The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe
March 21, 2011
Reflections on “The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe”
Editor’s note: Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland introduced each lecture prior to its performance by Dr. Susan Leigh Foster. Dr. Caruso Haviland was commissioned by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to write this series of commentary on each event and the discussions they engendered within in the context of Dr. Foster’s body of work. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are taken from the performed lecture. All images within the articles are stills extracted from the corresponding video unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Jorge Cousineau, 2012.
The Premise: The Ballerina as Phallus
How could a spectator possibly mistake either the graceful female sylphs of the Romantic era or the sublimely skillful technicians of the contemporary ballet stage for what amounts, on some level, to a penis? Well…let’s see: pliant, quivering, charged, emollient, stiff. Within the first few minutes of her “performed lecture,” “The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe,” Note 1 Susan Foster lets fly enough descriptives to make her case even before she presents her more convincing, and entertaining, socio-historical evidence.
Entertaining? Yes. This lecture is not delivered, straightforward and upright, from behind a wooden podium (phallus, anyone?). There are props aplenty and convincing gestures that move together with the text in a performance that, while intellectually dense as any academic lecture, is buoyed, amplified, erased, illuminated, or ambiguated by this play of word, objects, and movements.
The Performed Lecture
But back to penises and pointe shoes. Foster builds her performed lecture around this “naughty” notion of ballerina as phallus because it forces us to think beyond what we already know about the gender inflected roles of the Romantic ballerina and to more fully analyze “the performance of both feminine and masculine desire” on stage. Taking the ballerina as phallus also problematizes the “routing” of both male and female attention towards the dancing female body (and surely Foster has multiple senses of the word in mind) as well as the kinds of audience reception that were encouraged or permissible. What were these performances? How was desire represented? Whose desire? Were there significant cultural influences? Did the audience fuel these enactments?
But there is another more immediate motive as well, for Foster’s premise is that a historical reading of the Romantic ballerina, who was largely shaped by 19th-century constructions of woman, sex, and gender, reveals that she is not a female figure fixed firmly in the past but, instead, one whose legacy still plays out today in contemporary ballet. If we understand the demands that shaped the figure and performance of that long-ago ballerina, we may better recognize some of those forces still in effect.
A confluence of social and aesthetic pressures coalesced during the early to mid-19th-century, bringing the ballerina into prominence. Newer systematic pedagogies of training produced a strong and technically adept female dancer. At the same time, influences ranging from scientific and social determinations of distinct gender differences to the rise of sexually charged Romantic narratives channeled female and male dancers into deploying different dance performance vocabularies. Even as men and women moved together towards virtuosity, their roles and relationships on stage evolved to meet social needs and expectations as well the demands of both the libretto and, it would seem, the libido. Note 2
Considering the resemblance of the ballerina to a phallus necessitates a quick review of Freud Note 3 or Lacan Note 4, his intellectual godson. The most common notion of phallus is, of course, that of an object or image resembling the erect penis that, in turn, is generally associated with notions of fertility and power. Phallic images litter the historical and global landscape, with early versions dating back nearly thirty thousand years. In modern times, the phallus has been appropriated by various psychoanalytic, linguistic, and social theories to explain everything from psychosexual development to the power and structures of discourse. As such, it has come to stand for everything the male owns once he either submits to his father’s rule during the Oedipal process or begins to use language and symbols.
The erect, unambiguous, and unified form of the phallus/penis has become synonymous with power, certainty, individuation, and, ironically, language and rationality. Freud, sometimes, and Lacan, always, fervently asserted that the phallus is not a penis. Even biologically speaking, it is the undifferentiated tissue out of which either a penis or clitoris will develop. Taken in its most common usage, however, it is an image, a symbol or signifier of power and potency that is, for many, indisputably associated or conflated with the male penis. The historical conflation of penis and phallus certainly provides more access to power for the male; but, on the other hand, his penis pales in comparison to the perfection of the phallus and, additionally, the phallus also stands for all that the male loses when he straps it on—the pre-verbal, the imaginary, the womb-like. Nevertheless, if you don’t have one, you don’t have power in either the symbolic order or the real world.
A further implication for a woman of this male relationship to either penis or phallus is that if you don’t have one, you are one. Because woman does not have or possess a penis or any of the power that phallus confers, she is vulnerable to being conceived of or treated like one or the other. What this counterintuitive notion means (using just a surface reading of Freud and Lacan) is that a woman is one of the objects of desire ever sought by the man to increase his phallic potency and to compensate for his sense of lack—a lack that results from a fear of castration which originates in childhood, and from the realization that the actual penis can never measure up to the symbolic phallus. So before the ballerina ever sets foot on stage, she, as a desirable woman, functions as phallus within the male order of power. Once on stage, Foster argues, the conflation of penis and phallus, both as objects and representations of male power and desire, forces an even more complex reading of her person and persona.
We have already encountered Foster’s description of the “pliant…quivering” ballerina and, following her account further, we can see in our mind’s eye the ballerina “leaving one leg behind her, erect” and the “emollient rush of her body towards him and another stiffening” as the ballerina prepares to be lifted, rotated, or held straight up on pointe. If that is not enough to suggest the parallel between the ballerina’s behavior and that of the penis in arousal, Foster goes on to describe her as the “trembling, upright, erect” body that is handled and guided by the male.
As Simone de Beauvoir, among others, reminds us, the penis, which sometimes appears to have a life of its own, can nevertheless be seen and held by the man as somewhat detached, as an alter ego or another little body (using the word ‘little’ advisedly) distinct from himself that is a manageable site onto which he “can project the mystery of his body and its dangers,” distancing himself from these—but never completely Note 5. Thus, it reminds him of his lack or fear of lack; but, at the same time, can be manipulated for his erotic pleasure and can function as a locus of mastery and power. Although the male partner seems to be at the ballerina’s command, it is he who is in control of her: he moves her here and there, pulling her into the vertical, proudly displaying her to the attentive audience, and, as Foster reminds us, literally touches her all over her body to partner her effectively in ballet couplings and thrilling virtuosic lifts.
But the phallus demands more than relational or even metaphoric resemblance; it also demands particular functions and dynamics. To be a phallus, the ballerina must first be an object of male desire that, once it satisfies, will have served its purpose, namely, to amplify his masculine power. Foster points out that this objectifying of the 19th-century ballerina was accomplished through the rigorous physical training that produced the first generation of pyrotechnical ballerinas. She became a neutral instrument of sorts, groomed by objective and scientific pedagogies of training, her body “amassing a thingness” that not only served as a conduit for male choreography but also rendered it as a sort of blank slate that was more vulnerable to sexualization.
The identity of the flesh-and-blood ballerina, Foster implies, even those famous or infamous on the Continent, was subsumed into an entity that could become whatever the male, on or off stage, needed it to be. But if the phallus is an object of desire, theory holds that it is truly so only as it exists in the symbolic or imaginary. A penis alone is not enough as it ensures power only on the physical plane. Nothing real could ever be such an all-encompassing source of both loss and power. The phallus brings law to all social, cultural, and political arenas. So the real physicality of the ballerina accomplishes only half the phallic task; as with the penis/phallus conflation, she must be both the fleshly and symbolic object of desire. As Foster argues, the ballerina is effective only if she can exist, as well, as a desired but intangible entity, if she can exist primarily as an impalpable signifier of the male’s desire—her “body flames with the desire of so many eyes, but has no substance.” As a consequence, the female ballerina not only cedes power to the male danseur but also all claim to real bodiedness and to her own identity or desire.
She stands behind a table, center stage, with several props gathered to one side. She plops a toe-shoe-clad foot onto the table, which is a surprise as she is dressed in slacks and a chic top…she executes a slow port de bras towards her foot… Throughout this first part of the ‘lecture,’ her leg and pink satin shoe illustrate her words:
- …stomping when she is angry,
- …extending her leg to its full length or shrinking it back towards her body to illustrate a series of ‘he’/‘she’ statements
- …caressing her shoe/foot.
She slowly unzips the fly of her pants and, as she describes the ballerina as the phallus, which is all desire and no substance, she flops out the other empty and limp leg of the pink ballet tights she is wearing onto the table and strokes it. Note 6
Thus, the Romantic female ballet dancer, the prototype of the contemporary ballerina, had no power in and of herself despite her fame and the brilliance of her technique. Her danced roles were shaped by female stereotypes in the extreme, both of which were creations of male fantasies. She either dis-embodied the “elusive ethereality” of the willi and sylph or hyper-embodied the “ungovernable vitality” of the exotic, sexualized ‘other’. She operated within librettos in which the ballerina was fully at the disposal of the male as pursued mate or as female to pass along to another male. As Foster points out, within these librettos she danced out the male’s desire and loss and then disappeared before she could emerge as a fully developed character. “Once their function as the mark of that which was not male was jeopardized by the need to know them more intimately…the plot wiped them out.”
As the cult of the ballerina intensified, the popularity of the male danseur, already damaged by shifts in post-French Revolution class hierarchical structure, in systems of economy and in social mores, diminished with great rapidity. The female dancer, en travesti, assumed the role of male partner—legs exposed, no longer veiled in tulle, with the cut of fabric frequently emphasizing her thighs and her v-shaped genital area, conspicuously lacking a penis; waist cinched with a jacket that no longer exposed the shoulder but left little to the imagination about the shape of her very un-manlike bosom. Foster in this lecture comments, as have other writers, on the complicated dynamics of potential male and female homosexual and heterosexual erotics generated by this figure. By replacing the male dancer, the female travesty dancer also neatly solved a double problem. She alleviated male anxiety over the effeminacy suggested by a male ballet dancer while “retaining homoerotic connotations” that were “no threat to male superiority.” She also eliminated whatever competition the male danseur on stage might have represented to a male viewer, thus ensuring him sole access to the ballerina, as either female body or desired object.
Foster also, but all too briefly, analyzes both the ballerina and her travesty partner within the context of the burgeoning market economy of the 19th century. Foster draws on the work of Jean-Joseph Goux Note 7 who, in bringing Marxist and Freudian theories together, identifies money and the phallus as the ultimate and entwined signifiers of desire and pleasure. Foster, thus, situates the ballerina among the other goods on the capitalist market which now, as sought-after commodities rather than mere objects, had an exaggerated value and power—the ballerina even more so as she implied both wealth and the phallus. She “sexualized the commodity exchange.” And, says Foster, the travesty partner provided “the perfect wrapping for the ballerina as eroticized commodity…purvey[ing]…to the spectator” the ballerina who, given the economics and short life of even the most solid dance careers, was up for sale, figuratively or literally, to the highest bidder. As Foster observes, together these two female figures “danced out an erotics of acquisition.”
Foster brings all of this together by demonstrating that the “ballerina and her inverted double gesture toward” the function of the female within “four features of the patriarchal order.” She then goes on to delineate these functions of the ballerina and travesty partner within the male-dominated social system:
- As “desired mate within the heterosexual union,” she fulfilled the “procreative half of the social contract”;
- As “spectacularly charismatic fantasy” or phallus, she reinforced the “self-sufficient superiority of the male”;
- As commodity or “entity of exchange within both homosexual and heterosexual economy,” she ensured male potency and their right to govern;
- As “fetishized promise of sexual acquisition,” she justified “male capitalist acquisition within a society of consumption.”
Taken together, says Foster, these four functions effectively wiped out the ballerina’s identity, undermined her own will and power, and foreclosed on “the possibility of any expression of feminine desire whether heterosexual or homosexual.”
During all of this, Foster has lined up tiny plastic figurines of ballet dancers that have been hiding in her 1950s-era pink plastic ballet case. She has removed her pointe shoe (I cannot help but notice her well-developed instep; I definitely am not immune to the gaze that she is critiquing even as I am gazing), tied it around her waist with the shoe vertically placed between navel and nether region, almost but not quite a phallus at rest, or is it just waiting? Is she a phallus or the monstrous phallic woman to which she also refers? Oh, and she has rolled up that half of the tights that sheaths her leg and proceeds to shave with a plastic razor and shaving cream, both pink. When she is finished, she pinches and probes and palpates her calf.
But surely, over a century later, after first-, second-, and third-wave feminism, with even more pyrotechnical ballet vocabularies for women, and with the introduction of abstract, rock, punk and postmodern ballet choreographies, the situation has changed radically for the female ballet dancer? Although it would be all too easy to point to the still-sorry statistics on male/female percentages of company directors and choreographers, or the continuing problems with body image and eating disorders, Foster makes her point about the ongoing sexist legacy of ballet by examining the contemporary ballerina through the phallic lens as well.
Yes, she agrees, gone are the “blatant sexual inflection” and the complicated romantic narratives of the helpless, otherworldly, or hyper-exotic female. But the ballet stage and the art form itself are still perceived largely as ‘female,’ that is, non-verbal, ephemeral, and a lovely diversion rather than serious art; and, despite cultural shifts, the male danseur is still a suspect figure. Yes, she nods, the ballet is harder-edged, geometric, athletic; but ironically, those very qualities emphasize what it is that Foster takes to be the new marker of desire, the new phallus—the ballerina’s legs. Often “sheathed in a color different from the body,” taking on a life of their own they seem almost detached from the body with their “astonishing straightness and length” and a flexibility that permits “extreme separation from one another.” In ballet, of course, the ballerina’s leg must be taken together with the pointe shoe which “recapitulates the length of the leg” and ends in that “slightly bulbous tip” but which, as I am reminded by the writing of dance critic Edwin Denby, can also convey all the lethal power of a flashing or plunging knife. Note 8
The scene darkens and, while Foster advances upstage towards a large screen, a film clip of George Balanchine’s ballet Apollo begins to play–the section where the glorious god is auditioning the three muses to see who wins the role of his favorite. As I watch the ballet unfold, I realize that Foster’s earlier words about the ballerina hold true for the form as a whole…it is, despite all that we know about it, “magnetically magical.” It may, indeed, be on some level “an object of revulsion” and, I would add, sometimes oppressive or even downright silly under “feminist scrutiny,” but when choreographed and performed well it can (sigh) “nonetheless enchant us.”
Inviting us to gaze along with her, Foster uses a close reading of the visual to substantiate her claim that the ballerina’s legs can function both as penis and phallus substitute; that there is a synechdotal transfer, i.e., we move from the totality of the ballerina as object of desire to just her legs. The legs are “stiff but pliant,” they “bend to open out into straight,” they soften only to “re-lineify. …They celebrate vital physical vigor and, at the same time, the triumphant quest for rational form.” The “upward thrust” that marks the legs, the ballerina, and the form itself reminds us not merely of the physical and erectile nature of the penis but also, she muses, of an upwards gesturing into the airy and bodiless “realm of abstraction itself.”
The phallic ballerina is not just a product of social and cultural forces peculiar to the 19th century, and it is these 21st-century legs, argues Foster, that “belie” a continuing phallic identity situated midway between a penis and a fetish. The ballerina looks like and moves like a penis, “pumped up but supple,” “deflation on its way to re-inflation,” making sudden shifts of direction while “always erect.” She attracts like a fetish. She is an object onto which has been displaced all sorts of longing and desire. She is there and then, just as quickly, gone; she enacts desire but also the “inevitable loss,” the vanishing of the object of desire. Finally, she is flesh and mass transmuted into symbol.
Foster’s theoretical analysis, taken together with the very real directorial and economic power structures in contemporary ballet, seems to imply that today’s ballerina, as did her Romantic ancestors, can still potentially amplify male phallic power because she continues to “enact their scenarios and appear as their fantasy projections.” But in this same train of thought, Foster is already suggesting that a potential for empowerment still resides in the ballerina. She is, after all, NOT a penis but is, instead, a “woman whose leg movements symbolize those of a penis.” Neither can she be wholly reduced to a fetish, as her “charisma comes from no identifiable source” and her performing self, despite attempts to the contrary, is able to resist any effort to fully sever part of her from her “whole body and performance persona,” which remain intact.
Additionally, things have changed in the world of concert dance since the era of the Romantic ballet, and Foster notes that important among these changes was the emergence in the early 20th century of a new genre of dance, pioneered by “women soloists who choreographed and performed their own dances.” Working outside of ballet, these early moderns created their own scenarios and choreography, created their own movement forms and styles, worked with different models of weight, space, and bodiedness.
She stands behind the table, feet planted on the floor, her entire body strongly gesturing upwards and manifesting a flow of energy that circles through her, out, and back again, fully substantiating herself in our presence.
They were not immune to the male gaze but they did not exist solely as the conduit for his desires, did not disappear, and importantly, as she points out, did not die (although I recall that Martha Graham did kill herself off in many of her reworkings of mythic heroines). Foster claims that, instead, they “collaps[ed] the phallus into themselves.” They did not don the phallus as a tricky disguise, nor attempt to strap it on to play male; rather, they collapsed the male into the female, with neither surviving as it had been before. Note 9 This dancer became the phallic woman, not as Freud or Lacan would describe her—some fetish or poor, repressed oedipal substitute—but as a sort of never-before-seen monstrous figure who could not be contained or categorized, and who could completely “disrupt the sexual economy of viewing to which the audience had become accustomed.”
Foster ends with a series of “what if” questions.
Minature red velvet proscenium stage curtains reappear. She has used them during the lecture to frame her leg, her lecture notes, herself, and now the pointe shoe that sails through it, with all of the tiny plastic ballerina figurines on board.
“What if the ballerina could own up to her own monstrous identity?” Might such a strategy forge a new identity or, better still, countless “ambiguous, constantly changing” identities for the ballerina, as well as different movement lexicons and varied choreographic possibilities? Might she find ways to “elude the viewer’s grasping gaze” and “determine her own fate?” Might she restore to ballet its possibilities for “sensual and even sexual potency” and, at last, secure “a narrative space for her feminine desire?” The question, as Foster reminds us, is still open for a multiplicity of possible responses, both in theory and in motion.
The question-and-answer session following the performed lecture was both informal and informative, with a lively exchange between Foster and her audience. The questions might be loosely categorized as addressing the following aspects of Foster’s performed lecture:
- its content;
- her purpose or objectives in constructing and performing it;
- her process of putting it together.
A questioner focusing on the content of the lecture asked “Why the phallus?” The questioner voiced the concern that “putting on the phallus” might undermine but also reinforce its power, and queried whether we could address the gendered, female dancing body in a way that took the phallus completely out of the conversation, out of the circles of signification. Foster replied that she opted for multiple strategies: “As feminists we need all the moves we can possibly figure out…moves that dance the other way…leave the phallus to do its own thing AND moves that also assimilate the phallus in a way that gives it/reassigns new potency and meaning and different potential.”
A later comment reinforced the efficacy of multiple strategies. An audience member noted that Foster’s decision to analyze a particular choreographer’s work paralleled the questioner’s own research as well as that of other dance critics and scholars, and she found it interesting that there are all these different ways of ‘penetrating’ the issues…all telling different parts of the same story.
Another question regarding the content of the lecture addressed the problematic nature of global capitalism, i.e., that on the surface it promises diverse and expanded possibilities, but in practice we are “still in its thrall.” Foster’s reply succinctly addressed this both historically and contemporaneously: “Yes…ballet has been a kind of export from colonizer to colonized and has been taken up by the colonized as a way of entering the global marketplace, a way of moving up in class, in national status…and it continues to serve that purpose of sanitizing what from the colonizer’s point of view are ‘lower’ forms while at same time controlling the entrance onto the world stage of those forms.” She then used a contemporary South American dance company as an example of training and presenting work in such a way that some parameters are, in fact, disrupted but others, such as those in ballet, are maintained. This, she says, enables them to paint a cultural picture of “happy and sexy…with no attention paid to the economies of difference that created colonization in the first place,” thereby assuring Western audiences that what they are about to see is not dangerous.
Returning to the phallus, another audience member wondered whether Foster was suggesting that putting on the phallus or collapsing the phallus into oneself implied that performed femininity becomes a sort of masculinity, citing Lady Gaga whose persona might be read as masculinized transvestite. Foster declined that take on the feminine, acknowledging that although some schools of feminist thought might agree with the questioner, that’s not what she is trying to do. Among her concerns is a contemporary notion of gender as a sort of “accessory” that can be consciously chosen and put on or taken off at will. She believes that there is still a persistent but undetected “politics underlying” this semblance of gender freedom, particularly with reference to “what the female body is charged with doing.” Her responses here and elsewhere in the Q & A recall her reference earlier in the lecture to a more radical move, i.e., Haraway’s notion of the cyborg that collapses the masculine/feminine dualism.
In addressing questions about creating these performed lectures, Foster explained her motive and process. The motive was “to confront pomposity and fear of the body in academia.” She was guided by her strong belief that the “lecture had to make its argument and the dance had to make its argument, and then they could comment on each other, undermine each other, or mutually reinforce each other…moving along at the same time in dialogue.” In addressing her actual process she explains the order of things: “In a dance with text, I start with the dance. In a danced lecture I start with a lecture and think of all the things I could be doing…but I resist the temptation for movement to illustrate the words…then it would not be a relationship of equality”—an issue that will comprise the heart of her second lecture.
Foster informed us that this particular performed lecture also had an earlier life as, first, an essay, then a dance with text that was given a full theatrical production, and, finally, this performed lecture. But at the heart of both of its performed instantiations are her commitment to and her delight in matching each different context with “the need to create different expectations around how you disturb what someone was expecting to see…”
She ends with a smile.
- See “The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe” in Corporealities: Dancing Knowledge, Culture and Power, ed. Susan Foster (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1–26. Back to article
- For a fuller account of the social, cultural, and political forces that shaped the Romantic ballerina, see Foster’s Choreography & Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). Back to article
- Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), was an Austrian neurologist who is, of course, best know for developing the therapeutic process of psychoanalysis, and for introducing concepts such as ego, id, the unconscious, and libido into our everyday as well as our theoretical vocabularies. However, it is his theory of psychosexual development, which purportedly described our progression through five stages of sexuality towards healthy and ‘normal,’ heterosexual maturity, that is most relevant to this performed lecture. Briefly stated, stage three, the phallic stage, is characterized by the Oedipal Complex—the young boy’s recognition that his mother lacks a penis and that his father is a potent sexual competitor for his mother’s love, both of which suggest his vulnerability to castration. Fearing retributive castration at the hands of his father and aware of his inability to kill this authoritative figure whose fully developed genitals represent both real and symbolic power, he capitulates, represses his desire, and aligns with the Father. He thereby retains vicarious access to the Mother while demonstrating both his submission to and his sameness with the Father, setting himself up as eventual successor to power. The girl child, meanwhile, also desiring her mother but having no penis to lose or to offer as a seduction to her mother, develops penis envy. She, too, eventually aligns with the same-sex parent as neither she nor the Mother has a penis, or the power that it represents, thus needing the male, in a sense, to complete them. Their obvious ‘lack’ results in the sociocultural perception of women as inferior, passive, and submissive. An unresolved penis envy results in either a promiscuous or an over-assertive woman. The male, meanwhile, retains his penis, which is both a constant reminder of potential castration or lack but also of his generative power and self-contained autonomy. Despite Freud’s use of the phallus as a symbolic site of power, his focus on the penis as a locus of self-identity in the stages of psychosexual identity, and the continual references to the biological in his theories, fuel arguments that he frequently conflates the two.Back to article
- Jacques Lacan (1901–81) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist whose theories have had significant influence on multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences from the mid-20th-century onwards. Claiming always to be a Freudian, he renovated and revised many of Freud’s important concepts, including notions of the unconscious, perception, and identity formation, and extended his work even further into the nature and function of language. With reference to this performed lecture, his reworking of Freud’s notions of psychosocial development, particularly around the nature and function of the Oedipal Complex, are most relevant. Very briefly stated, Lacan rejected Freud’s continual return to the biological organ, the Father’s penis, as a site of power and threat. He instead shifted the child’s sexual desire for the Mother, the wish to kill the Father, and fear of castration, from a biologically based compulsion to the imaginary or symbolic. Lacan’s little boy tries, instead, to discern what the Mother wholly desires, which, as it turns out, is that which she does not and can never have—not the Father’s penis, but his phallus, a purely symbolic construct representing power, law, and language. The son tries to be this desired phallus, which comes to symbolize the site of power that can completely satisfy. The phallus, however, as the object of the Mother’s desire, also symbolizes both her desire and her lack. The Father, now as a symbol of social law rather than Freud’s physical threat, intervenes and thwarts the child’s attempt. If the child acquiesces to this symbolic castration, he breaks with the Mother who, lacking the phallus, represents only primordial being and bodiedness, and he can then enter into the domain of law and language. As Lacan explained, the child no longer desires to be the phallus but to have the phallus (Ecrits, 1966/2007). Lacan claimed that, as the phallus was a signifier rather than a sexual organ, both boys and girls were subject to these dynamics of desire, lack, and power. However, his use of the father/son Oedipal conflict as model and his association of the Father with phallus, intellection, power, and plenitude and the Mother with body and lack are cited by critics who argue against Lacan’s failure to undermine the conflation of penis with phallus, or to extricate his theory from the gendered dichotomy of masculine/feminine. Back to article
- Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) French intellectual, existentialist, and feminist philosopher, writer, novelist, political activist, and both colleague and partner to Jean-Paul Sartre, challenged the patriarchal status quo in The Second Sex (1949). Her analysis of the emergence during psychosexual development of a male notion of superiority is particularly pertinent to this performed lecture. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir argues that the anatomical structure of the penis allows the young boy to see it as part of and yet somewhat distinct from himself, as both himself and as other onto which he can project himself when fleeing his own existential crisis. It is a “graspable thing” that appears to activate, at times, on its own and spontaneously, while at other times, it is completely at the will of its owner. In all instances, its various functions become a “measure of his own worth.” It is like a plaything, a doll, a little person, Beauvoir argues, and, citing early psychoanalyst Alice Balint, “an alter ego usually craftier, more intelligent, and more clever than the individual.” The Second Sex (1949), trans. H.M.Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1989), 47–48, 278–86. Back to article
- Italicized sections present the author’s perception of and commentary on Foster’s movement, gesture, and choreography which, throughout the performed lecture, were interwoven with the delivery of the read text. Back to article
- Jean-Joseph Goux (1943– ) is a French intellectual residing in the U.S. who is more recently associated with the emerging practice of “new economic criticism,” which considers economic theory through the lenses of feminist, literary, and cultural theory. In his book on “symbolic economies,” Goux starts with Karl Marx’s observation that an object has a value based on its ‘actual’ utility as well as a value that the same object accrues when it becomes a desired commodity on the market, i.e., the difference, say, between a rock in your yard and a ‘pet rock’ for which you are willing to pay money. The “general equivalent” is a standardized commodity that can, simply put, give someone access to any and all of the other commodities on the shelf. Eventually, in most instances, money is considered the general equivalent to goods or services that are desirable, giving it a position of privilege. But Goux posits that other objects or actions or conceptual structures can also occupy this position of privilege. In Freud or Lacan, for example, the symbolic phallus is a general equivalent giving its owner access to the desirable assets of power, language, and law. Further, claims Goux, these primary systems in which general equivalents accede to a place of privilege, and come to both have and confer power, are “structurally homologous.” Thus the social, the psychological, and the economic—or the primacy of money, the figure of the Father, language, and the phallus in their respective arenas of operation—are inextricably linked in western societies. These general equivalents are also that against which all other elements or commodities in the system are measured and evaluated. As such, anything that is not the general equivalent is always secondary and subject to the authority of, say, money or the phallus. Goux suggests that this hierarchical structure genders the relationships and the dynamics of each system. A summary of this dynamic can be found in Goux’s introduction to Symbolic Economies (1973). Back to article
- See Denby’s 1945 review of George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco or his 1952 review of ballerina Alicia Markova in Giselle, in Dance Writings of Edwin Denby, eds. Robert Cornfield and William Mackay (New York: Knopf, 1986), 322, 379. Back to article
- Here and in the Q & A, Foster is, at least in part, referencing the work of Donna Haraway, American feminist philosopher of science and technology. Haraway wrote “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in 1985 (originally published in Socialist Review 80 (1985), 65–108, and republished in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1990, 149–82) as a rejection of the model of male/female hierarchical dualism as well as some feminist moves towards what she took to be essentializing, thus, yet again, fixing the ‘nature’ of the female. Haraway defined cyborgs as “theorized and fabricated hybrids” that fuse seemingly incompatible elements, thus blurring the boundaries of stubborn and resistant binaries and emerging as something entirely new—something we don’t how to describe or how to handle. Foster uses this notion of cyborg to explain her framing of the then newly crafted, early 20th-century modern dancer who collapses the phallus into herself. At that point the dancer is neither female body nor phallus but something cyborgian or “monstrous” in the best sense of the word, some thing never seen before, incapable of being trapped in a binary categorization and, importantly, some thing who could completely disrupt the ways that the audience consciously or less consciously views dance. I take this to mean that putting on the phallus initiates a semiotic chain reaction that challenges or even obliterates prior definitions and categorizations of the dancing, female body. We start over, exercising caution, aware of the political nature of all we do and all that is done to us, trying not to replicate old conceptual traps and oppressive or dissimulating performance or perceptual practices. Foster also uses a similar cyborgian notion to describe her bringing together of the seemingly incompatible acts of writing and dancing. Back to article