Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2005
Hal Foster Prosthetic Gods Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. 473 pp.; 15 color ills.; 121 b/w ills. Cloth $38.00 (0262062429)
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Hal Foster’s Prosthetic Gods is a Lacanian-driven contribution to art history and theory. The book does not address problems in the writing of art history, for example, why such writing is prone to monumentalizing artifacts or is crucial in canon formation. Instead, it uses theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to quarantine modern art and art history by taking the special interpretive codes of Freud, and then Lacan, and transferring them to a general code of interpretation. Prosthetic Gods historicizes art history through Lacanian theory. This strategy produces a circularity in which an object, an interpretation thereof, and institutional settings (an object’s “life”) install, as it were, the subjectivity and institutionality of the scholar, curator, and artist in each other. This circuit turns objects into symbols that are nested in historical interpretations and institutionally protected from cultural erosion.

Unwittingly, Prosthetic Gods provokes an attentive reader to ask how Lacan’s writing has come to be so widely used by an elite wing of art historians, progressives who write a stable history of the avant-garde. The uncritical extension of Lacanian codes in particular is downright peculiar or, depending on how you look at it, politically quite fitting, since the critics and scholars involved with the journal October have been accused of exacting terror: canonizing certain objects and movements and denouncing others, imposing new norms rather than challenging their own. In a 1975 letter critiquing Lacan’s take-over of the Vincennes Psychoanalysis Department, Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard wrote that “in the name of a mysterious ‘matheme,’ ” Lacan personally took control of employee contracts and dismissed faculty who did not even train psychoanalysts. These professors were purged for practicing the “wrong” theory. Lacanianism introduced a new paranoid politics of order, a preview of a neoscholasticism in which everyone’s unconscious was to be “washed” (see Lyotard, Political Writings [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993], 68–69). Lacanian theory is not airy at all, but instead gravitates to wielding power. As to the theoretical elaborations that are in circulation, how is it possible that Lacan’s critique of the paternal ends up not just paternalizing language—incarnating the law of castration, making the latter the coherence of naming and identification—but also turns Oedipus into a structure of structures (see Elisabeth Roudinesco, “Jacques Lacan and the Erasure of History,” in French Theory in America, eds. Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen [New York: Routledge, 2001], 96). More than ever, we could use a critique of the Lacanian impact and effect in the arts and humanities, just when these fields and disciplines are in serious retreat from any kind of rapport with general culture, if there is such a thing.

Prosthetic Gods does not give much of this social or conceptual genealogy of Lacanianism. From the start, the reader is presented with a project where modernist works of art and psychoanalytic theory are to be seen as implicated in each other: “on common interests in origin stories and heroic fictions, in moments of regression and reaction, in imbrications of enigma and desire, in relays between traumatic events and psychological defenses …” (xii). In a formulation that comes closer to expressing the essence of Lacan, “psychoanalysis … sees the ego as first and foremost a bodily image, and regards the crucial events of subjective formation as visual scenes” that are “never transparent” (xiii); thus modernist works and psychoanalytic theory share “pictorial elaboration” in ways that might be mutually illuminating. Reaching for Lacan, Foster expresses pique with the backlash against “theory” in the 1990s but makes no attempt to defend what he calls psychoanalytic “truth value,” preferring instead to employ its “critical insights” (xiv). He does not notice that to say he wants to “apply” psychoanalysis to modernist art “theoretically, as a method of understanding aspects” (xiv) of it, is also to say that he does not want to specify the difference between theory and method. A theoretical defense of psychoanalysis is not presented here; Prosthetic Gods is all application of a code, and in it, as we will see, modernism is overwhelmed and flattened by Lacanian ideas.

The “common interest” of psychoanalysis and modernist visuality falls most heavily on the (white) male heterosexual attempt to master sexual ambivalence: “does Picasso position his masculine viewers … to dominate his prostitutes or to be dominated by them?” (14). Linking Freud’s Wolf Man case to the work of Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner creates an ambivalence with which to explore the dynamics of primitivism (9). While the instances of Gauguin and Picasso suggest a slight cracking of heterosexual illusions of mastery, each artist working against rigid oppositions of active/passive and male/female (17), neither could move beyond a visual opening to sexual/Other difference and so remained fixed in opposition, holding onto a fragile if still secure subject (20). In this (white, male, but universal) visualization of the Other, especially of the primitive, male “genital heterosexuality” is at issue, or the desire to see or to instantiate the visualization of sexual difference. Gauguin could be “serene only in his difference” from his Others, his dominance pathologized as a “deep fantasy: to arrive at an origin in which difference is not yet (or no longer) traumatic” (28); here, Foster pauses to take a quick cheap shot at Claude Lévi-Strauss for the latter’s supposed version of Club Med primitivism (350, n. 36). For each artist, visualizing and thinking about the Other represent both cause and effect of trauma, itself the (primordial) effect of the initial transcendental structure of castration. For Foster, modernist art, at its best, lets us glimpse the formation of traumatized subjectivity. To that vexed subjectivity, trauma happens because of sexual differentiation. (This is Lacanian naturalism, and it allows Foster to displace academic politics with trauma. To name it is to have some mastery over its sense and reference; to write the history of avant-garde art through Lacan could be seen as avoidance of the question as to why we do not apply Lacan to, say, the organization of academic knowledge and politics.) Foster elides the politics of theories of representation by dwelling on, say, Gauguin’s Day of the God as about “difference before it divides,” the painting resembling Freud’s notion of “life, not death, as the great force of discontinuity …” (49). Prosthetic Gods offers such metaphysics too frequently, not asking, here, how life is a force and not composed of specifiable forces.

Prosthetic Gods never deviates from its approach of threading aesthetics to trauma (see 29, 51–52), even if at times the connection is forced. One example: compared with Gauguin, for whom psychological and cultural redemption was at stake, Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon comes straight out of the double whammy of his sexual and racial trauma, “proof” being Picasso’s own statement on the painting—“I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy” (31)—which unfortunately refers not to sexualized trauma but to Picasso’s sense of freeing himself from a certain mode of painting. Picasso may have used the term “exorcism” to refer to Demoiselles, but Foster cites this as part of the “vocabulary of trauma” (32), which is hardly evidence for the claims made. Picasso becomes a paradigm of the transgressive artist involved with psychic regression, a line Foster makes continuous with Dada and abject art of the l990s, where defiance, dirt, and shit are also manifested as visual offenses (29).

Foster’s analysis of Adolf Loos’s version of “masculine anxiety” makes the architect dread indistinction in art and life. Loos’s status as an oppositional outsider is here “psychological at root, to do with indistinction in the subject, and it might inform this modernist type of critic in general” (62). (In endnote 21 on page 363, Foster designates Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried as critics who tried too hard to hold onto issues of purity and fear of indistinction in media.) Loos’s issues are reduced to subject problems about anality and the tomb monument, or “execremental matter redeemed by architectural art” (107). By comparison, F. T. Marinetti and Wyndham Lewis are the “hard” or armored analists whose art fuses protection and aggressivity; they want release from difference and lack by affirming their own self-alienation (115). Marinetti is as pre-Oedipal as Gauguin, but violent instead of “serene”: the Italian Futurist is “an imaginary transsexual who seeks the phallus through the machine … unconscious equation of baby and phallus,” or phallus gone wild (124). Foster quotes Freud to substantiate the deadness of Lewis’s work (such as The Enemy of the Stars)—“everything living dies for internal reasons …” and brings this discussion to a culmination with Freud’s concept that “the aim of all life is death” (142). Lewis’s work is reduced to the death drive—but Foster does not ask how “internal” and “aim” are joined in terms that might contest Lacanian discourse, and turning Lewis toward the “inhuman” seems forced, joining at once Lacan, Lewis, and postmodernism.

Set up by Lacan’s notion of fascist subjectivity and narcissistic disturbance, the modernist body wounded in its “protective shields” against ego disruption, chapters 4–6 take up Dada, Surrealism, fascism, Max Ernst, and the mentally ill. In contrast to, say, Loos’s fussiness, we get Ernst’s World War I cultural blackout issued as the buffoonery of a “bashed ego” (155, 166). Granting that Ernst had juxtaposed Weimar as “historical reification … with psychic regression” (172), Foster nonetheless sees Ernst’s work as stuck in his own mockery of the dilettante (174) and finds that his Die Schammade project “suggests a political impotence that implies a sexual impotence as well” (174). This seems reductive in the extreme, given that on Foster’s own ground, his own terms, Ernst went quite far to propose “phallic divestiture” and spoke to “phallic imposters” (177, 179). Gently dismissed as “romantic anticapitalism” taken to a “parodic extreme,” Ernst is labeled an exemplar of the value of negativity (191), but it is unclear just why Ernst and Dada are synthesized in a politics of aesthetics that “resists in the ‘form of unresisting accommodation’ ” (191)—or even what that phrase might mean.

Nodding throughout his endnotes to the work of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, Foster is friendliest toward Surrealism, whose best works are said to offer men engaged in some reflection on gender and whose objects give images that look back at their viewers—showing Surrealism to be reflective about the lack of the phallus (226). Fetishistic nudes associated with Brassaï in particular come out of a “traumatic sighting” of the female’s lack of penis; these fetish photos are a protection and memorial to castration (227). That Surrealism comes off best is hardly surprising given October’s extraordinary investment in this group; Prosthetic Gods is published under the imprint of October Books. Surrealism is here cast as the least anal of modernisms. The movement, however, has moments where it stands a bit outside Freudian-Lacanian discourse because it is seen to have understood castration anxiety or admired the phallus as if it were a beautiful woman “and not the inflated prowess of the little thing” (247–49). The Surrealists were able to work the fetish the most effectively because they grasped Lacan avant la lettre, where entrance to the Symbolic Order is set by “the desire of the mother, a desire that is born of lack (or castration)” (246), and where everyone pursues the phallus as signifier, “equally at the mercy of lack and desire” (247). Lack and desire are the absolutes or metaphysical absent presences of subject-formation and our experience(s) of others: lack and desire renaturalize the social world, that is, make trauma normal.

Picasso and the taming of desire; Loos and the repression of degenerate eroticism; Marinetti and Lewis recouping industrial technology, giving “hardened” new egos; Ernst’s “defensive strategies”; the brandished figures of Surrealism—all of these suggest that art belongs to the redemption of trauma (259–60). Dilating on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s placement of a statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head, Prosthetic Gods turns Medusa into a figure of the origin of art—the desire for art—according to Lacanian coordinates of subjectivity. The transformation of Medusa from feared image of life, a stand-in for Lacan’s Evil Eye, into a severed head for cultural recognition, is said to demonstrate that representation can “arrest” the gaze—Medusa/Lacan’s Evil Eye, which determines experience as such and arrest its viewers. Art as gaze doubled speaks to a “primordial power of the real-as-radiation” (264), that is, art allows us to look at the world through lack, negation, and horror redeemed. Foster insists that Medusa is not just a figure emblematic of the terror of castration, but, rather, “a terror of a lack of difference, of a primal state in which all differences … are confounded or not yet established” (265). We can speak then of a “primordial act of civilization” because the “essence of the gaze … the fundament” (272) is to tame itself, in which art as symbol figures “a first move in the mitigation of this [horrific, Evil Eye] real, a primordial act of civilization” (265). Culture and civilization are blended here, but it does not matter—the message is clear: “submit to Medusa-Athena, undergo the penile castration necessary for access to the symbolic order, and be rewarded with the phallic shield of signification, of civilization, for doing so” (272). Visualization as socialization equals phallicization. The real must be presumed awful so that symbols can redeem; Lacan thus resuscitates theology, a saving negation of the horror of reality, which is, of course, concocted out of the putative horror of sexual difference, the ur-horror. There must be an Evil Eye so there can be at least Lacanian serenity. Lacan’s Evil Eye is of course a displacement of the Evil Penis confused with the Phallus—or is it the other way round?

Prosthetic Gods concludes without a conclusion. Chapter 8 considers the work of Robert Gober and, once again, trauma—the body versus the psyche. It culminates in the idea that “the psychic basis of all representation resides in loss” (315), and traumas of the consciousness of this loss are legitimate insofar as they are threaded to contemporary issues of sexual and racial difference. Such a nonconclusion is inadequate for a book that makes enormous theoretical moves, that bemoans the loss of theory. Since the theoretical claims are not argued for, such claims remain, as Lyotard said of Lacan’s work, bound to a “religious melancholy” that works “to subordinate all intense emotion to a lack and all force [of art] to a finitude” (The Lyotard Reader [Oxford: Blackwell, 1989], 7). All disparities of invested symbols and their vicissitudes—arguments over how to do art history—are shoved aside by this lack, which operates “[l]ike a drug whose supply one doesn’t even ask for again—for the lack of it is as much a having as any other” (Sophie Podolski, quoted by Lyotard in Libidinal Economy [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993], 111). Lyotard observed that once one says an unconscious is not the other of discourse but the discourse of the Other, one has already prepared the void that lack and castration fill, these grave-digging concepts (Lyotard, 125). In sum, Prosthetic Gods is art history as the verbal and conceptual integration of the visualization of castration, but told in one register, which deserves critique, not imperial application.

Sande Cohen
California Institute of the Arts (emeritus, 2009)


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