Voyeurism and Ideology
In evoking the world of dance to which Degas devoted so many of his images, Paul Valéry offers a personal anecdote to confirm Mallarmé's paradox that "a danseuse is not a woman who dances, because she is not a woman, and she does not dance." The truth of this enigmatic observation was demonstrated to him, Valéry says, by a film he once saw of giant, floating medusas, "not women at all, but beings of an incomparably translucent and sentient substance," as fluid as the liquid surrounding them, ideally mobile and elastic, requiring no solid ground, boneless yet not without form. The dance of the medusas embodies Valéry's conception of dance in its absolute state as pure movement aimed at nothing outside itself. According to this view, a ballerina's sexual identity plays no role, for she makes her body into "an object whose transformations necessarily recall the function a poet gives to his mind." Her body, in other words, is a metaphor for the leaps, swerves, inversions, and pirouettes of the poet's own verbal creativity, "a corporeal writing" in Mallarmé's phrase.
Dance becomes a figure for the symbolist aesthetic—nothing terribly surprising about this, one may say. The surprise comes in Valéry's second paragraph about the medusas, in which what was repressed by the symbolist idealization returns with a vengeance:
No human ballerina, inflamed woman, drunk with movement, with the poison of her own overwrought energy, with the ardent presence of gazes charged by desire, ever expressed the imperious oblation of sex, the mimic summons of the urge to prostitution, like the giant medusa, which, with an undulating shudder of flowing festooned skirts that she lifts and lowers with a strange and shameless insistence, transforms herself into a dream of Eros; and then, suddenly flinging back all her shivering flounces, her robes of severed lips, inverts and exposes herself, laid furiously open.
This extension of Valéry's thought seems to invert it, exposing its sexual secret much as the medusa exposes hers. The dance, which had earlier been emptied of mimetic reference, now urgently summons the aroused spectator to fulfill the ballerina's "besoin de prostitution." The medusa has been transformed by the fervently fantasizing writer from a floating signifier, analogous to the male poet's creative freedom, into a very specific organic signified, a gaping female sexual organ that threatens the poet's artistic control. It is as if the fascinated spectator-writer were now confronted with the symbolic meaning Freud associated with the
mythological Medusa's petrifying gaze: the fear of castration. Under the skirts provocatively lifted and lowered, under the dress made up of severed lips, is the furious openness that poisons every dream of Eros.
Who is the subject of this erotic fantasm? Evidently Valéry himself, the captivated viewer of the film of giant medusas, but also, by extension, Mallarmé, the truth of whose dictum about ballerinas not being women and not dancing Valéry is documenting. Still another implied subject is Degas, known as "le peintre des Danseuses," whom Valéry mentions at the outset of this meditation drawn from Degas Danse Dessin , a text of 1936. Yet Valéry notes that Degas's dancers are only superficially idealized images: their bodies bear the marks of their subjugation to the male artist's corporeal writing. Degas's passionate commitment in creating the danseuses, he argues, involved the display of female slavery rather than the elision of the body's travail in the glory of its aestheticization. "Degas was passionately determined," writes Valéry, "to reconstruct the specialized female animal as the slave of the dance, the laundry, or the streets; and the more or less distorted bodies whose articulated structure he always arranges in very precarious attitudes (tying a ballet shoe, or pressing the iron down on linen with both fists) make the whole mechanical system of a living being seem to grimace like a face." This grimace is the physiognomic manifestation of the sexualized inversion of the medusa. The grimace is a kind of furious openness displayed as bodily distortion and disarticulation.
In the social and historical context that Valéry does not evoke, this openness is quite specifically that of "the mimic summons of the urge to prostitution," for the dancers, like all the other female professionals Degas painted, be they laundresses, milliners, or café-concert singers, were known to be involved in clandestine prostitution. Indeed, Degas often portrays top-hatted messieurs, probably members of the notorious Jockey Club who had privileged access behind the scenes at the Opéra, negotiating in the coulisses with dancers from the corps de ballet. Thus he illustrates a double slavery of the danseuse, to the specialized artistic vocabulary of male corporeal scripture and to a capitalist economy of desire, which defines lower-class women as objects of sexual consumption for middle- and upper-class men. The grimacing body—distorted, disarticulated, unstable, even inverted—this "reconstructed" body of "the female animal" is, according to Valéry, the victim of Degas's misogyny.
Is this an accurate reading of Degas's images? What is the meaning of the identification of the sexualized female body with the distorted and "precarious" female body? In reference to what norms can distortion be measured? Does this argument make the distorted body fundamentally the same as the castrated body? If so, what is the relation between a psychoanalytic interpretation of misogyny that would trace its origins to castration fears and an economic one that would ascribe female deformation and disfigurement to patriarchal practices of domination and control?
No images in Degas's oeuvre generate these difficult questions more imperatively than his brothel monotypes. In these pictures of naked prostitutes blatantly offering their bodies for sale, the erotic subtext of the dancer paintings becomes the explicit subject of representation. This brutal explicitness, however, does not make the text of female sexuality any more legible than it was when disguised under the masks of more acceptable social identities. My readings of the brothel monotypes will suggest ways in which Degas's images destabilize the male viewer's gaze and confront him with the ideological assumptions underlying his voyeuristic position. This argument, however, will itself prove to be unstable, as Degas's representational practice is seen to involve us in a reading experience that vacillates uncomfortably between psychological and social determinants, constructing its viewing subject in terms of male bourgeois hegemony while simultaneously revealing the suspect ideological artifice of that construction.
For an interpretation of Degas's portrayals of prostitutes in brothels, the medium is most certainly a good part of the message, but one whose visual language is peculiarly ambiguous and difficult. The works are all monotypes, images created through a technique that lies halfway between drawing and painting. A monotype can be made in two ways: one can either cover a metal or celluloid plate with thick, greasy printer's ink and then wipe and scrape some away to make a design (the so-called "dark-field" manner) or one can apply printer's ink directly to a clean plate with a brush, rag, or other instrument (the "light-field" manner). Once the composition is finished, it is transferred by laying a piece of dampened paper on the plate and running both through a rolling press. Most of the ink is used up in this process, though a second, lighter impression can sometimes be pulled. The technique is imprecise and unpredictable by its very nature, since one cannot control exactly how the ink will respond in the printing operation. The primary advantage the method offers over direct drawing is the time available (up to an hour) to manipulate the ink on the plate before it loses pliability and must be fixed in the paper. This manipulation is a physically immediate, sensuously tactile process: Degas used rags, brush handles, hard bristles, sponges, pins, and even thumb and finger applications to produce desired effects. There is no tradition of monotypemaking. Through the centuries, various artists discovered it but never took it seriously enough for their discovery to be significant to subsequent generations. Degas used the medium not only for itself but also as a chiaroscuro base, a tonal map, for further elaboration in pastel and gouache.
Scholars have recorded approximately fifty extant monotypes by Degas of brothel scenes, most done in the light-field manner, with dimensions varying from about 4 × 6 inches to 8 × 11, the majority being 6 × 8. Degas's friend, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, declared that as many as seventy more monotypes were destroyed by the painter's brother at the time of his death, probably because they were considered obscene. Most were made in 1879 and 1880, a time when
literary versions of the prostitute's life were arriving on the cultural scene in rapid succession (Huysmans's Marthe was published in 1876; Edmond de Goncourt's La Fille Elisa appeared in 1877; Zola's Nana created a sensation in 1880, also the year of Maupassant's "Boule de suif," followed in 1881 by his "La Maison Tellier."). Of these, we can be sure that Degas read La Fille Elisa since he made a number of sketches illustrating scenes in that novel, and it is very likely that he knew the others as well. We do not know to whom precisely he showed the brothel monotypes, which were never exhibited in his lifetime. Françoise Cachin believes that he showed them only to his closest friends (under what circumstances? to wives as well as husbands?) and perhaps to a few artists he liked and respected. But there are no accounts of the monotypes written by any of those who may have seen them during Degas's lifetime. The public first got a chance to view them when Vollard used a selection to illustrate his 1934 edition of Maupassant's La Maison Tellier and his 1935 edition of Mimes de courtisanes by Pierre Louys.
Art historians have had relatively little to say about the subject of the monotypes, choosing instead to treat them as formal and technical experiments. Their usefulness, so the story goes, was to help liberate Degas from the excessively linear graphic mode he had inherited from Ingres and to enable him to explore the constructive potential of strong contrasts in light and shadow and to judge the relationships between broad compositional masses. The images are characteristically praised for their dispassionate, documentary realism, their effects of casual immediacy, and their morally neutral perspective. Equally characteristic is that this appreciation of the impersonal, objective quality of Degas's observation goes along with a claim, such as that made by Françoise Cachin in the introduction to her 1974 edition of the monotypes, that "studying the monotypes puts one in a privileged position to understand Degas's work, giving access to his most personal and private concerns, his relations with women and with femininity." However, what Cachin finds most private about Degas is an entirely traditional reading of his sexual perspective: he was, she claims, a voyeur preoccupied with woman's animal nature.
This interpretation fits into a tradition of Degas criticism, founded by Huysmans, that has had an astonishing endurance. In a review of the series of pastels that Degas exhibited in 1886, featuring, among other images of women bathing and drying themselves, one entitled The Tub (fig. 1), Huysmans claims that Degas's point of view conveys "an attentive cruelty, a patient hatred." Huysmans does not disapprove of this cruelty anymore than he accuses Degas of misogyny. On the contrary, he praises the painter for conveying a lucid and chaste "disdain for the flesh" such as has not been seen in art since the Middle Ages. He argues that Degas shows fat, short, graceless women in the humiliating and degrading positions of intimate hygiene, because the artist is a brilliant iconoclast attacking the false idolization of Woman in conventional artistic practice. Then Huysmans goes on to construct the subjectivity of Degas's bathing women as a function of
their masochistic collaboration with a sadistic male gaze. The bathers convey, he writes, "the penetrating, sure execration of a few women for the devious joys of their sex, an execration that causes them to be overwhelmed with dreadful proofs and to defile themselves, openly confessing the humid horror of a body that no lotion can purify."
With this evident fantasy projection, Huysmans's ideological reading of Degas's iconoclasm becomes hostage to his horrified fascination with the ineradicable dirt of female sexuality and to his need to imagine punishment for female deviance. Like Valéry, like Mallarmé, Huysmans fears his own dream of Eros, the Medusa's "mimic summons of the urge to prostitution." In reaction, he places himself in the position of a voyeur, sadistically fantasizing that his penetrating look punishes and humiliates the woman it secretly observes. According to the psychoanalytic account, the male voyeur is trying to escape anxiety by obsessively reenacting an original trauma, his imagined perception of female castration, from a situation of mastery and control. Huysmans's hypothesis of female self-disgust and bodily loathing perfectly fulfills this fantasy of erotic domination. Woman in Huysmans's interpretation of Degas's images is not simply the object of male disdain; she has internalized that disdain to the point that she is the
degraded object of her own virulent execration. The voyeur thus displaces his own guilt for his covert misogynist gaze onto the object of that controlling surveillance. What he sees is imaginary evidence of woman's enlightened awareness of her irredeemably debased sexuality.
Huysmans's fantasy scenario locates woman in the position of Truth insofar as she openly confesses the horror of her sexual embodiment, the humid wound of her mutilated flesh. His vocabulary is uncannily Freudian as he praises Degas for creating in his paintings "la sensation de l'étrange exact, de l'invu si juste" (the sensation of exact strangeness, of the precisely right unseen). I hardly need stress that castration for Freud is the unseeable whose provocative strangeness threatens the male subject's physical integrity and his power of accurate perception. It is this imagined threat that the misogynist voyeur overcomes, repeatedly, as he reassures himself of the visibility of the unseen. His misogyny is inherently narcissistic: the voyeur sees in female lack the evidence of his own phallic coherence. Woman's body is perceived as other only insofar as it can be marked with the signs of man's desire for himself.
A number of recent readings of the bather pastels help explain how the construction of these images might provoke a defensive, self-reflective male response such as that of Huysmans. These readings, by Edward Snow, Eunice Lipton, and Carol Armstrong, all stress the extraordinary self-sufficiency, separateness, and sensuous privacy of the women depicted. Specifically countering Huysmans's argument, Snow writes that "these women are rendered as physical beings in their own right rather than as projected, complicit objects of masculine desire. [They are] delivered not only from the male gaze but from any introjected awareness of it." Armstrong's analysis confirms this split between excluded male gaze and self-absorbed female embodiment. The woman's body in The Tub , she observes, folds over on itself in a reflexive movement signifying circularity and closure. This inverted movement, "turned in on the body's thicknesses and silences," deflects and excludes the male viewer, thereby negating the offer of erotic appropriation traditionally associated with the female nude. Indeed, both Armstrong and Lipton suggest that the paintings, far from expressing female self-disgust and sexual guilt, "invite empathy and the contemplation of narcissism" (Lipton) "in a kind of pictorial onanism" (Armstrong).
These strong contemporary readings suggest that Huysmans's reaction to these pastels, like that of the critics who subsequently have agreed with him, constitutes an aggressive defense of the phallic right to annex woman's sexuality, mounted in the face of images that emphatically assert her intrinsic, autonomous, guiltless capacity for sensual fulfillment. His reaction is, moreover, a defense of the traditional prerogatives of male spectatorship, especially of the voyeur's implied presence in a position of fantasized mastery, mounted in the face of the dislocation and problematization of that position. As Armstrong points out, the dislocation of perspective in a picture such as The Tub is a deliberate strategy
designed to radicalize the spectator's external viewpoint to the extent that it loses all corporeality and becomes "a gaze without a body." Impossibly located above the right-hand ledge but not on it, in a kind of dematerialized point in space, the viewing presence loses its capacity for discursive union with its object. The voyeur's fantasy of power is subverted by the precariousness of his implied position in space. Snow interprets this subversion as "a denial of masculine will, desire, and, above all, sexual presence." "Degas's privileges as an artist," he goes on to assert, "stem from and reinforce his ontologically negative sense of himself as a man."
Let us turn now from the pastels to the monotypes. In terms of subject matter, this is not much of a turn, for, as at least one critic of the 1886 impressionist show observed, Degas's bathers are quite likely prostitutes performing the frequent ablutions their profession required. Like the bather pastels and the dancer pictures, the brothel monotypes constitute a series of repetitive images in which the variety of expressive gesture is minimized, individual physiognomic difference is reduced, and complexities of composition, such as costume and decor, are greatly simplified. But the brothel scenes go farther than any other of Degas's iconographic repertoires toward negating traditional aesthetic norms of legibility and corporeality. The pastels may subvert expectations about the correct formal display of the nude; they remain nevertheless luxuriantly colorful and sensuously rich. The monotypes, in contrast, present crude, scribbled, smudged, murky forms in what are frequently almost illegible juxtaposed masses of light and shadow. The images are quite baffling at first sight, almost cartoonish or caricatural in the clumsy quality of the figural delineation, strangely unfinished, abbreviated, and apparently hasty in execution. One has the impression of a rapid sketch made sur place , although these monotypes are actually remembered images composed après coup . (But just what is Degas remembering? He kept his private life so secret that we do not know if his brothel imagery derives from first-hand personal experience or from fantasies fueled by viewing previous representations of brothel life, notably those of Constantin Guys, and by reading in the extensive contemporary literature of prostitution.) Degas did not arrange the monotypes in any particular order, as far as we know, so my selection of images to analyze is largely a matter of personal preference and rhetorical strategy.
The monotype entitled The Tub (fig. 2) provides a revealing comparison to the pastel of the same title. Here the male gaze is explicitly embodied in the image, but hardly in a way that expresses the dominating, controlling point of view of the voyeur. The man, a client in a brothel, sits hunched over in a barely articulated, murky mass. His body seems to be closed in on itself in a circular form that rhymes with the tub below and the mirror above. The sense of enclosure and separation is furthered by the perceptible echo of the man's muddled form captured from the back in the heavily framed mirror, as if pulled thereby into the dark recesses of pictorial reflection. His space is rigidly divided off from that of
the woman by a sharp line that defines a black ground against which her plump, white body stands out. Although she is sitting on the floor, her upright back gives her a strong verticality, which is counterbalanced on one side by the horizontal movement of her arm and extended on the other by the upward thrust of the cheval glass. From his cringing, regressive, closed-off position, with half his face buried in his hand, the client observes his sexual purchase. The meaning of his one-eyed look is articulated by the structure of the composition: although he has economic power over this woman's sexuality, he experiences her as a dominating presence from which he is definitively exiled. His look does not debase her, it appears rather to confirm his inadequacy, his inability to emerge out of the enclosures that inhibit his sexuality. The blurred area where her head should be suggests the generalized quality of this woman's confident embodiment. Her body may have none of the bountiful luxuriance of the pastel bathers, but its power to deny appropriation by the male gaze remains undiminished.
Two monotypes that show a client emerging from outside the frame into a brothel room suggest that Degas associates hesitancy and ambivalence rather than voyeuristic power with the threshold position. In the first, entitled The Client
(fig. 3), the forward thrust of the man's only visible leg is strongly countered by the backward tilt of his entire stiff, linear body. He seems reluctant to enter the domain of the two swollen, sitting women. The primitive graphic mode of their portrayal decomposes their bodies, randomly eliding detail, smudging outlines, erasing contours, and defacing features. The physical amorphousness and disarticulation of these figures make it seem as if they had emerged organically out of their environment, whose barely legible, splotchy, dappled, muddy forms have a certain metamorphic quality about them. In contrast, the sticklike client appears alien, his dark clothing and formal hat more defensive than authoritative. He arrives armored with the semiotics of social class—top hat, dark suit—but he seems to be retreating from the exercise of his privilege. A similar defensiveness is termed "seriousness" in the title of the second monotype, The Serious Client (fig. 4). Here the man, again decked out in bourgeois regalia, is being actively pulled
away from his position on the margin of the pictorial space. The umbrella, fulcrum of contending pressures, may suggest the sexual issue involved, as well as demark an internal threshold of male anxiety. The fact that the angle of the umbrella exactly parallels the backward lean of the client suggests that his fearful seriousness is successfully resisting the fleshy solicitation of the four prostitutes.
Should this resistance be read psychoanalytically as due to a fear of woman's castrated sexuality? Do the clients resist the incitements to desire and possession because of an unconscious horror of the uncanny unseen? This was the interpretation given to these images by Pablo Picasso, who in 1971 made a series of forty superb etchings that constitute a remarkable reading of the eleven Degas monotypes he owned (including The Client and a picture that I will analyze shortly, Waiting ). Picasso frequently portrays Degas, an alter-ego figure, in a position much like that of the clients in the two monotypes we have just discussed. In figure 5, Degas, fully dressed, hands behind his back, leans against a wall as he
stares at exhibitionistic and wildly made-up prostitutes. A line descending from the witch-like madam's head defines a wedge-shaped space that safely separates him from the whirling sexual forms on display. Eyes, nipples, and anuses resemble each other and seem to multiply vertiginously. Figure 6 portrays Degas sketching an image of himself, in diminished, shadowy, but still fully dressed form, surrounded by naked women offering him their highly sexed bodies. Degas's creative inspiration, Picasso suggests, comes from imagining himself inside the female erotic space he fears to penetrate. In another etching (fig. 7),
Degas's placement inside a frame removes and distances him from an origiastic scene of female bodies so closely intertwined that it is hard to determine what members belong to what bodies.
In all these scenes, the Degas figure, like the implied spectator of the monotypes, remains impassive, hugging the margin, cherishing the frame, refusing involvement. Yet what his fixed stare sees is worlds apart from what Degas himself records in the monotypes. Although the prostitutes in The Serious Client are spatially separate from the customer, this division is not a function of a male drive to
fantasize woman. The client seems to be confronted with a weight of female embodiment that will not yield to any appropriative fantasy. In contrast, Picasso's prostitutes are the voyeuristic projections of a (perhaps impotent?) fantasist who transforms the real into a theater of private hallucinations and erotic imaginings. This is the home territory of Valéry's dancing medusas, dreams of an inverted Eros laid furiously open to the terrified male gaze (see fig. 8). That terror, however, is controlled and overcome by the very openness and exuberance of the sexual display put on to provoke and stimulate the voyeur. If these lasciviously cavorting women are objectified as the castrated other, they are still more powerfully subjectified as fetishized figures of the same. Woman's desire, seemingly in evidence throughout Picasso's bordello images, is exhibited only for the benefit of male narcissism. Her sexuality is annexed to the project of representing the male artist's ability to create the feminine as an aesthetic fiction.
In nineteenth-century aesthetic practice it was above all the courtesan, rather than the prostitute, who figured as representative of male narcissistic desire. The distinction, of course, was not always easy to make, especially since many courtesans had once been prostitutes, but it was clear that courtesans did not work in brothels. Their stage was far more public, social, and outwardly glamorous. In their conduct they mimed respectable women, while maintaining an edge of difference sufficient to tip off prospective clients. The courtesan, as T. J. Clark has observed, "was the person who moved most easily between roles in the nineteenth century, trying on the seemingly fixed distinctions of class society and discarding them at will, declaring them false like the rest of her poses. And falsity is what made her modern." In the male imaginary, the courtesan could be fantasized both voyeuristically, as the sexually desiring woman whose powerful independence provoked stimulating castration fears, and fetishistically, as an antidote to those fears embodying a modern aesthetic of artifice, illusion, duplicity. The myth of the courtesan made legible as social spectacle the male artist's imaginary control over the threat of female sexuality. Her falsity corresponded to that of the fetish: she veiled the real, creating in its place a fiction of male dominance.
Versions of this fiction are embodied in Picasso's prostitutes and in Valéry's medusa. Of the latter, Valéry writes that, in the film he saw, she finally rose like a balloon "to the forbidden luminous region, the domain of the sun and the mortal air." This displacement upwards is the price the medusa must pay for her wanton exposure of what should have remained veiled. The darkness of the medusa's overwrought sexuality cannot survive exposure to the bright light of masculine, abstractionist control, a light that transforms woman into a metaphor for her absence. "A savoir," writes Mallarmé, "que la danseuse n'est pas une femme qui danse , pour ces motifs juxtaposés qu'elle n'est pas une femme , mais une métaphore résumant un des aspects élémentaires de notre forme, glaive, coupe, fleur, etc., et qu'elle ne danse pas " (So the ballerina is not a woman who dances , for the juxtaposed reasons that she is not a woman , but a metaphor summing up one of
the elementary aspects of our form, sword, cup, flower, etc., and that she does not dance ). The feminine thus becomes an elementary figure of "our" rhetorical form, that is, of the poet's favorite images for the poetic, and sexual difference (suggested by "glaive" and "coupe") becomes a function of the male writer's aesthetic choice.
This rhetorization of female difference may be the most sophisticated of misogynistic strategies, conflating the contradictions of voyeurism and fetishism. The voyeur fictionalizes woman's otherness by constantly postponing his knowledge of it: what he sees never has the indelible stamp of truth; it must be seen again, and then again, each sight being no better than a representation of an original traumatic discovery. The fetishist avoids the knowledge of that discovery by adopting the fiction that a particular object can function, in Freud's terms, as "a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it." Although the voyeur's compulsively ongoing investigation of female difference contrasts with the fetishist's equally compulsive fascination with displaced immediacy, both modes make woman available to the male gaze only insofar as her sexuality can be fantasized as something denatured, deflected, substitutive. She is seen as what she is not, as a metaphor, at best, of what she is.
Now it is evident that the conception of female sexuality as in some way lacking or negative is not the peculiar province of voyeurs and fetishists alone. Or, to put it another way, one would be right to argue that the mechanisms of voyeurism and fetishism pervade the culture of late capitalism, of which we, like Degas, are a part, to such an extent that they influence every aspect of spectatorship and of gender relations. This argument, which, in the present context, can be no more than an assertion, is helpful for our purposes insofar as it suggests that the psychodynamics put into operation by viewing Degas's monotypes in 1880 would not have been significantly different from the psychodynamics generated by viewing the pictures today. This hypothesis is plausible, I believe, despite the media explosion of the past century that has disseminated countless images of women displayed as sexualized objects for male consumption. The more troublesome issue is to know what discourses, visual and verbal, would have been available in 1880 to make sense of the viewer's response, to define his horizon of expectations, a matter further complicated by our ignorance of who the intended viewer, apart from Degas himself, may have been. Might this viewer have processed his response in terms of a semiotics of caricature, an imagistic discourse with which Degas was thoroughly familiar? Would such an identification of Degas's discursive vocabulary have elicited laughter and wit in response? Or might the viewer have related the monotypes to the rich tradition of popular erotic prints of women dressing, undressing, getting in and out of baths, and seen them as a typically "realist" debunking of this libertine imagery? Finally, might the viewer not have associated the small monotype pictures with licentious photographs, often seen enhanced through the stereoscope or passed around among
men for their private titillation? Would his perception of this cultural homology have undermined the viewer's ability to distinguish between Degas's images and intentionally pornographic representations? These questions need to be raised, even though I know of no satisfactory way of answering them. The specific historical context of the works' reception is nearly impossible to interpret. However, from our present point of view, the images themselves seem to critically encode the cultural context of their production. The focus of this critique, I propose to argue, is the commodification of gender relations.
Degas's brothel images sever the metaphorical bond between artist-viewer and the signs of his creative triumph over the prostitute's erotic threat. Degas seems to invite the viewer to adopt the position of voyeur, but then he depsychologizes that position to such an extent that no desiring subjectivity appears to inhabit it. This is part of what makes looking at Degas's images of prostitution such an uncomfortable experience. The threshold position is familiar to the male viewer as one conventionally adopted to offer him the scary but alluring secrets of female undress. The small dimensions of the monotype, allowing it to be easily held in the hand, further suggest that these are fetishistic images made for a connoisseur's private enjoyment. But it is precisely the fantasy potential of these images of available female sexuality that Degas suppresses. He simultaneously grants the spectator a wish-fulfilling viewpoint and confronts the spectator so positioned with images that, by denying his desire, empty his position of its subjective privilege.
This de-privileging operates through a generalization of the process of substitution that replaces psychological determinants with economic ones. Degas's brothel images offer the client-viewer an economic transaction that entails his substitutability, given that any other monied male could just as well assume his position. Any male can take advantage of the system of exchange that allows female sexual products to be purchased on the marketplace. Whereas both voyeur and fetishist assert their phallic domination by treating any individual woman as a mere provisional substitute, an inferior proxy for the real thing, the phallus itself appears to be substitutable when it comes to serve a purely instrumental function dependent on a prior financial transaction. Unlike Picasso's prostitutes, who promiscuously offer themselves to the voyeur as a vehicle for his own signifying practice, and whose polymorphous sexuality is a metaphor for the artist's own creative desire, Degas's prostitutes exist materially, phenomenally, as alienated products of a consumer culture. Unlike the courtesans in nineteenth-century art and literature whose sexualized bodies are camouflaged to serve the ostentations male enterprise of dominating (female) nature, Degas's prostitutes cover nothing up. There is no masochistic self-debasement here, only the flesh made available to the other, the body waiting to fulfill its role as capital. "Commodities, women, are a mirror of value of and for man," writes Luce Irigaray. "In order to serve as such, they give up their bodies to men as the supporting material of specularization, of
speculation. They yield to him their natural and social value as a locus of imprints, marks, and mirage of his activity."
This is the locus and the activity that Degas illustrates. The would-be voyeur at the brothel threshold contemplates women who have been denaturalized and marked in an economy of exchange that offers little stimulus for his narcissistic fantasy. In the place of castration, the perverse goal of his private voyeurism, he sees commodification, the sign of woman's exchangeability in a system of value established to maintain the hegemony of his sex. The four prostitutes in Waiting (fig. 9) are sprawled naked, or nearly so, on a couch in a brothel salon. Their faces have next to no particularity; their heavy, bloated bodies are crudely outlined; the strongly emphasized sexual triangle repeats itself in an insistent pattern that focuses the viewer's attention. There is no interaction among the women, nor any
narrative content apart from their passive waiting for a client to appear. The negative space of the carpet is echoed in small by that of the pubic areas, setting up an analogy between the common usage values of the living and the fabricated, the sexual and the material. The abstract formalism of the four public triangles suggests woman's generic subjugation to an ideology that transforms her body into the sign of social relations among male consumers. Despite their frontality and uninhibited exhibition, these brothel inmates are not posing seductively for the benefit of the male viewer. They do not invite the fetishizing male gaze any more than the sensuously self-absorbed bathers do. They reflect back to the viewer not so much the power of his private privilege as the discomforting impersonality of his ideological position. The dislocation and disembodiment of the observer's viewpoint that Armstrong analyzed in The Tub is also in evidence in Waiting , where its function as a reflection of the depersonalizing impact of ideology makes itself forcefully felt. We look down and across at the four prostitutes from a kind of floating, dematerialized, spatial perspective that suggests the way ideology abstracts the individual and asserts power through invisibility and absence.
This analysis helps explain why Degas's brothel images, despite their sexual
explicitness, are not pornographic. Pornographic imagery is constructed to suggest woman's desire to submit pleasurably to phallic power. She is seen as complicitous in the display of her sexuality, which is offered to the male viewer as a fantasized extension of his own erotic body, as a narcissistic gift. Thus if a woman is shown masturbating in a pornographic picture, she is not only the object of sadistic voyeurism but also of narcissistic identification, her orgasm becoming, in fantasy, a function of male self-enjoyment. In contrast, when Degas portrays women masturbating, as he does in a number of the monotypes (see fig. 10), he short-circuits the process of identification, cancels any illusion of female subjectivity, and makes the sexual gesture seem entirely banal, a casual pastime. Whereas pornographic representation always assumes woman's dependence on the phallus as access to pleasure, Degas shows women whose sexuality is an autonomous behavioral function they perform among themselves. There is no invitation to mastery here: these prostitutes have found a means to survive objectification by the other by becoming the agents of their own jouissance . The material space appears to absorb the female bodies into its splotchy, amorphous texture rather than to articulate their privileged position as figures of erotic fantasy.
This absorption does not denigrate or degrade the women. They actually seem to gain in strength through their assimilation into an unthreatening, comfortable world of things, as if their reification involved a kind of detached enjoyment, on the artist's part, of the ideological pressures conveyed in their representation. This enjoyment may derive from a perspective similar to that Walter Benjamin attributes to the petty bourgeoisie of Baudelaire's day. It sought pleasure, Benjamin claims, in a displaced or deferred awareness of the commodity nature of its own labor power. "If it wanted to achieve virtuosity in this kind of enjoyment, it could not spurn empathizing with commodities. It had to enjoy this identification with all the pleasure and the uneasiness which derived from a presentiment of its own destiny as a class. Finally, it had to approach this destiny with a sensitivity that perceives charm even in damaged and decaying goods." Degas's class position, which I will discuss briefly in a moment, was not so firmly established at the upper echelons for him not to feel the ambivalence about commodification that Benjamin, in this passage, judges characteristic of Baudelaire. Significantly, it is in his treatment of prostitution that Benjamin finds Baudelaire most sensitive to the equivocal charms of commodity culture. "Baudelaire," continued Benjamin, "who in a poem to a courtesan called her heart 'bruised like a peach, ripe like her body, for the lore of love,' possessed this sensitivity. To it he owed his enjoyment of this society as someone who had already half withdrawn from it." The pleasure Degas derived from portraying bruised and ripe brothel inmates may well have had an analogous source.
To summarize my argument so far: Degas's brothel monotypes appear to address the male viewer's social privilege, to construe him as a voyeur, and to cater to his misogyny. They appear, in other words, to construct the spectator as a
bourgeois psychological subject who desires his (phallic) self through the (castrated) other. But they undertake this construction duplicitously, the better to dismantle the voyeur's privileged position, depersonalize it, and reveal its primarily social determination. The viewer's imaginary domination is short-circuited by the confrontation of a psychologically constructed subject position with ideologically constructed objects of desire. Misogyny, cruelty, disdain—attitudes often attributed to Degas as if his art were a space of self-representation—can more accurately be interpreted as functions of the capitalist ideology that defines and confines woman's value in representational practice. That confining definition is the materialist counterpart to the Mallarmé-Valéry idealist conception of the ballerina who is not a woman. On the one hand is a female body made useless in daily life so that it can become the instrument of the male poet's "corporeal writing"; on the other hand is a female body whose value is produced and consumed in its daily exchange among men and whose matter is inscribed by the marks of that commerce. Valéry is complicitous in the repression of the female sexual threat: he kills the medusa by lifting her out of the water into the mortal air of metaphor. Degas exposes the material effects of this repression. As against the misogynist identification of woman with her inherent mutilation, the horror that must be dis-regarded, he sets a sympathetic identification of woman with her social and historical commodification. Degas suggests that the Medusa's look is no more than the reflection back to the male viewer of his own initial gaze, which paralyzes, objectifies, and commodifies woman. This gaze is the vehicle not of Degas's private obsession but of his uneasy awareness of his participation in a hegemonic ideology based on sexual counterphobia. He displays the construction of his own spectatorship as historically engendered in misogynist social practices.
The continuing power of these practices accounts for the appeal of the critical tradition identifying Degas with misogyny. Unwilling to acknowledge the discomforting ways through which Degas's images of prostitutes expose the Medusa gaze of patriarchal ideology, critics have preferred to imagine Degas implicated in the very aggression he unmasks. Biographical anecdotes—Berthe Morisot's 1869 report to her sister about how Degas sat down beside her and, instead of courting her as she expected, began a long commentary on Solomon's proverb "Woman is the desolation of the righteous"; Manet's comment to Morisot that Degas "lacks spontaneity; he isn't capable of loving a woman, even less of telling her that he does or of doing anything about it"; Degas's remark to George Moore, possibly in regard to the pastel entitled The Tub , that this image shows "the human animal taking care of herself, a cat licking herself" —this kind of contemporary testimony has been cited to prove Degas's disdain for women. But what it proves is only that such statements were once interpreted as evidence of misogyny and that they still can be read as part of an historically identifiable misogynistic discourse. Placed in a different context of reception, these statements may take on quite different meanings. Thus Norma Broude has convincingly demonstrated that
Degas's insensitivity to the traditional manifestations of female charm may have been a deliberate iconoclastic gesture that, far from expressing his desire to debase women, reflected his conviction that strong women never conform to conventional ideals.
The biographical evidence thus cuts both ways, and Degas's supposed misogyny, as Carol Armstrong has acutely observed, becomes a part of the "myth" of Degas, deliberately constructed by the artist himself and then elaborated by his biographers. The essence of the myth is enigma, opacity, isolation, withdrawal, repression. Degas's life was lived self-consciously on the margins of life and hence of the narrative forms created to make it accessible and legible. Even the artist's class background is contradictory: his family was proud of an aristocratic lineage that was actually an invention, while his father and brothers were bourgeois bankers and wine merchants, whose adoption of a genteel ancien régime lifestyle was a major cause of the collapse of their family banking enterprise. Acquaintances often found Degas excessively dry and orderly, "a notary, a bourgeois of the time of Louis-Philippe," said Gauguin. He was elitist and refined in his tastes, nationalistic and conservative in his anticapitalist politics. Yet he enjoyed the social mixtures and ambiguities of popular life in cafés and on the boulevards, was enthusiastic about new technologies (photography, for instance) and, inevitably, participated in the commercial market for art. In brief, an analysis of Degas's class offers no more coherent an explanation of his subjectivity than do the biographical anecdotes adduced to construct the story of his life. We are left with fragments and glimpses, often contradictory and enigmatic, with deliberate mystifications and staged self-effacements. In this context of dissolving figurations, my critical reading of Degas's alleged misogyny as his critical reading of a misogynistic ideology seems far too stable a hermeneutic construction.
What if the male viewer I have supposed to be made uncomfortably self-conscious about his complicity in the exploitation of women actually felt quite at ease with the marks he sees of her subjugation? Could not the flattening of the prostitute's body into a common-place of male sexual privilege serve to reinforce, rather than subvert, the viewer's satisfaction with patriarchal gender arrangements? Even if Degas's images frustrate a specifically voyeuristic desire, they still might be felt to offer the misogynist the sadistic pleasure of inscribing the signs of patriarchal economic hegemony on the female body. Perhaps the viewer's castration fears need not be overcome by the metaphorizing displacements of psychic defense precisely because capitalist exploitation offers a still more alluring, since more objectively verifiable, means to triumph over them. Considerations such as these appear to bring us full circle, the distinction between voyeuristic modes of domination and economic ones being impossible to maintain, given that woman's commodification may be appropriated in fantasy to gratify reactionary psychic impulses. Exacerbating this hermeneutic quandary is our ignorance of the circumstances in which Degas showed the monotypes to a select
few friends. Is it not possible, as I suggested earlier, that he shared with them the pleasures of viewing female objects available for purchase and of building up a rich pictorial collection of these sexual commodities? And just what might have been the role of these pictures in Degas's private sexual rituals (assuming he had any)? How can we account for those monotypes reportedly destroyed by Degas's brother that may well have portrayed explicit scenes of sexual activity? One of these that survived after being torn in two (fig. 11) shows, in the crudest outline, a woman in bed apparently performing fellatio on a man, while a second standing woman caresses the first woman's leg. Could such an image conceivably be integrated into our analysis of Degas's empathetic portrayal of female commodification in the brothel? The picture, in the primitive coarseness of its graphic mode, seems to have more of a documentary than a pornographic quality about it. But would it not then be appropriate to argue that to undertake such documentation is itself a sexist project?
There seems to be no way to reconcile these considerations with our earlier interpretation of the monotypes. Two perspectives appear to be constructed simultaneously by Degas's images. In the first, the viewer is made to feel guilt about the ideological impact of his gaze; in the second, the viewer finds his patriarchal prejudice reinforced. In the first, the misogynist recognizes himself as desiring psychological subject in the mirror of his capitalist activity; in the
second, the misogynist recognizes only the reward of that activity, the other denied her subjectivity and desire. The first perspective is reflexive and entails moral reflection about the viewer's participation in a prostitutional economy. The second identifies the viewer unproblematically with that economy and endorses his controlling power within its system of exchange. The first suggests a materialist critique of the psychic mechanisms sustaining patriarchal ideology, the second embraces that ideology in its purely material effects.
The discomforting oscillation between these perspectives no doubt contributes significantly to the interpretative difficulty of Degas's brothel monotypes. However, this reading in terms of a final undecidability leaves an important element of the representation out of account. This is the de-eroticized power these female figures gain by their assimilation into a material world whose intransigent physicality is reflexively constituted at the level of facture. In figure 10, for example, the dark ink that spreads over the upper body of the right-hand figure and extends over her left shoulder onto the wall not only blends her body with the ground of the couch and associates her with the similarly textured carpet but also reflexively evokes the materiality of her production, a production whose effects even the artist himself cannot fully control. The prostitute's body seems virtually obliterated by the pressures of her facture. It is as if her presence were being absorbed into absence and her body, mutilated by the brute physical means of its depiction, were curiously privileged by its involvement in this mimetic negation. The monotype clients never participate in this reflexive process in quite the same way: their embodiment is a function of, and a response to, their gaze. We have seen that this response tends to erase the corporeality of the observing male presence as it retreats outside the frame and floats in space. The women, in contrast, barely emerge from their material surroundings. Their smudged, obscured forms reflect the crude technical means of their production. This reflexivity associates them with a nonhumanistic, modernist aesthetic practice that attempts to subvert the whole ideological structure of subjectivity within which our oscillating response to the pictures is generated. The dismembered, disheveled, "grimacing" prostitutes are the sacrificial victims of this subversion. They figure the modern precisely insofar as their subjective privilege is denied and their bodies are reified as facture. Far from expressing Degas's misogyny, the thumb prints, smudges, blots, and other traces of his gestural life that efface and disfigure the prostitutes' bodies constitute a history of his identification with these mutilated forms. The marks that we have read as signs of the prostitute's commodification are also material residues of Degas's creative desire to attack the norms of representational practice. The loss of full artistic control that he deliberately solicited by his choice to work in the monotype medium now appears as a move toward an aesthetic of randomness, whereby effects due to production technology displace the artist from the immediacy of his creative relation. The loss of immediacy the-
matized in the gender dynamics of the pictures might consequently be seen to reflect the artist's experimental distanciation and detachment from his medium. For the viewer, no longer morally implicated, the difficulties of formal apprehension then come to displace the dilemmas of ethical judgment.
But this displacement remains problematic. The reflexive emphasis seems deviously perverse, granting Degas's brothel inmates strength by insisting on the aesthetic value of their objectification. The strategy could be viewed as a materialist version of Valéry's sublimation of the medusa into a high-flying balloon: here woman's threat is neutralized by her absorption into ink. And so the interpreter's oscillation continues, now between at least three perspectives. Degas is reported to have said that "a picture is a thing that requires as much craftiness, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime." My detective work has followed a few of the twisting trails of Degas's transgression. The crime, if there has been one, remains provocatively obscure.