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Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)Mechanical Reproduction

The author argues that lesbian bodies are becoming "broadcast," "techn-culture," and "mainstream" and explores the various significations of the lesbian body in modern discourse.

What signs mark the presence of a lesbian body?

Writing the lesbian body has become more common of late, making reading it all the more difficult. Less hidden, and so more cryptic than ever, the lesbian body increasingly appears as an actual variability set within the decors of everyday discourses. Signs of her presence appear on the cover of ELLE, for example, or in popular film and paperback detective mysteries as both the sleuth and %femme fatale%, in texts that range from Mary Wing's overt lesbian thriller She Came Too Late (1987) to the conflicted, symptomatic lesbian sub-plot in Bob Rafelson's Black Widow (1986). She appeared disguised as a vampire in Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), and masquerading as the latest American outlaw hero in Thelma and Louise (1991). On television, she's making her appearance on the evening soap L.A. Law, and she virtually made MTV via Madonna's Justify Your Love music video. When MTV censored the video, she appeared on ABC's Nightline instead, under the guise of "news." Elsewhere, in the latest lesbian mail-order video from Femme Fatale--a discursive site where the lesbian imaginary meets the sex industry--you can find her on all fours and dressed in leather or feathers, or leather and feathers, typically wearing a phallic silicone simulacrum. Recently, she's appeared in the trappings of San Francisco's lesbian bar culture passing as a collection of art photographs in Della Grace's Love Bites (1991). Meanwhile, PBS will be broadcasting in the spring of '92 a BBC production depicting the torrid affair between Violet Treyfusis and Vita Sackville-West into the living rooms of millions of devoted PBS viewers. And Susie Bright, author of Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World (1990), is making virtual sexual reality with her Virtual Sex World Reader to be published in Spring of 1992 by Cleis Press. Lesbian computer nerds are waiting for Bright to assist in the world's first lesbian virtual sex program, that is, the first virtual reality program designed by a lesbian. Same-sex sex between women is already a menu option on the popular on-line Virtual Valerie, along with a menu for a variety of sex toy applications. Let's face it; lesbian bodies in postmodernity are going broadcast, they're going techno-culture, and they're going mainstream.

In the process of mainstreaming, in which minoritarian and majority significations intermingle, the lesbian body of signs is exposed as an essentially dis-organ-ized body.^1^ The lesbian is as fantasmatic a construct as the woman. There are women, and there are lesbian bodies--each body crossed by multiplicitous signifying regimes and by different histories, different technologies of representation and reproduction, and different social experiences of being lesbian determined by ethnicity, class, gender identity and sexual practices. In other words, as lesbian bodies become more visible in mainstream culture, the differences amongst these bodies also become more apparent. There is a freedom and a loss inscribed in this current cultural state of being lesbian. On the one hand, lesbians are given greater exemption from a categorical call that would delimit them from the cultural spaces of the anytime, anywhere. On the other hand, the call of identity politics becomes increasingly problematized.

The problem of identity is always a problem of signification in regard to historically-specific social relations. Various attempts have been made to locate a lesbian identity, most inculcated in the grand nominalizing imperative bequeathed us by the Victorian taxonomies of "sexual" science. Should we define the lesbian by a specific sexual practice, or by the lack thereof? By a history of actual, or virtual, relations? Can she be identified once and for all by the presence of a public, broadcast kiss, by an act of self-proclamation, or by an act of community outing? Should we know her by the absence of the penis, or by the presence of a silicone simulacrum? Surely this material delimitation may go too far--for shouldn't we wonder whether or not a lesbian text, for all that, can be written across the body of a "man"? I can point to the case of male-to-female transsexuals who cathect toward women, but why should we limit the problematic to its most obvious, symptomatic manifestation?

The question of a lesbian body of signs always takes us back to the notion of identity in the body, of body as identity, a notion complicated in postmodernity by alterations in technologies of reproduction. Benjamin observed in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that mechanical reproduction destroyed the aura of the original work of art and, more importantly, provided a circuit to mass mentalities and thus an access code for fascism in the twentieth century.^2^ We should not forget Hitler's admission that the electronic reproduction of his voice over the radio allowed him to conquer Germany. For the sake of thinking the future of lesbian bodies in postmodernity, I want to recall Benjamin's critique of the state's techno-fetishization of technologies of reproduction in the context of lesbian bodies now--within the cultural regime of simulation. Baudrillard defines post-mechanical reproduction as the precession of simulacra, a post-World War II state of hyperreality in post-industrial, techno-culture reached when cultural reproduction refers first and foremost to the fact that there is no original (Simulations). The cultural reproduction of lesbian bodies in the age of (post)mechanical reproduction, that is, in the culture of simulacra, has more than ever destroyed any aura of an "original" lesbian identity, while exposing the cultural sites through which lesbianism is appropriated by the political economy of postmodernity.

We are at a moment of culture, for example, when phallic body prostheses are being mass produced by the merger of the sex industry with plastics technologies. On Our Backs is not the only photojournal to market artificial penises. Even Playgirl, marketed primarily to straight women, carries pages of advertisements for a huge assortment of phallic simulacra. We're left to wonder what these women might eventually think to do with a double-ended dildo. But there's no mistaking that the lesbian assimilation of the sex-toy industry is reterritorializing the culturally constructed aura of the phallic signifier. By appropriating the phallus/penis for themselves, lesbians have turned techno-culture's semiotic regime of simulation and the political economy of consumer culture back against the naturalization of male hegemony. It's of course ironic that in mass reproducing the penis itself, the illusion of a natural linkage between the cultural power organized under the sign of the phallus and the penis as biological organ is exposed as artificial. The reproduction of the penis as dildo exposes the male organ as signifier of the phallus, and not vice versa, that is, the dildo exposes the cultural organ of the phallus as a simulacrum. The dildo is an artificial penis, an appropriated phallus, and a material signifier of the imaginary ground for an historically manifest phallic regime of power. The effect on lesbian identities of this merger between the sex industry and plastics technologies is typical of the double-binds characteristic of lesbianism in postmodernity. Ironically, the validity of grounding phallic power and gendered identity in the biological sign of difference in the male body is set up for cultural reinvestigation and reinvestment once the penis itself is reproduced as signifier, that is, in the very process of mass-producing artificial penises as a marketable sign for the consumption of desiring subjects, including subjects desiring counter-hegemonic identities. At the same time, the commodification of the signifier--in this case the penis as signifier of the phallus--obscures the politico-economic reproduction of straight class relations by displacing lesbian desire from the unstable and uncertain register of the Real to the overly stable, imaginary register of the fetish-sign (i.e., the repetitive channeling of desire into the fixed circuit that runs from the penis as phallus to the phallus as penis in an endless loop). In other words, if working-class and middle-class urban lesbians and suburban dykes can't afford health care and don't yet have real national political representation, they can nonetheless buy a 10-inch "dinger" and a matching leather harness, and they can, with no guarantees, busy themselves at the task of appropriating for a lesbian identity the signs of masculine power. This situation provides both a possibility for self-reinvention and self-empowerment and an appropriation of lesbian identities--and their labor, their leisure, and their purchasing power--into the commodity logic of techno-culture.

At the same time, new reproductive technologies, including artificial insemination by donor (AID), in-vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogate motherhood, Lavage embryo transfer, and tissue farming as in cross-uterine egg transplants, are both reterritorializing and reifying biological relations to gendered social roles (Corea 1986, Overall 1989). The "body" is breaking up. I'm not talking just about the working body, the confessing body, the sexual body. These are old tropes, as Foucault showed us. In postmodernity, even the organs are separating from the body. That these organs are literal makes them no less organs of power. The womb is disjunct from the breast, for example, the vagina from the mouth that speaks, the ovaries and their production from the womb, etc., etc.. The lesbian body's relation to these reified technologies is entirely paradigmatic of the contradictions of lesbian subject positions in postmodernity. While new reproductive technologies generally reinforce a repressive straight economy of maternal production, body management and class-privileged division of labor, the technology of cross-uterine egg transplants finally allows one lesbian to bear another's child, a fact which to date has gone entirely unmentioned by either the medical community or the media.^3^

The point is that the bodies that are the supposed ground of identity in essentialist arguments--arguments that assert we are who we are because of our bodies--are both internally fragmented in response to the intrusions of bio-technologies and advanced surgical techniques, including transsexual procedures, and externally plied by a variety of technologically determined semiotic registers, such as the sex-toy industry and broadcast representation. As a result, lesbian identities are generating a familiar unfamiliarity of terms which San Francisco's lesbian sexpert, Susie Bright, has been busily mainstreaming on the _Phil Donahue Show_--terms as provocative as female penetration, female masculinity, S/M lipstick dykes, and lesbian phallic mothers.

While all social bodies are plied by multiple regimes of signs, as Deleuze and Guattari as well as Foucault have repeatedly shown, lesbian bodies in the age of (post)mechanical reproduction are particularly paradigmatic of a radical semiotic multiplicity. This situation is hardly surprising. That lesbians are not women because women are defined by their straight class relations--a statement Monique Wittig has popularized--doesn't mean we know exactly what a lesbian is. The "lesbian," especially the lesbian who resists or slips the always potential sedimentarity in that term, marks a default of identity both twice-removed and exponentially factored. Lesbians in postmodernity are subjects-in-the-making whose body of signs and bodies as sign are up for reappropriation and revision, answering as they do the party line of technology and identity.

This double call of technology and identity complicates our understanding of lesbian bodies as minority bodies--a definition that locates lesbians within the discourse of identity by their differences from the majority bodies of the hetero woman and man. We might want to envision lesbians as runaway slaves with no other side of the Mississippi in sight, perpetual and permanent fugitives, as Wittig argues. But it's undeniable that lesbians are also, at the same time and sometimes in the same bodies, lesbians bearing arms, lesbians bearing children, lesbians becoming fashion, becoming commodity subjects, becoming Hollywood, becoming the sex industry, or becoming cyborg human-machinic assemblages. And from the alternative point of view, we are also bearing witness to the military becoming lesbian, the mother becoming lesbian, straight women becoming lesbian, fashion and Hollywood and the sex industry becoming lesbian, middle-class women, corporate America, and techno-culture becoming lesbian, etc.. That is, the lesbian body of signs, like all minority bodies, is always becoming majority, in a multiplicity of ways. But at the same time, in a multitude of domains across the general cultural field, majority bodies are busy becoming lesbian.

In the lesbian cultural landscape of postmodernity, essentialist arguments about feminine identity are more defunct than ever, while Wittig's lesbian materialist analysis of straight culture is more urgent than ever and more problematic. Setting lesbian identity first within the context of postmodern culture suggests two clarifications to Wittig. First, any materialist analysis of a lesbian revolutionary position in relation to straight women as a class has to begin with one irreducible conundrum of postmodernity in regard to lesbian identities. The cultural space for popular lesbian identities to exist--economic freedom from dependence on a man--is a historical outcome of late industrial capitalism's commodity logic in its total war phase in the first half of the twentieth century. Women, particularly single women, comprised a large proportion of the substitute bodies required by the state to maintain performativity criteria established before each world war or to meet the accelerated industrial needs of total war and reconstruction. This is the undeniable history of women's entry into the workforce and the professions, including the academy, and of their assimilation into the commodity marketplace beyond the domestic sphere--all of which set up the possibility of the '70s women's movement.^4^ This is also the history of the cultural production of lesbian bodies as we know them today.

In other words, and this is my second clarification to Wittig, lesbians are becoming nomad runaways and becoming state at the same time. And it's at the various sites where these interminglings of bodies take place that the cultural contradictions will be most apparent and therefore the political stakes greatest. These sites include any becoming majority of the minoritarian as well as the becoming minor of majority regimes of signs, and in each of these sites the political stakes will not be equivalent. This political complication results from the epistemological challenge to materialist analysis presented by the failure of poststructural linguistics to adequately map cultural dialects except as unstable and constant sites of transformation. These kinds of subcultural variance and continuous historical transformation have to be factored in any lesbian materialist modelling system if we are to continue the work Wittig has launched not only toward a lesbian materialist critique of straight class relations, but toward a materialist critique of lesbianism itself.

Lesbian bodies are not essentially counterhegemonic sites of culture as we might like to theorize. The lesbian may not be a woman, as Wittig argues, yet she is not entirely exterior to straight culture. Each lesbian has a faciality touching on some aspect of a majority signifying regime of postmodernity, whether that be masculinity or femininity, motherhood, the sex industry, the commodification of selves, reproductive technologies, or the military under global capitalism. Lesbians are inside and outside, minority and majority, at the same time.

Indeed, the potential power of lesbian identity politics in the current historical moment comes from its situatedness between feminist, gay male, and civil rights activism. Lesbian bodies are a current site of contention in the women's movement, particularly over the issue of S/M practices and porn, because of their greater affinities with gay males than with straight women. In many ways, the activist politics of ACT-UP in the face of AIDS discrimination represents for lesbians a better strategy of identity politics than the consciousness-raising discourses traditionally authorized by NOW. But in the face of direct losses on the ground gained in the '70s and '80s on women's issues--right to abortions and birth-control information, right to protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, right to have recourse to a just law in the case of rape--the Queer Nation/feminism alliance will be crucial to the future of lesbian cultural politics. In addition, most of the struggle of making feminist-lesbians into feminist-lesbians-of-color lies ahead of us.

Lesbian identities have always presented a challenge to essentialist notions of feminine identity, and never more so than when lesbian bodies are set in the historical context of postmodernity. The cultural period in late-industrial and post-industrial society during World War II and in the fifty years since is their historical heyday. Lesbian bodies came of age under the specter of a Holocaust that could reach finality only by the injection into the global symbolic of a nuclear sublime so horrific as to arrest all prior signification. Their agencies must be agencies that work within the reduced political rights of a worldwide civilian population subjected to a new military regime of global security. They are proffered a variety of prostheses and self-imaging technologies, in fact, a variety of bodies, as long as they meet the performativity criterion of commodity logic. And if they are runaways, they're running from the very political economy that produced their possibility. This is their double bind. For all these reasons, the immediate challenge facing lesbian bodies in postmodernity is how to make a dis-organ-ized body of signs and identities work for a progressive, or even a radical, politics.

Notes

^1^ In this case, the majority regimes of masculinity or normative femininity, fashion, porn, mainstream cinema, tv soaps, on-line sex, etc..

^2^ According to Ong, mechanical production began with the reification of the oral world/word into print.

^3^ The legal implications of this scenario should be tested immediately in regard to the law recognizing both women as legal parents, particularly in the case of artificial insemination by anonymous donor from a sperm bank.

^4^ The '70s women's movement was also an offshoot of the '60s African-American civil rights movement, which itself shared some of the same problematic ties to the war machine, particularly through the G.I. Bill.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, Philip Beitchman. NY: Autonomedia, 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. NY: Schocken Books, 1978.

Corea, Gena. The Mother Machine: Reproductive Technology from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Wombs. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1987.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge, 1991.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. NY: Methuen, 1982.

Overall, Christine, ed. The Future of Human Reproduction. Ontario: The Women's Press, 1989.

Virilio, Paul. Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles. NY: Autonomedia, 1990.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.


Cathy Griggers
Literary and Cultural Theory
Carnegie Mellon University

Postmodern Culture v.2 n.3 (May, 1992)

Copyright (c) 1992 by Cathy Griggers, all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author and advance notification of the editors.

Contributors : Cathy Griggers
Last modified 2005-02-15 10:57 AM

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