Friday, February 25, 2011

Uncanny doll parts in Ballard and Bellmer

This afternoon I thought I’d return to some choice passages from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition that reference works of Surrealist art I am unfamiliar with (that being most of them). Part of the difficulty for me in really grasping Ballard is the fact I was conceived decades after the political/social/traumatic events that provide the structure he deftly and darkly razes. Whether or not I place too much importance on the historicity of the text depends on one’s theoretical prescriptions, but I think it is really impossible to feel the brute force of Ballard’s atrocities unless one has at least a passing familiarity with celebrities and works of art which make coherent its strange geometries. Thus, while I can’t improve my familiarity with exactly what it felt like to exist during Elizabeth Taylor’s height of sexual celebrity and billboard omnipresence (beyond my awkward childhood memories of secretly sampling my Grandmother’s Elizabeth Taylor White Diamond’s perfume and shamefully trying to wash away the odors of my latent homosexual curiosities), I am at least able to research the works of Surrealist art so frequently referenced in TAE.

As I perused Ballard’s annotations (that have marvelously facilitated my reading of TAE), my first stop was upon the following passage that so deeply arrested my attention:

“Baby Dolls
Catherine Austin stared at the objects on Talbert’s desk. These flaccid globes, like the obscene sculptures of Bellmer, reminded her of elements of her own body transformed into a series of imaginary sexual organs. She touched the pallid neoprene, marking the vents and folds with a broken nail. In some weird way they would coalesce, giving birth to deformed sections of her lips and armpit, the junction of thigh and perineum.”

And in Ballard’s annotation I find:

“Hans Bellmer’s work is now totally out of fashion, hovering as it does on the edge of child pornography. Yet it’s difficult to imagine any paedophile being excited by his strange dolls and dainty, Alice-like little girls with their reversed orifices and paradoxical anatomy. But his vision is far too close for comfort to the truth.”

As in so many other passages in TAE, we find the female body reduced to its geometries, its curves and its parts. The erotic is displaced and deconstructed, the female body is dismembered, and paradoxically it still produces an almost heightened sense of eroticism. I am struck by the queering of female penetration as Austin’s broken nail penetrates the vents and folds which obviously reference the vagina, transferring the need for masculine possession of the female to female control over her own parts. But of course, I realize I truly must view Bellmer’s work if I wish to get a richer and more fulfilling meaning (whatever the hell that word means) from this passage.

Bellmer’s work is at once disturbing, erotic, and familiar, especially to one reading TAE. We find the human female dissected and reassembled with doll parts, positioned in simultaneously erotic and banal positions. The woman/girl becomes an assemblage of parts, the automata unmistakably unalive and yet teasing with the threshold of animation. Bellmer’s girls are bulbous and shapely geometries of thigh and vagina and perineum often connected to another parallel geometry of thigh and vagina and perineum about a single solar plexus. Everything Ballard writes of reducing sexuality to geometries and parts, of making intelligible traumatic events of impossible proportions through the manipulation and reconstruction of female parts in a unique fusion of space/time, is on exhibit in Bellmer’s creations.

And of course the horrific nature of Bellmer’s art comes from its uncanniness. What is most uncanny about Bellmer is that I was just re-reading Freud’s “The Uncanny” last night, and then stumbled upon this one-liner from an essay on Bellmer:

“The Surrealist fascination with automata, especially the uncanny dread produced by their dubious animate/inanimate status, prepared the way for the enthusiastic reception in France of Bellmer's doll.”

The uncanny is the unexpectedly (and often unwelcome) familiar, so I was naturally titillated to come across this discovery after just reading Freud. In fact, to cite Freud on this matter:

“Jentsch believes that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an objects is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one…But, curiously enough, while the Sand-Man story deals with the arousing of an early childhood fear, the idea of a ‘living doll’ excites no fear at all; children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it. The source of uncanny feelings would not, therefore, be an infantile fear in this case, but rather an infantile wish or even merely an infantile belief.”

The infantile wish-fulfillment is obvious in both the psychotic nature of the Traven character in TAE and the paedophilic eroticism in Bellmer. In neither case do we get the sense of the Pygmalion wish for the material-perfected object to become animate; there is no wish in Ballard or Bellmer to traverse the boundary between human animal and object, merely to explore the edges of the line and determine where/how/when in place and time they exist in relation to the object. And explore the nature of a sexual impulse that can be removed from the human animal (through the dissection of the erotic person and shifting attention to the geometries of her/its parts) and refigured upon the inanimate object without necessarily anthropomorphizing the object (while Bellmer’s creations are unmistakably metonyms for complete humans, no viewer of the works can justifiably argue that the sculptures are meant to represent the living human but instead remove the impossible idea of unique human spirit from the body and remind the viewer the ego is merely a collection of parts).

Of course, Freud says of the uncanniness of the dismembered human:

“Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist…feet which dance by themselves…all of these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove capable of independent activity in addition. As we already know, this kind of uncanniness springs from its proximity to the castration complex.”

The manipulation of body parts by Ballard's protagonist and Bellmer are reactions against the fear of powerlessness created by the recognition that objects have a life unto themselves, an existence independent of human relation to them. Traven and Bellmer, by isolating the geometries and creating new representations of the parts, by creating new functions for them irrelevant to their perceived connectedness to the wholeness of a human being, engage in a futile act of trying to restore the castrated member, to regain power over objects that simply cannot be subjected to human control.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rasputina and the human/cello cyborg

After 10 years of adoration, I finally witnessed a Rasputina recital last night!! I'm finding it difficult to speak of the elation I felt, the soaring high inside me as I witnessed the organic production of what have always been for me the pristine and artificial recordings of their music. Just as any concert-goer speaks of the superiority of the live experience over the recorded music, I too feel the spontaneous iteration of the music they performed exceeds the pre-recorded and perfected nature of listening to their music from a disc or mp3. Of course, attending a concert is a more fulfilling sensory experience, combining a visual and tactile performance with the auditory, but even if I were blind and numb, I would still be relishing in my memories of last night's audio marvel.

And it's not just the usual, "I was swimming in the ocean of sound blasting from the giant speakers" notion I'm referring to. It's all the details, the cold and real details of making music, that most affected me. Hearing Melora's horse-hair bow beating on the gut strings, the tapping of her hand on the wooden body of the cello, the whispered counting of the rhythm subtly picked up by the microphone, all of these sounds are erased in the recording studio but speak so much to the reality of crafting music. Every time I heard Melora inhale, every time her voice faltered or reached for different notes than on the recorded versions of her songs, I swooned. Of course the concert was no more real than every time I listen to the music on my iPod or blasting from my computer speakers, but it was certainly more fulfilling by being more organic.

The visual spectacle didn't hurt either. I've always thought the cellist must have a unique relationship with the instrument, something as deep as what Orpheus had with the lyre. I'm sure most musical artists can and do speak of a profound, human relationship with their instruments, often personifying them with names and speaking of them anthropomorphically, and I see the musical artist as a cyborg, the union of man and tool/instrument/object. But whereas the pianist sort of enters the machine, trapped between the piano bench and the keys, with only the fingers caressing the instrument; whereas the guitarist or the violinist cradles their tool amidst arms and shoulders and often a strap around the back; whereas the woodwind and brasswind blowers have a strictly oral relationship with their instruments (except the tuba players, burdened by the onerous and inorganic brass hulk they must carry); the cellist seems inseparable from the instrument, a cyborg fully mated with the machine. Seated, Melora’s hips press against the wooden body, her knees and thighs envelope its feminine curves, her hands must grope up and down its long peacock neck, and she is hidden beneath its size and shape, as much of the player is visible to the audience as the instrument being played. They are subsumed in each other like lovers in some sexual dance, and yet the instrument always remains an object, not anthropomorphized into some semblance of man, but always a machine, and always engaged in foreplay with a human animal.

And yet the human/cello cyborg of Rasputina is still a part of a greater web; the cello is plugged into an amplifier and a microphone sits in front of the instrument to carry its voice across a greater distance; neither Melora nor the cello are the instrument unto themselves, but only through the cello’s design and Melora’s actions can music be created; atmosphere is needed to carry the music and an audience must be present to hear it; lyrics spill from Melora’s bodily instrument, her voice, combining with the cello/object to enhance the song; and of course, there are 2 other members of the live band that work with their own instruments to create the full experience of each musical piece.

I’ve taken this much farther than I planned to, I need to cut this short and get to work, but I have such a terrible memory I hope that writing all this down helps preserve the experience for me. I have been enriched by last night’s performance, and I hope I have the opportunity again someday to participate in another Rasputina recital.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ballard and birthdays...

"A group of workmen on a scaffolding truck were pasting up the last of the displays, a hundred-foot-long panel that appeared to represent a section of a sand-dune. Looking at it more closely, Dr. Nathan realized that in fact it was an immensely magnified portion of skin over the iliac crest. Glancing at the billboards, Dr. Nathan recognized other magnified fragments: a segment of lower lip, a right nostril, a portion of female perineum. Only an anatomist would have identified these fragments, each represented as a formal geometric pattern." -J.G. Ballard The Atrocity Exhibition.

Aren't we all sand-dunes anyway? Or geometric patterns, or parts easily divided into segments of a billboard? Each piece of flesh we believe our own can be magnified or reduced or divided or re-interpreted. I and you and he/she/it are photographs and blogs and carbon and bacteria and what we eat and what eats us. Identities are as constructed and artificial as Elizabeth Taylor on a billboard, and any part of what we conceive of as "us" or "me" can end up "plastered against the radiator grille of a parked car." Why haven't I read Ballard before now? What better way to spend a birthday?

Friday, February 11, 2011

A moribund musing

Insomnia-sick and wearied by bereavement, I want nothing more than to transmute into an ocean reef and feel the passing of fish and eel, plankton and shark, through and about my coral bones.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

RIP Arthur

At 6:30am I rose after a sleepless night and prepared myself to accompany my mom to put down the 17yr. old Pekingese dog Arthur that had been a friend and a brother to me since I was 9. Of course, such an undertaking is tragic to any pet owner, but myself being too-much an animal enthusiast, putting Arthur to sleep was absolutely agonizing. And yet, as surreal as the experience seemed (just as any gut-wrenchingly emotional event seems out of space and time), I couldn't help but rationalizing it and noting how scripted and programmatic the event and our responses to it were. Certainly nothing so prescribed as Victorian mourning, but there was something artificial about it nonetheless. The room was sterile and funereal, and a sitting room was provided in which you can hold your dog while the second injection is given. We were all out of the room before the second injection. The first injection left him immobile and incapable of keeping his salmon tongue from lolling on his cheek. But we were made to feel like it was the passing of a human, all the trappings of those rituals packed into one veterinary space. The antiseptic hospital room, the dim and serene waiting room like a funeral home viewing, ashes and urns, the swiping of credit cards; the only thing uniquely 'animal' about it was the offer to have his paws imprinted in a stone memorial plaque. I don't disagree with treating the passing of a loved pet-animal as distinct from the passing of a loved human-animal, but the experience of putting down Arthur seemed like a summary of American mourning rituals.

I am happy about the animal/object my parents get to receive, the paw prints in cement. But I of course believe in a return to earth, not ashes in an urn. The need for 2 objects seems obscene. Thinking of my own death, the only reason parts of me will be preserved is because I wish to become a block of cement used for constructing artificial reefs. It is both an economically sound and it satiates my irrational concerns with the goings-on of my corpse, something I of course will know nothing about. And perhaps having an unconventional treatment of my lifeless body will provoke unique responses in people instead of programmed tears.

Monday, February 7, 2011


A few weeks ago I completed a rough draft of what I presently consider to be the writing sample I will use when I apply to graduate school. Summarizing about 1000 years of visual history, I argue that while Chaucer's translation of Boethius deposits classical interpretations of visual language in the 14th century, Troilus and Criseyde uses comparable language to the Boece to deconstruct outdated visual language to reflect the ambivalence in the optical theories of his time. I pretty much argue that there is a constructed language which equates seeing with knowledge and understanding (more specifically, divine and philosophical knowledge and understanding,) but Troilus and Criseyde relies on that reading just to expose its limited scope while simultaneously offering new ways of reading visual language.

Unfortunately, I don't like the essay. It is the first piece of critical writing that I've done since I graduated with my B.A. 4 years ago. I received my Master of Library and Information Science degree 2 years ago, but I don't consider that field to involve any measure of critical or analytical thinking. It's like a 2 year job training program, and I actually despise library work now that I am qualified to do it. Thus, the writing sample on visual language and Chaucer feels to me more like a re-training exercise I completed to teach myself how to read and write again and less like an insightful bit of close reading that reflects my talent and my scholastic goals in medieval literature studies.

Instead, as I've been reading Mallory and Monmouth, I've noticed a connectedness between Merlin and stone, which is something I would like to work out more fully and perhaps develop into a new writing sample. I've been reading much theory and method lately, and I am excited and enthused by the applications of posthumanism to medieval literature. Misanthrope that I am, animal studies and object oriented philosophy are exactly the methods I want to work with; as someone with only a B.A., I feel I need to rely on pre-existing methods to validate my close readings, and I couldn't be more relieved to return to the field and find opinions I've always held to now be of academic merit and fully explicated by recognized scholars. Hell, there's even a conference, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods, being held at GWU this spring! This is the type of work I want to be doing, and I want a writing sample that reflects this.

So I shall continue reading Merlin as the bridge between human and object in Monmouth and Mallory, and perhaps put together a bit of writing that, whether or not it will serve as a writing sample, at least keeps me practicing and working to construct a voice in the field.