Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)
Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.
This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).
Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.
As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).
The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.
Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.
All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.
Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?
In the history of postmodernism theory, Fredric Jameson might be a more influential figure than both Hal Foster and Craig Owens – unless you look at it from a strictly art historical perspective: art critics Foster and Owens are concerned first and foremost with contemporary visual art, whereas Jameson’s objects are drawn from various artistic genres or media such as literature, architecture, music, and film. Jameson’s famous essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, with which this blogpost is concerned, was first published in the New Left Review in 1984 and later expanded into a book of the same title.
A major difference between Jameson’s “Postmodernism” and the texts by Foster and Owens is that for Jameson, postmodernism is an era, not a “style or movement among others”. On the other hand, Jameson is “very far from feeling that all cultural production today is ‘postmodern'”. Instead, postmodernism is the current “cultural dominant”, the “new systemic cultural norm”.
Jameson identifies four “constitutive features of the postmodern”:
- “a new depthlessness”,
- “a consequent weakening of historicity”,
- “a whole new type of emotional ground tone”, and
- “the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology”.
Some other interesting aspects are discussed in the text, but let’s focus on these four constitutive features. Can we find them in comics? Recently there was a thread on the comix-scholars mailing list about comics “beyond postmodernism”, and some list members wondered whether Joe Sacco’s comics might be considered “as aiming to move beyond postmodernism”. How much of Jameson’s postmodernism is (still) there e.g. in Sacco’s Palestine?
- depthlessness: Jameson understands this term both metaphorical and literal, as an obfuscation of volume: “a surface which seems to be unsupported by any volume, or whose putative volume […] is ocularly quite undecidable”, he says about a postmodern building.
Sacco however, virtuoso draughtsman that he is, effortlessly switches from depthless, abstract black or white backgrounds to vistas that extend far into the landscape. He also draws his objects from a vast variety of perspectives, so that their depth becomes palpable.
- weakening of historicity: Jameson says about the historical novel, it “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).”
Palestine is the opposite of that: by conveying what he saw and heard in Palestine, Sacco challenges stereotypes about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the last chapter, in the section ‘Through Other Eyes’, an Israeli asks Sacco, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”, to which Sacco replies in a caption with “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most all my life”.
Some references to historical characters and events are made in Palestine, but never in an offhand way that would require much previous knowledge from the reader.
- new type of emotional ground tone: “This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling,” says Jameson, “but rather that such feelings […] are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria” – “the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.”
Palestine isn’t devoid of feelings either – particularly Sacco’s own are clearly conveyed in his first-person narrative – but euphoria is hardly the emotional ground tone here. A more prevalent emotion is fear; e.g. in chapter five, section ‘Ramallah’: “shaking like a leaf… […] Okay, I’ve had it… I want out before the soldiers check this side of the street… Like a leaf, I tell you, the whole fucking time…”
- new technology: by that Jameson means “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction, and include movie cameras, video, tape recorders, the whole technology of the production and reproduction of the simulacrum.”
This is the only feature that does apply to Palestine without reserve: it is basically a comic about making a comic. From the beginning, Sacco makes clear that the purpose of his journey to Palestine and everything he does there is to gather material for a comic. Frequently, the tools and processes of reproduction are prominently featured in the comic: Sacco’s camera, his friend Saburo’s camera, pen and notebook, the interpreted interviews with Palestinians.
All in all, only one of Jameson’s four “constitutive features of the postmodern” holds true for Palestine, so is it a comic “beyond postmodernism”? Then again, the unsystematic way in which these features are discussed in “Postmodernism” makes them hard to operationalise. The multitude of examples doesn’t help when they only serve to illustrate one single aspect. Where is the technology in Bob Perelman’s poem China? What is the emotional ground tone of E. L. Doctorow’s historical novels? In what way is Brian De Palma’s film Blow Out depthless? Ultimately, whether a contemporary work of art fulfils the four criteria or not doesn’t matter anyway: as I have mentioned earlier, Jameson allows for cultural objects made in the postmodern era that are not postmodern. Therefore, an un-postmodern object from the postmodern era wouldn’t prove Jameson wrong. How can Jameson’s “periodizing hypothesis” of postmodernism be considered falsifiable at all then?
After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.
Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)
Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:
- refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
- denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
- reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
- demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)
However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.
30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?
Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.
There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.
Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.
If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.
Although some people have already proclaimed the death of postmodernism, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the term is quite ambiguous. Therefore it makes sense to approach it by reading several texts which reflect different opinions, for instance “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens alongside “Postmodernism: A Preface” by Hal Foster (the art historian, not the comic artist). Both were published in the early 1980s already – Owens’s in the journal October in 1980, Foster’s as an introduction to a book he edited in 1983 (The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture), and this timeliness might have contributed to the differences between their respective understanding of postmodernism.
Owens lists six artistic strategies which distinguish postmodernist from modernist art: appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ some of them, but not all six at the same time. In this sense, many comics can be identified as “postmodernist”.
Take, for instance, Shotaro Ishinomori’s マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (translated as Japan Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics in the English edition), first published in 1986. Sometimes referred to as a non-fictional comic, it actually tells a fictional story of two young managers in a Japanese company, while at the same time introducing the reader to economic facts and theories. However, it’s not the content that makes this comic a postmodernist comic, even though it would have lent itself to a discursive treatment of e.g. economic policy. It is a postmodernist comic in Owens’s sense because it is a hybridised medium (at least in the German edition from 1989 which I’m referring to in the following): apart from the comic panels, Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon consists of three repetitive pictureless elements. There are hand-lettered notes of usually about 3 to 5 lines length at the bottom of approximately every other page, which provide economic background information that may or may not be connected to the events on the same page. Then there are longer, typeset texts on their own pages (pp. 27, 41, 105, 167, 223, 257) in the same vein, and quotations from economists on the chapter title pages (pp. 9, 71, 125, 179, 233, 285). This clash of regular comic layouts and non-comic elements shows that hybridisation is at work here, one of Owens’s six postmodernist strategies. (A similar example of this strategy would be the use of text-only pages in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, of course.)
While Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon and many other comics could be called postmodernist in Owens’s sense, it would be more difficult for them to qualify as postmodernist in Foster’s sense. More precisely, in “Postmodernism: A Preface”, Foster distinguishes two kinds of postmodernism: a “postmodernism of reaction”, and a “postmodernism of resistance”. The difference between the two is that the resistant postmodernism “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” For the resistant postmodernism, which Foster clearly champions, the trait which Owens calls discursivity is essential.
Although the cultural codes and social and political affiliations of the business world are extensively featured in Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon, they are never put into question. Economic doctrines are presented as irrevocable truth. One of the protagonists, the young idealistic manager, has his employees’ welfare on his mind and tries to change things for the better, but he does so from within the business system, by playing along with its rules. Neither are paternalistic and sexist tendencies criticised. Because of this lack of discursivity, I doubt that Foster would regard Ishinomori’s comic as (resistant) postmodernist.
The difference between Owens’s and Foster’s definition of postmodernism is symptomatic for the twofold meaning that the term “postmodern” has taken on. On the one hand, it denotes the era after modernity – postmodernity. All art produced in that era is by definition postmodern. On the other hand, it denotes a certain style that some artists choose to employ and others don’t. Around 1980, in a period of transition, this distinction is still blurry, so I wouldn’t equate Owens’s postmodernism with the former meaning and Foster’s with the latter. Yet, both Owens’s postmodernism and the concept of postmodernity as an era are broader definitions than their counterparts – more works of art fit into them than into Foster’s definition and into the concept of postmodernism as a movement.
All of these notions of postmodernism are valid. They unfold their usefulness in different contexts: broader definitions stress the similarities of contemporaneous works, while narrower definitions stress the differences. When we’re talking about “postmodern” art, artists, or comics, we just need make clear which definition we’re referring to.
For a different take on postmodernism and comics, see Noah Berlatsky’s essay on Fredric Jameson at The Hooded Utilitarian.