Grotesque Fashions: Non-Binary Identity in the Female Avant-Garde
This paper focuses on ways in which writers Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes challenge and contend with misogyny and the objectifying male gaze from the margins of the avant-garde through their depictions of non-binary individuals and the grotesque (in the Bakhtinian sense). It deals with the intersections of Futurism and Dada in Loy and Barnes’ writing, paying close attention to the historical conditions of World War I and the emergence of commodity culture, homosexuality, and transvestism as loci of anxiety for male subjectivity. This cultural context opens up a space for female self-articulation and offers tools for marginalized female writers to dissolve the binary distinctions upon which male authority over female representation relies. More specifically, the writers, while distinct, are linked through their engagement with fashion and embodied experiences, heteronormative or otherwise. The essay concludes that binary thinking is incredibly tenacious and, as critics, our very hermeneutic acts are susceptible to complicity through our desire to argue for and project certain readings upon texts. By contrast, by advocating a type of feminine plurality and reveling in semantic ambiguity, both Barnes and Loy challenge our critical conceptions by identifying with marginal peoples from within their marginal positions.
FILIPPO TOMMASO MARINETTI’S “Let’s Murder the Moonlight” is a technophilic Futurist fable that constructs a simple dualistic binary by contrasting the masculine sun and its “steering wheel made of fire” against its enemy, the feminized “carnal moon” (Marinetti 56, 59). Marinetti’s portrayal of Futurist victory as sexual conquest in the “copulation of battle” is the apotheosis of this binary thinking (61). The passive female is synecdochically reduced to “monstrous vulva that spread open the better to offer itself to the terrific spasm of our coming victory” (61).
Although Futurism is but one group associated with the notoriously mercurial term “avant-garde”, its misogyny highlights a troubling aspect of the movement at large. In charting the development of the term, Matei Calinescu reveals its revolutionary, militaristic roots. The historical avant-garde required opposition, and the original enemy was the bourgeois separation of aesthetics from the “praxis of life” (22). This oppositional attitude suggests that the very etymology of the term “avant-garde” is encoded with binary thinking, operating to separate friend from foe and, by extension, man from woman. According to Susan Suleiman, female writers and artists in avant-garde movements were in a position of “double margin[ality]” (11), marginalized both within the movements and within popular culture at large. The historical conditions of World War I meant that the position of women in society was in flux: the emergence of commodity culture in combination with the increased economic and social mobility of women posed a threat to male authority.
A consideration of the unique historical conditions of the period is necessary for an understanding of the complex relationship between commodity culture and female self-fashioning. As a direct result of World War I, women “advanced their economic and social position by having maintained the home front” (Braun 37). Women were the “primary consumers in an expanding market economy” (Jones 146). As Amelia Jones observes, “female bodies became the purveyors of commercial value in increasingly ubiquitous print advertisements” (146). While the commodification of women has troubling implications for a feminist agenda, a number of unexpected consequences arose from their greater economic independence in general. Increasing numbers of women now had the monetary capital to indulge in commodity fetishism; having been objectified, they, in turn, displaced their desires onto objects. Marinetti observed “today’s women love luxury more than love” (144). This has troubling implications for Futurist virility dependent on females being reliant on, and desiring, men.
The increased autonomy of women that resulted from World War I threw masculinity into crisis and had a knock-on effect on the aesthetic production of avant-garde movements. In Francis Picabia’s words, “The war has killed the art of the Continent utterly” (165). As a result of the war, key figures in Dada such as Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia migrated from Paris to New York, and the effect of the new environment can be seen in their subsequent artworks. Picabia, as anxious about male authority as Marinetti, produced a work entitled Portrait d’une jeune fille américaine dans l’état de nudité (1915) depicting a diagrammatic drawing of a spark plug (Appendix 1) in the vein of a print advertisement. This grotesque depiction of a “jeune fille” is far from empowering, and the sexual connotations are clear: she is in a state of “nudité” and made passive to be consumed by the objectifying male gaze. Furthermore, she is the spark plug of a car, “the heart of the Ford revolution” (Goody 108), the ultimate Futurist symbol of modernity. The “jeune fille” is rendered powerless to resist the control of Marinetti’s “steering wheel made of fire”.
The privileged autonomy experienced by some women through their association with commodity culture resulted in immense male anxiety. Jones suggests that masculinity “took its armored, militaristic shape in opposition to the threatening flows of capitalism… metaphorized through the bodies of… women” (146). The Futurists sought to regain this perceived loss in authority by turning women into commodities, into machines. In this way, Futurist rhetoric proposes to strengthen male subjectivity by incorporating the female as object and as machine. In Marinetti’s autobiographical novel, L’alcova d’acciaio (1921), for example, he associates his “complicated machine gun” to “Bianca, his most temperamental lover” (Blum 97). Mastery of the weapon confirms his phallic virility and, in Cinzia Sartini Blum’s reading, “exorcises anxieties about the overwhelming forces that threaten male self-control” (97). Blum pays close attention to the historical context of “diminished libido and impaired potency” after World War I and notes that Marinetti “does not directly address the traumatic impact of industrial warfare” (97), unlike other war narratives. In this light, we can trace a nervous fault line in Marinetti’s façade of hypermasculinity when compared with the relentless idealism of his 1909 manifestos.
These anxious attempts to mechanize women for male use extended to the privileged female realm of fashion. Fashion as wearable commodity allowed women to explore the destabilizing potential of the grotesque. The interaction between clothing and the body allows for dramatic changes in the body’s silhouette and thus its gendered signification. Furthermore, fashion helps us take the grotesque Sphinx out of the Circus by engaging the “the avant-gardiste protest, whose aim it is to reintegrate art into the praxis of life” (Burger 22) that, in bourgeois society, remain in separate spheres. Clothing is a legal requirement and literally inseparable from lived experience. Vincenzo Fani’s “Futurist Manifesto of Women’s Fashion” (1920) betrays a post-war anxiety over female autonomy. Whilst he concedes that “women’s fashion has always been more or less Futurist” (39), nevertheless, he articulates a desire to control women through grotesque combinations like, “the machine-gun woman, the thanks-de-Somme woman [sic], the radio-telegraph antenna woman, the airplane woman, the submarine woman, the motorboat woman” (40). The futurist ideal of fusing the body with machinery reveals its asymmetry according to differences in gender, empowering men but objectifying women. However, Fani’s marginal proposal should be read as a symptom of the masculinity crisis rather than a destabilizing force. While binary distinctions operate almost unconsciously to assert and defend this authority, through fashion, the boundary separating the male and female spheres becomes increasingly permeable. Clothing allows the body to change its silhouette, thereby confusing gendered sartorial signifiers. Thus, non-binary individuals play key roles in an avant-garde feminist strategy to regain control over female representation. This essay aims to show how Barnes and Loy challenged male subjectivity and their own marginal status by engaging with non-binary individuals, fashion, and the grotesque.
II. Negation and Apolitical Silence
In 1914, Mina Loy, an avant-garde writer intimately connected to both Marinetti and Giovani Papini, authored her own “Feminist Manifesto” in pursuit of a female identity outside of the binary structures imposed by men. Having been disillusioned by their misogyny, she severed her ties to the movement, but still drew heavily on the stylistic and typographical cues in their manifestoes. Loy’s object of derision is, perhaps surprisingly, also Woman. She reveals her Futurist influences by reiterating ideas like, “Men and women are enemies” and calling for “absolute demolition” of tradition (153-4). Loy takes issue with a patriarchally-imposed configuration of femininity that equates sexual purity with social value. To this end, she demands, “the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity” (155) in order to free women from “biological identification…and their subjection within their bodies” (174). Furthermore, Loy opposes first-wave feminists who proclaim “Woman is the equal of Man” (153) since this gesture valorizes femininity relative to men, merely reasserting the binary that underpins female oppression. As Loy sees it, women have the choice between “Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation” (154). Her use of “Parasitism” refers to marriage, while “Negation” alludes to death. As an alternative to the aforementioned possibilities, Loy demands female self-sufficiency and knowledge: “Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourselves to find out what you are” (154).
However, the manifesto form that Loy adopts remains inextricable from dichotomous language, which only serves to prove the resilience and insidiousness of binary thought. As Tristan Tzara states, “a manifesto is a communication addressed to the whole world, in which there is no other pretension than the discovery of a means of curing instantly political, astronomical, artistic, parliamentary, agronomic and literary syphilis” (Tzara 86). Such use of sarcasm and paradox is typical of Dada: Tzara opposes the utopian claims of manifestoes that purport to cure a host of problems “instantly” even as he adopts the form himself. Furthermore, his use of “syphilis” as a metaphor betrays the manifesto’s implicit sexual basis that targets infected bodies. The gendered associations of syphilis as relating to female promiscuity suggest that Tzara implicitly places blame upon women as the source of infection. Therefore, the manifesto form does not allow for feminine plurality, since the expression of an idiosyncratic nonconformity is achieved through a highly organized and dogmatic mode that has gender dualism encoded in the form itself.
The manifesto, as Tzara observes, is a highly public form—“addressed to the whole world”—that is reliant upon imperative commands to mask anxieties surrounding (mis)interpretation. By contrast, in Djuna Barnes’s negotiation of gender, she utilizes the far more elusive and private form of the diary in her short story, “Diary of a Dangerous Child”. Although this “diary” was published in Vanity Fair and occupied an incredibly public platform, Barnes nevertheless creates a fiction of privacy through a negotiation between these public and private forms of writing. This reading is supported by the way Barnes highlights visual and hermeneutic processes throughout: Olga eludes the reader and takes refuge within the negative spaces of narrative that the diary form accommodates. Taking the form of diary entries occurring on non-consecutive days, her story both invites and resists interpretation by creating narrative aporias through temporal disjunction. In this way, the form resists any totalizing hermeneutic gestures, as reflected in the content of the narrative that raises themes of secrecy and silence in juxtaposition with that which is recorded. The narrative itself concerns the precocious Olga on the cusp of adulthood, debating “whether [she] shall place myself in some good man’s hands and become a mother, or if [she] shall become wanton” (56). So, she struggles with the choice Loy presents between “Parasitism” and “Prostitution”.
Barnes draws our attention to the processes of looking and understanding, inviting us to question the relationship between the two: Olga fears “looking as if [she] held a secret” and worries that “if the human eye were to fall upon this page, [she] might be so easily misunderstood” (56). The metatheatrical irony is clear as Djuna Barnes plays a game of incomplete information with the reader, mimicking the decision-making process that Olga must herself undergo. Olga is forced to make a decision through an encounter with the aptly-named Don Pasos Dilemma, whom she challenges to a horseback-riding competition. The diary entry that records the encounter ends abruptly with “I brought the whip down—” before cutting to the next day when Olga writes, “as you may have guessed it was not Don Pasos… it was my mother, wearing his long Spanish cloak” (94). Olga’s allusion to an implied reader is taunting, as we have no real means of “guess[ing]” from statements like “I saw the form of Don Pasos” or “I could scarcely see how the betrayer was dressed” (94). It is through these details that Barnes raises the concern of appearances and their ability to deceive the eye.
Crucially, Olga’s decision “to run away and become a boy” as a way out of her “dilemma” also relies upon a physical transformation (94). If her mother can pass for a man by donning a “cloak”, Olga naively attempts a similar feat by subsequently “cut[ting] off [her] hair” (94). Initially, Olga appears to have outsmarted the binary decision by sartorially mimicking masculinity; but she has, instead, run into Loy’s third possibility, “Negation”. This negation does not imply death, as it does for Loy. Instead, the story ends upon Olga’s open-ended statement, “I am asking myself nothing. Absolutely nothing” (94). The ambiguity of this ending accommodates a plurality of readings as Olga’s anxieties about being “seen” and “misunderstood” are resolved through her silence and sartorial disguise that afford her a kind of textual invisibility. While Olga’s fate is uncertain, we must be aware that she has not challenged binary thinking, only momentarily escaped it. In adopting a male disguise, Olga becomes invisible and silent; she has defused her anxieties about how she is seen by choosing not to be seen at all. Olga’s confrontation with masculinity never actually occurs as Don Pasos is revealed to be her mother in a cloak. Olga’s invisibility is thus an apolitical stance.
In Loy’s unpublished essay, “The Library of the Sphinx”, she attacks this apolitical silence and invisibility. For Loy, a new female identity demands introspection; women “have never spoken” for themselves and are “passive” to the taxonomy of men. Since women “have never given a sign” because men have made meaning for them, Loy posits their exclusion from semiotics, going as far as to assert, “your literature… it was written by men” (254). Loy uses the metaphor of the Sphinx in order to question how women represent themselves or are represented in literature. She writes, “the sphinx does not know her own secret…the sphinx has never spoken. The passive sphinx who has put up with everything—has never given a sign” (253). Although Loy’s radical notion blames female reticence for their subjugation, she equally posits a female sign-system that is without male influence, placing literature at its center.
III. The Grotesque and the Unbounded
In her short story “Gloria Gammage”, the eponymous character embraces frivolity and excess. Gloria’s palace is “stuffed with things bought in the hurry of a woman with taste” and she is “covered in priceless lace—in which she delighted to drop hot ashes” (2011: 25, 28). Like Olga, Gloria uses fashion to create her identity, but crucially, Gloria’s conspicuous consumption affords her visibility and allows her to negate rather than avoid masculine hermeneutics. Gloria is figured as a text to be read: we are told Gloria “keeps a no man’s land of meaning in [the] sleek stroking corners of her eyes” and her husband, Antony, “will never be able to construe its significance” (28). Through her visibility, Gloria is actively “keeping the secret—of the Sphinx” (28). The Sphinx guards the boundary to Gloria’s “no man’s land”, and Antony, who seeks to possess the secret and colonize the female sphere, is confounded by an intractable hermeneutic riddle made up of ambiguous visual and linguistic signifiers. The stakes are clear as both the Sphinx and the traveler are caught in a double-bind threatened by death or negation. In this way, the liminal figure of the Sphinx works as a critical framework to help us understand and negotiate the representation of women. While the Sphinx is female, it is not a simple metaphor for woman; it is a complex grotesque symbol, a hybrid of human and lion.
Alex Goody charts the complex history of the term “grotesque” in its usage by Mikhail Bakhtin and Wolfgang Kayser. It carries both positive and negative connotations; the grotesque is a “hybridised, excessive, defiling and exuberant inversion of power structures” evoking “a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from… animals, and human beings” (152). As understood by Bakhtin, the grotesque body is sensuous and material, but not unitary: “it is unfinished, outgrows itself [and] transgresses its own limits” (26). If the Sphinx has a grotesque body, what are the implications of Loy’s adoption of it for a feminist agenda?
To answer this question, we might consider Bakhtin’s concept of the “carnivalesque”, which proposes that festive gatherings or carnivals make us aware of the sensual, material, and affective processes of the body, thus functioning as the site where the borders that dictate binary categories become fluid. Despite Bakhtin’s focus on the early modern period, his concepts help shed light on Barnes and Loy’s shared preoccupation with the circus. The circus, like the carnival, operates as a communal site of inversion where the grotesque and abject subject takes center stage. But, crucially, it erects a boundary, dividing spectacle and the spectator, and establishes a play of gazes. By juxta-posing the invisible crowd and the highly visible performers, the circus challenges our interpretive processes by confronting us with grotesque signs that create mingled and ambiguous affects of revulsion, pleasure, and anxiety.
In Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, the Circus is not only the place where Robin and Nora meet, but also where we are introduced to Frau Mann, whose ambiguous gender is immediately signaled through aptronymy. Frau Mann’s grotesque and unbounded body is conveyed through the fusion of body and costume. She has “skin that was the pattern of her costume” a “bulge in the groin” and we are told, “the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one the property of the child made the other the property of no man” (12). The indivisibility between costumed “bulge” and “flesh” causes her to be “unsexed”, but unlike the passive “doll”, her appearance privileges her as the “property of no man”. Earlier on, the narrator explains Felix’s obsession with the circus, “The people of… the ring were… a consignment on which he could never bid” (11). The objectifying connotations of “consignment” deny Frau Mann’s subjectivity by proposing that she is still property, and therefore a commodity to be consumed.
Mina Loy’s poem “Crab-Angel” details the performance of a dwarf, who is similarly dehumanized, “hooked to a wire” (34) and manipulated by the “circus-master” (36). The epithet “Crab-Angel” is a carnivalesque juxtaposition of the high and the low, the divine angel and the scuttling crab. The gender of the dwarf is initially ambiguous: he possesses both “chrysanthemum curls” (16) and “manly legs” (19) and the speaker calls him a “minnikin of masquerade sex” (25). Loy’s use of “minnikin” is typical of her penchant for obscure and archaic words, but the word contains a plurality of gendered connotations (OED). Loy uses a kind of delayed decoding: the speaker figures out the gender of the dwarf at the same time as the reader, during the circus-master’s song. Loy achieves this by avoiding gendered pronouns for the first half of the poem, preferring “it” instead. The speaker even asks, “Helen of Lilliput? / Hercules in a powder puff?” (26-27). The performance itself plays out like a satire of Edward Gordon-Craig’s concept of the uber-marionette which sought to replace human actors and their “weakness and tremors of the flesh” (39) with marionettes. The dwarf under the influence of an “over-head pulley” (39) becomes an “automaton” (35), but the effect is ludicrous as Loy focuses our attention on the grotesque “embodiedness” of performance. The dwarf is not merely an object of derision, however. In fact, he takes on a kind of perverse beauty when Loy describes him as “a swimming star” (50) and an “aerial acrobat” (52) who reaches the “elated symmetry of Flight” (56). Ultimately, however, the dwarf anticlimactically “subsides like an ironic sigh” before “waving a yellow farewell with his perruque” (63, 68).
As the dwarf removes his perruque, or wig—the attire that sets him apart as a transvestite figure—clothing reveals its central role in constructing the dwarf’s ambiguous gender. While the wig allows the dwarf to take on a degree of autonomy and exceed the control of the circus-master, its removal signals the illusory aspect of that power and its transience. Furthermore, the division between spectator and commodified spectacle that the Circus creates allows for an easy dissociation from the grotesque bodies of Frau Mann and Crab-Angel for their “otherness”. It is this division that empties these grotesque sphinx-like bodies of the threat of negation they would otherwise pose to the viewer. I argue, then, that female self-fashioning requires two things: first, an embrace of commodity culture as a mode of empowering visibility, as we have seen in “Gloria Gammage”, and second, the relocation of the grotesque out of the circus and into the quotidian “praxis of life” in order that it truly function as a subversive agent.
IV. The Stunning Effect of Fashion
Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes were intensely engaged with fashion; both were photographed by Man Ray as exemplars of the “New Woman”. Though we should recognize the danger of visual objectification that seems to reiterate the female as a receptacle for male desire, Loy and Barnes cultivated and controlled their visual iconography, exploiting it as a site of female resistance. As Goody suggests, it “actually afford[s] them a version of cultural capital that empowered their position among the geniuses and flâneurs of Paris” (128-9). Barnes, living as an expatriate in Paris in the 1920s, recognizes this empowerment in her early journalism. In “The Models Come to Town” (1924), she satirizes the notion that fashion is merely superficial by calling the models, “superbly irrelevant, magnificently disconnected, triumphantly trivial” (302). As with Gloria Gammage, fashion provides both Barnes and Loy an emancipating visibility that resists male objectification. Thus, when Man Ray called them “stunning subjects” (1963: 98), he acknowledges that their avant-garde fashion acts on the viewer, incapacitating and “stunning” him.
It is not to say that Loy was ignorant of the dehumanizing side of commodity culture, but this aspect was not explored in her poetry until 1936, when she moved from Paris back to New York. Loy became increasingly disillusioned with fashion through her proximity to New York’s Bowery district that was filled with the homeless and the abject, left behind by the capitalist machine. During this period, Loy’s poetry juxtaposes the paradoxically dehumanizing and empowering effects that fashion has in negotiation with the body. The poem “Mass Production on 14th Street” (1942) uses ironic natural imagery to depict a department store in order to reveal the dehumanizing effects of commodity that can turn on the consumer at any time. The mannequins “project a chic paralysis” (39) as the female consumers “jolt to their robot turn” (56): the “stunning” effect of fashion turns back on the consumer who is mechanized like a Futurist instrument. Nonetheless, Loy maintains a perverse fascination with commodity culture betrayed by the vivacity of images like “an iris circus of Industry” (8) and the alliterative aural luxuriance of “carnations / tossed at a carnal caravan / for Carnevale” (26-28). The grotesque mixture of imagery has an ambivalent effect that suggests the paralyzing force of commodity culture cuts both ways, regardless of gender. We see the most poignant manifestation of this ambivalence in Loy’s poem, “Chiffon Velours”, in which an aging woman has her “flesh… replaced by external props of fashion” (Dunn). Here fashion works like a prosthetic, empowering the woman to “flee from death” (5) as “the site of vanished breasts / is marked by a safety-pin” (7-8). But the very same “safety-pin”, preventing the dissolution of her body, equally mocks the absence of her “vanished breasts”. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, her poverty, she wears an “original design” (14) and in a “sudden burst” (18) her “scraps” (16) becomes “a yard of chiffon velours” (23). This ineffable material alludes to her unstable identity, at once diaphanous like “chiffon” and dense like “velour”. In assigning originality to the woman, Loy makes an avant-garde and carnivalesque gesture by inverting the hierarchical model of the fashion industry that usually works top-down from bourgeois haute couture to more affordable ready-to-wear styles. Instead, the abject, grotesque woman comes to the fore. Fashion, the commodification of which was marshalled in service of both Futurist and Feminist agendas, suggests itself as an area of feminine semiotics dreamed of by Loy in “The Library of the Sphinx”, where women could control their visual iconography and acquire cultural capital.
VII. The “Otherness Within”: Homosexuality and Transvestitism
Although the grotesque has the potential to work as a subversive force, Goody warns that “the grotesque body should not be equated with an essential ‘otherness’ that the grotesque embodies” (155). The risk of doing so is naturalizing the connection between the female body and the grotesque; subsuming both under the category of “other”. This amounts to shifting the goalposts of the tenacious binary to accommodate its disruption rather than revealing the boundaries between male and female as porous and susceptible to transgression.
Whereas fashion and its relationship to non-binary sexuality announces itself as a countermeasure, it is homosexuality which is posited as a threat to masculinity as an “otherness within”. As I mentioned in the introductory section of this essay, the explosion of commodity culture in a post-war environment had unforeseen consequences for Futurists. In John D’Emilio’s essay, “Capitalism and Gay Identity”, he suggests that the rise of the “free labour system” undermined “the material basis of the nuclear family” (102, 108). In other words, procreation and the nuclear family as an economic unit were no longer necessary for survival, and consequently, gay identity began to emerge. Marinetti acknowledges the challenge that non-binary sexuality posed to Futurist virility in “Against Feminine Luxury”, in which he explicitly links commodity culture and “pederasty” (144). Homosexuality not only diverts female sexual desire away from men, but also threatens to turn homosocial relationships into homosexual ones. The proximity of Futurists of the same sex both on the home front and abroad created a war-mongering camaraderie that was especially susceptible to this critical move. This fear of homosexuality fostered by same-sex contiguity was described by “homosexual panic” by Edward J. Kempf in 1920 (Garber 137). Loy plays into these Futurist anxieties in her poem “Lion’s Jaw”, where hypermasculinity becomes narcissism as Bapini (Papini) “kisses Raminetti” (86), (whose name should evokes that of Marinetti) but really “rather fancying himself” (89).
It is important to note that Futurism was not homogenous, and some futurists residing in Florence were both homosexuals and misogynists. This generated a degree of internal friction among Futurists, such as when Papini spoke out to defend Italo Tavolato who underwent an obscenity trial in 1913 (Pasqualini 3). Papini’s speech is characterized by the struggle between the Futurist compulsion to oppose the dogmatic bourgeois “old morality” concerning sexual preferences and a nervousness to assert a preference for heterosexuality by drawing attention to how many Futurists “have a wife and children” (Pasqualini 14-15). This tension reveals the internal divisions that erode the militaristic united front of Futurism; a manifestation of what Calinescu calls the avant-garde’s “built-in tendency ultimately to negate itself” (124). The fact that homosexuality was tolerated suggests, by contrast, misogyny was more engrained in the fabric of their ideology; nevertheless, masculinity was threatened from within and from without by non-binary sexuality and increasing female autonomy, respectively.
Transvestism, on the other hand, announces itself as the grotesque meeting point between fashion and non-binary sexuality. While it is no coincidence that the emergence of gay identity coincided with the rise of cross-dressing, we should beware conflating the two. Majorie Garber acknowledges that the two cannot “simply be disentangled”, but warns us “neither can simply be transhistorically “decoded” as a sign for the other” (131). By maintaining an awareness of the hermeneutic challenges that surround the complex articulation of transvestism, we can avoid falling prey to the reductive gesture of “subsum[ing] [transvestites] within one of the two traditional genders” (Garber 9), a binary move in itself. Initially, the emergence of cross-dressing responded the functional demands— of providing greater comfort and mobility—that accompanied the entrance of women into the workplace during World War I. Quentin Crisp, a transvestite writing in the 1920s, suggests that “bobbed hair, and flat chests… were in fashion… Manliness was all the rage. The men of the twenties searched themselves for vestiges of effeminacy as though for lice” (Garber 138). Crisp’s metaphor of “lice” recalls Loy’s condemnation of sentimentality and married life as “Parasitism” and explains the decline of femininity in fashion. Thus, while drag reveals “the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency” (Butler 175), by itself it does not constitute a subversive act.
Since masculine fashions were in vogue for both sexes, Laura Doan suggests that lesbians were afforded a degree of invisibility until the highly publicized obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall in 1928 (663), which cemented the signifying relationship between the signs of masculine fashions and lesbian sexual identity. As we have seen from Barnes’ “Diary”, invisibility is apolitical. If avant-garde movements are characterized by their opposition to normative structures, they need to occupy marginal positions within society in order to maintain political efficacy. The failure to adhere to this (potentially impossible) goal and the absorption of the historical avant-garde into popular culture marked its death. Similarly, cross-dressing cannot be treated trans-historically since it is only politically subversive when marginal and visible. Nonetheless, provided these historical conditions are met, the transvestite’s deliberate confusion of signifiers presents a riddling challenge to the masculine authority that would pursue the Sphinx’s secret.
Transvestism plays a crucial role in Barnes’s Nightwood. The novel was published in 1936 but set in the 1920s, when transvestism, as I have demonstrated, was deeply asymmetrical according to one’s biological sex. The characters of Robin Vote and Dr. Matthew O’Connor can both be read as transvestites. Robin is a “tall girl with the body of a boy” (41) whose ambiguous gender affords her the invisibility to wander at night as the “Somnambule” (26). This invisibility is reflected textually as Robin remains mostly silent throughout the novel. By contrast, O’Connor dominates the text with his monologues and is highly visible; yet his transvestism is a secret the revelation of which causes both Nora and O’Connor “embarrassment” (72). While this textual unevenness reflects the historical conditions of cross-dressing, it also contributes to the deliberate opacity of the text. In Andrea L. Harris’s reading of the novel, O’Connor’s textual dominance constructs him as “a figure of masculine discursive authority” and even a “second narrator” (78). Harris draws our attention to the reception history of the novel’s most elusive final chapter that, importantly, omits O’Connor. Without his commentary, Elizabeth Pochoda calls the scene an “anti-climax” and Harris suggests that “[b]y displacing the female author and replacing her with a male character, Pochoda blocks a feminist reading of the gender ambiguity” (Harris 80). Writing in 1976, Pochoda’s authorial skepticism is typical of the post-structuralist moment (after Roland Barthes’s “death of the author”); nevertheless, it reveals a desire to disambiguate texts through an almost unconscious appeal to “masculine discursive authority”. This is the same hermeneutic mistake that conflates gay identity and transvestism: In Garber’s words, “[i]t is as though the hegemonic cultural imaginary is saying to itself: if there is a difference (between gay and straight) we want to be able to see it, and if we see a difference (a man in woman’s clothes), we want to be able to interpret it” (130). In our zeal to uncover the secret of the Sphinx, the critic becomes a part of the problem, preferring masculine duality to feminine plurality.
Pochoda’s incessant appeal to O’Connor’s masculine authority finds its textual equivalent in Nora’s questioning of O’Connor. O’Connor’s status as grotesque transvestite evokes a critical encounter with the Sphinx who confounds both of them with riddling answers. This reading is supported when O’Connor issues the challenging statement, “I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it” (87). The opaque and pseudo-prophetic quality of his monologues goes as far as to suggest he is a parody of Tiresias the hermaphrodite, but, unlike T.S. Eliot’s depiction inThe Waste Land, O’Connor is not mythic but human, transgressive but not transcendental. Barnes satirizes gendered relationships in this meeting of two “inverts”, as O’Connor as grotesque transvestite possesses neither the Sphinx’s secret nor the authority of masculine subjectivity. O’Connor eventually loses his patience and calls himself the “greatest liar this side of the moon” before announcing “There is no truth” (122-123). Yet, in the very same speech, we encounter O’Connor’s most riddling anecdote:
What is this love we have for the invert, boy or girl?… The girl lost, what is she but the Prince found?… And the pretty lad who is a girl, what but the prince-princess in point lace—neither one and half the other… in the girl it is the prince, and in the boy it is the girl that makes a prince a prince—and not a man. (123-124)
Beginning with the separate, binary categories of “invert, boy or girl”, O’Connor conflates them as “they” and subsequently, the grotesque and binary signifiers of “girl”, “boy”, “prince”, “princess”, “prince-princess”, “pretty lad” and “man” are syntactically and grammatically entangled in a hermeneutic aporia. In Garber’s view, transvestism “defamiliarizes sex and gender signs” (147). Sartorial transvestism becomes linguistic transvestism and the signifiers that O’Connor invokes become uncanny; we lose control and take on a degree of anxiety ourselves. In asking which signifiers apply to “inverts”, the chiastic structure of the speech puts our own position in flux; which signs do we identify with, “neither one and half the other”?
Avant-garde movements rely upon their marginal status to oppose their bourgeois enemies outlined in the hypermasculine rhetoric of manifesto culture. As Calinescu observes, the historical avant-garde died, “because it was recognized as artistically significant by the same class whose values it so drastically rejected” (120). The movements were undone by their own popularity that emptied their works of subversive threat, turning them into fashionable commodities to be consumed by the bourgeoisie. Femininity was rhetorically and visually connected to commodity culture, marking it out as a target for avant-garde movements in general, but for Futurism in particular. But that very same association is what threw male subjectivity into crisis and allowed women to take control of their visual iconography. These anxieties manifested themselves through misogyny and the objectification of women in an effort to taxonomize and marginalize female identity within binary categories. By embracing commodity culture and creating a grotesque body through its interaction with fashion, women acquired their own “cultural capital” and visibility that was impossible to ignore. The complex articulation of grotesque, transvestite bodies creates subjects that were and still are particularly difficult to decode and control. The transvestite confounds not only patriarchal authority but also critical authority. In doing so, the hermeneutic process is revealed as susceptible to slippage into complicity with the suppression of female self-articulation and semiotics still in the process of definition. ■
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