Signifier of signification

The “signifier of signification,” the “empty sign,” seems performed at the unoriginal expense of the female body. Such a violent cropping may be linked with Sadean philosophies, popular among the Surrealists, which underscore the sexual potential of a given object and which often result in a “particular disturbance to the head,” the locus of intellectual, rather than bodily logic. The male becomes the controller, the viewer, and the anonymous woman becomes merely the site of desire.

On the other hand, though I do not wish to downplay the symbolic violence inherent in the implied decapitation through photographic cropping, it is precisely this cropping which leaves the female gaze, the object of her vision, her desires, enigmatic and unaccounted for. Particularly with the first Nu (Fig. 3), the dynamism of the torso suggests the possibility that she may return the viewer gaze, making the (presumed male?) viewer an object of desire as much as he makes the photographed torso such an object. The inability to pinpoint the locus of her gaze may be less a denial of her subjectivity as a desiring, sexual being and more an opening up of the potential for anything–even everything–to be encompassed within her desires. Female desire thus becomes inclusive, rather than exclusive, and as such defined (not unproblematically) as much by its sexual voraciousness as by its subjugation to the polymorphous male gaze.
Another disruption of traditional binaries accomplished through these images involves a morphing between male and female bodies. As numerous critics have pointed out, Brassai uncovers something very strange–even perhaps ironic–in the shape of the back of these women’s torsos: they appear phallic. Gender identity is clearly disrupted here. After all, in its most simple inversion, the (assumed heterosexual male) viewer who at first felt desire for the passive, feminized object of his gaze is soon confronted with the realization that in fact, his desire is actually for the phallus. Since desire in Freudian psychology denotes lack, the active viewer is transformed into a feminized one (who lacks the phallus he desires). And the objectified woman who traditionally finds herself desiring and lacking a phallus in Freudian terminology, suddenly uncovers one within herself after all.

In contrast with the traditional masculine idealization defining the male self in terms of its difference from a feminized other, Brassai offers a feminized, or androgynous, inclusive version of the body. The fact that the phallus is in both cases turned sideways, when it might as easily have been revealed in a vertical format, adds still another dimension to this androgyny; the phallus is neither erect nor flaccid, but rather neutrally charged. Given the national threat assumed inherent in the androgynous woman or feminized male of the time, Brassai’s photographic playfulness here becomes subversive, and potentially dangerous.

It is unclear what Brassai intended by the correlation of woman and phallus, however. Was he suggesting that woman is bound by the phailus, and confined by a patriarchal system that defines and inscribes her through her natural deformation, lack of the phallus, to which she has access only via submission to a father or husband? Or is she the literal embodiment of the phallic mother, and exulting in her newfound power in some way? For if Brassai is defamiliarizing and redrafting the body, woman is an appropriate subject as she was at the time in the process of redefining her own boundaries and exploding her traditional limitations in a real historic sense. At a moment when man had returned from war fragile, disfigured, often traumatized–a shell of his former self-woman had replaced him at work, and had even been to some extent encouraged to enjoy more sexual liberation than ever before: she felt a new sense of freedom and power. Is the male viewer intended to see woman as object of desire? Or is Brassai thus reinscribing and inverting Freudian psychology such that man is intended to view woman jealously, even model himself after her, since she embodies the phallus that he now lacks? The very ambiguity of the images, allowing for multiple readings, seems consistent with Surrealist recognition of both the individual needs and social goals of inclusion.