La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
R. BRUCE ELDER / Woman’s Art and Ecological Aesthetics: The Way Forward – Part 2

R. BRUCE ELDER / Woman’s Art and Ecological Aesthetics: The Way Forward – Part 2

The previous issue of La Furia Umana published the first part of my article “Woman’s Art and Ecological Aesthetics: The Way Forward.” In that part of my extended essay, I showed how Kenneth Rexroth’s encounter with Chinese poetry led him to a hierophantic conception of concrete reality. This resulted in his repudiating Anglo-Modernist beliefs about the nature of poetry and adopting a startlingly personalist conception of poetry, as direct communication. I also pointed out there that this conception of poetry relates to his beliefs about the involvement of every being in all other beings and to the idea of non-grasping, the capstone notion of his ethics and his poetics. Rexroth rejected the idea that artists’ imaginations should dominate the materials they use, transforming them virtuosically, shaping them according to their will until those materials have been moulded into the forms the imagination conceived. The so-called “boudoir poets,” women poets of the Song Dynasty, instructed Rexroth in the importance of poetic language as effecting the communion of the depths of one person with the depths another; they also taught him much about the connection between that form of communicative language and gender. Rexroth spent much of the last two decades of his life translating poetry—mostly erotic poetry—written by Chinese and Japanese women and writing original poetry imitating the forms they employed.

Poetry and community: Learning about spontaneity, flux, effortless making (wu-wei), mirror relations, and emergent community from teaching women performance artists and from being a model for women cinematographers.

The ecological crisis that confronts us arises out of a will to dominate nature and to exploit its raw materials for our use. The crisis of community that confronts us is the result of a hierarchicalconception of society thatattempts to justify the domination by one gender over others, one race over others, one ethnicity over others. In the following two sections of this extended essay, I attempt to develop, in different ways, Rexroth’s suggestions that a feminist ecopoetic language and a feminist conception of an emergent community based on intercorporeality and mirror relations might embody the new thinking that can lead us out of these crises.

Section One: Learning about spontaneity, flux, intercorporeality, coming-to-being together, mirror relations, the charity of touch, from teaching women performance artists and supervising their dissertations

The following are reflections grew out of posing as nude model for women collaborators. From the beginning of my work in film, and before beginning to work collaboratively, I worked mostly with women. That was not something I resolved to do. My films—those I made alone, those I made with assistants, and those I have made collaboratively—are all low-budget films, made mostly with a Bolex camera and other simple equipment. Most young men who chose to work in film when I started out seemingly were eager to work with big crews: they wanted to see streets filled with Winnebagos and vans and to haul around big cameras and big lenses—and they specialized in lugging around and setting up a few big pieces of equipment (a tiny number of hyper-specialists even learned to use a big piece of equipment). I found, willy-nilly, that only women were willing to work on low-budget films, made with small wind-up cameras and other amateur equipment, and to assume any and all of the tasks essential to filmmaking. (I was struck by the fact that the desire not to specialize is characteristic of women artists: the increased availability of D.I.Y. media-making has expanded enormously the possibilities for women artists—and this in turn has made more pressing the theoretical ideas arising from the new ways of presenting bodies that are emerging and promise to take their place alongside the historical forms of representation). This experience brought home to me the comparative differences between the sorts of media-making women and men were interested in and forced on me the realization that the forms of my films are similar to those women’s art adopts. I would go so far as to say that this was the point of origin of my belief that there are (at least) two conceptions of making, one of which is more often practiced by women and seems to possess characteristics that belong to same genus as those displayed by communities of women and the other more often practiced by men and to have characteristics that belong to same genus as those evinced by the more individualistic societies of men.i

The women I hired generally stayed with me for many years. It didn’t take long before I realized they could become collaborators and not simply assistants. From the outset, my films dealt with bodies—and sometimes (though not always) the bodies I photographed were those of my collaborators. Several of my co-makers were willing to offer their bodies to our collaborations—and the spirit in which they offered them, what they felt about themselves in giving their bodies to our joint projects and how I received what they gave became important aspects of the work we did together. But this was not reciprocated. My films were body works, yet how I might give my body to our collaborations and how my co-makers might receive that offering had no part in our work. As I grew in understanding, this increasingly seemed to be a troubling asymmetry, especially since our collaborations were supposed to give women’s experience a central place (in time this would expand into the central place).

Experiences that arose in my professional work—the work I do to earn a living—enlarged the personal significance that the issue of woman’s art had for me. Because my artmaking involved working with nudes, my art college assigned me its undergraduate course on photographing the nude after a design teacher had given up in disgust: he had taken to calling the class “Shoot the bare lady,” to convey to colleagues the dismaying attitude of students. The first thing he told me after I was assigned the class is that it was pointless to employ male models: there were never any women in the class, and the men in the class walked out whenever they saw a male model. Because I worked with women assistants/collaborators and appreciated their talents, I would not tolerate having a “shoot the bare lady” approach as the basis for a course. The first change I made was to turn the class sessions into lectures on history and theory (including presentations on Imogen Cunningham, Joyce Wieland, Lisa Steele, Carolee Schneemann, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous). As for the project work for the course, I asked the students to bring in images (photographs, collages, films, or videos) they made outside of class.

My intention in augmenting the instruction in history and theory was to encourage students to consider whatthe images of the body that recent photographers, poets and filmmakers have offered tell us about ourselves, about the way we think, and about our relationships (and it seemed to me that women theorists and artists were in the forefront of this line of inquiry). But this new approach had an unexpected consequence: in no time, 95 percent of the students in the class were women—men enrolled in the class only because they needed an elective to round out their slate of courses for the semester and other elective offerings were full. The project work most of the women brought in were nude self-representations. (The men’s work was unchanged from what distressed my colleague.) Even more interesting, I found, was that while the women took an interest in the work of other members of the class, the men were very critical, rejecting it as self-involved and without technical merit. They dismissed as baseless the women students’ claims that their images reflected different ways of experiencing of one’s own body and criticized the work itself as lacking artistic merit: a technical image, they insisted, must be a technical achievement, and the work of the women students gave insufficient evidence of foregrounding technical virtuosity. Self-reflection should never be the primary goal of a maker, they declared. Furthermore, they criticized their women colleague on grounds they learned in other theory classes, namely for being complicitous in males’ interest in objectifying and degrading women. They were repulsed by the idea that women could use their bodies to frame a rhetoric aimed at focusing thought on the form and content of their works-in-progress / works-in-process and on how their work’s forms relate to its content and to the challenge the women set themselves—to seize a freedom that had hitherto been denied to women, namely the freedom to focus on the process of creating their selves.

By the second year the course was offered in the form I had devised, the women had come to feel safe with one another. More than that, they were intrigued by their shared interest in what nude self-representations revealed about their anxieties, longings, unease, and pleasure; that brought them to ask to do in-class performances. As a matter of policy, I almost always assent to students’ requests, because I believe that an art teacher’s goal should be to support students in discovering their strengths and their interests and to help them develop an approach to realizing those concernments. So, I changed the project work required so that each class member would, at the end of the semester, present an individual work (generally a series of photographs or a film, along with a write-up offering reflections on their efforts) and a couple of times in a semester those who wanted could plan and perform in a group performance that would involve improvisation (as time went on, a sub-branch of improvised performance known as contact improvisation took on an ever more significant role). It soon became clear that these nude performances meant a great deal to them—they took great satisfaction being together and reflecting collectively on the place of body in relationships (or, rather, spontaneously formulating, collectively, gestures-leading-to-thought on that topic). More importantly, these nude performances allowed for intense experiences of being together, and they understood this unusual experience was engendering profoundly original ideas for the art they wanted to make in the long run.

Not long after I was assigned the undergraduate class, I wrote up a proposal for a graduate course on body art considered within the history of vanguard art and soon began teaching it. Once again, the class would be made up almost entirely of women. For whatever reasons (likely their being aware of what my undergraduate students were doing was one), they too wanted to do in-class group performances. As planning (including a literature review) and rehearsals for the first performance began, these students stated with no little enthusiasm that they found the work liberating: they experienced an intense form of sharing and collaboration. They were struck with the process-orientation of the collaboration: as far as the actual performance was concerned, they got together and created a novel and unrepeatable event in real time. For them, the time-limited process of collaborative making had a value greater than that of producing an object that transcended time (at least according to what the traditional artist imagined). Over the many years this course was offered, students continued to voice enthusiastically the feeling that nude collective performance granted revelations about the self that emerges in the process of showing/giving oneself to another/others and about being together. They came to feel strongly, to feel viscerally, that body-selves rely on being looked at by others to realize themselves and to flourish, and they felt viscerally, in their naked state, how each body craved the regard of the other and remade itself to solicit that attention. They also came to feel strongly that others’ desires mirrored their own. In other words, they came to feel, in their flesh, that each belonged to all others. They came to experience the community of love that formed the basis of Rexroth’s ethics and poetics.

If there were any men in the class, the women students were insistent that they wanted the men to join in, to enrich the palette of experiences of the nude body in communal performance and to expand the forms of sharing and mutual understanding—and several of them suggested that participating would swell men’s hearts with ἀγάπη (agápē, charity) as it had the women’s.ii However, without exception the men dismissed the women’s requests, and many of the men accused that women of being unwitting dupes, who had foolishly internalized the degrading process of self-objectification.

The fact that only women participated in these events may have inflected the performances in ways that went untheorized at the time. Phallogocentrism inhibits the development and circulation of a distinctive women’s voice by positioning women as support for men’s projects, available to be governed and regulated by men, and submissive to men’s authority. Phallogocentrism is based on a form of ego psychology that proposes a unified self, a (fictional/identificatory) self that comes into being by becoming free of the other / others. Phallogocentrism strives for a fixed and pre-determined being. A woman’s role in this is to serve as sort of mirror that supports men’s projects, thus helping to foster male identity and to give shape to men’s drive for mastery. In the absence of men, a different provisional self, a self that is always in process, could emerge out of the relationships among women. The self-in-relation was paramount. These all-women collective nude performances bolstered a different sense of the self than as support for male autonomy. They understood in their flesh that the members of the collective were actively engaged with one another and that what they created collaboratively allowed each and all to achieve a provisional self-realization through their relationships to one another.These performances arose out of the experiences of the women themselves; the absence of men reduced the regulatory effect of the masculine languages of art and the pressures women feel to serve as alter egos for men—for men’s ways of speaking, thinking, and making. These all-women performances intensified the experiences the women had of one another and engendered what could properly be called an erotic connection among them; a feminine jouissance fostered a distinctive, relational feminine subjectivity. That these were all-women performances freed the women’s subjectivity from the imperative to be the internalized mirror of the male, the (supposed) female ἀρχή (arkhé, origin or source of action) for the male, from whom men seek approval and, in seeking their approval, convert women into props for male autonomy and male mastery: the transition from infancy to adulthood for men is from first receiving physical shelter to later receiving psychological shelter from women. One result of this male-centred anaclitic process is a truncation woman’s being, as women become defined as being a support for another. (The annoyance evinced by that men in the class towards their women colleagues was likely partly because the women in the class refused to play that role.) By forging a society of women and by intensifying and eroticizing their relationships, these performances helped the participants to recognize, through movement and touch, that neither personal nor sexual identity is a matter of fixed and pre-determined being, of underlying essences or common properties; rather they are forms of becoming—of provisional self-generation. Gesture, touch, flesh, and being-on-the-way are hallmarks of women’s writing and, it seems, more generally, of women’s making.

If phallogocentrism concerns the complicity of language with law (a complicity made possible by the gap between Symbolic and the Imaginary orders), these performances, by re-connecting actions to drives and to the pre-Symbolic order, helped forge a distinct form of thinking and working, and a different kind of society than that based in the Symbolic. The male identification with a (fictional) unified self is only made possible by the sacrifice (through repression) of a primary connection; patriarchal society encourages the female become a mirror of this sacrifice. It could go without saying that in late modernity the sacrifice of memory, connection, and tradition has reached an unprecedented brutality—this will lead either to the complete collapse of civilization foreshadowed by the horrific Trump years or to a renewal of the sort Kenneth Rexroth called for and I have been reflecting on in this essay, a renewal that arises from an archaic feminine. (We are, I believe, at the cusp of a revolutionary spiritual renewal or catastrophe.) The women were exhilarated at becoming a part of an antithetical subjectivity (antithetical in the sense that did not revile women’s bodies, as patriarchy does)—an antithetical subjectivity that was asserting itself not against the body or at the expense of the body (that is, a subjectivity that might have evolved at the cost of renouncing the body’s embeddedness in archaic feeling or its memories of coming-to-be), but through the body and its fluxing energies. More exactly, they experienced the joy and terror of a metaphysical abyss, of a freedom whose ends must be devised without help—because they eschewed pre-formed, conventional/societal/masculinist images of women’s being and women’s pleasure and were required, by the originality of what they were doing, to do without concepts handed down from precursors. They accepted the creative risk of becoming, of experiencing oneself as relational, as a self-in-process simultaneously emerging from and merging into a community mutually involved in self-creation.

These spontaneously improvised performances allowed the women to experience a new society, a community of love, emerging through connection, and to experience their provisional self-generation as occurring in relation to this process. Engaging in a form of spontaneous co-creation that bypassed immediate rationalization, they were bringing forth, pro tempore, a feminine language of kinaesthetic sensation, of movement and touch, of gesture and rhythm and repetition (a form of parler femme) that, as Luce Irigaray pointed out, is not only a threat to patriarchal culture but also a medium through which women may be creative in new ways. They were discovering a form of expression that would bring into existence alternative forms of relationship, perception, and expression and new forms of exchange through which each would intensify all others. They were generating a mixture of discourses that produced a novel intercorporeal subjectivity—they were experimenting in creating a novel micro-politics of community and a parler femme that functioned as a counter-molecular line of flight. The dynamic and improvisatory nature of their collaboration generated forms that, unlike those of men’s art, were not teleologically or narratively focalized. Instead, they were repetitive, cyclical, adventurous, meandering, unpredictable, always underway, and always without a destination. Among the revolutionary features these performances shared with other examples of radical women’s art was the effacement of the traditional divide between theory and practice. However, the thoughts—the “discourses”—the performances generated were not phallogocentrically aimed at outcomes. To the contrary, the thoughts they generated moved through and over the entire body as they sought expression—expression pro tempore.

Because the graduate students were a little older (many of them had returned to school after working in the arts—most of them as visual artists/photographers, independent choreographers/dancers, or in dance companies), they were able to reflect deeply on their group work. They began presenting films and videos of these group projects at our annual graduate student exhibition, at other graduate student events, and at conferences. The province where I work provides for graduate students to take courses at a university other than that where they are enrolled, and after my graduate students began presenting their project work at conferences and exhibitions, several students from other universities showed up in my graduate course. These presentations also motivated people who wanted to work on the topic of the body to apply to our graduate program; and once they were enrolled, they took my course on body art as vanguard art and, often, would ask me to supervise their dissertations. Before long, nearly all the dissertations I was supervising were based on idea of the nude body as a research instrument, primarily for exploring experiences of togetherness and collaborative making.iii Those dissertations that didn’t focus on the artistic process and collaborative making dealt for the most part with woman’s erotic experience. The latter category of dissertations usually developed out of the project work the candidate had done in my graduate course on body art as vanguard art and included photographic series of nude self-representations—the authors of those dissertations felt that creating photographic series instructed them on the specifics of female erotic desire. Their efforts at forming images of themselves in essence was a way of studying the self-in-process. They were self-reflexive efforts that revealed the construction of a fluxing, provisional, relational identity, a provisional identity whose utility (whose pleasure motive) was to solicit un regard—or rather, whose utility was to make available to the artist’s self-understanding an image of her fantasy of constructing a provisional identity she might offer as a lure for another’s regard. (For some of these artist-writers, making these images constituted a means of reflecting relationally on male desire, for they conceived of their images as reflections on the self in the process of generating a relational self-image that might solicit a man’s attention. It is important to note that this effort at imagining oneself becoming a lure for a man’s gaze—and decidedly a particular man’s gaze—was not a sacrificial act. For it did not involve an externally imposed [because conventional] binding of energies-flows that would prevent energy from flowing all over the body—and emphatically it did not involve a binding of energies that would transmogrify the woman into a prosthetic for a man. Rather it was a free [unbound] fantasy involving the whole body and the energies pulsing across it and within it.

This academic work threw into relief the difference that feminine experience represents. It made it untenable for me to go on thinking of our film work—the film work I was doing with my associates—as true collaborations that exhibited the features of cinéma féminin. It drove home to me the imperative of giving my collaborators’ experiences of my naked body at least as central a place in our films as my experience of their naked bodies and ideally a larger place (that imperative follows from the highly unusual and politically radical nature of women artists making images of male nudes). Claims to be making collaborative work that spoke womanspeak (parler femme) seemed spurious, given the asymmetry between our relational selves and the elision of women’s experience of actually making images of a nude rather than being the nude subject. We resolved to address this asymmetry in production and the curtailing of formal differences in our work that it implied.

Photographing a nude (of whatever gender) provides an opportunity to “do gender.” But heretofore my collaborators weren’t being given the same opportunity to do gender and make culture, to create pictures that reflect or express who they were, to use the nude images (of whatever gender) as a means of personal self-expression. Furthermore, in the culture at large, women had few to no opportunities to view pictures of nude males other than musclebound hulks, images altogether lacking in tenderness. More to the point, women were rarely actual producer of images of nudes: when it came to images of nudes, the artworld preferred they not be makers but models. The artworld’s reduction of female experience, my collaborators and I felt, was an inequity that should be combatted.

As I outline below, the subject of the gaze (le regard) is not a passive subject—and this is acutely true being a cinematographer’s model. That role involves soliciting attention, receiving it with gratitude, and responding to it with an active understanding that one tries to convey to the other. Yet there are almost no precedents for female cinematographers/filmmakers to experience such behaviours from nude male models (in fact, I can think of none): to be dependent on the regard of another is believed to be incompatible with being a real man; men just don’t want to put themselves in that position. What is more, as far as I know, there are no precedents or parallels for a female cinematographer and a nude male model understanding the process of making nude images together as a collaboration. But that was exactly how we have understood the work we have done together—it has been a collaboration that, so far as I know, is without precedent or parallel, certainly in extent, and I hope in the depth of its implications for new forms in cinéma féminin.

Earlier I suggested that my work accords primary importance to bodily sensations, archaic kinaesthetic responsiveness, and the feeling that kinaesthetic empathy relates one to the circumambient world. A key factor that led to this focus (or bolstered it) was that I recognized that the oeuvres of some photographers (for example, Ann Brigman,Camille Vivier, Edward Weston, Lina Scheynius, Susan Meiselas, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Bernhard, Tina Modotti) include images of nudes, natural forms, and landscapes that mirror one another. I was fortunate that a colleague who practised psychoanalysis pointed me towards Paul Schilder’s important work on body images/bodily schemata.ivSchilder stresses the multiple nature of such body images and their dynamic character. Schilder interweaves phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and evolutionary-systems accounts of the body. He suggests that our corporeal schemata, which shape our stance towards the world, are formed by the emotional/imaginative significances accorded to parts of the body in our personal relations with others, and by the significance attached to corporeal features in interpersonal relations (routine and quotidian as much as intimate). He notes,

Body and world are experiences which are correlated with each other. One is not possible without the other. . . . From the point of view of adult thinking, the body will be projected into the world, and the world will be introjected into the body… [that is] body and world are continually interchanged. It may be that a great part of experiences will not be finally attributed either to body or world. I have mentioned the zone of indifference between the body and world and have stated that in the narcissistic stage the zone of indifference may play a more important part.v

Bodily schemata should not be understood as internal representations of the body, a fixed self-image. Rather they are active: they are not representations, but operations. Our bodily schemata constitute the available modes in which we can experience our bodies, and they enable or inhibit our intercourse with the world. They are not the result of conscious choices but, in their association with active agencies, are dispositions for forming memories and habits of response. Thus, they help establish horizons of significance.

Schilder introduces a key topic of his study by noting,

              We take parts of the body-images of others into others, and push parts of our body-images into others. We may push our own body-images. We may push our own body-images completely into others, or in some way there may be a continuous interplay between the body-images of ourselves and the persons around us. This interplay may be between parts or wholes.

There is no question that there are from the beginning connecting links between all body-images, and it is important to follow the lines of body-image intercourse (…). To be close in space increases the possibility on an interrelation between body-images, and besides other things contact between two body-images must afford a greater possibility of the melting of two

Schilder also emphasized movement. He noted, Schilder noted that “we do not feel our body so much when it is at rest, but we get a clearer perception of it when it moves…”vii And, further,

Movement is a great uniting factor between the different parts of the body. By movement we come into a definite relation with the outside world and to objects, and only in contact with this outside world are we able to correlate the diverse impressions concerning our own body. The knowledge of our own body is to a large extent dependent upon our action.viii

It is certainly true that the dynamic of these group performances bolstered the women’s sense of being in touch with their bodies’ fluxing energies. But an additional point concerning Schilder’s ideas on movement must be highlighted: he averred that the plasticity of our body-image makes it possible for us to connect with the inner dynamics of everything that moves, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. Indeed, he maintained that kinaesthetic empathy is the Ur-feeling, connecting us with the dynamism of all that populates the realm we inhabit.

How others touch us, the interest others take in our bodies and in our constituent parts, play a part shaping forming our models of the body (and we do indeed harbour several schemata, which can be active simultaneously). The body images that play so central a role in constituting our comportment and our posture towards the world are far from neutral: sensations play a key role in forming our bodily images and in the ways we experience our bodies and others’ bodies. Further, our bodily schemata are constituted by our emotional investments.

The notion of body images/corporeal schemata opens the way for a crucial feminist initiative that counters phenomenological accounts such as Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, or even Merleau-Ponty’s. Heidegger once offered in a lecture a remarkably Schopenhauerian commentary on a hand grasping an object: he contrasted the experience we have of seeing a hand in the act of grasping an object—an experience he describes as being from the outside (for it is located in the space revealed through the visual sensory modality, in a person’s visual field)—with our experience of we have of the act (that is, a hand grasping an object) from the inside, though tactile/muscular sensation. He then asked the audience at the lecture—which in this case happened to be composed of psychiatrists most of whom practised some version of psychoanalytic psychiatry—how bodiliness relates to space. One audience member ventured, “The body is the nearest [Nächste, nearest element] to us in space.” To which Heidegger protested: “I would say it is the most distant.”ix It is true that in our transactions with the circumambient world, the body generally retreats from the center of the perceptual field to the periphery in order to allow the “natural standpoint” to emerge—the standpoint of our ordinary awareness of what lies before us. Heidegger would be among the last to deny that the body leaves its imprint on all that we experience—an imprint we can accurately describe as indelible (the theme of this section of Heidegger’s lecture was the different sensory modalities, which he illustrated by contrasting the indelible marks the hand leaves on tactile experience with the marks the eye leaves on visual experience); but phenomenology generally, and Heidegger’s phenomenology in particular, did discuss how the body is relegated more or less to the extreme periphery of awareness when we observe the world from the natural standpoint. Heidegger even remarked in this part of his lecture that the eye is not visible when seeing: “In seeing, the eye itself is not seen, whereas the hand, in grasping, cannot only be seen, but I can grasp it with my other hand. When I grasp the glass, then I feel the glass and my hand.”x But in all of this, despite Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s efforts at overcoming Cartesian dualism, there is still an exchange between the realm of matter and the realm of experience, an exchange involving two ontological modalities (experience and what is other than experience).xi The early origins of signification, meaning, and experience—to say nothing of their various forms—are obscured.

Invoking Schilder’s body schemata allows us to take into account the earthly origins of meaning and the effect emplacement has on significance. For Schilder treated body schemata as earthly—as part of the physiological system that developed through evolution—and its potentials are activated, in specific ways through its exchanges with particular elements of the environment. Accordingly, Schilder’s notion of body schemata provides a basis for a more radically situated and gendered account of the role of body in establishing a horizon of meaning concerning our emplacement and our stance towards the world—such an account acknowledges the important role that bodily schemata have in constituting us subjectively and socially, as sexed, and as culturally and nationally situated. Bodily schemata open the way to understanding the sense of release from the domineering, judging, evaluating leer spoken of by nudists—or, by extension, performers in group nude performances: on this counter-understanding, that sense of release is not the exultation felt when one manages a rare escape from the almost inevitable, almost insurmountable dialectic of domination and humiliation described in the famous Kojève-inspired passage on the gaze in Sartre’s L’être et le néant; nor is it a form of bodily unselfconsciousness resulting from being momentary freed from the feeling of being the object of a stranger’s regard; nor is it the result of a rare and fleeting suspension of the seemingly inevitable violence of subject/object relations and the pleasure-seeking scoptic drive role (which structures regimes of perception based on a transcendent subject objectifying the seen, with all the violence that act entails). Rather, it arises from a heightened mode of body awareness that activates an alternative bodily schema, one that accepts a mutual group dynamic of scoptophilic pleasure. On this counter-understanding, giving oneself to be seen naked does not necessarily elicit a dialectic of humiliation—to the contrary, it can reawaken potentials for mutuality in seeing and being seen that overcome the degrading depredations of a transcendent, objectifying subject; this counter-scoptophilia (a possibility established by the counter–body schema) achieves the goal of mutual pleasuring by acknowledging the complicity of touch with vision on the plane of material immanence. Such an analysis, in recognizing the complex socio-political determinants involved in framing the temporal, spatial, and communal practices through which these body schemata activate potentials for guilt-free intercorporeal exchange, dispenses with spurious ideas of the natural body, and can do so without at the same time jettisoning the sense that what these schemata activate is something elementary, something that involves the connection between the body and the world or between a body one is engaged with and a sheltering, protecting body. It can even celebrate the elementary feelings of incorporation and projection in the constitution of intercorporeality.

Before getting to those ideas, I have to make a point about the psychology of representation. The point is that, in a sense, every image that we see, looks back at us. We feel we are seen, and captured by an image; and that is especially true when the picture is one that puts people on display. Images—especially detailed renderings—construct a curiously chiasmatic relation between a viewer and an image: an image puts a body / a world on display, for us to look at, and at the same time the image looks back at us, and captures us, in an almost uncanny way, for sometimes it seems to know our inner feelings. (This, by the way, is what I think that Lacan meant by the “regard,” a topic that first arose in his séminaires in the context of a deliberation on the uncanny and on the Surrealist Roger Callois’s theory of mimesis). We feel this chiasmatic uncanny even more strongly with images of nudes. Our response to the image of a nude—especially a nude who, like that of Victorine Meurent in Édouard Manet’s Olympia, looks out at us and captures us—shows that the boundaries of the self are labile. We become aware that our subjectivity is as much in her eyes or in the air as it is between our ears. This uncanny regard makes us aware that subjectivity can become—and perhaps always is—extrapersonal.

Section Two: A Phenomenological Fantasy on Exposure as a Redemptive Opening: Reflections by a Man on Being a Nude Model for Women Collaborators and on What Men Need to Learn to Overcome the Will to Dominate

These reflections reinforced my decision to become a nude model for the women cinematographers who were my collaborators and give this nude modelling a substantial place work we were making together. There is a startling reciprocity involved in being nude with another person and seeing someone nude (whether we share a real space with the living, nude person or whether he is present only by representation/re-presentation); this reciprocity, I maintain, is fundamental to the psychology (or psychoanalysis) of representation, though the intensity and texture of our response to this uncanny chiasmatic response changes with different representational content. This, after all, is what makes it possible to experience the responses of a nude we see onscreen as having subjective meaning—indeed to feel the significance of the nude’s giving himself to be seen and to interpret that event intersubjectively, as an exchange between the viewer in the theatre and the nude represented onscreen (and, to be sure, I believe that that possibility, and that possibility alone made it worthwhile to seek to present nudes onscreen or to be presented onscreen). But here I want to speak of this chiasmatic relation from the model’s side, interacting with a real person in a real space—a male nude modelling for female cinematographer as he is recorded on film. But I hope it will be born in mind that what I am saying concerns mutuality/identification, and many of the same things could be said, mutatis mutatis about the cinematographer’s experience in recording a nude (two key differences that would need to be taken into account regarding the collaborations I reflect on here are, first, that a female image-makers making images of a male doesn’t have much in the way of precursors to guide them and, second, that I was also my collaborators’ employer and a few years older than they—accordingly, their experiences of making images of me cannot mirror exactly my giving myself to be filmed).

I also hope it will be kept in mind that what I say has bearing on a general psychoanalytic theory of representation, that is on a theory of representation that takes as central Lacan’s idea of the world/image as a bearer of a gaze (regard) that looks back us as we observe what the world/a representation puts on display. When you show yourself to another—when you give yourself to be seen—a dyadic relationship develops that is fully mutual, fully reciprocal: indeed, when that chiasmatic relation is at its most intense, the subjectivity involved verges on being monadic and extrapersonal. (The presence of the camera focuses both participants in this relationship on the reality of this looking-showing dyad). Of course, it possible that the relationship between a model and a cinematographer can become perfunctory, routinized, or merely impersonal (sometimes this impersonal stance is adopted purposively)—moreover, when an aggressiveness enters the relationship between the participants, the model’s awareness of other’s regard entering him can be experienced as demand to become purely an object for her subjective freedom (or to identify oneself with the image of the model contained in her objectifying, other-negating subjectivity).xii Those possibilities are very real and, indeed, to deflect them were the very reason I made a practice of filming only friends and of being filmed only by friends or collaborators.

When modelling for friends, a multivalent form of awareness develops: for one thing, one is intensely aware of oneself, of one’s parts, as to-be-looked-at. One presents them for that purpose. But this awareness does not include as its purpose that of making an object of his material body: rather, it feels more like giving oneself, with the understanding that what you give will be received in the form of the other’s awareness of a mind-body. One is aware that he is giving himself as a mind-body—a free agent—to the other’s mind-body, to be taken in by the other, and assimilated by the other. He imagines/senses how the other is seeing, responding to, and assimilating what he offers her. That is to say, his subjectivity involves, at once, a self-reflexive awareness of oneself as a mind-body to be experienced, a differently intentioned (more outwardly directed) experience of one’s giving himself to be taken in by the other and assimilated into the transient structure of her feelings, which inevitably involve her-in-relation-to-you, and an awareness that both of you occupy the same space, or better, the same χώρα (khôra), a perhaps partly imagined but no doubt mostly true knowledge of the inner recesses of her mind-body, of her looking at and “processing” your mind-body, right down in the very depths of your being, and of her assimilating her being-in-relation-to-you into her feeling structures. This sometimes reach the point of an amazing mutuality/reciprocity, when the depth of her attention is such that her looking at you becomes a response to your desires. One’s awareness—again speaking from the point of view of the model—becomes an amalgam of awareness of oneself, of oneself-for-the-other, and of herself as being-for-you, that is as receiving you and responding to you. It is an unusual form of intercorporeal, cross-gender, intersubjectivity that, as far as I know, has never before been the subject of a media work (or of media theory / media poetics).xiii

A recognition of the reality of what shows itself in this intercorporeal awareness—an unshakeable conviction in the accuracy of what my feelings disclosed about the cinematographer’s shifting attention and her thoughts/feelings about me, her somatic responses to me—was one of the lessons-as-blessings that I learned by modelling so often, and with such good friends/collaborators. This blessing did much to undo doubts that tormented me about intersubjectivity and our relationships to others, doubts that were the legacy of the Cartesian conception of the mind. (This cultural legacy, which affects moderns in the very core of their being, was thematized by phenomenology in its initial phases, and the expression of that malaise became such a prominent feature of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and literature, which constitutes a potent demonstration of the power of an abstract conception—namely, that body and mind belong to different realms of being—to affect us viscerally and to instill gloom.)

This experience of “becoming-together,” to coin a phrase—of subjectivity as not being something that resides between one’s ears, but as relational, of a “me” emerging as I see her seeing me seeing her, of the mind-body as a becoming-together-with-the-environment, seems to me to offer insights into that nature of subjectivity that, to date, have remained unexplored (even though the feelings the develop from this understanding do much to encourage well-being and promote human flourishing).

On the Phenomenology of Redemptive Submission (drafted 2000, revised 2020xiv)

The intensity of my feeling, as I experience you attuned to my desire through a kind of magic, creates a field between us which mirrors the vibrations of the universe: the energy between us reflects the energies of the cosmos. For I do not present myself (and you do not allow me to present myself) as naked in the way that a recruit before the draft board is, or that a man stripped for surgery is, or that an athlete emerging from the shower and waylaid by an interviewer, is. For them, nakedness pertains simply to the body. Between us, nudity pertains to something else. Between us, something magical begins to unfold, something that changes me. I accede to the privilege of accepting intimations of trust expressed in your eyes, your attention, and your gestures that allows my being to go forth unsheltered. I, who am normally so reserved, have risked entering into this activity unprotected. Because of this, I experience a radical and thoroughgoing disappropriation that enlivens my senses and intensifies my perception. I am acutely aware of you looking at me: your gaze (regard) imprints itself in the core of my being and every time you lay your hand on my flesh, to reconfigure me according to some intent, which (of this I am searingly aware) I can know only in its broad outlines, and not its details, I am more completely reformed inwardly than reconfigured outwardly. When I say that I am acutely aware of you looking at me, I mean that when that when I look at you, I see into you. More than that, I see—to put the idea as paradoxically as it needs to be—what is invisible in you. I don’t experience you as a body amongst others in the world. And, of course, it urgently needs to be said that in this phenomenological commentary I am focusing only on one perspectival experience—or, more exactly, focusing on aspect of complex of possibilities of a multi-stable configuration. For an ambiguity—a similar freedom and possibility—characterizes your experience of me as typifies all out experiences of bodies in the world: you experience me at once as both as object (or, more truly, body-with-expressive-powers) and a subject (or, more exactly, as a feeling being, whose affects register themselves continually in the bodily aspect of his mind-body); and at the same time, you experience yourself as subject (an observing, feeling person) and as body in the world. (Likewise, I experience you at once as both object, that is, as a body-with-expressive-powers and as a subject, a feeling being whose affects register themselves continually in the bodily aspect of her mind-body). Another issue that needs with equal urgency to be highlighted is that the proximity of these feelings to the extrapersonalization of love: love discloses more poignantly that any other feeling the ambiguity of our condition: humans experience themselves as both flesh and spirit, object and subject. Of course, being an object for you is what grounds the productivity of our pursuit (an image, captured with a motion picture camera), but its significance relies on the spiritual meaning incarnated in that physical image.

That we rarely experience other people simply as bodies in the world, whose objectivity is similar to that things in words was the point of the first part of this essay—our experience other people as always ambiguous, always full of possibility, always multi-stable: we can configure the mind-body complex as differing proportions of mind-in-body and bodily aspect of mind. But I am setting aside that ambiguity, that multi-stability, to explore one particular possibility. And I do so because this peculiar situation we have entered into—my offering myself naked to you, to be films—has raised to an unusual level of intensity, my transparency to you, and our interpenetration of one another. In this condition, as I beseech you to explore my naked body, I feel that difference between objects and people raised to a level far greater than is ordinary. I can perceive you as a subject operating the camera and forming my nude form into a picture. The picture you make is not, however, an image of me that you appropriate as yours, separate from the process that is me. Everything you take from me you conceive in reference to me, in relation to what you perceive to be my intention for revealing myself as I do. (Will the viewers who will see the film be able to perceive me as you perceive me here and now? No, not in exactly the same way. But I have faith that they will perceive me through a relationship that is to yours with me as the shadow beings of the world are to the Platonic forms.

The most important thing for me now is that you are seeing me and that I can perceive you seeing me. I am stirred—aroused—by the thought that, just as I can perceive what is invisible in you, you can perceive what is invisible in me. The dissappropriation I experience in this somewhat awkward state engenders an apperception that is fused completely to perception: I am aware I am the subject who is looking at you looking at me and my awareness that you are exploring me as intimately as you are has the effect of arousing me and attuning me all the more intimately to the electric vibration in my new flesh. I no longer know you as simply just another person I encounter in the world, more familiar to me, perhaps, than many (and so more accessible to my understanding), but still one amongst all the many others I encounter, another person (another body with consciousness) that I meet in my workaday world. That world, the world I described in the first part of this paper, has gone. In this new world that has developed between us, you are different: I experience you as a point of intense sensual awareness and I experience myself as a subject-for-you-as-a-subject-exploring-me. I don’t at all feel reduced to object, as one common misunderstanding represents what we are doing here: rarely do I feel so strongly that I can see through another person’s body to see what is invisible in her—and what I perceive in that invisibility is her attention to what is invisible to me. It is an almost magical crossing of feelings and awareness, yours and mine, elevated to a Beyond-Self. Yet, though I am aware of myself as subject-for-you-as-a-subject, this awareness appears anything but purely ideal. Here there is no recourse to the fictitious dualist metaphysics our daily life presupposes, which supposes our essence is spirit, to shelter ourselves from the embarrassment of being bodily and to spare ourselves the trauma of realizing that we do not surpass nature. Rather I experience this crossing of feelings as wholly corporal. The experience of flesh as thought (and of thought as flesh) lays to rest any notion of that the activity we are engaged in reduces the nude to the status of an object.

I lie here, naked, agreeing to do what you ask. When you ask, I notice you speak more in verbs and participles than in nouns and gerunds—nothing here is reified, I conjecture. We are building a world that will enclose us, whose limits will be defined by the scope of your attention and my eagerness to fill it. Everything is in process here, everything undergoes change. Nothing in this world has the nature of an object isolated in a bounded space. Desire makes this world, and desire is endlessly protean. As we pass from moment to moment, I reshape what is invisible in you, as you respond to what I experience while you explore the invisible in me; and as we pass from moment to moment you reshape my responses (less than one-half of which are verbal, and more than one-half corporeal). Each of us contributes his/her novelty to that which emerges between us. Our exchanges, verbal and corporeal, have become an original dialogue, distinguished from the set phrases of ordinary speech and of scholarship by the uniqueness of what has come into being entre nous. We have to work at finding a way to articulate the emerging of this intimate mystery between us, a language that does not betray with nouns the greater process to which our intimate selves belong, a way of speaking that does not constitute an obstacle to giving oneself over to the mystery that is so far beyond us (even though we both take part in it). This new language serves as a sign that this mystery founds a poetic way of dwelling that we are coming to inhabit.

My new flesh is a gift of your attention. As you explore me, you reconnect me to myself. As you explore me, you allow me to collect myself. I know myself as, at once and with no distinction, a body (a thing) and a subject—the subject/object dichotomy on which epistemology founders is here overcome, for I know myself both as an object with a subjectivity and as an embodied (material) subject. More than that, I know that it is my flesh that knows your embodied (material) subject as flesh. I know you both as a subject that left her impress on the fibers of my flesh and as a subject that transcends me. A truth shines in what is between us—an unveiling that lets me come forth as one-to-be-seen by you. In the same act of unveiling, this truth reveals you as the one who bids me to reveal myself. Your look and the way you explore all of me almost completely restores to me an archaic and innocent flesh—you can re-endow me with all that I lost, and you can do this even though, in this situation, you are not as archaically innocent as I. Ever so softly, I am marked by the invisible imprint of your flesh—your eyes, your attention, the shape and dynamic of your gestures—whose strength is taken into this new flesh that emerges in the space between us. Your attention transfigures me. As you explore me with a frankness that lets me know I must will to conceal nothing from you, in order to be able to accept from you that gift of becoming wholly transparent to your regard.

Yet somehow, though it is born in the space between us, the flesh you grant me comes forth as my very ownmost being. This reality which is between us now founds what has become most privately mine. Attuning myself wholly to your exploring me according to my hopes, you have effected an alchemical transformation of my energies, which you, by your openness to my innocence, take within you, transform again, and project back to the between that has emerged entre nous. In focusing so intently (as you imagine/observe what part of me you will photograph, and how you will photograph it) on the energy you project into the space between us, you allow me to remake myself again and to put on ever more primeval bodies of innocence. This entre nous focuses my desire and my attention (as I hope it focuses yours): it focuses my attention because, nude before you (and in relation to you), I feel so much more intensely, and the intensity of the feeling makes me gratefully aware that only flesh has the privilege of responding to flesh. Yes, it is also true that only flesh can respond feelingly to things, but that seems of no importance right now: what occupies my attention is how my flesh responds to your eyes, to your attention, to your gestures and to what your eyes and gestures tell me about how your flesh responds to mine. I attune myself to those energies with an attention complete enough to become prayer.

I am transformed in such a way that my will and seeing have become fused; my seeing has become a form a longing. It is full of intent. The intentness with which you look at me has excited an energy in me that connects to something archaic, something beyond myself. My thinking/desire belongs to an elsewhere. There I become a globe of seeing that allows me to experience you seeing me, even as your looking responds magically to the energies you create in me. I know you as opening me to a self-knowledge that is your gift. I know you as knowing me as I would be. I know you as experiencing and accepting my fundamental innocence, for you look on me wholly and with innocence.

Despite my awareness you can perceive what is invisible in me, as I perceive what is invisible in you, the asymmetry in our relationship, that I give myself to be seen by you in a way different from the way you give yourself to be seen by me, makes a discomforting truth appallingly evident: that there is no fusion, no merger here. The relationship we have right now is so intensely intimate and personal that I long for it to complete (to perfect) itself by becoming a total identification, which would allow me to experience your flesh experiencing my flesh. Still, I know that can never be, for your consciousness, in all its specificity, transcends what my flesh can know. You cannot be reduced to me, nor I to you. By reason of your freedom, you transcend me (as I transcend you). Even though, here, I expose myself naked to you, lying back here in pose that amounts to a plea for you to explore me totally and intimately, I seek to initiate a process that will expand until it engulfs us completely and obliterates all that is not uniquely between us—even though my nudity pleads for you to give yourself over to me, to abandon your autonomy and to suffuse yourself through me, to entirely become nothing but me—I have to acknowledge your freedom and your transcendence. The tension here between the fantasy and reality, between desire and truth, intensifies my energies.

Even as I solicit your attention, I sense you escaping from me. But I also know that you, whose role in this play is consolidated in your eyes and hand, cannot be exchanged for me, whose role is to show himself as completely and intimately as possible. But the impossibility of substituting “the one” for “the other” is not the result of one of us being active, the other passive—of my being the passive recipient of your attention. I desire to show myself in a way that will allow me to be perceived; and you, for your part, to perceive the invisible in me, have had to open yourself to these intimate communications that I would not offer to just anyone. You have had to allow some part of you to become still and receptive, to accept what I want to tell you with my nudity. My uniqueness, your uniqueness, the uniqueness of what emerges between us, is absolutely crucial here. If I touch myself, if I electrifymyself, I do it with energies that arise between us, entre nous, and I do this because I want to show myself this way and, more importantly, I want you, in your uniqueness, to see me this way. What is more, it shows that I want something unique, that I would not share with just any other, to emerge between us. I rely on your accepting my plea to be seen this way. I rely on your openness to having your actions shaped by what you perceive in me when, through the positions I adopt and my actions, I implore you to receive my desires. I rely on your agreeing to become open and receptive so that what I want to impart to you will impress itself on you (or on what your being contributes to the reality that emerges between us) in a similar way as your attention penetrates me and leaves its imprint in the energies that bring forth this new flesh I experience as delight. I rely on your acknowledging, as I open myself to you, as I offer myself as a to-be-seen, that this energy will expand and overwhelm all else that is between us. My offering myself body of as energy as a to-be-seen implores that you will allow that energy to be become a globe of electricity that will see us both, and see in both of us our seeing one another. Like Fa Zang’s mirrors.

Because you transcend me and I transcend you, there is a mystery between us. Though what has come forth between us enables me to perceive the invisible in you, I do not see all of you, just as you cannot, despite my nudity, see all of me. Each of us shelters a mystery that inhabits what has emerged entre nous deux, something that is as archaic as the species and yet is renewed with every intimate encounter. The perceptible invisible in you is animated by this mystery, as are the secret desires that I harbour and I earnestly hope you can perceive.

This mystery is common to us both and protects what has re-emerged in what is entre nous deux. This mystery is the basis of another, more profound reality between us: as I perceive the invisible in you and you perceive the invisible in me, we, both of us at once, sense a common invisibility. I perceive what is invisible in you perceiving what is invisible in me and my efforts to have you sense the invisible in me rely on my capacity to sense what is invisible in you and, as though magically, to affect what pertains to your ownmost being. The body you see when you look at my nude form and the body I see when I look into your eyes become a bridge to the invisible that, though deeply within each of us, is also common to us both. We have this mystery in common because, though in our flesh, it overlaps a larger, more archaic mystery. So important is the commonality of our joint experience of the invisible that, if I experience your attention lapsing, I cannot bear to give myself to you to be seen. Reciprocally, whatsoever you endow my perception with cannot impress itself onto my being except insofar as I accept it as belonging to the reality of what is entre nous. When you avert your attention from me, that reality that has emerged between us becomes enfeebled—the bridge of energies between us disappears and you cease remaking me. Thus, I cherish your attention, as a form of praise between what is ancient in your gender and what is ancient in mine.

I sense the nakedness of my face as a most profound nudity, for its openness reveals how deeply you stir me. The more you stir me, the nearer I am brought by those energies you grant, the more naked my face seems to me. The eroticized flesh with which you have endowed me allows me to see your face in a glory that illumines it. I hope that you see my face in somewhat the same way. My nudity and openness seek you and you respond with an extraordinary attunement that is already clear in the mirror choreography of my showing and your exploring, but is revealed with an even more raw intensity when you stop shooting and your eyes peer into mine and you survey my inner state. You see into me when you turn your attention to my face, or when you stop shooting and your eyes meet mine. I long to mirror your seeing into me—to have myself see into you as you see into me and to have my seeing into you energizes you as your seeing into me electrifies me. Even more, I long for you to know me exactly as I know you and for me to know you exactly as you know yourself: for you and I to know each other fully, with no part reserved from the other, for us both to be completely transparent to the other. At the same time, I know that is simply an archaic fantasy: while you see into me and seem wholly attuned to me, at the same time, your transcendence, your freedom, prevents this longing from being fulfilled. Despite my solicitations my nakedness offers, you remain beyond me.

Thus, though I refind myself through you, you remain an inappropriable transcendence. I perceive you, as you explore me, as being at once both immanent and transcendent—both entirely here, specific, concrete, a self-identical and determined being and yet free, mutable, indeterminant, open, protean—one who exceeds any conceptual effort to fix her. What is more, the relationship we have forged is nonreciprocal. I present my nakedness to you, to be explored (my nudity is a plea for you to explore me)—but to this vulnerability which I am, you seem infinitely remote—remote to the point that one aspect of the relationship is startlingly impersonal. You reach into my innermost being—but you remain in the Beyond and seem to me, in my vulnerability, to be infinitely remote, infinitely other, an infinite noema beyond all noesis. And while, for me, you are infinitely remote, I, for myself, am entirely here, in this extremely elastic now (time, too, has changed for me), pleading for your eyes, my nudity a sign of my consent to be penetrated by your attention.

Because I cannot reach you, because you explore me without submitting to being explored yourself, I do not consume and exhaust you. You make me from on high. Yet at the same time, you undo me, and make me selfless: my attention to the energy you impart to me becomes so complete and total there is no room left over for an “I.” Your transcendence, your resistance to my wishes, reveals itself as an obstacle to fantasies and wishes; it reveals the reality of your otherness. This otherness appears to have two aspects. The first stems from your freedom: because we are not fused, because we are not truly at one, I cannot compel you to turn your attention here or there. The second arises from your ontological status, as belonging to nature, as a material being. (Save for certain groups, for example the alchemists), matter appears as inert to our desire. Your body can put up a resistance, that might even have a biochemical basis, that makes it inert to my wishes and my desires. In having to acknowledge the material basis of your flesh, I have to recognize the strict limits you put on my desire’s capacity to respond until it consumes you and your world (until it is merely an aspect of mine). Acknowledging those limits has a role in ordering this new world—but it also represents an intrusion of the world of ordinary matter into the different reality that is between us (a reality of energy, vibration, intensity, electricity, arousal).

Desire’s drive is to expand the reality of energy and electricity until it consumes entirely the realm of ordinary matter; but matter thwarts desire. So, following the edicts of desire, I feel myself becoming less material (as vibratory pulsions and electricity come to constitute the world of which I am aware and to which my flesh belongs); and as I become less material, I feel myself becoming increasingly transparent to your attention. As you explore me, your attention produces a flux, a pulsion, in me that demolishes completely my reserve, my inhibition, my need to keep myself to (and for) myself. The energy you give me suffuses me, stirs in all parts of my flesh, from my head to my toes, and induces flushing. It strives to expand, and as it does so, it sunders me, and brings forth a new self as a double form: first, the passive being who receives himself through you and so exposes himself to you as one who longs to be loved (who longs to be, at least for the duration of this elastic present, the only object of your fascinated attention); and, second, the active being who wants to show himself and in doing so induce energy in you. This new self is a double, too, in that I become at once, fully animated with an unusual intensity and yet wholly passive: active because I strive with every fiber of my being to impel you to explore my most private parts; and passive because I want to give myself wholly over to being bathed, in every inch of my physical being, in the warm globe of your attention, which radiates throughout my entire body and calms all striving. As for the active aspect of my being, it seems to arise from the blood and the pulse that drives the blood. The Ayurvedic tradition describes flesh as being made from blood and belonging to blood, and I can feel the truth of the claim in my very physical being. As for the passive aspect of my being, it is so completely suffused and reanimated by the complete and perfected reality that your attention opens me toward: being enveloped and enfolded in your attention opens me towards a move loving reality, in which I am bathed in the glow of a subjectivity that is no longer entirely yours, or entirely mine. It opens me to the truth of the completion. That complete and perfected reality we have in common stills me utterly, even while it stimulates me extraordinarily. I collapse into a feeling of wholeness and the intensity that permeates all of me makes me aware in every part of me that all my being is flesh that longs to show itself and to be seen. I sense myself as flesh, pure flesh, a puppet of a species memory that you awaken in me.

Though it is so deeply me, the new flesh I receive from you is beyond being controlled by my intention because it is stronger than my intention.xv Flesh, though spiritual, seems to clear away the fiction of the isolated ego and to join with the flesh of the world, in all its spiritualized materiality. I receive this new flesh from you with the utmost of passivity. Your attention falls on me and floods me. Once I resolved to give myself to you, all I wanted was to become the exclusive object of your attention. It is passivity I seek. In giving myself to you to be explored intimately by your eyes, I resolved to become passive, to allow myself to be swamped in the flood of your attention and in the entre nous that would emerge, thanks to your concentrated, focused attention. I long to become still, to do nothing, and to let myself become nothing but the innocent object of devoted attention. Yet that theme of the double again obtrudes on my feelings, for, while relishing by passivity, I have never felt more alive, never felt more vital, never felt more dynamic, never felt more aware of myself than when I feel the surge of energy that occurs when I notice your eyes and your gestures show that you are seized by the task of exploring my intimate parts. So, even while your attention sweeps over me like a flood and renders me passive to a degree that only infants can normally know, I also feel enlivened. I tingle as I feel my energies pouring out of myself and enveloping you, in an effort to command your attention. My urge to become ever more completely the object of your attention is not something abstract. Rarely do I sense so intensely that my aims and my wishes are bodily—every least detail of the relationship that is emerging between us is bodily. I experience this recorporealization of my thinking and my being as delight, for with it comes an exhilarating sense of freedom that is your greatest gift to me, a gift that provides the energy that eroticizes my flesh and raises my feelings of being sexuate to such vitality that it comes to constitute the horizon of awareness.

The new flesh you give me intimates to me the awareness that I am not mine: it brings with it a species memory of something older than my time, something archaic, that operates me from beyond my usual self. I am not any longer an ego, an autonomous self belonging to a world that others inhabit only contingently. I experience the reality of the intrinsic relation between my being and that of those who make me and, what is more, to that which is archaic. My relationship to you, to your eyes, to your attention, to the gestures that reveal your thoughts and let me know when you are engaged with my flesh lift me beyond time. Your eyes reform me at my core. When your attention wavers, this new world, in which my new flesh inhabits as an entre deux, seems on the verge of disappearing. This anxiety makes me realize how completely I put myself at risk when I resolved to transform myself into one who wants nothing more than to give himself to you to be seen in such intimacy that he might become the be-all and end-all of your attention. I tremble as I realize how vulnerable I became when I let my nudity declare to you that I needed your eyes’ intensity. When your attention is averted, I feel a terrifying gap in my being, that lets me know that I have become nothing more than one who wants to be seen, to be explored, to be the object of your complete, interested attention. From that I know that I put myself at risk when I ventured to rely on you, to become one who depends wholly on your attention, without any guarantee of reciprocity—without any assurance that my nakedness would become the subject your interested attention.

That I invite you to explore my nakedness, though you, clothed, remain in some measure impermeable to exploration, only increases my sense of being vulnerable—of being troubled by your diverting your attention from me. But when your attention returns, I feel a surge of energy, a vitality in my loins, as you become embedded in the fibers of my new being. That this new flesh I know as so deeply and privately mine emerges in the space between us is evidence of how deeply the strength of your eyes, your look, your attention, the dynamic of your gestures have impressed themselves on every fiber of my flesh.

The energies you stir in me, like all forces, act in two directions: they rebound on you even as they stir me. These forces act magically, choreographing our energies so that within each of us there occurs a dynamic that mirrors that in the other: a longing to show some part of myself that stirs in me also impels you that prompts you to shift your attention where I would have it directed. Your attention responds (as though magically) to my longing and you turn your attention to where I want it to turn. This interlocked choreography of my desire and your attention is mysteriously coordinated: as you turn your attention to where I want it to turn, I experience delight. As you turn your attention to where I want it to shift, you transmit some of the energy I induced in you back to me, and that energy suffuses me, provoking delight. That arousal, as it electrifies my entire body, shows that I respond to you as by a magical understanding. Due to this electrification, my flesh experiences itself as though primevally, without restriction or limit. The freedom, the autonomy, I feel is a source of that energy that returns me to where I began. (Is this feeling the basis of the myth of Eden?) Through that primal energy, I recover a flesh that knows its strength as it bursts the fetters of the will’s control and recovers its primordial spontaneity.

As it escapes being regulated by the will, my flesh becomes more and more electric, more and more suffused by delight, as it drives ever more into its originary freedom. The arousal induces an energy in the centre of my being and I feel so alive.

A world came into being with my acknowledgment and grateful acceptance of the profundity of our relationship. It came into being as an entre deux, between the two of us only. This is what that initial passivity was for: to allow me to become a puppet of an ancient species’ memory, the re-membrance of a place where you and I are more nearly fused—so I could offer this part or that part of me for you to see and witness, as though by magic, you responding. The boundaries of the new world that came into being entre nous are becoming ever more narrowly circumscribed by my wish that you explore me more and more intimately and by my hope that your eyes and your gestures tell me that you are aware of how my flesh is eroticising itself and that you respond with a vitalized energy of your own. A vital force commands me and narrows my will to the urge to enter you through your eyes. It focuses my attention on the fervent demand that seizes me: that I ensure that your eyes explore those parts of me in which your energies are most intense. My thoughts become ever more the servant of my flesh, that insists ever more on its autonomy. My flesh thus commands my thoughts to give way to its unrestrained autonomy. It insists on claiming its unfettered delight. It suspends reflection.

If, earlier, as we began this activity, ordinary time was transformed into an expansive present which obliterated expectation to become fully “now,” time has changed again to become utter expectation. I am commanded to increase those energies that intensify my delight. Only the reciprocity we share shelters me, holds me back from that extremity. I want you to know that I will shelter you.

Bruce Elder

i. Of course, this is not a knife-cut distinction; I do not mean all women artists, and only women artists, work in feminine mode. I was made acutely aware of this as I supervised Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof’s dissertation, “The Art of Bodily Sensations: Artists’ Nude Self-Representations as the Poetics of Revolt in the Digital Age.” Pruska-Oldenhof’s dissertation proposes a cinéma féminin, which explores the feminine drives and the discursive potential that “féminine” filmmakers explore—she modelled her idea of cinéma féminin on Julia Kristeva’s écriture féminine. And further following Kristeva, for whom one exemplary practitioner of écriture féminine was James Joyce, and Hélène Cixous, for whom exemplary practitioners of écriture féminine were Joyce and Jean Genet (the title of an early book by Cixous and Catherine Clément,La jeune née, plays on the name Jean Genet), Pruska-Oldenhof accepted that some male filmmakers could make cinéma féminin. She knew Kristeva had stated that “by ‘woman’ I mean that which cannot be represented, what is not said, what remains above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies” and that “there are certain ‘men’ who are familiar with this phenomenon.” Taking a clue from that, the author of this dissertation took Carolee Schneemann and me as the artists whose nude self-representations she analyzed. Ms. Pruska-Oldenhof also commented on her own cinéma féminin, including Her Carnal Longings.

The title of Dr. Oldenhof’s dissertation alludes partly to an anti-Cyborg pro–body’s truth position that many of her colleagues adopted. (One member of a group of artists that formed around Pruska-Oldenhof did embrace Cyborg/postmodernist feminism, and that resulted in her distancing herself from the group’s esprit and activities). I ignore this strain of thought in this essay, passing over it with the acknowledgement that most of the women who proceeded through my classes and went on to write their dissertations with me espoused a vigorously anti-Cyborg position.

ii. On more than few occasions the men asked to do the class extramurally and to submit project at the end of the semester. I agreed to that arrangement.

iii. Male program administrators generally shared the male students’ skepticism about the value of the nude body as a cognitive instrument that opens up novel experiences about women’s collaborative making and women’s togetherness. Since these women’s projects didn’t eventuate in quantitative data, program administrators were not interested: to say that a principal end of education in the arts and humanities is fostering ἀγάπη is not a claim to be countenanced in the present-day art education: indeed, any effort to address the body must be in terms of the quantified self. (The dissertations that reflected on what these nude sharing exercises taught generally claimed that the difference represented by women’s collaborative making and the signal importance of the relationality of the self-in-process were the cardinal lessons learned.) In the end, a vigorous rejection of claimsabout the value of the nude body as a cognitive instrument was what brought these courses to an end—one graduate program director, at the conclusion of student exhibition of films, videos, and photographs at a downtown gallery was heard to protest, “I’ve seen enough naked graduate students to last me a lifetime.” Still, a good fifteen years of student education, numerous films and videos, exhibitions at reputable galleries, and dissertations came out of them.

I have suggested that these women’s nude works had the effect of allowing what, extravagantly, many considered taboo to be said, and that this had therapeutic effects. It is interesting, in that context, that these explorations of women’s togetherness led a number of students to take further training as therapists; and several have continued to work as therapists.

iv. Paul Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche (London Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1935); reprinted (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950).

v. Schilder 1935/1978, 123.

vi. Schilder 1935/1978, 235.

vii. Schilder 1935/1978, 87.

viii. Schilder 1935/1978, 112–113. I should point out, in contradiction to the emphasis of on spontaneity in contact improvisation, that Schilder, based on his idea of bodiy schemata maintained that every movement requires an anticipatory plan and each plan depends upon finding the location in the body that will allow one to begin to execute that movement. Schilder insisted that finding that location, which he referred to as “finding the body,” is never an automatic act: it necessarily involves a cognitive effort even though the selection made for the initiation of every movement may not require conscious effort.

ix. Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars. Protocols–Conversations–Letters, ed. M. Boss, trans. R. Askay & F. Mayr (Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 84–5

x. Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars, 85.

xi. Of course, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s work, this ontological division is far more sharply drawn.

xii. In this passage, and in those that follow on the chiasmatic relationship that can develop by giving oneself to be seen and on the extrapersonal subjectivity that can develop out of the relation between the person who looks and the person who gives himself to be seen, I challenge the phenomenological analysis of the “look” that that Sartre offers in L’être et le néant. Sartre’s analysis of intersubjectivity, l’enfer c’est les autres, is similarly dark. I hope readers will understand that my phenomenological analysis of giving oneself openly to others, to be welcomed by them, is an effort—an effort that admittedly needs to be more fully worked out—at formulating a rejoinder to Sartre’s philosophy of disconnection, isolation, and solitude and to substitute for it an ethical ontology of the extrapersonal. I put on record that Luce Irigaray has preceded in me this.

xiii. Note that a fourth aspect is logically possible, and that is the nude looking at the photographer/cinematographer as a thing, a body without subjectivity. My personal experience tells me that that logical possibility is rarely made actual—and that in fact the experience of the photographer observing and taking in the model’s being overwhelms any possibility that the model might see her as just another object. The experience of another vector of vision creating a field to which the model gives himself to be seen makes the awareness of being in a relationship with another subject (or, more accurately, a body-mind) primary.

xiv. Like most practitioners-exponents of écriture féminine my work braids theory and practice—the films my collaborators and I have made possess a theoretical dimension, and my writings on visual art, poetry, media, poetics, and aesthetics are influenced by my creative engagements and affect them. In my work, theory neither precedes nor supersedes practice; nor does practice precede or supersede theory. The two are braided together. Around 1984, my commitment to body art entered a phase of heightened critical and theoretical intensity, largely as a result of what I saw as the sanitizing of vanguard cinema with “dreary theory” films such as The Central Character and Sifted Evidence by Patricia Gruben and critical/theoretical texts such as William Wees’s Light Moving in Time. Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film. This sanitized pseudo-vanguard, I felt, had displaced the genuine avant-garde, and especially the counter-cinema of radical makers such as Carolee Schneemann. My decision to involve myself in collaborations with women artists and to assume the role of a nude model in these collaborative projects—works that gave pride of place to the body—was certainly influenced by Schneemann’s assessment of the situation of feminine art. She rightly accused the artworld of privileging forms men prefer (forms that reflect the regulatory system of phallogocentrism) and of abhorring what it deemed women’s messy artwork and messy thinking; she also stated her outrage at the fact that the male-dominated artworld world would allow women to be the subject of images, but not image-makers. Her work pursued with unparalleled acuity the complexity of the erotics of exchange between self and other even in everyday relationships but especially the multiplicity of forms that the relationship between lover and loved one assumes. Her nude self-shooting made her at once the subject of nude self-representations and an image-maker exploring the shapes her passions assume. Of course, if I had concluded that it was urgent, for moral reasons and for the health of the planet, that women be image-makers, my nude self-shooting wouldn’t achieve the sought-after goal—that would not afford the women I collaborated with the opportunity to be creative agents, at least not so far as our projects’ representations of nudes were concerned. Furthermore “you shoot me nude; I’ll shoot you nude” sessions really wouldn’t operate as a critique of the “active male/passive female” pattern that was almost universal in photographic and cinematographic images of nudes: to critique the near universality of that configuration the women working on these projects would have be the primary producers of nude footage. (Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof pursued these themes in her very worthy dissertation on “Artists’ Nude Self-Representations as the Poetics of Revolt,” where she highlighted the similarities between Schneemann’s work and my collaborative works as body art that exemplifies the attributes of cinéma féminin.) But as I worked as a nude model, I realized that, even in my apparently submissive and passive role, forms of exchange developed that were as deep and significant—indeed as culturally telling—as those Carolee Schneemann remarked on and embodied in her films. I felt impelled to reflect on the complexity of the mirroring relations between nude (male) model and clothed (female) cinematographer.

This piece is one of pair of essays in which I deliberated on the phenomenological ontology of body images. The first was “On Picture (for Stan Brakhage): Note on Et resurrectus est” (published in Musicworks, 73 [1999]: 41–3, as part of Stan Brakhage’s last “Time . . . On Dit” column and reprinted in Brakhage’s last book, Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker (Kingston, NY: Documentext 2003), 126–131). That note concentrated on the moral implications of images of the nude and the temporal consequences that follow therefrom. In it, I proposed,

A nude implores us to caress, but a caress acknowledges that we cannot close the divide across which the Other resides. In caressing, or in imagining caressing, we acknowledge that erotic relations are not really reciprocal relations as our sense of justice would have us believe. Caresses tell us that eros is bound into an unintelligible, unfathomable condition (and so a condition that cannot be reduced to signification), for they tell us that our most profound, most creative (“self making”) relationships are to a being that not only is totally separate, but belongs to a different realm altogether. They tell us, then, that we are most deeply linked to what withdraws from us.

So profound is the gulf that separates us from the beings with which we form our most profound and most intimate relationships, that our be-ing and that of the be-ing which, in soliciting us creates us, belong to different orders of time. The status of the image makes this known to us as well, for, just as an image elicits expectation, so awareness of the Other (an awareness that, like all sensory experience, belongs wholly to the immediate present) solicits a longing to give care that belongs wholly to the future. This longing is evoked not simply by the Other’s voluptuousness (though it may be); rather the longing arises from all that separates me from the Other. The Other, speaking to me in the present, but from the future, constitutes the ground of time as process. What delights us in the erotic relation, and in the caress, is the tension (and so, anticipation) involved in sensing a relation sufficiently deep to constitute our identity, yet not reducible to an identity (The Nature of Image, 41–2).

Thus, “On Picture (for Stan Brakhage)” pretty much starts out where the present piece concludes. But I knew when I had I finished it, that in order to truly braid together the theoretical and artistic stands of my work on the body, I needed to compose another more descriptive commentary, that provided detailed reflections on the remarkable variety of mirror relations—active relationships—that developed between the apparently submissive, apparently passive party, me (I knew the piece would have to be deeply personal to have any truth), and the active party, the cinematographer/image-maker. That work could serve as a prequel to “On Picture (for Stan Brakhage).” Thus these reflections came to be composed, as a contribution to the theory of cinéma féminin. They have not been published hitherto.

xv. The imago hominis that comes to us from the Greeks by way of the Enlightenment puts the role of intention at the very centre of human’s availability to the Good. The senses (flesh) would draw us away from the Good, but will can curb the senses and thereby allow reason to take its rightful place. Through reason we comprehend the precepts that found good judgement and good comportment. How wrong this account seems when we consider the feelings that arise at times like this, when the flesh’s openness to the other is revealed to be the very core of charity.