Women and Surrealism, by Chris Worth

This is a guest post by Dr. Chris Worth.

One of the topics raised in the question time after Benjamin Andréo’s first lecture on Dada and Surrealism was a really good one about whether, despite their avant-garde aspirations, many of the key figures in the movements continued to take a very male-oriented to art and seem to have made little attempt to respond to pressures from women to play a larger role:

Whilst surrealist thought radically challenged hierarchies, it often remained blind to its own gender politics, locked in a heterosexual, sometimes homophobic, patriarchal stance positioning and constructing women (and never men) as artists’ muses, femme-enfants, virgins, dolls and erotic objects. As Gwen Raaberg points out ‘no women [. . .] had been listed as official members of the surrealist movement, nor had they signed the manifestoes’. (Patricia Allmer, Angels and Anarchy, 13)

Photographs of ‘the Surrealists’ usually represent a collection of men with one or two often relegated to the edges of the group (although the photograph from the first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 is an interesting exception:

First International Surrealist Exhibition

Over the last few decades this issue has been a significant research issue in the fields of art history, literature, etc. There have been some really interesting studies published – here are a couple that are worth looking at, particularly valuable for demonstrating how the ideas of the movement led to some spectacularly interesting art work by women:

Allmer, Patricia (ed.). Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism. Manchester and Munich: Manchester Art Gallery/Prestel, 2009.  Caulfield 709.04063 A439A 2009

Catalogue of an exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, 29 Sept. 2009 – 10 Jan. 2010. Contains a number of short essays, including ones by Mary Ann Caws, Katherine Conley and Alyce Mahon, but more importantly illustrations of amazing work by Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Dora Maar (from the pre-WWII period), as well as the continuing influence of surrealist thought and methods in the work of more recent female artists like Francesca Woodman.  I think Cahun is particularly interesting – photographer and performer – see below for her prose self-representation.

Cahun, Claude. Disavowals: or, Cancelled Confessions. Trs. Susan de Muth. London: Tate Publishing, 2007. [1930, as Aveux non Anvenus]. Caulfield Call no:848.91209 CAH  (NB, the American ed. publ. by MIT Press)

Caws, Mary Ann, Rudolf Kuenzil and Gwen Raaberg (eds). Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. Clayton – Matheson 709.04066 C383S (also at Caulfield)

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998. Clayton – Matheson 709.04066 C432W  (also at Caulfield)

Chadwick, Whitney and Dawn Ades. Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998. Clayton – Matheson 704.042 C432M (also at Caulfield).

Catalogue of an exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the Miami Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Conley, Katherine. Automatic Women: The Representation of Women in Surrealism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996. Caulfield 709.04063 C752A 1996

Mahon, Alyce. Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. Clayton – Matheson 709.44 M216S 2005 (also at Caulfield)

Van Raay, Stefan, Joanna Morehead, and Teresa Arcq. Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Franham, Surrey: Lund Humphries in association with Pallant House Gallery, 2010.  Not in the Monash libraries, alas, but I am prepared to lend the book to anyone who is madly interested in the topic (great illustrations).

Of course the much bigger question is the one that needs to be addressed to modernism as a whole: do the revolutionary artistic sentiments of modernism acknowledge and address the condition of women in art and life? (Hard for Australians to remember, but women did not get the vote in France until 1944, for example – 1918 in Britain, for women who owned property and were over 30 . . .) I know that this will come up with Virginia Woolf, if not before, but I would also like to point to the interesting diagram about relationships between modernists, taken from Bonnie Kime Scott’s The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Indiana University Press, 1990), that is slide 4 in Melinda’s lecture from 2014:

A Tangled Mesh of Modernists

I have left it on the Moodle site in the Dubliners section – obviously I won’t give the same lecture as Melinda did, but much of the material is fascinating and I will refer to most of it.

Chris Worth

Interview with Amaleena Damlé about her recently published book The Becoming of the Body

The Becoming of the BodyAmaleena Damlé’s The Becoming of the Body: Contemporary Women’s Writing in French has just been published in Edinburgh University Press’s Crosscurrents series. In an interview with Amaleena I explored some of the issues raised by the book.


CHRIS WATKIN: To paint with very broad brushstrokes as we begin, into which debates is this book intervening and how do you want to reconfigure or challenge the current conversation?

AMALEENA DAMLÉ: The aim of the project, broadly speaking, was to think about the contours of the human body, and the shifting ways that we understand our embodied selves in the contemporary realm. I wanted to illuminate in particular the relationship between the female body and its representation, and to see where contemporary French philosophy and literature intersect in challenging long-held assumptions around the body and gender. Ever since the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking Le Deuxième Sexe, French feminism has been committed to deciphering the social and cultural myths that constitute femininity, and the second wave in particular saw literature as a privileged realm that could unravel ideologies, create empowering forms of female identity, and inscribe the female body in writing. The publication of this book coincides with the emergence of an exciting and welcome rejuvenation of feminism that many are already referring to as a fourth wave, however the book itself looks at those intervening years around the turn of the millennium in France that seemed marked by a greater degree of ambivalence, an ambivalence that gave rise to rather more multi-layered cultural responses to feminist concerns. I wanted to see what was happening there, to think through this ambivalence that appeared to represent a shift away from inscribing the female body in literature in positive images of wholeness and unity towards a certain precariousness regarding the shapes and lines of the body. But I also wanted to relate this to wider concerns and anxieties about the body in the contemporary realm, as we move ever towards a world that appears to view embodiment in terms of surface rather than depth. These challenges to bodily integrity brought me to the philosophy of becoming of Gilles Deleuze, which allowed me to think further through how such visions of corporeality might alter, reconfigure or create conflict with experiences and expressions of gender, sexuality, desire…

CW: The central question, or at least the original question, behind the project, is “what are the limits of the body?” Although this question is not gender specific, you are writing about female authors and on occasion you talk about the “(female) body”, with “female” in parentheses. What is the relationship in the project between the gendered female body and the body as such?

AD: The gendered body is at the heart of the project, and this is certainly a book that seeks specifically to investigate the female body as embodied experience and as representation. Choosing to write about female authors (or authors who identify as female) made sense to me in wanting to trace the development of ‘women’s writing’, to explore further the relationship between a possible feminist politics and writing itself, to draw into focus the very idea of ‘women’s writing’ and how we might engage with and negotiate this term into the twenty-first century. But thinking about the limits of the body involves interrogating the boundaries of gender itself, and in using the “(female) body” with “female” in parentheses, as I do on occasion, I wanted to loosen up the relation a little, and to encourage reflection on what that relation might variously mean, in multiple contexts and situations, and indeed for different people. In a way, the entire book is about opening up that relation, thinking about the female body itself as a critical threshold.

CW: In setting the context for your use of Deleuze you comment that “what has been particularly striking is the range of criticism that strives to read Deleuze ‘with’ or ‘and’ something else.” You later say of The Becoming of the Body that “the book itself aims to participate in a strategy of ‘speaking with, writing with’,” but also that “this book is driven by encounters and interactions and, as such, does not wish to present readings of texts that are resolutely consigned to a particular theoretical grid.” Is The Becoming of the Body “Deleuze with feminism”?

AD: It is, in a sense. Although Deleuzian philosophy initially met with some resistance from feminist thinkers, his work – both alone and in collaboration with Félix Guattari – has since the 1990s been subject to a great deal of feminist reappraisal. Thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti, Claire Colebrook, Elizabeth Grosz, Tamsin Lorraine and Dorothea Olkowski have variously shown that a philosophy of becoming holds great promise for those who conceive of gender in dynamic terms. But there remain aspects that throw up points of contention: blindspots, problematic usage of terminology and, as many have suggested, the advancing of a philosophy that insists so much on dynamism that it arguably becomes difficult to harness as a means of engaging with recognisable forms of politics. So this project is more about staging a set of theoretical dialogues between Deleuze and feminism, rather than reading literature through a rigidly Deleuzian frame. You might perhaps say that it is Deleuze with feminism with literary criticism: in my exploration of the female body, I wanted to consider anew the relationship between Deleuze and feminism, but also to investigate how literary approaches may themselves, in opening out questions about the relation between art and life, advance such debates, make space for political engagement and set Deleuzian philosophy on a new political trajectory.

CW: In the chapter on Deleuze you call becoming-woman “the key to all becomings”. In what way?

AD: This is an important question. The claim that becoming-woman is ‘the key to all becomings’ is Deleuze and Guattari’s rather than mine, and in many ways it is this assertion that feminists have found most difficult to reconcile in their work. For Deleuze and Guattari becoming is always about becoming-minoritarian, about opening oneself up to a minoritarian position through the experience of being other than oneself. To suggest that ‘becoming-woman’ might be the key to a series of becoming-minoritarian raises significant concerns, since it privileges the idea as a minority figure while failing to account for the position from which one becomes: becoming-woman will certainly mean something different depending on whether, and the extent to which, one identifies as a man or a woman. Further, Deleuze and Guattari argue that there can be no concept of ‘becoming-man’, because man occupies a dominant, majoritarian position, but in disallowing this possibility they would seem perhaps to reiterate further a binary gender politics, rather than to open out the spectrum of a thousand tiny sexes that they speak of elsewhere. I return to the notion of becoming-woman at various points in the book, and try to see in my readings of literature if different approaches to such a concept might offer a more helpful perspective for a feminist politics.  

CW: You devote a chapter each to the work of Amélie Nothomb, Ananda Devi, Marie Darrieusecq and Nina Bouraoui. What led you to choose these authors in particular? I am thinking of the way you take care not to present them as a new “wave”, though at one point you do talk about them in a way that critiques some existing positions: “they move beyond the cultural resignification called for by the second wave, and through the discursive iterations of gender signalled by queer theorists such as Judith Butler, to the transformation and the very material redistribution, the unmaking and remaking of female corporeality.” If not a movement or a school, are these four writers nevertheless developing or critiquing the existing landscape in significant new ways?

AD: These authors do develop debates around the female body in significant new ways, but certainly they have not consciously assembled as a movement, nor have I envisioned reading their works together in order to set out a coherent collective set of arguments or principles. In choosing a literary corpus, I wanted to draw together authors for whom the idea of bodily transformation was resonant, but who also appeared to be elaborating on this idea of material distribution in diverse ways that would allow me to advance and to critique various elements of it. I was also aware of wanting to bring together different francophone voices in order to look at articulations of the female body across a range of cultural contexts. So while the notion of bodily transformation – or becoming – runs through the work, it takes on plural forms and contexts, each inviting a different set of feminist questions and each lending a different nuance to the conversation between Deleuze and feminism: in Nothomb’s work I look at the relations between hunger, sensation, art, beauty and illness that the anorexic body negotiates; in Devi’s writing I consider abject forms of metamorphosis but also the vital transformation of affective sexuality; the chapter on Darrieussecq explores the relationship between metamorphosis and gender parody, and extends debates around simulation to consider the slippage between mind and body in posthuman consciousness; finally in Bouraoui’s work I examine the nomadic experience of the body in its dislocated relation to space, and reflect on desire and sexuality too in nomadic, aleatory terms. These multiple, intersecting avenues also allow me to engage with different elements of Deleuzian philosophy, from the Body without Organs and desire, forms of becoming otherwise (-animal, -woman, -imperceptible…), to nomadism, smooth space and the any-space-whatever, and to experiment with these notions within feminist and queer frames.


CW: As you point out, Nothomb’s work has been accused of reinforcing a traditional myth of female Beauty and an “anorexic aesthetic”. In reading this aesthetic in terms of a Body without Organs, how are you positioning your own reading in relation to the political stakes raised by these critiques?

AD: The idea that an “anorexic aesthetic’ underpins Nothomb’s work stems from the fact that her heroines are almost always impossibly thin. Their slight, child-like bodies are described in terms of an incomparable, ethereal beauty, suggesting an overvalorisation of thinness that plays into the problematic discourse of idealised and infantilised femininity. Since Nothomb has openly discussed her own anorexia as a teenager, as well as that of her sister, there has been an understandable tendency to associate this biographical experience with the aesthetic configuration of female characters across her work. But I think that critics tend to disregard the multiple meanings that thinness in fact acquires beyond patriarchal beauty myths, and this is what I try to draw out in my exploration of Nothomb’s autobiographical/autofictional works. I am less concerned with the ‘anorexic aesthetic’, then, than with seeing how we might understand Nothomb’s writing of hunger and restraint as being at once embedded in complex webs of conflictual desires and corporeal practices, and at the same time, in the making of a Body without Organs, straining against the weight of these multifarious meanings. In other words, I’m interested in the body’s struggle with signification, in the attempt to turn corporeality inside out and to blur the lines that pattern its surface, between beauty and politics, frailty and strength, defiance and compliance, desire and restraint, erasure and exposure… The Body without Organs might be read as a form of a micro-politics, a dismantling of the body that lays bare and confounds the multiple codes that signify, construct and constrain corporeality. The aim here is not to valorise anorexia as an experience, nor indeed as a political strategy, but to think through the layers of meaning that accumulate on the anorexic body as a means of reflecting further on the relationship between the female body and its representation.

CW: You set your reading of Darrieussecq alongside the sort of critique undertaken by Andrew Asibong when he identifies a mulier sacra neglected in Agamben’s account of the homo sacer. Can you give us a hint of how Darrieussecq works for you not just as a site for identifying Deleuzian tropes but as a critique of Deleuze’s blindspots.

AD: Of the four authors studied in the book, Darrieussecq’s work perhaps pulses most vibrantly with Deleuzian possibilities. Her writing, particularly in her first text, Truismes, one of the works I analyse here, might also be regarded as being the closest to an unequivocally feminist position. So there unfolds a particularly vivid dialogue, I think, in the relation of Deleuzian philosophy to a feminist politics in this chapter. Darrieussecq’s story of a young woman who turns into a sow in Truismes is a highly stylised depiction of gendered metamorphosis. It reorients Deleuzian becoming in fascinating ways, entwining notions of becoming-animal and becoming-woman to suggest a parodic mode of becoming that illuminates and critiques, as you say, Deleuze’s blindspots and lack of attention to gender, while going even further in mobilising such a philosophy in deconstructing categories and myths of femininity. Similarly, though her careful consideration of consciousness in a later text, Bref séjour chez les vivants, echoes in many ways the Deleuzian mind as a porous site of connections, Darrieussecq attends to the material embodiment of thought in a manner that elaborates on the torsion between consciousness and world at the very site of the female body. Her writing thus opens up a fluid space for gendered becoming in particularly erudite and politically empowering forms.

CW: When you evoke Deleuzian nomadism in relation to Bouraoui you underline her personal story – she is half French and half Algerian – and suggest that “the experience of nomadism most often occurs in individuals who are essentially always already deterritorialised.” In your discussion of Devi you rightly point out that the experiences of her protagonists that lead to their becoming-animal are extreme in their violence. Is the experience of the body as nomadic or as becoming-animal to be considered exceptional and, if it is, how do these exceptional cases relate to the rest of us. Is that where literature comes in?

AD: Many of the articulations of becoming evoked in the book are indeed extreme in their violence (abject metamorphosis in Devi; anorexia in Nothomb), or exceptional in terms of the particularity of cultural frameworks (hyper-patriarchal Indo-Mauritian and Indian worlds in Devi; French-Algerian conflict and entanglement in Bouraoui). Some might be said to be exceptional in that they verge on the fantastical (metamorphosis in Devi and Darrieussecq), but I think in all cases across these francophone literatures, there is clear resonance with the broad spectrum of lived, female experience. I think it is at this intersection – between what is familiar and what is possible – that literature comes in. Deleuze would emphasise that art itself is a form of becoming that reaches beyond its own terms and enfolds the virtual rather than representing the actual as such, unraveling the organisation of thought and allowing life in its fullest sense to be grasped. Writing can be seen as a process, then, that traverses the ‘liveable’ and the ‘lived’. I wanted to explore difficult, extreme or exceptional figurations of becoming in order to attend to that primary question ‘what are the limits of the body?’ Literature allows for greater experiment with the contours of corporeality, greater possibilities for questioning material boundaries as a means of interrogating our own assumptions and experiences of the gendered body.    

CW: It is always a danger that the commerce between the philosophical and the literary is one-way traffic, with the literature exemplifying and/or confirming the philosophy’s assumptions or prior positions. I am very glad to say that this is absolutely not what is happening in The Becoming of the Body. At the end of this impressive trajectory weaving Deleuze in and out of these four writers, what are your reflections on what – to beg the question and to short-circuit an ongoing debate and one of the main concerns of the Crosscurrents series – we could call the “relation between” the philosophical and the literary?

AD: I wanted the book to stage a genuine dialogue between philosophy and literature, and also to explore the ways that both may inspire in the act of reading a sense of ungrounding. Discussion of the relation between the philosophical and the literary, as you say, tends always to come back to some sort of privileging of the one over the other, establishing some sense of hierarchy, and though Deleuze does much to stress the idea of counterpoint in his theorisations of that relation, his own readings of literature do – not always, but often – return to, exemplify and rehearse a routine set of his own philosophical frames. I have been fascinated instead by what may emerge between Deleuzian philosophy, feminism and literature in points of friction and resistance as much as in modes of contact. In this way, the writing of the book has allowed me to view the philosophical and the literary as allied – in Deleuzian and feminist terms – in interlacing concept and affect in a contrapuntal capacity, as a means of unfurling the vitality of experience and unleashing thought from the fixed associations and tired patterns of our minds.