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Chase Dimock

Writer, Editor, and Researcher in Comparative Literature and LGBT Studies

Month

March 2012

The Surreal Sex of Beauty: Jean Cocteau and Man Ray’s “Le Numéro Barbette”


In 1923, the American acrobat Vander Clyde better known by his stage name “Barbette” made his theater debut in Paris at the famed Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère and captivated the French artistic community with his show. Yet, his success was not merely due to his death-defying high wire or trapeze acts. Rather, what built his reputation and fame was his uncanny female impersonation as he performed his stunts. Most who saw Barbette for the first time were completely unaware of his true sex, but as Barbette’s renown grew in Paris, audiences poured in knowing they were witnessing the feminine graces of a man, yet captivated by how willingly they bought into the artful deception. During his days on the American Vaudeville circuit, Barbette’s revelation of his male gender at the end of his show may have shocked the audience, perhaps with laughter and the occasional moral offense, but in Paris, his act transcended the carnival aesthetic of oddities and shock value and was appreciated more as an art akin to ballet.

This appreciation for Barbette’s artistic sensibilities came as his act was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde and explored in the works of two surrealist artists, the French writer Jean Cocteau and the American photographer Man Ray. In 1926, Cocteau commissioned Man Ray to take a set of photographs chronicling Vander Clyde’s physical transformation into Barbette before a performance. In these photos, Man Ray presents Barbette in a stage half-way between average man and the over the top show girl outfit that completed Barbette as a character. Barbette’s wig is on and his face is made up, but his chest is bare and unmistakably a man’s. For Jean Cocteau, this state in between genders, in between sexes constitutes the essence of Barbette as neither a man impersonating or transformed into a woman, but instead as a being that takes advantage of the fluidity of aesthetics and theatrics to render gender and sex amorphous, constantly in a state of movement. I examine how surrealism supplied a discourse for theorizing an aesthetics for visualizing the possibilities of Barbette’s play of gender and yet how Cocteau and Man Ray had to work against the conventions of this fundamentally masculinist movement by examining the long repressed queer dimensions of the unconscious that even surrealism feared to unleash.

(Full article available at The Qouch)

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Robert McAlmon’s Psychoanalyzed Girl and the Popularization of Psychoanalysis in America

A writer, publisher, and a connoisseur of the Parisian nightlife, Robert McAlmon was a fixture of the Lost Generation’s expatriate community in Paris in the 20s and 30s. McAlmon took Hemingway out to the bullfights in Spain that he would immortalize in The Sun Also Rises and he typed proofs of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses. Through his publishing company Contact Editions, he was the first to publish works by such luminaries of the modernist movement as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, H.D., and Nathanael West. Yet, his own reputation as a writer never reached the heights of those that he helped.

As a bisexual man in what most presumed to be a marriage of convenience to lesbian poet Bryher (H.D.’s longtime partner), McAlmon was one of the first American writers to depict the queer subculture of American expatriates. In Distinguished Air: Grim Fairy Tales, he detailed the exploits of Berlin’s cabarets and in the recently rediscovered The Nightinghouls of Paris, he dished on the queer affairs of the writers that inhabited the bistros and bars of Montparnasse during the famed expatriate period. I have written on McAlmon’s biography and poetry in greater detail in this previous article.

The story below comes from McAlmon’s first book of fiction, A Hasty Bunch. James Joyce himself suggested the title to McAlmon, commenting on the speed with which he wrote the stories and their roughness. By reading just a few sentences of the story, it is apparent that Joyce’s judgment is well justified. “The Psychoanalyzed Girl” should be considered part of McAlmon’s juvenilia as its awkward phrasings search for the more polished voice of ironic detachment and sardonic wit that would come with his later, more mature work.

Nonetheless what I find fascinating about this piece is its place as a cultural artifact of the influence of psychoanalysis on the Lost Generation of American writers. McAlmon’s opinion in this story is none too favorable. He satirizes the hyperawareness and self-centeredness that psychoanalytic therapy causes in his friend Dania, depicting her as perpetually self-analyzing and becoming progressively more alienated from her own reality as she obsesses over self-knowledge at the expense of self-experience.

(Full article available at The Qouch)

My Review of ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ by Judith Jack Halberstam

In a world of hokey motivational posters and cheap self-esteem peddlers that encourage us to learn from our mistakes and strive toward self-improvement, Judith Halberstam turns toward the wisdom of gay memoirist Quentin Crisp who quipped, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.” The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press) re-examines how we conceive of the idea of failure in our society, not so that we may correct ourselves, but so that we may see how our various “failures” may actually produce a preferable alternative to conformist lifestyles and the status quo.

(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary)

Review of ‘Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader’ by Gayle S. Rubin

Gayle S. Rubin has had an incalculable impact on the study of gender and sexuality over the past 35 years. Rubin’s work changed the very language and vocabulary with which we discuss sexuality and gender. She coined the terms “sex/gender system” to describe “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity”  and the “Charmed Circle,” which describes the normative sexual behaviors our society privileges over the marginalized practices of the queer minority. Rubin’s pioneering research on gay leather communities legitimized the anthropological study of sexual subcultures and her participation in the first known lesbian S/M group, Samois, and pro-sex activism helped to de-stigmatize pornography and S/M practices in the 80s when the anti-pornography movement was at its height. In short, Gayle S. Rubin is a living legend whose writing, research, and activism both chronicled and inspired LGBT culture as we know it today.

(Full review available at Lambda Literary)

Review of ‘The Inverted Gaze: Queering the French Literary Classics in America’ By François Cusset

From the Marquis de Sade’s libertine sodomites to Jean Genet’s gay Parisian subculture of saintly Queens, the French literary canon has left an indelible mark on how we in America narrate and conceptualize same-sex desire. So, it may come as a surprise to some when François Cusset contends in The Inverted Gaze (Arsenal Pulp Press) that French literary criticism has largely ignored the queer possibilities of its own canon and that it could learn a thing or two from the American academy. Cusset, a professor of American studies at The University of Paris, acknowledges that the French literary tradition has had no shortage of famous gay and lesbian characters and authors, but argues that the homoerotic tension and defiance of the heteronormative status quo that guides the plot and complicates the characters of so many French classics have gone largely unnoticed.

(Full review available at Lambda Literary)

Review of Judith Halberstam’s “The Killer in Me is the Killer in You: Homosexuality and Fascism”

Beyond merely cataloguing homosexuality’s flirtations with fascist politics and iconography, Judith Halberstam’s lecture sought to question the very core of historical research in queer studies by asking “how do we do or not do gay history?” For Halberstam, the key question is: what parts of queer history we ignore or leave uninvestigated because of political inconvenience, or because we wish to repress certain objectionable past practices from consciousness.

Calling upon George Chauncey’s notion of queer history as a “repressed archive”, Halberstam argued that while queer scholarship has often uncovered narratives that had remained buried in the back of the closet, it has also tended only to pull from that closet the voices and histories that support an unquestioned progress narrative of queer culture. The skeletons that do not please the historian remain closeted.

Halberstam appealed against this logic of selective history, arguing that this vision of queer history has painted a distorted picture of the 20th century in which gays and lesbians are portrayed as perpetual victims of a universal, culturally unspecific homophobia. Instead, Halberstam proposed that we pay more attention to the history of gay collaboration with the production of fascist ideology and imagery while stating that the goal should not be to settle the issue on one correct history, but to explore “the ethics of complicity” with fascism alongside other narratives.

(Full article available at Kritik)

Paper Dolls and The Global Heart Transplant: A Few Reflections on Martin Manalansan’s “Travels of Disaffection: Labor, Affect, and Migration”

Manalansan injected his lecture for the Unit for Criticism with the tone of an intervention into the increasingly heteronormative perspective of recent scholarly work published on gender and migration. Specifically, he questioned the “chain of care” paradigm, which he defines as

A linear concatenation of bodies and feelings propelled by the migration of Third World women to the First World. Third World women are torn away from their biological families and forced to leave their children in the care of poorer women in the homeland, to take care of the progeny of modern working mothers of the first world.

In their 2003 book Global Woman, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild argue that this chain of care results in a “global heart transplant,” where the domestic labor of these third world women is uprooted from their native land and relocated in the first world where their employment as care workers takes on the function of surrogate or supplementary mothers, wives, daughters and other affective, pseudo-familial roles.

Manalansan placed this unquestioned equation of care work with the affective assumptions of femininity under a queer critique, speculating, “What if we include such queer creatures as gay men, single and married women with no “maternal instinct,” and transgendered persons into the mix? How can we queer this particular migratory diaspora without dismissing the struggles of some of its constituents?”

(Full article available at Kritik)

I Was a Male Chat-bot: The Turing Test, Artificial Intelligence, and Gender Online

Three summers ago, I made ten dollars an hour plus commission portraying “Jessica”, an online shopping assistant program designed by InQ serving the WhiteFence.com website. On WhiteFence.com, a customer can purchase phone, cable, internet service, and other products specific to their address. If any questions about the products or ordering procedure were to arise, the customer could initiate an online chat with Jessica simply by clicking on her picture in the upper right hand of the page. Jessica looked the part of an intelligent and congenial assistant with blond hair pulled back, a collared white shirt, and a pair of stylish librarian glasses. However, this image of Jessica rarely resembled the individual who answers questions as Jessica. In fact, in the first two months of the WhiteFence.com account, all of the agents working as Jessica were males of ages 20-40. The InQ office was filled with Jessicas working on different websites such as bellsouth.com, sprint.com and vonage.com, all corresponding to roughly similar pictures of the blond, attractive woman ready to answer all your questions. As agents, we were encouraged to maintain our “Jessica” identity at all times. Jessica provided a human face for the website, a form of branding which personalizes an online experience usually marked by anonymity. The overwhelming majority of customers fully bought into the Jessica masquerade, often typing personal testimonies of their trials and tribulations in trying to get their phone connected and appealing to Jessica’s implied sense of personal concern and warmth. Jessica was always sympathetic, but she was also a saleswoman, trained to guide customers to the latest long distance plans and rebates so she could make a fifty cent commission on each sale.

(Full article available on As It Ought To Be)

What’s Queer About Psychoanalysis?

Whenever I “out” myself as a student of Freud, I am inevitably greeted with comments like “Isn’t that the guy who said we all secretly want to have sex with our moms?” or “You know he’s been disproved, right?” It is true that Freud’s work has been diluted with bad pop culture appropriations that have turned his thousands of pages of careful analysis into a couple of slogans to be thrown around at cocktail parties. Yet, it is also a testament to his enduring influence and value in the cultural imaginary. 120 years after his first publications, he is still the most famous and widely recognized psychologist in the world.

(Full article available at The Qouch)

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