COMMODITIES, VISUAL PLEASURE, AND FILM THEORY
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ABSTRACT ........................................................................................................... iii
1 INTRODUCTION .............................................................................................. 1
2 COMMODITY FETISHISM AND THE MATERIALS OF CULTURE ............ 10
Fascinating Fetishism ........................................................................................ 13
M material Culture of the Nineteenth Century ....................................................... 25
Notes ................................................................................................................ 54
3 TOW ARD A "FETISH-FRIENDLY" FEM INISM ............................................ 58
The Frankfurt School and Theories of M ass Art .................................................. 61
The Surrealists and Photog6nie ............................................................................. 71
Mise-en-scene M eets the New W oman ................................................................. 78
Notes ................................................................................................................ 94
4 CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS IN PRIX DE BEA UTE ................................ 96
Film Theory vs. The Cinematic Detail ................................................................ 98
The Narrative: Containing the "Show-Off" ........................................................ 102
Gendering the Distraction: W omen and the "Street of Life" ............................. 106
A Mise-en-scdne of Desire and the FlAneuse .......................................................... I11
"A Tempting Trace of the Film's Potential"...................................................... 127
5 ACCESSORIES AFTER THE FACT ............................................................... 130
W ORKS CITED ................................................................................................. 161
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................................................................ 168
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
COMMODITIES, VISUAL PLEASURE, AND FILM THEORY
Chair: Robert Ray
Major Department: English
My dissertation examines the tension between the rationalizing "narratives" of
film theory and the irrational distractions of the cinematic detail. Traditionally, film
theory proposes grand narratives that read movies (or groups of movies) allegorically,
foregrounding particular patterns and ignoring individual details. Yet certain avant-
garde theorists suggest that cinema lives at the level of detail. And in fact, many
spectators can vividly recall details of the mise-en-scene, while easily forgetting the
"moral of the story." Despite Classical Hollywood cinema's basis in narrative
continuity, certain visual "distractions" point to the continued presence of a "cinema of
attractions," a pre-narrative, presentational mode appropriated by the avant-garde.
I question why contemporary film theory (particularly feminist film theory)
tends to devalue the cinematic detail, requiring its acquiescence to a grand narrative.
At the core of this question lies the issue of fetishism. I challenge the prevailing notion
of fetishism as a pernicious pathology and instead argue that when we examine the
theory of the fetish (generalized from its anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic
origins), we find the foundation of the visual, material culture that characterizes
modernity. I uncover particular "fetish-friendly" theories that celebrate the cinematic
detail, and, in my final chapter, suggest ways these theories might be appropriated for a
method of film criticism.
A certain film opens with the following images: a steam-whistle blows, factory
doors open, and workers flood the city streets, returning to their homes after another
day of labor. These images come from a movie that emblematizes a significant
moment in cinematic history while also representing the issues addressed in this
dissertation. The significant moment concerns the origins not of cinematic projections,
but of what Charles Eckert calls "Hollywood's role in the evolution of consumerism"
(Eckert 119). The film is MGM's 1931 version of Possessed, starring Joan Crawford and
As the film continues, the Lumiere-esque documentary is quickly "Hollywood-
ized": The camera closes in on one female worker, Marian (Joan Crawford) whose
desires set the narrative in place. Marian's visible dissatisfaction with life in a
cardboard-box factory mirrors Hollywood cinema's dissatisfaction with documenting
working-class reality. Like the average Hollywood cinema-goer, Marian dreams of
escaping from her menial work-a-day existence and enjoying her share of the finer
things in life. She leaves the factory with Al, her coworker and hopeful suitor, who
represents the reality Marian wishes to escape. Al proposes marriage one more time,
and upon rejection laments, "Gee, you're a funny kid. What do you want anyhow?" "I
don't know," Marian confesses. "I only know I won't find it here."
Possessed--an apt title, pointing to both Marian's urgent longings for "the good
life," and to the possessions that house those longings--aptly demonstrates the
correlation of commodities and desires that increasingly characterized modern life. As
Marian continues her walk home, she soon finds what she wants. She stops at the
railroad track to await a passing train and gazes rapturously at the delights displayed in
the window of each pullman. The first window shows servants preparing cocktails and
hors d'oeuvres; the second pullman contains a maid, ironing silk undergarments; the
third displays an immaculately coiffed woman wearing a lace slip and putting on silk
stockings; the next shows the silhouette of a gentleman shaving; and the final pullman
displays a formally-dressed couple in the midst of an intimate tango. Marian stands
before each window in contemplative silence, enraptured by the opulent displays that
make concrete her desires. For the first time in the movie, she appears truly inspired.
This scene embodies the key issues involved in my examination of the tension
between the rationalizing "narratives" of film theory and the irrational distractions of
the cinematic detail. Traditionally, film theory proposes grand narratives that read
movies (or groups of movies) allegorically, foregrounding particular patterns while
ignoring individual details. Yet, as the scene from Possessed shows, cinema lives at the
level of the detail. No doubt, the movie delivers a predictable narrative onto which one
could dutifully map a given theory -- it exemplifies "false consciousness" from a Marxist
perspective, or, from a feminist perspective, it shows the displacement of women's
desires onto commodities. Yet as a spectator, what I remember first and foremost
about the movie is not the "moral of the story," but the details within the slowly
moving train windows that impede the narrative. Marian, standing before the train,
represents the cinema spectator, whose attention might be distracted at any moment
by a given visual detail. The purposeful movement of the train corresponds to classical
Hollywood cinema's basis in narrative continuity, while the distractions within the
individual windows point to the continued presence of a "cinema of attractions," a pre-
narrative, presentational mode appropriated by the avant-garde.
Thus my initial confounding of MGM's Possessed and Lumiere's Workers Leaving
the Factory amounts to more than a gimmick. For even as Possessed represents Classical
Hollywood Cinema (with its supposed foundation in voyeuristic narrative and
continuity editing), it retains traces of the exhibitionistic, "primitive" cinema la
Lumiere. Tom Gunning calls this "primitive" style the "cinema of attractions" which
"directly solicits spectator attention inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure
through an exciting spectacle" (Gunning "Cinema of Attractions" 58). Possessed--and in
fact many other narrative films of the 1920s and 30s--retains this element as it moves
not only "inward towards the character-based stations essential to classical narrative"
(emblematized in the focus from the mass of workers onto Marian) but also "outward
towards an acknowledged spectator" (exemplified by the luxurious displays framed in
each window of the train, which seduce both the diegetic character and the cinema
spectator) (Gunning 59).
Gunning's notion of "attractions" coincides with cinema's ability to "function as
living display windows for all that they contained; windows that were occupied by
marvelous mannequins and swathed in a fetish-inducing ambiance of music and
emotion" (Eckert 103). As Charles Eckert reminds us, the "attractions" of cinema were
often the latest fashions, appliances, and home accessories that Hollywood promoted
whether through explicit "tie-ups" with corporations, or through a more general notion
of "showcasing." Thus the exhibitionistic tendency of mise-en-scine for many popular
films of the 1920s and 30s involved not only displays of show-girls and exotic locales,
but of commodities. Cinema endowed the mundane objects of everyday life with a
magnificent sheen, contributing to the fetish-character of modern commodities.
My study proposes that we view commodities as art-objects or artifacts,
examining their ability to satisfy the aesthetic and social needs of individuals who enjoy
them. I understand that the glitz and glamour of commodities can conceal the uglier
side of industrial capitalism -- the very fashions and decor I discuss were produced at a
great expense. My focus on the pleasures of consumption is not meant to preclude
reformations in the production process. Yet, even as they conceal their means of
production, the commodities that Marian sees on the train symbolize her ideals and
their form, shape, and texture elicit her aesthetic pleasure. It is this process, this
notion of creative consumption, that forms my focus.
Not only did the Industrial Revolution affect all levels of culture, but it also
articulated the utopian promise of leveling all culture, creating an abundant democracy
with Model-T's for all. Though the realities of production were far from utopic, the
pleasures of consumption intensified as the newly industrialized cities enabled a
proliferation of relatively inexpensive entertainments to a growing number of people,
originating "mass art" or "mass culture." These mass cultural commodities begin to
represent pleasure, fantasy, and utopian desires of the masses, comprising what
Rosalind Williams calls the "dream world of the consumer" (Williams).
My project investigates the role of consumerism and its relationship to cinema's
visual details, revealing that central to an understanding of these consumer objects and
their cinematic deployment is the process of fetishism. Unlike many film and cultural
critics who cite fetishism as a malady of consumer culture, I suggest that fetishism is an
inevitable and potentially useful artistic process that characterizes material culture. A
discussion of fetishism's significance and potentials unites the following three chapters:
Chapter 2 examines the commodities that represent the dreams and desires of modern
consumers; Chapter 3 explores the cinematic process that vivifies these commodities;
Chapter 4 provides textual analysis of Prix de Beauti, one film that narrativizes these
debates. These debates culminate in Chapter 5, which experiments with a method of
writing about cinema that appropriates the logic of fetishism.
Chapter 2, "Commodity Fetishism and the Materials of Culture," uncovers the
historical roots of this relationship between ideals and mass-produced objects, exploring
how the "artifact" supplants the "artwork" in everyday life. This transformation,
begun in the 19th century, responds to the rise of the urban masses and the changing
face of aesthetic need initiated by the fast-paced, image-laden modern cityscape. The
bourgeois tradition of intellectual contemplation of the isolated work of art becomes
displaced by a more sensory, immediate experience of the artifacts of mass culture, an
experience Walter Benjamin likens to "distraction." To anchor this theory, I examine a
specific, and white literal, manifestation of material culture in the 19th century:
fashion. I show how certain fashion debates replicate the increasing importance of the
mass-produced artifact in meeting the symbolic and aesthetic needs of the masses.
Further, I show how this process is inevitably fetishistic, as ideals are displaced onto the
materials of culture.
The sartorial debate known as the "Great Masculine Renunciation" of the 19th
century prefigures the early-2Oth-century's modern aesthetic that culminates in
Hollywood and European cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In many ways,
the 19th-century English dandy emerges from the same tensions that produce the
modern aesthetic. Even as he remains nostalgic for the luxuries of the aristocracy and
contemptuous of the bourgeoisie's supposed vulgarity, he represents the ideals of
"liberty, fraternity, and equality." Both democratic and decadent, practical and
decorous, the Dandy combines seemingly incongruent qualities into a synthesized
whole. Several important modernist texts offer compelling salutes to the Dandy, as
they describe a figure worthy of representing the modernist aesthetic and its complex
synthesis of the above binaries. Charles Baudelaire (writing in the 1850s), and Adolf
Loos (writing in the 1890s) anticipate many aspects of what will be called modernism
in the 1920s; significantly, the English dandy figures prominently in their writings.
Chapter 3, "Toward a Fetish-Friendly Feminism," posits that cinema was for the
20th century what the English dandy was for the 19th century. In many ways
cinema echoes the dialectical foundation of the modern aesthetic. With its basis in
both human ideals and scientific technology, cinema represents the ultimate
coincidence of art and industry; like the dandy, cinema is enabled by modern
technologies, practiced as a democratic medium, and driven by reason and function
even as it incorporates irrational elements of desire, fantasy, and imagination. I suggest
that Walter Benjamin's notion of cinema as "distraction" attempts to theorize cinema's
simultaneously artistic and scientific foundation. These debates become gendered in
Hollywood movies of the late twenties and early thirties that narrativize the problems
represented by the "New Woman's" entrance into the traditionally masculine spheres
of business and industry.
Contrasting feminist film theory's almost universal hostility toward fetishism, I
take my cue from avant-garde theorists who see fetishism as an inevitable and
potentially useful creative process. The Impressionists' and surrealists' mobilization of
photoginie (the cinematic "transfiguration" of mundane objects) seizes upon cinema's
capacity to subvert its own narrative through a distracting mise-en-scine. A film, they
proposed, needn't be avant-garde in its production to be avant-garde in its effects. The
psychoanalytic view that dominates much feminist theory addresses the same
phenomenon the surrealists described as photogenie, but finds oppression where they
found liberation, describing the woman as the object of the fetishizing male gaze and as
impediment to the narrative.
But perhaps liberation lies in women's increasing facility with the attractions of
mise-en-scene -- lingering shots of busy city streets, shop windows, fashions (sometimes
actual fashion shows), interior decor -- while constraing emerges from cinema's
awkward narrative conventions that typically "marry off' the woman in the end. With
the notable exception of Anne Friedberg's work on theflaneuse, few accounts of early
cinema engage the feminist implications of Benjamin's distracted flineur or Aragon's
Chapter 4, "Consuming Distractions in Prix de Beauti," further develops these
arguments, applying them to the international context of Prix de Beauti, the French
production of 1930, starring the American actress Louise Brooks. The film traces the
heroine Lucienne's Cinderella-like transformation from laboring typesetter to famous
beauty queen. On one level, the film predictably punishes Lucienne for her narcissistic
consumerism, yet a closer look reveals unresolved tensions and excesses that refuse to
be contained by the narrative. The "newsreel" style of Prix de Beauti anticipates the
Neorealist aesthetic and functions similarly as it often enables the mise-en-scine to exist
for its own sake, independent of narrative motivation. The broad tableaux of scenery
function much as department store windows, providing projections of working-class
fantasies of abundance promised by the modern industrial cities. Siegfried Kracauer
disparagingly labels these fantasies "distractions" and laments the naivete of the "little
shopgirls" as they model themselves after the images they see on the silver screen.
Yet Kracauer's notion of female fantasy ultimately foregrounds narrative at
the expense of mise-en-sc.ne. I counter this narrative-based notion of fantasy with
Elizabeth Cowie's notion of fantasy as the "mise-en-scine of desire," a distinction that
acknowledges the significance of cinema's visual details. In fact, the "newsreel" style of
Prix encourages a "window-shopping" mode of spectatorship, perhaps better
approximating the progressive potentials of the distraction than does Kracauer himself.
In the chapter's final section, I propose a critical intervention that mimics the form of
the distraction, revealing itself in a "fragmented sequence of splendid sense
impressions" (Kracauer 326).
The final chapter represents an experiment, appropriating cinema's fetishistic
logic into a method of film criticism. I suggest that much academic film criticism
either "explains away" or ignores the irrational, sensual pleasure of the image, and I
argue instead for a film criticism that engages the concrete, visual pleasures of cinema
even as it critiques and theorizes. I look to Walter Benjamin's and Charles Baudelaire's
appropriations of the dandy, or theflaneur, as a model for a more tactile, immediate
criticism that might "transform the volupti into connaissance" (Mayne x).
The chapter, entitled "Accessories After the Fact," offers a series of discrete
analytical fragments, each activated by a particular fashion accessory that functions
similarly to Benjamin's dialectical image. Like Benjamin's description of the dialectical
image, these accessories demand an interrogative reading. Examining a series of
several film stills from early cinema (my own "screen memories") as shop windows, I
suggest tha specific details within the mise-en-scdne (a bracelet from Prix de Beautd, a
dress from Princesse Tam Tam, a cigarette holder from Flesh and the Devil) house
information. Like the "accessory after the fact" who shelters knowledge about a crime
that has been committed, the accessories within the stills require interrogation.
Rather than repress my attraction to these particular details, I use it to produce
knowledge, transforming the volupti into connaissance. Like the wanderingfldneuse, I
follow the logic of my own desire, isolating details that, like Barthes' "third meanings"
demand an interrogative reading, encouraging turns of phrase and poetic detours.
COMMODITY FETISHISM AND THE MATERIALS OF CULTURE
Those letters advertising a make of soap are the equivalent of
characters on an obelisk or the inscription in a book of spells:
they describe the fate of an era.
-- Louis Aragon
The dilemma of fashion is the dilemma of all modern art:
what is its purpose and how is it to be used in the world of
-- Elizabeth Wilson
I began the introduction by describing the opening scenes of Possessed, the 1931
film that traces one woman's social and economic climb during the Depression. I
suggested that the film's title aptly points to the possessions, the actual material
objects, that embody one woman's desires and possess her imagination. This chapter
examines the significance of such possessions, suggesting that their increasing
importance in the early twentieth century represents one of modernity's founding
dilemmas: the meeting of aesthetics and science. With the advent of industrialization
and mass-production, commodities began to supplant the traditional role of art in
meeting the aesthetic, symbolic needs of the masses.
In a recent study, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi set out to examine how
art "orders human experience," a time-honored cliche dating from Aristotle. He and
his students conducted interviews with a "representative cross-section of families in the
Chicago area, to find out how 'normal' people responded to art objects.., in their
environment." He writes that, "Soon after we started interviewing, however, we
realized that we were having difficulties. The people we talked to, even professional,
educated persons, had very little to say about the subject. They were able to repeat a
few impersonal cliches, but it was clear that art played a decidedly insignificant role in
their lives" (Csikszentmihalyi 118). His interviews unearthed a significant pattern:
"There were, however, in every home, several artifacts to which the owners were
strongly attached. These objects often lacked any discernible esthetic value, but they
were charged with meanings that conveyed a sense of integrity and purpose to the lives
of the owners" (4). He re-focused his study to examine "the meanings of household
The re-focusing of this study--from "art" to "artifact"--mirrors a transformation
on a much larger scale. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
Walter Benjamin writes that, "The manner in which human sense perception is
organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature,
but by historical circumstances as well" (Benjamin 5). This chapter, then, unearths the
historical circumstances that contribute to this withering of "art" and flourishing of
"artifacts" in everyday life. Commodities, Benjamin writes, "liberated creativity from
The chapter consists of two sections. First I propose a revisionist history of
commodity fetishism, exploring how theories of material culture problematize much
cultural criticism that enlists fetishismm" to diagnose the ills of consumer culture. The
commodity as artifact is complex: even as it conceals its means of production and
becomes fodder for capitalist exploitation, it provides aesthetic pleasure for the masses
and maintains a residue of industrialism's utopian promise of abundance.
Considering beloved possessions in his own home, writer and architectural
preservationist Brendan Gill asks, "Is it absurd for me--for all of us--to care so much for
what are but objects?" These seemingly useless baubles and knick-knacks do serve a
purpose, he decides, and a lofty one at that: "Our possessions," he writes, are "our
household gods, in direct descent from [the lares and penates of the ancient Romans]."
They provide pleasure, security, familiarity; "they are sacred to us as standing for
something stronger and longer lasting than we are" (Gill 30). Clearly, Gill's
descriptions of household objects betray an attitude that contemporary cultural studies
would deem fetishisticc," even symptomatic of "false consciousness." But such a
diagnosis constitutes only part of the story. Part One of this chapter, "Fascinating
Fetishism," examines how fetishism is an inevitable and even constructive mechanism
employed by individuals and groups as they displace cultural values and ideals onto
In the second section, I turn to a specific, and quite literal, manifestation of
material culture in the 19th century: fashion. I explore how the sartorial revolution
known as the "Great Masculine Renunciation" represents this complex relationship
between commodities and ideals, and illuminates one of modernity's defining debates:
the conflict of function vs. ornament. In the Great Masculine Renunciation lie the
roots of what Susan Buck-Morss calls the "total revolution in style" witnessed by
Walter Benjamin's generation whereby "modern" came to signify a streamlined,
relatively unornamented, "functional" aesthetic that drastically contrasted 19th century
styles (Buck-Morss 236). I suggest that the Great Masculine Renunciation manifests a
particular affinity with modernist design, as both campaign against superfluous
ornament and irrational display, opposing what Rosalind Williams calls the "chaotic-
exotic" Victorian aesthetic. Emerging as a product of the Renunciation is the English
dandy, a figure who bridges the function/ornament dichotomy and anticipates what I
will term the "modern aesthetic," a meeting of modernism and mass culture
represented in the "art deco" or "art moderne" designs that become synonymous with
Hollywood glamour in the 1920s and 30s.
The diagnosis of fetishismm" is so often evoked among cultural critics that it has
become somewhat of a panacea. It is used by Marxists to explain the popularity of
designer jeans; by film theorists to explain why Hollywood starlets appear in sequined
dresses; by psychoanalysts to explain why men eroticize a particular article of clothing.
Its uses are frequent and disparate. It has even crept into the popular vernacular. A
recent advertisement for Vogue magazine proclaims, "Forget politically correct, Imelda
had it right --good fortune is measured by shoe boxes piled to the ceiling. Shoes make
you happy. That's why VOGUE reports on shoes like nobody else.... Where else are
you going to find a magazine with such a fetish about your feet?" This advertisement,
scoffing in the face of Marxist and Freudian definitions of fetishism, may represent
what Emily Apter calls fetishism's inevitable deconstructivee turn," citing Baudrillard's
claim that the term has "a life of its own" (Apter "Specularity" 20). In the very least, it
represents a culture's simultaneous confusion and fascination with a term that remains
difficult to pin down.
In one sense, the present study symptomatizes this fascination with fetishism;
yet in another, more urgent sense, it challenges the prevailing notion of fetishism as a
pernicious pathology of an ailing society. Rather, I suggest that when we examine a
theory of the fetish (generalized from its anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic
origins), we find the foundation of the visual, material culture that characterizes
modernity. Far from identifying an aberrent malady, fetishism more aptly identifies
everyday negotiations between humans and objects in modern society.
Theorizing the Fetish
In a series of three articles entitled "The Problem of the Fetish," William Pietz
conducts an exhaustive examination of fetishism's origins, establishing that "there is a
common configuration of themes among the various discourses about fetishism" (Pietz,
"Fetish II" 23) His analysis outlines a general theory of the fetish that in many ways
mirrors the guiding principles of material culture studies. Before examining the field of
material culture studies and its relationship to a theory of the fetish, I offer a brief
summary of fetishism's origins.
The term fetishismm" was first used in the sixteenth century by European traders
in Africa to describe what they perceived as irrational trade practices. The Africans
offered exorbitant amounts of goods in exchange for certain inexpensive European
baubles, and likewise demanded an excessive price for certain of their own religious
objects. "Desiring a clean economic interaction," William Pietz writes, "seventeenth-
century merchants unhappily found themselves entering into social relations and quasi-
religious ceremonies that should have been irrelevant to the conduct of trade" (Pietz 45.
The Europeans, unable to understand why the Africans valued certain objects so highly,
described the natives as uncivilized savages, deriding their childish ftisso, a Portuguese
word that referred to the over-valued objects. Emily Apter writes, "the wordfetisso and
its phonological cognates has provoked a chain of divergent interpretations, all
generated according to the codes of a Romance linguistics forced to accept the
untranslatable Other into its thoroughly Western genealogy" (Apter 3-4). Thus the
term originated as an anthropological attempt to label the irrational, mystical values
attributed to particular objects in non-Western cultures. The assumption, of course,
was that no such "primitive" practice characterized Western culture.
Marx's critique of industrial capitalism challenged this assumption by declaring
that all commodities are fetish objects. The consumer should value a commodity
because it represents human labour, but instead values it because it "abounds in
metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx 444). The laborer who
produces the commodity remains alienated from the means of production within
industrial capitalism. He doesn't own the machinery or factory required to produce the
commodity, and therefore doesn't receive the payment for the commodity. Rather, the
profit goes to the capitalist who owns the means of production. The commodity,
bearing no traces of the labor that produced it, seems to exist on its own accord,
attaining a life of its own. "A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply
because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective
character stamped upon the product of that labour" (Marx 446). Marx declares, "This
I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are
produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of
commodities" (Marx 447). Thus the fetish is the superficial gleam of the commodity
that conceals its means of production.
Freud likewise used the term to refer to an over-valued object of concealment.
In this case, what is concealed is not the means of production, but the mother's lack of
penis. According to Freud, the fetishist is born when a male child, confronted by the
sight of his mother's gentials, cannot bear the knowledge that she has no penis (which
would reinforce his own castration anxiety) and averts his eyes to a nearby object (her
foot, shoe, pubic hair, etc.) which becomes the phallic substitute and fetish object.
Thus a strict Freudian definition establishes fetishism as solely the province of males.
The female cannot fetishize because she does not experience castration anxiety and thus
has no need to deny the mother's "castration."
Common among these three applications of fetishism is a displacing of some
ideal (supernatural power in the anthropological definition, the value of labor in the
Marxist view, and a belief in the mother's penis for the Freudian) onto an object. In
each case, the fetish object represents a displaced value: the African "savage" displaces
supernatural powers onto carvings of deities; the commodity fetishist displaces the
value of labor and human creativity onto the commodity; the Freudian fetishist
displaces the belief in the mother's penis onto the foot. For each, the fetish object
represents intangible beliefs, values, and ideals. Tracing the original uses of the term--
anthropological, Freudian, and Marxist--reveals an underlying emphasis on artifice, as
each discipline describes "the trajectory of an idee fixe or noumen in search of its
materialist twin" (Apter 4).
William Pietz argues that, "Despite the use of fetishismm] in a variety of
disciplines that claim no common theoretical ground... there is a common
configuration of themes among the various discourses about fetishism. Four themes
consistently inform the idea of the fetish" (Pietz, "Fetish II" 23). He identifies the
themes: 1) historicization, 2) territorialization, 3) reification, and 4)personalization.
Historicization refers to the fetish's "status as the fixation or inscription of a unique
originating event that has brought together previously heterogeneous elements into a
novel identity" (Pietz, "Fetish I" 7). Territorialization identifies the "essential
materiality of the fetish"--its actual existence as an object in material space (12).
Reification refers to the object as a material embodiment of abstractions, and
personalization identifies the intensity of personal response to the fetish object. Pietz
writes that the "'Fetish' has always named the incomprehensible mystery of the power
of material things to be collective social objects experienced by individuals as truly
embodying determinate values or virtues" (14).
Fetishism and Material Culture
The cross-disciplinary field of "Material Culture" proposes to understand how
cultural meanings, values, and ideals become imbedded within the "materials" of a
given culture. These materials or "artifacts"2 are construed quite generally, ranging
from ancient Chinese bronze vessels, to Eighteenth Century landscapes, to 1950s
dinette sets, to Twiggy's Mod fashions. Art historian Jules David Prown offers this
succinct account of material culture studies: "The underlying premise is that human-
made objects reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of
the individuals who commissioned, fabricated, purchased, or used them, and by
extension, the beliefs of the larger society to which these individuals belonged" (Prown,
"The Truth" 1) Thus the field of material culture represents an emphasis on materialist
analysis (actual material objects provide the source of investigation) with a
psychoanalytic underpinning (objects reflect the unconscious ideals of a society, in both
their production and consumption). This assumption that objects embody the (often
unconscious) values and ideals of a society bears a striking resemblance to Pietz's theory
of the fetish.
Perhaps the most valuable trait of the artifact for scholars of material culture is
its "historicization." Just as the fetish is a "meaningful fixation of a singular event,
above all a 'historical' object," the artifact represents a historical moment. (Pietz,
"Fetish I" 12). Pietz writes that for Marx, the fetish named "the power of a singular
historical institution to fix personal consciousness in an objective illusion," whereas for
psychoanalysts, it named "the power of a singular personal event to structure desire"
(9). Similarly, the artifact represents a historical moment, frozen in time. Thus it
proves an invaluable link to the past, for "unlike other historical events, it continues to
exist in our own time" (Prown 2).
The notions of territorialization and reification correspond, respectively, to the
very words "material culture." The fetish, like the artifact, is "'tcerritorialized' in
material space (an earthly matrix)" (Pietz 12). Pietz writes that "the fetish is precisely
not a material signifier referring beyond itself, but acts as a material space gathering an
otherwise unconnected multiplicity into the unity of its enduring singularity" (15).
Similarly, the artifact is a single, unified material object, that requires no signifer
beyond itself. until the analyst enters and (like the psychoanalyst, Marxist, or
anthropologist who analyzes the fetish object) identifies the "multiplicity" that the
The idea of reification invokes the material object's infusion with cultural
meanings: "The term reificationn' formalizes the fundamental theme of the
institutionalized or routinized codes of social value between which a given fetish
provides a determinate structure of mediation" (Prown, "Can the Farmer" 22). Thus
reification stresses the "idea of certain material objects as the loci of fixed structures of
the inscription, displacement, reversal, and overestimation of value" (Pietz 9). This
notion of displacement remains central to studies of material culture. Jules Prown
writes that, "the language of objects.. employs a second level of abstraction analogous
to figures of speech, including metonymy (one thing representing another),
synechdoche (a part representing a whole), and similie (Prown, "Can the Farmer" 22).
In Culture and Consumption, Grant McCracken examines "the evocative power of things,"
relying on the concept of "displaced meaning," which affirms that "cultural meaning
has deliberately been removed from the daily life of a community and relocated in a
distant cultural domain" (104). He likens this strategy of displacement to "a useful
sleight of hand, one that sustains hope in the face of impressive grounds for pessimism"
(108). Goods act as repositories for these displaced meanings "by somehow
concretizing these things in themselves," and can thus "become a bridge to displaced
Pietz concludes his theory of the fetish by describing how "this reified,
territorialized, historical object is also personalized in the sense that beyond its status as
a collective social object, it evokes an intensely personal response from individuals"
(12). This "personalization" of commodities is addressed in studies of material culture
that emphasize the role of consumption rather than production of commodities. In a
recent article, Daniel Miller writes that most material culture scholars have
"relinquished a simpler Marxist ontology that insisted a priori that the species being is
constituted in the act of production, to an appreciation that the key moment in which
people construct themselves or are constructed by others is increasingly through
relations with cultural forms in the arena of consumption" (Miller, "Why Some Things
Matter"). Such studies examine what Pietz calls "the reified object's power to fix
identifications and disavowals that ground the self-identity o particular, concrete
In Culture and Consumption, McCracken proposes that the "rosebud" insignia on
the sled in the movie Citizen Kane exemplifies the "evocative power of things" that I'm
suggesting mirrors the fetish. "Rosebud," the sled, provides the locus of Kane's
displaced longings for the simple pleasures of his childhood. If only he had realized its
significance sooner, the object could have served as a bridge, carving a path to a happier
time. "A popular interpretation of the movie finds a 'anti-materialistic' message in the
movie," McCracken writes. "Poor, misguided Kane seeks his happiness in things, in a
pathology of consumption. But the real nature of Kane's difficulty is not that he seeks
his happiness in things.... The real nature of his difficulty is that he is unable to
determine in which of his possessions this happiness is really (or apparently) resident"
(111). The sled, as a fetish object--territorialized in material space, representing an
historical fixation, reifying Kane's happy childhood, and evoking his intensely personal
response- represents a potentially constructive displacement.
Though McCracken and the other analysts of material cutlure never identify
their "artifacts" as fetish objects, and though analysts of fetishismm" never equate the
fetish with a general understanding of material culture, the parallels are undeniable.
Jean Baudrillard writes that today the term fetish "refers to a force, a supernatural
property of the object and hence to a similar magical potential in the subject... But
originally it signified exactly the opposite: a fabrication, an artifact, a labour of
appearances and signs" (Baudrillard 91). What is Citizen Kane's "Rosebud," if not a
fetish object? Reflecting on his theory of the fetish, Pietz comes dangerously close to
equating the fetish and artifact: "If the fetish, as theorized out of the entire history of
the term itself, can be taken as a name for the total collective material object, at once
social and personal, then Merleau-Ponty is right in saying that 'tout objet historique est
fitiche"' (Pietz 14). Pietz attempts to temper this realization by trumping up the
rhetoric: "The fetish might then be viewed as the locus of a sort of primary and carnal
rhetoric of identification and disavowal that establishes conscious and unconscious value
judgements connecting territorialized social things and embodied personal individuals
within a series of singular historical fixations" (14). In short, all historical objects (once
personalized) are fetishes.
Daniel Miller, a prominent scholar of Material Culture directly addresses
charges of fetishism leveled at studies of artifacts and consumption by particular
academic factions. He addresses Material Culture's uneasy assimilation into
The deeply integrated place of the artefact in constituting culture and
human relations has made discussion of it one of the most difficult of all
areas to include in abstract academic discourse. The mundane artefact is
not merely problematic but inevitably embarrassing as the focused topic
of analysis, a practice which always appears fetishistic. (Miller, Material
Culture and Mass Consumption 130).
In the recent anthology, Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, Miller continues to
manifest this anxiety of being deemed fetishisticc": "One of the reasons that material
culture was avoided as the primary focus of attention [in pioneering works that
introduced the artefact as a vital element of culture] was that it invited the accusation
of fetishism" (Miller 5). He goes on to argue that his approach "remains focused upon
the object that is being investigated but within a tradition that prevents any simple
fetishization of material form." Many analysts of material culture, he writes, experience
an "apparent embarrassment at being, as it were, caught gazing at mere objects," an
activity he equates with fetishism (9).
Miller criticizes the traditional uses of fetishism that adhere more closely to the
Vogue advertisement I cited than to any Marxist, Freudian, or anthropological uses. To
fetishize--for Vogue, and for much of academia--means to strongly, irrationally, and
almost always destructively, like something. In Material Culture and Mass Consumption,
Miller directly challenges traditional uses of fetishism to denigrate studies of material
culture: "Fetishism is used to assert in a very broad form a general discontent with
consumer culture and the nature of goods, accompanied by an asceticism conveyed as a
feeling of the general malaise of materialism" (204). He then challenges the reader to
consider how any examination of culture involves an objectification of values and
beliefs--in this sense, all culture is fetishistic: "All... social relations are predicated
upon culture, that is objectification, and material goods are merely one, though an
increasingly important, form of culture. The blanket assumption of fetishism is
therefore predicated on the false notion of a pre-cultural social subject" (204). Many
accounts of fetishism emerge from this "general malaise of materialism" felt by
intellectuals who miss the point that all art, whether "high" or "low" is inescapabily
Certainly, the fetish object does elict a strong and irrational pleasure, but to
assume that academia is (or even should be) immune from pleasure and fetishism misses
the point. In her defense of aesthetic pleasure, Wendy Steiner writes that "those who
take intense pleasure in art and value it accordingly are said to 'fetishize' it. It is a sign
of the puritanism of American culture that the nearest we come to a word for intense
aesthetic pleasure is so distinctly negative a term" (Steiner 80-81). Her argument is
particularly original and compelling, because rather than negate the charges of
fetishismm,' she affirms it: "One of the major functions of critics and teachers is to help
others invest art with value, in effect to help them to 'fetishize' it" (81). She argues
that fetishismm" is inherent in the process of valuing an object, be it art or otherwise.
"The fetishist's error supposedly lies in the habit of fetishizing per se, but in fact
consists in choosing the 'wrong' fetishes. ... As history shows, those most critical of a
given fetish are often those most anxious to displace it with one of their own" (81).
Steiner captures the essence of Miller's observation that all culture hinges on fetishism.
Academics who make accusations of fetishism are not criticizing the act of fetishism,
then, but the specific value held by the given fetishist.
What sometimes assumes the character of revelation in much Marxist criticism
(that goods express social relations), serves as a founding premise for scholars of
material culture. Commodities as artifacts are invaluable resources for investigating
the debates that define a given culture. They concretize dreams and desires, and enable
individuals to articulate that which might otherwise remain unconscious, and for this
reason, they are not only worthy of, but demand, academic attention.
In the following section, I examine how specific debates and historical
developments of the 19th century anticipate the increasing importance of the
seemingly superficial artifact in everyday life, and further complicate theories of
material culture and fetishism. The transformation from the highly ornamental,
unorganized Victorian aesthetic to the highly streamlined, harmonious modern
aesthetic might be seen as an attempt to regulate, or even eliminate fetishism.
Ironically, the streamlined designs predicated on Modernist principles of function and
simplicity become the prime signifier of the most fetishized, magnificent exemplar of
material culture to date, classical Hollywood cinema.
Material Culture of the Nineteenth-Century
Celebrating the "Chaotic-Exotic"
In Dream Worlds: Mass-Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Rosalind
Williams traces the origins of "consumer lifestyles" to the world expositions that begin
with London's Crystal Palace of 1851. She writes that, "The purpose of all expositions
was, in the popular phrase of the time, to teach a 'lesson of things'" (Williams 58). It is
precisely this "lesson of things" that orients studies of artifacts in modern life, as the
recent anthology, Learning From Things, aptly attests (Kingery). But the historically
specific "things" and "lessons" Williams investigates represent a significant cultural
transformation, comprising what Benjamin calls the "historical circumstances" through
which "the mode of human sense perception changes" (734). Williams explains that
"'Things' meant, for the most part, the recent products of scientific knowledge and
technical innovation that were revolutionizing daily life; the 'lesson' was the social
benefit of this unprecedented material and intellectual progress" (58). This was the
"official" account, at least. In actuality, these expositions initiated an era in which "the
sensual pleasures of consumption clearly triumphed over the abstract intellectual
enjoyment of contemplating the progress of knowledge" (59-60).
Williams describes how the world expositions anticipated department stores, as
each commingled desires and commodities in a style she terms the "chaotic-exotic,"
characterized by "syncretism, anachronism, illogicality, flamboyance, and childishness"
(69). The "hodgepodge of visual themes" reflects that "the purpose is not to express
internal consistency but to bring together anything that expresses distance from the
ordinary." Further, the "exotic decor exists as an intermediate form of life between art
and commerce. It resembles art. yet it does not participate in traditional artistic
goals of creating beauty, harmony, and spiritual significance" (71). Rather, "behind the
'ornamental delirium,'.., behind its seemingly mad disorder, behind its silly and
serious deceptions alike, lies a strictly logical and consistent ordering principle: the
submission of truth, of coherence, of taste.. ." (63). The "chaotic-exotic," then,
anticipates the irrational, sensual, "distracting" aesthetic of mass culture that
supplanted bourgeois artforms that affirmed "traditional artistic goals."
I find Williams' description of the "chaotic-exotic" interesting for two reasons:
First, it marks the supplanting of art with artifact; and second, it pinpoints precisely the
debates that will orient Modernism in the early twentieth century. The displays of the
world expositions and the department stores replace the traditional role allotted to art
in ordering experience and providing aesthetic pleasure. The artifact, of course, meets
aesthetic needs differently than did traditional art, and this contrast spawned many
debates among cultural critics of modernity. My discussion of cinema in Chapter 2
focuses on Benjamin's theories of mass culture's radical redefinition of aesthetic value,
while my examination of Prix de Beautd in Chapter 3 discusses Siegfried Kracauer's
complex response to this transformation. Both Benjamin and Kracauer address the loss
of "contemplation" encouraged by traditional art, and attempt to theorize the
"distractions" of mass culture that supplant this tradition.
Williams' description of the "chaotic-exotic" illuminates the key debates that
distinguish art in the early twentieth century. We might see high Modernism as an
attempt to restore the "artistic" values displaced by the "dream worlds of mass
consumption." In fact, the values championed by many proponents of modernism
correspond precisely to the qualities denied by the "chaotic-exotic": internal
consistency, harmony, spiritual significance, truth, coherence, taste. The roots of this
"modern aesthetic" are discernable in fashion debates of the Nineteenth century. The
"Great Masculine Renunciation" refers to a particular moment of fashion history that
materializes this pitting of the "chaotic-exotic" against the streamlined, "functional"
aesthetic that eventually distinguishes modern fashion. As its name attests, the Great
Masculine Renunciation genders this debate, with wide-ranging implications.
Streamlining the "Chaotic-Exotic"
Fashion historians often contrast adornment of the sexes in modern Western
society with that of the animal kingdom. The male animal of course--from the
irridescent colors and strut of the peacock to the lush mane of the lion--far surpasses
the female in conspicuous display. In most accounts of modern fashion, however, the
female devotes considerable time and attention to her wardrobe and toiletry, while the
male adopts a uniform of sober practicality. In modern times, "fashion" generally refers
to a feminine enterprise, frivolous and irrational. The modern male might devote
attention to his clothing, but seems somehow immune to the follies of fashion. How did
this separation of clothing and fashion emerge? And how did we arrive at such a
gendered bifurcation that has only recently been challenged? The answer lies in what
psychoanalyst J.C. Flugel, writing in 1930, termed "The Great Masculine
"The Great Masculine Renunciation" refers to the clothing reformations
following the French Revolution, in which men abandoned the ornamental foppery of
the aristocracy and adopted a sober, unadorned uniform of democracy.' Flugel
describes "the sudden reduction of male sartorial decorativeness which took place at the
end of the eighteenth century:"
one of the most remarkable events in the whole history of dress, one
under the influence of which we are still living, one, moreover, which has
attracted far less attention than it deserves: men gave up their right to
all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of
ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and thereby
making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts.
Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as 'The Great
Masculine Renunciation.' Man abandoned his claim to be considered
beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful. (Flugel 111)
Thus Flugel reflects the general assumption that fashion's relevance for men and
women altered drastically with the advent of modernity: it became increasingly
important for women, while dropping out completely from the lives of men. Such a
view reflects the premise that usefulness and fashion are mutually exclusive, a premise
that the English dandy will challenge.
The apparent incompatibility of utility and fashion results primarily from a
coincidence of two events: 1) the bourgeois rebellion against the ruling aristocracy
(typified by the French Revolution whose force spread to other countries), and 2) the
changing roles of men and women in newly created industrialized, democratic societies.
Prominent among the bourgeois grievances against the aristocracy were the
sumptuary codes of previous regimes which continued to haunt late eighteenth- and
early nineteenth-century Western cultures. "The regulations represented an attempt to
preserve the distinctions in rank, reflected in dress, that were in fact beginning to break
down with the rise of the urban bourgeoisie" (Wilson 24). In France, for example,
sovereigns within the Church and the monarchy relied upon their splendid clothing to
distinguish them from the masses and mark their almighty authority. Decades before
the Revolution, with the decline of feudalism, such sharply-delineated strata began to
erode. This potential instability was met with an onslaught of sumptuary laws. For
example, "During the reign of Louis XIV, even such details as gold braid and buttons
were minutely regulated according to estate, rank, season, and circumstances" (Perrot
19). All laborers (essentially everyone outside of the Church elite or the monarchy)
were required to wear dour garments that distinguished their plebian occupation.
In an ironic turn, this dour proletarian uniform became the proud raiment of a
middle-class increasingly disgusted with the excesses (sartorial and otherwise) of Louis
XVI's court. Perrot explains that "as the Revolution approached, the sober, discreet
bourgeois clothing, earlier codified and imposed by the regime, became a symbol
flaunted by its wearers, a kind of increasingly vocal expression of their legitimacy"
(Perrot 19). Indeed, in the climate of the Revolution, an improperly lavish costume
alone often distinguished "the enemy," and prompted the guillotine. As fashion
historian Valerie Steele writes, "the dark suit now became a symbol of political virtue,
at least in contrast to formal court dress" (Steele, Paris Fashion 46). The bourgeoisie
favored the anonymity that a common uniform enabled, finding that anonymity,
ambiguity, and social mobility went hand in hand.
While male clothing began to emphasize efficient tailoring and comfortable
materials, female clothing (after a short-lived reformation)4 grew ever more fanciful,
eventually resulting in the Victorian ideal of Woman as a billowy fluff of ribbons and
roses. This drastic contrast of silhouettes was evident in many paintings of the period,
as Figure 1 illustrates. This sartorial division mirrored a deeper division that was
increasingly defining the sexes: the notion of "separate spheres." As work became
respectable for men, women were increasingly confined to the household where they
were glorified as self-sacrificing care-takers, the family's moral conscience, and keepers
of all things lovely. Valerie Steele describes the "cult of female beauty" or "cult of true
womanhood": "In the nineteenth century, women were widely regarded as both 'the
ornamental sex' and the morally superior sex. They were supposedly drawn 'naturally'
toward both the beautiful and the good" (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 107-108).
Other historians relate this feminine ideal to the upheavals of the Industrial
Revolution. Historian Dorothy Brown writes that "the cult of true womanhood was
the defense of nineteenth-century Americans against the incursions of industrialism.
Woman was the anchor in a world of change. Though a 'hostage in the home,' her
virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity provided a comforting surety
to anxious husbands and children" (29-30). Lois Banner argues that the doctrine of
separate spheres solidified during the eighteenth century when "some area of security
[had] been needed to offset the unsettling experiences of industrialization and
urbanization, violent labor conflict, declining religious faith, increasing crime, and
periodic economic depression" (105). Women provided this security both
transcendentally, through their "innate" virtue, and corporeally, through their heaps of
Thus the traditional notion of fashion as superfluous, sumptuous, and
ornamental persisted, though it began to distinguish an exclusively feminine
undertaking. In fact, as Elizabeth Wilson writes, fashion became almost synonymous
The social and economic roles of men and women began to
diverge more sharply; by the early nineteenth century women's role in
society was narrowing, dress began to distinguish gender in more
exaggerated ways, and fashion was now no longer, as it had been in the
aristocratic courts of the seventeenth century, simply a priceless frame
for female beauty. Something more subtle occurred; woman and
costume together created femininity. (29)
The comic from an 1899 Life magazine [Figure 2] provides a particularly unsettling
illustration of this equation of woman with adornment. The "surprise of marriage"
alluded to in the comic's title refers to the groom's realization that he fell in love with
nothing but artifice.
We might see the "Great Masculine Renunciation" as an attempt to eliminate
ornament, irrationality, artifice, and excess--in short, fetishism--for the serious-minded,
practical professional. The sensual, irrational domain of fashion threatened to upset
the rational, quantifiable, increasingly ergonomic characterization of the workplace.
Literary rhapsodies of the late Nineteenth century represented feminine frills' potential
to enrapture the male imagination. Flaubert's Madame Bovary, for example, enlists
fetishistic descriptions of Emma Bovary's clothing to portray the desire Charles feels for
her. Mallarme's passion for feminine ornament resulted in his editorship of La Derniere
Mode, a fashionable ladies' magazine in 1874. Under a series of pseudonyms ("Miss
Satin," "Marasquin," and "Marguerite de Ponty" to name a few) Mallarme is thought to
have written the magazine's entire contents for the eight issues of his editorship. Mary
Lewis Shaw examines the "simultaneously sublime and frivolous language of La
Dernire Mode," suggesting chat the journal manifests a fascination with the fetishistic
details of women's adornment. (Shaw 47). Examining the magazines, Sima Godfrey
writes that "the splendid, fashionable world that Mallarme conjured forth in issue after
issue of La Derniere Mode is a world of tantalizing surfaces, where words share in the
dazzle of jewels, the delicacy of lace, the soft transparency of feathers, the flutter of
fans, and the bewitching insignificance of bibelots -- the very images, that is, that
haunt Mallarme's poems" (Godfrey 762-63). Flaubert and Mallarme, through their
exalted descriptions of feminine fashions, attest to the widening gulf between masculine
and feminine attire, a gulf bridged by a uniquely masculine figure in their midst, the
A Dandy Mediator
The details of adornment played a significant role in the works of another
French writer, Charles Baudelaire. But Baudelaire's deployment of fashion differs
significantly from Flaubert's or Mallarme's "chaotic-exotic" rhapsodies. Baudelaire
indeed rhapsodizes over the details of adornment, yet he introduces a mediating figure:
a male dandy. We might even say that the male dandy is Baudelaire's object of
affection, rather than the female coquette. This change of emphasis proves highly
significant to Baudelaire's revolutionary embracement of modernity. As Johnathan
Mayne writes in his introduction to Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays,
"[Baudelaire] was living at a time when artistic anarchy and its natural counterpart,
artistic puritanism, were both rampant; when the 'great tradition' had been lost, and
the new tradition had not yet been discovered" (Mayne xii). From the perspective of
fashion and design, Mallarme's grande coquette embodies the "artistic anarchy," while
Baudelaire'sflneur ushers in the "new tradition."
Baudelaire's motivation for praising the details of feminine fashion lies in his
radical theory that "beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition... made
up of an eternal, invatiable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to
determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element [defined by ... the age, its
fashions, its morals, its emotions" (Baudelaire 3). Baudelaire embraces the ever-
changing frivolities of fashion because they emphasize the historical, tangible, bodily
aspect of beauty typically neglected or derided by what he calls the "academic theory of
an unique and absolute beauty." He writes that this historical notion of beauty
represents a "break with the academic error." He argues for an immediate, sensory
experience of beauty in even the most mundane artifacts of everyday life, opposing the
traditional Romantic aesthetic represented by Shelley's claim that "A poet participates
in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and
place and number are not" (Shelley 977). On the contrary, Baudelaire's hero, "the
painter of modern life," "makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element
it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory"
(Baudelaire 12). He represents a decisive break with the lofty academic tradition, and
instead manifests an "excessive love of visible, tangible things, condensed to their
plastic state," and a "repugnance for things that form the impalpable kingdom of the
Baudelaire's hero--alternately termed the "painter of modern life," the dandy, or
thefldneur- observes and praises the frivolities of fashion, but he himself shies from
passing trends and excessive ornamentation. Rather, his attire betrays an elegant
austerity and simplicity. His "solitary profession is elegance," and he is "in love with
distinction above all things" (26,27). Ironically, his love of simplicity is itself excessive,
and Baudelaire likens his "doctrine of elegance and originality" to "the strictest
monastic rule." "In truth," he writes, "I was not altogether wrong to consider
dandyism as a kind of religion." The dandy, even as he represents the modern, rational
values heralded by Baudelaire establishes "a new kind of aristocracy," demonstrating
that "there is a grandeur in all follies, an energy in all excess. A weird kind of
spiritualist, it must be admitted!" (28).
When it comes to defining the dandy, historians offer descriptions ranging from
the austere to the extravagant. I argue that the dandy's uniqueness lies in precisely this
combination of democratic austerity and decadent extravagance. Though dandyismm"
as a concept has evolved considerably from its inception in the early 19th century (for
example, any contemporary man who sports an ascot is given the title), I think it is
important to isolate the historically specific origins of the term and view its subsequent
uses as particular appropriations. The original dandy, Beau Brummell, distinguished
himself by his reasonable, immaculately tailored suits and unreasonable attention to
particular details. For example, his cravat demanded an excessive attention--it had to
be heavily starched and tied just-so. Likewise, his boots were immaculately polished.
Ellen Moers writes that "Asked for the secret of his highly polished boots, [Brummell]
replied that for blacking he never used anything but the froth of champagne" (Moers
31). Similarly, another legend tells of Brummell's hours-long cravat-tying sessions. In
fact, Brummell's life is rife with such tales of excess--excesses that signified a particular
aristocratic deportment, rather than lavish clothing, that set him apart from the masses
of men. Max Beerbohm writes that "In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid
perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr.
Brummell's miracles" (Moers 34). His clothing was not extravagant, though his
attitude was. "His was a costume, then, which relied for its effect on the manner and
bearing of its wearer. Long hours of concentration and preparation, of finicky attention
to detail, wree required to produce its desired simplicity. The end result was a general
appearance 'similar to that of every other gentleman'" (Moers 35).
Popular literature of the Nineteenth century was quick to satirize the dandy's
excesses. Pelham, or the Adventures of a Gentleman, George Bulwer-Lytton's society novel
of 1828, describes an aging dandy reflecting on his innate refinement that once assured
his social standing among England's elite. The repining Mr. Russelton laments, "I
came into the world with an inordinate love of glory, and a great admiration for the
original; these propensities might have made me a Shakespeare--they did more, they
made me a Russelton!" He recounts a series of childhood revolts against that
indistinguishable beast he discerned even as an eight year old: the vulgar. As he
matured, this revolt became his raison d'etre:
As I grew up, my notions expanded. I gave myself, without restraint, to
the ambition that burnt within me--I cut my old friends, who were
rather envious than emulous of my genius, and I employed three
tradesmen to make my gloves--one for the hand, a second for the
fingers, and a thirdfor the thumb! (Bulwer-Lytton 130)
This literary parody of one man's excess paints a strikingly accurate portrait of the
English Dandy of the early nineteenth century. Bulwer himself confessed that Mr.
Russelton was a thinly disguised Beau Brummel, the forefather of all English dandies.
In this brief reflection, the aging Mr. Russelton pinpoints the English dandy's
defining characteristics that constitute his unique response to the problems of aesthetic
distinction in a modern age of democracy, industrialization, and mass culture. The
English dandy represents an unprecedented nexus between the seemingly indissoluble
opposition that characterize modernity (antiquity vs. modernity, art vs. science,
aristocracy vs. democracy).' Opposing the glorious and the original to the vulgar,
Russelton reaffirms the traditional ancient/modern binary and seems to favor the side of
the ancient, as glory and originality traditionally distinguish characteristics of courtly life
before the popular uprisings. Yet his proclamation that innate good taste makes him a
Russelton and not a Shakespeare defies both the democratic ideal that men achieve
greatness only through work (as with Shakespeare) and the aristocratic code of social-
rank-by-birth. Unlike the aristocracy, which he begrudges, Russelton attributes his
societal prominence to aesthetic choices, initiating the decidedly modern notion that one
creates oneself by consuming and artfully displaying commodities. Even during his
lifetime, Brummell was considered an "artist" of the self. Max Beerbohm declared of
Brummell's status as an artist: "no poet nor cook nor sculptor, ever bore that title more
worthily than he" (Moers 34).
Russelton's proud declaration that he employs three tradesmen to make his
gloves gives us a greater insight into the dandy's particular definitions of the glorious,
the original, and the vulgar. A dependence on three tailors to make one pair of gloves
reflects an obsessive aesthericization of use-value and efficiency. Division of labor was
commonplace in the manufacturing centers of the nineteenth century. But according
to the nineteenth-century arbiters of taste, mechanized manufacturing belonged to the
factory; glorious and original clothing involved another process altogether. If
elaborately embellished gowns represented the "glorious," their production involved
women who tacked on ornament after ornament, lacking a common vision of the
garment's final design, a prime example of the nineteenth century "chaotic-exotic."
This process represented the artful antithesis of the male tailoring typically regarded as
mechanized and dull. That is, until the dandy arrived.
The dandy glorified the ideals of efficiency and function in clothing, and this
ironic move constituted his originality. By employing the best hand-making tailor,
best finger-making tailor, and best thumb-making tailor, Russelton fetishizes efficiency.
As such, the dandy represents the "return of the repressed": the frivolity and fetishism
suppressed by the Great Masculine Renunciation resurfaces in the dandy's obsessive
aesthetic. This meeting of previously antithetical concepts--art and science, fetish and
function--constitutes a significant precedent in the establishment of a modern aesthetic
popularized decades later under modernism.
In a culture that continues to oppose fashion and utility, it is no surprise that
the dandy is typically equated with the festooned fop who is, in fact, his opposite.
Popular opinion reflects the vague notion that the dandy is a man distinguished by
fashion--thus he must be an effeminite fop. Webster's Dictionary reflects this common
misconception, listing coxcomb and dandy as synonyms forfop. This misidentification
persists because Western society continues to assume that fashion is a feminine
enterprise marked by a rapidly changing succession of impractical, uncomfortable, but
often beautiful, forms. By contrast, male attire--practical, dark, and boring--remains
immune to the follies of fashion. The dandy represents a troublesome anomaly in this
James Laver's Dandies begins by noting that "even serious works of costume
history" often conflate dandies, fops, and beaux, but counters that "We shall never
understand dandyism unless we realize that whatever else it was it was the repudiation
of fine feathers" (9-10). Indeed, the dandy might be defined by his revolt against the
vulgar excesses of ornament that characterized courtly dress. Although he devoted
considerable attention to his dress and toilet, he concentrated on cut, quality, and
cleanliness rather than showy fabrics, lavish accessories, and cosmetics. Laver quotes
Brummell, "No perfumes... but very fine linen, plenty of it, and country-washing. If
John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well-dressed; but either too stiff,
too tight, or too fashionable" (Laver 21). Thus the dandy confesses his excessive effort
not to appear excessive--the paradoxical affirmation of modern elegance.
Appropriating the Dandy: Ornament and Crime
In his 1908 manifesto "Ornament and Crime," architect, theorist, and pioneer
of the Modern Movement, Adolf Loos, heralded the English gentleman as the
quintessential example of the modern aesthetic. In this hyperbolic battlecry, Loos uses
an evolutionary model to argue that as man grows more civilized, he learns to abandon
his childish urges to ornament. Characteristically unambiguous, Loos proclaims "The
evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects" (20).
Though Loos never explicitly referred to Beau Brummell, his descriptions of the
idealized English gentleman leave little question that his model was indeed Brummell.
In his essay "Men's Fashion," Loos isolates precisely Brummell's defining dictum : "an
article of clothing is modern when the wearer stands out as little as possible at the
center of culture, on a specific occasion, in the best society. This is a very English axiom
to which every fashionable intellectual would probably agree" (12). Ironically, Loos
himself commits the common nominal error, contrasting this English ideal with the
German dandy "whose clothing serves only to distinguish him from his environment."
Continuing, Loos describes the elaborately dressed fops and trend-following "darlings
of fashion" that common opinion often mistook for dandies.
In an insightful article tracing the origins of the Modern Movement's
"subjugation of mankind's expression to an ideal of uniform perfection," Jules Lubbock
concurs that Brummell provided Loos's inspiration: "Adolf Loos, although he never
mentioned Beau Brummell by name, brought the dandiacal style of dress into the
mainstream of twentieth-century architecture and theory" (Lubbock 43). In fact, Loos
himself--like Baudelaire--imitated the dandy's sartorial ideal. He employed English
tailors to make multiple copies of smartly-fitted, dark suits, and was reputed to devote
an inordinate amount of time to personal cleanliness.
Its hyperbole aside, "Ornament and Crime" represents an unprecedented
theorization of a modern aesthetic. Loos specifically argues that a lack of ornament
distinguishes the modern style. This declaration, he writes, saddens his public who
laments the age's inability to produce a new ornament--they ask him, "Every age had
its style, is our age alone to be refused a style? By style, people meant ornament. Then
I said: Weep not! See, therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of
producing a new ornament. We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way
through to freedom from ornament" (20). Like his predecessor, the English dandy,
Loos bridges the traditionally incompatible discourses of style and function. For Loos,
function is style.
Ornament must disappear from modern style, Loos argues, because it represents
an inefficient, impractical concept of beauty. In his characteristically positivistic
perspective, Loos argues that ornament--adding hours to the worker's task yet serving
no purpose--represents wasted labor: "Omission of ornament results in a reduction in
the manufacturing time and an increase in wages.. Ornament is wasted labour
power and hence wasted health. It has always been so" (22). Modernized, industrial,
Western nations (Loos cites England and America) have internalized this lesson and in
turn, grow wealthier while degenerate, artisinal, Eastern nations (Loos cites China and
Austria) continue to value ornament, and even subsidize it with state funds. Loos
explains that such backward attitudes retard Austria's modernization, causing
irrepairable damage to the finances, culture and "health" of the nation.
Prefiguring the "engineer aesthetic" of the Dadaist avant-garde, Loos contrasts
the artist of yesteryear with the worker of modernity.6 "The artist has always stood at
the forefront of mankind full of vigour and health. But the modern ornamentalist is a
straggler or a pathological phenomenon" (22). He compares the "Chinese carver" who
spends sixteen hours decorating a cigarette case to the "American worker" who spends
eight hours making a smooth case that functions perfectly and costs the same.
Significantly, Loos's observation equates the "artist" with the past, the antiquated, the
obsolete. Faced with the demands of an industrialized, democratic society, the "artist"
recedes and the "worker" emerges. The artist remains tied to the decadent values of
the ancien regime through the excessive amount of time he takes to produce something
that has no practical value, other than a vaguely defined "cultivation of joy."
Rather than denigrating this ornamental "cultivation of joy" as superfluous,
Loos counters that the unadorned object, to the modern eye, cultivates precisely this
sentiment; it is not the esoteric nature of aesthetic pleasure that piques Loos, but the
outmoded source of that pleasure:
I don't accept the objection that ornament heightens a cultivated
person's joy in life, don't accept the objection contained in the words:
'But if the ornament is beautiful!' Ornament does not heighten my joy
in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person. If I want to eat a piece
of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece
representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered all over with
ornaments. The man of the fifteenth century won't understand me. But
all modern people will. The advocate of ornament believes that my urge
for simplicity is in the nature of a mortification. No, respected professor
at the school of applied art, I am not mortifying myself (21)
Far from representing a denial of sensual pleasures, Loos's preference for the unadorned
reflects passion for streamlined forms, a delight in simplicity.
The dandy's unprecedented equation of beauty with unadorned, functional
clothing overturns the prevailing ideal that women should personify their husbands'
wealth and success through lavish sartorial and domestic display. Published in 1899,
Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class labels this phenomenon "conspicuous
consumption," explaining that society's increasing acceptance and approbation of
productive work for gentlemen relegates the spheres of leisure and consumption to
women: "By virtue of its descent from a patriarchal past, our social system makes it
the woman's function in an especial degree to put in evidence her household's ability to
pay." Veblen reiterates the typically Victorian notion that the woman's "sphere is
within the household, which she should 'beautify,' and of which she should be the 'chief
ornament'" (180). In Veblen's scheme, ornament symbolizes useless, impractical,
sometimes even masochistic expenditure and display. "To apply this generalisation to
women's dress, and put the matter in concrete terms: the high heel, the skirt, the
impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer's comfort
which is an obvious feature of all civilised women's apparel.., are evidence that...
she is still the man's chattel" (181-182). Thus the husband takes great pain to make
the money, and the wife takes great pain to show it off. In effect, the woman becomes
the man's ornament--the gentleman attends societal functions dressed in the pragmatic
uniform of work, but remains adorned by the bountifully decorated woman on his arm.
The more sumptuous and impractical her attire, the more affluent the man.
This gendered separation of production and consumption is, of course, rife with
feminist implications. Though Veblen's pseudo-scientific analysis engenders
ambiguous, at best, pronouncements of the "woman problem," it does identify the
correlation between useful employment and human dignity: "These offices [of
conspicuous consumption] are the conventional marks of the un-free, at the same time
that they are incompatible with the human impulse to purposeful activity" (358).
Further complicating Veblen's theses regarding ornament and subjugation were
statements from women of the working class adding that many women not only bore
the role of ornamenting the house, but also of running the house. Dorthy Dix's 1898
newspaper article on "The American Wife" laments the difficulty of this dual duty: "It
is when one attempts to combine the useful and the ornamental--to be a Dresden
statuette in the parlor and a reliable range in the kitchen--that the situation becomes
trying, and calls for genuine ability" (Dix 132). Dix reminds us that for most women,
Veblen's gendered notions of production and consumption were hardly as tidy as he
suggests. The conspicuous consumers were also producers, only their unpaid labor was
largely invisible in Veblen's paradigm. Still, Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption reiterates the popular perception that the English dandy defied.
Rosalind Williams argues that "[Veblen's] analysis was becoming obsolete at the
moment he enunciated it" (106). Intermingling with Veblen's bourgeois model of
consumption were alternative models. The dandy represented one such alternative, she
argues, as he rebelled against the ostentatious, conspicuous style of the bourgeoisie,
even as he expressed a disdain for the "masses." Williams argues that the dandy
represents an "elitist style of consumption," initiated "when Beau Brummell and other
dandies responded to what they considered to be the encroachments of bourgeois and
even mass vulgarity by reasserting traditional aristocratic virtues of daring, elan, and
poise"(111). Williams argues that the theory of dandyism contradicted the practice:
"Of all the paradoxes of dandyism, none is more striking than the way the loftiest
theories of spiritual superiority all depended on the vulgar act of shopping" (119).
Ultimately, for Williams, the extravagant spending and enormous debt incurred by
several notable dandies preclude his recuperation as a creative mass consumer. Her
summary of the dandy's failed experiment in consumption reveals the narrow premise
that undergirded her analysis all along: "failure is inherent in the attempt to satisfy the
cravings of the spirit through matter" (145). Ultimately, Williams adheres to the
illiberal view that conveys "a feeling of the general malaise of materialism,"--the view
reproached by Daniel Miller in his studies of material culture. Though Williams is
certainly accurate in identifying the catastrophic outcome of the dandy's excessive
spending and lack of employment, she overlooks his enormous contribution to an
aesthetic of modernity evident in his appropriation by Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Loos.
Toward a "Modern Aesthetic"
Clearly, the dandy's iconoclastic use of dress represents more than a sartorial
reformation. Indeed, in the discourse surrounding the English dandy, we find the seeds
of modernity's central debates. His unique aesthetic represents an original response to
several seminal questions: How does industrialization affect a culture's aesthetic ideals?
Does industrialization enable the democratization of culture? How does fashion
represent a creative medium for the masses?
Baudelaire's use of the dandy to represent a modern ideal positions the dandy
on the cusp of what would be termed the "mass culture" debate at the beginning of the
Twentieth century. Chronologically, the English Dandy appears during the same
decade that writers first use the term modernity to distinguish a contemporary mode of
everyday life.7 The Dandy represents a particular aesthetic response to the those
transformations of everyday life. Critics identify several categories of such aesthetic
responses, or "artistic cultures" (sometimes antagonistic, sometimes overlapping):
modernism, the avant-garde, folk art, high art, mass art, popular art, decadence, and
kitsch, to name a few.8 The English Dandy bridges several of these "artistic cultures,"
incorporating effects both "high" and "low," aristocratic and democratic. In doing so,
the Dandy bridges the "great divide"9 and complicates the distinctions between
modernism and mass culture.
Whereas modernity refers to the general period of crisis represented by a series
of dialectical conflicts dissemminating from the "great divide," modernism signifies a
specific aesthetic response to that division. Modernity typically designates a historical
period that begins with the French Revolution's repudiation of the ancien regime,
reaching fruition in the across-the-board transformations of everyday life ushered in by
the Industrial Revolution. Modern, democratic, utilitarian values began to challenge
traditional aristocratic values, resulting in the high art/mass culture split that began to
dominate aesthetic debate. Though modernity found general expression in the early
nineteenth century, modernism came into general use only in the 1920s as a sector of
artists and critics refused traditional aesthetic forms in favor of iconoclastic, estranging
art that grappled with the discordant conditions of modern life. As critics have noted,
the goals of "modernism" were never clearly defined, and yield any number of internal
In Raiding the Icebox, Peter Wollen investigates modernism's complexity, yet
Wollen's study lumps a disparate variety of artists--fashion designers, painters, writers,
choreographers, architects--into the "modernist" category without addressing the
inherent differences of their media, differences that affect each artist's relationship to
mass culture. Most critics characterize modernism (or as some designate, "high"
modernism) as antagonistic to mass culture. Despite an apparent commitment to
"progress," many modernists opposed modernity's aesthetic revolution, claiming that
the combined forces of democracy and capitalism resulted in a new phenomenon, mass
culture, that merely commodified art, producing an endless array of interchangeable,
banal cultural commodities, mere fodder for the capitalist machine. Adorno and
Horkheimer's classic denunciation of the "culture industry" is often posed as the
quintessential modernist manifesto (Adorno and Horkheimer "The Culture Industry").
Naremore characterizes modernism as "aggressively individualistic, contemptuous of
bourgeois realism, and sometimes nostalgic for pre-industrial society" (10). Thus the
question of art for the masses remained paradoxical for many modernists who
championed the destruction of the ancien regime even as they regretted the qualitative
loss of artisinal culture.
Some critics distinguish a separate category (formed in opposition to "high"
modernism) that sought a more hospitable relationship to mass culture: the historical
avant-garde. We can posit Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin as representing the
two opposing modernist viewpoints: Adorno categorically denounces the cultural
products of the second industrial revolution, whereas Benjamin continually suggests
that modern technology contains a revolutionary potential. Benjamin, then, represents
the avant-garde perspective within modernism--his work aimed to accommodate the
pleasures of mass culture and longed to unleash a utopian potential that lay buried
within the mass cultural commodity. Further, his critical method reflected an avant-
garde penchant for experimentation, from his unorthodox objects of study to his
collage-like method of presentation.
In many ways, the dandy bridges distinctions between "high" and "low" culture.
Even as he remains nostalgic for the luxuries of the aristocracy, and contemptuous of
the bourgeoisie's supposed vulgarity, he represents the ideals of "liberty, fraternity, and
equality." Significantly, the dandy creates himself through what Williams called the
"vulgar act of shopping," an activity newly opened to the masses in the nineteenth
century. Both democratic and decadent, practical and decorous, the Dandy combines
the seemingly incongruent qualities that distinguish "high" culture and "low" culture.
Several important modernist texts offer compelling praise of the dandy, as they describe
a figure worthy of representing the modernist aesthetic. As we've seen, Charles
Baudelaire and Adolf Loos, anticipating many aspects of what will be called modernism
in the 1920s, appropriate the English Dandy to represent their emergent theories of
modernity and aesthetics.
A seductively methodical, yet misleading definition of modernism would
identify its characteristics as the "modern" or "progressive" terms in modernity's
defining conflicts: positivist rather than metaphysical, useful rather than ornamental,
democratic rather than aristocratic, laboring rather than decadent, Western rather than
Eastern. Yet as Peter Wollen argues, this reductionism conceals much of modernism's
complexity and contradiction. Wollen cites examples from a variety of media to
demonstrate the "return of the repressed" throughout modern art--the aesthetic of the
ancien regime resurfaces in the "Oriental" fashions of Paul Poiret, the colorful palette of
Henri Matisse, and the irrational philosophy of surrealism, to name a few. Wollen
represents the history of modernism as a series of oscillations between "Orientalist" and
"Americanist" impulses--from Poiret's "harem pantaloons" (Orientalist) to Chanel's
interchangeable black "Model-T" dresses (Americanist) to Schiaparelli's shoe-shaped
Though Wollen's study brilliantly organizes a seemingly unwieldy amount and
variety of information, it fails to adequately interrogate what distinguishes each of these
manifestations as modern. It suggests that one can uncover the dominant Orientalist
or Americanist impulse within a work but leaves many questions regarding any given
work's synthesis of these two poles. And it is this synthesis, that constitutes the
modern aesthetic's uniqueness. For even as the fabric, ornamentation, and presentation
of Poiret's harem pants alluded to an ancient past of illicit sexuality and decadence, they
represented the first pants for women--a practical, comfortable alternative to the
bustles, corsets, and crinolines of previous decades. And even as Chanel designed the
elegant and simple "little black dress," she adorned it with layers of superfluous
costume jewelry. Thus, what is particularly modern about both Poiret's pants and
Chanel's dresses is that they maintain the tension between ancient and modern,
combining characteristics of both, resulting in more than the sum of their parts. It is
this tension, this aesthetic of contradiction, that distinguishes the modern--a
distinction, I argue, anticipated by the dandy. All these fashions (from the dandy's
tailored suits and starched cravat, Poiret's harem pants, to Chanel's black dress and
pearls) streamline the chaotic-exotic, integrating the ornamental excess into a stylized
The "total revolution in style" that distinguished 20th century designs from
19th century designs did indeed forge a unique aesthetic, but to argue that function
entirely supplanted ornament fails to account for the revolutionary designs. The
clothing designs popularized in the Twenties and Thirties under the aegis of "art deco,"
for example, emerge from the tension between ornament and function.'0 These
designs, simultaneously simplified and lavish, pose somewhat of a problem for the
design historian--a problem evident in the disparate book titles, The Streamlined Decade
and A Fashion for Extravagance, for example. In fact, the clothes were streamlined and
extravagant. Some historians draw clear distinctions between styles such as "art
nouveau" (a highly ornamental, exotic style developed between 1890 and 1914) and
"art deco" (a sharply angular, geometric style derivative of Bauhaus principles,
emerging after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Dicoratifs et Industriels
Modernes.) Though "pure" examples of austere art deco certainly exist, most designs of
the period appear to negotiate the two extremes, incorporating exotic or naturalistic
motifs into a streamlined design.
Valerie Steele disputes the myth of function often invoked to characterize 1920s
fashion: "The new fashions in dress were not based on functionalism or common sense
any more than avant-garde art was 'functional.'... The experimentation with new
forms became increasingly common in all the arts, including the art of fashion" (Steele
Paris Fashion 232). Steele relates the stylistic revolution of the early twentieth century
to the rise of the fashion illustrator, an artist who emphasized the overall feeling of the
design: "Whereas the nineteenth-century illustrator had concentrated on conveying as
much fashion information as possible, the 'Art Deco' illustrator largely ignored details
like buttons in favor of expressing the modern spirit of the dress" (219). The
motivation of these modern fashion illustrators echoes the dandy's obsessive emphasis
on design, as he opposed the chaotic craft of nineteenth-century dress production in
favor of the elegant art of tailoring. Similarly, the fashion illustrators imposed their
unified vision onto the fashions they were hired to illustrate, taking such liberties that
they often transformed the clothes. As a result, they significantly influenced the
development of modern fashion. "Indeed," Steele writes, "one has only to compare
photographs and Art Deco prints depicting similar clothes to see how much the
illustrator helped create the new look" (220). It is no coincidence that particular
groups of fashion illustrators referred to one another as "Beau Brummels,"
distinguishing themselves by their own immaculate grooming and obsessive attention
to order in design."
The modern clothing designs typically equated with the "New Woman" of the
1920s bridge distinctions between masculine utility and feminine frivolity, much as the
dandy had done a century before. The transformations reflected in the attire of the
"New Woman" resulted from a variety of social, economic, and technological causes.
Common consensus equates the banishment of the corset with the establishment of
women's suffrage in 1920. As the popular myth goes, women expressed their
liberation by bobbing their hair, shortening their skirts, dancing the tango, applying
lipstick, and smoking cigarettes. Though women's suffrage likely contributed to the
revolution in modern fashion, the changes brought about by industrialization should
not be underestimated. Anne Hollander addresses this relationship between
industrialization, democratization, and aesthetic ideals: "The real modernization of
fashion depended on a rise in the status of mass-produced machine-made garments,
accompanying the rise in the esthetic status of all industrial design" (Hollander 143).
She relates industrial design's infiltration of everyday life in the 20th century to men's
tailoring in the 19th century. Both further the democratization of culture by making
elegant design available to greater numbers of people. "From a certain distance on the
city street, individual feminine taste could make a much more noticeable difference
than riches or poverty did, just as with male dress.... This look had a striking
similarity with the long-standing desirable looks for men -- reduced, abstract, and
similar" (145). Thus, female fashions of the 1920s echo the previous century's
revolution in male clothing.
An interesting anomaly in the history of modernism and design concerns
Hollywood's popularization of art deco. In Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture and
the Movies, Donald Albrecht explores how the styles portrayed in certain Hollywood
movies appropriated modernist designs, but to drastically opposing ends. He argues
that modernist architecture was founded on the egalitarian, utopian ideal of bringing
efficient, quality design to all classes of people.
Moviemakers, by contrast, created a utopia of wealthy nonconformists.... It is
one of the ironies of the modernist movement that the cinema, the twentieth century's
greatest egalitarian visual art form, took modern architecture's collectivist agenda and
transformed it into a fantasy of privilege to be enjoyed only by the celluloid wealthy --
meanwhile broadcasting that message to an audience composed of the widest segments
of society that the architects sought to reach. (Albrecht xiii)
Indeed, modern design in the movies becomes synonymous with Hollywood
glamour. Far from representing modernist ideals for mass housing or factories,
Hollywood movies typically portray high-rise apartments, nightclubs, and sophisticated
offices in the modern style. For example, in Possessed, the streamlined, laquered designs
of Marian's urban apartment signify her success, as they contrast sharply with the
ornamental, mis-matched bric-a-brac that marks her girlhood home.
Chapter 3 will examine this cinematic deployment of the modern aesthetic,
exploring the the consequences of cinema's portrayal of everyday commodities. I
suggest that the tension between function and ornament resurfaces in cinema's tension
between narrative and mise-en-scne, as the logic-driven narrative often competes with
the distractions of ornamental mise-en-scene. Its fragmenting close-ups and
enlargements leaves cinema open to charges of fetishismm," which becomes somewhat
of a preoccupation among many film theorists. Chapter 3 will re-examine common
theories of cinema and fetishism in light of the connections Chapter 2 has made
between modernity and aesthetics.
The Materials of Culture
By examining a particular debate of fashion history, we see the invaluable
resources offered by material culture--in this case, the literal material of culture.
Unique in its ability to maintain tensions and display contradictions, fashion proves a
rich subject for investigating modernity's conflicts. Elizabeth Wilson likens fashion to
Freud's description of the unconscious: "[Like fashion, the unconscious] could contain
mutually exclusive ideas with serenity; in it time was abolished, raging emotions were
transformed into concrete images, and conflicts magical resolved by being
metamorphosed into symbolic form" (132). Modern fashion--commencing with the
dandy and culminating in the elegant designs of the 1920s--accomplishes this
metamorphosis by aestheticizing use-value, and blending the hitherto incongruous
values of beauty, pleasure, and sensuousness with utility, function, and efficiency. As
Anne Hollander writes, "modernity requires conflict and dialectic, uneasy combination,
ambiguity and tension." Fashion, "modern by nature... visually celebrates the
irrational, preserving tension rather than seeking resolution" (34).
Central to this aestheticizing process is fetishism, a mechanism inevitable in the
displacement of ideals onto the materials of culture. Fashion's embodiment of desire
will forever leave it susceptible to fetishism. The Great Masculine Renunciation, as an
attempt to eliminate fetishism, was bound for failure; for irrationality, sensuality -- and
indeed, reification -- are snugly woven into the materials of culture. But when we learn
to see fetishism not as a pathological malady, but as a trope endemic to both art and
artifact, we might come closer to understanding the "lesson of things."
The issues uncovered in this examination of Nineteenth century material culture
prefigure key debates about images and representation that surface in the Twentieth
century with cinema, the industrial art par excellence. A product of both artistic and
scientific impulses, cinema echoes the modern aesthetic anticipated by the dandy, as it
is similarly founded on a tension of sensual desire (manifest in lavish mise-en-scine) and
rational function (implicit in the logical requirements of narrative). The following
chapter develops these ideas and explores particular theories of cinema that embrace
the materiality of the image, celebrating the "attractions" of mise-en-scene.
As quoted by Susan Buck-Morss. In her article "Benjamin's Passagen-Werk:
Redeeming Mass Culture for the Revolution," Buck-Morss writes, "Benjamin's
understanding of commodities was not merely critical. He affirmed them as utopian
wish-images which 'liberated creativity from art, just as in the XVIrh century the
sciences freed themselves from philosophy' (PW, 1236, again 1249). This
phantasmagoria of industrially-produced material objects-buildings, boulevards, all
sorts of commodities from tour-books to toilet articles-for Benjamin was mass
culture, and it is the central concern of the Passagen-Werk." New German Critique, v. 29,
Spring/Summer 1983, 213.
2 Though no one text defines the purposes, methods, or terminology of
Material Culture, most seem to use the term "artifact" quite generally. It refers to
human-made objects (an article of clothing, a pencil sharpener, a card table, a Coke
can) or natural objects that have been organized into human-made creations (a garden,
a landscape, a "pet rock"). Thus all "artifacts" are not necessarily "commodities." But
all commodities are necessarily "artifacts." Because my concern is with the
commodity as artifact, I tend to use the terms interchangably.
Focusing on English manifestations of the Great Masculine Renunciation,
David Kuchta argues that accounts of the renunciation privilege the sartorial
transformations of the bourgeoisie occurring in the late 18th and early 19th century,
and tend to overlook the true revolution in male attire that took place after the
Glorious Revolution of 1688. He suggests that "the great masculine renunciation of
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was merely an extension of a
century-old process" whereby the aristocracy began to redefine the political legitimacy,
inventing the "self-made man." See "The Making of the Self-Made Man: Class,
Clothing, and English Masculinity, 1688-1832" The Sex of Things: Gender and
Consumption in Historical Perspective. Victoria de Grazia, editor. (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1996) 60.
Anne Hollander (among others) explains that women, too, enjoyed the simpler
designs of the Neo-Classical trend at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet by
mid-century, "paintings by Frith and indeed by Monet and Manet show groups of
multicolored ladies blooming like varieties of flowering shrubbery among sturdy, dun-
colored, tree-trunk-like gentlemen with distinctive faces." Anne Hollander, Sex and
Suits (New York: Koshanda International, 1994) 98.
This bifurcation of ancient and modern prompted Walter Benjamin's seminal
article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which examines
modern technology's dismantling of "a number of outmoded concepts, such as
creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery." I explore the implications of
Benjamin's article later in the text. Walter Benjamin. "The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction." Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Braudy, Cohen (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999) 732.
6 Similarly, Baudelaire contrasts his ideal, the "painter of modern life," with
archaic notions of the "artist," preferring instead the term "man of the world.": "When
at last I ran him to earth, I saw at once that it was not precisely an artist, but rather a
man of the world with whom I had to do. I ask you to understand the word artist in a
very restricted sense, and man of the world in a very broad one. By the second I mean
a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and
lawful reasons for all its uses; by the first, a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like
a serf to the soil. The artist lives very little, if at all, in the world of morals and
politics." Baudelaire, 6-7.
7 Matei Calinescu writes that "the term [modernity] circulated in English at least
since the seventeenth century. The OED records the first occurrence of 'modernity'
(meaning 'present times') in 1627." Yet, as a means of distinguishing a specific mode of
everyday life that contrasts with ancient grandeur, the term first appears in 1833 in
Chateaubriand's Diary. Matei Calinescu. Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1987) 42-43.
8 James Naremore proposes that "Western society in the early decades of the
twentieth century seems to have split into an unsettled mixture of at least six different
artistic cultures, each producing different kinds of images, stories, music, and what Carl
Schorske calls 'intellectual objects.'" He goes on to enumerate: high art, modernist art,
avant-garde art, folk art, popular art, and mass art. James Naremore and Patrick
Brantlinger, eds., Modernity and Mass Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1991). In a similar survey, Matei Calinescu identifies "five faces of modernity":
modernism, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, and postmodernism. Matei Calinescu.
Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).
9 Andreas Huyssen has nominated this split "the great divide," noting that "the
opposition between modernism and mass culture has remained amazingly resilient over
the decades." Andreas Huyssen, After The Great Divide:. Modernism, Mass Culture,
Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), vii.
10 See, for example Brandon Kershner's introduction toJoyce and Popular Culture,
which explores the complex (and in many cases, accommodating) relationship between
modernism and mass culture. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996).
Robert Heide and John Gilman specify that "The term art deco is derived
from the name of the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et
Industriels Modernes. This mid-1920s world's fair of innovative decorative arts and
architecture is generally acknowledged as the starting point from which neoteric styles
of design began to take firm hold in both the European and American marketplace. In
the late 1920s and early 1930s, the advanced concepts developed at the 1925
exposition were most often referred to as simply "modern" or "modernism." Other
descriptive terms used during those early years were Art Moderne, Jazz Moderne, and
the New York Style, the latter referring to the city's craze for higher and higher
skyscrapers. It was only in 1966 when the Paris Mus&e des Arts Decoratifs held its
retrospective of design styles emanating from the 1925 exposition that the catchall
expression Art Deco began to come into popular usage in describing the revival of
interest in that form. Popular Art Deco (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991) 15.
12 Valerie Steele quotes Vogue editor Edna Wollman Chase who writes of the
illustrators: "A certain dandyism of the dress and manner. Makes them a 'school.'
Their hat brims are a wee bit broader than the modish ones of the day and the hats are
worn with a slight tilt, a very slight tilt but enough to give the impression of
fastidiousness. Their coats are pinched in just a little at the waist, their ties are spotless
and their boots immaculate. A bracelet slipping down over a wrist at an unexpected
moment betrays a love of luxury. The great difference between these Beau Brummells
and their ancient namesake is that They are also hard workers." (Steele Paris
TOWARD A FETISH-FRIENDLY FEMINISM
To demonstrate the identity of the artistic and scientific uses of
photography which heretoforr usually were separated will be one
of the revolutionary functions of the film.
-- Walter Benjamin
We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary art. The only truly
modern art perhaps ... because it is simultaneously and uniquely the
offspring of both technology and human ideals.
-- Louis Delluc
Cinema, like the nineteenth century dandy of Chapter 1, reflects a dialectical
foundation: it emerges from a meeting of aesthetics and industry. Like the dandy,
cinema is a product of modern technology--a democratic medium driven by reason and
function--even as it incorporates an irrational, fanciful element of "Imagination." It is
no coincidence, then, that the same debates characterize the emergence of cinema as
characterized the dandy: the possibilities of mass art, the politics of aesthetic pleasure,
the reconciliation of abstract ideas and material objects, and the gendered implications
of mixing aesthetics (associated with ornament, coded as feminine) and industry
(associated with function, coded as masculine). Chapter 3 thus continues to examine
commodities as material culture, exploring how cinema develops as an ideal medium to
display consumer goods even as (or perhaps because) it becomes one such object itself.
Tom Gunning has pointed to the continued presence of the exhibitionistic style
of early cinema--even in classical Hollywood narrative, that genre supposedly hostile to
excess and indeterminacy. This tendency certainly appears in my areas of interest,
Hollywood cinema of the 1920s and 30s (which typically relied on a tight narrative to
motivate its continuity editing) and the European narrative cinema of the period (which
sometimes strayed from strict continuity editing, but nevertheless converged on a
continuous narrative). But the sometimes converging, sometimes competing, forces of
narrative and mise-en-scine that orient this chapter are evident in all narrative cinema.
This tension emerges from the very nature of cinematic representation, as its larger-
than-life renderings of the ordinary constantly threaten to distract the viewer from the
Cinema--one of the most significant development of material culture to date--
has inspired theorists to analyze its foundations and explicitly address the implications
of "art in the age of mechanical reproduction." Part 1 of this chapter engages some of
those theories, exploring debates among certain writers of the Frankfurt school who
observe cinema's dismantling of the artistic tradition. Walter Benjamin and Theodor
Adorno both address cinema's revolutionary status as mass art, a form that overturns
art's traditional function of encouraging spiritual contemplation and aesthetic
fulfillment. Despite their initial agreement that mass art represents a radically new
phenomenon, they come to drastically different conclusions regarding the potentials of
cinema as mass art. I explore Benjamin's complex theory of cinema as "distraction,"
arguing that it attempts to bridge the gulf between aesthetics and science, redefining
aesthetic value in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin suggests that cinema
has the potential both to lull and awaken the masses, encapsulating the dual nature of
fetishism as both knowledge ("I know very well") and disavowal ("... but all the
After evaluating Benjamin's and Adorno's generalizations about cinema as mass
art and exploring the implications for mise-en-sc~ne, I focus on the specific, irrational
pleasures of cinematic display, exploring particular theorists who engage the fetishism
of objects that cinema uniquely represents. Part 2 examines the Impressionist notion
(later appropriated by the surrealists) ofphotogenie, a radical, intrusive position that
heralds mise-en-scne's capacity to disrupt the narrative through its irrational, visual
pleasures. I suggest an affinity between Benjamin's theory of cinema as "distraction"
and the surrealists' accounts of mise-en-scne's propensity to distract the viewer from
what is usually considered cinema's raison d'tre, the narrative.
In Part 3, 1 explore the implications of these fetishistic theories of cinema on
feminist film theory's almost universal hostility toward fetishism. I consider how the
opposition between narrative and mise-en-scine figures in certain Hollywood movies of
the 1920s and 30s. This period proves a particularly rich field for investigating these
issues, as it initiates Hollywood's explicit engagement with consumerism and begins to
depict the "New Woman," linking her fantasies and desires to the commodities it
showcases. I examine several explanations that might account for the particular
manifestations of cinematic display in these films. This conflation of women and
consumerism ultimately uncovers issues of visual pleasure and fetishism. Developing
the suggestions of Chapter 2, 1 continue to challenge monolithic uses of fetishism to
diagnose the ills of modern culture. Theories of mise-en-scine, for example, suggest that
fetishismm" may constitute one of cinema's inherent assets. Both the surrealists and
Benjamin celebrate cinema's fragmenting concentration on particular details and its
ability to display everyday objects in an extraordinary manner. In addition, I introduce
Barthes's notion of the "filmic" and Gunning's notion of "the cinema of attractions"--
two perspectives that further complicate feminist explanations of fetishism in dominant
cinema and point instead toward the liberating potentials of cinematic spectacle.
The Frankfurt School and Theories of Mass Art
The writings of Adorno and Benjamin on cinema and the "culture industry"
represent a canonized entry-point into studies of mass culture. Adorno and
Horkheimer's classic denunciation, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass
Deception," and Benjamin's classic celebration, "The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction," neatly isolate the defining characteristics of cinema's
dismantling of art's traditional functions and appear to choose sides. Adorno and
Horkheimer declare that "movies... need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that
they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they
deliberately produce" (Adorno 31). Benjamin, on the other hand, identifies film as
mechanical reproduction's "most powerful agent" which has the potential to "lead to a
tremendous shattering of tradition... and renewal of mankind" (Benjamin 734).
Though they agree that cinema emerges at the intersection of art and commodity,
Adorno and Benjamin arrive at drastically different conclusions regarding cinema's
potential to positively impact the masses. For each, cinema's uniqueness lies in the
scientific and artistic tendencies that collide in mise-en-scdne.
For Adorno, cinema's implication in "the culture industry" unequivocally aligns
it with the enemy: "the absolute power of capitalism" (30). With capitalism as its
driving force, cinema can only propagate dominant ideology, insuring the continuity of
pliable capitalist subjects who go to the movies to momentarily escape from -- but
never question -- their everyday lives. Popular cinema achieves this goal through its
reliance on quickly-moving images (anchored to a fast-moving narrative) that deny
spectators the luxury of contemplating the scene unfolding before them. Cinema
"leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable
to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without
losing the thread of the story" (34). Thus the culture industry functions as a giant
factory, producing identical, unthinking capitalist subjects. Far from representing a
creative outlet, cinema only reinscribes the workers' thoughtless labor. "The might of
industrial society is lodged in men's minds," Adorno writes. "The entertainments
manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the
customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery
which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure -- which is akin to
work" (34). Thus Adorno ultimately denies the possibility of cinema as mass art -- as a
product of the "culture industry," cinema promotes absent-minded passivity, art's
In his analysis of cinema's stupifying capacity, Adorno manifests a particular
ambivalence about the uniqueness of cinematic mise-en-sc~ne. He is anxious about
cinema's ability to "flawlessly... duplicate empirical objects," because it enables "the
illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that
presented on the screen" (34). Yet as he continues, we see that Adorno's notion of
mise-en-scine as the accomplice of a naive realism remains tied to narrative and montage,
those aspects of cinema strengthened with the coming of sound: "This purpose has
been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound
film." Thus mise-en-scene is not necessarily the enemy. Rather, the enemy is a mise-en-
scene that fails to identify itself as such and serves only to forward the narrative. In fact,
Adorno locates what might be a germ of hope in foregrounding the fragments that
constitute the "movie world": "Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie -
- by its images, gestures, and words -- that they are unable to supply what really makes
it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a
screening" (34). The film represents the "triumph of invested capital," because it
"integrates all the elements of production" (images, gestures, words) into a single
narrative unity that "stunts. the consumer's powers of imagination and spontaneity"
(34). Adorno seems to imply that mise-en-scene should not always serve the unfolding
narrative -- rather, the viewer should enjoy the luxury of dwelling on the individual
fragments ("images, gestures, and words") that together form the "integrated" product.
Benjamin's theories regarding the potentials ofmise-en-scene in "The Work of Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" are no less ambivalent. In fact, Benjamin
seems to argue that cinema's potential lies in both the disorienting powers of mise-en-
scene (hinted at by Adorno), and the constant movement of narrative and montage
(distrusted by Adorno). In "Impressionism, surrealism, and film theory: path
dependence, or how a tradition in film theory gets lost," Robert Ray argues that
Adorno, in a letter rejecting Benjamin's proposed Arcades Project, succinctly
summarizes cinema's dual nature: '"Your study,' Adorno wrote, in the now famous
passage, 'is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism'" (Ray 67). Cinema, Ray
argues, combines fetishistic attention to mise-en-scne (magic) with factory-modeled
production and logically-motivated narrative (positivism). In this chapter, I explore
cinema's "magic" side, re-examining the "lost tradition" that celebrates the enchanting
powers of the cinematic image.
Benjamin's emphasis on cinematic enchantment can be traced to his notion of
the "optical unconscious" (introduced in "A Small History of Photography," 1931).
Through the scientific possibilities of cinema (e.g., the close-up, enlargements, slow
motion) we have access to reality as we've never seen it. For example, cinema can
display the most mundane human gestures in a magnificent light: "The act of reaching
for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on
between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here
the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowering and lifting, its interruptions
and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The
camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious
impulses" (Benjamin 746). This notion of "unconscious optics" remains exclusive to
cinema, for unlike other art forms, cinema relies upon photography. "As compared with
painting, filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its
incomparably more precise statements of the situation. In comparison with the stage
scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be
isolated more easily" (746). Thus the technological possibilities of cinema promote
both scientific inquiry (exhibiting the physics of human movement) and artistic
innovation (encouraging new "ways of seeing"). Benjamin writes, "This circumstance
[of unconscious optics] derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the
mutual penetration of art and science. Actually, of a screened behavior item which is
nearly brought out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is difficult to say
which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science" (746).
In attaching a progressive semblance to the interpenetration of scientific and
artistic purposes, Benjamin differentiates himself from the position Adorno represents.
Adorno seems to argue that cinema's scientific tendency to flawlessly duplicate objects
conceals its artistic tendency -- herein lies the danger of cinema. The audience fails to
perceive cinema as artifice, and instead equates the "outside world" with the "screen
world." But for Benjamin, there is no separating the "scientific" from the "artistic"
impulses of cinema -- this fusion is precisely what distinguishes its uniqueness. The
disorienting effects of cinematic photography (with its close-ups, fragmentations, and
literally "larger than life" representations of objects) betray its artistic purposes from its
very inception. Rendering a movement in slow-motion, for example, far exceeds
scientific implications for a study of motion: "slow motion not only presents familiar
qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones 'which, far from
looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating,
supernatural motions'" (746).
But despite his emphasis on cinematic mise-en-scMne, Benjamin ultimately locates
cinema's revolutionary potential in "distraction," or the "shock effect of the film."
Unlike Adorno, Benjamin doesn't want to return to an aesthetic of contemplation. His
emphasis on mise-en-scine, then, is tied to its application within montage. The images
embody a revolutionary potential only when they are chopped up and reassembled.
Film achieves this "shock effect" through the constant movement of images, jokingly
juxtaposed. This jarring, discontinuous effect drastically contrasts the traditional
reception of art, as exemplified in painting: "The painting invites the spectator to
contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before
the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is
already changed. It cannot be arrested" (748). The same phenomenon that elicited
Adorno's anxiety, forms the basis of Benjamin's utopian theory.
Thus "distraction and concentration form polar opposites." The shock effect has
revolutionary implications--it represents a break with the "outmoded concepts" that
anchor traditional art ("creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery"--qualities
Benjamin associated with the Fascist propaganda machine) and instead reflects the lived
conditions of the newly created masses that peopled the modern city. "The greatly
increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of perception,"
Benjamin writes. "For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the
turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation,
alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile
appropriation" (748-49). Analyzing Benjamin's theory, Peter Wollen writes that "the
whole mode of apperception of modern life is tactile.... [Benjamin] conceived of life
in the city as an unending series of shocks, which act on us like physical blows: to use a
favourite image, like being jostled in a crowd" (Wollen 50). Cinema, then, reflected
the lived situation of modern city-dwellers and could better prepare them for the
discontinuous, fragmented nature of modernity than could the antiquated painting in a
We might see Benjamin's theory of the "shock effect" as an attempt to
articulate a positive potential within the "culture industry." Unlike Adorno, Benjamin
celebrated the passing of art's traditional contemplative function. He was excited by
the modern city's potential to dismantle elitist notions of art. With its abundance of
images--traffic, shop window displays, billboards, masses of people--the city required a
new form of sense perception, a "social" form Benjamin likened to a "shock effect."
Watching a film could instill habits in viewers--habits that trained them to live as "the
masses" of the modern city. Wollen writes that these habits "were necessary to the
masses at the present turning point in history, when the human apparatus of
perception was confronted with a multitude of new demands and new tasks. Thus
cinema, in a sense, was fulfilling the role of fitting the masses for the new and
progressive forms of production that were being introduced" (51).
Benjamin's notion of mass culture as "distraction" ultimately suggests that some
"content" exists within the products of mass culture. Adorno misses this point because
his model of cognition emerges from an outmoded concept of aesthetic contemplation.
The "distraction" model points to a gradual, less dramatic, habitual mode of cognition.
One cannot become absorbed by the cinema; rather, one absorbs it.
Though I discuss his theories in greater detail in Chapter 4, a third Frankfurt
critic deserves mention here, for he similarly argues that a progressive potential lay
submerged in the "distractions" of mass culture. In The Mass Ornament, Siegfried
Kracauer likens cinema to such diverse manifestations as a hotel lobby and a dancing
troupe, the "Tiller Girls." As objects of mass culture, these creations share a lack of
substance; they are pure ornament, anchored by no meaning. Similar to Benjamin,
Kracauer believed such a "distraction" as cinema possessed a potential to liberate the
masses. For Kracauer, this liberation could be accomplished only if the emptiness of
the movies exposed the emptiness of modern life. But on the contrary, he found that
"Distraction--which is meaningful only as... a reflection of the uncontrolled anarchy of
our world--is festooned with drapery and forced back into a unity that no longer exists"
(Kracauer 327-28). As Wolen argues, Kracauer "rejected the option of going back to
traditional forms of art. The way forward 'leads directly through the mass ornament,
not away from it,' that is, through instrumental reason, not back to irrationality"
(Wollen 56). Precisely how distraction might be remotivated to liberate rather than
oppress remains unclear in Kracauer's writings. Wollen articulates this difficulty: "The
problem was how to develop a new content, a truth-bearing content, from within
formal reason, intrinsically. His utopian dream was of a Fordist rationality that would
not be dehumanizing" (56). Though Wollen likens Kracauer to Benjamin in his
rejection of irrationality, my reading of Benjamin locates a constant tension between
rational, materialist analysis and irrational, metaphysical rumination, a tension most
obvious in Benjamin's clashes with Adorno.
Adorno and Benjamin agreed that the logic of cinema mirrored the logic of
everyday life for the urban masses; yet this same truth represented liberation for
Benjamin, and imprisonment for Adorno. Resolutely Marxist, Adorno criticized
Benjamin's "romantic" theory of distraction.1 In a letter to Benjamin, he wrote,
"despite its shock-like seduction I do not find your theory of distraction convincing--if
only for the simple reason that in a communist society work will be organized in such a
way that people will no longer be so tired and so stultified that they need distraction"
(Adorno 24). Continuing, he explained that "if anything does have an aural character, it
is surely the film which possesses it to an extreme and highly suspect degree." In fact,
as we have seen in his account of the optical unconsciousness, even Benjamin attributes
magical, aura-like qualities to the cinema. Recall his description of slow motion that
gives "the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions" or his reference
to the camera's "ingenious guidance" which exposes the "hidden details of familiar
objects" (Benjamin 746). Benjamin's theories of art in the age of mechanical
reproduction manifest many such frustrating contradictions. Still, for the student of
cinema, Benjamin's contradictions are more illuminating than Adorno's unrelenting
The tension that manifests in Benjamin's theory of the shock effect reflects the
tension that animates popular cinema. Benjamin was both a materialist and a
metaphysician, a critic and a poet. This duality is especially evident in the fragments of
his never-completed Arcades Project which I discuss in Chapter 5. Biographical
accounts and published correspondence likewise reveal that "although Benjamin
professed to be a Marxist of sorts from the mid-Twenties on, from his first days to his
last he was profoundly absorbed by theological questions."2 His ability to perceive, and
even celebrate, the sacred in everyday life amounted to a position untenable within
either Marxism or theology. Evaluating Benjamin's correspondence, Mark Lilla
summizes, "For genuine materialists, there can be no real tension between the sacred
and profane, only between illusion and enlightenment." The theologian, in contrast,
must find some way to live with that tension, whether by withdrawing from the world
into mysticism, or attempting to establish a new social order based on his vision.
"Others, like Benjamin, flirt promiscuously with both possibilities, remaining a riddle
to themselves and to all who encounter them" (Lilla 42).
This lack of commitment to one doctrine (or even one discipline) makes
Benjamin ideally suited to observe and chronicle the upheavals of modernity. His
sometimes contradictory theories amount to an expose of mass culture's own
contradictions. For this reason his ideas have become invaluable to students of mass
culture who now take for granted the ambivalent nature of consumer society. In
Postmodernism and Popular Culture, Angela McRobbie similarly makes a case for
Benjamin's importance in contemporary cultural studies, finding in his work "a model
for the practice of being a cultural intellectual" (McRobbie 99). She argues that
Benjamin's apparent delight in the pleasures of the modern city "intensified rather than
blunted his critical faculties and led him to examine the historical processes which gave
the items, the objects and the urban areas or districts, their cultural meaning" (105).
Indeed, his "delight" in these images enables him to perceive the complex relationship
between politics and pleasure, thus sidestepping Adorno's unequivocal rejection of the
pleasures of mass culture.
Benjamin's interest in the disorienting, "phantasmagoric" effects of modernity
likely finds its roots in surrealist accounts of cinema that revel in the excesses of the
image. Part 2 begins by examining these theories of photoginie, a noteworthy (and
perhaps notorious) antecedent to Benjamin's writings on the irrational pleasures of
cinematic mise-en-scine. In addition, I examine several contemporary accounts of
cinematic display, showing how popular movies of the 1920s and 30s enact--in both
the mise-en-scne and the narrative--the issues at stake in these debates. The tension
that Benjamin isolates between the excesses of cinematic materiality and the
rationalizing forces of montage editing have their counterpart in particular
transformations in the public sphere affecting American and European culture of the
1920s and 30s. I will examine several Hollywood films that narrativize this debate, as
they depict the increasing rationalization of the workplace, and woman's uneasy
The Surrealists and Photogunie
Like Benjamin in "The Work of Art," the Impressionist and surrealist theorists
ofphotoginie attempt to define the mass-produced commodity as the true setting of
modern art. The sometimes ambiguous suggestions in Benjamin's essay emerge as a
resounding credo in their writings. The surrealists take Benjamin's notion of
"distraction" a step further--not only does it represent a new way of perceiving the art
of modernity, it represents a potential to disrupt narrative continuity. For proponents
ofphotogenie, the disorienting, fragmented close-ups of objects in cinematic mise-en-scMne
distract the viewer from the often banal, and almost always burdensome, narrative.
Richard Abel describes "The Emergence of Photoginie" in terms of a shift in the
object of attention "from action and narration to description or representation. In
other words, the focus turned from temporal progression to spatial composition or mise-
en-scine" (Abel 107). Observing the cinema of their day, these writers concluded that
the worst films maintained the conventions of narrative established in the 19th-century
novel, and by theatrical conventions such as dramatic overacting and character
development. In contrast, the best films were those that realized the potentials of mise-
en-scene. Andre Breton, looking back on the surrealists' enthusiastic embracement of
cinema, writes, "I think that what we valued most in it, to the point of taking no
interest in anything else, was its power to disorient" (Breton 43). By some accounts,
this delight in the disorienting images resulted in a particular distaste for "plot-heavy"
movies. Breton quotes one "professional" (revealed in a footnote to be Rene Clair) who
laments, "['theatrical,' action-driven cinema] bores me, and I have the greatest
difficulty in understanding what is going on. It's invariably necessary to explain the
plot to me afterwards" (45). Clair expresses a view, typical among Surrealist and
Impressionist film theorists, that the cinematic image is more interesting than the
Photoginie amounts to a film theory--perhaps even a manifesto--of the "optical
unconsciousness." Philippe Soupault writes, "The richness of this new art is apparent to
those who know how to see. Its power is tremendous since it reverses all natural laws:
it ignores space and time; it upsets gravity, ballistics, biology, etc.... Its eye is more
patient, more penetrating, more precise. Thus the future belongs to the creator, the
poet, who makes use of this hitherto neglected power and richness" (Abel 143). Like
Benjamin, Soupault pinpoints cinema's unique ability to shatter everyday perception.
When Soupault speaks of "those who know how to see," he speaks of those who
embrace photography's ability to manifest the otherwise latent content of an image.
Benjamin writes, "For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye:
other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space
informed by the unconscious" (Benjamin, "Small History" 243). Cinematic
photography was thus naturally suited to the surrealist goal of freeing the unsettling,
marvellous content that lay dormant in bourgeois imagery.
They achieved this goal through their own practices of filmmaking, film-
viewing, and filmcritiquing. Their filmmaking practices were designed to simulate
dream-logic, accomplished by either shooting their own films of shocking, radically
juxtaposed imagery (as in Bufiuel's Un Chien Andalou) or reassembling fragments taken
from popular narrative films (as in Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart). These films
foregrounded mise-en-scine and all but eliminated narrative. Marcel Marien writes that
"the most difficult obstacle to surmount would be the traditional concept of the
narration." He decides that "it would be important to cut the storyline thread while
retaining the emotional effects." He speaks of "wrench[ing]" the images from the
"eternal narration to which they are now constrained" (Marien 92, 89). Their film-
viewing practices amounted to a similar technique, as they simulated this disorienting
type of film-making. Such effects were achieved by blinking rapidly while watching a
film, or by hopping from theater to theater mid-movie, effectually creating a new
"movie" of nonsensically juxtaposed segments. Methods of film critique included
"synthetic criticism" and "irrational enlargement." "Synthetic criticism" was introduced
by Louis Aragon to "signify the tangential reading of a film, the bringing to the surface
of a film's second, secret life, its latent content." The method of tangential reading
applied surrealist principles of film-making to film criticism: it involved "extract[ing]
individual images or short sequences whose poetic charge, when liberated from the
narrative that held them prisoner, was intensified" (Hammond 5). "Irrational
enlargement" involved posing a series of non-sequitur questions about a given film.
The imaginative answers amounted to a "mental re-editing" of the film that dismantled
the rational narrative.
Like Benjamin, the surrealists celebrated cinema's dismantling of an outmoded
artistic tradition. They argued that the objects of everyday life had supplanted the
traditional conception of art, and cinema fittingly displayed these objects. Louis
Aragon's "On Decor" particularly captures this modern spirit: "Before the appearance
of the cinematographe hardly any artist dared use the false harmony of machines and
the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really
common objects, everything that celebrates our life, not some artificial convention that
excludes corned beef and tins of polish" (Aragon 28). But also like Benjamin, their
redefinition of art in the age of mechanical reproduction suggested an attribution of
"aura-like" characteristics to modern commodities. But unlike Benjamin, the
surrealists openly acknowledged this metaphysical leaning, and embraced the
perversion it represented. Richard Abel speaks of their interest in "the spirit of things,"
quoting Vuillermoz's declaration, "The search for the real must extend to believing in
the religion of things, to the discovery of their soul, to seeing as a sort of secret
pantheism which animates the greatest painters and sculptors" (Abel 108). In short,
they celebrated commodity fetishism, as commodities represented the art of the masses.
Both Benjamin and Aragon describe the potential of objects within the mise-en-
scine to become "actors," enacting the Marxist notion of fetishism in which "people and
things exchange semblances: social relations take on the character of object relations,
and commodities assume the active agency of people" (Apter 27). Aragon speaks of
"those dear old American adventure films that speak of daily life and manage to raise to
a dramatic level a banknote on which our attention is rivetted, a table with a revolver
on it, a bottle that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime,
a typewriter that's the horizon of a desk, the terrible unfolding telegraphic tape with
magic ciphers that enrich or ruin bankers." By attributing agency to these objects,
cinema pays homage to the commodity fetish as the only truly modern art; as Aragon
attests, "To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully
restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that
help make cinematic decor the adequate setting of modern beauty" (Aragon 29).
Describing the drastically different requirements of acting for theater as opposed to
cinema, Benjamin observes that in cinema, actors become objects, and vice versa: "it is
not unusual for the film to assign a role to the stage property." To exemplify, he
describes how a clock can become a vital prop for cinema, whereas it remains useless for
theater, as its undisturbed measurement of time would "always be a disturbance on the
stage" (Benjamin 741, footnote 11).
As it did in Benjamin's "distraction" theory, this attribution of "aura-like"
qualities to mechanically reproduced objects (or images of objects) amounts to a re-
casting of art's "contemplative" function. Benjamin traced a "theological archetype" in
the contemplation demanded by paintings. Historically, contemplation suited "the
heyday of the bourgeoisie;" but the post-Industrial Revolution, working-class culture
demanded new forms of perception and cognition. The masses demanded a more
social, interactive, democratic form of art that countered the bourgeois "tendency to
withdraw from public affairs" (Benjamin 748, footnote 18). For Benjamin, cinema met
just this need--its simultaneous exhibition to large amounts of people granted the same
critical privilege to the novice as it did the expert. Cinema combined "the direct,
intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert"
(744-745). Cinema replaced anti-social, theological contemplation with social,
proletarian "distraction." With this transformation, mass-produced objects (including
cinema and the objects it displayed) elicited "visual and emotional enjoyment," and
thus absorbed some of the irrational, metaphysical characteristics previously attributed
to the "aura" of art.
We might see photoginie similarly, as a democratic mode of "visual and
emotional enjoyment." Aragon's descriptions of modern commodities pinpoint this
democratic aesthetic--the objects are beautiful, mass-produced, interactive, inexpensive,
and available to almost everyone. Their cinematic portrayal amounts to a modern
"painting." Aragon speaks of "this rapturous display of tinned goods (what great
painter has composed this?), or this counter with the row of bottles that makes you
drunk just to look at it" (Aragon 28). The cinema, like the marketplace, displays
beautifully packaged, artfully arranged commodities to elict the masses' visual pleasure.
A social, democratic implication accompanies their consumption (whether literally, as
one consumes a tin of food, or figuratively, as one consumes the displays in a shop
window or the images in a movie). Aragon embraces a public that knows "how to be
moved by a newspaper or a packet of cigarettes," a public that "thrills and communes"
before modern decor.
Aragon's spirited descriptions of commodities anticipate the pop art
"revolution" typically attributed to Andy Warhol, whose paintings of soup cans have
become a cliched representation of commodity fetishism.3 Most art historians see in
Warhol's work both a celebration and a critique of consumer culture. I would argue
that the "critique" is in the eye of the beholder--in the deeply ingrained "way of seeing"
that cannot attribute aesthetic value to commodities, and must view artful portrayals of
commodities as parodies. But this is precisely the portrayal we find in Aragon, with no
hint of parody. Far from parodying commodity fetishism, these descriptions of
photogenie (like Warhol's portraits of soup cans or cola bottles) embrace commodity
fetishism and parody art. As such, they expose the "outmoded concepts" that
Benjamin's essay targets: "Creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery" no longer
apply to the individual artist, but to the mass-produced commodity (Benjamin 732).
Mise-en-scene Meets the "New Woman"
This section considers several early Hollywood films which further complicate
the problems of cinematic display, as they consistently align the female image with a
lavish mise-en-scine that threatens to disrupt the narrative. These films expose a certain
anxiety about the "New Woman's" increasing mobility as she enters the workplace and
wanders about the modern city unchaperoned. As such, she represents a dangerous
distraction in the increasingly "Taylorized" workplace.4 In one sense, these particular
movies counter Benjamin's utopian model of "distraction" and the surrealists'
celebration of mise-en-scene, as they present the eroticizied female image as a pernicious
distraction in the male-dominated world of business. Certain psychoanalytic feminist
film theories account for this conflation of female and spectacle by describing the
woman as object of the fetishizing male gaze. Other, more historically specific
accounts, examine the woman's role as consumer of both commodities and cinematic
images, suggesting that visual pleasure is her privilege, too. These historical accounts
suggest that the female spectator is not unlike Benjamin's distracted flneur or Aragon's
In Virgins, Vamps and Flappers, Sumiko Higashi addresses Hollywood's depiction
of "The New Woman," noting how women's entrance into the workplace affected
their lives much more directly and profoundly than did suffrage: "With respect to the
status of women, voting did not make a difference because it failed to challenge
definitions of womanhood based on domesticity. Change came from a source
altogether different than the vote. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own,
'Of the two--the vote and the money--the money I own, seemed infinitely the more
important.' Despite the fact that women were locked into undesirable and ill-paid
work, a significant index to their changing status lay in their working numbers, not in
their turnout at the polls" (Higashi 111). This "changing status" becomes the
motivation for countless Hollywood movies of the twenties and thirties that portrayed
the varied consequences --ranging from comic to tragic--of women entering the male
world of business and industry.
1932's Beauty and the Boss specifically addresses the problems of integrating
women into the rationalized, efficient workplace. Both the mise-en-scne and the
narrative depict the tension between the male world of unfeeling, quantifiable
transactions, and the female world of sensuality and ornamental excess. As the movie
begins, the viewer enters the mechanized, masculine world of "Americanism," which
"[stands] for true modernity, the liquidation of stifling traditions and shackling
lifestyles and work habits" (Wollen 36). The opening scenes bombard the viewer with
images of urban mobility: A whirling airplane propellar and aerial view of a lighted
cityscape dissolve into a montage of urbanity. Superimposed onto the image of a busy
city street are a turning automobile wheel, an accelerating speedometer, and two
odometers marking the miles travelled. We are introduced to the male lead, bank
president Baron Von Ulrich, who brilliantly caricatures the efficiency-obsessed
businessman. In his first appearance, he rapidly and impatiently dictates to his
assistant on the airplane, as they return to America. His quick-paced dialogue exposes
his ergonomic inclinations, as he "quantifies" every interaction. He instructs reporters
who meet him at the airport, "Hold your questions for the press conference at 3:00."
He dismisses his concierge's ceremonious welcoming speech with "I was there four
days." Impatient with the concierge's flowery eloquence, the Baron quips, "Too many
words. .. archaic, inefficient," as he enters his deco-furnished office to dicate a
summary of his negotiations abroad.
The stenographer's entrance brings the president's smoothly-flowing
transactions to an abrupt halt. His attempt to dictate a memo is constantly diverted by
the smell of her perfume, and the sight of her legs and decolletage. Their pre-Hays
Code dialogue ensues -- a quick repartee of double-entendres. Von Ulrich dictates
additional memos: no employees shall wear perfume, all employees shall wear long
sleeves. He finally confronts the problem: "Miss Frayne, you're much too pretty to be
caged in a bank. No woman should look pretty who works in a bank. It disturbs the
bankers, takes the eyes of the tellers off their bills and currency. The clerks become
confused at their columns. It's dangerous. Invites disaster." Miss Frayne responds,
"But I thought it made men happier at work to see a pretty woman about." As Von
Ulrich sets her straight, he adds another layer of meaning to the discourse of
"distraction" and "contemplation." "Men don't come to work to be happy," he tells
her. "They come to earn their daily bread. Women are for non-working hours. And
you're much too pretty and soft and seductive. You distract me! Think what I lose
contemplating your charms. My time is worth 5,000 an hour. Already I've lost ten
minutes looking at you--that's over 800. In a year I should lose a million and a half."
Miss Frayne introduces an element of leisurely, erotic contemplation--a severe
encumbrance to the productive workplace.
Many feminist film theories account for this feminine "interruption" through
recourse to psychoanalytic explanations of castration anxiety and fetishism. Deriving
from Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," these accounts situate
"woman as image, man as bearer of the look" (Mulvey 837). Mulvey argues that
dominant cinema perpetuates the desires and fantasies of a patriarchal society by
positioning the female image as a fetishized figure, with that fetish designed to gloss
over the castration threat for the male spectator. Thus for women to appear at all in
cinema, their threatening presence must be made into a spectacle. She writes, "The
presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet
her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the
flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation" (837). The female image thereby
obstructs the narrative flow.
Mulvey addresses the same phenomenon the surrealists described asphotogenie,
but finds oppression where they found liberation. In her introduction, she states, "It is
said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article"
(835). This disparity in their conclusions results from Mulvey's premise that visual
pleasure always privileges the male gaze. Her loyalty to certain phallocencric categories
of psychoanalysis permits this equation of visual pleasure and masculine desire.
According to Freud, only males can fetishize, because only males experience castration
anxiety. Thus when it comes to accounting for the female's pleasure in cinematic
imagery, Mulvey remains mute. Those who have attempted to theorize the female
spectator, remaining loyal to the categories of psychoanalysis, explain that she can
"masquerade" as a male spectator, and thus experience a "masochistic" pleasure.5
This psychoanalytic explanation of visual pleasure may account for Von Ulrich's
looks at Miss Frayne, but leaves many other occurrences unexplained--not the least of
which is Miss Frayne's own salacious glances at Von Ulrich. Explaining her secretarial
ineptitude, Miss Frayne confesses that she becomes so captivated by desire that she
"strikes the wrong keys." She rhapsodizes, "Your hair has such an adorable touch of
gray, your eyes frighten me, but your smile intoxicates me." Another important aspect
of cinematic display unaccounted for in Mulvey's paradigm concerns the importance of
objects--Aragon's decor--as narrative-thwarting spectacles. Mulvey's account
elucidates "fascination with the human form," but ignores fascination with the human-
made artifact, a fascination overtly coopted by Hollywood cinema (835). Beauty and
the Boss, like many movies of the time, portrays female desire for beautiful things. The
film's heroine finds love, which awakens all her desires, as she expresses: "I want
beautiful clothes, shining automobiles.... I want to be filled to the brim with living."
Similarly, 1927's Orchids and Ermine stars Colleen Moore as Pink Watson, a
"working girl" preoccupied by beautiful things, even as she represents one such
"beautiful thing" herself. She longs for the elegant furs and lavish ornaments she sees
in the city, evident in the opening frame which displays the film's title on shop
windows--"Orchids" painted on the florist's window and "Ermine" on the furrier's.
The film's narrative hinges on the fact that though she longs for these luxuries, she
does not yet possess them. Ironically, her plain wardrobe lands her the job whereby she
gains access to luxurious orchids and ermine. Pink applies for a job as a switchboard
operator at a wealthy Fifth Avenue hotel. When she arrives for her job interview, she
takes her place in line with a number of other applicants, all wearing fur-trimmed coats
and lavishly decorated hats. Pink, in her simple dark dress, immediately notices her
difference and attempts to mimic the stilted posture of the elegant ladies. The film
cuts to the supervisor's office, where he instructs his assistant, "No chiffon girls. Send
in a girl that looks sensible." The assistant notes Pink's plain wardrobe and chooses
her, stating "You'll do. Start at eight tomorrow, and no fancy clothes." Although Pink
reports to work appropriately clad, the lavish fashions of the hotel's wealthy patrons
cause Pink's continued ineptitude at the switchboard. Distracted by the furs and
flowers adorning the women's clothes, Pink fumbles with the switchboard as she
continues to mimick elegant poses and stroke her own imaginary fur collar. Though
fur remains a classic example of Freudian fetishism, canonized in Sacher-Masoch's
Venus in Furs, most accounts within film theory continue to disregard the implications
of female fetishism.6 Typically, feminist film theorists who examine the woman's desire
for pleasure articulate her role as a passive victim of consumer society.
Mulvey's recent Fetishism and Curiosity attempts to back away from the
monolithic framework of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and re-examine
fetishismm, the carrier of such negative ideological connotations once upon a time" (11).
But her re-examination produces no revelations--she concludes that fetishism is useful
insofar as "The fetish acknowledges its own traumatic history like a red flag,
symptomatically signalling a site of psychic pain." Thus the critic needn't dismiss the
fetish altogether, but use it to diagnose "sites of social pain" (12-13). The difference
between this view of fetishism and the view espoused in "Visual Pleasure" is minimal.
Fetishism and Curiosity does take a somewhat historical turn, bringing consumerism into
the scope of Mulvey's arguments. Nevertheless, she addresses the artifacts ofmise-en-
scine as commodity fetishes only as they link "the erotic spectacle of the feminine to the
eroticised spectacle of the commodity" (14). She acknowledges the role of
consumerism in women's lives, but sees it only as contributing to women's oppression--
the fetish is useful only insofar as it illuminates the social fantasies that produce it. She
writes of feminists who examine the female as spectator and consumer of images: "This
process [of examining why particular images appeal to women] necessarily led back to
the society that produced them and the obsessions and imitations that created its
collective fantasy" (27).
Her discussion of pre-Hayes Code Hollywood movies proves particularly
relevant to my examination of Beauty and the Boss: "The movies dramatised sex,
allowing a negotiation between men and women in which women were able to assert
not only desire, but also autonomy. And although many movies ended with marriage,
the negotiations, the wit and the light-hearted rapid exchanges took up most of the
story time" (45). She concludes that these movies are "simultaneously liberating in
address [to women who were moving toward sexual autonomy], and constraining and
objectifying as liberation is couched in terms of commodity culture" (43). In this
scheme, Beauty and the Boss is liberating in its depiction of the female who desires the
bank president, but constraining in its depiction of the female who desires beautiful
I want to propose a reading that somewhat reverses Mulvey's terms. What if
liberation lies in women's increasing facility with commodity culture, while constraint
emerges from the awkward narrative conventions that typically "marry off' the woman
in the end. Filmic displays of consumer culture--lingering shots of busy city streets,
shop windows, fashions (sometimes actual fashion shows), interior decor--elicit a
signifying excess. Their purpose exceeds the narrative and enters an indeterminate
realm of free-floating pleasure. While Mulvey can conceive of women only as suffering
within this realm of sensuous pleasure, I argue that women--not unlike the surrealists--
find liberation in the ambiguities of mise-en-sc~ne. The excessive mise-en-schne reflects the
excessive imagery of the modern city, a place that offered numerous opportunities for
women. Some opportunities were liberating, while others were oppressive, to be sure,
but most significantly the city opened a door previously barred to women. Constantly
working against this indeterminate imagery in cinema, however, are narrative
conventions that legislate cause and effect relationships and necessitate narrative
closure. As such, the problems and questions raised by women's entrance into the
public sphere are typically foreclosed by her eventual marriage and return to
At the heart of my contention is a critique of Mulvey's psychoanalytic
assumptions about visual pleasure and sexual difference. Because woman is a priori the
"bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" within Freud's scheme of castration
anxiety, her active look remains a theoretical impossibility, as does her ability to
fetishize (Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure" 834) Hence all pleasure in looking occurs at her
expense. But historical examinations of consumer culture typically represent the female
as the commodity fetishist par excellence. This observation poses an enormous stumbling
block for psychoanalytic feminist theories. While Mulvey doesn't confront this
discrepancy, Mary Ann Doane does. In The Desire to Desire, Doane uses Mulvey's
framework to analyze female desire in 1940s melodrama. In a pivotal moment, she
rejects Marxist fetishism in favor of Freudian fetishism, a move that maintains Mulvey's
denial of female pleasure in looking. Doane "corrects" Marx: "What we tend to
define, since Marx, as commodity fetishism is in fact more accurately situated as a form
of narcissism. Fetishism, in the Freudian paradigm, is a phallic defense which allows
the subject to distance himself from the object of desire (or, more accurately, from its
implications in relation to castration) through the overvaluation of a mediating
substitute object" (Doane 32).
Finally, Mulvey's account of cinematic spectacle betrays an intellectual bias,
akin to what Baudelaire called "the academic error.7 Thus liberation can only come
through narrative action and intellectual curiosity. When she argues that "the sheer
force of 'rich sight,' of the spectacle, creates a diversion away from inquiry or curiosity,"
she accounts for inquiry and curiosity only within the narrative (Mulvey, Fetishism and
Curiosity 14). She ignores the counter-narrative, visual curiosity so important to the
surrealists. She criticizes dominant cinema for excluding women from the male world
of intellectual investigation and narrative problem-solving--in Breton's words, a world
where "the desire for analysis wins out over the sentiments"--precisely the world the
surrealists wished to escape. As Breton writes, "Our brains are dulled by the incurable
mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable" (Breton 9). For Benjamin
and the surrealists, cinema's revolutionary potential lay in its dismantling of this
intellectual, deciphering mode of perception that Mulvey privileges.
Countering Mulvey's explanations of cinematic spectacle are certain accounts of
"cinematic excess" that in many ways resemble Benjamin's "optical unconscious" and
the surrealists' photoginie. Roland Barthes' "The Third Meaning," and Kristin
Thompson's "The Concept of Cinematic Excess" (taking her cue from Barthes) explain
that "excess arises from the conflict between the materiality of a film and the unifying
structures within it" (Thompson 132). Unlike Mulvey, they welcome this
indeterminacy and oppose psychoanalytic explanations that would "explain away" the
excess. For both Barthes and Thompson, excess liberates the viewer from the
constraints of narrative.
Barthes' essay explores captivating moments within a film which seem to exceed
any "informational" or "symbolic" readings. He examines a still from Eisenstein's Ivan
the Terrible, and after analyzing its informational and symbolic meanings asks, "Is that
all? No, for I am still held by the image. I read, I receive (and probably even first and
foremost) a third meaning--evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified
is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can see clearly the traits, the signifying
accidents of which this--consequently incomplete--sign is composed ..." (Barthes 52).
According to Barthes, the "left-over" or "excess" meaning is unintended by the film's
director, yet it remains the meaning he receives "probably even first and foremost."
His comments resemble surrealist Nora Mitrani's: "fortunately a director is not always
the master of his intentions that he would like to be, that it is very rare in even the
most willful film for at least one of its sequences not to break free and, unknown to
itself, reveal an intense reality" (Mitrani 96). Barthes proposes that these "third
meanings" demand an interrogative reading: "[The third meaning] cannot be
conflated with the simple existence of the scene,.... it compels an interrogative reading
(interrogation bears precisely on the signifer not on the signified, on reading not on
intellection: it is a 'poetical grasp)" (Barthes 53). Barthes calls the third meaning a
signifierr without a signified," as it leaves the viewer free to graft his/her own meanings
onto the erratic signifier. Acknowledging the third meaning's fragmenting, over-
valuative nature, Barthes writes, "here begins the fetish" (58).
Similarly, Kristin Thompson prompts readings based on attention to scenes of
"excess." She argues that "One of the great limitations for the viewer in our culture has
been the attitude that film equals narrative, and that entertainment consists wholly of
an 'escapism' inherent in the plot. Such a belief limits the spectator's participation to
understanding only the chain of cause and effect" (140). In contrast, she writes that
the viewer must free him/herself from the narrative prison and see a film as "a
perceptual field of structures which the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond
the strictly functional aspects" (141). This process entails certain "perceptual shifts"
that she compares to surrealist filmmaking practices.
Barthes and Thompson point to a variation of "curiosity" denied by Mulvey.
The excessive signifier--alternately the "third meaning," "obtuse meaning," or "filmic" -
-incites Barthes' curiosity, but it is an emotional, rather than intellectual curiosity.
Struggling to define the meaning which resists definition, Barthes articulates its highly
personalized piquancy: "I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion...
. it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend:
an emotion-value, an evaluation" (59). In fact, the obtuse meaning works precisely
against the intellectually-fueled vehicles of narrative and criticism. "Discontinuous,
indifferent to the story," the obtuse meaning is "the epitome of a counter-narrative"
(63, 61). It doesn't destroy the narrative, but subverts it. Its resistance to
interpretation refuses the critic's "diagnosis" -- "the obtuse meaning disturbs...
metalanguage (criticism)" (61).
As I suggested in my introduction, this signifying excess reflects the continued
presence of what Tom Gunning has called the "cinema of attractions." His work
examines "primitive," pre-narrative cinema and describes its exhibitionistic aesthetic of
display. These early films see cinema "less as a way of telling stories than as a way of
presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power..
and exoticism" (Gunning 57). This "cinema of attractions" captivates audiences with
picturesque tableaux and exotic scenery, and uses narrative only as a framing device for
these tableaux. Rather than take its cue from the bourgeois novel or theater, which
typically presents a voyeuristic view of psychologically developed characters, the cinema
of attractions presents an exhibitionist view of some spectacle "that is of interest in
The "cinema of attractions" never fully disappears. Gunning maintains that
even classical Hollywood cinema contains moments of unmotivated spectacle in its
otherwise economical narrative--Mulvey's formulation of "woman as image" addresses
one such use of spectacle. But Gunning's arguments about the value of spectacle
problematize Mulvey's conclusions. He proposes that "popular entertainment offered
enormous liberation at the beginning of the century," and it was against this liberating
potential that reform groups began to attack cinema. He ascribes a certain spectatorial
freedom to these ungoverned images.
I contend that Gunning's notion of cinematic "attractions" applies to the
displays of consumer culture prolific in cinema of the twenties and thirties. The
lingering shots of city streets, store windows, and fashion shows mimic the
exhibitionary address of the "attraction." Examining the "fashion show-in-the-film,"
Charlotte Herzog describes how it evolved from the newsreel short to a convention of
many narrative "women's films" of the 1920s and 30s. Rather than exploring the
implications of interrupting the narrative with a fashion show "that is of interest in
itself," Herzog sets out to prove "how the fashion show exploits the way women as the
primary audience see themselves in order to subtly suggest the sale of clothes to them"
(Herzog 137). She remains faithful to Mulvey's active/male, passive/female binarism.
Though the display of fashions elicits an active, pleasurable "look" from its female
spectators, Herzog ultimately deems this "look" masochistic: the female spectator
"plays the part of a man looking at herself, judging, criticizing, and comparing herself
to other women" (158). But Gunning suggests such narrative interruptions may
provide a transgressive pleasure, undermining the restrictions of narrative by
introducing free-floating signifiers.
In "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous
Spectator," Gunning relates this liberation to both surrealist photogenie and Benjamin's
utopian "shock effect." He writes that non-narrative spectacle "provides an
underground current flowing beneath narrative logic and diegetic realism, producing
those moments of cinematic depaysement beloved by the surrealists" (Gunning,
"Aesthetic of Astonishment" 123). Furthermore, the cinema of attractions "responds to
the specifics of modern and especially urban life, what Benjamin and Kracauer
understood as the drying up of experience and its replacement by a culture of
distraction" (126). Like Benjamin, Gunning relates what he calls "lust of the eyes" to
particular developments of the Nineteenth century--"expanding urbanisation with its
kaleidoscopic succession of city sights, the growth of consumer society with its new
emphasis on stimulating spending through visual display. .." (125).
The question remains in Gunning's work, whether this "lust of the eyes" was
applicable only to men, as Benjamin'sfldneur might suggest. Anne Friedberg's recent
unearthing of thefldneuse suggests otherwise. In the following chapter, I explore how
thefj/neuse might represent a mediating figure that negotiates the drifts between the
forward-moving narrative and the distractions of mise-en-scene. I examine the
significantly "international" production Prix de Beauti--produced in France, directed by
an Italian, starring an American most famous for her German roles--which engages the
gendered implications of mass culture's "distractions" in both its narrative and mise-en-
In closing, I wish to briefly describe another film produced in France, Jean
Vigo's L'Atalante of 1934, a film whose three main characters uncannily correspond to
the three models of cinema spectatorship that orient my study. One responds to the
logical demands of narrative progression, another remains forever distracted by the
details of mise-en-sc~ne, while the third represents somewhat of a mediating figure.
Significantly, this mediator is a female character, playing a role--both diegetically and
extra-diegetically --that corresponds to Friedberg's notion of the flneuse.
Jean, the barge captain, stands for a classical narrative position. It is his job to
keep the barge on its straight path, and to assure that it arrives efficiently at its
destination. We might see him as the typical Hollywood studio director, story-
boarding the barge's every move, and wrestling at every moment with his impulsive
ship-mate Jules, who constantly threatens to the divert the ship's course.
Jules, then, represents the excesses of mise-en-scine; he revels in the "stuff' of
modern culture. His is an ungoverned world--sometimes beautiful, sometimes
disquieting --where meanings float wildly in the air, unanchored to narrative purpose.
In short, he is the surrealist. Any object, at any moment, can capture Jules' attention
and divert his path. He collects and rearranges objects according to the perverse logic
of dreams. He has no use for rational purpose--if he arrives at a destination, it can be
Juliette, Jean's bride, amounts to a moderating figure between the two. She is
apt to be seduced by Jules' world of excess, but her commitment to life on the barge
with Jean anchors her nonetheless. She enjoys straying from the confining
requirements of barge life, delighting in the fashion news from Paris ("Berets must be
worn tilted to the right this season!") and wandering the city streets, feasting her senses
on the shop windows, street-vendors, and fellow gazers. Juliette indulges herself in
the sensual imagery of the city, but her rambling path ultimately leads back home.
Because Juliette is in love with Jean, she returns from her aimless strolling to resume
her traditional role as domestic caregiver.
The heroine of Prix de Beauti, by contrast, allows the pleasures of mass culture
to seduce her away from domesticity. She represents the potential threat theflUneuse
poses to traditional patriarchal society, reminding us of the twofold nature of
"distraction": In one sense it refers to a constant state of inattention Benjamin
describes that characterizes the city dweller or the factory worker--a state necessitated
by the quick pace of the city street or the assembly line. In this sense, the "content" of
mass art is a particularly useful habit of perception that enables one to survive
modernity's transformations. But in another sense, "distraction" also refers to the
actual proliferation of images--the movies, shop-windows, fashions, and billboards--
products whose constant presence demands the masses' attention, albeit an "absent-
minded" one. As we will continue to investigate in the following chapter, when these
"distraction" debates become gendered, the terms shift. When women begin to
partake in the pleasures of mass culture, "distraction" begins to signify something
pernicious: a distraction from traditional domesticity. Prix de Beauti, like the
Hollywood films I've discussed, hinges on a tension between the potentially-
threatening pleasures of mise-en-scene and the constraints of a logical, typically
conservative, narrative which must contain that threat.
'Their correspondence reveals that Adorno was well aware of Benjamin's failure
to commit to Marxism. He writes, "Your solidarity with the Institute [of Social
Research), which pleases no one more than myself, has induced you to pay tributes to
Marxism which are not really suited either to Marxism or to yourself." Continuing, he
even suggests that Benjamin's ideas might achieve fuller fruition if he abandoned his
materialist pretentious altogether: "[Your tributes to Marxism] do not suit your own
individual nature because you have denied yourself your boldest and most fruitful ideas
in a kind of pre-censorship according to materialist categories." Aesthetics and Politics,
(London: Verso, 1977), 130.
2 Mark Lilla, "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin," New York Review, May 25,
1995, p. 37. Reviewing The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, Mark
Lilla notes that Benjamin's association with the Frankfurt School was largely due to
financial necessity, a fact regretted by Benjamin's friends Gershom Scholem and
Hannah Arendt: "While both were thankful to the Institute for supporting Benjamin
financially, neither believed that Marxist critical theory was a meaningful enterprise, or
that the term adequately described what was truly important about Benjamin's
writings." Lilla, 42.
SWarhol also celebrates the democratic character of commodities. He describes
the beauty of Coca-Cola: "What's great about this country is that America started the
tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.
You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President
drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke
is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on
the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz
Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it." The
Philosophy ofAndy Warhol (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1975) 100-101.
In his discussion of "Americanism," Peter Wollen addresses the significance
of Frederick Winslow Taylor's "science" of ergonomics in the increasing mechanization
of the workplace in the 1920s: ".. the USA was providing the world with a new
model of industrialism. Taylor was the pioneer of what we now know as ergonomics.
By observation, photographic recording, and experiment, he broke down the physical
gestures of workers to find out which were the most efficient, in time expenditure and
labour power, for any particular job .. Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management,
published in 1911, heralded a new epoch in which the worker would become as
predictable, regulated, and effective as the machine itself." Raiding the Icebox
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 36.
5 See, for example, Mary Ann Doane's "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing
the Female Spectator," Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed.
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).
6 Film theory has been slow to acknowledge the pioneering work of feminist literary
criticism regarding the possibilities of female fetishism. Naomi Schor's groundbreaking
"Female Fetishism: The Case of George Sand" argues that undeniable cases of female
fetishism in George Sand's works destabilize the phallocentric underpinnings of Freudian
psychoanalysis. She writes, "Female fetishism is not so much, if at all, a perversion, rather a
strategy designed to turn the so-called 'riddle of femininity' to women's account." Poetics
Today 6, no. 1-2 (1985) 301-310. See also Emily Apter's Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis
and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
7 In "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire distinguishes the twofold nature of
beauty: it is both "rational" ("made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose
quantity it is excessively difficult to determine") and "historical" ("of a relative,
circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the
age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions"). He contends that the historical,
circumstantial aspect is typically elided by intellectuals who typically disregard or even
distrust the ephemeral. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Lift and Other Essays
(London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995) 3-4.
CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS IN PRIX DE BEA UTE (1930)
We annihilate beauty when we link the artistic creation with practical
interests and transform the spectator into a selfishly interested
bystander. The scenic background of the [photo]play is not presented in
order that we decide whether we want to spend our next vacation there.
The interior decoration of the rooms is not exhibited as a display for a
department store.... A good photoplay must be isolated and complete
in itself like a beautiful melody. It is not an advertisement for the
newest fashions. -- Hugo Miinsterberg, 1916
In a profound sense, Berlin audiences act truthfully when they
increasingly shun these art events [that claim the status of high art]...,
preferring instead the surface glamor of the stars, films, revues, and
spectacular shows. Here, in pure externality, the audience encounters
itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid
sense impressions. -- Siegfried Kracauer, 1926
Prix de Beaut6, the 1930 production starring Louise Brooks, proves an
interesting case study for a feminist examination of the much-contested debate about
the pleasures of the "culture industry"in the early 20th Century. As it emerged within
the Frankfurt School, this debate hinged on a central opposition between traditional art
as "contemplation" and mass culture as "distraction." In both its mise-en-scdne and its
narrative, Prix de Beautd stages this opposition, portraying one woman's complex
relationship to the pleasures of mass culture. The film's narrative traces the mobility of
Lucienne (played by Brooks), an aspiring New Woman of the 1920s, whose dreams
and desires find their realization in the fame and luxury that accompany her
appointment as "Miss Europe." Even as the narrative prescribes a rather limited role