I want to return to Casares’s tale of the museum, which details an apparatus of power, driven by male desire, predicated on vision. On Casares’s terms, this tale is a cultural fable, a perfect metaphor of cinema; I can see sweet and luminous analogies with most contemporary theories, for example, Lacan’s male subject’s overweening desire; Foucault’s panopticon and “seeing machines”; or Baudril lard’s hyperreal in which “the space of simulation confuses the real with the model.” Casares’s story, which I used earlier, intact and unquestioned, is, like the Oedipus scenario, dependent upon the familiar representation of woman as the luring temptress, the imaginary signifier inadvertently ensnaring hapless victims, albeit criminal ones, in narrative, love, marriage, or modernism.
The parable begs to be rewritten. Thus, I wonder how the beautiful woman felt when she saw the escaped convict, with ragged beard, filthy clothes, and feverish, staring eyes, pursue her, emerge from his powerful invisibility, enter her world and her bedroom. Did she also fall in love with him—or did Peeping Tom’s desperate visage terrify her? Did he rape her, as he had obsessed over her image? Or did he woo her? And, did it matter? As ideal, she and we are imagined to be eternally grateful for a “real” man, no matter what his character or countenance, who surrenders to his desire for us—the penultimate martyrdom for men—and, outside subjectivity, without reciprocity of desire, to allow this tattered, dangerous fellow/felon to rule our stories and sometimes our lives.
When the “projected” woman either returns or deflects the aggressive gaze, claims her voice, controlling enunciation and address, and takes pleasure/knowledge and action with other women, on screen, in the audience, and in life, other scenarios result. The Man Who Envied Women, the acclaimed 1985 film by Yvonne Rainer, is a bold move toward a new scenario—women’s subjectivity. In an unschematic manner, I will thresh out several of the issues which resonate or unravel in this sagacious labyrinth, specifically the debates which address theory—its now generic catch phrases rendering it tedious and apolitical in many versions—and arguments which touch, often indirectly or inadvertently, on feminist practices.
As de Lauretis argued at “Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices II” in Milwaukee in 1981: “The real task is to enact the contradictions of female desire, and of women as social subjects, in the terms of narrative.”1 As if on mutual cue, Rainer—speaking at the same conference, presenting her early script of this film’s narrative dilemma—said that as her work was becoming “explicitly” feminist (an “evolution” from covert to overt operations), it was more closely aligned with narrative:
From descriptions of individual feminine experience floating free of both social context and narrative hierarchy . . . to explicitly feminist speculations about feminine experience . . . an evolution which in becoming more explicitly feminist seems to demand a more solid anchoring in narrative conventions.2
With only the slightest of narratives, yet such a recognizable and important one for women that we fill in with our collective experiences, truly sharing the process of the film, Rainer enacts the contradiction of women as social subjects and reenacts (through the mouthpiece, Jack Deller) the double bind of women’s desire, seduced and abandoned by modern theory.
The Man Who Envied Women is an idiosyncratic thesaurus of contemporary theory and personal response to daily life, art, and feminism, an artist’s history of sexuality and politics. “This film is about the housing shortage, changing family patterns, the poor pitted against the middle class, Hispanics against Jews, artists and politics, female menopause, abortion rights. There’s even a dream sequence.”3 I will sketch the film’s arch, almost wicked portrayal of masculinity—particularly the linkage of theory with men, or better, power—a critique defined by feminism.
Rainer lambasts “theories of the subject” constructed by vision and imagined as the purview of a masterful male subject over a subordinate, passive female object. This critique of vision’s parameters revitalizes feminist “deconstruction” of conventions of the gaze in narrative by inaugurating an investigation of that invaluable project’s missing term—male representation or the means by which men represent themselves. (While volumes have been written about male subjectivity, including a surprising number of feminist analyses, little has been written about representation of the male body; the reverse is true for woman, whose body has remained the constant focus of analyses with rare emphasis on female subjectivity.) Two antagonists of The Man Who Envied Women are the unlikely but promising duo, Foucault and Lacan. Rainer has inverted Foucault’s poles of the panoptic dyad, capturing Jack Deller, an unappealing “speaking eye,” in revelatory visibility with only an initial, fleeting glimpse of the female protagonist.
Lacan writes in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis: “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside. It is through the gaze that I enter life and it is from the gaze that I receive its effects.”4 Rainer has postmodernized the rendering of this modernist, masculine scene. Jack Deller, held within a public visibility of the gaze of the camera and the spectator (rather than safe in the privacy of Lacan’s imaginary mirror involving the confirmation of male identity by mother/other) is not only determined but undone, receiving satiric effects of this encounter.
I will briefly detail one lesson from Lacan’s paradigm of vision and subjectivity in which seeing involves observing and knowing, blindness and ignorance, and is both punctual and durational. His reading of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” cogently maps out these parameters of vision, knowledge, time, and story:
The first is a glance that sees nothing: The King and the Police [the time of seeing or its converse, blindness]. The second, a glance which sees that the first sees nothing and deludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides: the Queen, then the Minister [the time of interpreting or misinterpreting]. The third sees that the first two glances leave what should be hidden exposed to whomever would seize it: the Minister, and finally Dupin [the time of knowing or denying, refusing to know].5
This hierarchy from seeing through interpreting and on to knowing, via the glance, is an important schema for cinema—an elaboration of the seeing into the telling glance which extends the look in time, through the hermeneutic staging and sets up a powerful chain of glances of knowledge which propel the story. Clearly this is a lovely model for cinema’s drama of vision which includes the spectator. After reiterating Lacan’s nice system, most criticism ceases; the graph is clear and satiating.6 However, along with charting this insightful analysis, Lacan is intrigued by the fact that the letter’s contents are never revealed: “The letter was able to produce its effects within the story: on the actors in the tale (including the narrator), as well as outside the story: on us, the readers, and also on its author, without anyone bothering to worry about what it meant.”7
I must “bother” and “worry” about “what the letter meant.” First, it is not irrelevant that the powerless, blackmailed Queen is trapped between male glances which accelerate the story, and is assumed guilty. This common, tainted presumption of women’s guilt, embodied by the letter, is the reason for the story. Yet, like the imaginary woman in Casares’s tale, the Queen is without meaning, without identity. Second, Lacan salaciously equates this letter with the feminine; for him, both are signifiers without meaning. The feminine is a “phase he [the Minister] had to pass through out of a natural affinity of the signifier.” This signifier/letter is linked to narcissism, the imaginary, “more appropriate to what might concern women.” The letter also “exudes the oddest odor de feminina.” And, to top this all off, “it is known that ladies detest calling principles into question, for their charms owe much to the mystery of the signifier”—which is all the “ladies” are to Lacan, a mystery, Poe’s tale retold by a real ladies’ man.8 Like the letter/signifier, the female is an empty vessel; to be a self, to be full, “of plenitude of meaning and the security of (self) possession,” means to be male, to be “we” who needn’t “bother.”9
I offer Lacan’s almost lurid scene of Dupin’s discovery: “Just so does the purloined letter, like an immense female body, stretch out across the Minister’s office . . . but just so does he already expect to find it, and has only, with his eyes veiled by green lenses, to undress that huge body. . . . He will go straight to the spot in which lies and lives what the body is designed to hide, in a gorgeous center caught in a glimpse. . . . Look! between the cheeks of the fireplace, there’s the object already in reach of a hand the ravisher has but to extend. . . .”10 (Imagine this scene in a film co-directed by Chantal Ackerman and Alain Robbe-Grillet.) The move of the seer/ravisher—yet another dangerous felon who traps women “in a glimpse”—from his highly sexed, visual encounter with the signifier to rape is only a matter of gradation.
Jack Deller (Tell Her?), encased or embalmed in theoretical language which he uses in hot but laid-back pursuit of various women, is the unflappable, U.S. embodiment of continental theory, a transcultural mutant. This New York, left-wing professor of theory—literally a divided, speaking subject, a parody of both Lacan’s other/Other and Foucault’s “speaking eye”—gradually makes a fool of himself. In convoluted dialogue with himself, he is language made visible—comically and frighteningly familiar to the women in the audience, the voice-off protagonist, Trisha Brown, and Rainer. Jack is confined within his barren politics of theory rather than life. Like Lacan, he is a real “ladies’ man” wearing the verbal garb of Foucault, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Like the wolf and Red Riding Hood, Jack uses this modern language to entice and lure women. Also stultifying and oblivious, he is the droning voice of theory as unrelenting patriarchy.
Jack, the analysand in film analysis, also postures as Lacan the analyst, another “man who envied women.” During one session, pathetic Jack, claiming validity by fidelity to a lengthy marriage with a now dead wife, says, “I knew so little about women then. I almost know too much now.”11 (Women in the audience erupt with laughter on this line.) At least for Freud, woman was a problem and for Lacan was the question to which there was no answer. All-knowing Jack reiterates the contemporary spectre of the sensitive, caring man as the reluctant, adoring lover of many women—the modernist credo parodied by comparison to the several Humphrey Bogart clips and critiqued by Rainer and Martha Rosier in verbal analyses of the journalism pinned up on the wall, specifically the article expressing concern for this reputedly new man.
The film is “about this man you see and this woman you hear? He has been given a name . . . she hasn’t been given a name.”12 The female body is absent except as hyperbolic interruption—intercut in short takes of multiple women and the excessive style of the dream sequences, a parody of the Oedipus scenario. This scene concluded Rainer’s 1981 sketch of the film: “What? What is going on here? That’s me in the bed. He and I shouldn’t be making love. Jack and Mama are supposed to be married in this dream, not Jack and me. But there’s my mother standing by the door. Mama, get out of there. . . . And no, I don’t believe it. Mama is watching. . . .”13 This stylistic eruption of the grotesque body, the carnival body, plays back over the film as a travesty, and as a question.
The film’s opening and always shocking sequence of Bunuel neatly slitting the woman’s eye in Un Chien Andalou is accompanied by a woman’s matter-of-fact voice which intimately, conversationally details her difficult week.
It was a hard week. I split up with my husband and moved into my studio. The hot water heater broke. . . . I bloodied up my white linen pants; the Senate voted for nerve gas; and my gynecologist went down in Korean Airlines Flight 007. The worst of it was the gynecologist. He was a nice man. He used to put booties on the stirrups and his speculum was always warm.
Art and the everyday intersect; image and voice collide, setting up the strategies of this film of reversals. Daily irritants, a hint of story, and an airline tragedy are disconcertingly funny in their incongruity because so true, so familiar. Caught off-guard by hearing of our experience, we recognize and laugh.
Alerted to the art historical attack on female vision, the far from blinded spectators watch Jack, the nimble and quick academic and uncaring husband, try to jump over various candlesticks. As the object of our public scrutiny, he should be squirming, although his absolute self-absorption precludes any glimmer of self-awareness. Jack is his own best lover. To our perverse delight, this character (portrayed by two actors as the schizophrenic, postmodern subject) endlessly mumbles Lacan’s and Casares’s self-congratulatory fantasy: that grateful women massively desire this dull creature, walking in place, going nowhere on his exercise machines, who has sacrificed himself to his own smug, indiscriminate desire. For two hours of intense bricolage, this delusory argument is enacted as the joke that it is, yet an infuriating, serious delusion which is predicated on woman being simultaneously everything and nothing, and a self-serving obsession (his language reeks of the most banal narcissism) which precludes political thought or action.
Jack is a catalogue of so many male poses and assumptions about women and politics that he becomes hilarious and repugnant. For me, he is a perfect caricature masquerading as a feminist—in theoretical drag which cannot conceal his powerful patriarchy. As Stephen Heath archly writes: “As far as male critics are concerned, indeed, the meshing in the academy of some feminist criticism with French theory, deconstruction et al, has greatly helped, especially in the United States: I can do post-structuralism, Derrideanism, Lacanianism, and feminism in a guaranteed ‘radical’ cocktail, theory til the cows come home or don’t.” For Jack, the cows never left the barn.
Heath asks: “To what extent do men use feminism for the assurance of an identity, now asking to belong as a way of at least ensuring their rightness, a position that gets her with me once more?” Regarding the notion of “woman” as the question for Freud and Lacan, he proposes: “maybe for as long as we ask the question . . . it’s too easy to know, maybe we’re missing the point that the question has been taken away from us, maybe if we really listened that’s what we’d hear, the end of our question, of our question. . . . Feminism has decentered men. . . .”14 By being placed in the constant visibility usually reserved for women, Jack is decentered in the act of “getting” women.
On one level, Jack’s jargon is very funny. As Blau writes, “It is still hard to read that still self-consuming discourse, which offers no proof but rhetorical pleasures, without thinking of it as comic thought, thought as comedy. . . .”15 Unfortunately, humorless Jack, without a single ironic bone in his bland body, is not funny; he deploys language as a strategic weapon of subjugation through unremitting boredom/monotony and seduction—means of power which sometimes merge. Subjection rather than subjectivity is the effect of his knowledge.
For example, in the wonderful classroom scene, while Jack the lecturer drones on, the camera, like the zombied, berserkly bored, aggressively frustrated students, becomes restless, rudely leaves the room, and explores the modern and fashionable loft/classroom, tracking from the all-white, perfectly stylish kitchen to the bathroom of glass-block decor. Along with subjection, discourses of fashion (as symptoms of class and property) permeate the film (just as fashion has become confused with and sometimes inextricable from art and academia, Barthes’s notion of the new as “the stereotype of novelty”). Labels—Husserl, Heidegger, and Chomsky—are dropped into the hodgepodge of Jack’s canned lecture of theory or language as obfuscation, a lazy referral without meaning yet replete with power and tedium. When Jack speaks, language is hyperreal, without referent. During this scene, which provoked intense, personal anxiety in my pedagogical soul, a woman’s clear voice recounts a tragic story, a politics of the real—the poor, displaced, and homeless in the United States and violence in Central America. Meaning occurs at this intersection.
Linked to subjection and fashion, seduction propels and halts the narrative. Like classical cinema’s on-screen seduction, the literal seduction of and by theory occurs: Jackie Raynal (quoting Meaghan Morris) and Deller—sensuously swaying back and forth outside the door of the liberal cocktail party talk—carry on a sexed discourse via dualing monologues. Theory is made physical, the verbal lure embodying academics’ tantalizing suspicion, the underside of conferences: what if all of this discourse of sexuality as linguistic foreplay were to become real? Like participants at symposia, Jack and Jackie remain unswayed by each other’s intellectual “positions.”
Raynal’s is an ambiguous and transgressive masquerade: her sensuous voice speaks Morris’s horror show of theory, extravagant, caustic metaphors masked by Raynal’s heavy French accent and breathy, arduous intonation. Morris’s nightmare scene emphatically depicts one hyperbolic case of the film; Raynals’s undulating body and gaping dress suggest an equivalently lusty or scandalous interpretation. Voice, body, and text figure an intricate, contradictory and literal discourse of seduction, sexuality interrupted and punctuated by the politics behind the door of the party of disembodied words. Morris’s wonderful text operates with a sarcastic, witty bludgeon rather than a satiric scalpel. She is no fool and rushes in where angels fear to tread:
What is happening when women must work so hard in distinguishing the penis and the phallus?. . . Passing from the realm of the theory of the subject to the shifty spaces of feminine writing is like emerging from a horror show to a costume ball. The world of “theorization” is a grim one, haunted by mad scientists breeding monsters through hybridization, by the haunted ghosts of a hundred isms. . . . Only overalls are distinctly out of place . . . this is the world of “style.” Women are not welcome here garbed in the durable gear of men; men, instead get up in drag. . . . If a girl takes her eyes off Lacan and Derrida long enough to look, she may discover she is the invisible man.16
Raynal’s very feminine body and French voice, speaking through these clever, Australian words, traverse national debates of feminism/femininity—issues of voice and writing—and cross the censored divides between word and image, mind and body, public and private. This marvelous scene illustrates Mary Russo’s “carnival of theory,” including “semiotic deliquency, parody, teasing, flirting, masquerade, seduction, counter-seduction, tightrope walking and verbal aerialisms of all kinds,” what she calls a “poetics of postmodernism.”17
Cinema has always involved a flirtatious, triple seduction: of the women in the films, of the dating couples in the movie theater, and of the theorist by the movies—a classical text without intercourse (or, for women, recourse) which is then provided by theoretical discourse which legitimates and eroticizes cinema.18 The history of seduction/destruction is remembered in the film clips incorporated from particularly 1940s movies (e.g., Dark Victory, Gilda, and In a Lonely Place) but including avant-garde films and Night of the Living Dead, the latter a wonderful parody of Jack, unruly audiences, and family romance.19 Strong female stars dramatize women’s double bind, sacrificing their desire and grateful to “real” men—an endless retelling of Casares’s and Lacan’s fables as cinema’s classical model of pleasure. Jack sits onstage in psycho/cinema/analysis, in front of the movie screen which for so many years has investigated and punished women. This staging, a very apt materialization of contemporary film theory (Cinema/Psychoanalysis/Subjectivity, merging the audience/critic with the psychoanalyst) is defined as male territory.
There is a fourth, usually unremarked, seduction—of female scholars by male theorists, a hazardous fall-in diagnosed by Morris. While many presumably feminist writers have, with painstaking propriety (the good daughter approach) or outrageous (dis)respect (the sassy, semi-bad girl tactic), sought for instances of women’s subjectivity in modern theory by meticulously translating or producing either “ruptures” or “readings” of deconstruction, Morris works with a concise and playful sledgehammer, suggesting that we “take our eyes off theorists long enough to look,” and issuing warnings that our modern, scholastic lovers are anti-heroes: “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.”20
Regarding Foucault and women, Morris wrote in an earlier essay (in a dossier or set of working papers on/about Foucault): “In fact, the nicest thing about Foucault. . . is that not only do the offers of a philosopher to self-destruct appear to be positively serious . . . but that any feminist drawn into sending love letters to Foucault would be in no danger of reciprocation. Foucault’s work is not that of a ladies’ man.”21 These acute remarks, very wise cracks, explain why this film both harshly mocks Jack’s posturing as the voice of Foucault (a lifeless impersonation and a charade of knowledge deployed solely as power) and employs Foucault’s method: the film is an archeology (in Bakhtin’s terms, an anthropology) of discourses of art, the city, politics, daily life, and jokes. For Rainer, Foucault is valuable; coming from Jack’s mouth, his ideas are garbled and twisted. Although with Jack it is tempting, Rainer refuses to throw this baby out with the bathwater.
It is exactly the theoretical language which has irritated rather than amused or unsettled many critics, perhaps unsure of its paradoxical status as critique. For example, in a perceptive analysis, Helen de Michel writes: “Theories of feminism and language take up an inordinate amount of time in this film . . . the audience must sit through an interminable lecture by Jack on Foucaultian theoretical analysis [perhaps “interminable” is exactly the point of this scene]. . . . What may be important ideas to those who read Foucault become an exaggerated and frustrating parody for the general audience.”22 It is a mistaken impression that theory, or ideology, has nothing to do with everyday life; theory is not alien, outside, a hobby that can be done, but rather is imbricated with daily life. Parody is a major point of the film; however, in order to assess its work, one must know the object being parodied, or, as Bakhtin argues, share common “social horizons.” It’s not enough to merely recognize parody, which de Michel does, and it’s not sufficient to denigrate or dismiss the parodied texts which are integral rather than peripheral. Knowledge, like boredom, is self-inflicted and in this scene leads, like the camera, away from “theory” to its comparison with political actions—which catapults parody into satire, if not straightforward critique.
In A Theory of Parody; Linda Hutcheon’s assessment that parody involves “another work of art or coded discourse in a stylistic confrontation, a modern recoding, which establishes difference at the heart of similarity,”23 relates to feminist strategies of “rewriting” and “revising” as well as to debates regarding postmodernism. However, unlike the negative emphasis in many postmodernist critiques which inscribe a passive audience, her model of parody (“difference at the heart of similarity”) involves not only a relationship between two texts but stresses an audience capable of understanding the parodied text: “pleasure comes from the degree of engagement of the reader in the intertextual bouncing. . . .” (Cross-culturally, parody thus presents certain difficulties—of intelligibility and interpretation; unless the texts and positions are carefully noted, it might come across as elitist, as in-group, or, worst of all, as boring and irrelevant; rather than gaily bouncing, parody runs the risk of dully thudding.)
Like The Man Who Envied Women, parody “exists in the self-conscious borderline between art and life, making little formal distinction between actor and spectator, between author and co-creating reader.”24 Hutcheon’s emphasis on enunciation which “enlists the audience in contradiction” further reiterates feminist theory, although the close affinity is not noted: parody is a form which activates “in the viewer that collective participation that enables something close to active performance.” This shared, close encounter between audience and author, “the intersection of creation and recreation, of invention and critique,”25 is “a way to come to terms with the past.” “Paradoxically, perhaps, it is parody that implies this need to ‘situate’ art in both the acts of enunciation and the broader historical and ideological contexts implied by that art.”26 Rainer accomplishes exactly this dual task of invention and critique, coming to terms with the theoretical/personal past. The film exists in the “self-conscious borderline between life and art,” a space of contradiction and collective identifications.
Judy Stone reiterates de Michel’s unease with the film’s level of enunciation: “Rainer’s sly visual and verbal wit refreshingly undercuts the theorizing that may be comprehensible only to sado-masochists who have digested thoroughly The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice and all the works of Michel Foucault, the French philosophe. Even so, Rainer could have done with less of it. . . .”27 While Rainer’s wily wit does undercut theory, and aside from lumping unlikely magazines together (the rigidly anti- theoretical, anti-feminist New York Review of Books with the populist theory/feminism of the Voice), this enthusiastic review, like the first, posits a “we” (the critics and the audience, albeit a specialized one) against a “they”—those who read theory, mainly in New York.
However, as Rainer so wisely knows, theory—which in context and history is political, sometimes with radical effects—is migrating and being commodified as fodder for the art world as well as academia, in both overlapping contexts often depoliticized, turned into undergraduate gimmicks, fashionable passwords for exchange and seduction—a situation brilliantly portrayed in the cocktail party scene and the many diverse representations of gentrification taking place, literally, in New York. In this depleted passage, primary sources, along with politics and integrity, are lost; tertiary derivations by venture ventriloquists like Deller and born-again (male) feminists promulgate empty catchwords frothing with inflated currency or righteous hype, while boutiques and artists’ lofts displace the working class. Theory, or art, becomes a hobby that is “done” (I “do” theory). This selling of generic theory also appropriates feminism as a singular, apolitical plaint or whine which can be incorporated (like poor, small countries, the aged, the homeless) by the official culture of art, academia, and journalism and then declared solved, old-hat, or dead.
Rather than trashing “theory,” Rainer is witnessing and judging migrating discourses of power as a politics of defusion. This is not an anti-theoretical film, although it is archly anti-patriarchal; rather it is insistently theoretical, historical, and personal. It is precisely and allusively located in the context of the New York, intellectual, art scene (its specificity and presumption of audiences “in the know” perhaps creating problems of intelligibility when seen in other contexts and countries). By a friendly and deadly inquisition of the story of male subjectivity (theory’s constant focus) as it bleeds into U.S. foreign and local policy and women’s lives, the film examines masculinity as a house built of precariously yet effectively stacked words.
Because lifeless theory is yoked to the male body and voice and not to the lively variety of succinct women’s voices and feminist theory which thread political lucidity, compassion, and wit through the film, the real irritant and object of boredom might be man as well as monolithic “theory,” who, like the historical theory of the subject, when radically dissected rather than decorously deconstructed, is not interesting or helpful to women. The cluttered male monotone is infinitely less fascinating and knowledgeable than the wise kaleidoscope of women’s voices, images, and issues which swirl like a whirligig through the film. Running through the projector and our minds like a Mobius strip, the thoroughly feminist film has two parallel tracks which share the same terrain but can never intersect.
Mikhail Bakhtin’s provocative concept of dialogical culture provides a model for the film’s double-directed discourse—toward men, for women. Although as far as I can discern not directly mentioned, Bakhtin’s favored devices uncannily parallel Rainer’s tactics—“hybridization,” “heterology,” a series of discourses and counter discourses that intertwine without either fusing or splitting. Like parody, Bakhtin’s dialogical involves a trio of voices—author, text, and listener—with personal and historical “images of language,” with shared “social horizons.” Against the centripetal notion of “common language,” Bakhtin prefers dispersion, plurality, and decentering, without closure or identification.28 “The productivity of the event does not lie in the fusion of all into one, but in . . . my nonfusion, in the reliance upon the privilege afforded me by my unique position, outside other men.”29 Although the language is not breezy like Rainer’s, Bakhtin’s remark—rather outrageously lifted from its Soviet time and context—reads like a working premise for the film.
Popular culture, which is “free, full of ambivalent laughter. . . disparagement and unseemly behavior, familiar contact with everybody and everything,” with respect for the intimate, the familiar, “the repertory of small, everyday genres”—women’s culture—is preferred to official culture, which is monologic: “monolithically serious and somber, beholden to strict hierarchical order, filled with fear, dogmatism, devotion, and pretense”—jack’s culture and sometimes Art.30
Bakhtin’s valuation of intonation—which is “always at the boundary between the verbal and the nonverbal, the said and the unsaid. . . . Intonation is the sound expression of social evaluation ”—is impeccably pertinent.31 Like the film and dialogical culture, intonation is directed toward life and the listener, in his or her capacity as ally or witness, and toward the object of the utterance as if it were a third participant: “the intonation abuses it or flatters it, belittles it or elevates.”32 Women in the film and audience are allies or witnesses as the theoretical discourse of Jack is abused and belittled—although the gendered distinctions might not be this clear-cut.
Thus, enunciation—“the presence of social entities that translate the voice of the sender and the horizon of the receiver”—engages us in a dialogue with the film and its interpretation.33 For Bakhtin, the “other” is not located in the unconscious as it is for Freud and Lacan but in the social, in language. I suspect that the same is true for Rainer. Thus, expression organizes experience rather than the other way around. Linked with these notions is the idea of “character zones”: “from the irruption of alien expressive elements into authorial discourses—ellipsis, questions, exclamations—characters’ voices intermingle with authors’ voices.”34 Rainer runs the gamut of voices and grammars, throwing down a gauntlet of language by breaking and entering men’s stories with abandon. Famous discourses are estranged, alien, and not very good listeners. Jack frequently wears earphones while street talk, conversation, and jokes surround him. He rarely listens to anyone other than himself. A technically brilliant and casual orchestration of bits of synched (and non) image and dialogue are picked up from performing passersby on New York streets, restaurants, and other public places in a tour-de-force cacophony of Manhattan commentary and friends.
As Bakhtin argues and the film produces, “Understanding is in search of a counter-discourse to the discourse of the utterer.”35 The film is a dialogue in search of counter discourses, not resolved or closed in the end by the analysis of “a-womanliness”: “I can’t live without men, but I can live without a man. . . . But I know something is different now. . . . Not a new woman. . . . A-woman is closer. A-womanly. A-womanliness.” The double use of the prefix a is not insignificant—being not woman and being a single woman, at the same time. Like other quotations in the film, this discussion is an engagement with Morris’s “The Pirate’s Fiancee.” Her conclusion asserts that the history of women can involve both a “strategic specification, a real one, in fiction and in truth,” and at the same time, “a history of that in women which defies specification, which escapes its hold: the positively not specific, the unwomanly in history,” with “unwomanly” the key word and clincher to her argument. The film’s lack of aural credits initially creates problems of attribution and raises issues of the migration of theory. For example, in her essay on the film, de Lauretis, presumably in dialogue with Rainer, returns, in her conclusion, to Morris’s formulation. I suspect that Morris must feel a bit left out.
Rainer’s heterogeneous women—including the women of Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames in the poster about which no one speaks—are heard and, when seen, multiple, or they occupy that powerful place of invisibility and authorship behind the scenes into which they can enter at will, as Rainer does. Women—articulate, politically astute, and friends—are everywhere in this film, speaking with each other, interrupting Jack, and posing difficult questions: the relation of the artist to local and international politics; personal quandaries of the body, aging, race, and class. To echo Heath’s earlier remark, the (no longer singular) question has been taken away from men; the film is the end of their question, of their question. It is also the end of woman as the question.
The film also raises the question of postmodernism (and men envious of women), and charges this belabored, portmanteau word with new meanings. Postmodernism—so rapid a commonplace in the United States—has become an art historical, pejorative label which provides entrance into fashionable discourse (much like “The Password” routine in Horsefeathers) as a sign of mutual knowledge often with only the vaguest notion of what it delineates; the shibboleth emits prepackaged, dismissive, or “with-it” connotations. Yet, this neologism is paradoxical and promising: while postmodernism devours everything, is stuffed full of art and interpretation like a Roman orgy or Harpo’s baggy coat, it is also an emptied byword, without definition or limits. (In uncanny ways, this “all and nothing” is eerily akin to the representation of women in “master narratives.”)
However, as the film so lucidly suggests, “all and nothing” can portend possibilities rather than liabilities—neither to drain nor fill the peremptory idea but to let it vacillate, unbeatable, traversing boundaries, advancing neither polarities nor masterful answers. In addition, the scavenging mentality of postmodernism in search of the new also reconnoiters with the past, resulting in a hybrid straddling “the old and the new” which, like Eisenstein’s theories of art and montage, can involve radical (and humorous) collisions producing an art of conflict and dialectic or unsettling synthesis.
Through counter visual and verbal dialogues (an overtonal and vertical montage of sound and image tracks), The Man Who Envied Women prefigures the attributes of postmodernism described earlier. Intricately and abruptly shifting levels and “quality” of representation—super-8mm, shaky video, granular images shot from the TV screen, and advertisements—and like Godard’s films and videotapes, which mix commercials, translations, quotations, parables, monologues and dialogues, lectures and essays, the film is a mesh of artificial and official with political and personal discourses: “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 mixed.”36 Lyotard’s remark, applied earlier to Wegman, suggests the juxtapositions and derailments which don’t always shock us as Eisenstein advocated, but insistently shake us into politics and knowledge through collisions which equate “discourses” of theory with policies of power—e.g., urban displacement of the aging and working class by art and academia, as well as by “urban renewal,” and U.S. aggression in Central America.
The duplicities of modern life and theory, instituted as Foucault has demonstrated after the seventeenth-century confinements in homes, prisons, and asylums, have been updated: hiding the aging and homeless in drab institutions, out of sight; covering up military actions, and concealing urban land takeovers with slick boutiques and cafes are concrete manifestations of the reality beneath the veneer of the public sphere which grabs and protects precious property by camouflaging material conditions. Perhaps because of the public intrusion of the second term, many theorists of postmodernism have diagnosed a bleak, if not wretched, subject terminally awash amid the pastiche objects of art, a cultural stagnation nostalgically ascribed in literary theory to “loss”—of narrative, the dominance or mastery of vision, personal stories of authors, and history—the latter an agglutination of the first three traumas.37 Against this pessimistic grain, The Man Who Envied Women, like so much recent feminist art, is culturally (even locally) and historically grounded, troubling the negative account of postmodernism.
While Rainer’s male antagonist is a singular collage of (1) Casares’s modern criminal, (2) the ahistorical fragmented schizophrenic and (3) sleazy verbalists everywhere, her women are witty, intelligent, sometimes middle-aged, heterogeneous subjects, in command of personal, political language laced with wit and perception. The speech of women is not like the classical cinema’s dialogues; it is not sacrificial but is frequently ironic (“Sometimes, fresh from reading Fredric Jameson, I could play his game . . .”), deeply serious and moving, as in Rosler’s two analyses of the photographs; interruptive and intimate—Rainer bending over into the film when Jack is reading Playboy with “Will all menstruating women please leave the theater”; and joking. By relating the personal of women’s lives, the film risks the hue and cry of “essentialism.” As Heath writes, “Anatomy isn’t destiny, but neither is it irrelevant.”38 Sound does not come at us nor is it over, as truth or power, but is with us and reciprocal, laughter from the audience signaling comedy and recognition. As Russo writes, “What Rainer stages is a dialogical laughter, the laughter of intertext and multiple identifications. It is the conflictual laughter of social subjects in a classist, racist, ageist, sexist society. It is the laughter we have now: other laughter for other times. Carnival and carnival laughter remain on the horizon with a new social subjectivity.”39
Like the metaphor of the gravel path in A Room of One’s Own, in Three Guineas Virginia Woolf—then over fifty, angrier, archly ironic, and insistent, ruthlessly and brilliantly so—invokes metaphors of connection as division: the first is a “bridge over the Thames, an admirable vantage ground” for her scathing analysis of women and the university. Woolf’s second metaphor is punctuation’s ellipsis, what cannot be written or what is omitted: “But. . . those three dots mark a precipice, a gulf so deeply cut between us that. . . I have been sitting on my side of it wondering whether it is any use to try to speak across it.” In addition to the bridge and the ellipsis, personal pronouns accentuate the breach between men and women’s experience: “ ‘we’ . . . still differ in some essential respects from ‘you,’ whose body, brain and spirit have been so differently trained and are so differently influenced by memory and tradition. Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes.”40
Woolf documents the exclusion of women from universities with an inquisition wielded by statistics and precise argumentation, giving the facts of social contradiction from the daughters’ point of view. In 1938, almost forty years before Discipline and Punish, Woolf dissects the institutions of the military, the state, the corporation, the family, and the university. She calls for a new university which will be “young and poor. . . . It must be built of. . . combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetuate traditions.” When she asks what will be taught: “Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses; salaries and uniforms and ceremonies” (34). Her myriad, unstoppable, and impeccably logical argument assesses the exclusion of “the educated man’s daughter” from the various “priesthoods”—of medicine, of science, of the church, of the university. She presents women’s point of view which Foucault ignored or repressed in his work—a telling oversight, perhaps a structuring blind spot. Marshaling many comparable terms, her appeal is to and from “facts” and experience rather than “dangerous theories of psychologists or biologists” (17), or in Foucault’s case, history. Wondering “what possible satisfaction can dominance give to the dominator?”—the critical question circumvented by Foucault—she suggests that we assess “our fear” and “your anger” (129).
Three Guineas, a belated answer to a letter, begins with a politics of difference, a critique of women’s inequity within patriarchy and the family, and ends by exhorting us to become outsiders, adopting a strategy of indifference which “must be given a firm footing upon fact” (107). Woolf urges us to compare the testimony of the ruled with the rulers, concluding that after all these comparisons, by way of reason, “the outsider will find herself in possession of very good reasons for indifference” (108). Outsiders will “shut the bright eyes that rain influence, or let those eyes look elsewhere” (109). Woolf’s complex rhetorical move, which I have simplified, from a critique of difference to a practice of indifference, is a double one of standing inside and outside patriarchy at the same time, with enough distance and knowledgeable investment to perceive contradictions.
Like many women of the 1980s, particularly middle-aged women, Rainer is acutely aware that Woolf’s great social divide still exists. While speaking to men, she is talking with women. And, if seen through our eyes, as Woolf was arguing regarding war, the world will not remain the same. The women of The Cold Diggers “shut the bright eyes that rain influence” and “look elsewhere.”