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).