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A visual world


From A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliés, 1902


Theorists might argue that film influences and reflects cultural presumptions and biases. Contemporary culture is saturated with visual information: film, photography, and video. I often think we are rarely conscious of how visual our world has become and how many snippets of narrative we come in contact with daily, through television, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. Film is artistically constructed narrative. When we go to the cinema, we expect to be thrilled by a fictional work. In theory, much film (other than documentary) does not purport to convey reality, whereas other visual media, such as news, video clips, and commercials are presumably based on reality. However, with advances in technology, much of what is produced for television and the Internet has become more cinematic. When our day is filled with moving, clamoring pictures, are we able to distinguish the real from the embellished? Can we learn the devices filmmakers use to create their effects? Can we understand their connection to history, philosophy, and politics? Film theory sheds some light on the connections between culture, the work, and the viewer.

A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions.

Film theory can help us be more conscious consumers of the experiences we seek in film, but it can also wake a more general tendency to ask why, what, and how when presented with any product of art or culture. As Nealon and Giroux convey in the first chapter of The Theory Toolbox, theory prompts us to ask questions about what we might otherwise accept as “natural” (5). Moreover, they write, theory invites us to think and act, not merely consume (5).

It’s natural to be swept away by the cinematic experience; this is certainly one of the joys of film. However, film can be a powerful conveyer of messages. It functions very similarly to our own minds and memories in its rich presentation of images and sounds, its emotive impact, and its manipulation of time and space. A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions. Today we have movies in 3D; tomorrow we will have virtual reality movies. It seems that critical thinking about film is becoming ever more important as film becomes ever more engulfing and enticing.

Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that signs now precede reality—technology has become so astute at simulation that it has replaced the real (“The Precession of Simulacra”). When I first read Baudrillard several years ago, I reflected on a tangible experience that supported his theory. Upon returning to America after 13 years of living abroad, I noticed that people had begun to speak to each other in sarcastic manner that was similar to the way Americans in sitcoms spoke. It seemed to me that they were imitating the imitation of their lives. Since then, I have assimilated, and it’s no longer noticeable to me, but the question sticks with me: how much of what we have become can be traced back to the media we consume?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts For The Humanities, Arts, And Social Sciences. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.


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Freeing the Body as revisionary art



Sketch inspired by Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Body, Angela Anderson

In 1976, performance artist Marina Abramovic danced for eight hours until she collapsed.

It was one performance of a three-part conceptual artwork called Freeing the Body, which sought to empty the mind, body and voice of the artist. Although Abramovic has rejected the feminist label, Freeing the Body demonstrated a revisionist spirit that was central to second wave feminism (Baker). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write about the dynamic that historically lead women artists into “a battle for self-creation” in The Madwoman in the Attic (1929). Women who dare to write or create in a patriarchal society are forced to revise their own image, they argue. In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom. This conscious reduction of self symbolizes the female artist’s “revisionary process” (1929).

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom.

According to Gilbert and Gubar, the woman writer’s struggle “ . . . is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization” (1929). In Freeing the Body, Abramovic covers her head and dances naked to an African drum until collapsing. The viewer sees her female form in motion, driven on by the beat until it falls. The faceless body is “freed” through the artist’s command—to dance until it can no longer function. Symbolically, the body represents Hegel’s slave to the mind’s master, which is set free through work (Phenomenology of Spirit). Abramovic has rendered her working female form useless, thereby reaching a state where new purpose can arise. It is a radical demonstration of redefining the self, which Gilbert and Gubar say is essential to creation of a new vision, one that must reach beyond female anatomy.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar quote Adrienne Rich on feminist revision: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . an act of survival” (1930). In the second part of her artwork, Freeing the Memory, Abramovic sits in a chair with her head tilted back while she speaks a free-flowing stream of words for one and a half hours until her mind goes blank. In this performance, the artist traverses her memories until she bankrupts yet another part of her self. She reaches back in her mind to come to a place where she can “see with fresh eyes” through emptiness.

Women artists on the quest for recreation are the girls in “The Red Shoes” of Anne Sexton’s poem who illustrate the “hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” by taking apart their bodies, say Gilbert and Gubar (1935). The third part of Abramovic’s work, Freeing the Voice, the artist lies on her back and screams for three hours until she loses her voice. To the audience, the artist might appear mad, the performance an exorcism of the hysterical female Gilbert and Gubar refer to in their text (1932). Yet, her aim is to exhaust yet another instrument of expression—one that is clearly connected to both mind and body as evident in the physical and mental effort involved as she pushes out each cry.

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic dismantles her own body to reach a point she calls freedom—a freedom of all that has been written in the nerves, muscles and brain tissues of her body. Her art is conceptual, but she uses her own flesh to make her point. The fact that the artist did this performance piece in the 1970s during second wave feminism is significant. She showed the world that a woman with red shoes could dance herself to freedom: She could take control of her own identity—her self—and traverse its realms to find a new place free of their influences.

Works Cited

Abramovic, Marina. “Four Performances 1975-76.” YouTube. July 15, 2013. Web. November 10, 2013.

Baker, Katie J.M. “Marina Abramovic Isn’t a Feminist.” Jezebel. July 30, 2012. Web. November 11, 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1923-1938. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 541-547. Print.

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Anna Karenina and the deception of courtly love


“Atheist in Love,” from Rapture, a collection of poems and forms, Angela Anderson 

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the most famous love stories of all time. Yet, the tale is a tragedy. At the heart of its woeful ethos is the deceptive promise of courtly love, as explained by Slavoj Zizek in his 1994 essay “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The “Lady,” or the beloved, is unattainable, Zizek proposes, because she is not real—she is a culturally constructed mechanism that paradoxically precludes authentic love. The romantic notion of spiritual love is narcissistically projected onto the vacant Other (2408). The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation (2413). In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy presents two stories as possible outcomes of love, but the “fantasy matrix” of courtly love leaves all parties—the lover, the loved, the faithful and the betrayed—ultimately and sorrowfully alone (Zizek 2426).

The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation.

According to Zizek, courtly love is not an earnest pursuit of relationship, but rather “a social game of ‘as-if’” based on the masochistic dynamic of man as the victim and woman as the master (2409). “It is the victim (the servant in the masochistic relationship) who initiates a contract with the Master (woman), authorizing her to humiliate him. . .” (2409). In Anna Karenina, Count Vronsky pursues Anna, the wife of an esteemed politician, after an exchange of passionate glances and a night of dancing. He follows her; she tells him to forget her, all the while yearning for his advances. “I beg for only one thing,” he tells her in the novel. “I beg for the right to hope, to be tormented, as I am now” (Tolstoy 140). Vronsky plays the role of the victim to the object of his passions. He convinces Anna to run away with him, and when they are finally together, and she is his, he becomes restless for the life he used to lead.

“The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created—whose place is encircled—through a network of detours, approximations and near-misses,” Zizek writes. The obstacles elevate the value of the unattainable Other, which Zizek describes as the “’black hole’ around which the subject’s desire is structured (2412). In a parallel love story in the novel, the character Levin, initially rejected by Kitty, retreats to his work in the country but cannot forget her. After being abandoned by Vronsky for Anna, Kitty realizes that Levin was the one who truly loved her. They marry, have children and live his ideal country life. But Levin finds his soul still yearning. He becomes obsessed with the meaning of life surrounded by all that he desired: “And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself. . .” (Tolstoy 789) The promise of his great love was an illusion: Once the obstacles are removed he still finds himself, as always, alone with his doubts.

Zizek argues that the object of courtly love does not represent the metaphysical good, but rather symbolizes evil—a sense of perversion which compels wrongdoing because it’s wrong (2417). But the masochistic play of courtly love never reaches full-blown violence (2410). In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna crosses that boundary, taking courtly love to its ultimate tragic end. Feeling her love slip away—the love she sacrificed everything for—she throws herself under a train. But she leaves behind a whole society that lives on in the theater of the “as if.” Levin, aware of the emptiness at the end of the rainbow, continues to live a tortured but steady life. Regardless of the outcomes, the result is the same, Tolstoy seems to imply: We are all alone in our narcissism. This is what Anna realizes on the eve of her suicide: “Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others,” she thinks (746). In Anna Karenin, suicide symbolizes the effect wrought on the lovers by courtly love: The very device used ostensibly to bring intimacy and union ends in irrevocable separation—end of game.

Works Cited

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2000. Print.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2407-2427. Print.