary also affects the very narrative of the film. The arrival of the female slows down the narrator. Think of that first moment when we see Cameron Diaz in the Mask— through Jim Carrey’s eyes, the narrative slows to a screeching halt as we take the time to pan up Diaz’ body, never seeing her all at once, but rather as a set of body parts one after the other. We are starstruck, as is the narrative. 

Additionally, in keeping with psychoanalysis, this always has to do with the castration anxiety;  “the woman as representation signified castration, including voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanism to circumvent her threat” (843). “Thus women as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threaten to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (840). In other word, in an effort to protect the male from the threat of castration that the female represents (in representation), film employs two tactics: voyeurism (demystifying woman) and fetishistic scopophelia (objectifying woman). In doing so, the women is rendered passive, fragmented, objectified, and at the mercy of the male gaze and male ego. 

Mulvey closes this evocative essay by suggesting that there are three gazes in cinema: the gaze of the audience, the gaze of the camera, and the diegetic gaze of the character in the screen. She suggests that because of the castration threat that constantly threatens to break the diegesis of the film, the gaze of the camera and audience are “obsessively subordinate to the neurotic needs of the male ego” (843).

There are certainly problems with this essay. It establishes somewhat oppressive and reductive binaries for both men and women. It fails to see the possibility of power and agency despite fragmentation and passivity. It generalizes dangerously on the female experience of looked-at-ness. But it is also illuminating to see a reading of film that brings together both form (image) and content (narrative) and analyze them through a psychoanalytic lens. The objectification and demystification of women through film and other visual art works is certainly ever present in our world. It is depressing that this essay from 1975 still holds water today. 

COMPS 7: Heidegger's "The Thing"

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

“The thing” is Heidegger’s effort to explore what is lost in an age of increasing technology. He sets up a terrain he terms “distanceless”: a world where the television, film and planes have brought people together across space, but ironically, have not necessarily increased the feeling of being near. It is through nearness, and its relationship to a world were distance has no meaning (or is non-existent), that Heidegger begins his exploration of The Thing. Heidegger explores The Thing in order to ask/answer what nearness is: he turns to a jug that sit ‘near’ by. In his exploration of the jug he goes down many paths, to come to a few conclusions: First, that we live in a world were the thing does not exists as object, word, or scientific case study. Second, through the thing, we can access a larger concept of earth, sky, mortals and divinities; in other words, through the thing we can access human experience in the world. And finally it is only by attending to the thing non-intellectually, and rather through the presence and action of the thing (the thinging of the thing) that we as mortals may access larger ideas of the world, and related human experience.

Despite the benefits of Heidegger’s reading of material culture,—one that anticipates, perhaps, phenomenology and embodiment, and works toward a rejection of a representation as well as a cartesian mind/body divide (“The first step towards [mortals’] vigilance is to step back from the thinking that merely represents— that is, explains— to the thinking that responds and recalls” (181))— there are still limitations to Heidegger’s reading. Primarily, Heidegger still places things in a hierarchical relationship with humans, one where humans are, unsurprisingly, superior. “Men alone, as mortals, by dwelling attain to the world as world. Only what conjoins itself out of world becomes a thing” (182). However, his work is useful in understanding and unpacking what he terms as ‘presence’ or ‘action’ of things: 

The jug is a thing insofar as it things. The presence of something present such as a jug comes into its own, appropriately manifests and determines itself, only from the thinging of the thing… The thing things. In thinging, it stays earth, and sky, divinity and mortals. Staying, the thing brings the four, in their remoteness, near to one another.” (177)

In attending to the thing, and how it things, we also attend to assumed experiences of the world, that we may have taken for granted. The thing— in its presencing, in it’s thinging, in it’s unpretentious access to the world as thing, to the thing as thing, to the uncomplicated, yet dense presence of our material world—it has the capacity to speak to human experience in a way that intellectualism cannot. This focus on prescence, and dare I say, performance, is something that speaks to human experience, to the divinities, to the world in such a way that defies language, denies science, and buries itself instead in the world of lived experience. 

COMPS 6: New Material as New Media

Stroud, Marion Boulton. New Material as New Media. Ed. Kelly Mitchell. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003. Print. 

New Material As New Media is a fascinating annotated history of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. A selection of resident artists as well as an exploration in how the workshop and museum changed over the years is offered alongside beautiful images of the works created within the museums walls. While the first goals of the workshop was focused on textile and fabric, alongside a melding of the everyday object and the art object, this anthology of sorts explores what could be fabric, questioning the assumed distinction between art and everyday. Headed by Marion Boutlon Stroud, the workshop began as a way “to make things that a person could use” (15). As such, dismantling traditional binaries in art became one of the the question ofthe Fabric Workshop and Museum; “high vs. low and art vs. craft became irrelevant once we ban working with artists… since their work could be all of these at once” (15). As such, by “stretch[ing] the definition of fabric” the Fabric Workshop and Museum explored ‘new materials’— road, knots, police uniforms— as a fabric in themselves. “If Le Corbuseier wanted to create a “machine for the living,” the typical Workshop artist might be said to want to create an artwork for the living” (8). 

There are also a few essays in the catalogue that help contextualize some of the work. In “Reflections on Fabric and Meaning: the Tapestry and the Loincloth” explores the meaning that fabric carries in two seemingly divergent case studies. Here, the author explores mainly the divide between high art (tapestry) and everyday art object (loin cloth), and suggests a movement away from representation to realization by using rather than representing something. In other words, though the functional object. “The idea of the functional object cuts across the distinction between art and craft. The great first generation of soviet artists worked under the slogan “art into life.” They rejected art as emblematized by the easel painting, but because machinery was so central to the new socials society they envisioned, craft was not an appeal concept, though function was.” (89). Functional objects, such as the baclava, or Ghandi’s loin cloth— and performative image of protest— “refer to the human body and the human soul as embodied” (89). 

For the purposes of this blog post, I’ve collected a number of artists from this catalogue. I will here give brief summaries of their work, in the context of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, along with images, mirroring the style of New Material and New Media. 

Marina Ambromovic: Expiring Body (26)

Exceeding the limitations of the body. 

Mirosalw Balka 2 x 60 x 190; 250 x 190 x 67

Hog intestines as art material; using interior as exterior, but also exploring the thread of the body— intestines, in a new and interesting way. 

Louise Bourgeois; She Lost It  (52)

Combination of textiles, embroidery and performance. Bourgeois makes a scarf for the gallery, as well as other provocative costumes. 

Renée Green: Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (114)

Scenes from 17th C. France’s figural fabric mashed up withscenes from antebellum America and Colonial Europe as made into apolstry for furniture. As such, the domestic image becomes one carrying, not so buried, a colonial history. 

Ann Hamilton; Tropos  (122)

In this sensory experience, audience walk through the large warehouse space covered in horse hair. An aide burns words in book in the center of the room. Another piece which has the alphabet embroidery with horse hair brings the horse hair and embroidery come together to suggest a “growth of literacy and graduale devaluation of non-verbal language” (122)


Mona Hatoum

Pin Carpet: Functional Carpet, prayer rug, fakirs bed of nails

Entrails: human body, silicone rubber, intestine like coils


Jim Hodges: Every touch


Anish Kapoor: Body to Body (146)

Felted and women wool.

Mike Kelley: “Lumpenprole”; "Riddle of the Sphinx” 

Knitted afgans and objects. 

Glenn Ligon “Skin tight” 

Exploration of black masculinity through the punching bag. 


Robert Morris “Restless Sleepers/ Atomic Shroud” 

Faith Ringgold; Quilt— Echoes of Harlem. 

Nancy Rubins “Mattresses and Cakes” 

Comps Reading 5: Wild Things

Attfield, Judy. Wild Things: the Material Culture of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Print.

Attfield, Judy. Wild Things: the Material Culture of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Print.

“Once objects escape the boundaries of categorization they become wild, and like the wild cards in a pack of cards, can be used to take on different value according to the state of play of the game” (74)

So I’ve emailed with my supervisor— while I’m shockingly behind where I need to be, from now on I’ll be reading the books in chronological order. Which is exciting. Lots of Foucault and Heidegger coming your way. But first, you'll get a few more books out of order. 

A nice book to close my hodge-podge-esq style of approaching my comps is Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, by Judy Attfield. Writing from a design perspective, Attfield uses the material culture of everyday life to “suggest someways of theorizing design to include the less well-ordered things that inhabit the material world” (6). As such, she hopes to “locate design within a social context as a meaningful part of people’s lives [by] integrating objects and practices within a culture of everyday life, where things don’t always do as they’re told” (6).   As such, she aims, by bringing together material culture and design, Attfield aims to “make design a thing” (4).  What follows is a brief summary Attfield’s book, along with a summary of how her study speaks to my research on textiles and the body in performance. 

The first part of Wild Things concerns itself with definitions: of material culture, ‘things,’ everyday life, and design itself. While embracing, as if form mirrors content, the postmodern ethos of embracing difference rather than attempting to develop catch-all definitions, we still spend the majority of Part 1 delving into the history and knitty gritty of the words that make up the title of the book. She defines ‘things’ as the “basic unit that makes up the totality of the material world”  (9). Recognizing the trend in material culture around consumption, she attempts to reclaim the ‘thing’ not as something to be discarded, but rather made up of things with personal, social meaning (39-40). Her’s is a material culture that exceeds the semiotic, imagining the reality, ontological thing, and as such, one that lives outside the realm of ‘representation’. He dismisiveness of what she terms “representational theory” is curious to me; I’m not clear on how she imagines things to exist outside of ideological culture codes. That said, her focus on matter is unique, and in many ways what material culture is all about: 

    “A material culture perspective de-emphasizes the importance given b the theory of         representation that prioritizes meaning over matter through the interpretation and             exploration of ideological culture codes that are seen to reside behind the false front of         appearance conceived as a ‘system of signs’… Representation theory is concern primarily with deconstructinf images and does not account for visual encounters that take place outside the critical frame. In the context of the ‘everyday’  the casual visual encounter may very well evade or distort the intended sign-value in an insignificant and direct act of  consumption” (42). 

While Attfield seems to be operating on a few problematic value assumptions about appearance/reality, and takes no effort to define those ‘false front[s] of appearance’, nonetheless, her statement here strikes a chord: what are implications of mixing meaning and matter in a system which ideally confronts the hierarchy of human./non-human.

The meat of the book lies in the second section, where Attfield provides terminology and theory with which to arm the designer or anthropologist interested in the material mess of everyday life. Here, she puts forward 3 characteristics as “representative ideational features of modern and contemporary everyday life”: Authenticity, Ephemerality and Containment (order)” (76). Authenticity as the “materialization of memory” (76), becomes a way to theorize an objects relationship to the past; this is explored using antique furniture as a case study. Ephemerality acts as the antithesis to authenticity, being unstable and transitory, in all the same way that authenticity is lasting and concrete (77). Textiles and fashion as a case study offer interesting ways to explore the concept of ephemerality as objects of time, specifically in relation to ages and the stages of life (121). Winnicott’s transitional object acts as an exemplar here of how objects can represent a persons relationship to the external world, and their experience of time (121, 123). Finally, containment, as explored through the case study of house and home, exploxes the way objects are ordered or categorized. “Just as authenticity and ephemerality can be said to materialize the relation between thanks and change in ordinary things like houses and garments, so cantonment relates to soace both geographical and intellectual, that locates where such changes and continuities ‘take place’ “ (88). 

These three methods of characteristics of everyday objects give theoretical relevance to the objects we might otherwise ignore. In the final section of the book, Attfield uses these three case studies to ask lager questions on objects and their relation to space, time and the body. 



For my research, Attfeild is most applicable with her writing on ephemerality and textiles, as well as some of her conclusion on objects and the body and their work in identity formation. While she never uses the word performance— these theories are echoed in much of her talk on ephemerality and the body, despite her rejection of representational theories (semiotics for instance). I’m on a plane right now, and left my notes on the body at home accidentally; I’m trying to find a way to theorize this in some applicable way, so that I can look smart… but I’ve been up since 4am, and no one is going to read this anyways. So Thea from the future: sorry I don’t have the notes on the body. But check the first workbook, and you’ll find them at the end. 

However, I do have my notes on textiles and ephemerality however, and will summarize the main points now. Attfield suggest includes in her history of design, a good history of the arts and crafts movement. She concludes, however, that one of the most neglected areas of study— apart from a few feminist historians— is “craft production which takes place in the home” (72). She outlines this neglect through history suggesting that “just as Veblen observed that it was women of the middle-class house-hold whose duty it was to represent leisure, so craft has, for many, been feminized and tranformed for a working-class skilled occupation to a subsidized middle-class (leisure) activity” (69). Trying to differentiate design, craft and things, Attfield attempts to reclaim, somewhat, ‘banal’ textile products. Drawing on Winnicott’s transitional object, she reads cloths as primary in identity formation. “Cloth demonstrates the materialization and unfolding of different human life stages of identity formation within specific historical and cultural contexts. The social construction of subjectivity can be observed objectified via garments in relation to the body and via interior decor of the image intimate domestic environment” (124). The transitional object, she explains, is most often a blanket or tactile object that helps a baby transition away from their mother. The mother being the first ‘other’, or the ‘not-me’ object that acts as an object in identity formation, is replaced by the blanket or doll. “To this end, the Winnicott ‘not-me’ object is recruited to illustrate the specificity of textiles in negotiating social relations as one of the many different types of objects inhabiting the material culture of everyday life” (125). In other words, the way that an infant negotiates their body as “I”, as self in time and space is through their relationship to the transitional object. The transitional object is more often than not cloth-like due to its similarities with skin, and it’s tactile nature. 

Comps Reading 4: Latina Performance

Arrizon, Alicia. Latina Performance: Traversing the Stage. “Self-representation: Race, Ethinicity and Queer Identity.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Print. 132-164. 

In this final chapter of Alicia Arrizon’s Latina Performance, the author explores lesbian Latina performance, as it intersects with queerness and the performance of self. Here, she offers the case studies of performers Monica Palacio and Carmelita Tropicano. Her goal is not to compare and/or contrast, or even to put lesbianism up against queerness. Rather, “[she] use[s] the notion of queer identity, i.e. the conscious recognition of oneself as “different” and the deliberate rejection of a heterosexist world view, to refer specifically to lesbian sexuality” (133). Continuing, she is interested in how queerness and lesbianism might come together as categories or theories, rather than entities that cannot coexist; “I want to emphasize the way lesbian identity is infused with the sense of queerness, rather than constructing queer as a category that replaces lesbian identity” (133).  As such, Arrizon’s is a unique argument, one that seeks inclusivity and harmony in queer and lesbian politics, while still maintaining a focused argument and object of study: lesbian latina performers. “By claiming the integrity of the lesbian body, I am not necessarily supporting essentialist definitions; instead I want to distinguish one of the “bodies” implicit in queer politics” (133). 

Arrizon first discusses the work of Latina 'Lezbo' Comic Monica Palacio. Here, she brings concepts on the coming-out narrative in concert with queer ‘performativity.” Coming-out narratives have a particular power for the Latina performer: “For Latin lesbians the performing (or narrative) aspects of coming-out acts balance their sexualized bodies with other important categories, such as race and ethnicity, providing the opportunity to democratically mark the evolution of the gendered subject” (139). As such, with Palacio, in her “coming out” as a “latina lezbo comic” performs lesbian in a way that demystifies it. Through it's geneology, or "the evolution of the gendered subject;" the coming-out narrative allows an honest performance of the lesbian self. In performing lesbian, Palacio provides “a body that produces an uncanny effect while inspiring it as performance” (146). Herein lies power; in social commentary, in satire, in general patriarchy smashing.

Carmelita Tropicano

Carmelita Tropicano

Arrizon then discusses Carmelita Tropicano, delving into her camp aesthetic, her multiple identities as well as her performance of stereotypes. “Her extravagant massacred and its many transformations contract and deconstruct both Anglo and Lantino stereotypes of femininity and masculinity” (158). As such, in performing stereotype as campy identities, Tropicana performs the very thing she deconstructs, offering “critiques of homogenity” (158). As such, she highlights the “sardonic powers of transgressive imagination” (163). 

Ultimately, Arrizon looks at these two performers as exemplar in performing self-representation as lesbian Latinas. “Queerness,” she reminds us, is “an attitude, a way of reading against homogeneity and dominant discourses” (163). In looking at the different way these artists use queerness, Arizona highlights the importance of “laying claim to an identity that is simultaneously ethnic, and sexual subversive and strong’ (164). It is the lived experience as queer women of colour— their self-representation— that is the most applicable to queer theory. “Their work demonstrates, as [Sue-Ellen] Case reminds us, is how significantly the development of a theoretical notion of queer has been shaped by a process of self-representation” (163). In this “commitment to perform our lived experience as Latina lesbians,” there is a commitment to queer identity politics and performativity within the politics of visibility. The personal is political. 

Comps Reading 3: Volatile Bodies

In Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Elizabeth Grosz reexamines canonical philosophers and theorists and their thoughts on the body. She unpacks how they theorize the body, contextualizing it among other thinkers and placing the body at centre stage. In doing so, she examines the epistemological and theoretical gaps and inconsistencies that surround it. Ultimately she seeks an understanding of subjectivity and the body that exceeded dualism. In imagining the body as subjectivity, and subjectivity as nondualitist, Grosz intends to historicize the body, to see the body as sexed, as lived, as social. In refiguring the body to the centre of analysis, “so that it can be understood as the very ‘stuff’ of subjectivity,” Grosz explores “phallocentric presumptions which have hidden the culture and intellectual effacement of women” (ix). As such, “this project hovers close to many patriarchal conceptions of the body that have served to establish an identity for women in essentialist, a historical, or universal terms. But [Grosz] believe[s] it does so in order to contest these terms, to wrest a concept of the body away from these perils” (xiv). Grosz dives into a patriarchal understanding of the body in order to deconstruct it, and asks what terms, theories and thoughts might be of use to feminists, and a ontological understanding of the female, sexed, body. 


In this first chapter, Grosz suggests a move away from “dichotomour thinking” which “necessarily hierarchizes and ranks the two polarized terms” (3). As such, “body is thus what is not the mind;” the body takes on all the negative associations of the nonintellectual, passive, organic, etc (3). Here, Grosz gives a brief overview of how philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Christ and Descartes) have described the mind/body relationship. She further provides the 3 main lines of investigation of the body inspired by cartesian thought. 

  1. Body as object for natural sciences (8)
  2. Body as tool or instrument occupied by a willful subjectivity (8)
  3. Body as signifying medium— a vehicle of expression (9) 

Grosz suggests that Spinoza’s monistic from, which sees the body as a “series of processes of becoming,” is a good alternative to Cartesean dualism. She closes the chapter suggesting some ways feminists have approached the body in the past. 

  1. Suspicion towards body-based feminism= a belief to seek equality on conceptual terms (14)
  2. Egalitarian feminism: body as a unique means to access knowledge; biologically determined (15)
  3. Social Constructionism: “the body itself, in the strongest version of this position, is irrelevant to political transformation, and in the weakest version is merely a vehicle for psychological change, and instrument for a “deeper” effect” (17). 
  4. Sexual Difference (Grosz’s idea): power of the lived, social body. “On the one hand it is a signifying and signified body one the other it is an object of systems of social coercion, legal inscription, and sexual and economic exchange… less interested in the cultural construction of subjectivity than the materials out of which such a construct is forged” (18). 


This next section outlines what criteria/goals should govern feminist theoretical approach to the body. 

  1. avoid the impasse posed by dichotomous accounts (ie mind/body) (21)
  2. corporeality is not associated to one sex (or race) which then takes on the burden of the other’s corporeality for it (22)
  3. refuse singular models
  4. essentialism should be avoided (23)
  5. employ models that constitute the articulation (or disarticulation) between the biological and the psychological, while avoiding reduction to mind/brain
  6. body as a threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidedably at the pivotal point of binary pairs. “In dissolving oppositional categories we cannot simply ignore them” (24) 


In chapters 2 and 3, Grosz “explore[s] the way in which the body’s psychic interior is established through the social inscription of bodily processes, that is the ways in which the “mind” or the psyche is constituted so that it accords with the social meanings attributed to the body in its concrete historical , social, cultural, patriarchy” (27). She looks as Freud, Lacan and Schilder, and their main thoughts on the body in their work. 

Main points: ego, sexual drives, psychical topographies, Lacan, Perception, skin ego (34), Phantom Limb (41,70), mirror stage & childs idea of space (42), Oedipal complex (57), body image (67, 79-85), phantom phallus (73)

Concerns: reorganizing and reframing the (negative) terms by which the body has been socially represented (61); do not represent women’s interests; absence of female body in neurology (71), ignoring sexual difference in neurology (Schilder)


Again, Grosz looks at how Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Luce Irigaray address the body through Phenomenology, developing a corporeal phenomenology. Phenomenology views the body as not an object, but as a lived body: “Insofar as I live the body, it is a phenomenon experience by me in the world and make relations between me, other objects, and other subjects possible” (M-P 86). More than this, it is through the body that we access knowledge of the world. Through living the body. 

Main points:  visible/invisible (93); lived experience (94); the flesh (95); touch (98); the reversibility of the flesh— “the seer seen or the toucher touched” (101); Perception (flesh’s reversibility) (103); Irigaray: double touching; maternal body

Concerns: Merleau-Ponty ignores female sexuality (108); privileges vision (103) 


These next sections look at the outside-in of the body, as opposed to the inside-out of the previous chapters. In this chapter, Grosz explains Nietzsche’s thoughts on the body: “body as sociocultural artifact rather than manifestation or externalization of what is private, psychological, and “deep” in the individual” (115). In other words, the body is a social object, or “surface phenomenon” (116). 

Main points: textualized body: body as surface to receive meaning (117); the will to power; body as political/social organization; body writing: body as always etched, inscripted; inscription not simply metaphorical but literal and constitutive (137). 

Concerns: presumption of body as blank page “cannot explain how incision and inscription actively produces body as such” (119). 


This chapter looks specifically at the body as inscriptive surface. While many theorists are addressed, it focuses on Foucault and his concepts of power and knowledge as they refer to the body. As opposed to Nietzche, who sees formation of knowledge as an unrecognized product of bodies, Foucault argued that the “body is that materiality, almost a medium, on which power operates and through which is functions” (146). While Neitzche sees bodies a the cause of power, Foucault sees them as the field on which power operates. Foucault says the body is produced through history, and power produces specific body qualifiers or types. “The genealogy as an analysis of decent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to explore a body totally impaired by history and the broussel of history’s destruction of the body” (Foucault 146). 

Main points: corporeal inscription through clothes, hair, makeup (142); interface between bodies and knowledge (146); body imprinted by history (146); power (148); punishment (151); sex& sexuality: social constructs and chains that tie groups to the “biopolitical control of bodies” (155). 

Concerns: body as blank/passive page; ignores possibility of strategic occupation of hysteria as form of resistance; no space in Foucault for women’s accounts, and histories of their bodies, and histories that could be. 


In this final chapter of the section, titled “Intensities and flows,” Grosz asks: “Can accounts of subjectivity and physical interiority be adequately explained in terms of the body?” This chapter begins with some feminist concerns around Deleuze and Guattari, and their theories, but ultimately embraces them for their concept of the body as process and performance, “not lack, absence, rupture but rather becoming” (165). In this, if naive, narrative, Grosz embraces their 'both-and' ethos, and dreams of a deluzian feminism where “things and relations are not read in terms of something else or in terms of where they originate or their history but rather, pragmatically, what they do, what they make” (181). 

Main Points: Becoming women; rhizomes; body as discontinuous;  body as action/performance (165); body as becoming; assemblage (167); body without organs (169); both-and (181); radial anti-humanism (179)

Concerns: metaphor of becoming women is male appropriation, romanticizes, depoliticizes and rephallicizes (163); ‘becoming’ becomes broadly human; romanticizes psychoses; technocracies historically exclude women


The final chapter acts slightly as a summary of some important point for Grosz (Möbuis Strip as metaphor being one), but ultimately seeks to “question the ontological status of the sexed body” (189). As if her previous chapters have all been leading up to this final one, she concludes with another dense chapter on the sexed body, asking specifically about the abject. “Abjection” she tells us, “links the lived experience of the body with the social, culturally specific meaning of the body, the cultural investment in selectively marking the body, the privileged of some parts and functions while resolutely minimizing of leaving un or under represented other parts and functions” (192). Here she sees sexual difference as a form of abjection itself. In focused on body fluids, and our different reactions to, say, period blood versus sperm, she puts tentatively her hypothesis: “women not as lack, but as leaking;” “women’s corporeality is inscribed as a mode of seepage” (203). 

In conclusion, while this book was incredibly dense, it is a useful source for anyone looking to do a feminist reading of the body through contemporary theory or history. Grosz takes on quite the task in unpacking, comparing, contrasting and contextualizing these theorists for the feminist reader. Ultimately, I believe the most interest addition Grosz make is in the final chapter, where she attempts to fill some of the gaps left by theory and history. I am also incredibly moved by her positivistic approach, and her aim to explore the female body, not just in complex terms, but positive ones. Final, her goals of surmounting (without ignoring) binarization, as well as her möbius stripe that goes outside-in in the same breath that it goes inside-out, helped me contextualized the theorists I was familiar within the larger field of thought. Overall, this dense and insightful book has well worth the inclusion on my list. 


“Being a Body is something that we must live”  (xiii)
“The body is the most peculiar “thing,” for it is never quite reducible to being merely a thing; nor does it ever quite manage to rise above the status of thing. Thus it is both a thing and an nothing, and object, but an object which somehow contains or coexists with an interiority, an object able to take itself and others as subjects, a unique kind of object not reducible to other objects” (xi)
“the body is the ally of sexual difference, a key term in questioning the centrality of a number of apparently benign but none the less phallocentric presumptions which have hidden the cultural and intellectual effacement of women.  
“The body is literally written on, inscribed by desire and signification at the anatomical, physiological and neurological level” (60)
“Until female genital and women’s bodies are inspired and lived (by the subject and by others) as a positivity, there will always remains paradoxes and upsetting implications from any notion of femininity” (73). 
“Notion of body as discontinuous, nontotalizing series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances, and incorporeal events…. might be useful for feminists looking to reconceive bodies outside the binary oppositions imposed on the body by the mind/body, nature/culture, subject/object, interior/exterior oppositions” (164). 

Comps Reading 2: Power of Feminist Art

Withers, Josephine. "Feminist performance art: Performing, discovering, transforming ourselves." The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (1994): 158-173.

“Feminist Art is neither a style nor a movement but a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life”   -Lucy Lippard, 1980

My second comps reading book was a chapter from The Power of Feminist Art, the impressive art/text book, with a beautiful Frida Kahlo painting on its cover. While I was only assigned the chapter on performance art, I also read the introduction. What follows is a brief overview of this vast historical text book, along with a list of artists mentioned within its pages, as they apply to my overall research on the female body in 20th theatre and performance art. 


“Through feminism, women were among the first to arrive at the realization that the self may only exist in the social framing, and so the cliché of the individual vs. the society, which has been a malemyth all along, was brought into question by feminist women , who now saw the categories as not only interdependent but also problematic” (22).

Without introducing its readers to a problematic ‘origin’ story, the introduction to The Power of Feminist Art provides a few unique starting point to consider feminism in art throughout history. A history of feminist art mirrors a history of feminism itself. As such, the editors begin by locating the emergence of the personal as political in feminist politics. The introduction also points toward the Arts and Crafts movement in England, as well artwork done during the suffragette movement as possible sites of emergence. And while there are many female artist doing work unconnected with the feminist movement (Lee Bontecou, to name one), they suggest it is in the 1970s that women’s art is connected, for the first time, to the agendas of social politics and art. In other words, it is then we begin to see the ‘feminist’ in feminist art emerge in a conscious and explicit way. The introduction provides a survey of different female artist working from the 1970s to approximately the 1990s, locating a certain trends in their work, as well as addressing ongoing concerns. Trends include: 

  • use of alter egos (22)
  • a focus on the body through dieting and fasting (Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper and Eleanor Antin). This analyzes the societal expectations that literally shape the body and exploring interesting themes of body as sculpture, and female control of the body
  • inversion of gender roles
  • goddess images and rituals
  • public art— blending the personal with the public/political. 
  • sensory/tactile/pink artwork (24)
  • vagina imagery (24)

A common concern addressed in the intro, and one that continues today, is that of essentialism in feminist art. This is especially a concern when analyzing artist who focus on the female body. ‘Essentialist art’ arose in the 1980s, and was foregrounded by artist such as Judy Chicago (Cunt Art) and Miriam Schapiro. The fear (as expressed by Patricia Mainardi) is that this approach restricts (or reduces) women to their female anatomy. The authors attempt to reclaim this reading of essentialist art, contextualizing it within the repression of female sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. They quote Adrienne Rich, who eloquently argues: “[p]atriarchial thought has limited female body to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from the female biology for these reasons: it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny” (24). While Chicago’s work certainly responds (for better or worse) to the freudian line that biology is destiny, the authors seems more inclined to read redemptively these presumed essentialist works. They see the body as a tool that can be used by artists, in the endlessly complex toolbox that is the social world. Indeed, they go even further: “the 1970s feminist articulation of a body-based female aesthetic gained political credibility and power when coupled with a self conscious definition and revival of a female tradition in art” (28). As such, through a historicization of identity within a female art tradition, essentialism can be political. 

FEMINSIT PERFORMANCE ART: Performing, Discovering, Transforming Ourselves

“Perfromance is a paradigm of feminism itself,” Josephine Withers explains at the beginning of this chapter. “[D]espite the claims of it’s detractors [it] has never been a monolithic movement nor a single philosophical system” (158). What Withers intends to foreground here is the multiplicity, varieability, and indeed the interdisciplinary with which feminist performance artists approach their craft. There is no ‘one’ reason feminist performance arts come to be. And while there are many themes which link their work, what truly distinguished feminist performance artist, according to Withers, is a “desire to communicate an alternative vision of themselves, and the world they live in” (160). What follows in this chapter is a survey of feminist performance artist, and their major works. For the sake of the limited space in this post, (a mere surey in itself), I will list them below. 

Some key questions that speak across some of these works: What is the difference between ritual and performance? What is the boundary between life and art? Personal and political?

  • Carollee Schneeman, Interior Scroll (161, 163)
  • Yvonne Rainer (160, 161)
  • Pauline Oliveros, sound experiments (160)
  • Adrian Piper, Catalyst (turning body into an art object) (161)
  • Laurie Anderson, Duets on Ice (161)
  • Donna Hesse, Spider Woman (163)
    • “knots and webs a mediations and energy connection 
    • “Revenge Taker”
    • The coming out of Spider Women
  • Betsy Damon, 7,000 year old woman (164)
  • Linda Montano, Art in Everyday Life (164)
    • Chicken Women 
    • Mitchell’s Death
  • Faith Ringgold (164)
    • White Face
    • “The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro” 
  • Martha Rosler,  Vital Statistics (165)
  • Elanor Antin,  Invented Biographies (167)
  • Martha Wilson & Jackie Apple, Claudia (167)
  • Faith WIlding, Waiting (188)
  • Ablutions

Comps Reading 1: Second Skin

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s Second Skin is an innovative exploration of the racialized and sexualized body in performance. Through the intricate case study of Josephine Baker, Cheng uses Modernist philosophy, art history, and architecture to offer new reading on how we see Baker’s body. More than merely a redemptive reading of Baker— one that seeks to read agency in her life and carrer— Second Skin seeks to uncover the very conditions and politics of visibility. “Although the history of radicalized femininity would seem to insist on a relentless story about the coersion of the visible, we might want to ask: how is it we know we are seeing what we are seeing? What are the conditions under which we see?” (3) As such, her highly interdisciplinary study contextualizes Baker within her time. “By situating [Josephine] Baker in relation to various modes of Modernist display— the stage, photography, film and architecture— we will trace alternative stories about racialized skin, narratives that compel a reconceptualization of the notions of racialized coporeality, as well as idealized, modernist facades” (7). These “alternative stories” provide a more complex reading of race and sex in history and performance. Through her development of a “second skin,” Cheng’s is a complex weaving of agency, objectification and surface, begging us to reimagine the way we have traditionally read Bakers black feminized body, and instead attend to the politic implicit in this historicized gaze. 


What is perhaps most interesting about Cheng’s study, and the most applicable to my own work in material culture in/and performance, is her complication of the traditional binary of objecthood/subjecthood. Drawing on material culture studies that seeks to upset traditional hierarchizing of objects and humans, Cheng asks provocatively: what agency might be found in objectification?  Through a decoupling of skin and flesh, by “attend[ing] to the curious interface between skin and organics surfaces emerging out of the first quarter of the twentieth century,” Cheng sees “raced skin as itself a modern material fascination” (14, italics in original). The second skin becomes a material object all its own. As such, “The very process of objectification— even as it takes subjectivity from her — also invested the object around her with subjectivity, which in turn provides a kind of cloak for her nakedness…. objectification can be a kind of covering too” (116).  So, Cheng proposes Baker’s nakedness as a costume in itself (111), an object with agency. By contextualizing this materialist argument within a modernist history of surfaces— both in photography and in architecture— helps historicize Cheng’s reading of Baker. We cannot simply read Baker as an object to the white male gaze, rather, she occupies a grey, uncomfortable zone of competing objectivities/subjectivities. In other words: “Desire to have/desire to be become conflated in a complex negotiation of desire, embodiment, subjecthood, objecthood”  (57). 

In conclusion, Second Skin offers an exciting new reading of at the raced and sexualized body in performance. More than simply reading agency in Baker, Cheng explores the potential reductivenes in a object/subject binary, exploring instead what agency might be found in the skin-as-object; what objectness might allow. “From skin to surface to dynamic superficiality, reading Baker has required that we go beyond the established terms of racial visibility underscoring how the rhetoric of becoming visible that has energized so much of progressive racial politics often elides the contradictions underpinning social visibility and remains inadequate to address the phenomenological, social, and psychical implications inherent in what it means to be visible.” (167).