A Stranger’s View

Kathleen Pirrie Adamson Tanya Syed's Queerness
By Kathleen Pirrie Adams

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In That Obscure Object of Desire, Louis Bunuel builds the film's narrative around a male protagonist's erotic obsession with a young woman. Bunuel brain-teases the viewer (and ridicules the character) by casting two different actresses in the same role: a perfect remark on the perils of objectification. Or, perhaps, conversely, a perfect remark on the perils of an impartial desire.

There was a time, in Britain especially, when non-representational, materialist, reflexive filmmaking was considered the most thorough and uncompromised form of cultural politics, the most radical and aggressively anti-bourgeois undertaking. One of the most well-known proponents of this 'school,' Peter Gidal, renounced all images of women, under the assumption that such tactics would insure the avoidance of cinematic sexism and the political and moral complications of erotic objectification. Although the argument has its interesting points, and a certain annoyance-value, I always suspected that this anti-illusionist impulse was simply the other side of Bunuel's mirror-game.

The complications that surround the cinematic image as a site of desire, its ability to not only signal or locate but also to engage ambivalence, uncertainties and even, sometimes, what appear to be the ineffable aspects of life, sometimes evoke strange renunciations and polemics. If the association of watching with subordination and sadistic power goes unquestioned or unanalyzed/unexplored then it is possible to declare this visual register impossibly corrupt, irredeemable.1For an interesting discussion of Fredric Jameson's assertion that 'the visual is essentially pornographic' see Rey Chow's Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p28. But, if, alternatively, we start with the assumption that the order of the image is not only implicated in the existent power relations and representational regularities, but also essentially unable to avoid a fundamental excessiveness (an inability to become absolute, the whole picture,) our point of departure insures the possibility of change, exploration and invention. It might also release us from a fear of fantasy and misrecognition that paralyzes, not only desire, but also our capacity for ethical engagement.

When I first saw Tanya Mahboob Syed's Salamander, a riveting compendium of abstract images and story fragments from a nocturnal dream-city, it called to mind a part of my own history that I enjoy in an abstracted and nostalgic way and hooked me on a number of points of identification, some probably no more than self-serving projections. The incandescent night scenes and the restless mobility of the camera (further heightened by the rhythmically reiterated shots of traffic), the sense of waiting, the weightlessness of the film's convening eye, the cadence of the repetition of beautifully abstracted and skillfully composed images: here was a text of the city that perfectly described a pleasurable sense of wandering and waiting while simultaneously embracing the beauty of the detail.

The 'fixating' of the other works together with the disavowal of difference as the means for constructing marginality and insuring invisibility.

A camera that watches the Cyprus Kebab shop from across the road and then, later, glides across the hands, chests and faces of the card players inside, fixates on the video game and then slides under a truck's belly, disregarding conventional limits and laws of space and scale through which the reality of dramatic narrative is secured, provide the viewer with a sense of both unencumbered mobility and the voyeur's vantage point. It is this drama of motion and aesthetically rendered detail, rather than any psychological characterization, that form the core of the film's sense of subjectivity. This is, however, only one part of the Salamander story. The film is not a document of perpetual or total dislocation, nor is the film's restless soul without its moments of incarnation and attachment. Like Syed's two other films, Chameleon and Delilah, there is also a strong sense of fetish, one which intersects comfortably with the film's peregrinations and lends itself to the evocation of a sense of queerness which raises a number of questions about the kinds of identities and identifications that emerge interstitially.

In most of the original material describing the practices and sensibilities of the flaneur, (in particular, those of Baudelaire, Balzac and Walter Benjamin) it is his dispassionate participation in the urban spectacle that is emphasized. Vision and action become one; the flaneur's observations are his identifications. He is part of the poetry of the city which does not require the 'who' or 'why' of his being.2I use the masculine pronoun here because the phenomenon of 'flanerie' is traditionally seen as an exclusively male one. What is interesting about the figure of the flaneur is first the way it highlights spectatorship as a way of absorbing and integrating information, of varying degrees of abstraction or interest, from a multitude of sources; and second, by extension, the way this form of involvement suggests a potential to "transform the present into an expanded and ex-centric site of experience and empowerment."3Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 4.

Like Salamander, this relic of the 19th century provides a sense of the permeability of the border between public and private life, and the importance of visibility and surface. Unlike Syed's film, however, the flaneur represents a disintegrating subjectivity, one that nevertheless maintains its former certainties within its cynicism or what Baudelaire refered to as 'spleen.'

Although there is one moment when a young woman with collar-length hair, wearing a red shirt, is seen, in close-up, looking directly into the camera thereby suggesting her centrality in the film's sketchily drawn narrative of lesbian desire, the overall impression is that Salamander creates an ex-centric subject. Shifting between a player's relation to the video card game (which calls up only one card: the queen of spades), an outside observer's relation to the kebab shop's resident players, an idler's relation to the urban night world, a lover's relation to the (incidentally Asian?) tomboy truck driver and a fetishist's relation to her truck-wielding hands, the film represents subjectivity as belonging to both public and private, the unowned and the heart's own, or, to draw out the implications of the film's title, both land and water.

What this amphibious identity suggests is the possibility of exceeding an either/or logic. It also suggests the point of no return for the strict opposition of centre and margin. And even thought it does this by registering things as dispersed but overlapping, it doesn't degenerate into a world of everything, nothing...whatever. Particulars remain important.

The erotic association of the truck driver and the woman in red, as well as the sense of community that is evident in the comings and going at the restaurant offset the sense of disassociation that often comes with wandering. And so although the overall structure of the film acts against the reification of identity, it does not, on the other hand, embody the alienation of a subject in the process of historical eclipse. Through its peregrinations Salamander traces and cultivates (at least) two significant axis of connection which situate and contextualize it's part relations and it's transitory reflections: the erotic and the collective. In contemporary theory this sort of ex-centric eroticism is most often discussed in terms of the queer, and, in terms of the negotiation of collective or cultural identity, it is in the discourses of post-colonialism that a we find a similar tendency.

One of the central assertions of the work of queer theorists Michael Warner and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is that the homo runs throughout the culture: it is never entirely outside the heteronormative order but rather integral to its delineation and its centrality. The queer enterprise then, attempts to identify the trace of homosexual otherness within the dominant (ostensibly pure heterosexual) order while simultaneously increasing the visibility of homosexual practices, identities, rhetorics and styles within a general economy of desire. Similarly, (and similarly simply put,) post-colonial theory—as represented by the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha—makes the point that the Home Office is nothing without empire, that the 'fixating' of the other works together with the disavowal of difference as the means for constructing marginality and insuring invisibility.

In terms of its function as a document of post-colonialism then, it is interesting to note that Syed' film was shot in the vicinity of the site of one of London's most dismal attempts to introduce mall culture to the old world, to replace the decaying aura of empire with the charisma of the hyperreal of late capitalism. The Cyprus Kebab House, the credits reveal, is located at Elephant and Castle—a tube station name which itself speaks volumes— where an economically lethargic, giant, bright pink shopping centre languishes.

The erotic 'matter' in pre-gay liberation representations sustained a sense of queerness that embraced not just representational characters but also images, figures, obscured objects and odd spaces.

Indirect commentary, suggestion and abstract depiction are also the means for revealing queerness—not only in Salamander, but in Syed's other films as well. Although certain aspects of queer theory take such forms of expression into account, they are also likely, at times, to be seen as being at odds with queer political culture's hyper-investmentin 'outness' and certain aspects of its understanding of representation which seem to have remained intact even though the notion of positive role models has been superseded by neo-professional badboy and badgirl identities.

At certain times, in many places, the experience of being 'out' is or has been inoperative, impossible or irrelevant. While the social and political realities of homophobia should not be minimized, it should be remembered that certain survival techniques and eccentric investments of those living in the 'closet' have fed into richly excessive and obsessive—often subterranean—aesthetic orientations. Sometimes, as in the work of Kenneth Anger or Jack Smith, certain kinds of visual lushness and certain forms of performance (i.e. camp and vamping) also become signs of a queer non-alignment with the narratives, values and assumptions of heteronormativity, of its binary regulations and demands for fixity. It would be a mistake therefore to interpret either the inarticulateness or the atricalization of the sexual or erotic in experimental work as necessarily the effect of shame or self-renunciation. Shielded, filtered or left unsaid, the erotic 'matter' in pre-gay liberation representations sustained a sense of queerness that embraced not just representational characters but also images, figures, obscured objects and odd spaces.

Salamander, like Delilah and Chameleon, creates an erotic conversation with the viewer. One part of this conversation is realized through a general sensuality that saturates each of the films' carefully constructed imaginary spaces. Another part—the core of that conversation perhaps—circulates around images of women which speak of an obscure lesbian desire. Exploiting a number of existent, association-laden images such as long hair and leather jackets, a translucent empty dress and the sleeve of a white dress shirt, Syed asks the viewerto entertain these images in a way which is at once obsessive and casual. Each of these elements occur and recur in reference to the "external" codes of fetish and lesbian visibility (the received wisdoms of sexual subculture) as well as in relation to each other: that is, in terms of the overall structure of the film, the rhythm of the edits, the graphic values of the images.

For instance, the film Delilah begins with a slow pan up and then down the backlit jean-clad legs of a woman who, as the camera begins its second survey pulls her hands from between her legs as she swings her upper body forward and then back, hair streaming, light flashing. The first shot shows the figure as a kind of monument or monolith; the second reveals a kinetic aspect that, without erasing the first impression, provides a sense of agency. The vertical camera movements used throughout the film stage a number of repetitions of this gesture of disclosure, moving from arrest to action and back, encouraging both the transfixed gaze traditionally associated with voyeuristic appropriations of the fetish and a more active looking that is said to connect the viewer with his or her cinematic surrogate, the film's hero.

The terms of such an interpretation are supplied by feminist film theory's initial appropriations of psychoanalysis, terms which have since been widely circulated and elaborated and passionately upheld.4Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is, of course, the 'seminal' text of this approach. The either/or of gendered desire results in the figure ofthe female continually reduced to the status of a fetish: object always. This creates obvious problems for using such terms to discuss desire amongst women, in part because it suggests that only one of a lesbian duo retains a female (that is, passive or undesiring) psyche.

By beginning the films from somewhere on the sidelines of a story, from within a process of questioning which locates desire, not in a character who stands in for the subject, but in the whole scenario and in the relation between viewer and image, Syed's work dispenses with certain concerns about the eclipse of female desire within fetishization. By taking objecti-fication—which is always implicit in the fetishization of body parts, of garments or of roles—as a given, the films not only show us how to look fetishistically, they also show how movement tempers the attachment represented by the fetish, indicating how the enactment of the fetish relation safeguards it from becoming pure abstraction or final fixation.

In psychoanalytic orthodoxy female fetishism is an oxymoron. This contention hinges on the assumption that the (often inanimate) part objects that make up the standard repertoire of fetish—or any of its more eccentric derivations—are used by the boy child to disavow the threat of castration. It follows that the girl, having nothing to lose, will not form the kinds of attachments through which disavowal is enacted. Recent revisions, however, suggest that fetishization is a way of coming to terms with individuation from the mother, a compensation of sorts, a way of securing connection after the lost of this most complete and incomparable original connection.5The Modern Fetish by Douglas Crimp (Artforum, Vol #) is an excellent application of these revisions to contemporary art practice. From this vantage point the impossibility or low incidence of female fetishism suggests a damaged capacity for enacting desire.

In Delilah, a series of repeated images of a leather-jacketed shoulder and arm arcing upward, a woman leaning forward and sweeping her long dark hair across her face and toward the camera, and an arm, clad in a white shirt, moving across the film frame are assembled and sequenced in a way which suggests that each enacts a kind of private ritual and, at the same time, represents a dramatic tension between the various figures or parts. Most of the gestures are athletic in some way, many suggestive of aggression or expressive of power: spinning, shadow-boxing, running and jumping, slashing the air. This choreography of restless attachments does little to construct a referential space or elaborate any discernible story. Instead, it fashions a symbolic space in which the viewer can delve into the processes of the obsession, affinity, and aggression. Thus, the film brings fetish back to its ambivalent origins and the anxieties suggested by its title which refers to a story of seduction and abandonment in which a hair fetish coincides with the suggestion of transvestitism.

Without taking up the question of masquerade or gender travesty in any detail, it is worth noting that the film Chameleon also expresses this interest in the erotic qualities of long hair; this time along side its 'study' of a filmy and malleable, uninhabited dress. As the earliest of these three films, it can be thought of as initiating an ongoing exploration of the signs and codes of gendered identity: a concern that organizes not only much of the theoretical work on lesbian identity, but many of our everyday practices as well.

Throughout Syed's films the fetish images serve as a means for exploring identity and inciting exploration (an image from Chameleon of digging in the dirt comes to mind here). They are used in a way that draws attention to both the categories and the signs of identity and the movements around them. Each is a story of unarrested attachment: one that maintains a capacity for both mobility and attachment, that remains in the fray, in the places where things are never strictly one or the other—loving affinity or hostile rejection, butch or femme, story or abstraction. And this—as much as the allusions to girl-girl action—is where the queerness of this work inheres. If being queer is about 'setting closets on fire,' is it not in order to release their contents into the world? Is it not in order to learn how to embrace complicated understandings, experiences and identities, and about learning to live with and in this without having to practice indifference or resort to arresting the image's mediation of desire?


  1. For an interesting discussion of Fredric Jameson's assertion that 'the visual is essentially pornographic' see Rey Chow's Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p28.
  2. I use the masculine pronoun here because the phenomenon of 'flanerie' is traditionally seen as an exclusively male one.
  3. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 4.
  4. Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is, of course, the 'seminal' text of this approach.
  5. The Modern Fetish by Douglas Crimp (Artforum, Vol #) is an excellent application of these revisions to contemporary art practice.
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Kathleen Pirrie Adams
Kathleen Pirrie Adams is a Toronto based writer, editor, lecturer and filmmaker.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
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Bookhug Press
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Plantation Memories
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