Posts Tagged ‘sex’


Man Ray: Nude Dialectics

June 7, 2011

The Dada movement was founded on anti-war politics and was a direct response to the established standards and manifested these ideas by responding to accepted concepts of art with the creation of anti-art cultural works. The goal was to reveal meaning it what was being discarded as meaningless in the modern world.

Continuing after WWI, Surrealism evolved from original Dada manifestation. Defined by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Surrealism is:

Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

The concept of Surrealism was explored in photography, art, film, literature, music, and continually addressed the question of what is conscious and unconscious, often with strong socio-political themes. Deconstruction and Post-Modernism are descendents from Dada and Surrealist thought.

Writing in the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a philosopher whose approach has been critical to the course of 20th century thought. Hegel asserted that there is an original argument, a Thesis. This Thesis automatically generates an opposing argument, the |Antithesis. The interaction between Thesis and Antithesis bring forth a third, and new idea called the Synthesis. Furthermore, the foundation for Hegelian Dialectics is developed from four concepts:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
  2. Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
  3. Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).

Dialectical reasoning has been a central strategy for communicating philosophical challenges since it’s conception. As a written strategy, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are a familiar framework for essays. Likewise, there are reverberations in art, literature, music, etc.

However, just as the structure of Dialectics argues for an antithesis, so is there a counter-response to this approach. Though acutely articulated in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction and in the Post-Modern exploration of film and literature, there is a unique space in the early twentieth century where the conception of an antithesis to Dialectics is being visualized adjacent to it’s origin.

Photographer Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. Arriving in Paris between WWI and WWII, Man Ray was a central figure in the practice and philosophy of Surrealism. Central to the socio-political experience of Europe during this period is the question of how to live in a world after the devastation of war. Not only the destruction of infrastructures, but the knowledge that that destruction was generated and enabled by the continental communities. The horrors of war could not withstand cultural boundaries. All types of hell were made possible by the hands of man.

First Dada and then Surrealism emerged as expressionist responses to this new psychological realization. Dada is a Dialectical response to being the anti-war to war, and the anti-art to traditional art. The emphasis on automatism in Surrealism opens the discussion to both cultural and personal exploration. Automatism is defined as the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. If war is the strategic plan to conquer, divide, and/or destroy, than surrealism is the unconscious response. But, unlike Dada, this response is not obviously anti-war (or peace). Though consciousness and unconsciousness are practically a dialectic opposition, their content does not necessarily follow the same rules. What is found in the unconscious may be better explored through the process of Dialectics, but it resists definition, categorization, or compartmentalization.

A visual example of this is seen in Man Ray’s photographs “Le nu en photographie,” or “Two Nudes” composed in 19 37. In this image we see two nudes, one facing the viewer the other with her back to the audience looking into the distance. The portraits are not mirror images, but the juxtaposition of a light and dark background establish that the images are linked, representing united, but contrasting concepts. Black is the antithesis to white and vice versa. Put them together and the visual contrast creates an experience that is not achieved when viewed separately.

Likewise, one nude faces forward, the other showing her back. This is another example inviting a Dialectic comparison. Though, here is where it becomes clear that this strategy is being intentionally broken. While the black-white backgrounds and poses lead the interpreter toward their familiar Thesis, there are several factors that disorient this process. Almost mirror images of each other, the differences in poses convey different messages. The lighted nude faces forward, intimately meeting the eyes of her audience; Her arm is raised to reveal her breasts and the curve of her figure. She is fully conscious of her physicality and allurement. The second nude shows her back to the viewer and looks into the darkness. Her figure is highlighted, but it is not being displayed for an audience. Both arms are lowered and her focus is unknown.

A simple interpretation would read this as the lighted nude represents what is conscious and the darkened nude is the unconscious. However, Man Ray’s technique of inducing photographic polarities deconstructs the obvious. The light nude is highlighted in black; the black nude is highlighted in white. Each nude displays characteristics of the unconscious and conscious. The direct sexuality of the first is generated in the primal ID, clearly nestled in the unconscious. The reflective gaze into darkness implies active cognition. Though the initial invitation is to define each woman as being black or white, conscious and unconscious, this Dialectic interpretation is destabilized the more one participates in the portraits as a conversation between opposites. The more one tries to define the images—both technically and symbolically, the more impossible it becomes to reduce the images to a single narrative.

Man Ray’s photograph, “Le nu en photographie” (“Two Nudes”), is an example of how Dada and Surrealism struggled with the strictures of Dialectic thought in the 20th century. It is an exemplification of an experience that is both defined by opposites and irreconcilable to being pruned into familiar and rational forms.


Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

April 11, 2010

This is a book that reminds us of what the function of literature is: the weaving of narrative into questions that relate the reader to the nature of being in the world.

Rather than succumb to the temptation to underwrite the complexities of love and death, Niffenegger is able to create a composition that may hold both reader and reality. The duality of symmetry and chaotic emotion is essential to this balance. The repetition of physical doubling does not imply neatness or psychological symmetry. Instead, we find that where death should bring peace, discord resonates.

A typical trope in literature that is graphically explored in the film noir genre is that doubling foretells death. It is as if the act of the individual witnessing itself is too much and the Self cannot handle so much actuality and must retire. Doubling is a process where the Self becomes the Other, who in turn returns to the Self.

The desire for the Self to be merged with the Other, or a love object, is familiar to all cultures across time. To become one, to be completed by love, to fully be consumed is the root of sex, but on in a larger sense directly related to our drive toward death. Death is that ultimate consumption, le petit mort of sex becomes a metaphor for the ultimate union that is all of our fates.

Niffenegger presents these topics in the relationship of the twins. At once the twins have what we all desire, to know another completely. But through their union, so are they destroyed by their desire for sex and love. The overshadowing of death is made uncomfortably clear when Valentina sees death and reincarnation as the solution to their dilemma.

In addition, something that is interesting to note and might not be commonly known is that while Niffenegger thoroughly researched Victorian burial rituals, she also put in her time learning about the afterlife. Her concept of death, and understanding of spiritual impetus are educated by scholars, channelers, and shaman who make it their business to perceive these realms. While I naturally cannot validate the authenticity of these perspectives, I can say that Niffenegger’s concept of the afterlife is grounded in a collective concept and not solely based on her own imagination. Having had my own studies lead me through many of these texts, it was fascinating to see Niffenegger navigate the concepts in a new, creative context.

This book was fabulously written, provocative and continues to resonate within my mind. Niffenegger’s balance of structure and content is true craftsmanship and I look forward to future endeavors. If you are looking for a more complete review of the literature you can check out the New York Times Book Review at the link listed below. A funny coincidence to the NYT review is that it is written by Susann Cokal, who taught at Cal Poly, SLO while I studied there: