Within the great debate over the status of art and philosophy, or beauty and truth, Plato ranked representations—from image, through copy, to simulation, with resemblance as the test of validity. Although Plato’s polarity, art and philosophy, has either been eroded or collapsed in contemporary theory, a comparable hierarchy of authenticity can be charted with modern media—from painting, to photography, cinema, and the contemporary illegal alien, the medium without an artistic passport, or better, without demarked material borders, television. In an era of electronic metamorphosis—pointillist image masses of continuous, particle movement, without visible support until televised or material base until taped or printed out—tangible objects are being replaced by labyrinthian circuitry; equally, like physics’ unexpected, proliferating particles named leptons, bosons, muons, and neutrinos, the “subject” is multiple and heterogeneous. Thus, mastery—through vision—over tangible objects and manageable subjects is lessening, as are originals, origins, a real, and singular truths—including (in the United States) the hold of unitary, classical, European systems of thought. For many art and literary critics, the anti-Christ has reached Bethlehem.
For intellectuals, illusory pleasure machines—in the twentieth century including vaudeville, cinema, and television—demand reparation, or at least a certain amount of guilt and condemnation, until replaced by another desiring, public machine as the new object of contempt. Preachers harangued vaudeville as a place of moral corruptness until the growth of the nickelodeons, and expressed religious outrage at photoplays. Video game parlors were prophesied as imminent doom, until most folded. At the same time, the contemptible medium provides, without direct acknowledgment, the very definitions of the theory, e.g., certain writings of Foucault in relation to cinema and other profitable machines of the visible; Baudril lard’s thesis as predicated on television and other electronic systems; and Freud’s, as well as Foucault’s, use of terms taken from opics—diffusion, diffraction. More generally, media, with specific modes of production, are turned into metaphor by theories and applied as historical symptom. These arguments follow a rhetorical pattern: a collective (un)conscious is often pessimistically if not catastrophically analyzed as altered by the “new technology” (better defined as a mesh of discursive techniques).
Fashionable and popular critiques of postmodernism can be interpreted as predicated on the reality and features of popular culture, particularly television and other electronic systems. Indeed, “video” (for museums) and television (for intellectuals) portray a virtual catalogue of traits of postmodernism, suggesting that TV serves as premise without acknowledgment. A compilation of postmodern features is in order: stated negatively, historical eclecticism, replication, and simulation; plagiarism and pastiche (rather than parody); bootlegging, recycling, plundering, and raiding the art of the past; nostalgia, ahistoricism, and apoliticism; or, more positively argued, bricolage and assemblage; the denial of dichotomies, bipolarities, and the ontology of media boundaries, including the breakdown of genres and the distinctions between art movements such as pop, op, and kinetic; the blurring of the borders and status, the distinction between art and popular culture, and overturning the rigid divide that separated modernism from mass culture; the vanishing of the Utopian belief in the project of modernization, along with the fervid faith in technology. Eptitomizing every blemish or glow, television is the quintessential embodiment (or emblem of decline) of postmodernism’s central traits.
As television is the dominant object that is either repressed or disparaged with noble condescension, so too are women, the majority subjects, acknowledged only with great difficulty; in postmodern treatises, feminist critiques, when acknowledged, are at best marginal or Other; in most exegeses or condemnations of postmodernism, they exist beneath the surface, incorporated as argument with neither foot nor love note.
Some critics have been more gallant than others—debonairly inviting feminist theorists and artists, along with other “minority cultures,” to join their debates. Andreas Huyssen, an influential explicator of the historical relationship between the avant-garde and postmodernism through the intellectual venue of German philosophy and U.S. art since the 1960s, has critically influenced the current debates through, for example, a special 1981 issue of New Cerman Critique on modernism, as well as through his own essays.1 In “Mapping the Postmodern,” which contextualizes German, French, and U.S. arguments, lucidly explicating major premises and posing questions, he writes: “It was especially the art, writing, filmmaking and criticism of women and minority artists . . . which added a whole new dimension to the critique of high modernism and to the emergence of alternative forms of culture.”2 Like Craig Owens in his widely read essay, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,”3 Huyssen agrees “that women’s art, literature and criticism are an important part of the postmodern culture of the 1970s and 1980s.”4 These comments acknowledge women’s avant-garde and postmodern practices, while attributing effect to feminist critiques of modernism—the quest for ontology, the centrality of the author/ genius, the uniqueness of the precious object of art, and the sacred distinction between art and popular culture. The essay does not, however, mention feminist work on representation of women in forms of popular culture—not a slight oversight. As forthright and flattering as Huyssen’s statements are, feminism remains peripheral, outside, although holding an engraved invitation.5 However, it is apparent that Huyssen is politically committed to crediting feminist practices with significantly altering our culture; he wants answers from feminist discourses and writes: “In light of these developments it is somewhat baffling that feminist criticism has so far largely stayed away from the postmodernism debate which is considered not to be pertinent to feminist concerns. . . .”6 Given postmodern criticism’s appropriation/avoidance of feminism and its doomsday terror of mass media—resulting in some form of disparagement of postmodern art—feminists are equally baffled; the territory of postmodernism is so familiar and alien, at the same time. Feminism has already been spoken for without an official announcement of the betrothal. Thus, accepting an invitation to this fraternity dance is intellectually difficult. However, because Huyssen’s sagacious, comprehensive essay has significantly influenced me, I will try to articulate our mutual—and different—bewilderment.
One text manifesting symptoms of male “mass” hysteria is the influential The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.7 While the fascinating collection of essays importantly illuminates many contemporary positions across wide-ranging and difficult terrain, the blatant absence of feminist issues and writing, with the exception of Craig Owens’s essay, proclaims an exclusive politics—as well as inscribing a blind, male figure of postmodernism (the Colonus stage of Oedipus’s tragedy). Hal Foster’s introduction, which lucidly clarifies and defines the contemporary debate while perhaps excluding feminism, evokes a substantial reservation. Foster’s two politics of postmodernism—one of resistance, “which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter,”8 one of reaction—which are so clear on first glance, are disconcerting on second thought. Without celebrating the status quo, feminist discourses contradict, lodge “in between,” these two politics by deconstructing and repudiating “modernism,” which, after all, had reserved few places for women other than nurturing mother or muse.
While acknowledging feminist critiques of modernism and mass culture, the major dilemma of Craig Owens’s essay stems from using Lacanian psychoanalysis—a system which denies women’s desire, among other things— as a logical or even radical basis for a feminist argument rather than as part or symptom of women’s historical situation. This might explain why and how Owens, like Lacan, can ignore the issue of women’s desire by locating it simply within (negatively, to be sure) a masculine imposture. In forgetting, like Lacan, that women are not merely male surrogates or masquerades but historical subjects with real experiences, knowledges, and histories, Owens is able to use feminism as an object of investigation existing in relation to male rather than female subjectivity, as the estranged Other of his title. At the same time, Owens places feminism centrally within postmodernism, quotes feminist theory, endorses feminist work, and analyzes feminist writing and art as intersecting practices of theory and politics. He finds in French theory what has attracted feminists (and what repels postmodern theory predicated on German philosophy, including Huyssen, which mourns the loss of narrative and history, including personal stories of authors, thereby asking for a return to modernism, if not realism). As Alice Jardine said during a Milwaukee presentation: “What most critics of ‘French Theory’ do not or will not deal with are the connections made possible by radical psychoanalytic theory among the libidinal, political, and capital economies. Possibly because these connections make gender and sexual difference intrinsic to all of these systems and all of their discourses, especially those of capitalism. . . .”9 I am not sure whether things French are quite so sweepingly rosy; yet Owens grasps this affinity and refuses the current, postmodern assault on, for example, the work of Barthes and Foucault.10
Equally, it is difficult to imagine the subtitled “postmodern culture” as a culture which excludes mass culture, particularly television or video, except by inference or negative example. In his essay in The Anti-Aesthetic, Edward Said refers, in the name of John Berger, to “television, news photography, and commercial film” as visual aids “all of them fundamentally immediate, ‘objective,’ and ahistorical.”11 While television is marginal in Said’s impassioned polemic against academia which calls for interference, “crossing of borders and obstacles,”12 and stands against elitist, academic specialization (and presumably the polarity art and popular culture), women are resolutely absent, not mentioned even if feminism seems to be a glaringly obvious argument. For example, Said states that one negative function of the humanities is “to conceal the hierarchy of powers that occupy the center, define the social terrain. . . .”13 Clearly, the revelation of hierarchies of power has been a goal of virtually every feminist discourse.
For two other critics, Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson, television and feminism (in a double popular culture whammy) are the barbarians, imagined to be securely outside the artistic and academic gates, yet threatening or known to be trashing from within, signaling yet another decline of contemporary society. Ensnared in pessimism, these writers are anxiously worried. For Baudrillard, whose writings are teasingly attractive, on first glance, to theorists of mass media, the cultural forecast is catastrophically bleak. While his metaphors are nuclear, astronomic, and electronic, finally his position is politically implosive. Beneath the surface, his work suggests a close allegiance with the Frankfurt School’s premises of decline through the mass culture industry (without, however, their careful, illuminating, textual analyses). In his assessment, there is no longer a staging of scenes, no spectacle, no mirror, no image or representation, all “effaced in a sort of an obscenity. . . . The obscene puts an end to every representation.”14 (I wonder how?) The contemporary subject in his unrelieved meaninglessness is not hysterical, paranoid, but schizophrenic. Among other things, Baudril lard’s “obscene” is the present, which in history becomes scene/seen; yet his longed-for past is a nostalgic one of (pre)realism and denotative correspondence. Meaghan Morris’s playful analysis in the Australian collection Seduced and Abandoned is ironic and acute: “This is not, after all, a modernist credo for a purely self-reflexive and ‘non-referential’ theory, and still less a post-modern conceit of scavenging; it is a claim that a discourse might be adequate to its world—it is . . . a realist claim. . . .”15 Operating outside history, Baudril lard’s interpretation leads to a numbing powerlessness; in the name of inclusion, his system, like Lacan’s banishment of history and the denigration of the Imaginary, excludes us. As Morris suggests in a clever linkage: “Yet we may . . . wonder whether the fascination of television enthusiasts for Baudril lard is not like that of feminists for Lacan. The great seducer, says Baudril lard, is the one who knows how to capture and to immolate the desire of the other.”16
Beneath the seductive, benevolent, yet acute pessimism is the terror of profane, popular culture, outside the preserves and premises of the Sacred Museum of Art. The mundane museum of dead styles is historical—earlier, a movie theater, currently, television, both brothels of disembodied images, both transient, nomadic, illusory objects without proper and tangible artistic passports. Behind the scenes, film theory has always suspected this. Forlornly, in the same collection, Jameson intones cultural stagnation: “all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.”17 Of course, crucial is the concept of life, not art, lived in a museum—the imaginary restaged as false history in a perpetual present. In this cultural mausoleum of dead styles, while Baudrillard gives the last rites to realism, Jameson eulogizes modernism. As divergent as their political positions might be, both long for Art or originals—for truth and mastery, when men were men and art was art—reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s “aura” and grandmother’s gift-giving in Remembrance of Things Past: “She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings. . . . But at the moment of buying them . . . she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was art still, to introduce, as it were, several ‘thicknesses’ of art. . . .”18 Perhaps one postmodern subterfuge, at least Baudril lard’s, is to “introduce, as it were, several ‘thicknesses’ ” of theory. The passing of a culture of precious, unique, tangible, man-made objects and the autonomy of the sanctioned institution of Art are mourned with the remembrance of things past.
One way of representing the decline into vapid popular culture is to feminize it, as Tania Modleski has argued;19 another is to decry popular culture’s absent (in postmodernism through acceleration and simulation) discourses of history, just as women have been denied history and consequently are represented as ahistorical, as eternal mother/muse, virgin/whore. In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Jameson does both, after delineating two features of postmodernism—pastiche and schizophrenia, “the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents.”20 Both traits could describe either commercial television or strategies applied to women—the representational conventions of fragmenting the female body and transforming woman into image, the perfect, fetishized whole, have been extensively deconstructed by feminist critiques. Surely Jameson must suspect the source of both his analysis and his depression— mass media, particularly television, and feminism. Following in the footsteps of Foucault, who equated women with patients and children, and Freud’s investigation of female hysteria, the grand, scholastic finale is to perform a psychoanalytic diagnosis and assign a label—in this postmodern case, like Baudril lard, schizophrenia. Unlike Freud, however, Jameson avoids naming his real problem, indeed refuses, except indirectly, the word: woman—the stumbling block of language for so many modern male theorists. As modernism was so fascinated by woman, so does feminism intrigue postmodernism.
Thus it is not surprising (although encountering any reference to women as subjects, let alone female subjectivity, by men is always startling) that after invoking a historical male cast of modern/heroic writers and filmmakers, and neutral, plural pronouns, suddenly a slash appears in Jameson’s discussion of the postmodern subject as a schizophrenic, a pronoun divided, in drag, a transvestite “he or she.” Although “he” is munificently included, a close reading suggests that the actual postmodern schizophrenic is either female or masquerading as a woman. Because I recognize myself in this postmodern subject, I will, as women are wont to do, interrupt Jameson’s treatise: “But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, [Lacan’s positioning women as other, outside language, the symbolic, the law of the father; ‘that way’ as the language of proper discursive power which excludes and hierarchizes] he or she does not have our [a neutral pronoun which presumes but does not include me] experience of temporal continuity either, but is condemned to live a perpetual present [the effects of eradicating women from official histories and places of power] with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection [linear, cause-effect chronological history, as Hayden White suggests, is yet another way narrativity overpowers and hierarchizes us] and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence [as good a description for strategies of representation of women within Western art as I’ve encountered; equally an apt description of women’s consigned, fragmented, discontinuous domestic existences]. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense [that of the unified, male, individual, genius ego], since our [whose?] feeling of identity depends on our [yours!] sense of the persistence of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ over time.”21 Women have been speaking in the first person, rarely and recently, usually with awkwardness.
While Jameson’s our tries to include me, finally it excludes me; paradoxically, he has written an apt summary of feminist critiques of representation of women and perhaps even described women’s daily domestic lives. His analysis is then applied to television which, like the bisexual postmodern subject, is historically, intellectually, or metaphorically ill. “The media” involve “the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions. . . . Think only of the media exhaustion of news . . . to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past.”22 (Women have been the objects of historical, aesthetic amnesia for centuries; now, in this bleak prognosis, as schizophrenics, outside history, like television or mass culture, they will be postmodern subjects—yet another double bind.) As tantalizing as his pessimistic analysis is (particularly significant as a Marxist reading for history, marked within periods of capitalism), it is a peculiarly deaf assessment of contemporary feminist debates argued from vantage points other than white male narratives.23
While much postmodern theory is constructing its object by trashing commercial television, ignoring video with nary a glance, and defining its subject as singularly male (both strategies involving a reclamation of mastery), many video artists are mapping out their own postmodernism, including a critique of contemporary media culture as/and politics significantly at variance with, or in advance of, the literary version which ignores them. At issue is the relationship of institutions of art, mass media, and academia; at stake are theories of subjectivity (including sexual difference) and reception, strategies of narrative and representation (the very status of the image, its relationship to sound), delineations of history, and questions of address and audience. Whether inadvertently or not, certain video works exist simultaneously as theory and criticism of literary theory (with which, in an ironic reversal of the way the scholar examines art tradition, many artists are familiar).
For example, while the delineation of the simulacrum in the writings of Baudrillard masquerades as a celebration of the “masses,” it decries illusion, the preoedipal hold of the Imaginary. Certain TV or video artists—including the extensive range of work by feminist artists on female subjectivity, but including work that does not directly address feminism, e.g., William Wegman and Michael Smith—star the paradox, trying to outmaneuver mastery via the imaginary, thereby positing different versions of the masculine “theory of the subject.” This frequently parodic work critiques power/surveillance by restaging it as simulation—a confusion of the levels of representation which challenges both the notion of the art object as autonomous and the sacredly entrenched institutions of art and academia.24
William Wegman’s one-shot scenes, produced between 1970 and 1977, have a complex concern: the dissembling of mastery (including the hold of sound/image synchronization over the spectator/auditor) through performed schizophrenia—funneled through elegantly witty parodies of the doubled institutions of academia and art. These vaudeville simulations of pedagogy, art historical or psychoanalytic burlesque, undermine institutions of authority. Wegman is the schizophrenic as stand-up comedian; he is, as in Freud’s joke, “a double-dealing rascal . . . (the Janus-like, two-way-facing character of jokes). . . ,”25 Wegman is his own straight man, in conversations with himself or with his dog, Man Ray, as performer/viewer/student in elisions of pedadogy, commercials, and “art.” Our position as spectator/auditor is unstable yet essential, resembling another interpretation of the simulacrum, one which is not pessimistic, and one which will be familiar to artists and feminists, suggesting its derivation—of course, without ackowledgment.
As I argued earlier regarding Owen Land’s films and Eternal Frame, in “Plato and the Simulacrum,” Deleuze’s refreshingly postmodern reading, the simulacrum has an anarchistic function well suited to this comedian: it bypases mastery because it already includes the angle of the observer. (In this regard, the simulacrum resembles the joke which necessitates a third person listener.) In his minimal, quiet studio—almost a vacuum without the ever-noisier presence track of television—Wegman usually performs alone, with only a man’s best friend—his art historical dog, Man Ray. Briefly the set-up: a stationary, unmanned camera, a closed-circuit monitor, usually one shot takes, and no editing. Wegman’s gaze and address are not direct, but at a mediating, off-frame monitor—his unblinking audience, cohort and mirror—enabling him to manipulate the image by, for example, syncing his voice with his body, altering the sound sources of his body, and by entering and leaving its field of vision. The audience is not imperatively addressed; enunciation, including its humorous collisions with the enounced, is deflected away from authoritative commands into a lesser form, description (according to classical rhetoric’s hierarchy) or anecdotal conversation. Because we complete the circuit of the joking process by traversing his leaps of metaphor, we slip into the unconscious with Wegman who might be parodying the conceits of body art as his stomach sings a duo; or performing a TV commercial via a Bauhaus/art school discourse with an exercise/vibrating chair—transforming objects by layering the discourses in the intricate process. As Barthes so elegantly suggests: “and if these emblems are perfect, it is ultimately because they are comic, laughter being what, by a last reversal, releases demonstration from its demonstrative attribute. What liberates metaphor, symbol, emblem from poetic mania, what manifests its power of subversion, is the preposterous. . . . The logial future of metaphor would therefore be the gag.”26 Wegman’s work is a logical future (Barthes was speaking about the Marx Brothers films); the art history/academia gag is a critique and a resistance to the outlandish promises of commerce through art.
The enunciation, the point of address of other scenes, the “Hey, you, I want you to hear something,” leads to a conversation, a dialogue with self, with body. “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do.”27 Just as the gaze is deflected through the monitor, or by eliminating eyes and altering the lips as source, or by using objects to replace the human figure, so is the source of the voice derailed, as we become both analyst and analysand. In Rage and Depression, Wegman, sitting on a chair, legs crossed, manically smiling, recites to the off-frame monitor/confessor/auditor/analyst: “So what am I gonna do. I had these terrible fits of rage and depression all the time . . . finally my parents had me committed. . . . They tried all kinds of therapy. Finally they settled on shock, and the doctors brought me into this room in a straight-jacket. I still had this terrible, terrible temper. I was just the meanest cuss. And then, when they put this cold, metal electrode to my chest, I started to giggle. And then when they shocked me, it froze my face into this smile, and even though I’m incredibly depressed, everybody thinks I’m happy. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Wegman then stands and exits while the tape ends as abruptly as it began. In a later, color tape, this schizophrenic returns; in an extreme close-up, only the grinning mouth remains: “Hi! Do you remember me, from a long time ago?” By changing the shape of his mouth and without a cut, Wegman answers his own salutation: “You look familiar.” Then the two yous—what about us?—discuss the pleasure of going to bad movies. Unabashedly, Wegman talks to himself. In another tape, a close-up of his face wearing Ernie Kovacs as Percy Dovetonsils cross-eyed glasses engages in another cock-eyed dialogue regarding the respective merits of playing horseshoes or baseball.
At the same time that the body and voice are divided or fragmented, so is image split from sound or meaning. For example, the image of Wegman on the hard, industrial relaxing chair denies the pleasurable promises of his sales pitch of sinuous, relaxing vibrations created by rhythmically striking the chair with a lead pipe. In Man Ray; May Ray (1981), with additional performers and longer than his earlier works, Russell O’Connor’s cause-effect narrative of the life of Man Ray, “human artist,” is intertwined with images of Man Ray, dog artist, or artist’s model. The seriousness of visual documents as support for scholarship’s precious discourse is undercut by the “truth” of the image as the tape intercuts old yearbook pictures, irrelevant newspaper photographs, and scenes of the romping dog. In other pieces, the conventions of sync are the source of comedy as we see Wegmen playing Man Ray’s nose or, in another tape while watching the bystanding monitor and grimacing, Wegman syncs up his facial expressions with Man Ray’s growling beneath the frame. When he (or man and beast) gets in sync, the tape ends. Source, enunciation, address, the status of being a human or an object, and our positioning within the sound-image complex—usually an authoritative place of synchronized, transparent legibility—are Wegman’s seriously comic concerns.
Wegman’s work dissects art history genres, movements, and discourses, mixing languages of commerce with art, leveling dichotomies including sound and image, human and nonhuman, and exposing the artificiality and seriousness of artistic gestures, as well as displacing the centrality of the revered notion of artist. Jean Francois Lyotard described experimentation: “With satire, however, you have free rein . . . you can turn pedagogical, dissertational, narrative, conversational, lyrical, epic. . . . In satire, genres are mixed because the persons speaking are varied. . . .” Lyotard argues for and celebrates the reversibility of satire, “of what is visible with what sees, of what can be said with what speaks.”28 (This assessment resembles Deleuze’s model of the simulacrum, incorporating the angle of the observer within it.) Paradoxically, by being both subject and object of his work, Wegman reveals, simultaneously, originality and the stereotypical gestures involved in “being an artist,” a “dog/star/man’s” life. With or without knowledge of body, conceptual, minimal, or performance art, we can “get” Wegman’s accessible art on several levels. Man Ray can be “read” as dog or human stand-in, as art performance or vaudeville dog act. Like Wegman, Man Ray is both subject and object, both artist and performer, both deflected source of the gaze (in the spelling lesson when, by admonition, he had mispelled beach as beech) and object of Wegman’s gaze in, particularly, the Polaroid photographs. Miniature dog narratives are predicated on “looking,” parodying the “truth of vision” and the status of the real and important. (Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “becoming animal” is literally embodied in Wegman’s photographs and videotapes, particularly his parody of portraiture and conceptual art, with Man Ray a historical still subject or performance artist. Man Ray is both the “libidinal object” and the maker’s alter ego—truly an artist’s best friend.)
The structure of jokes as miniature narratives, through time, with a reciprocal relation between image and enunciation and its effect upon the spectator resembles the structure and process of Wegman’s work. Freud locates the joke’s work and its sources of pleasure in relation to (1) the technique (an envelope, a container—in Wegman, TV conventions and Art History discourses); (2) the play of words and sounds; and (3) the lifting of inhibitions—in a join, or a brief, mutual, disparately timed slippage into the unconscious, between the first person maker and the third person listener. Jokes work by “consciously giving free play to unconscious modes of thought” which have, through acculturation, been rejected as faulty. The joke is a process and is temporal in its passage, finally dependent on intelligibility. Jokes have both a retroactive and an anticipatory narrative movement in time. Thus, the process depends on telling. “The psychical process of constructing a joke seems not to be completed when the joke occurs.” The need to tell is connected with the laughter produced; and thus, the critical function of laughter from the third person, absent from the event, is performed by the spectator/auditor who “laughs his quota off.” Pleasure paid for with laughter signals the joke’s completion.29 Thus, unlike (or in spite of) both the structures of narcissism usually connected with the solo video performer interacting with self-image and commercial television’s declaration of “live” audiences and use of laugh tracks to signal completion, Wegman’s work is open ended, inclusive of the audience. We complete the tapes at other times, in other places, posing a central concern of contemporary theories of subjectivity: reception, within historical moments and local contexts, within mixed discourses of “art” and “mass culture.”
These gentle, comic performances of theory enact Barthes’s dictum: the work produces “in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly.”30 Wegman’s wit has a marvelous indirectness, a brief, clever circumlocution of reversal, with a sharp aim and target, illustrating that pleasure and knowledge need not involve mastery: “The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one’s chest.”31 And, in another pasage: “Far too much heroism in our languages . . . muscular, phallic. . . . The pleasure of the text. . . is on the contrary like a sudden obliteration of the warrior value.”32
The context of Wegman’s work can be traced from U.S. art history discourses of the late 1960s—pop, op, minimalism, body, and conceptual art—a time when labeling according to stylistic difference was almost obsessive, as if to postpone the inevitable dissolution of genres and hierarchies, including the polarity between Art and Popular Culture. Equally challenged was the determining centrality of the singular, serious, heroic “artist” as both enigma and answer. Michael Smith’s 1980s performance/installation work (taken into video) is emblemmatic of the critical changes between the 1960s and 1970s. Performance (which is historical, e.g., happenings, Italian futurism, etc.) is an amalgam which disrespects ontologies, divisions, borders, and precious objects whether in media, academic disciplines, or traditional notions of “professionalism” and career; unlike theater, the artist is both inside and outside the work.
While Wegman also draws on a tradition of performance, the critical difference between the work of Smith and Wegman emerges in the use of, or generational relationship to, commercial television genres. In his 1970s tapes, Wegman operates within the sixty-second partitioning of commercial timing—a narrative/structural, one-liner span used in the black-outs and sound/image play of Ernie Kovacs, involving the mixture of genres comparable to 1950s “vaudeo.” A decade later, with direct quotation/critique of 1950s and 1960s television programs, Smith’s tapes resemble the more sustained, repetitive, continuing character format of sketch or situation comedy. “I have such a hard time putting a story together that I thought a good solution would be to use the same story over and over and do different things within it.”33 Like situation comedy and sketches, Smith’s work is edited to include reaction shots, scene changes, and intertitles, with elaborate props which are condensed and displaced in his dream logic, TV nightmares, confusing or conflating the real with the imaginary, turning television into a friendly or frightening companion/simulation. Smith’s segmented, chronological, cause-effect narratives of the unpopular, uncool bachelor Mike are serious critiques of, among other things, television reception and commercials’ fantasy scenarios.
In Secret Horror, a 1980 performance tape, narrated in the beginning by a voice-over, the sleeping Mike is awakened by a scream/a dream of a falling (art historical) grid ceiling. Obsessed by laundry, the high drama of ironing (replete with all the dream mechanisms) and other domestic travails, and edited with a Hitchcock parody of ringing telephones and knocks on the door, the protagonist is caught by popular culture—trapped in the nightmare of a hyped quiz show, taken with troubling anxiety in his underwear to a ghostly come-as-you-are party—in a life scored by irritating, cheery, constant muzak. This drama of the home TV viewer in his boxer shorts and T-shirt depicts the postmodern male subject: fraught with anxiety, obsessed with bridge mix and other small pleasures, imperiled by a lack of social skills, he is a comic clown of inept loneliness. The Ghosts, a condensation/displacement of his laundry and the ghostly presence of TV, pursue and torment him until the end when, dressed in his 1960s “fashionable” blue jean outfit (designed by Kenneth, as the end credits inform us) and large “Mike” belt buckle, Mike dances alone to a popular song, “Forever in Blue Jeans.” Mike is in tune with television but out of step with sociability. He is always an imitative chorus, pantomiming mass culture’s scream for popularity through sex and fashion. Via his direct looks at the camera, bewildered, eyebrow-raising reactions to the off-frame intrusion of dictates, his plight is comic and sad. Alone, Mike imitates fashion and waits for life—the version of controlled and cool masculinity promised and proclaimed by television.
Down in the Rec Room (1981) is another performance of anxiety-laden male adult adolescence and its terrors. In this tape, Mike is the party-giver; no one attends. After preparation and performance—including a perfectly synced pantomine of Donny dancing with Marie in which Mike, at one point, leans on his partner, the television set as another dancer—and inspired by the voice-over exhortation of a children’s song, “Make Believe” (an earlier, childish version of disavowal but no less accurate an assessment of subject mechanisms), the concept of TV as a collective ritual and as a friendly companion is poignantly challenged. The tape has two voices, a voice/over and a voice/on: his inner monologue, to which he reacts with amazed, double-take looks at us; and the confident voice of knowledge, the paternal assurance that “make believe” will make everything OK. Mike responds with first eagerly compliant then disbelieving reaction shots to this voice. However, just when he is about to quit, to stop pretending, the record cuts in: “But there’s one thing you must do. . . . You must be sure that you believe or nothing will come true.” After this warning, Mike continues to play the game of simulation with incredulity but resigned determination. This Mr. Rogers version of belief in imaginary friends is evangelistic if not propagandistic. TV as the imaginary arbiter and teacher of socialization is severely questioned; the tape concludes with “I didn’t invite them” as a record invokes storybook figures, including Santa Claus. Thus, popular culture becomes estranged as imaginary Other. We are defamiliarized as the everyday is made strange and vaguely threatening. “Make believe” is as risky, isolating, and bewildering as the psychoanalytic mechanism of disavowal and theater’s suspension of disbelief.
Mike’s voice is separated from his body in a version of inner speech or a dialogue between the inadequate, lonely ego and the superego—a private conversation to which we are invited ecouteurs. Smith’s work makes us aware of the profound isolation of the contemporary individual and the television viewer, caught in the imaginary of communication. Conversely, television might not be merely a culprit, a false and trivial ego ideal of glitter in Donny and Marie, but the only friend, with “let’s pretend” the only solace and escape. Mike has no one to talk with except television and us, watching him on television. Like all clowns, the character is caricature, knowable and lovable (sometimes adorable) in the tradition of Chaplin’s tramp rather than Keaton’s acrobatic lover/bumbler. Like most of us, Mike is an amateur, trying to disguise his acute “self-consciousness” with the latest fashion—in this case the styles of 1960s television—in reruns and thus out of history and out of style. This notion of media as obliterating history, causing us to experience an accelerating present tense, describes nostalgia and Jameson’s schizophrenic subject. Yet, Mike—a postmodern male inscribed in the imaginary, outside power’s domains—is also a challenge to traditional systems of dominance and power, including those master narratives and reassuring male voices of childhood.
Smith’s work resembles Freud’s definition of the comic, a two-person operation dependent on the memory of childhood dilemmas, involving a process with the audience different from Wegman’s three-way “joke.” Smith’s work denies commercial TV’s declaration of participation and inclusion while simultaneously promoting our identification with Mike; Wegman’s videotapes demonstrate reciprocity while defraying identification which is only possible with a dog or a schizophrenic. Yet, in uncanny ways, the similarities are more intriguing than the differences: the creation of below average, lonely, sometimes weird guys, out of sync with fashion, popularity, barely able to manage daily life, with TV as their collaborator; the use of self-dialogue and the separation (or doubling) of voice from body; but most importantly, the gentle, resistant comedy as critique of mastery, constructed on the premises of postmodernism—simulation, the schizophrenic subject, and dissolving the divide between art and popular culture. Both artists refer back to the history of commercial television—which has had scant respect for sustained great narratives and complex character psychology, preferring instead comedy and “variety,” the performative codes—and art. Like power and mastery, both commercial television and modern art are scrutinized. “When I learned how to juggle, I looked at the end of the book and saw a picture of this guy juggling a tennis racket, a garbage can, and a chain. I wanted to be able to do that, but I realized it would take a really long time.”34
Recuperation is, however, the risk of parodying television—historically a medium of parody, particularly of itself, from “I Love Lucy,” to Jay Leno’s critiques of popular culture, particularly television commercials. For forty years, television has been the domain of situation comedy, with its own quite brilliant classical set of conventions which privilege performance over narrative, a form which incorporates audiences within the enunciation. I don’t think performance art is equivalent to playing a second banana on a situation comedy. Yet, if that were the case, then the “Bob Newhart Show,” with its parody of Michael, an hysterical male yuppie with his blonde bimbo mate, Steffie, to say nothing of its parody of local television talk shows, would rank as the best art. For a generation raised on television, coming to terms with television is not the same thing as taking television on its own terms, which appears to be the postmodern case. I hope this is not the future of the character, “Mike.”
I want to conclude with a rigged comparison between what is called video art and feminist video, or Martha Rosier versus Nam June Paik. This setup illustrates the countercultural preference for biology/technology, distinguished in their thought from philosophy/ideology. Paik and Rosier sit on opposite sides of this intellectual rift. The work of Paik, linked to/derived from the historical avant-garde, conceptual art, and the Fluxus movement, presages both Baudril lard’s writing on simulation and 1980s exegeses of postmodernism, although paradoxically his collaborators are known as modernists. The dance of Merce Cunningham, the cello performance pieces of Charlotte Mormon, and the music of John Cage, along with Japanese television commercials and various New York scenes, are starred and recycled in his early tapes. The pastiche combines performance art like the smashing of pianos, or Cage’s performance in Harvard Square, with journalism, on the street interviews with passersby.
The Selling of New York (1972) consists of tapes broadcast on late-night TV in New York, with sections recycled in 1975 and revised in 1977. An art critic, Russell O’Conner, imperiously, monotonously intones ponderous sociologies, among them the statistical efficiency of the New York City police force compared with that of the force in Missoula, Montana. A woman in a beauty parlor chair angrily talks back to this authoritarian, boring voice, now on television. In one context O’Conner is an art critic; in another the voice of any authority, whether selling art, scholarship, or detergent. He is not a voice-off except metaphorically, but on, Foucault’s “speaking eye,” a truncated body of incessant, insistent speaking lips.
Paik undoes Barthes’s insistence that power operates through language: “The object in which power is inscribed for all of human eternity is language . . . language is legislation, speech is its code . . . to speak . . . is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate; it is to subjugate.”35 Paik unmakes the decorum and pretense of language’s ruling discourses. The infuriating talking head appears on a peepshow screen at a porno parlor. A woman taking a bath shouts at the unavoidable, irritating set. Finally a masked cat burglar enters a bedroom, unplugs the oblivious but noisy TV set and steals it. Blessed silence occurs through theft, a simulation of a crime which is pleasurable rather than dangerous.
The imperative male voice-over of information and statistics is undercut by a cynical audience, which ignores it or turns it off. TV is a constant selling but one which perhaps audiences don’t buy. TV is depicted as an ensemble of scenes and a conflation of genres and media, rapidly edited. Paik’s depiction of the “masses’“ resistance and refusal might be comparable to Baudrillard’s; yet Paik’s conception of audiences is joyous and dynamic—they take action, they talk back, they are not fooled by simulation or information.
Paik’s sculptures or video installations, with their metaphorical titles, provide another treatise on watching TV, illustrating a paradox: the video sculptures are displayed in galleries and museums as public, discrete events of individual viewing. These works dramatize that TV, rather than being a monolith or a singular machine, can be anything, given context. The titles redefine the function of television—a variety of interpretations: TV Chair, TV Bed, TV Cello, Video Fish, and Moon Is the Oldest TV
Video Fish (1975), a many-monitor installation, conflates the real with the simulation. Aquaria filled with fish are placed in front of TV sets with images of fish in aquaria: TV is an illuminated fish bowl, a fish bowl is TV, TV can be an image of a fish bowl, or an appearance of fish. It suggests the sense of random movement, slithery traces; the public aquaria where we go to watch fish swim; the use of water rather than air as the medium for the image; Jacques Cousteau and Lloyd Bridges.
TV Garden consists of color monitors on their back, screens up, amid green plants. Given the context and title, the colors and images on the monitors become representations of light or flora. The sets appear to waver as the images reverse direction like flowers in the missing breeze. The status of the monitor (an officious word of discipline and surveillance) as an object is transitory; it can be altered; it is not merely a piece of furniture but can be transformed into a cross, a cello, a penis, brassiere cups, or a fish bowl. Nothing is precious; things exist to be redefined, deformed, recycled. As Baudril lard writes, “Reciprocity comes into being through the destruction of mediums. . . .”36 TV as a machine of bland banalities and consumption can be transformed into a medium of reciprocity—Paik’s dream of video as participatory TV, with an international, live satellite broadcast in the 1980s. Paik’s image-making machines unmake and reconstitute TV, which he knows is profoundly reliant on and defined by sound as much as image.
TV Chair, TV Buddha, and Moon Is the Oldest TV also address the watching of TV. (We rarely watch—another term for surveillance—TV contemplatively at home; ironically, this is what we do in galleries and museums.) In TV Chair, the spectator can look through the open “chair” at the monitor and see the TV screen as object or self-image from the camera; or the monitor/camera looks up and imprints faces looking down or buttocks sitting in the “chair.” On another level, the chair resembles a toilet—a condensation of Archie Bunker’s chair with the sound of an upstairs toilet flushing. That chair, now in the Smithsonian, was a command post of patriarchy which this chair mocks.
TV Buddha, a statue, contemplates a monitor which returns an image of the statue. The mysterious, static Buddha is a spectator in stoic contemplation and an object of worship. Both TV and Buddha are icons of worship, one sublime, the other ridiculous. Their juxtaposition represents the collisions of history and cultures. Using cameras and monitors, TV Buddha looks and takes in the spectator’s look and image, at the same time. The look (and the joke) is simultaneously absorbed, refracted, and reenacted. Instead of a hyperreal, a simulation in the face of the absence of the real as Baudril lard argues, Paik’s work is a real simulation, posing riddles of another kind.
The Moon Is the Oldest TV, an installation of twelve monitors suggesting the phases of the moon, has an ironic edge. The global notion of the world all watching one TV set, the moon as fount of romantic poetry, the moon as a heavenly network of satellite hookups and downlinks, historical time versus TV time, all lead to the ultimate simulation: the 1969 U.S. moon landing. It was impossible initially to identify the network’s replay of simulated landings until “simulation” was finally printed over the image. The word declared whether real or not. After the moon landing (maybe it never happened), we could distinguish: the real footage was not of comparable image clarity and resolution. Bad technique was a mark of truth. Error or flaw meant real; but the live and real, the noble dream and promise of TV, can also be simulated, as imperfect.
Paik is known as the inventor of machines. From electro-magnets to synthesizers/computers and now lasers, his machines derail continuity, deforming image, unhinging power. His videotapes “baffle and loosen” the hold of the gaze and the formidable power of language. This comedy (a comedy of errors?) dissolves divisions and structures of difference—art and popular culture, East and West, active and passive, seeing and being seen—with always an eye and ear directed toward irony. The work is collaborative, participatory; sometimes the tone is raucous, sometimes darkly disquieting, as in Guadalcanal Requiem, 1977. Charlotte Mormon, his performance companion, and her cello on that historical beach of ravishment, is an image recalling their past censorship battles as well as military battles between cultures. I value his collaborative, international spirit. Given Paik’s connections to Fluxus and happenings, he is a direct descendant of the historical avant-garde, with the addition of cultural dissonance or difference: U.S. popular culture and art is seen from Korea (and Germany). Andreas Huyssen’s early call for avant-garde is apt:
The point is rather to take up the historical avant-garde’s insistence on the cultural transformation of everyday life and from there to develop strategies for today’s cultural and political context.37
Mormon’s presence also raises the very sticky issue of the representation of woman within avant-garde. Her status within his work is, for me, a real problem, the equation of biology and technology, a mental set vehemently refuted by feminism in the late 1970s, but returning in the 1980s, revised, in theories of the body. I also question the historical accuracy and political value of enshrining Paik as the father of video art, the twin of Brakhage; we don’t need any more fathers. Martha Rosler’s Vital Statistics is a feminist critique of both dilemmas.
Foucault’s emphasis on vision, a “pure Gaze” with “pure Language” as a set of effects which can be seen—a “speaking eye”—is a metaphor made literal in his use of Jeremy Bentham’s penitentiary design (and realization) of the Panopticon as a model for the carceral society of surveillance. The prisoners are unable to see each other or the authority in the central tower who watches them—never sure whether they are being looked at, constant, potential victims of the Gaze.
Visibility is a trap. . . . He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. . . . The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad. . . .38
The dissociation of the see/being seen dyad as the sense of permanent visibility reenacts Casares’s fable of the imaginary museum, the convict, and the beautiful woman. Foucault’s scenario describes the inmate in Bentham’s prison and women, a theoretical model embodied in this 1974 videotape. Rosier, a performer like Mormon, interrogates the unquestioned use of the female body, the passive object of the “speaking eye,” staging Foucault along the way. For, “defined in terms of visibility’s conventions, she carries her own Panopticon with her wherever she goes, her self-image a function of her being for another.”39 Foucault’s divide resembles Berger’s assessment of women seeing themselves being seen, as well as Mulvey’s split between seeing and being seen, between male and female. Like some feminist critics later, Berger posits the surveyor inside women as male, which resembles Sally Potter’s concept of internal, colonized space. However illuminating and groundbreaking these models, I now take issue with these analyses which, like Lacan’s lack and desire, depend on the centrality of the phallic signifier. This is not the way we are; rather, these divides and internalizations, which exist within the unconscious as well, are the social and historical constructions by which we live, at least for now. Vital Statistics employs and dissects the cruelty and power of surveillance while simulating the scrutiny of women by medical or scientific institutions. The unblinking gaze is a passionless stare at a woman’s body, Rosler’s body, stripped bare then garbed as masquerades of the divided woman—the bride in frilly white or the sexy woman wearing a basic-black evening dress.
The claim of the voice-over in its litany of crimes in the name of science, of statistics, against women and humanity, intersects and challenges the scene of Rosier undressing, being measured by the doctor/scientists wearing white coats. Her nakedness, shot from a careful and steady distance to avoid voyeurism is, for me, a dilemma of representation as victimization. The doctor’s anatomical sketch of her measured body is a commentary on woman as model in several senses of the word, yet stripped of erotic, fantasy overlay; a statistical pinup of literal measurements has replaced and negated woman. For me, the routine, flattened, and ritual pattern of the mise-en-scene, performances, and editing suggest the domestic regime of suffocating repetition, of women’s nonexistence except for others.
Vital Statistics’s insistent, didactic voice-over undermines with data, or competes with, the authoritative, dominant status of vision, intersecting the sterile, tableau vivant of the victim/model ensnared in, immobilized by, the gaze of the camera. The assertion of the voice, reading a historical roll call of crimes against women, a list of catastrophe, a history of abuse, countermands the passivity and muted silence of the image. This voice is not like the mellowed, trained truths of newscasters, the TV male voice defining bodies and soothing audiences, drifting from room to room, our constant companion—male authority. These voices are grating, droning on about inhumanities we would rather not hear. For women, power and surveillance might not be so funny, so easy to evade, so pleasurable to resist. The underside of Foucault’s pleasures of perversions and Deleuze’s playful simulacra are real atrocities against cultures, races, and women. Whether pleasure or pain depends on the vital statistics of what side of domination/subordination one is on.
International video artists also know about surveillance: Michael Klier’s Der Reise is a science fiction surveillance tape, edited from cameras placed round a modern city—a tale of barren modernity and nonaction. Elsa Cayo’s marvelously clever Qui vole un oeuf vole un oeuf (France) is a simulation of shoplifting in a supermarket seen from the point of view of surveillance cameras, their silence narrated by an off-frame, conspiratorial voice; and in Great Mother Sachiko (japan), the agonizing soap opera of daily life is doubled on a domestic television set. In many ways, these and other U.S. video works, like Cecelia Condit’s Beneath the Skin and Possibly in Michigan, overthrow systems of panoptic power, mastery, and the gaze by simulations—which include us in the game as player rather than object.