CLAUDE CAHUN AND DORA MAAR: BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
I will open with an intellectual itinerary: the story of my own relation to surrealism which began as I, a young art historian and critic, was wrestling with the problem of the development of modern sculpture. This was in the 1960s and so the "problem" as I had inherited it in those years was mainly posed in terms of questions of style. Given what I saw, however, as the consistent choice of surrealist sculptors to appropriate the dominant stylistic option of closed, monolithic form and to transform Brancusi's ovoids or Maillol's archaic fragments or Moore's impassive boulders into a collection of cages and bottles and pieces of furniture, I found myself converting these stylistic adaptations into vehicles of expression. For with these elements surrealist sculpture seemed to have devised an insistent vocabulary that turned on the thematic of the incarceration of the female body and the imaginative projection of violence against it.
In making this analysis I was, of course, moving within the tide of what was developing at the end of the sixties in the work of a feminist critic like Xavière Gauthier and would swell by the middle of the eighties into the flood of a generally held feminist consensus that surrealism, as a movement organized and dominated by men, was deeply misogynist. If Gauthier had begun by tracing sadism toward women as the persistent thematic of surrealist imagery, analyzing it as a defense against male castration anxiety, the blanket notion of surrealist exploitation of womenwhether actual, as in the case of the real-life Nadja recorded by André Breton in his book that bears her name, or phantasmatic, as in the dismembered dolls of Hans Bellmer or the pornographic rendering of violation in a work like Bataille's Story of the Eyequickly became a fixed characterization of the movement by younger scholars, both male and female. Celebrated in collections such as the 1990 Surrealism and Women, this now operates as what Jane Austen (with a deliberate wink at her readers) might have called "a truth universally acknowledged."
By the mid-1970s, my own experience of surrealist sculpture had undergone a change, however, as I began to realize the importance of the paradigm put in place by Giacometti's surrealist work of the early 1930s. Conceiving of the sculptural object on the model of the horizontal game boardChinese checkers, pinballs, chessGiacometti had profoundly altered the parameters of sculpture by folding the work into what had previously been seen as "merely" its pedestal. The twofold result of this move was, first, to make the representational field of the sculpture continuous with the real worldrather than lifted "above" or "beyond" itand, second, to stress the transactional nature of this lowered, horizontalized object, which, like the pieces in a game of checkers, not only elicits an interaction on the part of the player(s) but locates the state of play within the temporal unfolding of the game itself.
That this paradigm, invented within the field of surrealism, would have a crucial afterlife in postminimalist sculpture, whether that be earthworks, process art, or institution-critical interventions, made it all the more imperative in my eyes to move beyond received notions about surrealism itself. At the level of style there was, as I said, the unshakable "truth" that surrealism had contributed nothing to the twentieth century's history of form; while at the level of content its contribution was seen as limited to a thematics of misogyny. Since both these positions now seemed wholly inaccurate, I was glad to accept the Museum of Modern Art's invitation to contribute an essay on Giacometti for the catalogue of its "`Primitivism' and 20th Century Art" exhibition. For I had a hunch that the relation Giacometti's work forged between the board-game paradigm and tribal art might prove illuminating for analyzing the larger stakes in the shift I saw surrealist sculpture announcing.
The breakthrough to my problem came in the form of Giacometti's precise point of entry into the avant-garde, which marked the fact that before he was taken up by André Breton in 1930, he had been integrated by Michel Leiris into the circle connected to the magazine Documents led by Georges Bataille, a circle composed of renegade surrealists. Thoroughly ignored by the Giacometti literature as a factor of any real importance, this connection seemed, on the contrary, to yield an extraordinary harvest of conceptual issues that not only went far to account for Giacometti's choices in constructing an art that mainline surrealism would soon enthusiastically claim as its own but also generated analytic categories for understanding other parts of surrealist production that had hitherto been recalcitrant to explanation.
The most general of these categoriesor terms of analysiscomes from Bataille's lapidary "Dictionary" entry devoted to the word formless that he published in 1929 in Documents. There, announcing that words should have jobs rather than definitions, he says that the job of formless is to "declasser," an action that simultaneously (1) lowers or debases objects by stripping them of their pretensionsin the case of words, their pretensions to meaningand (2) declassifies, or attacks the very condition on which meaning depends, namely, the structural opposition between definite terms.
With this idea of "declassing," it seemed to me that various strategies in Giacometti's work had found their explanatory model in one gostrategies that ranged from the "lowering" of the normatively vertical axis of free-standing sculpture onto the debased condition of an identity as "mere" sculptural basethe board-game operation, in shortto the "declassifying" or destabilization at large in works like Suspended Ball, where formlessness is to be found in a kind of categorical blurring. For in that object, the sexually suggestive sliding of a cloven ball over a recumbent wedge sets up the activity of a caress between organs whose gender identity is wholly unstable, seeming with each swing of the pendulum to change associations: the wedge altering its "state" from a female-labial to a male-phallic condition; the ball transmogrifying to play heterosexual partner to either of those identifications orbuttocks-likeallowing for homoerotic possibilities or, againsuggestive of the eye in either Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou or Bataille's own Story of the Eyesetting up the conditions of an ungendered sadism.
The categorical blurring initiated by the continual alteration of identity within this work is precisely what Bataille means by formless. It is not just some kind of haze or vagueness in the field of definition, but the impossibility of definition itself due to a strategy of slippage within the very logic of categories, a logic that works according to self-identitymale, say, or femalestabilized by the opposition between self and other: male versus female, hard versus soft, inside versus outside, life versus death, vertical versus horizontal. Nothing indeed could be crisper than the material forms in Giacometti's surrealist sculpture, fashioned first in plaster and then executed by a cabinetmaker in polished wood. The blurring in question, however, is not material but categorical, the work of declassing.
That it can also be called "alteration" is the point of convergence between the general issues of formlessness and the specific analysis of primitivism mounted by Bataille, to which Giacometti seems to have responded. For Bataille was not interested in the formalist appreciation of primitivism so widely celebrated in the 1920s, in which the "primitive" was taken to be synonymous with the creative impulse itself and was consequently seen as giving one access, as it were, to the very birth of form. This birth was pictured as taking place, for example, in the child's first discrimination of closed, repeatable shapes from within the chaos of his or her own scribblings or in the paleolithic painter's similar act of distinction on the walls of the caves or, again, in the genius of the tribal sculptor for finding the primal gestalts through which to figure forth the human body as though in its own process of parturition. Against this connection of the primitive with the creative and the constructive, however, Bataille opposed a primitivism that was violent and destructive, the product of the caves not as the birth of form but as a labyrinthine loss of distinction that is the death of form: art as a function not of Narcissus but of the Minotaur.
Bataille's word for this logic of primitivism was alteration, by which he meant both decomposition (as in corpses) and the total otherness of the sacred (as in ghosts). That the word alteration could thus, like the Latin altus, have the internally contradictory double meaning of both "high" or sacred and "low" or rotten is evidence once more of formlessness doing its job. And the alteration Bataille saw at work in the caves, even while the painters promoted the detailed depiction of animal life, was a lowering or debasing of the representation of the specifically human form. But striking at the human body in an act of self-mutilation was what Bataille considered the primal fact of markingnot the creation of form but the defacement of it in a gesture that was simultaneously sacred and scatological.
These conceptsformlessness, alteration, and declassing as both lowering and decategorizingwere now available to the project to which I was immediately to turn, namely the analysis of surrealist photography, a phenomenon of surrealist production that was doubly disprivileged within the modernist canon. For if surrealism had been stuck with the accusation that it had added nothing to the repertory of formal innovation in painting and sculpture, photographymarginalized as minor relative to the major art practiceswas, in its surrealist guise, derided even within the parameters of its own medium, since photographic values had been declared, from Watkins to Weston, from Atget to Arbus, to be documentary: the previsualization on the camera's ground glass or through its viewfinder of a resulting picture and the brilliant realization of that picture through the vehicle of the print. With this almost hallucinatory transparency by means of which realityunmanipulated and unretouchedwould transport itself into the image, the aesthetics of so-called straight photography were promulgated, an aesthetic based on what Edward Weston termed that "quality of authenticity in the photograph" from which it derives its unimpeachable authority.
The result of this was that all those trick effects with which surrealist practice was identified in the popular imaginationdouble exposure, sandwich printing, montage, brûlage, solarizationwere seen by straight photography as an act of impurity with regard to the medium. As a blurring of the distinction between photograph and painting, or photograph and film, they constituted a perverse feminization if you will of the masculinist values of "straightness" itself: clarity, decisiveness, and visual masteryall of them the source for the photograph's "authority."
Now if blur was something my experience with Giacometti had perfectly primed me to find in surrealist photography, it was not the relatively superficial type of blurring that results from the kinds of techniques to which many such practitioners had recourse but just as many did not. Rather it was the deep, categorical blurring involving a transgression of boundaries that I was prepared for and that I found in stunning abundance.
First there was the fall from vertical to horizontal in a cancellation of the distinction between high and low, or between human and animal; then there was the opening of the physical envelope of bodies and objects to a fusion between the inside and the outside of form; or again, there was the enactment of a kind of fetishized vision in which the gender identities of bodies began to slip and the female form (or its proxy) was, for example, reinvested as "phallic." The fact that much of this was performed without darkroom tricks or scissors and paste but rather with a directness that qualified itself as technically "straight" did nothing to remove the categorical blur that had been defiantly branded into the surrealist image and, from the perspective of masculinist photographic values, had "feminized" it.
But then much of what was truly original and far-reaching in surrealist production-across-the-boards was also feminized. The famous passivity with which the surrealists practicedfrom Eluard writing mediumistic, or automatic, poetry to Ernst waiting to be struck by the automatist image emerging from the frottage bedis a kind of feminization of art making, one against which Dali railed as he sought "virility" in the more decisive action available to his paranoid-critical method.
That the passivity to which Dali objected moved from a strategic attitude on the part of the surrealists to a wholly innovative formal principle is the argument Denis Hollier makes with regard to the genre Breton initiated in the autobiographical novels he wrote before the war, beginning with Nadja, moving through Communicating Vessels and ending in Mad Love. Such novels, Hollier says, follow the principle of the diary or for that matter the journalist's report, in which a story is launched without the narrator having the slightest idea of its outcome. Thus if Nadja was begun as the account of an episode that had run its course and whose finish Breton knew, the book ends with the unexpected entrance into its pages of a stranger whose arrival could in no way be anticipated at its outset. "The specific feature of Surrealist writing," Hollier urges, "whether it be autobiographical or automatic, is, in fact, less the lack of knowledge of its final destination as such than the identical position into which this lack places both the reader and the author in the face of a text whose unfolding neither the one nor the other controls, and about which both of them know neither the future nor the ending."
The structural passivity that is so important to this conception of writing participates in the conceptual blurring common to the rest of surrealist practice in that it breaks down the difference between those formerly positioned oppositesauthor and readerand thus between the inside and the outside of the text. Thus Hollier concludes: "They are, both author and reader, on the same side of the events, on the same side of the page. The one who writes has no privilege, no advance over the one who reads. He doesn't know any more about it than the other."
There are ways in which Hollier's characterization of Nadja and Susan Suleiman's presentation of the strategies Marguerite Duras would later employ in her novel The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein suggest a strange parallel in this matter of the feminization of the narrator. For in projecting her story of Lol Stein through the halting, hallucinatingly repetitive voice of Jacques Hold, both a participant in the erotic triangle in which he and Lol are caught and the point of view from which that triangulation is seen, Duras has decided to construct a male narrator who is "feminized" and who declares his feminization in terms of his never being able to "know" the object of his gaze: "To have no knowledge at all about Lol," he says, "was to know her already. One could, I realized, know even less, ever less and less, about Lol V. Stein." And this lack of knowledge, which is to say this lack of authority about the giving of both the story's details and its meaning, is intended to function, Suleiman goes on to say, as the thematic mirror for what Duras wants at the level of formspecifically, a type of writing she will also characterize as feminine, a writing that is hesitant, uncertain, full of silences.
It is thus with Duras, a woman writer, that the convergence between two types of marginalization willin Suleiman's accountbe most fully achieved, as the feminine and the avant-garde will each be seen to function as a trope for the other, each a picture of the other's deconstructive strength, won precisely by the position of each outside the self-deceptive and self-blinding occupation of the cultural center with its categorical unities and its assumed truths. In this sense Duras is allowed to epitomize what another feminist critic has seen as being the case for every avant-garde position throughout the twentieth centurynamely, "the putting into discourse of `woman'" or what could be called the avant-garde's "historically unprecedented exploration of the female, differently maternal body."
And yet within Suleiman's own feminist account Duras functions as a double-edged sword. On the one hand in her decision to let her character Jacques Hold tell Lol's story, Duras is a reminder to a certain kind of literalizing stance that a feminist reading that makes every male into an exploiter of women by appropriating both the woman's gaze and her story is a pitifully impoverished reading whose univocal production of its own unwavering point of view amounts to siding, precisely, with the very patriarchy it wishes to contest. But on the other hand, Duras becomes the occasion for Suleiman to deny male writers the very possibilities of equivocation to which only sheas a woman authoris seen to have access. For sensitive as she is to the hesitancies and gaps in knowledge of Duras's narrator, Suleiman is unable to see the same qualities projected through Bretons procedures in Nadja, which as Hollier has shown are deeply structural to Breton's tale.