Waves and Themes
Following the productions of feminist visual culture from the first wave of Western feminism in the 1910s and 1920s through the second and third waves, we are able to see reflected the issues dominating the feminist counter-public sphere at particular moments: bourgeois domestic troubles and the struggle for a public life are present in the story worlds and their formal presentations in the early cinema of Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blanche, and Germaine Dulac; the struggle over the meaning of femininity in the 1940s and 1950s films of Maya Deren and Dorothy Arzner becomes in the 1970s and 1980s a more direct and confident interrogation of the oppressive conditions and cultural production of sexual difference, as exemplified in Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1974), Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1974), Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Anne Claire Poirier’s Mourir a tue-tete (1979), Marlene Gorris’s A Question of Silence (1982) and Broken Mirrors (1984), and Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983). The mid-1980s through the 1990s sees a shift from sexual difference to gender and cultural difference: Leslie Thorton’s Adynata (1983), Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties (1986), Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), Pam Tom’s Two Lies (1990), Ngosi Onwurah’s Body Beautiful (1990), and the films of Trinh T. Minh-Ha (most notably for this context: Sur Name Viet, Given Name Nam  and A Tale of Love ).
Given that technologies of the reproducible image, from photography to digital mediations, as well as those technologies of seeing related to biomedical systems, function as tools of containment, invasion, surveillance, and control of the female body and the female subject in dominant Western culture, feminist visual culture has long critiqued, transgressed the uses of, and attempted to reimagine the limits of these technologies. Hence, while technology is cited as a problem in terms of processes of representation throughout most of the canon, the 1990s also sees direct feminist critical engagements with issues related to cybernetic and biomedical technologies as instruments of identity construction and containment. These concerns are central to both Tom’s and Onwurah’s investigations of cultural difference as well as in Kathy
High’s Underexposed: The Temple of the Fetus (1993), Yvonne Rainer’s murder and murder (1996), Kim Derko’s The Book of Knives (1996), Janine Marches – sault’s The Numerology of Fear (1999), and the work of Shu-Lea Cheang and other digital artists (such as Nell Tenhaaf). While not all of those listed address violence in a direct way, most of them do reflect on violence as a formative condition for female subjectivity and as a pervasive condition of life for women in modernity.
We can see the exercise of violence as the means by which to effect a momentary and often unspectacular break or rupture in a time loop of repetitious acts and deadly boredom (The Smiling Madame Beudet). Or it is an act temporally structured to function as equivalent to other acts—thus commenting on the culture of violence against women as naturalized and habit- ualized in the routine of daily life and its visual culture (Jeanne Dielman). Or it is a direct assault on the visual culture of gender containment (The Book of Knives). Or, more conventionally, it brings closure or cessation by functioning as the climax (Broken Mirrors).
In the majority of these films and tapes, the agent of violence is decidedly middle-aged. Mothers and/or sex workers and/or wives and/or patients: the conflict between aging and not having autonomy as a temporal subject is a central dramatic and/or formal tension that gets expressed as violence and even murder. There is also a specific issue relating the medicalized, aging body as a site or agent of violence. In Kim Derko’s The Book of Knives (1996), which is exemplary of this subgenre, the felt body is prioritized over the body as object of measure, spectacle, or erotic attraction. Here the logic that links technology (medical and visual), chronometric time, and the spatial and temporal confinements of the female image are disrupted. This rupture, I argue below, in the chronometric time of linear history comes about through the emergence or prioritization of the felt body; and it is often enacted in feminist cinema through the performance of violence.
One thread joining various feminisms throughout the twentieth century is the struggle for temporality—for its emergence through praxis from modernity’s production of time (Lefebvre, 1991) and technological subordination of time to space. In other words, we are dealing with a struggle against the particularly modern form of time that uses imaging techniques and technologies to freeze women out in space.2 Central to the last twenty-five years of feminist analyses of the image of women in modern visual culture is Laura Mulvey’s oft-cited insight that “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness…her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation [for the imagined male viewer]” (Mulvey 1975, io). This understanding of the image of woman as that which is associated with the stilling of time, with the space and not the narrative of cinema, with arrest rather than development, is what I refer to when I discuss the spatial freeze of modern femininity. This condition of the Western social imaginary is central to feminist culture’s critique and alternatives. While this condition of spatialization has a long history in Western culture (see Burfoot in this volume; as Julia Kristeva ; Susan Bordo ; and Rosi Braidotti [1991 and 1994]), the marriage of capitalism, biomedical science, and technologies of the reproducible image create a condition within which the detem – poralized and endlessly reproducible image of woman circulates as the shared and prized commodity. The rationalization of vision, as discussed by Susan Bordo (1987, 23), is the “nightmare of the infinite universe transformed into the well-lighted laboratory of modern science and philosophy.” Such spatial revelation is coextensive with the pursuit of the kernel of time, time’s essence; that is, the representation of time as progress and without loss, a standard time, with direction, purpose, and so on. And, according to Elizabeth Ermarth (1992, 30),
Historical time, and the consciousness coextensive with it, is at least potentially interchangeable among individuals because it is consciousness of the same thing: an invariant world, one that changes according to certain laws that do not change. Any individual perspective is only arbitrarily limited; it is only the “accidents” of language, nationality, gender, and so on that obscure this potentially cosmic vision. But this condition notwithstanding, if each individual could see all of the world (so the representational convention of time goes), all would see the same world.
She continues this ironic statement by remarking that, “the triumph of historical time entails a perpetual transcendence of, one might even say flight from, the concrete, and because of this, it offers no assistance to those who must deal with material limitation, including the ultimate material limitation of death” (30). We may well understand time as artefactual, as plastic, as made (as is evident when we consider that time is structured differently in different cultures), but the view of time as progress, as always on its way to the next place in line, is an order of time well suited to, in fact made to order by, the marriage of capitalism and science. Hence, making time otherwise appears to be only in the interest of those for whom this form of historical time “offers no assistance.” The time of use, aging, and death for female subjects whose sociocultural (i. e., objective) value had been guaranteed by a time that doesn’t want to know death—the image, frozen in space—is culturally coded as useless time (i. e., without function or future). This view is reproduced and intensified by biomedical technologies and their chronometry.
To deprive the body of its time and to deprive time of the body by rendering it as only a spatial object is to create the condition of a double suffering. That body cannot live its time; and, unable to live its time, it is deprived of its historicality and its mortality. Of course, the forms of time in the everyday and in representational worlds are not the same; but the embodiment of representation—the psychic leaning upon the body and the body’s adoption of postures of being—produces the imaginary of and in the everyday. Hence, among the many implications of this condition of the spatial frieze for subjectivity and, therefore, for society is the elimination of futurity as a collectively created, and creative, experiment in and with time. In the films I analyze, the murders and other violent acts by women function as formal enactments of disparity and dissension within the patriarchal spatial economy of the image. As well, these murders function as momentary thresholds and limits of the concrete and collective suffering of detemporalization that continually appear in the exercise of power. In nearly all cases, the moment of violence is reflected upon as being connected to the technologies that form, inform, or extend from the social and aesthetic production of these problematic spaces. For example, the technologies are interrogated by some gesture of filming that works to obscure vision and its hold on the framing of the world or through a direct action that either narratively or metaphorically turns the technology into a useless or differently used object.
In many films from the period of the 1970s to the 1990s there is a heightened engagement with turning the dead gaze of imaging technology upon itself by, in Laura Mulvey’s (1975,18) words, “[freeing] the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment." While this is arguably present in the work of the previous decades, feminist cinema of the 1970s and 1980s confronted the problem of producing a space of representation reflective of the socio-historical relation of women to modernity’s dichotomous arrangements of power and knowledge. This practice was correlative with—and often a companion to— feminist theoretical and political investigations into the material conditions that produce gender and sexual difference. In this way, we can perhaps best understand feminist cinema as participating in social discourse through its response to that which the discourse cannot speak—or to the silences and absences the discourse, however critical, produces.3 The theoretical and practical questions converged with the concern over the ethical and political stakes
of representing the female body within a cultural context where economic and symbolic power pivots upon the investment, circulation, and marketing of the sexed body as a consumable entity. The structural impossibility of film and photography to not re-present the female body as already sexed, as always bound to the position of “to-be-looked-at-ness,” was a condition that could not be “overturned by a contemporary practice that is more aware, more selfconscious” (Doane 1988,140). Elaborating on Mary Ann Doane’s summary of this impasse, the dichotomy articulated in theory between essentialism and anti-essentialism (which underwrites the proliferation of binaries named above) had as its correlation in practice two equally “inhibiting and misleading” positions: (1) full presence of an untrammelled body—a position that preassigns transparency to technologies of mechanical reproducibility and thus presupposes the technologies’ inherent ability to offer verisimilitude; or (2) absence of any depiction of that body—a position that presupposes that symbolic capital is so thickly embodied by imaging technology that the negation of any realism is the only aesthetic response. These two positions repeat the founding problem rather than offer another syntax for representability: in the first position, female identity is not only adequated to the body, it is ontol – ogized; that is, the truth of identity is equated with being via appearance (i. e., appearance = essence), the foundation of which is nature. In the second position, this biological determinism is understood as a construction of knowledge, and, due to the technological determinism that drives this analysis, technology itself is ontologized. Ontologized technology is thus projected onto the body in its absence. Based on this summary, we can see that both positions emerge from the problematic inheritance of modernity’s ocularcentrism, which equates vision with truth—a vision that becomes inextricable from technologies that process the world as information, organize it as a spatial image, and construct nature as that which exists to be dominated.