Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 6, February 2001



Laura Mulvey

Reply to MacKinnon and Sorfa




Kenneth MacKinnon

'Curiously, Fetishism Can Be Fun'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 4, February 2001


David Sorfa

'Hieroglyphs and Carapaces: The Enigmatic Real in Laura Mulvey's _Fetishism

and Curiosity_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 5, February 2001


My book _Fetishism and Curiosity_, published by the British Film Institute

in 1996, received very little critical attention either at the time it was

published or over the course of its 'print-life'. Now that it is to be

remaindered, I am grateful to _Film-Philosophy_ for reviewing it. Most

particularly I am grateful to the two reviewers, Ken MacKinnon and David

Sorfa, for producing such understanding and insightful comments on the

book. Both of them point to weaknesses that might have contributed to its

lack of success, for instance, that it appears to be a collection of

disparate essays rather than a book with a cohesive and internally coherent

argument. Although I worked on each of the different chapters within the

given set of intellectual problems raised by fetishism, and within the more

utopian possibilities of curiosity, I never did manage to edit and

reconceive the bits into a satisfying whole. Most of all, I probably left

to the reader's own intuition the ways in which my thought was the product

of a continuity or of a break from my better known 70s work. Both reviewers

locate the book in the context of my 70s essays 'Visual Pleasure and

Narrative Cinema' and 'Afterthoughts . . .' which have always, of course,

overshadowed anything I did later.


MacKinnon, particularly, returns to the 'Visual Pleasure' arguments towards

the end of his piece. He has used and commented on this 'starting point'

article with critical insight and imagination over recent years,

challenging the argument by generous development and critique rather than

any wholesale dismissal. This response allows me the opportunity to give

some nuance to his generally perceptive points, especially as elaborated in

_Uneasy Pleasures_. MacKinnon argues that ways of seeing and regimes of the

visible change constantly, and, indeed, are marked rather by instability

than continuity. Not only do new ways of depicting gender on the screen

respond to changing social attitudes to sexual differences, but new

critical perspectives and sensibilities affect ways in which the cinema of

the past is seen and understood. MacKinnon makes these shifts clear as he

brings the cinema's representation of the male body into a more complex

light. And his suggestion that a feminised erotic gaze can open up a way

towards the depiction of the male as voyeuristic object has important

implications. As he points out, following Miriam Hansen, the greatest movie

star of the 20s was certainly constructed for a female audience and

immediately came up against contemporary homophobia. But Valentino was only

*primus inter pares* at a time when Hollywood male stars were just as likely

to be 'feminised' as 'masculinised'. Perhaps these un-macho images might

lead across those mid-century decades, during which male stars tended to

conform to a conventional machismo (except, of course, for an interesting

interim in the 50s), towards the more polymorphous and feminised boy stars

of today.


In the early 70s my argument was, by and large, formalist, and only in

retrospect, perhaps, is its very restricted historical focus clear. It was

about the cinematic specificity of the Hollywood, post-synchronised sound,

studio system, way of depicting sexual difference. It was not, therefore,

about complex modes of identification or subject positions. It was not

about the possibility of an individual's sophisticated negotiations with a

chosen sexual fantasy as elaborated within psychoanalytic theory. It was

not about the gaze in psychoanalytic theory as such, or about seeing in any

aesthetic or social context other than that suggested by certain Hollywood

genres. 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema's formalism has, of course,

often been criticised, particularly by those who argue that an audience

asserts its own social identity over and above the formal construction of

the spectator. But those were the utopian days of the early 70s, when a

formal, but political critique of Hollywood went hand in hand with a

formal, but political concept of a new radical cinema. And the Women's

Liberation Movement directly influenced both.


The themes that _Fetishism and Curiosity_ tries to articulate represent an

attempt to find a way of beginning to address the gap between then and now.

This has not just been a gap in time, but a period of time during which

society and its economic structures, its codes of sexual difference as well

as its images, representations, etc., have undergone such changes as to

mark out a difference of epoch. In our field the status and significance of

'cinema' has also altered, while all moving images, media, entertainment,

etc., have been reconfigured by their encounter with the electronic. The

implications of all these things have been acutely visible, massively

discussed, but are still difficult to grasp and realise. So, it was even

more difficult to see in the 70s that our polemics were taking place on the

grave, as it were, of so much that was assumed to be immovable and

permanent -- for instance, an industrially driven society and the

(politically mobilised) working class that drove it. I myself had no sense

that capitalism's next triumph would be to engineer an escape from

dependence on its traditional millstone, the (by-and-large male) labour

force, and that the transition from industrial to new forms of finance and

service capitalism would shift the sex balance of employment patterns. It

seems inevitable, in retrospect, that these structural changes would bring

with them changes in ideology and in attitudes to sex and sexualities. From

a cynical standpoint, it might be suggested that certain demands from the

women's movement coincided with the end of 'Fordism', and that the feminist

critique of Hollywood's 'images of women' even post-dated the collapse of

the studio system they characterised.


It would seem that such fundamental shifts revive questions about the

relation between, in old-fashioned Marxist terms, the economic base and the

cultural superstructure. The convulsions of the last twenty-five years, to

my mind, call out for a revision of the late Marxist revisionisms of 60s

and 70s. On a simple level, it might seem that, just as finance capital

overtook indigenous industrial capital (in this country, for instance),

detaching profit from the sector of production, so the discourses of

post-modernism distanced representation from reference. At a time when

fundamental changes were taking place, the left of the 60s and 70s found

themselves 'between' discourses. From my perspective, this was confusing.

For me, a feminist politics of representation was bound to draw attention

to the gap between 'images of woman' and 'women', and it was here that the

new vocabularies of psychoanalysis and semiotics came into their own. These

theoretical tools allowed displaced meanings to be deciphered and analysed

and were an essential tool for any politics of representation. It was only

gradually, with the growing influence of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and

post-structuralism, that deferral of meaning became politically and

aesthetically influential. As Sorfa perceptively points out, _Fetishism and

Curiosity_ tries, tentatively, and without much success, to introduce the

'real' into a theoretical mode of thought that had never had much time for



In a sense, _Fetishism and Curiosity_ tries to enact or represent this

dilemma, this sense of falling between two political discourses at a time

when the suddenness of change and the speed with which the new became

'order' simply took one's breath away. The cultural moment of the 70s can

almost be defined by its rejection of realism as a mode of representation.

Semiotic and psychoanalytic theory allowed transparent internalised

realities to be questioned, detaching the signifier from the signified and

raising the important implications for culture and discourse of Lacan's

concept of the 'Real'. Sorfa is right to identify my use of fetishism as a

bridging mechanism. Unlike most other manifestations of the unconscious

mind, the process of disavowal is rooted in a moment of trauma which the

mind acknowledges and denies simultaneously. It was this double aspect of

the Freudian concept of fetishism that allowed me to think both in terms of

trauma as historical reality and as something that generates its own,

appropriate, disguise. The disguise is more a signifier than a signified

and is still in touch with that past (historical) moment it masks and, at

the same time, bears witness to. Sorfa has evoked very succinctly the way

in which I try to bring curiosity, or rather processes of decipherment, to

bear on what is, as he points out, ultimately a metaphor for some key

aspects of popular cultural production. And I think he is quite right to

point out that metaphors have a way of spiralling out of control. My

interest in metaphor lies in the cinema's ability to convey meaning with an

object or a cluster of objects that substitute for what cannot be said, and

in writing I use them to evoke my own problems with expression and

articulation of ideas.


I would like to end with Sorfa's reference to my Gulf War comment. I had

hoped, here, to draw attention to the way that a massive proliferation of

the technologies of news, particularly satellite broadcasting, tie into a

stage-managed representation of historic events, and to the

'spectacularisation' of war. The Gulf War was not any war, but the United

States, the most powerful country in the world, dramatising itself at war,

and securing control over narrative and images of history as it happened.

Of course, the stage managing of news has a long history of its own. But

during the Gulf War, the rhetoric of those who commanded the events

overwhelmed the reporting of events. Even more so, a fog of invisibility

cloaked the history of Iraq, and the Middle East more generally, for

instance, masking key factors such as the economics of oil and the politics

of the Cold War. But, I tried to argue in the Preface to _Fetishism and

Curiosity_, this 'picturing' of events is not just an image but is

symptomatic of the power of the United States to create its own stories and

its own spectacles. The human suffering 'in the real world' that I referred

to, and that Sorfa takes up, I intended to be understood in the context of

television as a stage-managed window on the world through which historical

realities become more and more opaque.


Birkbeck College, London




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Laura Mulvey, 'Reply to MacKinnon and Sorfa', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no.

6, February 2001 <>.




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