Dossier | Girls Girls Girls | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Girls Girls Girls

  • Lucie Fontaine, Latent, 2012. Photo: courtesy of the artist & The Green Gallery
  • Claire Fontaine, La société du spectacle brickbat, 2006. Photo: courtesy of the artist & Metro Pictures, New York

Girls Girls Girls
By Jen Kennedy

Nothing is one thing, only simultaneously
A motorcycle is buzzing and my mom is somewhere
It’s six o’clock in the morning, and it’s three o’clock in the morning
What are you doing simultaneously? (1)

I
Thinking through the legacy of the Situationist International today, it’s useful to go back to the definition of “spectacle.” That is, spectacle not only as synonymous with media events, simulacra, or even images as such, but as a type of relationship — between subjects and between subjects and their worlds — that is mediated by representations. (2) The disparaging shorthand “the spectacle” to connote the contemporary mediascape, virtual realities, and vague misinformation, generally obfuscates the parts of this postwar theory that, while more difficult (or even impossible) to reconcile with the larger whole, arguably remains the most prescient in our present context; the critique of desire, for instance, and relatedly, its significance to constructions of gender.

As T. J. Clark observes, the Situationist critique was not about “anathematizing representations in general . . . [but] proposing certain tests for truth and falsity in representation.” (3) It was about instrumentalizing already existing images, objects, ideas, and texts, unfixing them, and creating new constructions and new meanings. So, while Debord may have sentenced us to the totality of the “integrated spectacle” in the late 1980s, (4) along with his comrades he also suggested a methodology for continued critique: détournement, or the critical repurposing of preexisting materials that engages past constructions to create new forms out of old ones. Détournement doesn’t necessarily suggest an outside to the spectacle-commodity economy, but it does give us the tools to reconfigure our relationships to representations and our relationships as they are mediated by representations. In other words, to transform the material conditions of everyday life. There is no such thing as a good context, only a logic of relative conflict.

Through their own détournement of Hegel, Debord and co. interpreted this conflict as the process becoming a subject, which in their vernacular is something akin to having agency, specifically, agency over desire — the core of human life. The dialectical encounter détournement sets up between representations and contexts, subjecting representations to revisions, cancellations, and mutations, is a lot like the transformative action of desire, which is expressed through our encounters with the external world. “Desire as a transformation of the natural world is simultaneously the transformation of its own natural self into an embodied freedom.” (5) As we make our world we make ourselves and vice versa. Détournement is one critical mode of doing this. (6)

The praxis of détournement is thus entangled in a theory of subjectivity, and since theories of subjectivity always have implications for gender, we might ask whether taking this into account in reevaluating the cultures of “the spectacle” will open new — even unforeseen — questions?

II
The most widely overlooked aspect of the Situationists’ oeuvre is the group’s collective obsession with young, utterly contemporary women, or jeunes filles. Images of fashionable and nubile girls are literally everywhere in the SI’s work — illustrating their eponymous journal, of course, but also as key figures in Gil J. Wolman’s collages, Michèle Bernstein’s novels, and Debord and René Viénet’s films. (7) As Kelly Baum has shown, these seemingly peculiar instances of détournement actually have a productive function as “allegories for the alienation of desire.” (8) Objectified images of women explicate the overall theory that capitalism has effectively colonized all areas of life, instigating a crisis of living or, in other words, a crisis of desire. Yet like all instances of détournement, these images are constantly confronted with their own negativity, or the opposing meanings that every representation contains within it. Paradoxically, then, they can at once be allegories of the alienation of desire and the material manifestations of subjects of desire; and as such, they play a disruptive role too.

The fact that it was representations of “jeunes filles” that the SI was so preoccupied with tells us far more than the obvious — that we are dealing more or less with a boys’ club presumably titillated by pictures of pretty girls. The “jeune fille,” between puberty and motherhood, was perhaps the most complicated relationship between the mass and the individual that dominated the discourses of modernity. A malleable, transitional subjectivity, generally disparaged as superficial, narcissistic, and lacking in morality, the image of the girl became a site of confrontation between nostalgia for the past and fears about the future. During the same years that SI was developing its project, the very definition of the “jeune fille” underwent a resignification in France; the same characteristics that were so widely devalued turned her into a cipher for national anxieties related to postwar reconstruction, decolonization, and so-called Americanization.Simply put, contemporary audiences did not need Debord to tell them that representations of contemporary young women signalled a crisis. Today, however, we might want to keep this context in mind as we consider the legacy of the SI in contemporary art. (9) Yes, the SI problematically utilized representations of young girls, but, in all their complexity and historical specificity, these representations also worked on, and thereby did work to, the SI, introducing irresolvable slippages between the language of postwar consumerism (exemplified by new fantasies of femininity) and the aesthetisization of Hegelian-Marxist politics that constitutes so much of their work.

III
It is no coincidence that some of the SI’s most interesting inheritors have cast their critiques of capitalism and representation as interrogations of subjectivities and, in particular, constructions of gender therein: Claire Fontaine’s concept of the readymade artist; the Bernadette Corporation’s novel Reena Spaulings (2004) and its fictional gallerist of the same name; Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s subject/thing, AnnLee (begun in 1999); and perhaps most notoriously, Tiqqun’s “trash-theoretical tract,” Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la Jeune-Fille (2001). (10) All of these projects, in one way or another, detourn the category of identity “jeune fille,” specifically diverting images and accoutrements of youthful femininity either to comment on or question the present condition.

In Reena Spaulings, this takes the form of a novel that could have also been a magazine. “A book written by images, about images, to be read by other images,” with a young, female protagonist who “is repeatedly destroyed and reanimated . . . put to work, drugged, made into an advertising image, fucked, robbed, paid, made to speak or shut up, desired by individuals and abandoned in crowds, erased, rewritten, and rehashed” by allegedly one hundred and fifty professional and amateur writers working collaboratively to produce a single “blockbuster.” (11) In other words, this is a book about a subject doing what she necessarily already does: enacting desire through the contingent and mediated forms of the material world.

For Tiqqun, the Jeune-Fille is the “purest product of the spectacle,” the subject par excellence of contemporary capitalism and thus “obviously not a gendered concept.” (12) But even if the Jeune-Fille is more of a concept than a biological necessity, this concept is complicated by the fact that the same signifier is still the only one available to millions of people who identify themselves as young girls. So, while the idea of the Young Girl is sometimes separate from the actuality of being a young girl, this intellectual compartmentalization is tricky and difficult to maintain, especially because images often precede language in redefining what it means to be young and female. Would Reena Spaulings work so well if the protagonist was a man? Just as the figure of the “jeune fille” foils our attempts to read the SI as the clearly articulated political program it claims to be — as an absolute attack on the totality of the spectacle-commodity economy — so too does this category consistently evade efforts to figure it in contemporary art.

Of course, the scope of the cultural obsession with the category of identity Young Girl was certainly not precipitated by Tiqqun nor is it limited to their theory, (13) nevertheless their 2001 book in many ways presaged the spectacle of femininity taking shape through the television show Girls, selfies, Spring Breakers, Miley Cyrus, tumblr, Hilton Al’s White Girls, Internet diarist Marie Calloway, Rookie Magazine, Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, and so many other examples across disciplines, media, and cultural and economic spheres. These are the signs of youthful femininity disassembled and set in motion by contemporary theorists of the spectacle-commodity economy precisely because they encompass both the experiences of girlhood and the representational structures that enable actual girls to conceive their relationships to the social, cultural, and political conditions that shape their lives.

Abstract or not, gendered or not, what’s happening when the collective lived experiences and contingent representations that constitute girl culture become the material of contemporary art? What are the stakes of turning toward the often-devalued aspects of youthful femininity to theorize contemporary culture? (14)

We could look at contemporary art to attempt to answer these questions, or we could just as easily ask the girls themselves. On tumblr, for instance, where the self-designated “Magical Girls” are intuitively redirecting their own culture, turning the symbols, characters, and aesthetics that are widely associated with their superficiality and, by extension, their oppression, into the conditions of possibility for realizing their own desires in opposition to the identities offered up to them by the outside world. (15) Whether wittingly or not, the SI likely turned to girl culture in the 1950s and ’60s at least partly because the rebellious “jeunes filles” who shirked the bourgeois codes of their gender, however mired in “the spectacle,” represented the closest thing to the realization of desire. The same can probably be said of artists working today.

Notes
(1) Bernadette Corporation, A Billion and Change, 2009.
(2) The fourth thesis in Society of the Spectacle clarifies, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12.
(3) T. J. Clark, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam,” October 100 (Spring 2002): 161.
(4) Guy Debord (1988), Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcom Imrie (London: Verso, 1998), 8.
(5) Judith Butler (1987), Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 58. Butler traces the impact and mutations of this formulation of desire from Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel in the 1930s through the 1980s in the thinking of Kristeva, Deleuze, and Foucault.
(6) In Society of the Spectacle, Debord defined subjectivity as “the self-production of the living: the living becoming master and possessor of its world — that is, of history — and coming to exist as consciousness of its own activity” (48). While members of the SI may have contemplated the possibility of a post-revolutionary world, they maintained that subjectivity was always constructed through its encounter with social, cultural, political, and economic contexts.
(7) The initial definition of détournement specifically addresses the usefulness of pulling images of femininity from one context to another. See Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Détournement” (1956), in Situationist International Anthology, Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006).
(8) Kelly Baum, “Sex and the S.I.” October 126 (Fall 2008).
(9) Jen Kennedy, “Charming Monsters: The Spectacle of Femininity in Postwar France,” Grey Room 49 (Fall 2012).
(10) Tiqqun was a Situationist and Letterist-inspired collective of authors and activists who formed in 1999 and published two volumes of their eponymous journal as well as the books Théorie de Bloom and Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la Jeune-Fille, before disbanding in 2001.
(11) Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), viii, vii.
(12) Tiqqun, Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la Jeune-Fille (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2001), 10. “Le concept de Jeune-Fille n’est évidemment pas un concept sexué.”
(13) Criticisms of Tiquun, while mostly valid, will not be taken up here. I do suggest a more nuanced (and perhaps even sympathetic) reading of Premiers might happen in combination with another text by members of this mutating collective, Claire Fontaine’s “We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy,” e-flux 47 (September 2013).
(14) In his introduction to the English translation of Michèle Bernstein’s All the King’s Horses, Bernadette Corporation member John Kelsey writes, “She [the young girl] is our very condition. It’s only a question of what we do with her.” All the King’s Horses (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), 16.
(15) Nicole Killian, Sailor Moon, Glitter Text, and Graphic Design, presented at ACLA, New York, March 21, 2014.

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