Michael Sicinski

This essay was originally published in Discourse 22.2 (Spring 2000).


Valie Export and Paranoid Counter-Surveillance

How do we come to exist in paranoiac space?  I pose the question in this manner, because this wording allows for at least two distinct but related emphases.  On the one hand, how do we materialize within the arena of paranoia; how did we get here?  On the other, once we find ourselves within a paranoid spatial formation, how do we come into being inside this space?  What are our options?  What kind of agency can we exercise inside such a space?  This question is radically provoked by the cinematic and cinema-related work of Valie Export.  Export’s work forces us to reconceptualize the political stakes of embodiment, by undercutting humanist claims regarding the primacy of the body while at the same time exemplifying a stringent feminist materialism.  Export’s art ultimately effaces boundaries, and enacts the dissolution of the fiction of the sovereign self, without simply relegating the body to the status of “object” as we typically regard it: passive, inert, acted upon.

In the essay below, I examine dialectical strategies of spatial production and self-effacement in some of the writings and “expanded cinema” works of Valie Export,[1] in particular, two expanded cinema performances, Tapp- und Tastkino [Touch Cinema] (1968) and Adjungierte Dislokationen [Adjoined Dislocations] (1973).  In a sense I am reading backwards from some of Export’s later feature film work, excavating an undercurrent of radical paranoia in these earlier performance pieces.  Films such as Unsichtbare Gegner [Invisible Adversaries] (1976) and Die Praxis der Liebe [The Practice of Love] (1984) explicitly thematize the intersection of paranoia and female experience, within narrative frames.  In both works, a female media worker uses her chosen medium (photography in the earlier film, TV documentary in the later) to engage in “counter-surveillance” of her dangerous, disrupted social world.  In part, these works can be understood as a continuation by other means of themes from earlier work.  Export’s radical form of paranoia simultaneously 1) guards against external threats to subjectivity, and 2) recognizes the already-“compromised” status of the human subject.  In Export’s work, the “human” subject is also the “female” subject, because only the female subject’s experience can illuminate what are actually fundamental conditions of all human subjectivity.  Due to its more commonplace usages, “paranoid” is often considered a pejorative term.  Moreover, in a political climate which remains generally hostile to feminist discourse, the conjunction of the terms “paranoid” and “feminist”might provoke concern. In this case, my attempt to transvalue the idea of paranoia for more progressive purposes is quite deliberate.  As I hope to show, Export’s “feminist paranoia” is an epistemological position with radical post-humanist implications.[2]


I. Paranoid Counter-Surveillance


The concept of surveillance in the work of Valie Export suggests itself in several ways. The fact that Export’s narrative films are orchestrated through the subject positions of female media workers, as noted above, introduces an explicit thematics of knowledge-accumulation through looking.  However, one can take a step back from these narrative elements, and locate a problematics of surveillance within the fundamental working premises of Export’s artistic output.  One such axiom is that the body, and particularly the female body, is a cultural product, which comes to the female subject from without.  Citing Martin Heidegger’s 1938 discussion of the “world picture,” Export describes a social formation in which the female body is always already misapprehended, deformed, and returned to women in a degraded, mutilated form.  Given this state of affairs,


. . . woman must ruin the representation, the apparatus of representation of our

society, in order to achieve Being.  But she must also deny her negative forms

derived from the masculine, so-called feminine, i.e., she must accept that woman

doesn’t have to be a mother, doesn’t have to be passive, doesn’t have to be body,

a feminine self for some other self (Export 1989a, 22).


This point can be clarified by considering one aspect of this “apparatus of representation” as it is explored in Export’s work.  Conventional images of “feminine beauty” and female docility are frequently cited and critiqued in Export’s films, photocollages and performances.  In a photographic series of the mid-1970s, for example, Export demonstrates the gestural rhymes between images in art and commerce.  Representations of “holy” femininity from the history of Western art are juxtaposed with contemporary depictions of household drudgery and “happy” female consumption.  Likewise, a rapid montage sequence in Invisible Adversaries parallels sanctioned female domestic acts (making dinner, shaving the armpits, etc.) with the destruction of defenseless small animals.

 These artistic interventions forcefully argue that “femininity” is codified as a set of acts, gestures, and behaviors which are compulsory, and which impose discipline upon those bodies subjected to / by them.  The circulation of media images and beauty standards provoke an ambivalence which is both regulatory and phantasmatic.  On the one hand, one may desire those images, introject and “be” them, and in this process, one may exercise some degree of editorial selection and revision.[3]  But simultaneously, those images in circulation effectively return the gaze, positioning the subject within a regulatory visual framework.  An image environment, in which female existence is identified with embodiment, exerts its regulatory power in the absence of an identifiable external enforcer.

Following from Foucault, we can consider women within the image-world to be under a form of surveillance.[4]  And as a consequence of this surveillance, the female body becomes a site of contest and inscription. Valie Export’s work provides a new way of conceptualizing these questions, however, which destabilizes the terms of panoptic power, and thereby speaks back to the patriarchal image world.  Several key moments in Export’s oeuvre can be regarded as acts of guerrilla counter-surveillance, in which spatial relations are reversed, subverted, or patrolled.[5] However, the mode of counter-surveillance which I detect in Export’s work is of a decidedly ambivalent variety, and runs counter to the prevalent discourses of counter-surveillance themselves.  The discursive parameters of counter-surveillance have typically been the same as those of surveillance proper, only turned in another direction.  When we understand surveillance as a mode of “security,” this is in part because we are secure in what we see, secure in the self-evident visual character of that which is seen.

As understood in the terms above, the discourse of counter-surveillance partakes of truth-claims based on the apparent transparency of the film or video medium.  In this respect, counter-surveillance is legible only within the context of legal discourses of evidence, indexicality, and universal cognition.  In short, counter-surveillance relies upon the clear-eyed common sense of the Cartesian cogito.  Given Export’s claims regarding the categorical exclusion of women from this position, one might conclude that, even if women can practically take control of the means of image making, in doing so they would be submitting their testimony to a set of demands which is a priori patriarchal.  This is precisely the condition of the “world picture,” as diagnosed by Heidegger. While Heidegger is describing science in particular, he is also describing an overall worldview, of which juridical discourse is certainly a part.  


The fixedness of facts and the constantness of their change as such is “rule.”  The

constancy of change in the necessity of its course is “law.”  It is only within the

purview of rule and law that facts become clear as the facts that they are.  Research

into facts in the realm of nature is intrinsicaly the establishing and verifying of

rule and law (Heidegger 1977, 120.)


Within this age, “man,” in the form of a set of rigid procedures and scientific data, determines truth and objectivity by marking his own definitive separation from the “mere” materiality of the object.  Subjectivity, in the age of the world picture, is an act of abjection, whereby the subject reaffirms his mastery over the object by this very separation.


That which is, is no longer that which presences; it is rather that which, in repre-

senting, is first set over against, that which stands fixedly over against, which has

the character of object [das Gegen-ständige].  Representing is making-stand-over-

against, an objectifying that goes forward and masters. . . . In this fundamental

certainty man is sure that, as the representer of all representing, and therewith as

the realm of all representedness, and hence of all certainty and truth, he is made

safe and secure, i.e., is (Heidegger 1977, 150).


For feminist discourse to partake of this form of representation is, according to Export, both unethical and impossible.  It is unethical because, in pursuit of expediency, and out of a desire to make itself understood, such feminist discourse bolsters and reaffirms the mastery of the world picture.  Citing an example of liberal feminist juridical discourse, Export writes, “The insistence of women on the body as their property, their real . .  Consolidates the power of the real, the power of the masculine culture” (Export 1989a, 24).   And, as argued by Export above, women are structurally barred from participation in such truth claims, because such truth claims are philosophically aligned with the immaterial, the disembodied cogito.  Instead of the juridical representation which masters its object, and instead of a self-mastery unto self-eradication, Export’s work enacts a radical instability of subject and object, and a partial dissolution of subjectivity which continually undercuts its own impulse to attain power.

This instability places Export’s mode of counter-surveillance under the sign of paranoia. Paranoia, first and foremost, is a breakdown of discrete boundaries.  The paranoid subject experiences desires which are psychically and socially unacceptable, and transforms those desires into external threats.  The psychoanalytic Ur-text on paranoia is Freud’s reading of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoires of My Nervous Illness, the journals of the psychotic judge who believed himself to be the female lover of God.  Freud’s analysis of the case, “Psychoanalytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)” (1911), works backward from Schreber’s unorthodox descriptions of his perceived bodily metamorphosis into a woman, identifying in the narrative specific connections made between the God whom Schreber is forced to serve and Schreber’s primary psychological caregiver, Dr. Flechsig (Freud 1911, 147). Flechsig was a good friend to Schreber who, upon the onset of complete paranoid psychosis, becomes convinced that Flechsig plans to rape him, and to commit “soul-murder” against him.  Freud argues that Schreber’s intense feelings of admiration for Flechsig shift dramatically to their opposite.  The loved object becomes the hated tormenter, the intensity of feelings remaining, although in externalized, reversed form.

Freud argues that the fantasy of torment was developed by Schreber as a reaction-formation against an unconscious homosexual libidinal impulse, probably directed toward Dr. Flechsig.  This hypothesis seems to Freud particularly apposite given Schreber’s own account of a waking dream which signaled the beginning of his psychotic relapse a few days later:


One morning . . . while he was in a state between sleeping and waking, the idea

occurred to him “that after all it really must be very nice to be a woman submitting

to the act of copulation.”  This idea was one which he would have rejected with

the greatest indignation if he had been fully conscious (Freud 1911, 108).


For our purposes here, it is worth noting not only the initiation of the paranoid psychosis at that moment when unconscious homosexual desires threaten to erupt onto the surface of psychic life, but also that his desire for penetration manifests itself, even in the dream state, as a desire to be a receptive female.

If paranoia manifests in this classic case as a desire for penetration, we can understand it as not only a disruption of compulsory male heterosexuality, but of a breach in the cogito as well.  For Schreber, the breakdown of the divide between male and female, penetrator and penetrated, is also the dissolution of the clear demarcation of subject and object.  Export’s statements cited above indicate that women, unlike Schreber, are already on the side of embodiment, objecthood, penetrated materiality.  As such, paranoia could be a feminist epistemology. 

The fact that women, according to Freud, are in a fundamentally different position vis-a-vis paranoia, means that the Schreber case cannot serve as an altogether appropriate template for our investigation into Export’s work.  (The Schreber model must be supplemented with Freud’s 1915 study of female paranoia, which I will address later on in this essay.)  Nevertheless, Schreber’s “female” position can be seen to productively disrupt the clear subject / object demarcations characteristic of the “world picture.”  In his fascinating study of the Schreber case, Eric Santner argues that Schreber’s paranoia was in part a renunciation of phallic power, and an implicit identification with women, Jews, and homosexuals (1996, 139). While Schreber’s paranoia allowed him to identify with “abject” bodies, perhaps we can understand Export’s materialist, embodied feminism as an identification with paranoia  a compulsion to monitor space while at the same time occupying it, a desire to guard against alien invasion while simultaneously understanding it as a foregone conclusion.


II. Paranoid Actionism: Touch Cinema


Export’s earliest forays into cinema were directly related to her Feminist Actionist performances.  Export’s essay “Aspects of Feminist Actionism” delineates some tenets of Actionism and Feminist Actionism, providing an archaeology of influences and precursors, as well as a survey of the wide array of practices which partake of Actionist principles (Export 1989b).  Export cites a definition by her sometime-collaborator Peter Weibel: “Centered in the body and in this world, the body is the artistic medium.  The human body itself is the work of art, the material” (ibid).  Export adds, “The equation material = body typifies Viennese Actionism” (ibid).  One of the most notorious Viennese Actionist artists, Otto Mühl, conducted performances in which naked women were covered in feathers, blood, and other unidentifiable viscous substances, while men in various states of undress (although sometimes in very proper black suits) simulated sexual and violent acts.  Some of his performances were documented by the late filmmaker Kurt Kren.  Kren, apparently finding these displays of unbridled id a bit too straightforward, edited the films according to strict mathematically-derived scores, influenced by the compositional techniques of Schoenberg and Webern.  In the Actionist work of Kren and Mühl, “the equation material = body” can be understood as a trauma to be worked through.  The “material” body in these works is inevitably female, and is implicitly identified with the bloody muck that pervades the scene.  It is the male psyche which is in jeopardy, and Mühl stages these scenes in order to revel in the unmasterable materiality of the female body.  Kren’s work upon the filmic material traces of Mühl’s performances, however, slyly demonstrates that any material, no matter how ostensibly in excess of male subjective mastery, can be organized, orchestrated, and subdued.  Kren replaces the “female body” with the “film body,” provoking a crisis in the secure male fictions of Mühl’s Actionist procedures.

Feminist Actionism, however, take this equation between “body” and “material” in a different direction.  Whereas Kren’s work exposes male paranoia by mockingly staging the triumph of subject over object, Export’s feminist materialism begins from a position of subject / object interpenetration, of the body both in space and as space.  Export’s 1968 “expanded cinema” work Tapp- und Tastkino (Touch Cinema)[6] substituted a darkened theatre for the artist’s own shirt.  Export, in a wooden box, wandered city streets, providing passersby with the opportunity to feel her breasts through a curtained hole in the front of the apparatus.  Roswitha Mueller has described the film / performance.


In the majority of commercial films the forbidden revolves around the body of

woman, more specifically her breasts and genitals.  In Touch Cinema the voyeur-

ism is undercut by reversing the cinematic viewing situation.  Instead of being

able to hide in a dark room, anonymously engaged in spurious pleasure, the spec-

tator is encouraged to enjoy the “real thing” – but out in the open, in the middle

of the street, where he can be seen by everybody. . . . The tenor of the sixties’

emphasis on sexual liberation is evident, but what is not so obvious is that Export

also considered it a “true woman’s film.” She describes it as “woman’s first step

from object to subject” (Mueller 1994, 15-18).


Export continues, noting that anyone could become a tactile spectator of this film, that women as well as men could take pleasure, and that the piece could serve overall to demystify, and therefore decommodify, women’s breasts.

The piece, it seems, has a confrontational tone which might serve to occlude its participation in what I am calling paranoid practice. Touch Cinema’s structure is confrontational precisely because it courts threat in order to attempt to master and reverse it.  The ambivalence of the female body in film and in real life is at issue in Touch Cinema.  Does the scene of the movie theatre, with its darkened anonymity, serve to reinforce the heterosexual male subject’s sense of his prerogative to dominate public space?  If the cinema typically promises something that it fails to deliver, Touch Cinema seems to deliver what the cinema attempts to convince men that they are entitled to.  Returning to the earlier discussion of the panoptic character of femininity, the patriarchal image world, of which most cinema is a part, could be understood to enforce a regulative function with respect to female bodies.  If Export can assume an aggressive stance toward the patrons of the Touch Cinema, it is in part a defensive stance. This is because the “no-touch” situation of traditional cinema incites desire for access to the forbidden object, but this desire, in turn, makes Export’s body into a semiotic target.  Propriety tells us that men will not grope women on the street, but as we know all too well, propriety breaks down with great regularity.  Touch Cinema invites this breakdown in decorum, while subjecting its participants to a counter-surveying look. 

The reversal of the male paranoiac, of “I love him / I hate him / he hates me,” wherein a subjective desire becomes an objective threat, is itself reversed in Export’s cinema piece.  Already a material object in space, Export begins Touch Cinema with the proposition “he looks at me,” which reverses into “I look at him.”  But the final permutation of the feminist paranoiac reversal, “I do not see him,” is more difficult to square with a completely sex-positive, liberatory position.  Schreber’s paranoia is inaugurated at the moment that the oscillation between loving and hating Flechsig must be unambivalently decided in the direction of hate, in order to maintain subjective impermeability.  (Although he will become penetrated by God, this is an act of rape which transforms him into a female subject, so the original subject “Schreber” remains unsullied.)  Export’s progressive, feminist paranoia does not insist on such firm boundaries, but does not elide them either.  Touch Cinema maintains its ambivalence between “I look at him” and “I do not see him.” 

While the power of female viewing granted by the former makes Touch Cinema a defiant feminist cinema act, by which woman attains the status of subject, it is the dangerous blindness of this subject position which makes the piece a radical intervention.  This blindness can be understood in at least four different ways.  First, Export as the performer is unable to see inside the theatre.  She experiences her own body through the act of being touched, and in this sense becomes the screen to which she has no visual access.  Second, the hands of the cinemagoer are hidden at the moment of contact.  The performer can witness the participant’s hands only before and after the “film.”  Third, despite the defiance built into the piece, the participant on the street proceeds to attend Touch Cinema.  While some people may be shamed by the public nature of their participation, some are not, and it is the look of those participants which Export must confront.  Her look back at them does not deter their participation – her look is not “the gaze.”  So while Export looks back at the male cinemagoer, he, lacking shame, does not appear to see her look back.  Like the image of woman on the typical movie screen, she cannot look back.  Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, the piece attempts counter-surveillance by making a kind of concession to the potential street attacker.  Touch Cinema is a space of negotiation, in which the objectification of women’s bodies and its attendant threat is neutralized, a move which is necessary precisely because one can never know in advance where that threat will come from.  Export can see the participant in Touch Cinema, but this seeing is the reversal of a paranoid recognition that without Touch Cinema, unexpected “cinemagoers” would not be visible.

The radical character of this expanded cinema work, I contend, is precisely that it mobilizes paranoia against victimization.  It places the body on display and at risk, within circumstances which, while controlled, are public and fairly unpredictable.  Unlike the conservative male paranoiac, who makes clear bodily divisions in order to stabilize subjective boundaries, Export’s feminist paranoia emphasizes the impossibility of keeping the body safe and discrete.  Touch Cinema reverses the cinematic gaze, but does not presume to grant its inhabitant the power to control or legislate the gaze of the other.  It in fact puts the female gaze under erasure, enacting its own impossible struggle to claim the full subjective power which characterizes phallic mastery.  The project seems to tell us, “We must be vigilant in our counter-surveillance, for there is so much we cannot see.”  Given the difficulty of this ambivalent position, it is not surprising that Touch Cinema takes a toll on its performer.  In 1989 Export wrote of the piece


Tapp- und Tastkino (Touch Cinema) captures the violence of the patriarchy through

acts of self-chosen demonstration.  In this “expanded cinema,” the code with which

she counters the frustration induced by the media is quite evident.  In the long run,

however, this campaign of women’s sexual self-determination, which clearly demon-

strates the shift in the relationship between the sexes, occurs at the expense of the

woman actionist.  Art – any art – needs its breaks.  The event was repeated several

times and then stopped (Export 1989b, 90).


III. Guarding the Lost Body: Adjoined Dislocations

Mueller describes an expanded cinema performance piece by Export from 1973, entitled Adjungierte Dislokationen [Adjoined Dislocations], a piece which literalizes the counter-surveillant mode by fitting the performer’s body with cameras with which to record and patrol the space through which she moves.  In this work, Export affixes two 8mm cameras to her body, one facing forward, the other behind.  As Export moves, she produces a record of the space around her.  “If the body bends down, for example, the frontal camera takes images of the street while the camera on the back films the sky” (Mueller 1994, 19-23). In a sense, she creates an axis of visibility which she bisects.  Presuming that the focal lengths of both cameras are set at the same distance, Export’s cameras demarcate a surveillance zone which travels along with her, with her own body at the center.  As she moves forward, the camera in front brings objects closer to the viewer of the film, only to throw them out of the film frame.  (This is not much different than the traditional dolly shot.)  This forward motion, in terms of its work on the frame if not in the specifics of its procedure, can be compared with Michael Snow’s Wavelength.[7]  Annette Michelson describes the phenomenological consequences of the camera’s lurch forward.


. . . the effect of these perceptions is to present the movement forward as a flow

which bears in its wake, contains, discrete events: their discreteness articulates

an allusion to the separate frames out of which persistence of vision organizes

cinematic illusion.  Above all, however, they create, through the slow focusing

in time, through relentless directionality, that regard for the future which forms

the horizon of expectation (Michelson, in Gidal 1978, 40).


Adjoined Dislocations complexifies this process in several ways.  First, Export’s expanded cinema piece documents movement both towards and away from; that which passes out of the frame before us reappears, transformed into the past and visualized as it is left behind.  Second, and perhaps most significant in feminist terms, Adjoined Dislocations makes of Export’s body the blind spot and placeholder for the physical present of the film.  We see directly ahead of and behind Export’s body in space, but her body itself is the destination of the spatial directionality on both sides, and it will never be achieved.  Whereas Snow’s film employs the zoom lens and the stationary camera to move the viewer through space, Export’s piece marks her own body’s movement in time, making it an analog to film movement.  In so doing, Adjoined Dislocations aligns the usual invisibility of the apparatus with the erasure of the female body.[8]  This film work constitutes the body as diminishing potentiality in both directions, moving the viewer around in those spaces which surround Export’s contours, but which she occupies only asymptotically.

But I want to elaborate on a third way in which Adjoined Dislocations expands on Michelson’s discourse of temporality.  This final aspect, I think, is at the heart of Export’s radical intervention.  As I mention above, I think that Export’s use of the apparatus in this expanded film can be thought of as an act of counter-surveillance.  Export’s movement through space is a documentary act which exploits the apparatus in order to monitor the space around her.  If a woman in the city must understand herself to always already be an embodied spectacle, Adjoined Dislocations potentially returns the city’s “look.”  However, the engagement with the space surrounding the body is not of the traditional evidentiary variety that constitutes the juridical counter-surveillant mode.  It instead partakes of the paranoid mode of counter-surveillance, which both patrols space as a mode of self-defense, and enacts the body’s blurred interpenetration with potentially hostile space.

The body inside Adjoined Dislocations moves toward, away from, and through a space, and in doing so becomes itself a function of that space.  Export describes this process as follows.


In this way “what is demonstrated is not only the investigation of the environ-

ment on film but a film of the investigation of the environment through the

body, which turns the environment into a body, into the body’s extension,

into an environmental body” (Mueller 1994, 23).


The movement through the space of the environment is described as an “investigation,” which, through the body, eventually elides the distinction between body and environment.[9]  Export’s cinema piece is a documentary of a patrolling action which becomes the space it surveys.  In this respect, Adjoined Dislocations is a performative example of what Victor Burgin calls “paranoid space.”  In describing this space as it emerges from contemporary modes of seeing, Burgin writes


The psychoanalytic concept of the mirror stage . . . has alerted us to the importance

of our relation to the image in the formation of a coherent identity out of pre-Oedipal

fragmentation and disorganization. In an image-saturated environment that increasingly resembles the interior space of subjective fantasy turned inside out, the very subject-

object distinction begins to break down, and the subject comes apart in the space of its own making. . . . Such fragmentation, decentering, and loss of subject-object boundaries, is characteristic of paranoia (Burgin 1996, 120-121).


Burgin’s discussion of an image-world which can provoke a specifically social paranoia is significant here. Following from Lacan, Burgin is articulating the conditions of psychic life by considering their place in the shared conditions of the material world, and in so doing offers a concept of paranoia which is not restricted – in fact, essentially incomprehensible if restricted – to the individual’s private psyche.  For Burgin, the conditions of the unconscious are social and shared. He rereads “individual pathology,” recoding it as an epistemological stance which corresponds to a hostile reality,which inevitably breaks down fictions of the sovereign self.

Like Export’s expanded cinema works, Burgin’s theory describes a space in which the self cannot inscribe itself as an autonomous figure in a landscape.


Paranoiacs do not clearly differentiate themselves from other people and things. 

Their speech does not coincide with their identity; they speak as if they were an

other, or simply an object in a world of objects.  They have lost the illusory but

necessary sense of transcendence that would allow them to position themselves at

the center of their own space (Burgin 1996, 128-129).


This position is clearly consonant with that of Feminist Actionism: the body is a material object among other objects, and as such is subject to objective manipulation.  There are significant theoretical differences, however.  Export’s statement of Feminist Actionism entails a humanist dimension which holds out hope for a triumph of the female subject over objecthood.


Just as “material thinking shall free human products from their thing-character,”

One might suggest, Feminist Actionism shall free men’s products, that is, women,

from their thing-character.  Just as action aims at achieving the unity of actor and

material, perception and action, subject and object, Feminist Actionism seek to

transform the object of male natural history, the material “woman,” subjugated and

enslaved by the male creator, into an independent actor and creator, subject of her

own history.  For without the ability to express oneself and without a field of action,

there can be no human dignity (Export 1989b, 71).[10]


The question posed by the concept of “paranoid space” is, to what degree can we be liberated from our “thing-character,” and how positive would this liberation be?  Returning to Heidegger, we see that it is the world picture which allows us to “liberate” ourselves from the material world, by putting the world at a distance, thereby reaffirming our discrete subjecthood.


When, accordingly, the picture character of the world is made clear as the repre-

sentedness of that which is, then in order fully to grasp the modern essence of

representedness we must track out and expose the original naming power of the

worn-out word and concept “to represent” [vorstellen]: to set out before oneself

and to set forth in relation to oneself.  Through this, whatever is comes to a stand

as object and in that way alone receives the seal of Being.  That the world becomes

picture is one and the same event with the event of man’s becoming subiectum in

the midst of that which is (Heidegger 1977, 132).


The above passage from Heidegger reminds us that our achievement of a firm subjectivity will simultaneously hypostatize the world around us as an object.  While it may seem that human dignity is attained by making a decisive break with the man-made world, and claiming a powerful, independent subjective agency, such a move may well replay the male logic of the world picture.  Paranoid space is immanent space, and more of a piece with the radicality of Export’s artistic interventions.  Whereas our traditional conception of paranoia comes from a defense of egoic boundaries –  a defense which is in keeping with the male logic Export and Heidegger describe – Adjoined Dislocations produces a feminist space of radical paranoia.  It simultaneously defends against encroachment and concedes that the boundaries of the sovereign body are illusory, always already vaporized.  If, as Export has argued, “woman” is already aligned with “object” and “material,” Adjoined Dislocations moves us into the spatial position of “woman,” so that we may physically occupy this material location as it disintegrates.  This act of multi-perspectival counter-surveillance marks its defended object – the body – as already lost.  The “truth” documented by this scopic act is that the materiality of the body in space is inevitably coincident with its disappearance.


IV. Conclusion: “Negative Paranoia”


In 1915, Freud published “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Disease,” a paper in which he discusses an instance of female paranoia.  The woman under consideration believes that her lover is “abus[ing] her confidence by getting invisible witnesses to photograph them in the act of love-making” (Freud 1963, 97). In her consultations with Freud, she tells him that, “In the midst of their love-making she was suddenly frightened by a noise, a kind of knock or tick” (ibid 98).  Freud is at pains to locate the etiology of the woman’s paranoia, because he is quite convinced that she does not exhibit homosexual desires.  (Freud makes a point near the beginning of the essay of describing his patient as “a singularly attractive and handsome girl . . . of a distinctly feminine type.”) Freud concludes that the woman has identified herself with another, older woman, a mother-substitute, producing two necessary results: 1) the creation of an externalized figure of lapsed propriety (“‘If mother does it, I can do it too’”); 2) a variance on the primary narcissism which Freud believes to be at the root of both homosexuality and paranoia (ibid 104).  In this latter situation, the patient performs an end run around a homosexual object choice by psychically regressing to the pre-Oedipal mother / child dyad.  The woman is split between two subjects, herself and the mother, and this splitting facilitates the paranoiac delusion which prevents her from engaging in sexual intercourse with a man.

The most unusual element of Freud’s discussion, however, involves that persistent clicking sound.  Freud believes that this is an aural delusion by which the woman manages her sexual arousal.  “I do not believe that the clock ever ticked or that any noise [including the shutter of a camera] was to be heard at all.  The woman’s situation justified a sensation of throbbing in the clitoris.  This was what she subsequently projected as a perception of an external object.”  One of the paranoid delusions, the snap of a camera documenting the sex act, is according to Freud actually the clitoris “snapping” to attention, documenting the inauguration of genital pleasure within the sex act.  As Tom Gunning has noted, “Freud does not dwell on this extraordinary bodily identification with the camera apparatus.  Certainly, most claims of ‘I am a camera’ rest primarily on the visual rather than the sex organs” (in Charmey and Schwartz 1995, 37). 

But one might press further upon this female identification with the camera.  The clitoris-as-shutter marks a moment in time for the woman.  If, following Freud’s own analysis of female genital pleasure in the “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905), the clitoris is her “phallic” organ, one which yields “masculine” sexual pleasures, the clitoris within this paranoid delusion might be an organ of counter-surveillance.  Its clicking, we might speculate, documents the instantaneous shift from passive to active pleasure, from objective to subjective sexual subjectivity.  In Freud’s words, “the clitoral zone refuses to abandon its excitability,” and this breach in the protocols of authorized female enjoyment becomes for the paranoid patient a snapshot (Freud 1962, 123).  Time, identity, and desire are arrested, as her body freezes the evidence of her transgression.  The dialectical fluttering between subject and object is stilled in a decisive instant. 

A more radical form of paranoia could emerge on the basis of this female identification with the apparatus.  In part, one could conceptualize the difference between conservatism and radicality along the lines of stillness and motion.  In Valie Export’s Adjoined Dislocations, the artist’s body is spatially aligned with the apparatus, looking at both the future and the past.  Export is a camera, and not only a motion picture camera, but also a camera in motion.  Unlike the patient in Freud’s case study, who relies on the click of the shutter to halt desire at precise moments of subjective instability, Export analyzes the trajectory of her desire in fluctuation.  This counter-surveillance – monitoring both the space that surrounds the subject as well as her own movements across time – performatively instantiates the unstable frontiers of the self, any self, who desires.  Likewise, Touch Cinema contributes to this radical paranoid intervention.  Whereas Adjoined Dislocations posits Export as a camera, Touch Cinema positions her as both camera and screen.  The performance brings Export eye-to-eye with the desire of the other, provoking a spatial encroachment in which bodily boundaries are simultaneously broken and reinscribed.  The body, poised at the limits of its intelligibility, is placed in a negative dialectic, between coherent selfhood on the one hand, and the “self”as the screen for the projection of the desire of the other, subjectivity as “community property,” on the other.  Theodor Adorno wrote,


The separation of subject and object is both real and illusory.  True, because in the

cognitive realm it serves to express the real separation, the dichotomy of the human

condition, a coercive development.  False, because the resulting separation must not

be hypostasized, not magically transformed into an invariant.  This contradiction in

the separation of subject and object is imparted to epistemology.  Though they cannot

be thought away, as separated, the pseudos of the separation is manifested in their

being mutually mediated – the object by the subject, and even more, in different ways,

the subject by the object.  The separation is no sooner established directly, without

mediation, than it becomes ideology, which is indeed its normal form.  The mind

will then usurp the place of something absolutely independent – which it is not; its

claim of independence heralds the claim of dominance.  Once radically parted from

the object, the subject reduces it to its own measure; the subject swallows the object,

forgetting how much it is an object itself (Adorno, in Arato and Gebhardt, 499).


Like the separation Adorno describes above, paranoia is both real and illusory.  “Classical” paranoia is the horror of the breakdown of subject and object, the intolerable collapse of the boundaries of the sovereign body.  Inasmuch as this form of paranoia attempts to reestablish these boundaries through aggressive vigilance, its “object” and the spatial boundaries it maps are illusory.  The body this paranoia longs to recover is a nostalgic fiction, a retroactive function of the paranoid process itself.[11]  But as I have tried to suggest, there is a more radically philosophical, feminist form of paranoia, exemplified by the cinematic art of Valie Export.  This is a paranoia which performs on the pivot point between selfhood and interpenetration, between an otherness from without and the self as an other.  Like the description in Freud’s essay, Export snaps the shutter at the moment of breakdown between passivity and activity, but unlike Freud’s patient, she keeps moving, keeps filming, exploring this fissure in identity, running counter to the tendencies which freeze female subjectivity at the point of mere objecthood, maintaining the dynamism of the negative dialectic.  Export’s radical paranoia looks, surveys, patrols, but does so in the pursuit of an archaeology of the various objects in space which have comprised the fiction she must call “subject.”  Valie Export offers a mode of looking at the world which heeds Adorno’s injunction, never forgetting how much we are objects ourselves.


This essay has been assisted by the kind interventions of Ulysse Dutoit, Homay King, and Kaja Silverman, all of whom receive my  sincere thanks.  As always, all errors are mine alone.

[1] The term “expanded cinema” has its roots in Fluxus, the art of Happenings, and other multimedia performance activities which employed various aspects of cinema (film, projection, editing, elements of presentation) in conjunction with other forms.  The term implies, in the words of Stephen Dwoskin , a commitment “to move the frame beyond the screen.” See Dwoskin, Film Is: The International Free Cinema (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1975), pp. 235-244.  The foundational text on this topic remains Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1970).  This is a book which is underread these days, perhaps in part due to its unfashionably utopian tone.

[2] I should note that this project entails a degree of excavation on the research end. I discuss two expanded cinema works which I have not seen first-hand, and which I have encountered only through photographic and filmic documentation.  These works, as I discuss below, are fundamentally about embodied location in space, and the structural place of the spectator in both of these pieces is spatiotemporally circumscribed.  Sharing time and space with Export and the performance materials is inextricably linked to any full understanding of these works.  I have decided to excavate a set of meanings from the materials available to me, in full recognition of the substantial limits of my analysis. 

[3] This pole of experience roughly corresponds to the “active use” of popular cultural artifacts, attested to by ethnographic work on consumption in the field of cultural studies.

[4] I am drawing, of course, on Foucault’s theory of surveillance in Discipline and Punish. He writes, “. . . the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.  So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers  (New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p .201, my emphasis).


[5] The term "counter-surveillance" gained currency in the 1980s, when relatively inexpensive video equipment became commercially available, first in Japan, and then elsewhere.  In contrast to the ever-present security state maintained by the state apparatus and its capitalist counterpart, designed to patrol the spaces of private capital and the governmental / police activity which enables those spaces to exist, counter-surveillance was a move by citizens to empower themselves by watching and recording the police and big business.  Of course the most infamous example of counter-surveillance in U.S. history is the George Holliday videotape of the beating of Rodney King.  Another example, one which gained extensive media exposure as well as marking the beginning of the widespread discourse of counter-surveillance, is Paul Garrin's camcorder document of police abuses during the Tompkins Square homeless uprising.  Other such activities, however, have been scrupulously ignored by mainstream media, perhaps most notably the work of an international contingent of independent telejournalists who have logged hundreds of hours of unseen footage of post-Gulf War civilian carnage in Iraq. 

[6] The German verb Tappen connotes a touch that grasps, or gropes in the dark.  The translation Touch Cinema seems to me to downplay the invasiveness of the piece on the performer.

[7] In her interview with Scott MacDonald, Export cites Snow as an artist with whom she shares significant concerns.  See MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) pp.253-261.

[8] The piece does reveal the apparatus.  A 16mm film documenting Export making the 8mm spatial films is shown alongside the more abstract “tracking” images.  Not only does this lay bare the production process for inspection.  It also makes Export’s status as a “camera” an explicit theme of the final work.  I make the claim that her body is “erased,” and even though her image is present – in fact, it is likely to be the largest image, since that image is shot in the larger gauge – the viewer knows that the camera which looks at Export making the piece is an external view.  If we are invited to “travel” along with Export, which I think we are, then we must suture ourselves into her physical location.  We are asks to disavow the work of the apparatus (and of Export as the apparatus) just as its image appears before us.

[9] Related investigations can be seen in Export’s photographic series Body Configurations in Architecture (1972-82), in which the performer’s body conforms to existing structures, both making a place for herself and becoming an extension of the pregiven space.

[10] Roswitha Mueller also cites this passage, and provides a reading of it which recasts its humanist overtones, linking Export’s project with a psychoanalytically inflected feminist historical excavation.  Mueller writes, “While Feminist Actionism had many antecedents – Action Painting, Happenings, Action Art, Fluxus, and much earlier, Dada – it is Surrealism, Tachism, and Art Informel that Export mentions most emphatically, and for the same reasons that Barthes had singled out Surrealism in his notion of “writing”: its techniques of articulating the repressed and the unconscious.  The significance of this emphasis derives from what Export has called “the primary source” of Feminist Actionism, which she believes to be “the history of female experience.”  Memory provides a kind of history, not only of the repressed individual psyche, but also of the history of the dark continent of female repression.”  I find this conclusion, which is borne out across Export’s astonishing body of work, consonant with my own.  In Mueller, Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 30.

[11] The psychoanalytic concept of nachträglichkeit or “deferred action” described a psychic effect in which future events revise or reorganize the past, often positing effects before their cause.  J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis write, “. . . the subject revises past events at a later date (nachträglichkeit), and that it is this revision which invests them with significance and even with efficacity or pathogenic force.  On December 6, 1896, [Freud] wrote to Fliess: ‘I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory-traces being subjected from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a re-transcription.’” (in The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: The Hogarth Press, 1973).