Tuesday, December 28, 2010

samuel steward + john cage = foucauldian resistance

So I read this book, and then I read this article. The combination of the two forced me to think about means of resistance. How did these two artists utilize silence and documentation to resist marginalization and persecution of homosexuals in mid-century America?

Eccolo, excerpts from a recent paper:
Traversing numerous cultural boundaries, Samuel Steward’s narrative invites understanding not only of the homosexual experience in twentieth century American culture, but also the lingering effects of eighteenth century treatments of sexuality. Spring chronicles Steward’s unconventional trajectory: the journey from precocious university student to Parisian literati to unfulfilled academic, tattoo artist, and finally Steward’s tragic end in a filthy Berkeley apartment, a space pregnant with poignant recollections of an ultimately hollow past. Through Spring’s aforesaid elucidation, recurring themes are illustrated, the most pervasive being obsessive representation in the form of documentation, fastidious record keeping, a kind of sexual curiosity cabinet, and artistic output (Steward’s oeuvre in both literature—the Andros novels—and body art).

Spring provides insight into the homosexual experience in twentieth century America, revisiting in various guises themes of reticence and declaration. Providing a theoretical framework for the subsequent discussion, Foucault writes:

"Silence itself--the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers--is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies." (1)

Indeed, homosexuality was that which was “forbidden to name” in mid-century America. While Steward resisted hegemonic normativity through artistic production and collection, others utilized silence to oppose a tradition of discriminatory discourse. Through a comparison to American composer John Cage’s reticence, Steward’s obsessive record keeping, “curiosity cabinet,” novels, and tattoos can be understood as the violent vocalizations complementing Cage’s silent resistance.

The life and output of American composer John Cage are both mired in complexity: drawing on cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary inspirations, Cage’s oeuvre is inextricably linked to his personal life (2). Thus through a brief overview of his works, one can better understand the means by which Cage resisted the construction of homosexual deviancy in mid-century America and throughout history.

The most pertinent form of “silent resistance” can be understood through noticing Cage’s relationship to the concept and implications of authorship. The aleatoric practices with which Cage began to experiment in the late 1930s (3) signal the composer’s separation from the western art music tradition and the culture therein—decidedly elitist, masculine. Rather than assert his authorship, thus assuming the role of male genius with all its history and implications, Cage opts for a “third way.” Authorship is neither valorized nor vilified, but rather, it is merely vacant thus offering a new space for artistic production and analysis.

Steward’s authorship, like Cage’s, similarly creates a novel forum for interpretation. However, where Cage creates this space through aleatory (a form of authorial silence), Steward vigorously asserts his authorship through veiled identities (Phil Andros, Phillip Sparrow, for example) and secret histories. Although Steward participates in a culture obsessed with authorship and “naming,” he does so from the safety of his secrets. By positioning himself in a space of truth-keeping, Steward fulfills one facet of a Foucauldian force relation: knowing that which is true (Steward’s identity apart from his pseudonyms and social subterfuges) imbues him with power.

Additionally, Steward’s records, documents, and “curiosity cabinet” speaks to his need to validate his experiences within the framework of the Western scientific tradition while maintaining participation in a discourse around authorship. For Steward, the documentation of his sexual activities returned them to cultural norms in that they became part of the accepted discourse on sexuality—that of containment, order, and scientific rationality.

Though less conventional, Steward’s experience as a tattoo artist operates within the same documentation compulsion. However, rather than producing a scientific document, Steward imprints a part of himself upon another. The tattoo thus functions not only as a document but also a representation of the artist. Following the tradition of art as the offspring of its creator, Steward’s tattoos take on a new complexity. If one considers the tattoo as an extension of Steward, then he has created a mobile, plural, identity for himself further complicated by tropes of genius, pleasure, pain, bodily mutilation and control.

The tattoo as part of Steward’s artistic output, read through familiar notions of genius, also suggests a “queer” interpretation of hetero-normative social practices. Often, the impulse to procreate, aside from simple biology, is mired in cultural and social expectations: to create offspring is to ensure the continuation of familial tradition: a kind of immortality. Because of Steward’s homosexual identity and historical context, this type of immortality was unavailable to him thus he sought—consciously or not—alternative methods, the tattoo for example. More than merely visual, the tattoo as an artistic expression and subsequent experience is loaded with a multiplicity of socio-cultural meanings and implications. Finally, in contrast with Cage’s authorial and literal silence (the composer’s aleatoric oeuvre and 4’33”, respectively), Steward’s tattoos are declarations: mobile artworks visible to the public eye, created through a process inextricably bound to both pain and power.

(1) Michel Foucault, The history of sexuality, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). 27
(2) “Jonathan Katz,” http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/KatzPages/KatzWorse.html.
(3) Robert Morgan, Anthology of Twentieth-century Music (W.W.Norton, 1992). 360

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