This past weekend, I was a guest on Daniel Crocker’s podcast Sanesplaining, a show dedicated to exploring topics related to mental health in current events and culture. I was invited to discuss the classic Sci Fi show The Twilight Zone and how it commented on cultural understandings of mental health in its era. My section begins around the 26 minute mark.
As I write, the French parliament is embroiled in a protracted debate over President François Hollande’s push to legalize gay marriage and adoption in France. The controversy regarding the bill has swept through French society and the regular cast of conservative political and cultural interests such as the Catholic Church and the xenophobic right-wing parties has emerged in demonstrations against it. Yet, one unlikely voice of support for the bill came out last month as Jacques-Alain Miller, representing the psychoanalytic community, authored an op-ed in Le Point titled, “Non, la psychanalyse n’est pas contre le mariage gay”. I say this is “unlikely” not because it would be unexpected for a psychoanalyst to support lgbt rights, but because it is uncommon for psychoanalysis to weigh in on current political issues. In this article, Miller (who is Jacques Lacan’s son-in-law and one of the most widely published analysts still active today) does not come out in explicit support of gay marriage, but instead lambastes the conservatives who have misrepresented and instrumentalized psychoanalytic research and theory in their campaign against gay marriage. As Miller promulgates, “we Psychoanalysts are obligated to declare that nothing in the Freudian experience will validate an anthropology that is authorized by the first chapter of Genesis.” (my translation)
While it is important in the context of the gay marriage debate for scholars to publicly dismantle the pseudo-scientific and unfounded sociological claims made by conservative interests, I find that Miller’s short, five paragraph article also makes a profound, if unintended, argument for how the basic concepts of psychoanalysis are congruent with research in Queer Theory. Miller’s article comes out against the abuses and misinterpretations of psychoanalytic concepts and practices that led the ill-informed to pathologize or inject moral approbation against homosexuality based on poor readings of Freud, Lacan, and other luminaries of psychoanalysis. Miller makes a bold statement against any kind of normative moralizing and instead stresses the fluidity of gender, sex, and desire as a guiding feature of psychoanalytic practice and research. The article serves a double purpose of both defending against socially regressive misuses of psychoanalysis and clarifying the basic concepts and practices for queer scholars and activists who have been mislead by pop-psychology or misinformed critics. Here, I have translated key elements of Miller’s text for an English-speaking audience because I believe his points brilliantly illustrate how psychoanalysis has granted me and other scholars of Queer Theory illuminating language and discourse for the study of queer identity and desire.
(Read the rest at The Qouch)
We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.
While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.
(Full Article Available at The Qouch)
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)
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)
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)