Marked and Heard
In an attempt to “revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable,” Peggy Phelan launches a brilliant critique against “the ideology of the visible” in her 1993 book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Phelan interrogates the ironically similar assumption held byprogressives and conservatives alike concerning the equation between representational visibility and political efficacy. Because of a mistaken judgment about “the relation between the real and the representational,” Phelan diagnoses, both groups believe that “greater visibility of the hitherto under-represented leads to enhanced political power.” Thus, progressives promote a greater circulation of visibility for the racial, ethnic, and sexual others in the representational economy, whereas conservatives dedicate themselves to defaming or censoring such a circulation. Phelan maintains that the tactics used by both groups reflect insufficient understanding “of the relationship between visibility, power, identity, and liberation.” “If representational visibility equals power,” Phelan comments wryly, “then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture. The ubiquity of their image, however, has hardly brought them political or economic power.”
Phelan expresses a strong suspicion of the purported political benefits of increased representational visibility, as illustrated humorously by her example of scantily dressed young white women. Casting her vote for the “real power in remaining unmarked,” Phelan'schallenge to the ideology of the visible consists in reversing what she calls “the binary between the power of visibility
Phelan's caution against an overinvestment in the merits of obtaining visibility is highly compelling. As the parable from the Book of Ezekiel demonstrates, the woman is quite visible as an image, but she enjoys neither freedom nor power. Instead, she is confined by the constant vigil of her Keeper. Conversely, the Lord's almighty power is hardly abated by affirming his presence primarily as a voice. Voice, rather than sight, then, is the key element in defining who has the real power in this parable. Voice conveys the ability to empower and authenticate the truth effects of sight. This crucial linkage between voice and sight indicates a limit to Phelan'sconception of the unmarked, “a configuration of subjectivity” that secures the subject's power and freedom by evading being sighted. The problem with Phelan's politics of invisibility is that there is often no distinction between her tactic of “active vanishing” and the actual result expressed by the truism: out of sight, out of mind. It is also hard to distinguish the subliminal policy of invisibility administered by the dominant culture to absent its “abnormal” members from the invisibility politics adopted bythe “abnormal” members to induce the implosion of the dominant culture. It is unfortunate but likely that the ideology of the invisible will result in the erasure of “abnormality”from the privileged norm. As a sight unseen and a voice unheard, the abnormal/anomalous subject will then become a negligible deposit conveniently kept on the margin as a lost memory, lost to the norm—out of seeing, out of hearing, out of mind!
I suggest that presence (defined as representational visibility and audibility) still offers more possibility than absence (secured by representational invisibility) for the subject to achieve momentary liberation and to exercise individual will. As other subjects, we must reclaim the corporeal attributes of presence. Michele Wallace observes in Invisibility Blues that “black women are more often visualized in mainstream American culture—most prominently as fashion models or as performers in music videos—than they are allowed to speak their own words.” Hence, black women suffer from the problem of “high visibility, ” a problem aggravated bytheir “total lack of voice. ” Put otherwise, black women are unable to make their presence felt because their existence in vision does not ensure the coexistence of their voice. The best way for these
While there is no direct connection between representational visibility and political power, there is at best a dubious correlation between invisibility and freedom; the link is even more precarious between invisibility and power. Visibility may be turned into a surveillance mechanism by the Establishment to enforce control over anomalous subjects, who are “undesirable elements” in relation to mainstream culture. Allowing oneself to be watched indeed subjects one to the disadvantage of being scrutinized, co-opted, and misread. But these drawbacks might be the price that disenfranchised subjects have to pay in order to contest, even to upend, the norm of their invisibility. From the perspective of the always already invisible, the risks entailed by the exposure under the light might offer more room for self-determination than the freedom of movement in the dark; privacy publicized is a sacrifice to a projected and desired, if uncertain, end. This is the reasoning that makes the sight of four nude women of different skin colors, body sizes, and physiognomic features moving and talking together on stage such a liberating presence to my eyes and ears. As an interpreter who consumes SNNG's art for my textual performance, I have named, framed, and transfixed as if on a memorywall SNNG's naming rite as the ensemble's discursive genesis. To name is to mark; to be named is to be remarked; to name again is to ensure—if provisionally—that the originary naming is heard. The Sacred Naked Nature Girls have named themselves in order to mark their new presence. I exert the verbal violence of renaming their name in the service of my performing words, but I do so also to extend a paper stage for their name to live, sing, and dance. Have I empowered myself as critic or empowered the subject of my critical gaze and hearing? Or perhaps I and my artists and you, our reader, have simply consented to our imaginary conspiracy so as to mark the exchange of our representational currencies.
There is admittedly an uncertain correspondence between the power of self-generated naming and publicly elected political power; the former is performative while the latter is legislative. But I question whether such incommensurability between performative and political power is adifference in kind or in degree. Performative power lasts for the duration of its witnessed enactment. It may or may not have a lasting impact on the performer and the spectator. But does political power last forever? I suspect great uncertainty even for spiritual power's hold on eternity, although spiritual engagement allegedly occupies a deeper space—the event horizon—in the human psyche: the Law of the Father may be challenged or grow infirm yet.
Consider the opening tableau from Untitled Flesh. In the beginning there are random sounds in the dark. The sounds progress gradually in accelerated
A woman cries out a varied motif: “She said, ‘I'm falling. Will you catch me?’ ” The cry leads to a chorus of catechism that tests the boundary of unconditional love, confirmed by the voice, “Yes, I'll catch you.” The reassurances seem to urge the falling woman not to stop falling. The velocity of her falls is matched only by the degree of her physical abandon and the certainty of her being caught in midair by some woman's bosom as their naked bodies clash. This performance segment ends, ironically, when the spinning body crashes to the floor: a heavy date with gravity. Does it suggest abandonment, accident, or death?
The ambiguity of this last suspense, however, cannot neutralize the tremendous tenderness released in the segment. Significantly, the Girls have chosen this paradigmatic scene to announce their emotional engagements as women in their first public appearance. Their acrobatics of love therefore establishes the basic tone of their performance, mapping out an autonomous realm of female desire independent of male presence.
“Sexuality,” as Jill Dolan observes, “is a tangible currency in the representational exchange.” Sexuality in its manifold manifestations, especially when it involves female bodies, is a priority in SNNG's representational system, the top item on its performance to-do list. “While it is crucial not to conflate sexuality with gender,” Dolan continues, “expressions of sexuality further illustrate the operation of gender codes and constructs in the representation of the female body.” SNNG extends Dolan's insight to embody the complex interplay between sexualities and gender roles with their all-nude but plainly different female bodies. The Girls show off their fleshy, colored torsos, adorned with birthing scars, stretch marks, some tattoos, and traces of aging. By simply exposing themselves, the artists make no comment on the “constructedness” associated with popular images of the “female body.” The sight of their corporeal peculiarities, however, constructs more possibilities for the inventory of gender and sexual representations. For they exhibit sights and voices of women that subvert the norms produced, endorsed, and commodified bycommercial idealization. Their nude performance controverts the
It is worth noting that the Girls engage in this task of diversifying the representations of “femaleness” by interacting among themselves as diverse females. They propose “sexuality” or “eroticism” as an important aspect of female relationships, but they want also to include other possibilities. The Girls posit their unconditional trust for one another—demonstrated by the image of a woman's unconstrained falling and the choral refrains, “I'll catch you”— as the principal support of their artistic union. By extension, their collaborative art pursues an all-embracing sisterhood. The amorous tension ignited by flesh contact, nonetheless, complicates and diversifies what Susan Gubar has analyzed as “the monolithic ideal of sisterhood.” Instead, the scene casts a wide net of female liaisons that espouse lesbian sexuality without precluding other permutations of bonding among women.