Laura Mulvey, “Visual & Other Pleasures”


“This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as its starting-point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle… Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” 14.

(Interesting that Mulvey uses ‘fascinate’ twice – linked to witchcraft and enchantment, but also to the Greco-Roman ceremonial phallus, the fascinum.) Mulvey begins by pointing out the paradox of phallocentrism: that the man’s “presence” can only exist against the woman’s “lack”: woman is necessary to the construction of man 14. Maternal plenitude and phallic lack are the two forms “posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis” 14.

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which an can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” 15.

Mulvey argues “we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” 15. With the advent of 16mm film, Mulvey argues, film has been opened up to artists beyond the capitalist Hollywood regime and its ideologically mimetic films 15. The “magic” of Hollywood cinema is in “its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order… through its formal beauty and its play on [the subject’s] own formative obsessions” 16. Mulvey seeks “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film,” since “analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” 16. The tradeoff is “a new language of desire” 16.

One of the pleasures of cinema is “scopophilia” – the pleasure of looking 16. Freud identifies it as a drive separate from the ‘proper’ erogenous zones: “he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze… the voyeuristic activities of children… the primal scene” 16. The gaze is “essentially active” – its extreme is the voyeur or Peeping Tom (think Psycho & Peeping Tom, both 1960!) How can this be in film, where “what is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown”? 17.

“The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” 17.

Cinema actually “develops scopophilia,” however, it does not just satisfy it, partly by creating a world on screen that is anthropomorphic in its proportions and fixations 17. Lacan’s mirror stage hinges on the moment the child’s “physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity… more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… thus overlaid with misrecognition… an ideal ego” that “prepares the way for identification with others in the future” and “predates language for the child” 17. The parallel for Mulvey between mirror and film screen lies mainly in the fact that “cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it… the sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it… is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition” 18.

Thus the cinema is involved in contradictory pleasure structures: one scopophilic (sexual stimulation by the sight of another), one narcissistic (identification with the image as mirror) 18. Instinctual drive and self-preservation are polarized forms of pleasure, but they both engage in “indifference to perceptual reality” 18. “The look, pleasureable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox” 19.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spctacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” 19.

“Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers interrupt the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” 19.

Woman is erotic object for both subjects: character and spectator, “with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen,” making the showgirl, in her exhibition to both, a perfect combination of those gazes (think of Foucault, “Las Meninas” 19. (Do we compete with characters for her?) “For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space” 19-20 (think of Betty & Megan in Mad Men, or Some Like It Hot – where the men in drag actually drag the pace of the action – use ‘female’ performance as a delay mechanism!)

“Conventional close-ups of legs… or a face… integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” 20.

(FACETING!) “The male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen… the bearer of the look of the spectator… transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” 20. The centrality and activity of the male protagonist are a “screen surrogate” for the spectator, who feels omnipotent and in control of the filmic events – the male film star is the ideal ego (more in control than the spectator) and the female film star is the object of scopophilia (voyeured object of desire) 20. The narrative space of the male star is thus 3-dimensional, rather than flat (interesting to think about this as another reason for treating surface seriously – because women themselves are reduced to it – it is a tool of patriarchy that can unmake the house?)

The female star is usually presented alone, sexualized, and exhibited at the start of the film, but becomes the tamed property and possession of the protagonist over the course of the narrative (and therfore of the spectator as well) 21. The problem, however, is that

“ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star” 21.

(This all seems pretty flawed to me, actually. Williams’ argument is stronger by far.) Fetishism is flatter than the sadism of scopophilia, which “demands a story,” either “punishment or forgiveness” – as in Hitchcock 22.  Mulvey emphasizes the flatness of Sternberg’s films (vs Hitchcock’s), focused on women as stylized products that merge with the screen, ultimate fetishes in cyclical, rather than linear, time, with plots focused on misunderstanding, rather than conflict, sans controlling male gaze. 22. “The high point of emotional drama in the most typical Dietrich films, her supreme moments of erotic meaning, take place in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction” 22. In Hitchcock,

“the power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both… True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong… liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema” 23.

Versus other visual forms, cinema uses the “shifting emphasis of the look… cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself… Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” 25.

“There are 3 different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences… fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” 25.

“Nevertheless… the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego. The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject; the camera’s look is disavowal in order to create a convincing world in which the speaker’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude’ 25-6.

“Simultaneously, the look of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishisation, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” 26.

For Mulvey, this phenomenon is specific to film (a lot of it seems like baloney, as many critics have since pointed out). Mulvey calls for a freeing of the look of the camera (Vertov? Eisenstein?) and the freeing of the look of the audience “into dialectics and passionate detachment” 26. This destroys the pleasure of film, which for women should cause nothing more than “sentimental regret” 26.


Mulvey returns to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to address the melodrama of the uncertain female sexual identity (making female stars central) and alternatives to the 3rd-person male spectator position (the liberation of the female spectator vis a vis the freedom of the male protagonist) 29. For Freud, children of both sexes pass through a phallic phase, though for girls it ends in the repression of the masculine 30. “Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” 31. “As desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes” 33.

The marriage or not- marriage plot is the signifier of either social acceptance as it “sublimates the erotic into a final, closing, social ritual” 34 or “the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence” 33. For the female spectator, the Western is more than Oedipal nostalgia, more than the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence 37. For a woman to “drag” in masculinity is to refuse acceptance, even as she accepts a sort of vicarious agency 37.


“It has been suggested that the interest of Hollywood 1950s melodrama lies primarily in the way that, by means of textual analysis, fissures and contradictions can be shown to be undermining the films’ ideological coherence,” which “seems to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them” 39. But “this argument depends on the premise that the project of this ideology is indeed to conjure up a coherent picture of a world and conceal contradictions which in turn conceal exploitation and oppression. A text which defies unity and closure would then quite clearly be progressive” 39.

This unfortunately creates a trap “quite characteristic of melodrama itself,” however 39. “Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes” 39. The excitement of melodrama lies in sexual repression and frustration, in conflicts of love and blood, not those of enemies 39.

“Melodrama as a safety-valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family may lose its progressive attributes, but it acquires a wider aesthetic and political significance. The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (or a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance. There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stomping-ground, the family” 39. (think of Berlant)

Melodramas like Sirk’s are thus “a corrective… probing the pent-up emotion” 39. As in Greek tragedy, where the overvaluation of patriarchy destroys social balance, the melodrama calls for the softening of sexual difference 40. “As Sirk has pointed out, the strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of overdetermined irreconcilables which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end… He turns the conventions of the melodrama sharply” – away from happy resolution 40.

“Discussions of the difference between melodrama and tragedy specify that while the tragic hero is conscious of his fate and torn between conflicting forces, characters caught in the world of melodrama are not allowed transcendent awareness or knowledge” 41.

“The formal devices of Hollywood melodrama… provide a transcendent, wordless commentary, giving abstract emotion spectacular form, contributing a narrative level that provides the action with a specific coherence. Mise en scene, rather than the undercutting of the actions and words of the story level, provides a central point of orientation for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator’s reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. Although this device uses aesthetics as well as narrative to establish signs for characters ont he screen as for the spectator in the cinema, elements such as lighting or camera movement still act as a privileged discourse for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers” 43.

“Melodrama can be seen as having an ideological function in working certain contradictions through to the surface and re-presenting them in an aesthetic form… It is as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. If the melodrama offers a fantasy escape for the identifying women in the audience, the illusion is so strongly marked by recognisable, real and familiar traps that escape is closer to a day-dream than to fairy story… a story of contradiction, not reconciliation” 43.

Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”


Jauss’ essay begins with a description of the originally philological discipline of literary history in decline. It has become nothing but skeletal chronology. The question lies in this: if history cannot be regarded from “an end,” from a teleological point, how might they be articulated coherently? 7 Literary historians thus cordoned off periods of time, distinguishable not only from the critic’s own, but from surrounding periods, creating mini-end, mini-teleologies within 7. This resulted in disembodied classics severed from historical context 9.

Jauss summarizes the Marxist position (in a way that actually seems contrary to Adorno’s concept of aesthetics): “literature [and art] can no longer maintain the ‘appearance of its independence’ when one has realized that its production presupposes the material production and social praxis of human beings, that even artistic production is a part of the ‘real life process’ of the appropriation of nature… only when this ‘active life process’ is represented ‘does history stop being a collection of dead facts'” 10. Yet Marxist critics like Lukacs and Brecht have thematized  periods, genres, and history in their consideration of the realist novel’s issues of imitation and reflection (recall Lukacs calling for less description, more action) 10.

“Literature, in the fullness of its forms, allows itself to be referred back only in part and not in any exact manner to concrete conditions of the economic process” 12. Lukacs (who loves Balzac and Tolstoy, not Zola) and others do not answer the question “How can the art of a distant past survive the annihilation of its socioeconomic basis, if one denies with Lukacs any independence to the artistic form and thus also cannot explain the ongoing influence of the work of art as a profess formative of history?” 13. And how can art “take a position” if it is so defined by its historicity and material constraints? 14. The solution may be in Karl Kosik’s claim that “Each work of art has a doubled character within an indivisible unity… the expression of reality… also forms the reality that exists… precisely only in the work” 14. Thus the historical essence of the work is as reflection, but also essence and influence 15.

Jauss turns to the Formalists, who grasped this earlier, in his view. Formalism, in using the opposition of poetic and practical language as the bar with which to measure art, detaches literature from history to treat the aesthetic object independently. 16. In defamiliarization, perception is an end in itself, and ultimately the Formalists confront history by considering the relationship of artworks to one another: “the literariness of literature is conditioned not only synchronically by the opposition between poetic and practical language, but also diachronically by the opposition to the givens of the genre and the preceding form of the literary series” 17. In considering not the classical teleology but the dialectical and dynamic evolution of form (the “origin, canonization, and decay of genres”) Formalism actually did engage in a historical project 17.

Out of these two schools Jauss argues that if literary evolution exists in historical change and pragmatic history can be linked or narrativized as process, then literature and history must be relatable without violating literature as art, or making it into mere mimesis or political commentary 18. Both schools have too long ignored the “reader, listener and spectator… the audience” in favor of production (Marxism)  and presentation (Formalism) 18. Both assume an ideal reader educated to read according to specific imperatives who will spontaneously arrive at a particular reading 19.

“The perspective of the aesthetics of reception  mediates between passive reception and active understanding, experience formative of norms, and new production. If the history of literature is viewed in this way within the horizon of a dialogue between work and audience that forms a continuity, the opposition between its aesthetic and its historical aspects is also continually mediated. Thus the thread from the past appearance to the present experience of literature, which historicism had cut, is tied back together” 19.

Jauss makes the canon like the act of reading a novel – grasping and accumulating new facts (faceting),a nd then moves on to his seven theses on aesthetics of reception:

1: The removal of the prejudices of historical objectivism and the grounding of the traditional aesthetics of production and representation in an aesthetics of reception and influence 20.

2. The analysis of the literary experience of the reader avoids the threatening pitfalls of psychology if it describes the reception and the influence of a work within the objectifiable system of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance.. a preunderstanding of the genre… the opposition between poetic and practical language 22 (this assumes an ideal reader too, doesn’t it?).

3. The work can be evaluated along a “horizon of expectations” as to whether it breaks with form, surprises, “changes horizons” in the viewer, offers  a new “level of consciousness,” etc. for its initial audience 25

4. The initial response vs a “horizon of expectations” cures the “spirit of the age” argument and places the text in the history of its reception, questioning any stable interpretation of it 28.

5. This is not only about looking at the unfolding historical understanding of a work, but situating it among other works in a literary series (sounds like Eliot’s argument that the critic both forms and is formed by literary history and the canon) 30.

6. Linguistics, which has provided us with the “methodological interrelation of diachronic and synchronic analysis,” allows us to “overcome the diachronic perspective” by taking “a synchronic cross-section of a moment in the development, to arrange the heterogenous multiplicity of contemporaneous works in equivalent, opposing, and hierarchical structures… to discover an overarching system of relationships in the literature of a historical moment” 36. Sandwiched diachronically between other synchronic segments this could “articulate historically the change in literary structures in epoch-making moments” 36.

7. Literary history must also be seen as its own ‘special history’: “this relationship [to history] does not end with the fact that a typified, idealized, satiric, or utopian image of social existence can be found in the literature of all times… the social function of literature manifests itself… only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis… and also has an effect on his social behavior” 39.

How new aesthetic form can instantiate moral change can be seen, for Jauss, in the example of the Madame Bovary trial. The novel’s ‘uninvolved’ narrator and free indirect discourse that “bring[s] forth a mostly inward discourse of the represented character without the signals of direct discourse… or indirect discourse… with the effect that the reader himself has to decide whether he should take the sentence for a true declaration or understand it as an opinion characteristic of this character” 42.

“The consternating effect of the formal innovations of Flaubert’s narrative style became evident in the trial: the impersonal form of narration not only compelled his readers to perceive things differently – ‘photographically exact,’ according to the judgment of the time – but at the same time thrust them into an alienating uncertainty of judgment… [no longer] the moral judgment of the represented characters that is always unequivocal and confirmed in the description – the novel was able to radicalize or to raise new questions of lived praxis” 43.

A literary work “with an unfamiliar aesthetic form can break through the expectations of its readers and at the same time confront them with a question, the solution to which remains lacking for them in the religiously or officially sanctioned morals” 44. Schiller already observed this about the theatre, but champions the “opaque reality” of new forms such as the noveau roman, where the reader is outside the situation, uninitiated, and must piece together the reality himself. In this sense, the greatest literature, for Jauss, is that which is not fixated on the representational 45.

Notes on Nabokov and Jauss from 2010:

Pale Fire also raises a lot of fascinating questions about canonization, because mixed reviews on a famous author’s new novel have kind of turned in the last ten years into Pale Fire being regarded as one of Nabokov’s really great works, up there with Lolita. Jauss 15 – The work is echoed in work-mankind interaction – spirals out the smaller, individualized concept of Iser into a more social realm, acknowledging the importance of the academy – in this case Brian Boyd – to the changing reception of a text over time. Jauss 35 – Some works hard for public at first, must mature over time through – you guessed it – rereadings, though he means this on a larger cultural front, perhaps. 43 – In Flaubert, Jauss claims, it is the very “consternating effects” of Flaubert’s style that really  make the work last – not to oversimplify his idea, but the more frustrating the work may seem, the more it may later yield.

What was for contemporary readers stylistic virtuoso – sometimes lovely, sometimes hollow, sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, becomes in Pale Fire something much more later on – it becomes regarded as a kind of blueprint for later, experimental forms of what we might now call postmodern literature. In Flaubert, we cannot stigmatize Emma because of the free indirect discourse, Jauss claims; in Pale Fire we cannot seem to hate Kinbote, either, largely because his sad, mad tale is so beautifully woven up against John Shade’s poem, and this disorienting, innovative form takes our guard down, so that as we try to craft a gestalt to order this unfamiliar “novel,” the same thing happens as with Madame Bovary – we identify with the characters more closely because we create them differently than we would in a novelistic form with which we feel very familiar.44 – New form can break through expectations of reader and confront with ? for which no sanctioned answer is available – Lo. 44 – I think Nabokov would love that the solution is the problem in RR theory – for Jauss, Nonrepresentational art seems to win out (and what is Nab but this!) and to liberate readers from prior patterns, practices and expectations.

Indeed, for the very complex and formally bizarre Pale Fire, this changed reception since the sixties is largely due to the new appreciation for the poem by Brian Boyd as a work of literature in itself, thought Boyd himself has changed his mind three times over the last twenty-five years or so about what actually happens in the book, let alone how to interpret it. This is because, in essence, Boyd is following Nabokov’s instructions by constantly revising his reading as he holds the text in his mind as a whole and reads again in an enactment of what I guess is ReReader ReResponse Theory.

Wolfgang Iser, “Grasping a Text”


Notes on Iser’s “Grasping a Text” from (The Act of Reading), with notes on Nabokov’s Pale Fire. 

It may be that one of the reasons I find reader response theory so appealing or empowering is because of my interest in Nabokov – it gives you a way of reading creatively within a set of strictures, so that you are sort of freed from being enslaved to the author’s “intentions,” which can be an overwhelming burden with someone like Nabokov who so obsessively controlled the production and interpretation of his texts.

Iser holds that in the flow of protension (which is expectation) and retension (which is the memory you hold of what you’ve read as you read), one moves through the text in a linear, moving experience of art that is unique to literature. This movement is also expanded into the realm of the spatial by the interconnectivity of various textual perspectives, especially in the modern novel (and he cites Woolf, Conrad, Beckett, Joyce…) For Iser, a text, unlike a painting, requires a process of constantly revising memory and expectation as the reader connects and creatively creates connections between sentence correlatives. For Iser, this means that it is impossible to hold all of the text in the mind at once.

In his essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” written, incidentally, before Iser’s text, Nabokov acknowledges this very fact, saying that “we have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture.” However, Nabokov insists, as rereaders, we can “behave towards a book as we do towards a painting,” and Nabokov thus asks his readers to attempt to attempt this act which is, for Iser, “impossible” in the initial linear act of reading through the act of rereading.

What’s interesting to me, then, is the way that Pale Fire seems to solve some issues of reader response theory and of the postmodern novel before the words reception theory and postmodern had even entered the literary vocabulary, and he does this by playing with form and by asking us to be rereaders. On page 113 of the Iser, he claims that the aesthetic object does not in fact exist on its own, but rather must be created by moments of focusing, refocusing, adjusting and readjusting – thus the object is actually predicated on the surpassing of the very frustrations and obstacles that he says Ingarden condemns. What is Pale Fire on the first read but a series of seemingly insurmountable moments of what Iser would call hiatus leading to vexation left unresolved for long sections?

The seeming irrelevancy of Kinbote’s prolix notes inhibit textual connectivity, and their maddening cross-referencing of other notes and other Shadean lines seems to play out a parody of the idea of retension as Iser figures it. 116) In experimenting with the form of the novel, Nabokov also screws with the idea of depth that Iser proposes – by having all perspectives radiate in a linear way from one madman whose ‘real world’ is not real at all, Nabokov enables us to feel very real emotion for living breathing characters while simultaneously exposing the guise of fiction itself. 116 – furthermore, the productive moment seems to hinge on a good reader of Nabokov’s dreams. Stanly Fish has criticized Iser’s piece on the phenomenology of reader response theory for claiming to offer a transformation, but requiring so much of his reader that the only reader who could undergo this transformation would be one already transformed, already trained, no longer in need of that transformation. Indeed, even in this piece, we can see a hint of how the order for the textual sign to engage in productivity with the reader’s conscious mind, is predicated on the reader’s ability to exercise it in the right way. 121 – If, as readers on the first read at least, we build equivalence of a consistent gestalt, which resolves complexes of signs as emergent from textual and readerly perspectives – this can take the form of irony, where what is meant is the opposite of what is said.

In Pale Fire, this is further estranged by the fact that we get the sense of this ironic meaning really only at the end of the first read, and therefore only holistically on the second read, what we take as Kinbote’s facts are a mix of a madman’s rants and the author’s tricky correlatives, now clear, now unclear. Again, a further irony is the way in which Kinbote’s literal cross-referencing of references within the poem and his notes is a kind of indexing that dramatizes what Iser calls retention, of holding each single unit in all its referential contexts.

Further, if the reader must concretize the connections between signs that are not explicitly manifested by the signs themselves, we begin to see the problem that plagued Pale Fire in its early reception history and in turn long affected its interpretation: if we are not good enough readers or rereaders, we fall for traps and false connections, we don’t see irony for what it is, we are made fools. 131- Kinbote is disentangling experience of reading Shade as we are disentangling reading Shade and a reading of Kinbote reading Shade, which accomplishes Iser’s hope of literature as something that heightens our awareness of ourselves as readers. 132, interestingly, Iser also suggests that we are formed in our readings, so we are what we read – thus our individual tendency to correlate is also predicated on previous readings and the formations and dynamism of those moments. 133 if aesthetic experience makes us conscious of the acquisition of experience even as we gain insight into the conditions that lead to it, once again Pale Fire anticipates and heightens this – we are aware of Kinbote experiencing the poem this way even as we ourselves experience the poem and Kinbote’s commentary, pasted together and labeled a “novel” in this very way.

On 134, Iser says reading places the reader in a halfway position – he is involved as he watches himself being involved, or in the case of Pale Fire, especially when we are rereaders, we are involved as we watch ourselves being involved in someone who is also watching himself be involved in something that someone else has written as a result of his involvement with that very observer. In this way, Pale Fire seems fascinatingly to anticipate some of the central issues of reception theory and to also prefigure postmodern ideas of narrative by reinventing and revitalizing the very thread of narrative history that Iser traces progressively through Conrad, Woolf, Joyce, and Beckett, but does not know who will come next. If readerly self-awareness replaces codes, this is great – but in Nabokov this doesn’t come easy – the codes themselves are coded, and sometimes falsely connected. This hard work is what made early reception of Pale Fire mixed between feeling that it was a hollow virtuoso work and an actual piece of genius.



Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”


Notes on Roland Barthes with some ruminations ca. 2010 on how the text might relate to Nabokov’s Pale Fire…

In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to find the noeme, the essence of photography. What he notices first is the distinction between the studium – the ostensible subject or meaning of the photograph – and the punctum – the small detail that pricks through the surface of certain photographs to wound one, and, as he eventually argues, evince pity. This is often an individually chosen detail. The noeme of photography is actually its haunting quality of “that-has-been” – not language, not a story or a described history with a mediator, but the knowledge that the object has been there, and is there no longer – thus, it is a kind of theater of death for Barthes, as it presents as living something that is nonetheless static and dead, even an instant after its capture.

Something of this is captured in the famous Stieglitz photograph that Barthes includes – the steam rising off the horses, ghostlike, is as static and as weighty and as permanent – or, in fact, impermanent – as the horses themselves – there is the certainty that this has been, and also the certainty that it is no more, that it cannot be recreated. This becomes still more haunting for Barthes in the photo of the boy sentenced to die – though I don’t totally understand how that is the punctum and not the studium of the photograph.

The photograph doesn’t recall, like memory, it attests, and the most wounding photograph is ultimately personal for Barthes – the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is in spite or perhaps because he did not know her when the photo was taken that he can find her true essence in that photo and his true wound of mourning for her as he cannot in photos where he “remembers” the circumstances in which they were taken.

“Black Mo’nin” picks up on this idea of mourning, echoing the Wittgensteinian idea that “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but expanding it. The photograph, and particularly the photograph of atrocity, for Moten, must be seen and listened to – it rehearses a silent scream, it speaks publicly for private grief, it performs – like the theater of death, a reenactment of a living moment, a this has been,

Pale Fire employs a notably photographic language – There is also a spylike/voyeuristic quality, examination of all through crystal, glass, lenses, etc. Also,There are a few aspects of these texts I want to hold especially close as we move forward:  First, Barthes’ Kafka quote: “ ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ ” (53)

If we can consider Pale Fire a highly visual novel, which I think we can, we might also consider it a novel that attempts to employ an almost photographic language. Shade looks out through the ‘picture’ window of his house, and the prisms of his interpretations are filtered through the media of crystal and glass throughout his poem.

Photographs are all over Pale Fire. Shade’s poem is a series of snapshots of the ordinary shot through his picture window of ordinary objects and their hauntings by his dead daughter Hazel. In his poem, he says, line 30, “My eyes were such that literally they/ Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit, /Or, with a silent shiver, order it…” – these trophies and stillicides then appear on his “eyelid’s nether side.” The “pert pictures” of the Goldsworth daughters irritate Kinbote (as so many photos irritate Barthes, and he throws them in a drawer.

On 101, Kinbote shares with Shade that the King (probably Kinbote) was also, like Shade, unable to recall his father’s face, though he could remember the candy in his hand in that last photograph taken on King Alfin’s lap, a phenomenological oddity that provides what seems to be the punctum of the photo and the passage. It is through “ghastly photographs” that the young King Charles sees the gruesome plane accident that killed his father – this evidence makes particular and visceral that which was only alluded to delicately and elliptically before. He looks at Fleur, his ex-wife, in a photo, and says that “one involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one’s life would undergo a complete change.” 105.

The pictures of the king are reproduced and hung all over the kingdom as he tries to escape, and his friends all dress like him to help him escape. They attempt to replicate him in reality as the photo does with technology. It is also through a photograph that Kinbote mourns Shade in the Foreword, before we have even read the poem or the commentary or the index. In the photo, “Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his Aunt Maud (see line 86.) which then leads you to another note in a paper chase. My left hand is half raised – not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses, which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture.” This is the punctum – the realization of the incomplete gesture that inspires tenderness.

Kinbote, too, is haunted by the what has been. In one scene, Kinbote tells us that a visiting professor strains to make Shade see the similarity between the Zemblan king and Kinbote, and Shade refuses, saying ‘Resemblances are the shadows of difference. Different people see different similarities and similar differences.” 265 In this discussion, an “eerie note throbbed by” – the haunting of Kinbote on the photograph. “What a pity I cannot prove my point,” says the German. “If only there was a picture here. Couldn’t there be somewhere” – 267. They find him in an encyclopedia and a comparison ensues, problematic because he is young in the photo – the photo has preserved him as a what has been. This is also paradoxical, however, because the king has been missing, and no one knows what he looks like now, or whether he is alive or dead, as he has been in hiding. Thus the photograph in Pale Fire points to the issue of deictic thinking. However, because it is a novel, or a poem, or neither, but in any case fiction, the photograph in Pale Fire cannot function as it does for Barthes. For the reader, the photograph is evidence, but only within a fictional world, rather than clearly evidential.

As Barthes says, “Language, by nature, is fictional.” We also find out on the same page (quite near the novel’s end) that Zembla is not just like zemlya – which means land – severnaya zemlya – but of “Semblerland – a land of reflections, of “resemblers”.” 265. Thus the image created by language or the image described in created language is never exactly duplicable like the photograph, but then it is never quite proof, either. Its deictic gesture says something, but proves nothing.

Barthes said in an interview that the reader should consider Camera Lucida as being spoken by a character in a novel, and indeed, in the Winter Garden photograph, he provides us not with the photograph that wounds, but with a description of it. To say, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me” is to say, “I am acceding this photograph as evidence and allowing it to become imaginary, even fictional, for my reader.” What Barthes does is leave this as language, rather than as photograph, and therefore open to be filled by the reader’s photograph and feeling.

The photo within the novel shows not the wound but the ellipsis of the wound. Interestingly, Shade, whose poem absolutely turns on the mourning of his daughter Hazel, does not invoke photographs, but his memories of her, though Kinbote describes this descriptions as “his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete” – maybe too much so, says Kinbote, maybe embellished by memory and loss. It is through Hazel’s toys, through sensations of her ghost, through her handwriting, through their shared memories, indeed, through Shade’s poem, that John and Sybil remember and love their daughter, and not through photos of her. It is a verbal, rather than a photographic memory – it becomes the property of photography to particularize grief, it is the property of poetry to give all its readers access, to allow us all to project onto it. In this way, perhaps Barthes’ exclusion of the Winter Garden photograph creates a hole where we can all fill in the image that we think is TRUE of a beloved, so that we can understand the meaning of his words.

Ultimately, photographs fill us, but it is language that can be filled by us. They both, however, allow for the observance of particular punctum that enlivens and involves. The changing meaning of a photo over time, like a lynching postcard, which was once victory and is now evidence of atrocity and an ironic rehearsal of mourning, or the Winter Garden photograph, which preserves for Barthes something the photographer could never have anticipated. In this way, reading the photograph over time is not so different from reading the details of a text as you finish it – different things stick out.

Ultimately, Nabokov is also more filmic than photographic – even Barthes says on 88 that film is protensive, recalling the Iser-Jauss language of the novel. Pale Fire’s dramatic, moving moments are always given with the language of scenery and theater, and Shade exclaims, “Retake! Retake!” thinking of his daughter’s death, and in Kinbote’s last lines of Commentary, he contrasts his real life with his fantasy one, in which he will make a motion picture with his (the King’s) gay lover, Odon, from his Zemblan childhood – Shade, he says, has only been caught in “the clash between the two figments.”

However, the particularizing quality of the photograph is lauded in art in general – the great sin in Nabokov is to generalize, to confuse individuality, to make an individual the same as another. Indeed, Gradus kills himself for “killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him” – it is a novel about the problem of not seeing carefully enough, and, as I want to argue, in a more political way, about moving to action because of paranoia which is disguised as evidence. This imagination as evidence is delusion, or paranoia in the novel. To imagine evidence, to point to the nonexistent photograph, the elliptical wound as proof, to overread every clue as evidence, is to assemble the fictive evidence of a paranoid.

Kinbote says, “we are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new wolrds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.” 289. There is also the narrative quality of the “unintentional” details included by delusional narrator? Kinbote, like a bad photographer, cannot edie, cannot “frame” his subject, cannot see the image he is “developing” for us? This actually results in a kind of punctum, as well as an invitation to overread his narrative and become paranoid.


Gerard Genette, “Narrative Discourse”


FOREWORD: Jonathan Culler’

– Culler invested in legitimizing literary theory as practice. Widely, Genette, as a structuralist, seeks to apply demystifying structural theories of linguistics to literature (‘grammar’), claiming that lingustics: language :: poetics: literature. In gesturing towards the importance of the marginal, Culler claims for Genette a place in the ‘current’ (1977) trends of post-structuralism and excuses the very problems he begins to locate in Genette’s work.


Summary: Resists the closed, more Formalist notion of ‘the text’ by insisting upon the openness of texts like Proust’s. “Like every work… elements that are universal, or at least transindividual…specific synthesis,” methodology of particular à general.


Narrative (Recit) – Statement: The order in which events appear textually (plot for the Formalists) – so, for example, Lolita begins with the jury, jumps back to HH’s childhood, then resumes at the point he met Lo and zigzags from there.

Story (Histoire) – Contents: Sequence in which events actually occurred (story for the Formalists) – Genette maps out specific array of temporal points in what we read.

Narration – Telling: Enunciative act itself (vs. narrative) – Genette points to this as largely ignored/understudied.

• Main focus is narrative, but acknowledges importance and relation of other two (narrative and story, narrative and narrating).

• Insists on the text’s freedom from paratexts. (but vs. Booth – less interest in reader, yet assumes a reader able to decipher structure beyond/outside historical-contextual restraints)

• The first half of the book focuses on temporality, under the subheadings of order, duration, and frequency, but Genette gestures towards the later chapters here on mood (diegesis/mimesis and fid/discourse) and perspective (focalization), so we can keep this discussion/many of the same passages on hand, even, for Thursday.


ANACHRONIES – arranged vs. story time – defines W. literature – allows for narrative to tergiversate, productively, it seems, for Genette. – connective, evocative – “memory-created instances” (46), referent to both character and reader, it seems? Though tacitly.

Prolepsis: (Anticipation)  fate, refs to Wix’s grandness, p. 142

Analepsis: (Flashback) not precisely a flashback, but a projection of later feelings onto the event not-yet-fully-recounted during its enunciation.

Anachrony: any discordance between temporal orders of story and narrative.

• these can all have varying reach (distance) and extent (duration), creating subtleties and subdivisions.

Mixed Analepsis: Begins before and ends at point after starting place of first narrative.

External Analepsis: Remains entirely external to the first narrative, no threat of interference.

• Interestingly, with Maisie, which presumes to begin in ultimas res, the start in present perfect tense is actually analeptic, referring (vaguely) to a time occurring before the start of the novel and ending at an uncertain point before the beginning of its diegesis. The first sentence of the novel is, then, somehow, outside of the first narrative.

– Difference between ‘pre-chapter’ and Chapter 1 in tense – implies analepsis before start of narrative via grammar. Rather than recount that which the novel starts with (Re: classical model of in ultimas res), never doubles back, exactly.

Internal Analepsis: Occurs within the temporal limits of the first narrative (threat of repetition, confusion).

–       Heterodiegetic: separate from the contents of the first narrative/catchup

–       Homodiegetic: same line of action as the first narrative

  • Recalls/Completing: returns to complete an earlier gap in narrative
  • Paralipsis: (talks with doll, to captain) sidestep completed by retrospective filling-in – a form of censorship, Genette argues – but by whom? Particularly interesting in Maisie.
    • Enigma: “At the time, I did not know…”
    • Reinterpreted: One meaning replaced by another “Marcel understands then that he had understood nothing.” 60, a dialectic of analeptic interpretation that characterizes Maisie. see quote 1, 142 again, too, and all the cases where she ‘pieces together’ motives of others.
    • Partial Analepsis: Never fully rejoined. “without ever acknowledging and signaling the moment” of suture (Wix)

• Maisie’s particular structure complicates readerly ordering of the novel. She both models the ‘putting away’ of memory and the puzzle-piecing of it back together, but also conceals herself, beyond the concealments of the narrator. Further, her lack of comprehension, as part of the novel’s psychic force, also enacts a kind of narrative force different from the Proustian one Genette outlines here.

Internal Prolepsis: again, problem of interference.

–       Heterodiegetic: Negligible.

–       Homodiegetic: Within storyline

  • Completing: Fills in ahead of time a later blank
  • Repeating: a slight doubling of a narrative to come
  • Iterative: which become, with other iterations, as Brandon will address, a replacement for summary in Proust. What about James?

–       Advance Notices: explicit, legible already, before following information.

–       Advance Mentions: simple markers without anticipation/acquire significance only later (VN rereading)

–       Snares/False Snares

External Prolepsis:  again, no threat of interference.

Double Structures: anticipated recalls, open analepses, etc.

• ex. defiance of chronology for spatial proximity, or reverse, so that narrative has temporal autonomy.

• Mrs. Wix as a connective point here – we gain advance notice of her, but she is also entangled in Genette’s later points about recall – Brandon. 238 – “Mrs. Wix had once said – it was once or 50 times…”



Say a story is narrated as follows: the clues of a murder are discovered by a detective (event A); the circumstances of the murder are finally revealed (event B); and lastly the murderer is caught (event C).

Add corresponding numbers to the lettered events that represent their order chronologically: 1, 2, and 3.

If these events were described chronologically, they would run B1, A2, C3. Arranged in the text, however, they run A2 (discovery), B1 (flashback), C3 (resolution).

This accounts for the ‘obvious’ effects the reader will recognise, such as flashback. It also deals with the structure of narratives on a more systematic basis, accounting for flash-forward, simultaneity, as well as possible, if rarely used effects. These disarrangements on the level of order are termed ‘anachrony’.


The separation between an event and its narration allows several possibilities.

  • An event can occur once and be narrated once (singular).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop.’
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated once (iterative).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop.’
  • An event can occur once and be narrated n times (repetitive).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop’ + ‘Today he went to the shop’ etc.
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated n times (multiple).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop’ + ‘He used to go to the shop’ + ‘I went to the shop yesterday’ etc.


The separation between an event and its narration means that there is discourse time and narrative time. These are the two main elements of duration.

  • “Five years passed”, has a lengthy narrative time, five years, but a short discourse time (it only took a second to read).
  • James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has a relatively short narrative time, twenty-four hours. Not many people, however, could read Ulysses in twenty-four hours. Thus it is safe to say it has a lengthy discourse time.


Voice is concerned with who narrates, and from where. This can be split four ways.

  • Where the narration is from
    • Intra-diegetic: inside the text. e.g. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White
    • Extra-diegetic: outside the text. e.g. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • Is the narrator a character in the story?
    • Hetero-diegetic: the narrator is not a character in the story. e.g. Homer’s The Odyssey
    • Homo-diegetic: the narrator is a character in the story. e.g. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights


Genette said narrative mood is dependent on the ‘distance’ and ‘perspective’ of the narrator, and like music, narrative mood has predominant patterns. It is related to voice.

Distance of the narrator changes with narrated speech, transposed speech and reported speech.

Perspective of the narrator is called focalization. Narratives can be non-focalized, internally focalized or externally focalized

Michel Foucault, “The Order of Things”



The painter “has no doubt just appeared, at this very instant, before the eyes of the spectator, emerging from what is virtually a sort of vast cage projected backwards by the surface he is painting… halfway betweent he visible and the invisible: emerging from that canvas beyond our view, he moves into our gaze; but when, in a moment, he makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting… As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is presented and also see that upon which he is representing something. He rules at the threshold of those two incompatible visibilities” 3.

This is “a matter of pure reciprocity: we are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us” 4. Here, “subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity. And here the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established” 5. The spectator’s position is made “privileged and inescapable” by the painter’s eyes, which “project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture. He sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself” 5. The swath of light that bathes the right side of the picture “frees a whole flow of daylight which serves as the common locus of the representation” 6.

“Just as we are about to apprehend ourselves, transcribed by his hand as though in a mirror, we find that we can in fact apprehend nothing of that mirror but its lustreless back. The other side of a psyche” 6. The back wall is hung with paintings and a mirror which “is reflecting nothing… it is not the visible it reflects [as the Dutch painting would]… Here, the mirror is “saying nothing that has already been said before… its motionless gaze extends out in front of the picture… straight through the whole field of the representation… and restores visibility to that which resides outside all view” 8. “What it is reflecting is that which all the figures within the painting are looking at so fixedly… what the spectator would be able to see if the painting extended further forward… The mirror provides a metathesis of visibility that affects both the space represented in the picture and its nature as representation; it allows us to see, in the centre of the canvas, what in the painting is of necessity doubly invisible” 8. “The image should stand out from the frame” 8.

“The two personages serving as models to the painter are not visible, at least directly; but… we can see them in a mirror… they are, without any doubt, King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana” 9. Neither language nor the visible “can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space  where they achieve their splendour is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax” 9.

“But if one wishes to keep the relation of language to vision open, if one wishes to treat their incompatibility as a starting-point for speech instead of as an obstacle to be avoided, so as to stay as close as possible to both… we must… pretend not to know who is to be reflected in the depths of that mirror, and interrogate that reflection in its own terms” 9-10.

“The window operates by the continuous movement of an effusion which, flowing from right to left, unites the attentive figures, the painter, and the canvas, with the spectacle they are observing; whereas the mirror… by means of a violent, instantaneous movement, a movement of pure surprise, leaps out from the picture in order to reach that which is observed yet invisible in front of it, and then, at the far end of its fictitious depth, to render it visible yet indifferent to every gaze” 10.

“The mirror, by making visible, beyond even the walls of the studio itself, what is happening in front of the picture, creates, in its sagittal dimension, an oscillation betweent he interior and the exterior” 11.

The painting induces “a spiral gaze” through aesthetic representation. The little Infanta is “the principal theme of the composition… the very object of this painting” 12. All the other figures are arranged around her in pairs. “In depth, it is the princess who is superimposed on the mirror; vertically, it is the reflection that is superimposed on the face… they are very close to one another” and both face the same point “which is completely inaccessible because it is exterior to the picture, yet is prescribed by all the lines of its composition” 13.

“The entire picture is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene. A condition of pure reciprocity manifested by the observing and observed mirror, the two stages of which are uncoupled at the two lower corners of the picture…[the two sovereigns] create this spectacle-as-observation” 14.

They are the most ignored and yet most central to the painting because of its composition.

“There occurs an exact superimposition of the model’s gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator’s as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter’s as he is composing his picture… the one in front of us. These three ‘observing’ functions come together in a point exterior to the picture… an ideal point in relation to what is represented, but a perfectly real one too, since it is also the starting-point that makes the representation possible… that reality is projected within the picture – projected and diffracted in three forms which correspond to the three functions of that ideal and real point” 15.

The reflection of the sovereigns “restores, as if by magic, what is lacking in every gaze… perhaps this generosity on the part of the mirror is feigned; perhaps it is hiding as much and even more than it reveals,” for the mirror ought to show us Velazquez and even ourselves 15.

“For the function of that reflection is to draw into the interior of the picture what is intimately foreign to it… But because they are present within the picture, to the right and to the left, the artist and the visitor [man on the back stairs] cannot be given a place in the mirror: just as the king appears in the depths of the looking-glass precisely because he does not belong to the picture” 15.

“The profound invisibility of what one sees is inseparable from the invisibility of the person seeing – despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits… [it is] the representation, as it were, of Classical representation… representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form” 16.


Michel Foucault: Vol. 1, “The History of Sexuality”



Foucault begins with “the story” of history we all know – that of Victorian oppression. To “free ourselves,” though not from what we think, will take “nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an irruption of speech, a reinstating of pleasure within reality, and a whole new economy in the mechanisms of power” – not just a shift in medical and theoretical discourse 5.

Over and against the narrative of repression that suggests that the later 17th century and the rise of capitalism constituted the beginnings of this “age of oppression,” Foucault suggests that “if sex is repressed… condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression,” a benefit to the speaker 6. If we think we are “defying established power” by speaking openly and solemnly about sex, however, we are mistaken 7. It is the new form of preaching, since “the statement of oppression and the form of the sermon refer back to one another; they are mutually reinforcint” 8. The question is not ontological for Foucault (why are we repressed), but epistemological (why do we say we are repressed or think we are repressed?):

“My aim is to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function… Why do we say… that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?” 8-9

The burden of this guilt we have chosen might be alleviated it we consider Foucault’s “three serious doubts” of the repressive hypothesis.

1. Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact?…
2. Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? (prohibition, censorship, and denial)
3. Did the ctitical discourse that addresses itself to repression come to act as a roadblock to a power mechanism that had operated unchallenged up to that point, or is it not inface part of the same historical network as the thing it denounces… by calling it ‘repression’? Was there really a historical rupture between the age of repression and the critical analysis of repression? 10

Foucault is less interested in disproving repression than “putting it back within a general economy of dsicourses on sex… to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said… the way sex is ‘put into discourse'” 11.

“I do not maintain that the prohibition of sex is a ruse, but it is a ruse to make prohibition into the basic and constitutive element from which one would be able to write the history of what has been said concerning sex starting from the modern epoch… far from undergoing a process of restriction, on the contrary has been subjected to a mechanism of increasing incitement… [not a] principle of rigorous selection, but rather one of dissemination and implantation of polymorphous sexualities” 12.



Foucault presents the “censorship” of the 17th century as an interplay of mutually referring prohibitions:

“As if in order to gain mastery over it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present… imposed silence. Censorship. Yet when one looks back over these last three centuries with their continual transformations… one sees a veritable discursive explosion” 17.

“It may indeed be true that a whole rhetoric of allusion and metaphor was codified… areas… of tact and discretion… a whole restrictive economy… At the level of discourses and their domains, however, practically the opposite phenomenon occurred… a steady proliferation of discourses… different from one another both by their formand by their object: a discrusive ferment that gathered momentum from the 18th century onward” 17-18.

Foucault is less concerned with “discourses of infraction” than with “the multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it… and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” 18. (Again, this seems like  a description of the hysterical realist novel?) The confession manuals of the Middle Ages nonetheless managed to determine exactly what acts, positions, and repetitions had occurred in order to exact repentance, and “while the language may have been refined, the scope of the confession – the confession of the flesh – continually increased” 19. Not just language became figurative, but the desire, too – the emphasis was more on the stirrings of desire that prefigured the act than before, the injunction to examine “all the faculties of your soul… with precision all your senses as well” 19-20.

“Discourse, therefore, had to trace the meeting line of the body and the soul, following all its meanderings: beneath the surface of the sins… under  the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of” 20.

According to Foucault, this began the “nearly infinite task of telling” sex in the West, the search to “transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse” 20-1. “One could plot a line going straight from the 17th-century pastoral to what became its projection in literature, ‘scandalous’ literature at that. ‘Tell everything… not only consummated acts, but sensual touchings, all impure gazes, all obscene remarks… all consenting thoughts…'” 21. Sade said, “Your narrations must be decorated with the most numerous and searching details, the precise way and extent” they occurred, and the anonymous author of the English libertine in My Secret Life writes, ” a secret life must not leave out anything; there is nothing to be ashamed of” 21-2. For Foucault, this man was not so much brave as “the most naive representative of a plurisecular injunction to talk about sex” 22.

The erotics of discourse prolong, repeat, and stimulate these desires and acts into “mastery and detachment… this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation and modification of desire itself” 23 (faceting). Thus it is less about how sex was moralized for Foucault than about how subjects were compelled to speak “despite” that 24. In this way, sex is transformed to numbers, to use value, to the goals of the racist ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries 26.

In the case of childhood sexuality, Foucault acknowledges a loss of “freedom” between children and adults, but it is not characterized by silence – rather, different things were said in a different way by different speakers – the discourse altered 27. Children were told about sex by doctors and educators in specific ways: “the child was not to be simply to mute and unconscious object of attentions prearranged between adults only; a certain reasonable, limited, canonical, and truthful discourse on sex was prescribed for him – a kind of discursive orthopedics” 29.

“All this together enables us to link an intensification of the interventions of power to a multiplication of discourse… First there was medicine, via the ‘nervous disorders’; next psychiatry, when it set out do discover the etiology of mental illnesses, focusing its gaze first on ‘excess,’ then onanism, then frustration, then ‘frauds’ against procreation,’ but especially when it annexed the whole of the sexual perversions as its own province; criminal justice, too, which had long been concerned with sexuality… and lastly, all those social controls… which screened the sexuality of couples, parents and children… intensifying people’s awareness of it as a constant danger” 30-1.

Here is where Foucault offers the supremely bizarre example of the “simple-minded” farm hand who “obtained a few caresses from a little girl, just as he had done before and seen done” in “the familiar game called ‘curdled milk'” 31. For Foucault, who interestingly engages in practices of ellipsis and figuration in his description here, the significant thing about the story is “the pettiness of it all… these inconsequential bucolic pleasures, could become, from a certain time, the object not only of a collective intolerance but of a judicial action, a medical intervention, a careful clinical examination, and an entire theoretical elaboration” 31. There is no issue for Foucault with “this village halfwit who would give a few pennies to the little girls for favors the older ones refused him” 32. Whereas we might complicate this view now, it is symptomatic of “generalized discursive erethism” for Foucault – an irritating sensitivity to stimulation in everything concerning sex 32.

The problem with sex being “driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence” is at least partly that “what is essential always eludes us, so that we must always start out once again in the search of it” 33. The “multiplicity of discourses” includes “demography, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy, and political criticism,” and in this atomization of discourses, “the secure bond that held together the moral theology of concupiscence and the obligation of confession” loosened,” causing a “dispersion of centers from which discourses emanated, a diversification of their forms, and the complex deployment of the network connecting them… a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” 33-4. Rather than making sex a secret “mirror at the outer limit of every actual discourse,” Foucault argues that institutions “dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” 35.


Were all these laws and enumerations “anything more than means employed to absorb, for the benefit of a genitally centered sexuality, all the fruitless pleasures?” 36. Whether this was the goal or not, “our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities” 37. The three codes through the 18th century were canonical, Christian, and civil law, all focused on marital relations, with little specificity about what “sodomy” and other “perversions and violations” actually entailed 37. Included in this “general unlawfulness” was a kind of ideology even against ontology, wherein hermaphrodites were deemed criminal because “their very being confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” 38.

The setting apart of the ‘unnatural’ was to force a confession that would be listened to out of those who would ultimately be condemned – incest, sodomy, and necrophilia took on different dimensions than adultery or rape as “the area covered by the 6th commandment began to fragment” 39. The actual punishments diminished in the 19th century as discourses proliferated 40. The four operations of power employed in lieu of former (corporal) punishments were as follows:

1. Unlike the goal of an asymptotic decrease in incests, the treatment of children’s onanism was treated as an epidemic that would never fully disappear but must be pursued: “lines of penetration were disposed” 42
2. An “incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals... the 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology… Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality… a secret that always gave itself away… a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself… a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” 43. This was extended to zoophiles, auto-monosexualists, mixo-scopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women – ever more categories (faceting) 43.
3. “The medicalization of the sexually peculiar… constant, attentive and curious presences for its exercise” 44. If sex was medical, it would have symptoms – “as a lesion, a dysfunction, or a symptom – in the depths of the organism or on the surface of the skin… the power which thus took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments” 44. This meant “a sensualization of power and a gain of pleasure… Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered… perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” 44. (Re: Best and surface reading.)
4. Devices of sexual saturation come into play 45. The complicated network of the family “saturated with multiple, fragmentary, and mobile sexualities” that were “multiplied,” since sexuality “attracted its varieties by means of spirals in which pleasure and power reinforced one another… the sexual mosaic” 47 (faceting).

Thus “the growth of perversions is not a moralizing theme that obsessed the scrupulous minds of the Victorians,” but “the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures… the frozen countenance of the perversions is a fixture of this game” 48. “The implantation of perversions is an instrument-effect” that “penetrated modes of conduct,” allowing for “an optimization of the power to which each of these local sexualities gave a surface of intervention… a concatenation” 48. “Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another” in “devices of excitation and incitement” 48.

“Never have there existed more centers of power; never more attention manifested and verbalized; never more circular contacts and linkages; never more sites where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold, only to spread elsewhere” 49.


The discourses of biology and medicine do not match up at this time, one demonstrating the “immense will to knowledge which has sustained the establishment of scientific discourse in the West, whereas the other would derive from a stubborn will to nonknowledge” 55. The problem with medical study of sex, Foucault claims, is that men “constructed around and apropos of sex an immense apparatus for producing truth, even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment” 56. (In a footnote, Foucault describes one of Charcot’s patients who “cries out for the sex-baton in words that are devoid of any metaphor”  – interesting on the topic of linguistic figuration again… 56.)

Foucault separates ars erotica, where “truth is drawn from pleasure itself” in a mode of mastery in and of the thing itself, whereas “on the face of it at least, our civilization… practice[s] a scientia sexualis… a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret… the confession” 58. Foucault claims that the confession (tied to torture of old) has led to “a metamorphosis in ltierature: we have passed from a pleasure to be recounted and heard,” like Benjamin’s storyteller, “to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering image” 59 (re: surface reading, symptomatic reading). Thus the obligation to confess no longer feels like obligation – “it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place” 60. We thus invert our idea of power in a way that serves it, since confession always takes place within an institutional dynamic of power 61. Like the priest, the psychologist “listens and says nothing” – the confession comes up from the base, from the trained individual 62. We now reconstruct not simply the act, but a whole narrative complex around it, for that which “was unmentionable but admitted to nonetheless” 64. This occurs in 5 ways:

1. Making the confession clinical has legitimized it and translated it from the confession 65. 
2. The most discrete detail could be a ‘key’ to the question, so all must be confessed 66. 
3. Latency is emphasized – the unconscious of the confessor 66. 
4. The doctor’s interpretation is validated in its hermaneutic function
5. Sex and its confession have other effects: “sex appeared as an extremely unstable pathological field: a surface of repercussion for other ailments, but also the focus of a specific nosography, that of instincts, tendencies, images, pleasure, and conduct” 67.

Thus bourgeois capitalist society treats sex as something “harboring a fundamental secret” possible to disclose via confession and discourse 69. This becomes “a fear that never ends” because “we demand that sex speak the truth (but, since it is the secret and is oblivious to its own nature, we reserve for ourselves the function of telling the truth of its truth, revealed and deciphered at last), and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness” 69.

The new pleasure this engenders is “the fascination of seeing and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of luring it out in the open… the delights of having one’s words interpreted” – in other words, the delights of reading and of theory and criticism! 71.

“The hypothesis of a power of repression exerted by our society on sex for economic reasons appears to me quite inadequate if we are to explain this whole series of reinforcements and intensifications… the solidification of the sexual mosaic and the construction of devices capable not only of isolating it but of stimulating and provoking it… We are dealing not nearly so much with a negative mechanism of exclusion as with the operation of a subtle network of discourses… At issue is not a movement bent on pushing rude sex back into some obscure and inaccessible region, but on the contrary, a process that spreads it over the surface of things and bodies, arouses it, draws it out and bids it speak, implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth: an entire glittering sexual array, reflected in a myriad of discourses, the obstination of powers, and the interplay of knowledge and pleasure” 72.

This is key for my idea of faceting, as is Foucault’s acknowledgment: “All this is an illusion, it will be said, a hasty impression behind which a more discerning gaze will surely discover the same great machinery of repression” 72. In fact, as Foucault will argue next, the surface is the content here.



For Foucault, we almost relate to sex via paranoia: “we are compelled to know how things are with it, while it is suspected of knowing how things are withus” 78. Sex becomes the ‘master key’ to unlock all doors, all facets of ourselves. Foucault proposes less a ‘theory’ of power than an ‘analytics’ of it in this second half of the text 82. Most representations of power, he acknowledges, either promise liberation (the negative relation, the limit and lack) or confirm that one is always-already trapped within it (the insistence of the rule, in which sex exists in a binary system of licit/illicit, permitted/forbidden) 83. Such views of power also encode a ‘cycle of prohibition’ against pleasure, a ‘logic of censorship,’ and a ‘uniformity of apparatus’ that constitutes “a legislative power on one side, and an obedient subject on the other” 85. The problem with such readings is that they suggest a power that is “poor in resources… incapable of invention, and seemingly doomed always to repeat itself… incapable of doing anything, except to render what it dominates incapable of doing anything either, except what this power allows it to do” 85.

“Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself” 86. In the West, power has always been codified by the law 87. The legal system became “merely a way of exerting violence, of appropriating that violence for the benefit of the few” 88. For Foucault, “we must construct an analytics of power that no longer takes law as a model and a code” 90. He will argue for a “technology of sex” – “sex without the law, and power without the king” 91.


Power is not a stable source, but an unstable, “moving substrate of force relations” 93:

“Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions an contradictions which isolate them from one another… as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatues, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies” 92-3.

Power is not something seized, but something disparate, permeating economic, knowledge, and sexual relationships, which “comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between the rulers and ruled… no such duality extending from the top down” 94. Power relations are “intentional” and “nonsubjective” – they have a goal, but not necessarily one originated by an individual 95. There is no exteriority to power – no

“locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable… they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations” 96 (think of faceting and narrative structure).

“More often [than binaries], one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities” 96 (resistance will mirror power).

“It is in this sphere of force relations that we must try to analyze the mechanisms of power… we must immerse the expanding production of discourses on sex in the field of multiple and mobile power relations” 97-8.

Foucault delineates ‘local centers’ of power (rule of immanence), ‘matrices of [power] transformations’ (ruels of continual variations), ‘non-mirroring of micro and macro institutions’ (rule of double conditioning – the family is not made as a mirror to patriarchy but used by it), and how ‘discourse can be both an instrument and effect of power, but also a hindrance’ (rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses’) 98-101.

“What is said about sex must not be analyzed simply as the surface of projection of these power mechanisms. Indeed, it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together… we must conceive discourse as a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform nor stable” 100.

(How can Jameson decry the form the postmodern novel has taken when it seems Foucault calls for this very form as the one of ideal resistance? A multi-surfaced, expanding network that mirrors the power structures it seeks to resist?)

“To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies. It is this distribution that we must reconstruct… with the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objectives that it also includes” 100.

As an example, Foucault points out how the discourse around sodomy “made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf” 101. (Again, think about how this could work with sexuality, objects, consumerism in the postmodern novel, and not just through irony, but talking back.) We must replace

“the privilege of sovereignty with the analysis of a multiple and mobile field of force relations, wherein far-reaching, but never completely stable, effects of domination are produced. The strategical model, rather than the model based on the law… not out of speculative choice or theoretical preference, but because in fact… war… became invested in the order of political power” 102.

(Isn’t this also what the postmodern fiction does? It questions narrative power, subjective centrality, makes us aware of the problems of “realism” that were there all along?)


Sex is “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population” 103. If we reduce sex to heterosexual marital monogamy, we ignore the manifold dimensions of different sexual politics, namely 4 figures:

1. The hysterical woman’s body – saturated with sexuality, necessitating regulated fecundity 104.
2. The unnatural sexual child – must be pedagogized out of onanism and other sexual encounters 104.
3. The Malthusian couple – must be socialized to produce in accordance with ideological strictures 105.
4. The perverse adult – especially the homosexual, necessitating correction 105.

What is involved here is “the very production of sexuality… not… a kind of natural given which power tries to hold n check, or… an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover,” but “a historical construct… a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power” 106.

If the deployment of alliance in the West is a system of kinship ties and family, the deployment of sexuality is “superimposed on the previous one,” reducing the former’s importance without supplanting it. It has “as one of its chief objectives to reproduce the interplay of relations and maintain the law that governs them; the deployment of sexuality, on the other hand, engeners a continual extension of areas and forms of control” 106. The latter “has its reason for being, not in reproducing itself, but in proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating, and penetrating bodies in an increasingly detailed way, and in controlling populations in an increasingly comprehensive way (biopower) 107.

The family is “the interpenetration of the deployment of alliance and that of sexuality… an obligatory locus of affects, feelings, love… sexuality has as its privileged point of development in the family… sexuality is ‘incestuous’ from the start” 109. Incest is then “constantly being solicited and refused; it is an object of obsession and attraction, a dreadful secret and an indispensable pivot” 109. It is forbidden, but is also required as an ongoing incitement of sexuality 109. If “the threshold of all culture is prohibited incest,” it becomes the basis of sexual law 109. “New personages” emerged within the family –

“the nervous woman, the frigid wife, the indifferent mother – or worse, the mother beset by murderous obsessions – the impotent, sadistic, perverse husband, the hysterical or neurasthenic girl, the precocious and already exhausted child, and the young homosexual who rejects marriage or neglects his wife… combined figures of an alliance gone bad… an opportunity for the alliance system to assert its prerogatives in the order of sexuality” 111.

As the family located incest, it “wrenched” from its breast the most painful confessions in an effort to root out sexuality 111. “The family was the crystal in the deployment of sexuality: it seemed to be the source of a sexuality which it actually only reflected and diffracted” 111 (again, hysterical realism, etc.) If Christianity induced sexual law, psychology saturated these laws with desire 113. The same 4 types – the child, woman, pervert, and regulated couple – must be viewed vis a vis the family as a sexualizing factor 114. Foucault names just 2 phases of capitalism – the first concerned with “fabricating children” for a labor force, the second with “a multiple channeling into the controlled circuits of the economy… a hyperrepresive desublimation” 114.


Instead of the 2 ruptures of repression theory (17th century law and 20th century loosening), Foucault examines the new technology of sex, which “required the social body as a whole, and virtually all its individuals, to place themselves under surveillance” (pedagogy, medicine, demography) 116. Foucault addresses eugenics for sterilization and racial control 119. The bourgeois family “was the first to commit itself to sexual erethism” 120. This was due to “an intensification of the body, a problematization of health and its operational terms: it was a question of techniques for maximizing life… the body, vigor, longevity, perogeniture, and descent of the classes that ‘ruled'” 123. (Re: Silko – tech turning on maker?) Body and soul were subordinated to sex as the bourgeoisie “creat[ed] its own sexuality and form[ed] a specific body based on it, a ‘class’ body with its health, hygiene, descent, and race: the autosexualization of tis body, the incarnation of sex in its body, the endogamy of sex and the body” 124. (Think of Derrida and auto- in Truth in Painting.. endogamy, a compulsion within.)

If aristocracy was a question of blood, bourgeois life was one of health and vigor, and bound to “a racism of expansion” 124-5. Later, the bourgeoisie would “safely import the deployment of sexuality into the exploited class,” but only later, when it developed concern for and awareness of the bodily and sexual nature of the exploited classes 126. Sexuality is “garrulous” and originary in the bourgeoisie, but it was unevenly and somewhat unsuccessfully exported, Foucault claims 127. One irony of the system was to repress incest, encourage its discourse in psychiatric arenas, and control its practice in rural areas 129. In the lower classes, incest and other ‘inciting’ practices were quashed. The “sexual revolution” is nothing more than “a tactical shift and reversal in the great deployment of sexuality” 131.


Back in the day, the sovereign (sword) had the right to “take life or let live” 136. Now wars are waged ‘on behalf’ of entire populations – “the atomic situation is now at the end point of this process: the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence” 137. Genocide is not the return of ancient killing ritual, but the regulation of population on a large scale 137. Capital punishment became less a remonstrance for crime and more the destruction of the criminal as monster who endangered others – to “foster life or disallow it” 138. Supervision “was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population” 139. The explosion of institutions instantiated techniques for subjugating bodies: “an era of biopower” 140. This biopower served capitalism’s development through “the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes… the growth of both these factors” like growth necessary everywhere in capitalism 141. Knowledge and power could intervene “amid the randomness of death” 142.

“If one can apply the term biohistory to the pressures through which the movements of life and the processes of history interfere with one another, one would have to speak of biopower to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life… society’s ‘threshold of modernity’ has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies… modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”143.

“Life as a political object was in a sense taken at face value and turned back against the system that was bent on controlling it… enables us to understand the importance assumed by sex as a political issue… disciplines of the body… the regulation of populations… infinitesimal surveillances, permanent controls, extremely meticulous orderings of space, indeterminate medical or psychological examinations” 145.

If sex represented the life of the body and the species, it had to be tracked down as “the stamp of individuality” within a society 146. The body was the actual object and target for the bourgeoisie, “an effect with a meaning-value,” where the blood of aristocracy had been “a reality with a symbolic function” 147-8. Foucault ultimately considers whether he evades sex to talk about sexuality, whether for him, far from the old means of localizing sex, “there are only groundless effects, ramifications without roots, a sexuality without a sex,” a social body which itself has ‘erotic zones’ 151. “It is precisely this idea of sex in itself that we cannot accept without examination,” for sex is perhaps less the root of sexuality than the deployment of sexuality is 152.

When women are hysterized, sex is common between men and woman, lacking in women, but also woman’s body itself, and hysteria is the conflict between these discourses of whole, lack, and part 153.  Sex is “function and instinct, finality and signification… the notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artifical unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere” 154.

“By creating the imaginary element that is ‘sex,’ the deployment of sexuality established as one of its most essential internal operating principles: the desire for sex – the desire to have it, to have access to it, to discover it, to liberate it, to articulate it in discourse, to formulate it in truth… it is this desirability that makes us think we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power, when in fact we are fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we think we see ourselves reflected – the dark shimmer of sex” 157.

“We must not place sex on the side of reality, and sexuality on that of confused ideas and illusions; sexuality is a very real historical formation; it is what gave rise to the notion of sex, as a speculative element necessary to its operation. We must not think that by saying yest to sex, one says no to power… it is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim – through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality – to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance… [not] sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures” 157.

Foucault quotes D.H. Lawrence on the importance of “the full conscious realization of sex” as being “even more important than the act itself” 157. “Perhaps one day people will wonder at this… [at men] who believed that therein resided a truth every bit as precious as the one they had already demanded from the earth, the stars, and the pure forms of their thought” 158. What we thought was a loosening and an uncovering was but “the centuries-long rise of a complex deployment for compelling sex to speak, for fastening our attention and concern upon sex… when in fact we were moved by the power mechanisms of sexuality” 158. Freud is part of the machine, for Foucault: “the good genius of Freud had placed [sex] at one of the critical points marked out for it since the 18th century by the strategies of knowledge and power, howe wonderfully effective he was – worth of the greatest spiritual fathers and directors of the classical period – in giving a new impetus to the secular injunction to study sex and transform it into discourse” 159. If Christianity made us hate the body, psychoanalytic discourse has made us love sex: “the irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” 159.

Heather Love: “Feeling Backward”



“The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants” 1. The project of the book is to look back at the painful, moving stories of queerness rather than only “affirming the legitimacy of gay and lesbian existence” 2. “The turn to the negative in queer studies was also the result of a deep intellectual engagement during this period with [Foucault, who] describes the ways that dominated groups may take advantage of the reversibility of power… discourse produces power ‘but also undermines and exposes it'” 2. For example, as homosexuality (“inversion”) was translated from religious taboo and legal violation into the discourse of illness, it became possible for it to ‘speak in its own behalf'” 2.

The contradiction of queerness as “delicious and freak… is lived out on the level of individual subjectivity; homosexuality is experienced as a stigmatizing mark as well as a from of romantic exceptionalism” 3. It also exists between celebrity gays and lesbians and the real violence and inequality of the everyday. Love is concerned with the deep emotions that painful texts (like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness) stir in us; even if the project of queer studies has to be to affirm, for Love, it seems it also has to be to dwell in the affects of pain and damage, to turn “attention to several late 19th and early 20th century literary texts visibly marked by queer suffering” 4. Whether vague or explicit, the texts of Pater, Cather, Hall, and Warner are all engaged in “feeling backward,” the “painful negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality… an account of the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia” 4.

The backward-looking image of the text is drawn from Lot’s wife, who could not but look back at the loss of the city as a consequence of sin 5. Like “trope,” which means a turn of the “word away from its literal meaning,” Love will turn characters and phrases out of context “to create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline both the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” 5. Inherent in modernity’s insistence on progress are also its failures and regressions 5. Aesthetically, too, “the new” is prized alongside nostalgia, primitivism, and melancholia in modernism 6. Queerness is “a backward race,” “a past,” a confrontation with death for Love 6.

“Backwardness has been taken up as a key feature of queer culture. Camp, for instance, with its tender concern for outmoded elements of popular culture and its refusal to get over childhood pleasures and traumas, is a backward art” 7. “I also consider the backward feelings – shame, depression, and regret – that they inspire in contemporary critics” 8. If queer critics seek to “reach back and save” isolated artists, what happens when those texts “resist our advances”? 8. Horkheimer and Adorno “discuss the danger of lookng backward in The Dialectic of Enlightenment… the allure of the Sirens… [is] ‘losing oneself in the past'” 9. What saves Odysseus is that “even as he looks backward he keeps moving forward… an ideal model of the relation to the historical past: listen to it, but do not allow yourself to be destroyed by it” 9. (This also has some kinky implications – the S&M/bondage of history?)

The integration of queer life into the mainstream may come on “the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it – the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others… the temptation to forget is stronger than ever” 10.

For Love, Raymond Williams “offers a crucial link between cognition and affect” in Marxism and Literature in describing ‘structures of feeling’ – “the idea that feeling flows naturally from the subject and expresses the truth of that subject” 11. Since “literature accounts for experience at the juncture of the psychic and the social,” it is a privileged example for Williams 12. Love also pauses to consider Wendy Brown’s idea of “Left Melancholy,” where a “crisis of political motivation” also entails a focus on traditionally nonpolitical affects like shame and melancholia 12. Love also mentions Ngai, whose affects expressly do not inspire political action, but are rather, as Ngai herself writes, “diagnostic” 13. Critics such as Warner, Sedgwick, and Crimp have suggested the shared experience of shame and the shamed as a potential space for collectivity 14. Love wants to expand the “bad feelings” that seem apolitical and consider how they might be transformed into action regardless.

Love calls on Butler’s questioning of the term ‘queer’ in “Critically Queer,” where Butler suggests that the term queer itself will have always to be turned and queered to remain questioning, relevant, though for Love, it should also be aware of the past it is staging and overcoming 18. In other words, for Butler, we must not linger in the history of injury implied in the word. “D.A. Miller suggests a way to think about the relationship between the queer past and the queer present in terms of continuity rather than opposition or departure” that focuses on “the indelible nature of ideology’s effects” – the “before and after” of gay experience, in which “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame,” even for those individuals who did not themselves experience events such as Stonewall 19-20.

Love, like Berlant, calls on Lacan’s description of love as failure, and in Freudian terms, “homosexuality is often seen as a result of a failure of maturation or a failure to overcome primary cathexes, and it has been associated with narcissism and infantilism as well as with incomplete or failed gendering… as selfishness… fleeting and doomed” 21-2. Here, “homosexuality and homosexuals serve as scapegoats for the failures and impossibilities of desire itself” 22. Lee Edelman, “recommends that queers embrace their association with the antisocial, while still pointing to the antisocial energies that run through all sexuality” 22. Rather than the antisocial voiding the future, Love focuses on failures of the social and ambivalence toward the future through a look at the past 23.

Love is skeptical of the systems and structures of psychological readings, and aligns herself instead with Sedgwick’s idea (in Touching Feeling) of “a swerve away from ‘paranoid’ toward ‘reparative’ reading… from exposure as a reading protocol… toward the descriptive rather than the critical” 23.

“Foucault’s legacy to queer studies is most closely allied with his critique of identity and his development of the method of genealogy…[in homosexual love] the best moment of an encounter is when you are putting the boy in the taxi… a historical real that is always receding, always already lost” 24. “Though bad feelings have been central to the history of queer experience and queer feeling, there is little room for them in the contemporary climate… While I do not argue for the political efficacy of any particular bad feeling in this book, I do argue for the importance of such feelings in general. Backward feelings serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world… It is true that the small repertoire of feelings that count as political – hope, anger, solidarity – have done a lot… not nearly enough” 26-7.

Love advocates for the term queer because “rather than disavowing the history of marginalization and abjection, I suggest that we embrace it… Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage… it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present” 29. “It is this disposition toward the past – embracing loss, risking abjection – that I mean to evoke with the phrase ‘feeling backward… It may in fact seem shaming to hold onto an identity that cannot be uncoupled from violence, suffering, and loss. I insist on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead'” 30.

Lauren Berlant: “The Female Complaint”



“Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking” 1. Popular culture

“market[s] what is sensational about the complaint, speaking from a pretense to skewer an open secret that has been opened and skewered, in US culture, since at least the 1830s. Fusing feminine rage and feminist rage, each has its own style of hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little… [they] foreground witnessing witnessing and explaining women’s disappointment… they are also sentimental, and therefore ambivalent: they trust affective knowledge and irrational assurance more than truths of any ideology; they associate femininity with the pleasures, burdens, and virtues of emotional expertise and track its methods in different situations; they focus on the sacrifice of women’s emotional labor to a variety of kinds of callousness, incompetence, and structural inequity; they catalog strategies of bargaining, adaptation, and flouting the rules. But in popular culture ambivalence is seen as the failure of a relation, the opposite of happiness, rather than as an inevitable condition of intimate attachment and a pleasure in its own right”1.

The “thrilling encounter with pleasure, foreboding, and disappointment familiar to fans of the soap opera and the melodrama” might be placed on a spectrum with the type personality of the sitcom 2. “Complaint genres” blame “flawed men and bad ideologies” for “women’s intimate suffering,” but also “maintain some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place” 2. This is a “vigilance” in “recording how other women manage” – “a space of disappointment, not disenchantment” 2. The sentimentality lies in the American “love affair with conventionality,” as well as with the “tomorrow is another day” attitude that demonstrates a “confidence in the critical intelligence of affect, emotion, and good intention… agency that is focused on ongoing adaptation… transcending the world as it presents itself” 2.

Such “permission to thrive” constitutes “permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire… the aesthetically expressed desire to be somebody in a world where the default is being nobody” 3.

“Thus to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world. To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them. The convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation of the idea of a shared confirming imaginary in advance of inhabiting a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived. In popular culture, when conventionality is not being called a homogenizing threat to people’s sovereignty and singularity it is seen as a true expression of something both deep and simple in the human… I span the term’s normative and aesthetic senses and claim that the mass mediation of desires in women’s genres constructs a deep affinity between them” 3.

A genre “mediates what is singular, in the details, and general about the subject. It is a form of aesthetic expectation with porous boundaries allowing complex audience identifications: it locates real life in the affective capacity to bracket many kinds of structural and historical antagonism on behalf of finding a way to connect with the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however aesthetically mediated” 4.

“To call an identity like a sexual identity a genre is to think about it as something repeated, detailed, and stretched while retaining its intelligibility, its capacity to remain readable or audible across the field of all its variations. For femininity to be a genre like an aesthetic one means that it is a structure of conventional expectation that people rely on to provide certain kinds of affective intensities and assurances” 4.

Importantly, for Berlant, this means that ‘performativity’ often means variations within convention, rahter than “dramas of potentially frame-breaking alternativity” 4. The swerves a genre takes as “transgressions” on the way to the ultimate end are often part of the convention: “women’s culture always contains episodes of refusal and creative contravention to feminine normativity, even as it holds tightly to some versions of the imaginable conventional good life in love” 4. “The gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real – social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life… one of the main utopias is normativity itself… an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world” 5.

“An intimate public operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires… participants… feel as though it expresses what is common among them, a subjective likeness that seems to emanate from their history and their ongoing attachments and actions… seems to confirm the sense that even before there was a market addressed to them, there existed a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails… ‘Women’s culture’ was the first such mass-marketed intimate public in the United States of significant scale” 5.

“As long as they have had a public sphere, bourgeois white women writers have mobilized fantasies of what black and working-class interiority based on suffering must feel like in order to find a language for their own more privileged suffering at the hands of other women, men, and callous institutions [The Help!]… Compassionate liberalism is, at best, a kind of sandpaper on the surface of the racist monument whose structural and economic solidity endures: in the intimate sphere of femininity a kind of soft supremacy rooted in compassion and coercive identification wants to dissolve all that structure… while busily exoticizing and diminishing the inconvenient and the noncompliant… But… intimate spheres feel like ethical places…” 6. [vs Mad Men?]

“The problem at hand is of naming what appears when a collectivity is historically created by biopower, class antagonism, nationalism, imperialism, and/or the law and, at the same time, is engendered by an ongoing social life mediated by capital and organized by all kinds of pleasure… Intimate publics elaborate themselves through a commodity culture; have an osmotic relation to many modes of life; and are organized by fantasies of transcending” 8.

“Biopower has indeed reorganized individuals into populations deemed incompetent to the privileges of citizenship… fields of historical commonality that are at once specifically related to events… and to what it was like back in the day” 9.

“A public is intimate when it foregrounds affective and emotional attachments located in fantasies of the common, the everyday, and a sense of ordinariness, a space where the social world is rich with anonymity and local recognitions… textually mediated: as Miriam Hansen has argued, modern publics required stylistic strategies and modes of narration to absorb viewers into textually constructed positions of general subjectivity that also served the historical convergence of social and economic objectives [think Williams and the code and Mulvey and the gaze]…. in mass society, what counts as collectivity has been a loosely organized, market-structured juxtapolitical sphere of people attached to each other by a sense that there is a common emotional world available to those individuals who have been marked by the historical burden of being harshly treated in a generic way… a sense of lateral identification… revelations of what is personal, regardless of how what is persona has itself been threaded through mediating institutions and social hierarchy” 10 [think faceting!]

“Mass-mediated popular culture is always generating more opportunities for fomenting a sense of focused belonging to an evolving world in this intensely connected yet mediated way… Belonging to an intimate public is therefore a condition of feeling general within a set of porous constraints, and of feeling held or sustained by an evolving sense of experience that confirms some homogeneity and elaborates social distinctions” 13.

Disappointment and fulfillment are “partners” in the culture of women and love: “Each is central to the absorbing anxiety that gets animated by having an object of desire” 13. In Lacanian terms, “the loss of pleasure, then, can be defined as the insufferable interruption of a repetition with which a lover has identified the optimism of a fundamental attachment” 14.

“Love is the gift that keeps on giving when people can rely on reexperiencing their intimates’ fundamental sympathy with the project of repetition and recognition [importance of ‘tomorrow’]… Love is the gift that keeps on taking for the same reason: the search for mirroring (desire) demands constant improvisation (anxiety) and taking of accounts (disappointment)” 15.

When a success, this is called reciprocity. For Jacqueline Rose, “anxiety is the core affect of femininity, which operates under an imperative never to fail to stop working on itself” 16.

“In women’s culture, normative femininity and aesthetic conventionality constitute the real central couple, with the love plot as the vehicle for and object of desire. Spivak’s description of the ‘concept/metaphor’ that is simultaneously descriptive and transformative is useful here… for not changing, but adapting, propping the play of surface against a stubborn demand to remain in proximity to the promise” 19.

“For a woman committed to romantic fantasies of love as reciprocity to break with the normative emotional bargains is to threaten her participation in the good life that seems to unfold from desire and to be maintained by ordinary emotional labor. The sentimental bargain of femininity… receives her own value back not only in the labor of recognition she performs but in the sensual spectacle of its impacts. In this discursive field the emotional labor of women places them at the center of the story of what counts as life, regardless of what lives women actually live: the conjuncture of family and romance so structures the emergence of modern sexuality, with its conflation of sexual and emotional truths, and in that nexus femininity marks the scene of the reproduction of life as a project… to be proximate to this story of emotional centrality. The circularity of the feminine project… is a perfect form, a sphere infused with activities of ongoing circuits of attachment that can at the same time look and feel like a zero” 19. [think Joan Holloway Harris]

“The mechanism of sentimental saturation of the intimate sphere with materials and signs of consumer citizenship has been crucial to what Mark Seltzer has called the ‘pathological public sphere’ of the contemporary US… the sensationalism of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Uncle Tom genealogy is notable precisely because its sensationalism was a politically powerful suturing device of a bourgeois revolutionary aesthetic” 20.

Why write the history of these privileged, mostly white and straight women, Berlant asks? “For too long the only importance a counterpublic has had to intellectuals is its convertibility to politics… to make transgression and resistance the values against which the data were measured” 24. Berlant turned away from a cultural history of these artifacts and toward affect and intimate publics 26. Because not all life is political, “it seems important to understand what is absorbing in the defensive, inventive, and adaptive activity of getting by, along with the great refusals to go through power to attain legitimacy” 27. (The repetition of absorbing here is so interesting – given what it says about TV/femininity/absorption as lack of intelligence vs action as exercising intelligence.)

The chapter on Imitation of Life “develops a notion of prosthetic subjectivity and prosthetic bodies as vehicles for self-generalization, or leaving history behind through identification with celebrity… To identify with someone in mass society is not necessarily to want to be them or to have them, but to be freed from being who you are, with all of its burdensome historical determinations. To see identification as a departure from rather than an imitation of might seem ironic in a chapter on imitating life, but the imitators turn out all to have chosen bad objects in their flights from their historical (racial, classed, sexual, and gendered) unfreedom” 29. It is also about the “white supremacy” invoked by films that exploit the sorrow of black pain.

“Each chapter closes with an opening, a segment of ‘unfinished business.’… to unpredicted destinies of material in the chapter that precedes them… what happens when a capitalist culture effectively markets conventionality as the source and solution to the problem of living in worlds that are economically, legally, and normatively not on the side of almost anyone’s survival, let alone flourishing. Nonetheless, flourishing happens” 31.

“For many people, sentimentality and the fantasy of a better proximate world so close that one can experience it affectively without being able to live it objectively produces art that does, that transports people somewhere into a situation for a minute… the terror of detaching… the emphasis is on the process of bargaining with what there is… most revision and adaptation is the activity of making change take place, even if it is also usually the opposite of that, and a mirage… endings can be made into openings” 31. [again, yonic]


Berlant begins with Passing, suggesting that Irene does not so much desire Clare as desire to be in her body – to experience ‘passing’ 109. The ‘mulatta’ is “the paradigm problem citizen” 111. In the novel and both film versions of Imitation of Life, “the white woman struggles to achieve economic success and national fame while living in a quasi-companionate couple with the black woman, who does the domestic labor; the black woman, who is also instrumental in the white woman’s mastery of commodity culture, remains a loyal domestic employee, even in the wealthy days” 112. Importantly, it is with money that “their bodies reemerge as obstacles, sites of pain and signs of hierarchy” and Annie’s death “from heartbreak effectively and melodramatically signals the end of this experiment in a female refunctioning of the national public sphere” 113.

Moving from novel to film to film, the source of “passing” moves from a husband (Bea Pullman, with Delilah as the logo) to Delilah herself (Bea, with Delilah still as the logo) to Lora as the public entity entirely (and Annie as the domestic labor support) 113. In the first case, men connect Bea to “the public sphere and capitalist enterprise” 115. When Mr. Pullman dies and Bea finds herself pregnant, she is “imbricated more deeply into separate spheres: the domestic/maternal and the public/capitalist… an impossible position, mapped out according to two mutually reified gender logics” 117. In the novel and Stahl’s film, “when Delilah stands framed in the store’s plate glass window making her authentic pancakes, the mise-en-scene of capitalist aesthetics merges with actual production” 118.

“Because Bea herself is so desperately liminal, masquerading as the difference between the white man’s name and the black woman’s body, she has no consciousness of her privilege. Rather, like Delilah’s light-skinned daughter, Peola, Bea has the perverse opportunity to capitalize on racist patriarchal culture by creating a compensatory ‘body’ to distract from the one already marked by the colonial digit” 119. Delilah becomes the trademark – ” a consensual mechanism” who “triangulates with the customer and the commodity… a ‘second skin’ that enables the commodity to appear to address, to recognize, and thereby to ‘love’ the consumer” 120. When she dies, part of her well-attended funeral is due to this “facsimile” which has “legitimated blackness in public white culture” 121. “The recurrent success montage that traces Delilah’s transformation into a trademark begins by emitting the same odor of racist expropriation that permeates Hurst’s novel. For Bea takes Delilah’s pancake recipe, her maternal inheritance, and turns it into a business; she takes Delilah’s face and turns it into a cartoon trademark. Stahl stages Delilah in this scene as a buffoon, a position that provides her an opportunity for ironic commentary” 125. (It’s interesting that Stahl flips this logo over and over again…)

If Delilah signs over her body thus, but still critiques the system in her “perplexity” about “where the blame lies,” Peola is focused on becoming “less meaningful and more American” 130. In this early version, “national nostalgia for a safe domestic space was played out in commodity culture through the production and transcendence of a black trademark” 132. Sirk’s film “pulls back the black trademark’s curtain and reveals the white woman hovering there: in one of the great tu quoque sequels of our time, his… exposes the form of the white woman to the commodification she has for so long displaced onto the black woman’s body” 132. Berlant maps Lora’s progress from face above the Coney Island sign to disembodied face to the point of fame where “women in the audience mime her look so that projection of her visual image is no longer necessary to transmit to us her dominion in the national/capitalist space of fantasy consumption” 133.

The main argument against Lora’s career is that “public life is ‘imitation’ and private life is ‘real’ where women are concerned” 136. Sarah Jane’s role is that of “internal estrangement,” with “no space safe from performance or imitation” 137. “Annie and Steve, who police imitation with an unwavering moral passion, become implicated in female fraudulence by their addiction to it. Steve and Annie assume pain the way Lora and Sarah Jane want pleasure: and if the star-crossed women overinvest in the ecstasy and value of being public objects, the star-crossed blood lovers turn their pain into its own kind of spectacle,” showing not just “the prosthetic public female body” but “the problem of the female body itself becomes a commodity” 139.

Sirk films the funeral scene through windows for “costume rentals” and “fakery,” and insisted that Mahalia Jackson should have read as grotesque to viewers, rather than moving. The problem of the racialized body becomes one of suppressing evidence 140.

“One of the main ways a woman mimes the prophylaxis of citizenship” is marriage – “borrowing the corporeal logic of an other, or a fantasy of that logic, and adopting it as a prosthesis… But marriage turns out to embody and violate the woman more than it is worth. Thus other forms of bodily suppression have been devised. This is how racial passing, religion, bourgeois style, capitalism, and sexual camp have served the woman… this ameliorative strategy has become the ‘trademark’ of female existence across race and class and sexual preference” in Sirk’s film 141. The text belies the reality that existence in public space will never truly emancipate the white woman, and certainly not the black woman, who remains a laborer even in the house of the “nicest” white woman 142.


Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.