Celluloid Closet, Rob Epstein’s and Jeffry Fridman’s documentary (inspired by Vito Russo’s book) presents a “queer”, thoughtful and moving reflections on the history of homosexuality in Hollywood production.
In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at – or something to pitty – or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, the great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people,… and gay people what to think about themselves.
(Passage is excerpt of narration from The Celluloid Closet )
The present obsession with images, symbols and ‘representation’ can be understood as one that follows the logic of such theoretical trajectories where it is suggested that the borders and links between reality and its representation are blurred, or even more radically – erased. It seems that we live in a world that is always already a re-presentation, we ourselves are representation, and of course, our (sexual) identites are always already a representation. To put it differently, it looks like that the only thing that is more "real" than "reality" - is precisely its own representation. Movies, TV and computer screens are therefore the “battle field” of the ‘semiotic war’- a war between different representations, symbols, images, etc. Human body and its sexuality never has been so much used and manipulated in the sphere of mass media and popular culture. The cloudiness od sexual difference became in-different to itself and transformed by the image of transexual body; the mistery of singular physis has been turneded into spectacle that is aiming to construct a separate sphere – a world of images and representation – that has practically no contact with it. All that is directly lived is thus transformed into representation; our body, our sex, our sexuality, etc. Spectacle is not what simply equals with the sphere of images or with what we call the media today. Moreover, spectacle represents nothing less then the new type of social bond between people mediated through images.
In numerous recent mainstream movies, images of gay and lesbian characters became an unavoidable ‘nice tiny detail’ in the web of mass media and popular culture. Why is it so? Besides (possible) visual and representational political correctness, which is one of demands of modern democracies, there are also stronger reasons. It is the inclusion of the bare life, human body and sexuality into the mechanisms of sovereign power, that represents those inclusions of gay and lesbian characters. One of the most striking characteristics of the transformation of the classical understanding of politics into the modern understanding of politics as biopolitics was precisely the inclusion of sex and sexualities into the State mechanism and the logic of power. As a result – the classical distinction between biological body and political body was transformed into the zone of indistinction. Or, to put it differently, every body became always already a political body, thus, every sexuality became cought in the deployment of power.
To bring the proceedings points together I will argue that movies and their production, as being one of the most powerful means of the production of popular culture and its values, provide a very important point of entry into understanding the concept of political body, and into disccusion of the representation of the body as being always already a sexed body; in this context, representation of gays and lesbians, transexuals, bisexuals, transgenders, genderbenders, etc. became one of the crucial points in the representation of (political) body as such, since homophobia - which is the dominant ideological background of representing gay ans lesbian images –is one of the aspects of the way power is organized and deployed throughout society.
Images, that is to say, spectacle of gay and lesbian bodies also provides a rather illustrative material for queer theory, because the proliferation and dissemination of sexual identities are of fundamental importance in understanding the geneaology of the term queer, since it refers to whole range of sexual identities, and what is even more important – for it refers to the space between these identities, to the kind of “in-betweens” of any identity, not necessarily only sexual one.
In 1920s process of capitalist commodification began to invest in human body and sexuality. As Agamben shows in his book Coming Community “The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for the millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated”.
Before proceeding further, perhaps it would clarify matters to refer to some of the seminal texts and authors from feminist film theory, without going into their arguments in details. Janet Thumim, Celluloid Sisters: Women and Popular Cinema Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image Essays on Representation and Sexuality, Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn‘t, Laura Mulvey, and others...
What I would try to show is that the Celluloid Closet is not related to the issue of queerness and queer theory only because it deals with sexual identities. This movie re/moves theory and queers it since it goes beyond mere documenting of specific sexual identities, and shows fragementarity of representation, which poses queer itself at the place of certainty in representing things as either normal or abnormal, right or wrong, etc., - or to push the thought further – which makes representation itself queering but also being queered. But if we are more radical we could claim that queering and being queered of the representation means queering and being queered of the theory itself.
Pushing for transgression of normativity, queer theory, whether being understood as transvestite performance or as an academic deconstruction, offered what is definitely a strategy of resistance towards the identity politics. The idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to the “essence”, but instead to the performance is one of the key ideas in queer theory.
In post-structuralist manner of interpreting the concept of identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions, one of the most prominent queer thinker, David Helperin, tried to define what is “queer”:
“Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.
How is one supposed to “theorize” “identity without essence” and what could be the politics of such a “queer” being whose community is not mediated by any condition of belonging - for example, being “man”, being “women”, being Communist, being European, even being queer?
One the one hand, identities without essence, “queer beings” cannot form a society because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition; on the other hand, what the State and power structures cannot tolerate is precisely the possibility of community without affirming any recognizable identity, or queer co-belonging without any representable site of belonging. The State, as Alain Badiou has shown is not founded on a social bond, of which it would be the expression, but rather on the dissolution, the unbinding it prohibits. What is important for the State is never a singular being as such, but only its inclusion in some identity, any identity, even the queer one. This is the reason why, if the concept of queerness and being queer wants to keep its critical or even subversive potential, [It] has to remain an identity under construction, a site of permanent becoming, that which is never fully appropriated and/or owned, but always already redeployed, queered from a prior usage as well as a passionate search for alternatives and alternative ways of thinking and doing.
It is this impossibility of representation of what is queer that rejects all identities and every condition of belonging, that is, as Agamben claims, principal enemy of the State, and “wherever these singularities, these identities without essence demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.”
Therefore deconstructing the representations of what has hitherto been ineffable, i.e. queer "identity", is pivotal to the strategies of subverting the political mainstream.