The Politics of Postmodernism





Text/image border tensions


The paradoxes of photography


Postmodern photographic theorists and practitioners are fond of using the

image of ‘fringe interference’ to describe their work. By this, they mean to

signal what happens when the aesthetic equivalent of different wave forms

encounter each other: two stones thrown into a pond make ripples which

meet and, at the point of meeting, something new happens – something that

is based on the individual forms that preceded it, but is nevertheless different.

Today, photographic artists like Victor Burgin, Barbara Kruger, Martha

Rosler, and Hans Haacke are all working across various ‘wave’ forms: high

art, advertising, documentary, theory. The ripples emanate from each,

intersect, and changes occur that can be called postmodern.


Burgin has argued that ‘fringe’ is better than‘margin’ as a term to describe

the postmodernist site of operations: it is more dynamic and decentered

(Burgin 1986b: 56). But whatever the word chosen for it, that site is clearly

on the borders of what have traditionally been thought of as discrete forms of

discourse, not to say disciplines. My particular interest in this chapter is in

those photographic ‘fringe’ constructions that combine the visual and the




Text/image border tensions 119


verbal, mass media and high art, artistic practice and aesthetic theory, and, in

particular, in the spots where these apparent opposites overlap and interfere

both with each other and with mainstream notions of ‘art.’ This postmodern

photo-graphic practice interrogates and problematizes, leaving the viewer

no comfortable viewing position. It upsets learned notions of the relations

between text/image, non-art/art, theory/ practice – by installing the

conventions of both (which are often taken for granted) and then by

investigating the borders along which each can be opened, subverted, altered

by the other in new ways. This typically postmodern border tension between

inscription and subversion, construction and deconstruction – within the art

itself – also places new demands upon critics and their means of approaching

such works. And, one of the most insistent of these demands involves a

coming to terms with the theoretical and political implications of what has

too often been seen as an empty, formal play of codes.


Since I have been defining postmodernism from a model based on

architecture, I have argued that postmodern art in other forms is art that is

fundamentally paradoxical in its relation to history: it is both critical of and

complicitous with that which precedes it. Its relationship with the aesthetic

and social past out of which it openly acknowledges it has come is one

characterized by irony, though not necessarily disrespect. Basic

contradictions mark its contact with artistic conventions of both production

and reception: it seeks accessibility, without surrendering its right to criticize

the consequences of that access. Postmodernism’s relation to late capitalism,

patriarchy, and the other forms of those (now suspect) master narratives is

paradoxical: the postmodern does not deny its inevitable implication in

them, but it also wants to use that ‘insider’ position to ‘de-doxify’ the

‘givens’ that ‘go without saying’ in those grand systems. Thus, it is neither

neoconservatively nostalgic nor radically revolutionary; it is unavoidably

compromised – and it knows it.


I have summarized my argument in order to show why the typical

postmodern site of operations might well be between traditional art forms,

even if its manifestations can still be seen ensconced in major museums, as

well as in the alternative spaces. Just as postmodernist novels by Umberto

Eco or Peter Ackroyd can make the best-seller lists, so too the work of




120 The Politics of Postmodernism


Barbara Kruger or Victor Burgin appears as well both in commercial

galleries and in national museums. This is not to say that their work is not

controversial and deliberately contesting. It clearly aims to de-naturalize the

entire notion of representation in high art as well as mass media, and it

succeeds in so doing; but it has consistently done so from within the

conventions it seeks to dismantle and destabilize. Therefore, it remains

accessible to quite a wide public; it has to, if its political message is to be

effective. And its combining of the verbal and the visual has been an

important key to this accessibility and effectiveness.


The formation, in 1983, of a journal called Representations, co-edited by

an art historian and a literary critic, signalled less the merging of disciplines

than the recognition, on the one hand, that theory and art or the verbal and the

visual are not as discrete discourses as their historical institutionalization

would suggest (at least when considered as signifying practices) and, on the

other, that modes of analysis are having to change as a result: how art

represents (in various discourses) cannot be separated from the historical,

cultural, and social contexts in which that representing occurs – and is

interpreted. Photography has been seen as important to this de-naturalizing

process since the early 1970sbecause of its own interrogation of its



traditional role in documentation and also because of painting’s use of photorealist

techniques. The postmodern photographic art that interests me here,

though, is important for other reasons too. It is self-consciously theoretical;

it is ‘factographic’ art in ‘its insistence on the necessity to explore and clarify

the construction and operation of representation within present day reality’

(Buchloh 1984b: 10) – be that in the ubiquitous mass media or in the high art

of museums.


I have been suggesting that photography may be the perfect postmodern

vehicle in many ways, for it is based on a set of paradoxes inherent in its

medium, general paradoxes which make it ripe for the particular paradoxes

of postmodernism. For example, photography could be seen as Baudrillard’s

perfect industrial simulacrum: it is, by definition, open to copy, to infinite

duplication. Yet, since its canonization by New York’s Museum of Modern

Art (or, more specifically, by its Director of Photography, John Szarkowski),

photography has also become high art: that is, singular, authentic, complete




Text/image border tensions 121


with Benjaminian ‘aura.’ However, as we saw in chapter 2, this (historically

modernist) view of photography-as-high-art must daily confront the fact that

photographs are also everywhere in mass culture, from advertising and

magazines to family vacation snapshots. And its very instrumentality (be it

in terms of either documentary testimony or consumerist persuasion) would

seem to contest the formalist view of the photograph as autonomous work of

art. There are still other paradoxes at the heart of the photographic medium:

the subject-framing eye of the photographer is difficult to reconcile with the

objectivity of the camera’s technology, its seemingly transparent realism of

recording. Nevertheless, the trend in the last decade or so has been toward a

suspicion of the scientific neutrality of that technology: the ‘photograph has

ceased to be a window on the world, through which we see things as they are.

It is rather a highly selective filter, placed there by a specific hand and mind’


(D. Davis 1977: 62). Postmodern photographic work, in particular, exploits

and challenges both the objective and the subjective, the technological and

the creative.

Postmodern photographic art, which often mixes the verbal with the

visual, is also implicated in another debate that has developed around the

definition of the process of ‘reading’ photographs, for it suggests that what

representational images and language share is a reliance upon culturally

determined codes which are learned. This is where (and why) the ideological

cannot be separated from the aesthetic in postmodernism, why

representation always has its politics. If images, like words, are seen as signs,

then it is possible to look beyond what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the ‘deceptive

appearance of naturalness and transparence concealing an opaque,

distorting, arbitrary mechanism of representation, a process of ideological

mystification’ (1986: 8). Though this particular formulation is deliberately

provocative, it does serve to point to the need to deal with the paradoxes of a

form of art that both plays on and subverts its presumed naturalness and

transparency, and does so to overt political ends.


Many take Baudrillard’s view that television, not photography, is the

paradigmatic form of postmodern signification because its transparency

seems to offer direct access to reality. But since I am here defining

postmodernism in terms of its contradictions, the inherently paradoxical




122 The Politics of Postmodernism


medium of photography seems even more apt than television to act as the

paradigm of the postmodern. As Susan Sontag has argued at length,

photography both records and justifies, yet also imprisons, arrests, and

falsifies time; it at once certifies and refuses experience; it is a submission to

and an assault upon reality; it is ‘a means of appropriating reality and a means

of making it obsolete’ (1977: 179). Postmodern photographic art is both

aware of and willing to exploit all of these paradoxes in order to effect its own

paradoxical use and abuse of conventions – and always with the aim of

disabuse. Barbara Kruger’s confronting of the visual with the verbal in her

cut-up works returns to art what many have seen as having been eclipsed by

modernist photographic formalism: its materiality, its status as signifying

sign, and thus its inevitable, if usually unacknowledged, politics of

representation. A fragmented photo of a woman (likely a model) stares out

at the viewer, amid a series of white dots, equally reminiscent of pills,

jewellery beads, or even studio lights. Superimposed over these shattered

(and repeated) images – with their multiple possible readings – are the

words: ‘We are your circumstantial evidence.’ This is material, as well as

circumstantial, evidence – of a subject deliberately fragmented, never

whole. The contradictions of ideology are literally materialized.


In his work, too, Victor Burgin manages both to exploit and to undercut

the idea of photography as mimetic reduplication, a view which leads to that

sense of the familiar, natural, self-effacing quality of the image as image.

These photographic/ textual works also deliberately challenge the concept

of the transhistorical universality of visual experience. Here the address to

the viewer (both implicit and explicit) is specific and historical, pointing

directly to the different cultural restraints on interpretation – depending on

time, place, gender, race, creed, class, sexual orientation. In Possession (also

‘exhibited’ as a poster in the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne), a photo of a

man and woman embracing is topped with the words: ‘What does possession

mean to you?’ The visual and verbal sexual politics then gets quickly recoded

in economic terms by the bottom line of text: ‘7% of our population

own 84% of our wealth.’


The desire to contextualize, to ‘situate’ the particularities of both

reception and production in opposition to humanist universals, is common to




Text/image border tensions 123


all the art and theory I shall be considering here. They show how the danger

of photography lies in its apparent transparency, but also in the pleasure it

arouses in viewers without creating any awareness of its act of ideological

constructing. The photographic semblance of eternal, universal Truth and

innocent, uncomplicated pleasure is what always potentially links the

medium to institutional power; it seems to reproduce so easily those grand

narratives of our culture. Perhaps this is why so many of the postmodernists

have turned to the addition of verbal texts, both within and alongside their

visual images. It is not that Roland Barthes was right – that photography is a

message without a code – but, rather, that it is usually viewed as such in this

image-saturated society.


These postmodern text/image combinations consciously work to point to

the coded nature of all cultural messages. They do so by overtly being revisions:

they offer a second seeing, through double vision, wearing the

spectacles of irony. Thus, they can be subtly critical of received notions of art

and artistic production: there is nothing eternal or universal or natural about

representation here. The conjunction of text and image raises new questions,

but these are also questions that what is called the New Photography has been

asking since the 1960s:


Why is such and such an image significant? How does it manage to  

signify? Why does a society require certain images at particular times?

Why do genres arise in photography? How and why do particular images  

become judged aesthetically worthy? Why do photographers produce  

pictures which, above and beyond their technical wizardry or creative  

acumen, say something about the social world? What are the political  

meanings of photography? Who controls the machinery of photography  

in contemporary society?  

(Webster 1980: 4–5)


Postmodern artists and their art are implicated in a very particular historical

and ideological context – which they are more than willing to signal.


Of course, such a stand marks one of the major distinctions we have seen

between modernism and postmodernism. While, obviously, neither can be




124 The Politics of Postmodernism


said to be apolitical, in postmodernism there is an acceptance, even

embracing, of the paradox of the inevitability of both art’s implication in

Jameson’s ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ and the possibility of internal

challenge to it. Because photography today is the medium of advertising, of

magazines, and of news reporting – that is, the medium of commercial and

informational practices – it cannot be seen only in modernist terms as an

autonomous form but rather must be accepted as implicated in an inevitably

politicized social arena.


Postmodern photographic art uses this arena, uses its viewers’ cultural

knowledge (and expectations), and then turns it all against itself – and against

the viewers as well. Barbara Kruger, for instance, disrupts notions of proper

high-art codes by presenting the same text/image combinations in forms that

vary in size and mode from billboards to postcards, from huge enlargements

(often 6 feet by 10 feet) hanging on gallery walls to much smaller scale

reproductions in art books or on T-shirts. In appropriating images from both

high art and cliched mass media and then ‘violating’ them by severe

cropping and by the superimposition of verbal one-liners, she uses ‘fringe

interference’ to new and openly political ends.


I should add that my interest here is not in magazine ‘photo texts’ or in

books which bring texts and photographic images together. Postmodern

photographic art is also different from the photo-essays of photojournalism.

Each work (or series of works) is in itself both photo and graphic; any critical

approach to it must therefore be literally iconological: it must concern itself

with both the art’s icon and its logos, as well as with their interactions. This

is literally photo-graphic art.


The ideological arena of photo-graphy


In Ideology and the Image Bill Nichols argues that the visual image is a mute

object, in a way; its meaning ‘though rich, may be profoundly imprecise,

ambiguous, even deceiving’ (1981: 57). The addition of a verbal text to the

visual in photo-graphy, then, might be seen as a possible tactic used to secure

visual meaning. In this kind of postmodern art, however, while the relation




Text/image border tensions 125


of the text to the image is never one of pure redundancy, emphasis, or

repetition, the text also never guarantees any one single, already apparent

meaning. Roland Barthes (1977a: 39–41) argued that the addition of a

linguistic message to an iconic one (in advertising or in press photos) could

act as either an anchorage or a relay. By anchorage, he meant that the text can

name and fix the many possible signifieds of the image, and thereby guide

identification and interpretation. This repressive (or at least controlling)

function of the verbal component is consciously problematized in photography,

however: though the very presence of a text might suggest this

function, the actual words, when read in relation to the picture, turn it against

itself – as in the double-meaning play in Possession. Is the relationship

between the linguistic and the pictorial in photo-graphy therefore one of

relay, where the text and image complement each other? Not really. In

Kruger’s We are your circumstantial evidence, the text does not elucidate the

image; it adds no obvious information not evident in the image. It is more

Derridean supplement than substitution. What it does above all, though, is

de-naturalize the relation between the visual and the verbal and also any

evaluative privileging of one over the other.


One theorist has suggested a reciprocity between the visual (as a script to

be deciphered) and the verbal (as a visual phenomenon) (Owens 1980a: 74–

5). What results from such reciprocity, however, is often a kind of riddling

quality in the visual/verbal interaction, as with a rebus or hieroglyph. Of

course, riddles or enigmas are perfect postmodern analogues, since they

offer the attractions and pleasures of deciphering: they demand active

participation and self-conscious work in creating the meaning of the text. In

photo-graphy these riddles foreground the fact that meaning may be

conditioned by context, yet is never fixed. What does the text ‘Your comfort

is my silence’ mean when superimposed upon Kruger’s reproduced picture

of a (floating) male face with its finger to its lips? Clearly, silence is being

invoked by the cliched gesture, but whose silence? And what has comfort to

do with it? And whose comfort – the artist’s, the viewer’s, the pictured



The forms this kind of ‘fringe’ riddling can take vary considerably, but

there are two basic intersections of the visual and the verbal in postmodern




126 The Politics of Postmodernism


photo-graphy: the text as distinct from (though linked to) the image, and the

text actually incorporated physically into or onto the image. The first form

(the text separate from the image) is a very common one that surrounds us

daily and has already received considerablecritical attention. It exists in

news photos with their captions, in the complex relations of mutual

illustration and supplementarity of the verbal and visual in illustrated books

and magazines, not to mention in more banal examples like art books and

catalogues and even the identification labels on works of visual art in

galleries. Obviously titles alone constitute its most simple form. This use of

an image with an accompanying text has a long history in high-art culture

too, from the illuminated manuscripts to the work of William Blake.


Another common and even more directly relevant use of a text alongside

an image would be in didactic photo-installations used for educational or

even propagandistic purposes. These rely on their potential for both verbal

and visual argumentation. Postmodern photo-graphy often plays on this

potential – and, in fact, often enacts it in interesting ways. Martha Rosler’s

The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems offers an extended set

of texts and images. The first three panels or pieces consist of verbal texts

only, offering isolated printed words from the ‘descriptive system’ of

language. These describe drinking in positive terms (‘aglow glowing’); this

is the view of bourgeois comfort, a view from outside skid row. But then the

visual ‘system’ begins and we visually enter skid row and literally watch

how our linguistic system also changes. The words become progressively

more negative: ‘groggy boozy.’ The second ‘descriptive system’ of visual

images offersa seriesofempty doorways of shabby shops in the Bowery. The

subjects (the drunks being referred to in the language) are absent, though

their empty bottles often remain. The accompanying words of the text

become more and more derogatory: ‘lush wino rubbydub inebriate alcoholic

barrelhouse bum.’


I should mention too that these photos themselves are postmodernly

parodic – and paradoxical. They are presented in the bare style of

documentary realism, inevitably recalling the 1930s American liberal

(‘social conscience’) documentary photography, which, however,

represented – rather than absented – its subject without hesitation. In the




Text/image border tensions 127


essay entitled ‘In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary

photography),’ which was published in the same volume as the Bowery

work, Rosler explains how she sees herself as part of that earlier tradition of

revelation in the name of the rectification of wrongs, but that she also cannot

avoid seeing the limits of that tradition’s ideological aims (to awaken the

privileged to pity and charity). Nor can she condone its arrogance in speaking

for the poor (through representation), without urging them to change their

own conditions. (The famous documentary photography of the 1930s was,

of course, commissioned by the American Government through the Farm

Securities Administration.) Similarly, in the liberal ‘victim photography’ of

the Bowery that sells so well, the inhabitants are made to fall prey to

photography as well as poverty.


Rosler refuses this kind of documentary, which she sees as carrying

‘information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed

as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1981: 73). She rejects the 1930s aestheticizing

and formalizing of the meaning of poverty; she contests the

‘impoverishment of representational strategies’ too – both the verbal and the

visual – in dealing with real poverty (79). But she does so by actualizing this

social theory through two (albeit inadequate) ‘descriptive systems’ or

representational strategies within her work. In her actualizing of each of

them, their conventionality is foregrounded, and with it, a political message:

drunkenness is not so much described or depicted as shown to be constructed

by these systems. All photography, she suggests, works in ideological ways,

and she wants her art to reveal the choices made by the artist, choices like

those of event, camera angle, and formal composition which represent

ideologically significant acts even in seemingly transparent documentary,

and certainly in her own work.


German artist Hans Haacke uses the separation of text and image in still

different ways in his photo-graphy. The pieces themselves are usually

mixtures of the verbal and the visual, but he also often places, either on the

wall or in a pamphlet given to viewers, additional textual information about

how he came to choose the subject in hand, and what he discovered in

researching it. While he often uses a riddle-relation of text to image, he is still

considerably more didactic than Burgin, for instance, for his commentary




128 The Politics of Postmodernism


about the subject matter of his art (often multinational corporations such as

Mobil or Exxon) cannot help conditioning the viewers’ interpretation of

what they see before them, especially since the gallery in which they stand is

often shown to be directly implicated (through funding or administration) in

those same corporations. Like Brecht, Haacke wants to address his viewers

directly – and challenge them. He wants them to acknowledge their active

role in making meaning in a specifically capitalist system. His use of text

alongside image is one way of making room for what modernist, formalist

art tried to squeeze out: that is, what Jameson calls ‘the issue of the

possibilities of representation against the whole new framework of a global

multinational system, whose coordinates can as yet not enter the content of


any of our older representational systems’ (Jameson 1986–7: 43). Haacke’s

act of offering – within his art works – what may at first seem aesthetically

irrelevant facts about Mobil’s economic involvement in South Africa, for

instance, sets up a riddle or puzzle that involves the viewers as interpreters,

asking them to investigate with him certain factual information that is

inextricably connected to the images he presents.


The second kind of combination of the linguistic and the pictorial – that

of a text used right within an image – is equally common today. Maps; charts;

magazine, book, and record jacket covers; posters and advertising in general

all superimpose texts upon images in almost as complex a manner as did

cubist collage, though we may have come to take that complexity as

transparent and natural through familiarity. As, in some ways, print

equivalents of film (which also obviously superimposes the verbal on the

visual in another way), comic books, or comic strips are particularly

interesting from a postmodern perspective. Their insertion of verbal

dialogue into the image and their sequential narrative form have both been

used and abused by postmodern photo-graphy (as they had been by Roy

Lichtenstein’s paintings earlier). The frequent use of a series of pieces by

Duane Michals, Victor Burgin, or Hans Haacke introduces an implied notion

of narrative sequence which is both exploited and yet undermined.


But even within single works, the relations between image and

superimposed text are often complex. For instance, one of Kruger’s works




Text/image border tensions 129


consists of a photograph of a page of a book, upon which rests a pair of

glasses and over which are superimposed the words, ‘You are giving us the

evil eye.’ Complex things are going on in this work. It is clearly a parody of

Kertesz’s famous photo, Mondrian’s Glasses, a parody that points to what

Kertesz and Mondrian, despite their differences (as formalist photographer

and abstract painter), share: their status as creators of modernist high art. The

glasses here sit on a page of text and their lenses magnify certain words –

‘legitimacy,’ ‘picture’, ‘mere effect’; ‘of my eye,’ ‘come back,’ ‘when I do

this.’ Now, none of these words is innocent in an ambiguously addressed

work with the words ‘You are giving us the evil eye’ superimposed over it,

words which by contiguity then make other words in the text also suddenly

stand out (though not magnified): ‘spectator,’ ‘beauty.’ Again, these are

hardly innocent words in postmodern art. The power of Kruger’s work lies

in the interpretive gap it allows between ‘illusioned object’ and ‘assaultive,

contradictory voice’ (Linker 1984: 414), between representation and



But it is not usually echoes of high art like this that Kruger turns to in order

to effect her kind of complicitous postmodern critique of representation. The

most common visual images in her work are those borrowed (stolen?) from

the mass media: pictorial equivalents of the cliches and colloquialisms of the

superimposed verbal texts. The deliberate banality of both codes signals her

rejection of the notion of art as original and authoritative, while it also calls

to our attention the pervasive – and persuasive – mixing of the verbal and

visual in mass culture. She uses the commonplaces of both systems because

of their pre-existing meanings, that is, because they are loaded with cultural

meanings. In this, they are exemplary of what surrounds everyone daily, at

least in Europe and North America. Therefore they are also culturally

understandable and accessible, part of the vernacular of pictorial and

linguistic life in the west in the twentieth century and of the representations

by which men – and especially women – construct their notions of self. As

Kruger says, the spectators who view her work do not have to understand the

language of art history: they ‘just have to consider the pictures that bombard

their lives and tell them who they are to some extent’ (in Squiers 1987: 85).

This is not a denial of the theoretical complexity of the processes involved in




130 The Politics of Postmodernism


the production of her visual/verbal confrontations: she was trained in the

didactic captioning of the print media, and she both recalls and undoes all its

forms and implications through formal interplay that suggests, if anything,

the complexity of constructivist political posters.


Hans Haacke is even more explicitly political in his work that unites

image with text, for he consciously plays with the logo and advertising

format of different multinational companies which he then targets: their

corporate advertising semiotics are both adopted and made to implode in

works like The Chase Advantage (Chase Manhattan Bank) or The Road to

Profits is Paved with Culture (which inverts the motto of an Allied Chemical

ad.). But thisis clearly not empty play with verbal andvisual form. In A Breed

Apart, Haacke takes on the ad. style and logo of British Leyland, and then

combines either (a) the company’s statements about its products (Jaguar,

Land Rover) with photos of repression in South Africa, or (b) a company

advertising photo of its product with a contesting text about British

Leyland’s involvement in South Africa.


In another obvious attack, this time on American Cyanamid, Haacke

photographically reproduces a ‘Breck girl’ picture (from the ad. of the

shampoo made by the corporation) and ironically re-contextualizes it

(though in a way that retains the visual coding of Breck ads) with a long text

that states: ‘those of its employees of child-bearing age who are exposed to

toxic substances are now given a choice.’ The choice is: ‘They can be

reassigned to a possibly lower paying job within the company. They can

leave if there is no opening. Or they can have themselves sterilized and stay

in their old jobs.’ The text then adds: ‘Four West Virginia women chose

sterilization,’ before its final, heavily ironic, bottom line: ‘American

Cyanamid. Where Women Have a Choice.’ As with Rosler’s separation of

the verbal and the visual, their conjunction here within the work of art is no

empty ludic play. Postmodern photo-graphy is political art of the first order.

It is also very ‘theoretical’ – and often demanding – art.


If photography is, as a visual medium, inherently paradoxical, it is also

semiotically hybrid. In Peirce’s terms, it is both indexical (its representation

is based on some physical connection) and iconic (it is a representation of

likeness) in its relation to the real. This complex hybrid nature is another




Text/image border tensions 131


reason why photography has become particularly important in a time of

challenge to modes of representation. Photo-graphic postmodern art

contributes yet another complication and another level of challenge: in

Peirce’s terminology, the addition of language is the addition of the symbolic

to the indexical and the iconic. The process of ‘reading’ the conventions of

both the verbal and the visual can now be seen as related, though different:

both involve hermeneutic work by the viewer, but this work includes the

interpretation of three types of signs, as well as their combinations. This

semiotic ‘fringe interference’ contests at once two related assumptions: that

the visual and the verbal are always totally independent sign systems, and

that meaning is universal. The image in these works does not derive its

semantic properties from conditions within the visual itself; information

here is the outcome of a culturally determined mediation which is inscribed

in two different systems.


This is why Victor Burgin has called his book of photography and

interviews Between. There are other reasons too, of course: it is ‘between’

the gallery and the book, the single image and narrative, the reader and the

text, high art and popular/ mass media. But the way in which each work

mixes the verbal with the visual in fact mirrors in miniature the entire book’s

liminal space: this is also the site where the discourse of theory meets that of

art – with important results for the politics of representation. For Burgin, as

a (British) teacher as well as practitioner of photo-graphy, this meeting

signifies something quite specific: ‘My work is produced out of and into an

extant discursive community based in politics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis’

(Burgin 1986b: 86). When critics analyze Burgin’s work, they too

must come to terms with the (literally) inherent theoretical nature of his art,

for his ‘project entails an extended analysis, constructed across the

signifying practice of photography, of the role of psychic structures in the

formation of daily reality, and of the particular part played by photography

as a central ideological apparatus’ (Linker 1984: 405). This ‘project’

includes both theoretical writings and actual artistic practice, but his photography

itself incorporates theoretical texts, either superimposed upon or

alongside the images. The theory and the theoretical art argue equally

powerfully for a view of language as difference (Saussure), as deferral




132 The Politics of Postmodernism


(Derrida), as the Symbolic (Lacan). The relation between the verbal and the

visual is here both literalized and theorized within the art itself.


While it is true that images are always interpreted through language, there

exists a particularly complex and explicit interaction in this kind of photography

between our verbal and visual modes of thought. Language may

always shape and even delimit the interpretation of images, but in

postmodern photographs, such an assumption is paradoxically both

accepted and problematized. The mixing of visual and verbal codes certainly

aims at making overt a doubled-pronged attack. Much fine work today is

being done by literarily trained critics of the visual arts. That ‘fringe

interference’ has had fruitful results in criticism and theory as well as art. The

photo-graphers I have been discussing have clearly also been influenced by

contemporary literary, psychoanalytic, and philosophical theories, and their

work similarly suggests the importance of working on the ‘fringes’ of

traditional institutionalized disciplines in the study of postmodernism.


Photo-graphy today is also very self-consciously aware of the fact that

both language and photography are signifying practices, that is, that both

contribute to the production and dissemination of meaning – in terms of both

the producer and receiver, the artist and viewer. And ‘meaning’ in these

terms is never separable from the social. Never was this clearer,perhaps,than

now, when the conjunction of language and images together is constantly

bombarding all western eyes through the mass media. In postmodern art,

those very borders between the pictorial and the linguistic are

simultaneously being asserted and denied – in short, radically denaturalized.

More than ever, the question must be asked: what interests and

powers does the traditional separation of the visual and the verbal serve in

both consumer mass culture and high art? Postmodern photo-graphy is one

articulation of that question, even if it offers no final answer to it.


The ideological dimension implied here is inextricably a part of the

theoretical dimension that is literally built into photo-graphic art. By

‘theoretical dimension,’ I do not just mean that theory is an art, though it

likely is. Nor do I only mean that the artists I am dealing with are also

important theorists, though they are. I mean that the works themselves are

literally informed by and constructed with theory: their verbal components




Text/image border tensions 133


are often theoretical statements against (or with) which the visual images

must be read. Or sometimes the interplay of the two codes has explicitly

theoretical implications that the context demands be addressed. This goes

beyond most conceptual art’s self-referential mixing of photo-document and

text; here, through the interaction of text and image, there is, instead, an

internalized theoretical exposition of cultural, socio-political, and economic

conditions of production and reception. In postmodern photo-graphy, theory

and art are not separable.


For the last decade, the most important theoretical conjuncture seems to

have been that of Marxist and feminist politics, psychoanalytic and

deconstructive theory. This has meant that what photo-graphy foregrounds

is the representation of difference (class, gender, race, sexual preference),

the sexual politics of representation, and photography’s lost innocence (its

concealed compromises with the social system it cannot escape). As one

commentator puts it: ‘[t]heory forced a rupture with the established aesthetic

conventions of the autonomous image but it also provided a framework for

an alternate aesthetic’ (Mulvey 1986: 7). The photo-graphic art of

postmodernism also reveals other internalized theoretical contexts as well.

For example, many of the theories of Roland Barthes are clearly influential


– from his early de-mythologizing semiology to his later work on both

pleasure in general and photography in particular. Similarly, as we have seen,

Althusser’s reworking of Marx’s notion of base and superstructure has

offered a more complex notion of ideological practices that has been

welcomed by these postmodernists in their challenges to the concealed

politics of representation.

But it was probably the feminist rethinking of Lacan’s rereading of Freud

through Saussure that had the greatest impact, maybe because it provided a

psycho-sexual context for all those other destabilizing theoretical strategies.

In the work of Burgin, Kruger, or Silvia Kolbowski, the focus is also on

sexual differentiation and on the constructing of gender positions within

patriarchy. Gender difference is here both theorized and actualized through

a self-conscious, textualized awareness of the implications of Lacan’s notion

of the construction of the subject in and through language: in postmodern

photo-graphs (such as those shown in New York at the 1985 New Museum




134 The Politics of Postmodernism


of Contemporary Art’s show, Difference: On Representation and Sexuality)

the subject is seen to be known only as represented, that is, only in terms of

social and cultural Symbolic formations which are clearly patriarchal.


Verbal and visual interaction is often what is used to illustrate and even to

enact this kind of theoretical concern. For example, Marie Yates’s The

Missing Woman offers twenty-one photographic images of ‘documentary’

texts (telegrams, letters, diaries, newspapers) which explicitly represent the

Lacanian identification of the subject in language. In other words, viewers

are made to construct the notion of a woman through this sequence of text/

images which act as the literal traces of the social discourses which construct

womanhood. But the female herself is always the permanent Lacanian lack,

the absent ‘missing woman’ of the title. Similarly, Victor Burgin’s more

recent works have integrated his early Marxist and Althusserian theoretical

interests within a psychoanalytic framework, and it is verbal/visual

interaction, as well as the explicitly theoretical texts accompanying the

images in Gradiva or Olympia, that foreground the inextricability of theory

and art in postmodernism. The work of Mary Kelly or David Askevold could

also be studied from this point of view, since (in their different ways) their

incorporation of verbal texts within the visual also offers an explicit theory

of meaning and reference in relation to difference. Of course, it might be said

that this kind of mix was radicalized much earlier by Dada, but

postmodernism’s mutually effective interferences on the ‘fringes’ of both

the linguistic and the pictorial cannot be separated from the theoretical – and

also political – contexts that they inevitably evoke in photo-graphy.


The politics of address


What could be called the rhetoric of postmodern apostrophe or, better

perhaps, its semiotics of address cannot but be of importance in postmodern

art and theory which self-consciously work to ‘situate’ their production and

reception and to contextualize the acts of perception and interpretation. The

addition of verbal texts to photographic images in photo-graphy makes

explicit what is usually left implicit in the visual: the implication of an




Text/image border tensions 135


addressed viewer. It is likely that certain earlier forms of context-dependent

and context-problematizing art that foregrounded the role of the viewerhave

been influential here: I am thinking of the video art of the 1970s which often

required the physical presence of the spectator just to become activated, or

the mixed media installations of Don Jean-Louis (where mirrors reflected

not only his paintings but also the viewers interacting with them) or Laurie

Anderson (such as her Handphone Table (When You We’re Hear) (sic)).

When viewers stepped into the room at Documenta 7 in which Hans

Haacke’s Oelgemelde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers was placed, they

entered the archetypally liminal and politically unstable ‘fringe’ space of

postmodernism. On one side of the room was hung a gold-framed, brasslabelled

oil painting of Ronald Reagan (though the label read, not ‘Ronald

Reagan,’ as viewers might expect, but, in translation, ‘Oil Painting, Homage

to Marcel Broodthaers’). In front of this were two brass stanchions with a red

velvet rope between them, such as are used in galleries to signal important

art pieces that must not be approached too closely. A red carpet led from the

stanchions to the opposite wall on which appeared a giant photoenlargement,

direct from a contact sheet (complete with borders), of a crowd

scene from a recent German anti-Reagan rally. The space of the viewers here

was made self-conscious and also unavoidably politicized – in an allegory,

perhaps, of the implicit politics of all art viewing and address.


In a consumer society, where the verbal and visual most frequently come

together in the form of advertising, this kind of rendering both self-conscious

and political of the position of the viewer is an obvious form that a

compromised but still effective postmodern critique can take. In the work of

Burgin and Kruger, the poster and the billboard (known mostly for their

commercial uses) are deployed against themselves, becoming the forms of

political and formal self-reflexivity. These formats also emphasize the daily

instrumentality of photography as a social fact. But what the mixing of the

text and image often does is to underline, through the use of direct verbal

address to a viewer, the fact that, as a signifying system, pictures too

represent both a scene and the look of a viewer, both an object and a subject.


Photo-graphy highlights what Burgin calls the ‘seeing subject’ (1982b:

211) with its investment in looking (narcissistic identification or voyeuristic




136 The Politics of Postmodernism


surveillance). Its means of addressing that subject are several. Burgin favors

the more enigmatic mode of text/image interactionwhich invokes an implied

riddle-solving, active viewer, while Kruger is more direct or at least more

directive. She has argued that most of the mass-media and high-art

representations that surround viewers are really ‘undifferentiated addresses

to a male audience’ (in Squiers 1987: 80) and so she wants to introduce

difference into her act of addressing, in both visual and verbal codes. The

piece Surveillance is your busywork offers a complex inscription of power

and its relation to address, for instance. These four words sit atop a picture of

a male face, shot from below (a cinematic commonplace by which camera

angle signifies power structure), holding a loupe in his eye. Through text and

image, the Foucauldian discourses on power and the Panopticon meet the

cliche of Big Brother, who is watching ‘you.’


But the text’s own addressed ‘you’ puts viewers in a problematic position:

either they can deny its implicating deictics or they can recognize themselves

in them. While the male-figured image tends to suggest a limitation of the

gender of the ‘you’ addressed here, in many of Kruger’s works,the addressee

is neither always male nor always even representative of the forces that

marginalize and commodify and oppress (though that is the most common

designation). A photo of a male holding his head in his hand in distress is

placed below the line ‘Your life is a perpetual insomnia,’ for instance. Or a

picture of a woman, reflected in a shattered mirror, has the words ‘You are

not yourself’ superimposed upon it. The ‘you’ can change in gender, but its

position is always clear in context, and it always has to do with a power



Kruger’s use of the first- and second-person pronouns in her art reveals

her self-conscious awareness of the linguistic theory of ‘shifters’ as empty

signs that are filled with meaning only by their context. When the tone of the

text is particularly accusatory, this works to disrupt (traditionally male)

pleasures of visual voyeurism. The ‘you’ is most often explicitly associated

with power (and often capital): You make history when you do business (with

a photo of men’s legs and feet). The plural first person is also often present,

usually in opposition, as in Our time is your money. Most frequently (though

not always), when taken in conjunction with the images, this first-person




Text/image border tensions 137


pronoun is gendered female: a silhouette of a woman pinned down like an

entomological specimen offers the superimposed caption, ‘We have

received orders not to move.’ By using pronominal shifters to signify, on a

theoretical level, the shifting nature of subject and object identities and their

construction in and by language, Kruger also achieves her other goal: ‘to ruin

certain representations, to displace the subject and to welcome a female

spectator into the audience of men’ (in Gauss 1985: 93). For instance, the

work We are being made spectacles of uses these words literally to disrupt

the visual continuity of a conventional cinematic image of a male embracing

(and also towering over) a woman. Of course, that second person, the ‘you’

addressed by Kruger’s photo-graphs, is not limited to the male (or female)

represented within the works; the artist is often a possible referent and, of

course, viewers are also implicated and addressed, usually in a very

confrontational and accusatory tone.


Kruger’s use of direct (verbal) address with visual images, often from

movies or advertising, is particularly designed to confront any such lapse on

the viewers’ part that would conceal the (usually unacknowledged)

ideological apparatuses of either the mass media or high art. Her kind of

stealing or appropriating of these forms of representation is clearly both

complicitous and critical. It wants to speak to a consumer society from within

its recognizable set of representations, while still challenging its power. And,

for her, verbal(and by implication visual) address is one of the most effective

and direct means of challenge. For Rosler and Haacke, photo-graphic

address is specifically aimed at awakening the viewer to an awareness of

class relations; for Kruger and Burgin, it is both class and gender that are at



Somewhat more problematically, Hannah Wilke’s photo-graphic poster

(in her So Help Me Hannah installation) called What Does This Represent?

What Do You Represent? aims directly at contemporary theories of both

representation and address and it does so in such a manner as to upset any of

our complacent assumptions about word/image relations – or their politics.

The photo of the artist herself – nude, sitting despondently in the corner of

the room, surrounded by pieces of phallic weaponry scattered like toys

around a naughty child – rebounds off the superimposed questions: ‘What




138 The Politics of Postmodernism


Does This Represent? What Do You Represent?’ If there is an answer to

either question, it is not an obvious (or unproblematic) one, I suspect. But it

certainly has something to do with the politics of representation.


Photography may well be a particularly politicizable form of

representation. It has often been granted special status by Marxist critics

because of its seeming transparency and its didactically useful

instrumentality. But postmodern photography, I think, works to link art to the

social formation in more specifically direct and explicit ways than the

medium in general does. It offers two discourses, visual and verbal,

interacting to produce meaning in such a way that the viewer becomes aware

of the theoretical implications of the differences between, on the one hand,

meaning-producing within the two separate and differing discourses and, on

the other, any meaning created through their interaction.


I am aware that my use of the very word ‘discourse’ here – and elsewhere

in this book – is what has been called an ‘ideological flag’ (McCabe 1978–9:

41), signaling that I am unwilling to analyze form without considering

political and ideological address. But I think this is precisely what

postmodern photo-graphy itself self-consciously demands of its critics

today. Both discourses, visual and verbal, ‘hail’ (in the Althusserian sense)

their ‘reader’ in this postmodern art, and the direct address of the verbal text

works to unmask what I have been referring to as the more hidden but no less

real assumption of a certain viewer position in the visual. Our act of

recognizing – or refusing to recognize – ourselves in the address of Barbara

Kruger’s work is a production of meaning, as well as a making conscious of

the fact that meaning is made out of the interaction of the addressee and the

text in perception as much as interpretation. The codes that permit

recognition or rebuttal are produced by ideology, at least in the sense that

ideology uses the fabrication of images to invite us to occupy fixed places

within the dominant social order.


This is what postmodern photo-graphy works to ‘de-doxify’ by making

both the visual and the verbal into overt sites of signifying activity and

communication. It also contests the glossing over of the contradictions that

make representations (linguistic or pictorial) serve ideology by seeming

harmonious, ordered, universal. Its paradoxes of complicity and critique, of




Text/image border tensions 139


use and abuse of both verbal and visual conventions, point to contradiction

and, thereby, to the possible workings of ideology. A series of works like

Burgin’s Olympia or Kolbowski’s ModelPleasure may indeed, as Hal Foster

claims, elicit ‘our desire for an image of woman, truth, certainty, closure’ but

it does so ‘only to draw it out from its conventional captures (e.g. voyeurism,

narcissism, scopophilia, fetishism), to reflect back the (masculine) gaze to

the point of self-consciousness’ (Foster 1985: 8).


Photo-graphy today is neither iconoclastic nor iconophilic. The addition

of the verbal within a visual discourse could be seen as a limiting gesture

(Barthes’s anchorage, once again) or as a liberating one, as Benjamin

foresaw when he asked that photographers put such a caption beneath their

pictures as would rescue them from stylishness and confer on them a

revolutionary use value. Martha Rosler acknowledges that her political

decision to absent the ‘victims’ of the Bowery from her visual ‘inadequate

descriptive system’ is no final statement, that postmodern compromised

contestation is not revolutionary in itself:


If photos are to be populated, though, they ought to be made with a clarity  

that neither sell short the lives of the people shown nor pretend not to  

notice the built-up meanings of photographic discourses. Eventually the  

photography of the real has to give up the fear of engagement in favor of  

the clearest analysis that can be brought.  

(Rosler 1981: 82)


In uniting theory and practice within their art, photographers like Rosler and

Haacke may reject the liberal social reformism of earlier documentary

photography, but they also know that they too induce no collective struggle

of the oppressed. They can only be critical and analytic of the power and

privilege that have created the social conditions that make the Bowery or

South African apartheid possible.


In Haacke’s work, the ideological engagement of the artist is even more

explicit and direct than in that of most of the otherphoto-graphers I havebeen

discussing here. His parodic play with the documentary points not to that

form’s assumption of general, human constants, but to real, political




140 The Politics of Postmodernism


differences. It is never empty play; it reveals – and names – the network of

largely concealed or at least unacknowledged corporate sponsorships that

directly connect art to the world of economic and indeed political power. His

particular targets are those corporations which support the arts and want to

be seen as liberal and generous, but whose economic power is central to the

maintenance of white power in South Africa, for instance. There are at least

three forms of protest going on in Haacke’s work: (a) there is a ‘moral protest

against the enlistment of “pure” art as an ally by late capitalism’ in general

(Bois 1986: 129); (b) there is a more specific ‘washing away the mask of

culture’ which multinational power uses both to hide behind and as a major

marketing strategy; (c) there is the offer of an antidote, a counter-text, within

the work of art itself. This is institutional critique in its most context-specific

form. Corporate sponsorship may be a reality of the late-twentieth-century

art world, but it can still be challenged, argues Haacke, by ‘stealth,

intelligence, determination – and some luck’ (1986–7: 72).


Postmodern photo-graphy is for me one of the art forms that best

exemplifies the heritage of the politicized 1960s and 1970s of Vietnam



protest and feminism, of civil rights and gay activism. It is not disconnected

from the social and the political. The ‘fringe interferences’ of photo-graphy

are multiple; they play with the border tensions of theory, politics, and art as

well as those of highart and mass media, andtheydo so while de-naturalizing

the borders between text and image. The conventions of the discourses of

both the verbal and the visual, however, are at once inscribed and challenged,

used and abused. This is the art of complicity as well as critique, even in its

most radically polemical political forms. This does not invalidate its

critique; rather, it can be seen as both an important means of access and an

avoidance of the kind of bad faith that believes art (or criticism) can ever be

outside ideology. In Barbara Kruger’s postmodern terms: ‘I don’t think

there’s a blameless place where work can function. One has to work within

the confines of a system’ (in Schreiber 1987: 268).




Postmodernism and feminisms


(A note on the plural ‘feminisms’ in my title: the designation is as awkward

as it is accurate. While there are almost as many feminisms as there are

feminists, there is also a very real sense in which there is today no clear

cultural consensus in feminist thinking about representation. As Catherine

Stimpson has argued, the history of feminist thought on this topic includes

the confrontation of dominant representations of women as

misrepresentations, the restoration of the past of women’s own selfrepresentation,

the generation of accurate representations of women, and the

acknowledgement of the need to represent differences among women (of

sexuality, age, race, class, ethnicity, nationality), including their diverse

political orientations (Stimpson 1988: 223). As a verbal sign of difference

and plurality, ‘feminisms’ would appear to be the best term to use to

designate, not a consensus, but a multiplicity of points of view which

nevertheless do possess at least some common denominators when it comes

to the notion of the politics of representation.)




142 The Politics of Postmodernism


Politicizing desire


If, in the postmodern age, we do live in what has been called a recessionary

erotic economy broughtaboutby fear of disease and a fetishization of fitness,

the erotic cannot but be part of that general problematizing of the body and

its sexuality. And this is one of the sites of the conjunction of interest of both

postmodernism and feminisms as they both zero in on the representation of

and reference to that body and its subject positions. The body cannot escape

representation and these days this means it cannot escape the feminist

challenge to the patriarchal and masculinist underpinnings of the cultural

practices that subtend those representations. But, without those feminisms,

the story would be a rather different one, for I would want to argue for the

powerful impact of feminist practices on postmodernism – though not for the

conflation of the two.


With the rise of performance and ‘body art’ in the last decade have come

unavoidably gender-specific representations of the body in art. Because of

these and other specifically feminist practices, postmodernism’s ‘dedoxifying’

work on the construction of the individual bourgeois subject has

had to make room for the consideration of the construction of the gendered

subject. I say this in full awareness that some of the major theorists of the

postmodern have not yet noticed this. While it is certainly demonstrable that

both feminisms and postmodernism are part of the same general crisis of

cultural authority (Owens 1983: 57) as well as part of a more specific

challenge to the notion of representation and its address, there is a major

difference of orientation between the two that cannot be ignored: we have

seen that postmodernism is politically ambivalent for it is doubly coded –

both complicitous with and contesting of the cultural dominants within

which it operates; but on the other side, feminisms have distinct,

unambiguous political agendas of resistance. Feminisms are not really either

compatible with or even an example of postmodern thought, as a few critics

have tried to argue; if anything, together they form the single most powerful

force in changing the direction in which (male) postmodernism was heading

but, I think, no longer is. It radicalized the postmodern sense of difference

and de-naturalized the traditional historiographic separation of the private




Postmodernism and feminisms 143


and the public – and the personal and the political – as the last section of this

chapter will investigate.


The reason for the none the less quite common conflation of the feminist

and the postmodern may well lie in their common interest in representation,

that purportedly neutral process that is now being deconstructed in terms of

ideology. In shows like Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, held at

the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1985, sexual

difference was shown to be something that is continuously reproduced by

cultural representations normally taken for granted as natural or given. Few

would disagree today that feminisms have transformed art practice: through

new forms, new self-consciousness about representation, and new

awareness of both contexts and particularities of gendered experience. They

have certainly made women artists more aware of themselves as women and

as artists; they are even changing men’s sense of themselves as gendered

artists. They have rendered inseparable feminisms as socio-political

movements and feminisms as a (plural) phenomenon of art history.

Temporally, it is no accident that they have coincided with the revival of

figurative painting and the rise of conceptual art, of what I have called photography

as a high-art form, of video, alternative film practices, performance

art – all of which have worked to challenge both the humanist notion of the

artist as romantic individual ‘genius’ (and therefore of art as the expression

of universal meaning by a transcendent human subject) and the modernist

domination of two particular art forms, painting and sculpture. But

feminisms have also refocused attention on the politics of representation and

knowledge – and therefore also on power. They have made postmodernism

think, not just about the body, but about the female body; not just about the

female body, but about its desires –and about bothassocially andhistorically

constructed through representation.


Whether the medium be linguistic or visual, we are always dealing with

systems of meaning operating within certain codes and conventions that are

socially produced and historically conditioned. This is the postmodern focus

that has replaced the modernist/romantic one of individual expression. And

it is not hard to see why suddenly the politics of representation becomes an

issue: what systems of power authorize some representations while




144 The Politics of Postmodernism


suppressing others? Or, even more specifically, how is desire instilled

through representation by the management of the pleasure of reading or

looking? Many feminist theorists have been arguing for the need to denaturalize

our common-sense understanding of the body in art, the need to

reveal the semiotic mechanisms of gender positioning which produce both

that body image and the desires (male and female) it evokes.


This mixing of the political with the sexual has proved bothersome to

some critics, especially to those for whom notions of pleasure and desire are

key terms of aesthetic experience. Both feminist and postmodern theory and

practicehave worked to ‘de-doxify’ any notion of desire as simply individual

fulfillment, somehow independent of the pleasures created by and in culture.

The political impulse of postmodern and feminist art challenges the

conditions of desire: desire as satisfaction endlessly deferred, that is, as an

anticipatory activity in the future tense; desire as fueled by the inaccessibility

of the object and dissatisfaction with the real. This is the realm of displaced

desire – of advertising and pornography – and of Baudrillard’s simulacrum.

While the very notion of desire would seem to presuppose a coherent

subjectivity, we have seen that much feminist and postmodern theory has

worked to question and problematize this concept. But such theory has itself

been divided, between those for whom desire is something beyond culture

and politics, and those who see the desiring subject as inscribed in and by

certain ideologically determined subject-positions.


Desire is clearly problematic: is there a difference between desire as

textual play, say, and desire as foregrounding the political economy of the

image in a patriarchal and capitalist society? Desire is not just a value of

poststructuralist ideology; it is also a norm in consumer society, one that

Marxist critics have been working to deconstruct. But so too have feminists:

Carol Squiers’s critical thematic exhibits, such as her 1984 Design for

Living, bring together magazine images of women with an aim to unmask

and challenge, through ordering and positioning, the capitalist and

patriarchal politics of mass-media presentations of woman’s body and



In her book, Female Desire, Rosalind Coward argues from a feminist

poststructuralist perspective that women’s pleasures are constructed within




Postmodernism and feminisms 145


a range of signifying practices; in other words, they are not natural or innate.

Produced by discourses which often sustain male privilege, feminine desire


– its satisfactions, its objects – may need rethinking, especially to consider

what Catherine Stimpson calls its ‘herterogeneity’ (1988: 241). But first,

those male discourses need confronting, challenging, debunking. This is

where the work of feminist artists is so important. For instance, in a short

story called ‘Black Venus’ by Angela Carter, two discourses meet – and

clash: the poetic language of male sublimated desire for woman (as both

muse and object of erotic fantasy) and the language of the political and

contextualizing discourses of female experience. This is one of those texts

that almost demands to be read as the site for the discursive construction of

the meaning of gender, but in a problematic sense: there are two conflicting

discourses which work to foreground and contest the history of desire, male


This is the story of Baudelaire and his mulatto mistress, Jeanne Duval. In

his journal, Baudelaire once wrote: ‘Eternal Venus, caprice, hysteria,

fantasy, is one of the seductive forms [assumed] by the Devil,’ a devil he both

courted and despised. His biographers have been rather kind to him, patiently

explaining to us the sublimatory advantages of his preference for desire over

consummation, anticipatory imagination over the actual sexual act – for us,

if not for Duval. We get the poems; she seems to have ended up with very

little. But the same biographers have been considerably less kind to Duval:

as painted by Manet, she is usually described as a sensuous beauty, a

melancholic if exotic shrew, whom Baudelaire treated as a goddess but who

never understood his poetry and who repaid his generosity and kindness with

nagging and ill temper. (What they seem to want to avoid mentioning, by the

way, is that he was also rather generous with his syphilis.) The woman to

whom history denied a voice is the subject of Carter’s ‘Black Venus’ – as she

was the object of Baudelaire’s ‘Black Venus’ poems.


Carter’s text consistently contrasts the language of Baudelairean

decadent male eroticism with the stark social reality of Jeanne Duval’s

position as a colonial, a black, and a kept woman. Male erotic iconography

of women seems to have two poles: the romantic/decadent fantasist (like

Baudelaire’s) and the realist (the woman as sexual partner), but in neither




146 The Politics of Postmodernism


case is the woman anything but a mediating sign for the male (Tickner 1987:

264). Carter’s verbal text attempts to code and then re-code the ‘colonized

territory’ of the female body; it is coded as erotic masculine fantasy, and then

re-coded in terms of female experience. The text is a complex interweaving

of the discourses of desire and politics, of the erotic and the analytic, of the

male and the female.


The story opens with an overt echo of the evening descriptions of

Baudelaire’s poems, ‘Harmonie du soir’ and ‘Crepuscule du soir.’ But the

woman described in Carter’s text as a ‘forlorn Eve’ is represented in a

language different from that of the male poet: she ‘never experienced her

experience as experience, life never added to the sum of her knowledge;

rather subtracted from it’ (Carter 1985: 9). In contrast, the male (identified at

this point only by the pronoun ‘he’) offers to her his fantasy, a fantasy that

makes him into a parody of ‘le pauvre amoureux des pays chimeriques,’ the

Baudelairean inventor of Americas in ‘Le Voyage.’ The details of his fantasy

parody those of the poems ‘Voyage a Cythere’ and ‘La Chevelure’ in that

they offer the same topoi but vulgarized as bourgeois tourist escapism

(‘Baby, baby, let me take you back where you belong’). This is mixed with

Yeatsian Byzantian parody (‘back to your lovely, lazy island where the

jewelled parrot rocks on the enamel tree’) (10). The woman’s reply assaults

this fantasy: ‘No! . . . Not the bloody parrot forest! Don’t take me on the

slavers’ route back to the West Indies’ (11). Erotic reverie meets political and

historical reality, perhaps reminding us that even Cythera, the island of

Venus, is no paradise: the Baudelairean poet hangs from its gallows. For the

West Indian woman, the islandparadise he imagines is one of ‘glaringyellow

shore and harsh blue skies,’ of ‘fly-blown towns’ that are not Paris. Those

thousand sonnets that Baudelaire’s ‘Dame Creole’ was to have inspired in

the heart of the poet are here used to roll her cheroots. This dream literally

goes up in smoke.


Then, the language of male eroticism again takes over. Aroused from her

‘feconde paresse,’ this particular ‘Dame Creole’ dances naked for him, lets

down her fleece-like ‘chevelure,’ clothes herself only in the bangles

described in the poem, ‘Les Bijoux.’ The ‘brune enchanteresse’ ‘grande et

svelte’ dances, but in Carter’s story she does so in ‘slumbrous resentment’




Postmodernism and feminisms 147


against her lover, in a room that ‘tugged at its moorings, longing to take off

on an aerial quest for that Cythera beloved of poets’ (Carter 1985: 12). The

text points us directly to Baudelaire here and then makes the intertext

problematic. As he dreamily watches, we are told that ‘she wondered what

the distinction was between dancing naked in front of one man who paid and

dancing naked in front of a group of men who paid’ (12). He dreams erotic

dreams; she ponders what is called her ‘use value’ and her syphilis: ‘was pox

not the emblematic fate of a creature made for pleasure and the price you paid

for the atrocious mixture of corruption and innocence this child of the sun

brought with her from the Antilles?’ (13). The pox is called America’s, ‘the

raped continent’s revenge’ against European imperialism, but the revenge

has backfired here. The text then returns to the Baudelairean erotic

discourse: her hair, the cat. He thinks of her as a ‘vase of darkness . . . not Eve,

but herself, the forbidden fruit, and he has eaten her!’ (15). We are then

offered four lines (in translation) from Baudelaire’s poem, ‘Sed non satiata’


– an ironic intertextual comment on his desire but also on hers, unsatiated as

it is.

With a break in the text, what begins (seven and a half pages into the story)

is yet another discourse. ‘He’ is identified as Baudelaire; ‘she’ as Jeanne

Duval, also known as Jeanne Prosper or Lemer ‘as if her name were of no

consequence’ (Carter 1985: 16). Her origins are equally vague. In

parentheses we read: ‘(Her pays d’origine of less importance than it would

have been hadshe been a wine.)’ (16). Perhaps she came from the Dominican

Republic where, as we are pointedly told, Toussaint L’Ouverture had led a

slave revolt. The racial, economic, and gender politics of French colonial

imperialism are brought to our attention. Yet the text immediately returns to

the Baudelairean erotic discourse to describe Jeanne to us. That it should do

so is not surprising. After all, besides a portrait by Manet, today that is all we

have to know her by. Through both the literary and the historical references,

the text attempts to give back to Jeanne the history of which she was deprived

as ‘the pure child of the colony’ – the ‘white, imperious’ colony (17). She has

also been deprived of her language. We are told that she spoke Creole badly,

that she tried to speak ‘good’ French when she arrived in Paris. But herein




148 The Politics of Postmodernism


lies the true irony of those erotic literary representations by which we know

her today:


you could say, not so much that Jeanne did not understand the lapidary,

troubled serenity of her lover’s poetry, but that it was a perpetual affront

to her. He recited it to her by the hour and she ached, raged and chafed

under it because his eloquence denied her language.


(Carter 1985: 18)


She cannot hear his tributes to herself outside of her colonial – racial and

linguistic – context.


The text then adds yet another context, the obvious one of gender: ‘The

goddess of his heart, the ideal of the poet, lay resplendently on the bed . . . ;

he liked to have her make a spectacle of herself, to provide a sumptuous feast

for his bright eyes that were always bigger than his belly. Venus lies on the

bed, waiting for a wind to rise: the sooty albatross hankers for the storm’

(Carter 1985: 18). But, for the reader of Baudelaire’s poetry, there is a curious

reversal here – not only of color (‘sooty albatross’), but of roles. In the poem

called ‘L’Albatros,’ it is the poet who flies on the wings of poesy, though

clumsy on earth. In Carter’s parodic version, the woman is the graceful

albatross; the poet is instead that great dandy of birds (from Poe’s Adventures

of Arthur Gordon Pym), the one who always builds its nest near that of the

albatross: the penguin – flightless, bourgeois, inescapably comic. We are

told: ‘Wind is the element of the albatross just as domesticity is that of the

penguin’ (19). The poet is demystified, as is the lover.


The erotic encounters of these two strange birds are carefully and sharply

coded and the text situates the code historically and culturally for us:


It is essential to their connection that, if she should put on the private

garments of nudity, its non-sartorial regalia of jewellery and rouge, then

he himself must retain the public nineteenth-century masculine

impedimenta of frock coat (exquisitely cut); white shirt (pure silk,

London tailored); oxblood cravat; and impeccable trousers.


(Carter 1985: 19)




Postmodernism and feminisms 149


That Manet’s work might come to mind here is no accident:  

There’s more to ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ than meets the eye. (Manet,  

another friend of his.) Man does and is dressed to do so; his skin is his own  

business. He is artful, the creation of culture. Woman is; and is, therefore,  

fully dressed in no clothes at all, her skin is common property.  

(Carter 1985: 20)


Together Baudelaire and Duval untangle ‘the history of transgression’ (21)

but his customary erotic rhetoric keeps giving way to her reality. The

statement that ‘Jeanne stoically laboured over her lover’s pleasure, as if he

were her vineyard’ (21) recalls (though ironically) his poem ‘Les Bijoux’

where her breasts are the ‘grappes de ma vigne’ – that is, the poet’s. In that

revisionist version, she does not have to labor over his pleasure; she is

passive: ‘elle se laissait aimer.’


The text breaks here. He dies ‘deaf, dumb and paralysed’; she loses her

beauty and then her life. But Carter offers a second fate for her Jeanne Duval.

She buys new teeth, a wig, and restores some of her ravaged beauty. She

returns to the Caribbean using the money from the sale of Baudelaire’s

manuscripts and from what he could sneak to her before his death. (‘She was

surprised to find out how much she was worth.’) She reverses the

associations of this trip’s direction – it is the ‘slavers’ route,’ after all. She

dies, in extreme old age, after a life as a madam. The text then betrays its

fantasy status through its future tense: from her grave, ‘she will continue to

dispense, to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not

excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairean syphilis’

(Carter 1985: 23). This is Angela Carter’s parodic voicing of a doubled

discourse of complicity and challenge, of the feminist politicization of



But I said earlier that it was the postmodern that was characterized by

complicity and critique, not the feminist. Yet perhaps this is another point of

overlap that might be theorized: in other words, it is not just a matter of

feminisms having had a major impact on postmodernism, but perhaps

postmodern strategies can be deployed by feminist artists to deconstructive




150 The Politics of Postmodernism


ends – that is, in order to begin the move towards change (a move that is not,

in itself, part of the postmodern). Carter’s text is not alone in suggesting that

the erotic is an apt focus for this kind of critique, since it raises the question

of desire and its gendered politics and also the issue of representation and its

politics. The exploring of the role of our cultural and social discourses in

constructing both pleasure and sexual representations is what results from

the clash of two discursive practices across which conflicting notions of

gender and sexual identity are produced in Carter’s story. A similar, even

more direct politicizing of male desire can be seen in Margaret Harrison’s

collage/painting Rape. In this work, a frieze across the top presents

reproductions of high-art male erotic images of women as available, passive,

offering themselves to the male gaze: familiar canonical paintings by Ingres,

Rubens, Rossetti, Manet, and so on. Underneath is a strip of press cuttings

about rape trials where the legal profession is shown to condone violence

against women. Beneath that is a series of painted representations of

instruments of rape: knives, scissors, broken bottles. Like Carter’s text, Rape

presents a parodic clashing of discourses: high-art nudes, judicial reports,

representations of violence. Yet what all the discourses are shown to share is

the objectification of the female body.


The parodic use (even if also abuse) of male representations of women in

both Carter’s and Harrison’s work is a postmodernist strategy at least in so

far as it implies a paradoxically complicitous critique. But even the more

generally accepted articulations of specifically female and feminist

contestation, such as Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, could be seen as

an implicitly parodic challenge to the patriarchal madonna and child

tradition of western high art: as I suggested earlier, it politicizes and denaturalizes

what has been seen as the most ‘natural’ of relationships by

articulating it through the everyday discourse of the actual female

experience of mothering. But it is this change of discourse that makesKelly’s

work less problematic as a feminist work than that of some others. When

artists like Cindy Sherman or Hannah Wilke parodically use the female nude

tradition, for example, different issues arise, for the femaleness of the nude

tradition – like that of the Baudelairean erotic – makes it an art form in which

the male viewer is explicit and the notion of masculine desire is constitutive.




Postmodernism and feminisms 151


Yet, this very femaleness is what has been ignored in art historical accounts

of the nude genre.


Feminist postmodernist parody


When Ann Kaplan asks of cinema ‘Is the gaze male?’ (1983) she



problematizes to some extent what feminisms have accepted (at least since

Laura Mulvey’s important article on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’)

as the maleness of the camera eye that makes women into exhibitionists to be

observed and displayed, ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that

they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 1975: 11). This

leaves the female as spectator in the position of either narcissistic

identification or some kind of psychic cross-dressing.


But do we have here a very basic problem for the very existence of

feminist visual arts (as opposed to feminist critique of male art)? If the

mastering gaze which separates the subject from the object of the gaze,

projecting desire onto that object, is inherently masculine, as many feminists

argue, could there ever be such a thing as women’s visual art? I think this may

potentially be a very real impasse, but nevertheless one which postmodernist

parody has offered at least one possible exit strategy – a compromised one,

but one with some possible political efficacy. By using postmodern parodic

modes of installing and then subverting conventions, such as the maleness of

the gaze, representation of woman can be ‘de-doxified.’ The postmodern

position is one articulated best, perhaps, by Derrida when he writes: ‘the

authority of representation constrains us, imposing itself on our thought

through a whole dense, enigmatic, and heavily stratified history. It programs

us and precedes us’ (Derrida 1982: 304). This does not mean, though, that it

cannot be challenged and subverted – but just that the subversion will be

from within. The critique will be complicitous.


An example would be Gail Geltner’s parodic play with Ingres’s canonical

nude, the Grande Odalisque, in her Closed System, shown at the 1984

Toronto Alter Eros Festival. This collage is clearly parodically inscribing,

but the changes are as important as the similarities: Ingres’s female figure is




152 The Politics of Postmodernism


reproduced, but the implicit male gaze is now literally made part of the work

in the form of a group of Magrittian men who are inserted into a background

window, looking inside at the nude. But, given where the male gaze is now

placed (that is, at the back), Ingres’s female is seen to turn away from it,

suggesting that the viewer to whom she does turn might be gendered

otherwise. The difference between this and Mel Ramos’s Plentigrande

Odalisque illustrates for me the difference between the feminist and the

postmodernist. Ramos’s postmodern complicity is much clearer, though his

critique is also evident: by recoding that classic nude in pornographic code

(of Playboy’s naked women), he deconstructs the alibi of this particular

convention of high art, pointing to male desire, but offering no specifically

gendered response to it.


What both feminist and postmodern art like this show, however, is that

desire and pleasure are socially validated and normalized. While

postmodern art does seek to disrupt – while exploiting – these expected

pleasures, feminist art wants to disrupt but also change our allowable

pleasures as women viewers and artists. As we have seen, the work of Silvia

Kolbowski, Barbara Kruger, and also Alexis Hunter deploys the postmodern

strategy of parodic use and abuse of mass-culture representations of women,

subverting them by excess, irony, and fragmented recontextualization – all

of which work to disrupt any passive consumption of such images.

Complicity is perhaps necessary (or at least unavoidable) in deconstructive

critique (you have to signal – and thereby install – that which you want to

subvert), though it also inevitably conditions both the radicality of the kind

of critique it can offer and the possibility of suggesting change. The feminist

use of postmodern strategies, therefore, is a little problematic, but it may also

be one of the only ways for feminist visual arts to exist.


Many commentators have recently pointed to the maleness of the

modernist tradition, and therefore to the implied maleness of any

postmodernism that is either in reaction to or even a conscious break from

that modernism. Feminisms have resisted incorporation into the postmodern

camp, and with good reason: their political agendas would be endangered, or

at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism’s complicitous

critique; their historical particularities and relative positionalities would risk




Postmodernism and feminisms 153


being subsumed. Both enterprises clearly work toward an awareness of the

social nature of cultural activity, but feminisms are not content with

exposition: art forms cannot change unless social practices do. Exposition

may be the first step; but it cannot be the last. Nevertheless feminist and

postmodern artists do share a view of art as a social sign inevitably and

unavoidably enmeshed in other signs in systems of meaning and value. But

I would argue that feminisms want to go beyond this to work to change those

systems, not just to ‘de-doxify’ them.


But there is another difference between the two enterprises. Barbara

Creed puts it this way:


Whereas feminism would attempt to explain that crisis [of legitimation

that Lyotard has described] in terms of the workings of patriarchal

ideology and the oppression of women and other minority groups,

postmodernism looks to other possible causes – particularly the West’s

reliance on ideologies which posit universal truths – Humanism, History,

Religion, Progress, etc. While feminism would argue that the common

ideological position of all these ‘truths’ is that they are patriarchal,

postmodern theory . . . would be reluctant to isolate a single major

determining factor.


(Creed 1987: 52)


‘Reluctant to’ because it cannot – not without falling into the trap of which it

implicitly accuses other ideologies: that of totalization. Creed is right that

postmodernism offers no privileged, unproblematic position from which to

speak. Therefore, she notes, the ‘paradox in which we feminists find

ourselves is that while we regard patriarchal discourses as fictions, we

nevertheless proceed as if our position, based on a belief in the oppression of

women, were somewhat closer to the truth’ (67). But postmodernism’s

rejection of a privileged position is as much an ideological stand as this

feminist taking of a position. By ideology here – as throughout this book – I

mean to imply that all-informing complex of social practices and systems of

representation. The political confusion surrounding postmodernism is not

accidental, as we have been seeing, but is a direct result of its double




154 The Politics of Postmodernism


encoding as both complicity and critique. While feminisms may use

postmodern parodic strategies of deconstruction, they never suffer from this

confusion of political agenda, partly because they have a position and a

‘truth’ that offer ways of understanding aesthetic and social practices in the

light of the production of – and challenge to – gender relations. This is their

strength and, in some people’s eyes, their necessary limitation.


While feminisms and postmodernism have both worked to help us

understand the dominant representational modes at work in our society,

feminisms have focused on the specifically female subject of representation

and have begun to suggest ways of challenging and changing those

dominants in both mass culture and high art. Traditionally representations of

the female body have been the province of men. Except in advertising,

perhaps, women are not usually the intended addressees of pictures of

women. So, if they do view them, they can either look – as surrogate males –

or identify with the woman and be passive, be watched. But postmodern

parodic strategies at least allow artists like Kolbowski or Kruger to contest

these options, to suggest female positions of spectatorship that might go

beyond narcissism, masochism, or even voyeurism. Their Brechtian

challenges to the representations of women in mass culture demand critique,

not identification or objectification. This art parodically inscribes the

conventions of feminine representation, provokes our conditioned response

and then subverts that response, making us aware of how it was induced in

us. To work it must be complicitous with the values it challenges: we have to

feel the seduction in order to question it and then to theorize the site of that

contradiction. Such feminist uses of postmodern tactics politicize desire in

their play with the revealed and the hidden, the offered and the deferred.


So-called high art is no more innocent than mass culture, of course.

Perhaps what wecall eroticism is only the pornography of the elite, as Angela

Carter (1979: 17) has suggested. In feminist hands, parody becomes one of

the ways of ‘rereading against the grain of the “master works” of Western

culture’ (de Lauretis 1986b: 10). Commenting on Eugene Delacroix’s

numerous, obsessional sketches of women, one of his fictional mistresses (in

Susan Daitch’s overtly feminist novel, L.C.) comments: ‘Art in league with

seduction, two halves in constant dialogue’ (Daitch 1986: 72). Gender is




Postmodernism and feminisms 155


obviously a division of power here too, and the female body is the locus of

power politics. When writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Margaret

Atwood, or Audrey Thomas represent women’s bodies as vulnerable,

diseased, injured, or as experiencing their own pleasure – from the inside –

they implicitly protest the male erotic gazing at their external form. In Ways

of Seeing, John Berger suggests that women are split, that they both watch

themselves and watch men watch them as objects (while experiencing

themselves as female subjects). Can postmodern strategies offer women a

way out of the impasse implied here, and still remain within the conventions

of visual art? When Kolbowski presents parodically re-positioned media

images of the fashion model (traditionally, the idealized image of either the

male gaze or female narcissistic identification), she does so in such a way as

to articulate the confrontation of the passive objectified image with the

power of representations to construct identity. The female body here is

neither neutral nor natural; it is clearly inscribed in a system of differences in

which the male and his gaze hold power. In her Model Pleasure series, she

fragments the fetishized female body to show that all the represented images

are invested with the same ideologically ‘natural’ status.


Barbara Kruger and Victor Burgin have also used postmodern tactics in

their art to point to the spot where the erotic usually overlaps with the

discourse of power and possession – traditionally the realm of the

pornographic. As we saw earlier, works like Burgin’s Possession foreground

how sexuality is ‘the construction of something called “sexuality” through a

set of representations’ (Heath 1982: 3). The meaning of that construction is

not in the representations themselves, but in the relation between spectator,

representation, and the entire social context. The sexual play of the words

‘What does possession mean to you?’ and of the photo of that embracing

couple is played off against the lower caption: ‘7% of our population own

84% of our wealth.’ This kind of linking of the critiques of capitalism and

patriarchy has been undertaken by feminists and postmodernists and by

feminist postmodernists.


As John Berger (1972a: 47) pithily put it: ‘Men act and women appear.’

There is a long tradition of instructional literature whose purpose is to tell

women how to ‘appear’ – to make themselves desirable – to men: from




156 The Politics of Postmodernism


Renaissance coterie poetry to contemporary fashion magazines. Even fairy

tales work to pass on the received collective ‘wisdom’ of the past and therein

reflect the myths of sexuality under patriarchy. Angela Carter’s feminist use

of postmodernist parody in her rewritings of ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Beauty and

the Beast’ in The Bloody Chamber exposes the inherited sexist psychology

of the erotic. Parody, rewriting, re-presenting woman is one option which

postmodernism offers feminist artists in general, but especially those who

want to work within the visual arts, overtly contesting the male gaze.


When Sherrie Levine literally takes those photos of famous art photos by

men, she is doing more than appropriating the images of high art in order to

contest the cult of originality (which is a postmodernist aim). She is doing

something else too. She is quoted as saying: ‘Where as a woman artist could

I situate myself? What I was doing was making this explicit: how this

Oedipal relationship artists have with artists of the past gets repressed; and

how I, as a woman, was only allowed to represent male desire’ (in Marzorati

1986: 97). Cindy Sherman has found another way to contest that maleness of

the gaze: her many self-portraits which offer her own body in the guise of

social or media stereotypes are so self-consciously posed that the social

construction of the female self, fixed by the masculine gaze, is both

presented and ironized, for she herself is the gaze behind the camera, the

active absent presence, the subject and objectofher representation of woman

as sign, of woman as positioned by gender – but also by race and class.


What postmodern tactics have allowed feminist artists is a way to

foreground the politics of the representation of the body through parody and

counter-expectation, while remaining within the conventions of visual art.

Barbara Kruger’s contestatory problematizing of the erotic in Give me all

you’ve got is a good example of this. One of her few works which is not in

black and white, with a signature red frame, this one is framed in ironically

feminine pink: it is the articulation of female desire. This is a photo of a mass

of petits fours and the little cakes are made to look rather phallic: their tilting

has been said to suggest more than just aroused male members – they are also

somewhat reminiscent of heavy artillery. In either case, they offer images of

male power, but reduced to a literalization of the ‘sweet-talk’ of male

seduction. But that verbal demand – ‘Give me all you’ve got’ – is




Postmodernism and feminisms 157


aggressively imperative in tone and not at all the traditional articulation of

female desire.


In this work, Kruger goes beyond dismantling male phallic identity and

female masochistic identity as modes of erotic behavior; in it, I think, she

makes the step from deconstructive postmodernism to feminism. To use the

title of Mary Kelly’s 1983 show, she goes ‘beyond the purloined image.’

Kruger’s work is usually seen as part of a postmodern focus on

representation, on the decentering of the unitary, autonomous subject of

humanist discourse. And so it is; but it is also feminist in that it reinjects the

assumed but concealed maleness of that humanist subject into the

discussion. Her image/text combinations may use already existing massmedia

images of women, but this is not simply a case of what Harold

Rosenberg wittily called ‘dejavunik’ art, art which presents the already

assimilated dressed in new clothes. Mass culture is the site of her

contestation, partly because that is where desire is really produced for most

women – not only in art museums, though it operates there too.


Barbara Kruger’s work has become commercially successful, and this too

has been used as a criticism of her feminist politics. But we should ask: if her

photography has negotiated a relationship between existing art institutions

and feminist practices, is this a matter of complicity on its part, or of

recuperation by those institutions? Or, more positively, is this an example of

the kind of active intervention in the discourses and institutions of art that

makes feminist practices the site of political action? Can that (postmodern)

complicity enable a feminist subversion from within? Part of the problem,

perhaps, might stem from what I would see as a limitation of postmodernism


– in itself and in its use by feminist artists: the postmodern may offer art as

the site of political struggle by its posing of multiple and deconstructing

questions, but it does not seem able to make the move into political agency.

It asks questions that reveal art as the place where values, norms, beliefs,

actions are produced; it deconstructs the processes of signification. But it

never escapes its double encoding: it is always aware of the mutual

interdependence of the dominant and the contestatory. As feminists have

shown in their appropriation of its parodic modalities, postmodernism has at

least the potential to be political in effect. As we saw in the last chapter,



158 The Politics of Postmodernism


Kruger achieves this effect by the most overt means possible, perhaps: by

direct address to the viewer. The print text of her works always addresses that

gender-specific viewer by means of those linguistic shifters, ‘you’ and ‘we.’

While the gender of each also shifts (thereby underlining the instability of

viewer positions and subjectivities), it is always clear.


I have mentioned a number of times Cindy Sherman’s portraits of herself

and their challenges to the fiction behind photography’s purportedly

transparent representation of reality. Many critics have noted her obvious

and very postmodern contesting of the unitary and autonomous subject, but

what needs reviewing again is the gender of that subject. This is less

problematic in Sherman’s work than it is in, for instance, that of Hannah

Wilke. In a piece like Marxism and Art, Wilke’s address, while as direct and

polemical as Kruger’s, is also a problem for me, precisely because of its

manipulation of the nude tradition and the notion of desire. Writing about

body art, Lucy Lippard has argued that it is ‘a subtle abyss that separates

men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to

expose that insult’ (Lippard 1976: 125), but in Wilke’s work, the subtlety of

that abyss of difference is problematic. Some feminist theory argues that the

body of woman, when used by men, is colonized, appropriated, even

mystified; when used by women, that body reveals its fertility and selfsufficient

sexuality, even if it parodically uses the conventions of the

masculinist nude tradition in order to do so.


In this work Wilke offers herself in what is known as a frontal nudity pose

from the waist up. Above her portrait are the words: ‘Marxism and Art’ and

below it: ‘Beware of Fascist Feminism.’ There is potential in women’s selfportrayal

for radical critique but also much inherent ambivalence:


The depiction of women by women (sometimes themselves) in this quasi



sexist manner as a political statement grows potentially more powerful as


it approaches actual exploitation but then, within an ace of it, collapses


into ambiguity and confusion. The more attractive the women, the higher


the risk, since the more closely they approach conventional stereotypes in


the first place.


(Tickner 1987: 273)




Postmodernism and feminisms 159


While Cindy Sherman may ‘uglify’ some of her self-portraits, Wilke does

not really (despite her pasting on of chewing-gum ‘scars’). She bares her

body to the camera, as do Carolee Schneeman and Lynda Benglis – all goodlooking

women who have been accused of political ambiguity and

narcissism. Wilke’s work has been defended as both a satire and a defense of

the pin-up girl or even the fashion-model conventions, because she poses

herself, albeit provocatively. She flaunts her own pride and pleasure in her

sexuality and sexual power. Is this how we are to interpret ‘Beware of Fascist

Feminism’ – the feminism that might find this a little too complicitous, or the

feminism whose ideology permits no such (maybe male-determined)

figuration of female desire?


But this photo does not really represent the sexploitational posing of the

beautiful woman as tease: this is the pose of a self-assertive woman wearing

the semiotic signs of masculinity atop her nude body – a tie, low-slung jeans.

If ‘fascist feminism’ meant prudish feminism, then the commodification of

the female body in male art (is this how to link Marxism and Art?) might be

what such feminism underwrites by refusing woman the use of her own body

and its pleasures. But what about the position of the addressed viewer: is it

voyeuristic, narcissistic, critical? Can we even tell? Does this work

problematize or confirm the maleness of the gaze? I really cannot tell. In the

face of the manifest contradictions of this work, it is tempting to say that,

while Wilke is clearly playing with the conventions of pornographic address

(her eyes meet and engage the viewer’s), she is also juxtaposing this with the

discourse of feminist protest – but turned against itself in some way. She does

not make her own position clear and thus risks reinforcing what she might

well be intending to contest, that is, patriarchal notions of female sexuality

and male desire.


I wonder if what we have here (to borrow a wonderful term from

Marguerite Waller) is a case of the ‘Tootsie trope’ – ‘a work’s failure to allow

its feminist intentions to alter its male-centered mode of signification.’ Male

desire, while supposedly discredited, is in fact inscribed without even the

contestation that postmodern complicitous critique would offer. I really do

not know what to do with this. At times I wonder if, in order to represent

herself, woman must assume a masculine position; yet, Kruger and others




160 The Politics of Postmodernism


have shown that this positioning can be done parodically, through

postmodern strategies that still allow for serious contestation.


I suppose this leaves a final question: what would the full rejection of that

male position look like? Feminist film provides the most obvious and

important examples and Nancy Spero’s ‘peinture feminine,’ while still

implicitly deconstructing the male sexuality underlying the erotic

conventions of female representations, offers a female gaze in which women

are protagonists and subjects, not the traditional erotic objects of desire. Her

refigurations of the female body may be one answer, suggesting a move

beyond that potential impasse of the (perhaps inevitable) maleness of the

gaze. So too are the works of Mira Schor, Nancy Fried, Louise Bourgeois,

and the other women in the 1988 Politics of Gender show at the QCC Gallery

in New York.


However, I also think postmodernist parody would be among the

‘practical strategies’ that have become ‘strategic practices’ (Parker and

Pollock 1987b) in feminist art’s attempt to present new kinds of female

pleasure, new articulations of female desire, by offering tactics for

deconstruction – for inscribing in order to subvert the patriarchal visual

traditions. But I also think feminisms have pushed postmodern theory and art

in directions they might not otherwise have headed. One of these directions

involves a return to a topic treated in some detail earlier in this study: that of



The private and the public


In granting new and emphatic value to the notion of ‘experience,’ feminisms

have also raised an issue of great importance to postmodern representation:

what constitutes a valid historical narrative? And who decides? This has led

to the re-evaluation of personal or life narratives – journals, letters,

confessions, biographies, autobiographies, self-portraits. In Catherine

Stimpson’s terms: ‘Experience generated more than art; it was a source of

political engagement as well’ (1988: 226). If the personal is the political,

then the traditional separation between private and public history must be




Postmodernism and feminisms 161


rethought. This feminist rethinking has coincided with a general

renegotiation of the separation of high art from the culture of everyday life –

popular and mass culture – and the combined result has been a

reconsideration of both the context of historical narrative and the politics of

representation and self-representation.


In postmodern writing this particular impact of feminisms can be seen in

a number of literary forms. One would be those historiographic metafictions

in which the fictively personal becomes the historically – and thus politically


– public in a kind of synecdochic fashion: in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,

the protagonist cannot and will not separate his self-representation from the

representation of his nation, and the result is the politicization of public and

private experience, of nationality and subjectivity. In Nigel Williams’s Star

Turn or John Berger’s G. the representation of public historical events tends

to take on political dimensions within the private fictional world of the

characters, but because of metafictional self-consciousness, the synecdoche

extends to include the world of the reader.

Another related form of postmodern writing informed by the feminist

revaluation of life-writing and its politicization of the personal is the kind of

work that sits on the borderline between fiction and personal history, either

biographical or autobiographical: Ondaatje’s Running in the Family,

Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and China Men, Banville’s Doctor

Copernicus and Kepler. The representation of the self (and the other) in

history in this form is also done with intense self-consciousness, thus

revealing the problematic relation of the private person writing to the public

as well as personal events once lived (by the narrator or someone else).


In order to underline what I see to be the particularly feminist source of

inspiration for these postmodern modes of dealing with the private and

public politics of representation, I would like to use as examples two works

that I think of as both feminist and postmodern (always remembering that the

two, however related, must be kept separate) and that overtly enact the

specifically political dimension involved in this paradoxical kind of

historical narrative representation. Gayl Jones’s Corregidora is a novel

about Ursa, an American blues singer, whose entire life has been shaped by

the hatred of the female line of her family for Corregidora, a Brazilian





162 The Politics of Postmodernism


Portuguese ‘slave-breeder and whoremonger’ (Jones 1976: 8–9) who

fathered her mother and grandmother. The family’s personal history has

been passed on orally from one woman to the next, from the enslaved to the

finally free. The only historical document of the past that the women possess

is a photograph of Corregidora: ‘Tall, white hair, white beard, white

mustache’ (10) – a demonic parody of the white Christian God-figure. The

story of one black family becomes the microcosmic history of an entire race.


Jones’s novel repeatedly tells the story of Corregidora’s sexual and racial

exploitation, so that the reader too is made to experience the iterative act of

fixing memory. This is particularly necessary because Ursa is barren: she

will have no daughter to whom she can and must relate the family/racial

history. Asreaders we become her surrogatedaughter, but the mode of telling

can then no longer be oral. The recourse to oral history was originally

necessary because the whites had burned all written evidence of black

history. As Ursa’s great-grandmother says: ‘I’m leaving evidence. And you

got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when

it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up

against them’ (Jones 1976: 14, italics in text). She later adds: ‘They can burn

the papers but they can’t burn conscious, Ursa. And that what makes the

evidence. And that’s what makes the verdict’ (22). Ursa uses her blues music

as well as her narrative to us in order to present both the evidence and the

verdict. But first she has to accept that she is indeed one of the ‘Corregidora

women’ even though free and not herself fathered by the slave-breeder: ‘I am

Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an

early age’ (77). Through several marriages, she retains that hated but

accurate (maternal-line) surname as another form of ‘evidence.’


The black men in the story respond with resignation to the white

destruction of documents such as black land purchases or proof of spouses

bought out of slavery: ‘they ain’t nothing you can do when they tear the pages

out of the book and they ain’t no record of it’ (Jones 1976: 78). But the

women’s response to the willed (and political) lacunae of private and public

history is to tell the story of oppression over and over again. As Ursa says,

‘[t]hey squeezed Corregidora into me, and I sung back in return’ (103),

translating the verbal narrative representation into emotion and song. Ursa




Postmodernism and feminisms 163


distinguishes between ‘the lived life’ and ‘the spoken one’ (108); but there is

also the sung one, not to mention the written ones, both the official public

record of historical injustice (destroyed by white men) and the unofficial

personal record that is this novel.


At no point here is the private separable from the public. Ursa’s female

oppression (in white or black society) becomes the metaphor for black

oppression and exploitation in America. A male blues singer tells Ursa:

‘Sinatra was the first one to call Ray Charles a genius, he spoke of “the genius

of Ray Charles.” And after that everybody called him a genius. They didn’t

call him a genius before that though. He was a genius but they didn’t call him

that’ (Jones 1976: 169). He adds: ‘If a white man hadn’t told them, they

wouldn’t have seen it’ (170), and his ‘they’ includes blacks as well as whites.

This is a powerful novel that self-consciously de-naturalizes many aspects

of history: the reliability of its recording; the availability of its archive; the

politics of its representation of black women who must pass down their oral

past‘from generation to generation so we’d never forget. Even though they’d

burned everything to play like it didn’t never happen’ (9).


The power of remembering and forgetting is also the focus of Christa

Wolf’s narrative of the interweaving of personal and public history and

responsibility in Patterns of Childhood, an example of the second kind of

feminist-inspired postmodern writing about the self and its relation to time

and place. A prefatory note tells us that all characters are ‘an invention of the

narrator’ (note: not the author) and that none is identical with anyone real. If,

however, we were to note any similarity between fiction and reality, we are

told: ‘Generally recognizable behavior patterns should be blamed on

circumstances.’ When the circumstances are the rise of the Nazi Party and

the Second World War and the writer is East German, the public and the

private are joined from the start; the personal is likely to be political.


The book opens with what might be an archetypically postmodern

statement about history: ‘What is past is not dead; it is not even past’ (Wolf

1980: 3). The narrator addresses herself as ‘you’ – ‘the voice that assumes

the task of telling it’ (4). ‘It’ is the story of her childhood, but always as seen

from the point of view of subsequent history, both personal and public: ‘The

present intrudes upon remembrance’ (4). The form of the text’s narration




164 The Politics of Postmodernism


itself is complex. The writing is said to take place between 1972 and 1975 but

it uses as a frame an earlier trip back to her native town in order to study the

even more distant past of her 1930s and 1940s childhood. With memory she

must cross both temporal and spatial borders – even national ones, for the

town she grew up in and fled from (in advance of the Russian army) was once

in Germany (Landsberg) but is now, thanks to history, in Poland (Grozow

Wielkopolski). The narrator (‘you’) refers to herself as a child (‘she’) as

Nelly, thereby introducing a degree of distancing through fictive naming and

third-person address. This also serves to signal that the child she once was is

now deemed almost inaccessible to her thirty years later: the woman and the

girl have different knowledge. As the narrator self-consciously writes, we

watch her try to deal with both distance and complicity, both the past and the



From the beginning this chapter had been earmarked to deal with the war;

like all the other chapters, it has been prepared on sheets with headings

such as Past, Present, Trip to Poland, Manuscript. Auxiliary structures,

devised to organize the material and to detach it from yourself by this

system of overlapping layers. . . . Form as a possibility of gaining distance.

(Wolf 1980: 164)


The narrative of Patterns of Childhood is full of passages like this,

metafictive representations of the act of trying to tell the story of the past of

her self and her country, both in the present and during the trip to Poland,

accompanied by her husband, daughter, and brother. The public history

actually turns out to be the easier one to relate: ‘we either fictionalize or

become tongue-tied when it comes to personal matters’ (8). But there arealso

problems with this public dimension. For instance, she wants to use as a

guiding epigraph the words of Kazimierz Brandys: ‘Fascism . . . as a concept,

is larger than the Germans. But they became its classic example’ (36). But

she dares not, for fear of how her German readers would react. Of course, her

self-consciousness here makes her point nevertheless. Her reconstruction of

the past from both personal and official memory is not an exculpation or an

excuse. She also forbids herself any irony, disgust, or scorn at the expense of




Postmodernism and feminisms 165


those – like her own parents – who went along with the rise of Nazi power

(38). She does not allow herself to imagine their thinking: that ‘remains

undescribed, being inaccessible to the power of imagination’ (39). There are

limits, then, to the narrative representation of any kind of history, even that

of immediate personal experience.


One of the major limits is that of memory itself. The German people had

been told about the existence of concentration camps for ‘derelict elements’

of society – the newspaper accounts exist to prove it – but this was somehow

not remembered. The narrator parenthetically wonders: ‘(A bewildering

suspicion: they really had forgotten. Completely. Total war: total amnesia.)’

(Wolf 1980: 39). Her own memory too needs supplementing. After a vivid

description of a Hitler Youth rally attended by Nelly, the narrator adds: ‘(The

information about the sequence of events was obtained from the 1936

volume of the General-Anzeiger in the State Library; the images – “strings

of torches,” “blazing woodpile” – come from memory.)’ (129– 30). The

problem is that both sources can prove unreliable: ‘it’s so much easier . . . to

invent the past than to remember it’ (153). Nevertheless, she still feels the

need to consult and cite the documents of the historical archive, such as

Goebbels’s anti-Semitic radio speech on the occasion of Kristallnacht.


What the narrator comes to realize is that the past ‘cannot be described

objectively’ (Wolf 1980: 164) and that her present will always mediate her

past. This does not absolve her from the responsibility of trying to describe

it, nevertheless. Writing is ‘a duty which surpasses all others, even if it means

reopening questions about which everything seems to have been said, and

about which the rows of book spines in the libraries are no longer measured


in yards, but in miles’ (171). Her personal responsibility must be faced; so

too must her nation’s: ‘it may be impossible to be alive today without

becoming implicated in the crime’ (171). Feeling weighed down by

notebooks, diaries, and her notes from reading those miles of books, the

narrator must face another obstacle to her recording of both public and

private history: the proliferation of archival material.


She also confronts her own desire to distance. Is her objectification of her

childhood self as ‘Nelly’ hypocritical? Is her adult writer’s lament about the




166 The Politics of Postmodernism


‘ghastly undertone’ (Wolf 1980: 48) of the German language in which she

composes a form of guilt for Nelly’s response to the ‘glitter words’ of the

1930s: ‘alien blood,’ ‘a eugenic way of life’ (61)? Why does she want to

avoid certain words and expressions? Why is it unbearable to think of ‘I’ in

conjunction with ‘Auschwitz’? Her answer points to the moral and political

issues of representation in such historical narrative: ‘“I” in the past

conditional: I would have. I might have. I could have. Done it. Obeyed

orders’ (230).


History, however, has a short memory – even in families. The narrator’s

guilt about her personal and national past, about those who were allowed to

‘commit murder without remorse by a language stripped of conscience’

(Wolf 1980: 237), is contrasted with her daughter’s lack of any sense of

responsibility: until the trip to Poland she had only known of the war through

her history textbook, which mitigated the fading horror of the previous

generation. The narrator has no such luxury: she cannot think of any event in

her childhood without thinking of what was happening in the public arena at

the same time. She cannot even use the German language without facing a

responsibility that is both personal and national: the meaning of the word

‘verfallen’ exists in no other language in the one particular sense of

‘“irretrievably lost, because enslaved by one’s own, deep-down consent”’

(288). Or the word ‘chronic’ begins to take on the qualities of a moral

category: ‘Chronic blindness. And the question cannot be: How can they live

with their conscience?, but: What kind of circumstances are those that cause

a collective loss of conscience?’ (319).


The narrator’s awareness that to represent the past in language and in

narrative is to construct that past cannot be separated from her awareness of

the inextricable links between the personal and the political:


Ideally the structure of the experience coincides with the structure of the

narrative. . . . But there is no technique that permits translating an

incredibly tangled mesh whose threads are interlaced according to the

strictest laws, into linear narrative without doing it serious damage. To

speak about superimposed layers – ‘narrative levels’ – means shifting




Postmodernism and feminisms 167


into inexact nomenclature and falsifying the real process. ‘Life,’ the real

process, is always steps ahead.

(Wolf 1980: 272)


Besides the postmodern self-consciousness here about the paradoxes and

problems of historical representation (and self-representation), there is also

a very feminist awareness of the value of experience and the importance of

its representation in the form of ‘life-writing’ – however difficult or even

falsifying that process might turn out to be. It may be the case that we can ‘no

longer tell exactly what we have experienced’ (362) and that the attempt to

represent some version of that is inevitably a process of ‘[e]rasing, selecting,

stressing’ (359), but the constraints must be faced and not used as an excuse

for not making the attempt. It is Christa Wolf’s experience as a novelist that

comes to her aid: ‘I believe that the mechanism which deals with the

absorption and processing of reality is formed by literature’ (368–9). But the

way we represent the result of that absorption and processing is also formed

by our knowledge of past representations – both historical and literary.


The feminist practices that are so powerful in Christa Wolf’s other,

equally self-conscious writing indirectly inform this work too. Although its

focus is not specifically on women’s issues, the formal preoccupations of

Patterns of Childhood illustrate some of the things feminisms have brought

to postmodernism, sometimes to reinforce already existing concerns,

sometimes to unmask cultural forms in need of ‘de-doxification.’ I am

thinking not only of an increased awareness of gender differences, but of

issueslike the complexity of the representation of experience; the paradox of

the inevitable distortions of recording history and yet the pressing drive to

record nevertheless; and the unavoidable politics of the representation of

both the past and the present.


There is, then, a two-way involvement of the postmodern with the

feminist: on the one hand, feminisms have successfully urged

postmodernism to reconsider – in terms of gender – its challenges to that

humanist universal called ‘Man’ and have supported and reinforced its denaturalization

of the separation between the private and the public, the

personal and the political; on the other hand, postmodern parodic




168 The Politics of Postmodernism


representational strategies have offered feminist artists an effective way of

working within and yet challenging dominant patriarchal discourses. That

said, there is still no way in which the feminist and the postmodern – as

cultural enterprises – can be conflated. The differences are clear, and none so

clear as the political one. Chris Weedon (1987) opens her book on feminist

practice with the words: ‘Feminism is a politics.’ Postmodernism is not; it is

certainly political, but it is politically ambivalent, doubly encoded as both

complicity and critique, so that it can be (and has been) recuperated by both

the left and the right, each ignoring half of that double coding.


Feminisms will continue to resist incorporation into postmodernism,

largely because of their revolutionary force as political movements working

for real social change. They go beyond making ideology explicit and

deconstructing it to argue a need to change that ideology, to effect a real

transformation of art that can only come with a transformation of patriarchal

social practices. Postmodernism has not theorized agency; it has no

strategies of resistance that would correspond to the feminist ones.

Postmodernism manipulates, but does not transform signification; it

disperses but does not (re)construct the structures of subjectivity (Foster

1985; 6). Feminisms must. Feminist artists may use postmodern strategies of

parodic inscription and subversion in order to initiate the deconstructive first

step but they do not stop there. While useful (especially in the visual arts

where the insistence of the male gaze seems hard to avoid), such internalized

subversion does not automatically lead to the production of the new, not even

new representations of female desire. As one critic asks: ‘is it possible to

create new erotic codes – and I assume that is what feminism is striving for –

without in some ways reusing the old?’ (Winship 1987: 127). Perhaps

postmodern strategies do, however, offer ways for women artists at least to

contest the old – the representations of both their bodies and their desires –

without denying them the right to re-colonize, to reclaim both as sites of

meaning and value. Such practices also remind us all that every

representation always has its politics.