Let Them Eat Ivory: Vol. IV
As heirs of “late-twentieth-century critical theory’s obsession with the emptiness and meaninglessness at the heart of language,” practitioners of the current hybridized academic orthodoxy rooted in post-modernism, feminism, post-colonialism, Cultural Marxism, and critical theory are united by a desire to pull each and every strand out of a given text in order to “interrogate” its position in the text’s larger “tapestry.” It would seem to be an exercise in futility given the supposition that language itself is meaningless, and as such, inherent in this exercise—inherent, indeed, in most of what constitutes contemporary academic discourse and scholarship—is that these threads may often (usually) produce not a coherent interpretation, argument, or critique, but a grotesque mess of yarn. For Michael A. Holly:
History writing [as] an allegorical art…is also appropriate for characterizing the postmodernist historian’s dilemma: why do those of us who write about the past still cling to the hope that historical meaning can be discovered, even as we recognize the absolute futility of finding out where?
This idea of “discovery” in part evokes the image of the historian scouring through the dusty archive, poring over aged texts, trying to bring to light that which has either been forgotten, or illuminating certain notions that are accepted, or even to demystify popular imagery.
If we accept that reports of findings from an archive have the status of text, and we accept that enclosed within those texts may be the narrative of events, what are we to make of the following: Michael A. Holly takes it as “axiomatic that all written histories are narratives of desire, full of both manifest and latent needs that exceed the professional mandate to find out what happened and when.” Desire evokes notions of the male gaze in feminist theory. As Carolina Hein suggests, “Laura Mulvey brings out in her essays mechanisms and codes of the Hollywood cinema which display heroes and heroines…She looks at its impact on spectators that serves both scopophilia, ‘pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object,’ and narcissism by identification with the male protagonist.” By purposely engaging with historical narrative, and accepting that widely-disseminated cinema narrative structures closely mimic those across history, the academic orthodoxy at present seeks to “unpack” the drive of the male gaze and desire on the construction of narratives.
In what may be cinema’s two most popular sub-sets, if you will—mainstream Hollywood and pornography—“film” is crucial in the construction of our contemporary perception of ourselves and/or as an ideological representation of some kind. It may also be the case that viewing pornographic material allows of the acting out of fantasy in a closed, private space rather than in a public space, a sort of vicarious exercise of the id, somewhat like playing video games in a way. Cinematic constructions of gender in no small part influence cultural construct and, in turn, reinforce what is perceived as normality. Vicki Kirby suggests that, “Feminists have tirelessly sought to interrogate the meanings of nature and culture in order to broaden woman’s horizon of possibilities.” These two chief modes of cinematic communication—major Hollywood and television studios (and increasingly streaming services like Netflix and HBO) and “underground” pornographic outlets—which reach the largest group of people, typically serve to reinforce the dominant “phallocentric” narrative, with “no communication…independent of the frames it is spoken and heard through.” This is obviously not true, but it is the working assumption of Third Wave feminism.
Susanne Kappeler sees gendered power relations in the construction of pornography: “The woman object is twice objectified: once as object of the action of the scenario, and once as object of the representation, the object of viewing.” Mulvey acknowledges gender as a social construct, and in this way, a feminist reading of a text should not ignore considerations of the construction of power relations writ large in the global-political arena, and by the same token writ small in the bed-room, culturally inscribed in sadomasochistic practices. As Hein points out: “Mulvey associates male position with ‘active’ and female position with ‘passive.’…They are the object that men look at. The author transfers the terms of passive and active to the audience and the narrative cinema.”
The Left paradoxically undermines this narrative construct (as they seem so intent on imbuing every aspect of our lives with the oppressor/oppressed narrative) by inhabiting it from the inside. The investigation of narrative begs the audience to question the construction of historical linearity and the language of power relations, and to investigate physical constructs, including the portrayal of the body, particularly that of women, as something to be viewed and, ultimately, exploited. Kirby suggests:
Rethinking essentialism is a thinking through the body, and this is the thinking through of closure; essentialism’s identifying gesture. But how do we think this ‘corporeal place’, this envelope of immanence that our disembodied speculations would render ‘separable’ and ‘other’? Again we are reminded of a body that pinches itself within the reflex of a möbius loop. Enacting the circuit of a contradiction, anatomy grasps its own excess, the neither/nor of essentialism and anti-essentialism that nevertheless, and at once, embraces them both; the literal and figural tissue of their mutual implication.
Recalling Victoria Grace’s unraveling binaries, Leftists and neo- or Third Wave Feminists (as I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, these movements have become more or less indistinguishable) aim to de-construct the body politic, the one-dimensionality of nationalist or social-norm-dominant discourse, in the process unpacking Holly’s idea of a “historical narrative of desire” charged with the latent sexual content of sadomasochistic practices that are steeped in the language of empire. The Left seeks to hold a mirror to the reader as voyeur—dominator and dominated, the male gaze as a form of possession and implication et cetera. For Victoria Grace and Renee Heberle this “dominance” extends to the literalization of sexual violence:
Naturalizing rape as the inevitable outcome of being gendered male or female does not help us know how shifts in gender and sexed identity norms may change the terms on which sexual violence is ‘known’ to a population, how cultures make sense of it, or why the recognition of it as a crime is not an adequate remedy. The embeddedness of sexual violence in daily life contrasts with the spectacularization and sentimentalization of particular incidents which drive popular consciousness and interpretations of what sexual violence is about.
Crucially, the cultural processing of sexual violence and gender roles allows for the application of a filter in almost any instance where “discourse” is going to reach a large audience. Here the seemingly ubiquitous propaganda machine via the mouthpiece of mass media once again acts out the marginalization, commodification, and co-opting of women’s bodies, paying lip-service to specific horrors, all the while covertly maintaining the millennia’s-old binary opposition narrative. In yet another astounding contradiction, this interrogation does not extend to fundamentalist Islam, as I mocked in my previous article.
Leftists are concerned that by engaging with the language of the dominant discourse, they might inadvertently risk reinforcing—or be viewed as doing so, perhaps even more traumatic for the image-obsessed materialists on the Mugatu Left—the dominant discourse; as Vicki Kirby points out, the rendering of ‘woman’ as absence is a near-universal occurrence:
As ‘woman’ is ceaselessly re-figured as an absence in every account, such that Man can be rendered present, the very repetition of this mode of reckoning exceeds the ‘logic of the same’. ‘Woman’ is the embodied place in which essentialism comes to reside, albeit uncannily. Essentialism is transformational: it is never identical with itself. Consequently, ‘woman’ embodies the ‘play’ of essentialism’s difference from and within itself in the mode of production of Man. This ‘play’ that accompanies the exchange of value can also be described as ‘work’, because it engenders material effects: the production of inscription.
Feminist theorists surmise the often conspicuous absence of women is itself a strategy meant to silence and subjugate, and they highlight their exclusion from the “phallocentric” discourse since historical narrative is, for neo-feminists, gendered, and leans strongly toward the “phallocentric,” directly marginalizing women from within this very discourse of exclusionary gendering itself. For Moira Gatens:
The…sense of ‘representation’ surfaces when considering whose body it is that is entitled to be represented by this political corporation. This involves understanding ‘representation’ in the sense where one body or agent is taken to stand for a group of diverse bodies. Here we are considering the metonymical representation of a complex body by a privileged part of that body.
Historically, it would have been rare to find a woman at the proverbial banquet table, unless as a queen-figurehead or an object of carnality. Confined mostly to the margins and shadows of the hall, if even present, the women became a part of the setting, unable to enter into the dialogue of politics. Per Robin Ann Sheets:
Roland Barthes would see the protagonist’s control of language as evidence of a shift in power: ‘The master is he who speaks, who disposes of the entirety of language; the object is [s]he who is silent, who remains separate, by a mutilation more absolute than any erotic torture, from any access to discourse, because [s]he does not even have any right to receive the master’s word.’
Just as Rome, before it succumbed to the barbarian incursions, attempted to advance its interests with the various tribes along its borders, often playing one off another, and incorporating them into their intricate military-economic web (to the extent in its waning days of settling tribes wholesale within the drawn boundaries of the empire, which, as we are seeing repeated today in the West, back-fired spectacularly), many of today’s governments with similar aspirations attempt to engage in the same kind of military-industrial dominance but on a fully global scale. This is the discourse of empire, an accepted model with prescribed roles within the seemingly all-encompassing military-industrial complex—rulers as rulers, and subjects as clients. Every country, other than the suicidal Western ones fixated on being “post-national,” endeavors to advance its interests, but at what cost and to what degree is clearly variable. That said, this is in some ways a reductive worldview that if accepted at face value ignores the complex shading of context and fails to explore the privations of empire in all its dimensionality. The dominant discourse affects experience in myriad ways, with perception, context, and language all an ink blot test of sorts depending on one’s seat at the banquet table, literally or figuratively. While there is certainly validity to the claims made by academics of the post-modern persuasion regarding empire and exploitation, it is selectively applied and often excludes that which would complicate or in many instances invalidate their particular stance.
The tolerant, open, wealthy West has removed the strictures on sex, sexuality, and race of its past, allowing its citizens the opportunity for tremendous upward social and economic mobility. And as equality has by-and-large been achieved, the various progressive causes have melded into this kind of amorphous racist-sexist-bigot-transphobic-homophobic-shouting mass that wants to move past equilibrium and on to its own naked power grab. Leftism cannot survive without an enemy (again, the irony of the far Left’s good-and-evil moralizing adhering wholly to a binary model seems to have escaped them), and as such, hopefully they soon become their own worst one and leave the rest of us the hell alone. Don’t hold your breath, though.
 Michael A. Holly, “Patterns in the Shadows”, Art History 21.4 (December 1998), pp. 467-78, at p. 475.
 Ibid, at p. 467.
 Carolina Hein, Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Norderstedt: on Demand, 2006), p. 4.
 Vicki Kirby, “Corpus delicti: the body at the scene of writing”, Cartographies: Poststructuralism and the Mapping of Bodies and Spaces, Ed. Rosalyn Diprose and Robyn Ferrell (North Sydney, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1991), p. 89.
 Sjoberg and Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, Whores, p. 27.
 Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986), p. 52.
 Hein, Laura Mulvey, p. 4.
 Kirby, “Corpus delicti”, p. 98.
 Grace and Heberle, Theorizing Sexual Violence, p. 12.
 Kirby, “Corpus delicti”, pp. 98-99.
 Moira Gatens, “Corporeal representation in/and the body politic”, Cartographies: Poststructuralism and the Mapping of Bodies and Spaces, Ed. Rosalyn Diprose and Robyn Ferrell (North Sydney, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1991), p. 79.
 Robin Ann Sheets, “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 4 (University of Texas Press, April, 1991,), pp. 633-57, at p. 649.