GENDERMATERIAL: Valie Export's Spatial Logic
The metahistorian of cinema . . . is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent
wieldy set of discrete monuments . . . Such works may not exist, and then it is her duty to
make them. -Hollis Frampton
In this paper, my aim is to delineate a possible revisionary film history, which I see contained in Valie Export's film The Practice of Love. I do not consider myself a film historian, and I stress this point because I think that what follows could be considered a history of sorts, but a rather unhistorical history -- a history, perhaps, of filmic effects. While I would not be so presumptuous, at this preliminary stage, to call this effort a genealogy, I do attempt to organize my materials in accordance with Michel Foucault's guidelines for "effective history." He describes this process as follows:
Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates
beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively
exists in the present, that it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a pre-
determined form on all its vicissitudes. . . On the contrary, to follow the complex course of
descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the
minute deviations . . . it is to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know
and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents (Foucault 1984, 81).
Foucault insists that an effective history must perform the work of disruption, disarticulation and re-articulation, splicing and montage, in order to, as he says, "introduce discontinuity into our very being" (88). Such an approach to knowledge, acknowledging as it does the plasticity of temporality, spatiality, and fiction, seems uniquely apposite to the consideration of the social life of cinema. "Knowledge is not made for understanding," Foucault cautions, "it is made for cutting" (ibid).
The Practice of Love is at the center of this discontinuous history. I plan to discuss particular moments of film history, in particular film noir and the European "art cinema," and their generic spatial logics, which are inscribed in somewhat explicit ways within the intertextual fabric of The Practice of Love. By treating this film as a political analysis of filmic space, I hope to articulate Export's immanent critique of these received filmic discourses. More importantly, I plan to argue that Export pinpoints moments of spatial crisis within these film styles, reinterpreting those moments by confronting them with a politically engaged materialist experimentalism.
Valie Export forces a retroactive consideration of the film histories from which she draws. From an examination of the materialist premises of The Practice of Love, we are able to read that film's present back into the past, allowing for an historical realignment. To put it another way, the inscription of the absolute limits of these cited film genres within the spatial articulation of The Practice of Love results in an occurance in the historical register of what psychoanalysis calls Nachtraglichkeit or "deferred action." The traumatic rent which Export's film rips within both narrative and purely abstract space forces us to make meaning in reverse. This backtalk from the future, as opposed to a frontline offensive, probably best characterizes the location of the avant-garde in relation to the contemporary cultural landscape. Hal Foster describes the situation thus:
One event is only registered through another that recodes it; we come to be who we are only in
deferred action (Nachtraglichkeit). It is this analogy that I want to enlist for modernist studies
at the end of the century: historical and neo-avant-gardes are constituted in a similar way, as a
continual process of protension and retension, a complex relay of anticipated futures and recon-
structed pasts -- in short, in a deferred action that throws over any simple scheme of before and
after, cause and effect, origin and repetition (Foster 1997, 29).
If we treat the allusions to spatial genre laws and their internal tensions within The Practice of Love to be the ground-zero of our effective, traumatic history, we can trace, across time and nation, the intersection of several distinct filmmaking modes and their transfiguration across the space of Export's film.
To examine how The Practice of Love engages with the impossibility of film noir coherence, allow me to briefly describe Robert Aldrich's 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, a film which is frequently cited as the limit-text of noir. This is attributed in part to its refusal to temper its nihilism -- the film concludes with the detonation of the atomic bomb -- as well as the film's apparent representation of the visual modalities of noir pushed to their outermost limit. Kiss Me Deadly is a baroque implosion and denial of the chief tenet of noir's generic promise: material must be subdued by the Law of the Father, returned to its rightful place in the social hierarchy. In response to this crisis of legibility and order, the film ironically enfolds itself safely within devastation. The incompetence of the masculine investigator, with the rather overdetermined name of Mike Hammer, results in the bomb falling into the feminine hands of one Lily Carver, who unleashes atomic annihilation in a world-castrating seizure of fleeting power. To sum up, Lily and the bomb are structurally identical, both "matter" in their basest form -- woman as the unleashed materiality of the body not subject to reason, and the free radicals of subatomic material, turned loose to unlock the self-annihilating tendency dormant within every atom on the earth. Moreover, Kiss Me Deadly's crisis is designated as the failure of masculinity's metaphysical charge, to keep the muck of spatial materiality at bay. Rather than to endure the decentering of the male cogito, film noir destroys the world.
As Roswitha Mueller has observed in her exceptional monograph on Export's work, The Practice of Love draws upon the identifying tropes of the standard film noir. The film, however, radically departs from and critiques the noir genre in some readily apparent ways. Mueller notes that Judith Wiener, the investigating reporter, refuses to discontinue her quest for the truth, even though it directly implicates one of her lovers, Dr. Schögel in an arms smuggling deal -- making her, within noir logic, simultaneously the "good dick" and the femme fatale (Mueller 166). However, Judith soon discovers that the terms of noir are not reversible along gender lines. Her dual position results in an inverse proportion -- the closer she as investigator comes to the truth, the more she is punished for fatale transgressions. To illustrate an admittedly obvious point, compare Sam Spade's triumph in The Maltese Falcon, when he sends Brigid over, claiming that he wouldn't let her get away with it, "precisely because every part of me wants to." When Judith confronts Alfons Schögel with her decision to crack the case despite her involvement with him, he contemptuously tells her to stick to her "stories of abused women and children," claiming she, being a naive woman, expects everything to have a pat moralistic ending.
Nevertheless, Export's film does not leave the position of Judith stranded within its double-bind. On the level of plot, we see Judith pack her bag, and as the credits flash we hear an airport announcement for a flight to Chicago, and finally see an rental ad, apparently for Judith's now-vacant flat. If we conclude that Judith Wiener is on the flight to Chicago, as Mueller does, then perhaps she is both removing herself from harm's way, as well as leaving Austrian political patriarchy behind. Ceasing to be "Wiener" as a spatial identification, choosing instead to enter the cultural negotiations of a Viennese in the American midwest, we might optimistically consider Judith to metonymically displace the patriarchal inheritance of her name and nation, even though neither can be fully shed.
On the level of mise-en-scene, The Practice of Love alludes not only to noir but also to what for shorthand I will call the European art film. By this admittedly problematic term, I refer to selected films by Bergman, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, and Fellini, which could be said to share a preoccupation with subjectivity and temporality within an idealist framework. That is, films such as Last Year at Marienbad, Persona, and Juliet of the Spirits present fragmented film time as representations of subjective memory and of the interior lives of their protagonists. In these films, spaces are not spaces, but are enclosed within a set of individual perceptions which, while filmically jarring and innovative, remain anchored by a governing point of view undergoing psychic extremity.
It is not incidental to my point that the three films cited above represent attempts by male auteurs to convey female subjectivity. But the fact that Valie Export's film subverts the logic of the "art film" is not a matter of identity politics. Export's feminist materialism, specifically her understanding of the material properties of bodies and spaces, presses against the confines of these idealist gestures towards a stereotyped "feminine" psyche. The Practice of Love appears to contain visual quotations from Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's 1961 Marienbad. The long tracking shot through the hotel where Judith and Schögel have their trysts calls to mind Sacha Vierny's baroque cinematographic mindscapes in Marienbad, although perhaps as filtered through Chantal Akerman's stark, brutalist treatment of unpeopled corridors in her 1972 film Hotel Monterey. The spaces of Marienbad are explicitly linked with the fragmented memories of the female protagonist, played by Delphine Seyrig, because, as Maureen Turim writes, ". . . the repeated vague references to the past that punctuate the film, to events from last year, could be entirely without story behind them, no last year, no event, just an imaginary, fictive reference with no referent" (Turim 217). However, these memories are insisted upon by a man who claims to have been the protagonist's lover. Within this alleged depiction of female subjectivity, events are fashioned and imposed upon the woman by a man who exhorts her to inhabit his fantasy within her own interior life. Given this stacked deck, it is appropriate that another moment in Practice of Love visually rhymes with a scene in Marienbad, in which the man plays a parlor game with matchsticks which, he claims, he can never lose.
The aforementioned hotel tracking shot in Practice of Love is unsteady, initially seeming to be unproblematically aligned with Schögel's point of view. The camera follows him, then he leaves the field of vision, the camera moving independently of a clear point of view but still presumably identified with Schögel. But we then discover that the uninterrupted point of view shot now belongs to Judith. She then enters the field of vision, splitting off from the camera which nevertheless maintains its handheld inscription of subjectivity. This maneuver performs several tasks at once. It can be seen as creating three consciousnesses for the apparatus, which is both engaged in the erotic encounter between Judith and Alphons and also distanciated from it. It can also be read as a moment at which the subject positions of Judith and the film, momentarily identified, are broken into two distinct indentificatory positions, with the memory of our identification with Schögel maintaining the specter of the third.
Until an embrace at the end of this scene, Judith and Alphons do not appear in the frame at the same time (with the exception of Judith appearing in the mirror as Schögel stands beside).. In this respect, assigning the field of vision to a subject position is a tricky business. Space, as constructed in an idealist film such as Marienbad, belongs not only to a subjective position, but within the psyche of that position. Here, the shifting back and forth between Judith and Alphons makes the third option, identification with the camera, the most unambiguous position to assume. This may at first sound like a move into "classical" cinema, with its disembodied eye which, as Jean-Louis Baudry writes, "seems to fulfill the most favorable conditions for the manifestation of the "transcendental subject" (Baudry 1970, 537).
Export, however, inscribes embodiment and a subjective observational standpoint with unsteady, intimate camerawork. We are not seeing ourselves seeing all, as Baudry describes, but seeing the results of an obvious recording position. The handheld camera in this instance underscores the cinematic inscription of the scene, making the typical idealist indentification with the apparatus collide with a material, embodied location. Export makes the self-conscious recording process the most stable, rational position for viewers to occupy. In this way, Export disallows both the false mastery of the classical system and the all-in-the-head subjectivism of "art cinema."
In addition to formally articulating a distinctly human spectatorial position which avoids the traps of humanist illusion, The Practice of Love provides a critique of the subjective encounter of women and space as it is typically staged within the logics of both film noir and the "art film." In a pivotal scene, Export displays what I'd like to call the "spatial unconscious" of the film. In this scene, we see Judith on a bicycle, turning onto a deserted street. At first the street appears littered with newspapers, but it soon becomes apparent that they are deliberately placed. Large banners of newspaper edge down the sides of buildings. Giant reproductions of headlines cover billboards and the pavement. On the right, the facades of a series of adjacent buildings contain unintelligible typographical symbols. Rounding the corner, Judith confronts the embodiment of socially condoned female roles, in the person of the pregnant wife of her other lover, Dr. Joseph Fischoff. She is pushing a stroller and attempting to evade Judith. Finally, she -- or the position she represents -- is annihilated as she and her baby are riddled with bullets while Judith looks on at a distance, covering her ears. As the scene concludes, the motif of guns is contiguously spliced between the personal and the social. An investigating gaze enters the darkened space of a church basement, discovering with a flashlight a cache of automatic weapons. Judith's subjective encounter appears to conclude with a series of news photos and documentary film images of gun violence, concluding with a repeated shot of a soldier aiming squarely at the camera.
I find this scene crucial to understanding the extent of Export's materialist critique of the role of female subjectivity and its spatial representation. For while we may read this portion of the film as a "dream sequence" or more generally as a spatial nightmare on the part of Judith, the construction of this scene indicts the private idealism of a film like Marienbad or the violent response to all-around threat which characterizes Kiss Me Deadly. In Practice of Love, Export thwarts the Manichean spatial logic of noir -- either the aggressively inscrutable space of the city is clarified through a sublation of emotion into the Law, or, the unmasterable space must be eradicated. In fact, this is precisely the double-bind of violence which it is Judith's aim to supplant. Here, space is not destroyed but navigated. For Judith, being an embodied material "thing" among other things in space is understood as an axiom and a starting point for action, and not in and of itself as a mark of impending annihilation. Judith acts, and is acted upon. This is not to say that she resigns herself to passivity -- far from it. Even as she is laughed off by the police and city fathers, even after she discovers her trashed apartment, she relocates, perhaps striving to attain distance -- following the logic of things, she takes control of her own "circulation" and puts it to her own advantage. While she cannot effectively fight those who control space from within their own power base, her own lack of an immediate power base provides the possibility of regrouping, of resituating within what Gramsci calls a "war of movement, war of position . . . underground warfare" (Gramsci 229). Unlike the masculinist Hammer, Judith is able to sublate the territorial spatial logic of noir.
At the same time, this most obviously subjective moment of the film represents a determinate negation of the psychologized, hermetic female (yet male-defined) interiority of Marienbad. The spaces traversed by Judith are best characterized as a dialectic between a subjective, embodied perceptual position and the social situation of space. This "spatial" unconscious is an unremittingly social unconscious, marked by Judith's engagement with the shared material meanings of the social world. These are phantasmatic signs, but they are not private fantasies or paranoid delusions. Rather, these material signs of political violence, the marginalization of female desire, and the duplicitous character of language, are simply the concrete materialization of what, although usually invisible, is already concretely material. Export's film emphasizes the cultural materialist dimension of even, and especially, our most seemingly private interactions with the world.
To clarify, our subjective experiences, processed in and through language, are irreducibly material. I draw from V. N. Volosinov, who writes, "The laws of the generative process of language are not at all the laws of individual psychology, but neither can they be divorced from the activity of speakers. The laws of language generation are social laws" (Volosinov 98). Furthermore, he states, "A sign is a phenomenon of the external world. Both the sign itself and all the effect it produces (all those actions, reactions, and new signs it elicits in the surrounding social milieu) occur in outer experience" (11). (This statement is particularly pertinent here, since Volosinov developed this materialist theory of language by beginning with the issue of inner speech.)
Furthermore, the spaces we occupy and navigate -- and I would argue that this must include filmic space -- are also material things. Spaces constrain our bodies as we navigate them, as we perform their cues. Henri Lefebvre writes
Activity in space is restricted by that space; space 'decides' what activity may occur,
but even this 'decision' has limits placed upon it. Space lays down the law because it
implies a certain order -- and hence also a certain disorder (just as what may be seen
defines what is obscene). Interpretation comes later, almost as an afterthought. Space
commands bodies, prescribing or proscribing gestures, routes and distances to be covered
(Lefebvre 1974, 143).
The materiality of these spaces, however, is only to be feared as long as we are convinced that we cannot intervene in the material world of spatial dispensation and the built environment. Lefebvre continues,
. . . each living body is space and has space. This is a truly remarkable relationship: the
body with the energies at its disposal, the living body, creates or produces its own space;
conversely, the laws of space, which is to say the laws of discrimination in space, also
govern the living body and the deployment of its energies (Lefebvre 1974, 170).
Of course, the coordination of these social-spatial energies requires political engagement, a praxis of love. And filmic space, like all signs and representations in the world, is itself material. It has the power to fortify or to dismantle either reactionary or progressive modes of perception, interaction, and comportment. By working through historical modes of filmic signification, drawing upon their spatial logics in order to disarticulate their idealist blind alleys, The Practice of Love is a materialist intervention into the political landscape.
I conclude by drawing attention to a final scene, in which Valie Export literally cancels out the spatial idealism of mainstream narrative cinema at the site of its inscription of gender inequity. During an argument between Judith and Joseph, he begins to bombard her with sexist taunts about her drunkenness and physical appearance. Judith begins to intervene by performing work on the material of his speech. Ever the journalist, she begins tape recording his words, playing them back to him, forcing him to confront them as she must, as estranged objects. Drunken women, Joseph complains, "say the same thing five times and expect to be listened to five times," but of course it is his speech which is reproduced for such consideration.
But Judith's material intervention into the scene goes further. After sweeping her arm across a cluttered coffee table, she arcs her arm back, across our image of Joseph. As she does, she (with the help, of course, of Valie Export) scratches a cancellation mark into the emulsion of the filmstrip, taking control within the diegesis of the material substrate of the filmstrip. Judith and Export, each within her respective register, denies Joseph, this space, and its viewers the illusion of depth.
Such work upon the surface of the film is not uncommon in the history of experimental film of which Export is a part. Too often, however, film critics who have demanded a realist politics of signification have decried such work as "apolitical." Nothing could be more wrong. By insisting upon a materialist recognition of the conditions of film representation, Valie Export forces upon the typically idealist site of film narrative a physical marker of the location of the cinematic sign. This film -- a series of sounds and images -- is a real thing, in the real world. So are we. When we engage films and other things in this manner, we engage in praxis.
Hal Foster. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Michel Foucault. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History." Paul Rabinow, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
Hollis Frampton. "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses." Circles of Confusion. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983.
Antonio Gramsci. "State and Civil Society." Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. and trans. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. London: Blackwell, 1991.
Roswitha Mueller. Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Maureen Turim. Flashbacks in Film. New York: Routledge, 1989.
V. N. Voloinov. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik, trans. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.