Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jim Leftwich

death text and the haute couture death text images

for ross priddle


Arundhati Roy: “Before September 11th 2001 America had a secret history. Secret especially from its own people. But now America's secrets are history, and its history is public knowledge. It's street talk.”

Naomi Wolf: “Peace and trust between men and women who are lovers would be as bad for the consumer economy and the power structure as peace on earth for the military-industrial complex.”


the images are stolen. stolen twice. if i wanted them in a context of pornography or sexist fashion i would not need to steal them from their thieves. but i want the context and the content of a radically inclusive democracy. in a context of chrysocratic terror deterioration appears as progress and decay seems like a necessary evolutionary process. i work to decompose the commodified images and erase their encrypted marketing strategies.
we are being sold a war against ourselves. a cosmetic economy masks the horror and lures us to complicity.

the texts layered over the images are also stolen. stolen and translated, deliberately mistranslated, recensions redacted improvisationally to render texts as dissonant music in disjunctive fragments. each textual fragment is a discourse against war presented as language at war against itself. normative language usage would sell us to ourselves as proponents of the ideology of war, individual expressions of that universal agenda, sexist, racist and classist, subservient to the pragmatism of power. i would steal the discourse itself and rewrite it against its imposed, invasive intentions. i would invite the reader to continue a similar process.


i learned about sexuality and feminism simultaneously. i’ve always thought a healthy eroticism was one of the fundamental goals of the feminist movement. the issue has never been sexuality itself, but rather the gender-based subjugation and degradation resulting from a dominant sexist ideology. my first girlfriend was a feminist. i spent six years with her. i’m not sure it has ever occurred to me that being anything other than a feminist was a serious option. when i was introduced to the idea in the early 70s, it seemed like a necessary part of the larger cultural transformation, a transformation of consciousness, as necessary as opposition to the vietnam war and to violent conflict-resolution, or support for the civil rights movement and opposition to racism in all of its forms. feminism was but one aspect of a multifaceted cultural revolution which included environmental awareness and the privileging of cooperation over competition, an interrogation of capitalist and corporate ideology, spiritual awakening and personal transformation, development of one’s creative potential in artistic activity and as a way of thinking about and during one’s daily life. the women’s liberation movement seemed absolutely necessary for the vitality and viability of the whole spectrum of so-called countercultural concerns and values. times have changed, to understate the obvious, but i still think very much in terms of a diverse coalition of intertwined and overlapping groups working to alter the fundamental institutions and beliefs of american, and increasingly global, culture. sexism, racism, classism, and militarism are components of a larger ideology, or expressions of that ideology, and i take as a given my responsibility to respond from an oppositional stand point.


i call these images collectively the haute couture death text series. the death text itself is a long anti-war poem in prose. while i was writing it, in the months leading up to the invasion of iraq, i came across a stack of elle magazines in a box beside a dumpster. i brought the box home and put it under my desk, where it remained for several months. after i finished writing the text i decided to scan the images from the fashion advertisements in the magazines. then i layered the text over the scans. i liked the results, so i started gathering images of models and actresses to extend the series.
the images are appropriated and detourned, recontextualized and used for purposes counter to those intended by their original publishers. i seriously doubt it would have occurred to me to layer these images with anti-war texts if i hadn’t been thinking in terms of a feminist critique of war, and of something very much like a countercultural critique of a dominant culture in which both sexism and militarism flourish.


Marguerite Duras: “It is an extraordinary thing, but men still see themselves as supreme authorities on women’s liberation. They say: ‘In my opinion, women should do this or that to liberate themselves—’ And when people laugh they don’t understand why. Then they take up the old refrain — their veneration of women. Whatever form this veneration takes, be it religious or surrealist, and even Georges Bataille is guilty of it, it is still racism. But when you point this out to men, they don’t understand.”


Hélene Cixous: “What would become of logocentrism, of the great philosophical systems, of world order in general if the rock upon which they founded their church were to crumble? If it were to come out in a new day that the logocentric project had always been, undeniably, to found (fund) phallocentrism, to insure for masculine order a rationale equal to history itself? Then all the stories would have to be told differently, the future would be incalculable, the historical forces would, will, change hands, bodies: another thinking as yet not thinkable will transform the functioning of all society. Well, we are living through this very period when the conceptual foundation of a millennial culture is in the process of being undermined by millions of a species of mole as yet not recognized.” (1975)

Zillah Eisenstein: “The `war of/on terror' is a terrorizing war for all who come in contact with it. The lines between combatant and civilian, rights and degradation, and white, black and brown men and women are realigned and remade. But this gender flux takes place within the structural constraints of racialized patriarchy, and masculinized gender. The naked bodies of tortured Muslim men alongside white women with cigarettes and leashes, and the absence and silencing of Muslim women at Abu Ghraib is a heart-rending reminder that war is obscene. It would be a double heart-break to think that people in this country abide any part of the violations at Abu Ghraib, especially in the name of feminism. I am hoping that the horrific pictorial exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib will recommit us all to struggle on behalf of an anti-racist feminist humanity inclusive of each and every one's liberation across the globe.”

bell hooks: “Women of color, from various ethnic backgrounds, as well as women who were active in the gay movement, not only experienced the development of solidarity between women and men in resistance struggle, but recognized its value. They were not willing to devalue this bonding by allying themselves with anti-male bourgeois white women. Encouraging political bonding between women and men to radically resist sexist oppression would have called attention to the transformative potential of feminism. The anti-male stance was a reactionary perspective that made feminism appear to be a movement that would enable white women to usurp white male power, replacing white male supremacist rule with white female supremacist rule.”

Jane Tompkins: “It is a tenet of feminist rhetoric that the personal is the political, but who in the academy acts on this where language is concerned? We all speak the father tongue, which is impersonal, while decrying the father’s ideas.”

Annie Leclerc: “There is only one just form of thought, the living thought that can revive the smothered fire of life and sow revolt against the poisoners, the pillagers, the profaners of life. To revolt: that’s the right word. Yet it’s still not quite strong enough. Let the bell toll the end not only of those eminent possessors but also of their carrion-eating values that have polluted the whole world.”

Adrienne Rich: “The word power is highly charged for women. It has been long associated with the use of force, with rape, with the stockpiling of weapons, with the ruthless accrual of wealth and the hoarding of resources, with the power that acts only in its own interests, despising and exploiting the powerless — including women and children. The effects of this kind of power are all around us, even literally in the water we drink and the air we breathe, in the form of carcinogens and radioactive wastes. But for a long time now, feminists have been talking about redefining power, about that meaning of power which returns to the root… to be able, to have the potential, to possess and use one’s energy of creation — transforming power.”

Naomi Wolf: “Male-dominated institutions — particularly corporate interests — recognize the dangers posed to them by love’s escape. Women who love themselves are threatening; but men who love real women, more so.”

Dominique Poggi: “The sexual liberation preached by pornography is actually a channeling of sexuality toward a heterosexual world in which men are still the sole masters of the game; in this way, pornography militates in favor of maintaining men’s appropriation of women.”

bell hooks: “Had feminist activists called attention to the relationship between ruling class men and the vast majority of men, who are socialized to perpetuate and maintain sexism and sexist oppression even as they reap no life-affirming benefits, these men might have been motivated to examine the impact of sexism in their lives.”

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: “Howe appears to be on the cusp between two feminisms: the one analyzing female difference, the other ‘feminine’ difference. For the latter, she is close to Julia Kristeva, who evokes marginality, subversion, dissidence as anti-patriarchal motives beyond all limits. Anything marginalized by patriarchal order is, thus, ‘feminine;’ the ‘feminine’ position (which can be held by persons of both genders) is a privileged place from which to launch an anti-authoritarian struggle. The female use of this ‘feminine’ of marginality and the avant-garde use of this ‘feminine’ of marginality are mutually reinforcing in the work of some contemporary women: Lyn Hejinian, Kathleen Fraser, Gail Sher, Beverly Dahlen and Howe. This mixed allegiance will naturally call into question varieties of flat-footed feminism.”

Christine Delphy: “In the same way that feminism-as-a-movement aims at the revolution of social reality, so feminism-as-a-theory (and each is indispensable to the other) must aim at the revolution of knowledge.”

Naomi Wolf: “Women who have broken out of gender roles have proved manageable: Those few with power are being retrained as men. But with the apparition of numbers of men moving into passionate, sexual love of real women, serious money and authority could defect to join forces with the opposition. Such love would be a political upheaval more radical than the Russian Revolution and more destabilizing to the balance of world power than the end of the nuclear age. It would be the downfall of civilization as we know it — that is, of male dominance; and for heterosexual love, the beginning of the beginning.”

Zillah Eisenstein: “Masculinist depravity, as a political discourse, can be adopted by males and/or females. It is all the more despicable that the Bush administration used the language of women's rights to justify the bombs in the Afghan war against Taliban practices towards women; and then again against the horrific torture and rape chambers under Saddam Hussein. And it should be no surprise that Bush's women — Laura, Mary Matalin, and Karen Hughes — who regularly bad-mouth feminism of any sort were responsible for articulating this imperial women's rights justification for war.”

Starhawk: “Wise feminists do not claim that women are innately kinder, gentler, more compassionate than men per se. If we did, the Margaret Thatchers and Condoleeza Rices of the world would soon prove us wrong. We do claim that patriarchy encourages and rewards behavior that is brutal and stupid. We need raucous, incautious feminist voices to puncture the pomposity, the arrogance, the hypocrisy of the war mongers, to point out that gorilla chest-beating does not constitute diplomacy, that having the world’s largest collection of phallic projectile weapons does not constitute moral authority, that invasion and penetration are not acts of liberation.”

Arundhati Roy: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe.”

Naomi Wolf: “Ads do not sell sex — that would be counterproductive, if it meant that heterosexual women and men turned to one another and were gratified. What they sell is sexual discontent.”

Judy Rebick: “In Beijing, feminist leaders from around the world warned that there were two paths emerging for humanity — corporate globalization and fundamentalism. They argued that both were devastating for women. Feminist leaders from around the world were calling for a third path, based on equality, democracy and respect for diversity.”

Judy Rebick: “In the Americas, where women's rights have made tremendous gains over the past decades, a ferocious backlash against feminism has accompanied the rise of neoliberalism. As feminists have always argued for stronger social programmes, marginalizing and blaming feminism is an important ideological adjunct to neo-liberalism.”

Eric Foner: “Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties — freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers — are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.”

Christine Delphy: “The rebirth of feminism coincided with the use of the term ‘oppression’. The ruling ideology, i.e., common sense, daily speech, does not speak about oppression but about a ‘feminine condition’. It refers back to a naturalistic explanation: to a constraint of nature, exterior reality out of reach and not modifiable by human action. The term ‘oppression’, on the contrary, refers back to a choice, an explanation, a situation that is political. ‘Oppression’ and ‘social oppression’ are therefore synonyms or rather social oppression is a redundancy: the notion of a political origin, i.e., social, is an integral part of the concept of oppression. This term is thus the basis, the point of departure for any feminist study or strategy.”

Julia Kristeva: “What is politically ‘new’ today can be seen and felt in modern music, cartoons, communes of young people provided they do not isolate themselves on the fringes of society but participate in the contradiction inherent in political classes. The women’s movement, if it has a raison d’etre, seems to be part of this trend; it is, perhaps, one of its most radical components.” (1974)

Simone de Beauvoir: “Feminist thought is not monolithic; every woman who struggles has her own reasons, her own perspective, her particular experience, and she offers them to us in her own way.”

Ken Kesey: “You think of the stuff that came out of the Sixties: the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the power of the civil rights movement; but most of all, it's the psychedelic movement that attempted to actually go in and change the consciousness of the people, either back to something more pure and honest, or forward to something never before realized, knowing that the places we were in, the status quo, was a dead-end — a dead-end spiritually and, as we are finding out, a dead-end economically.”

Naomi Wolf: “The current allocation of power is sustained by a flood of hostile and violent sexual images, but threatened by imagery of mutual eroticism or female desire; the elite of the power structure seem to know this consciously enough to act on it.”

Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English: “In our concern to understand more about our own biology, for our own purposes, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is not our biology that oppresses us — but a social system based on sex and class domination. This, to us, is the most profoundly liberating feminist insight — the understanding that our oppression is socially, and not biologically, ordained. To act on this understanding is to ask for more than ‘control over our own bodies’. It is to ask for, and struggle for, control over the social options available to us, and control over all the institutions of society that now define those options.”

bell hooks: “Feminism defined as a movement to end sexist oppression enables women and men, girls and boys, to participate equally in revolutionary struggle.”

Arundhati Roy: “It's absurd for the U.S. government to even toy with the notion that it can stamp out terrorism with more violence and oppression. Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease.”