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Chuck Palaniuk and the Violence of Beauty

The apotropaic charm of the pin-up

As part of the appendix to his Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard includes a short piece entitled “May West's Reduction Mammoplasty.” In it he initially describes the “surgical challenge the reduction in size of Mae West's breasts presented,” given that she wanted her nipples to be retained as “oral mounts during sexual intercourse” (1993; 181). He then continues with a minute description of the procedure of the operation as well as the adjustments that proved to be necessary after several months of healing. Yet the piece ends on a different note, meant as a counter-point to the clinical representation of beauty surgery. “Still fondly remembered,” Ballard explains, “Mae West was one of Hollywood's most effective safety valves, blowing a loud raspberry whenever the pressures of film industry self-inflation grew too great. No one in her admiring audience was ever in any doubt about the true purpose of that splendid body. Yet despite her earthiness, she retained a special magic of her own, and ended her days as a pop icon who might have been created by Andy Warhol”(1993; 184)

Ballard then continues by deftly moving the issue of beauty surgery to the level of cultural criticism. “Were her breasts too large?” he asks rhetorically, only to answer, “No, as far as one can tell, but they loomed across the horizons of popular consciousness along with those of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.” The breasts of Mae West, one might thus surmise, came to function along the lines of everyday myths, of which Roland Barthes argued that they depoliticize by depleting what they represent of their historical specificity, endowing a certain person, object or event instead with a secondary universal, essential meaning. Following this argument, one might further surmise that the duplicity of signification at stake in the reshaping of Mae West's breasts has to do with the fact that, in her case, the threat of an excessively present feminine body came to be culturally exchanged as an aesthetically stylized image of feminine seduction, so as to deflect the threat it actually contained. For, framing what needs to be staved off into a safe picture, pin-ups and glamour photography in general inoculate us; allow us to enjoy, even while protecting us from the challenge of intersubjectivity quasexual difference they propose. Ballard, however, is concerned with critiquing the deployment of pin-up images of West, Monroe or Mansfield in an even more specific manner, by treating them as tropes for our cultural obsession with fetishizing the feminine body. “Beyond our physical touch, the breasts of these screen actresses incite our imaginations to explore and reshape them,” he concludes. “The bodies of these extraordinary women form a kit of spare parts, a set of mental mannequins that resemble Bellmer's obscene dolls. As they tease us, so we begin to dismantle them, removing sections of a smile, a leg stance, an enticing cleavage. The parts are interchangeable, like the operations we imagine performing on these untouchable women, as endlessly variable as the colours silkscreened on to the faces of Warhol's Liz and Marilyn” (1993; 184)

I begin with this passage from Ballard not because Mae West, the actress, will be the focus of my discussion. Rather I am interested in a rhetorical contradiction that comes to the fore as we look at images of this feminine pop icon who came to stand in for excessive pleasure by advocating that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” For my intuition is to locate a two-fold response to this feminine figure of corporeal plenitude, precisely by holding onto the fact that Mae West puts herself on display to feed a duplicitous cultural voyeurism. The photographs we know of her, show her posing as spider woman, who vanquishes men or demands of men to succumb to her charms, but also as a glamour queen, whom all men seek to satisfy by lighting her fire. At the same time in all the photographs we have of her, this icon of feminine sexuality seems to be enjoying her own exhibitionist self-display. Thus even while, according to Ballard, we are teased into fragmenting and reshaping her body to fit our fantasies, we do so in response to the fact that Mae West has already shaped herself along the line of parodic resignification Judith Butler has discussed in relation to the cultural practice of drag; and that she enjoys this self-transformation to boot. It is, then, precisely the murky interface between bodily subjection to modern discourses on beauty and an appropriation of this masquerade, which is to say the murky interface between corporeal self-alienation and the exploration of feminine enjoyment I want to explore.

In a first step I will recall the rhetorics deployed by the traditional pin-up and suggest that we see the duplicitous effects these representations of erotically charged images of perfected beauty can have on spectators - their contradictory affective charge so to speak - as the problem to which women ‘performance’ artists in the 80s and 90s responded by either embracing or deconstructing this mythic signifier; which is to say by oscillating between identification and aggressive rejection. In a second step I will then turn to Chuck Palaniuk's novelInvisible Monsters, with its depiction of an escape route from the impasse between the attention bodily beauty affords and the depletion of the self it entails.

The trouble with the cultural practice of ‘pin-ups’ begins with the fact that in this designation, representation and reference are conflated, given that the term ‘pin-up’ refers both to a photograph of a sexually attractive woman or movie star, designed to be pinned on the wall, as well as to those woman considered a suitable model for this type of sexually alluring image. At the same time the rhetoric of reification employed is complex. The feminine body is turned into a commodity, namely an image that sells, even while her corporeal presence is contained - or one might say mythologized - because it is subjected to a clearly fixed catalogue of poses and gestures. If one looks at the way Bernhard of Hollywood, for example, came to cast an actress like Jayne Mansfield, so that her body would fit the visual iconography of the pin-up, one immediately notices the gesture of contortion. For classic pin-ups are images that bespeak their own artificiality, and they do so by presenting an anagrammatic body. Body parts function as signifiers - the head tilted backwards along with the arched back signify availability to a spectator; the hands resting on parts of the body to draw attention to hips or legs, or used as support to sustain the pose signify accommodation to the codes of beauty as pose; the breasts pushed forward pacify by drawing the gaze away from the female sex as do the legs, which stretched or bent are equally powerful in holding our attention. Similarly the opened mouth, the heightened lips, the fixed gaze all serve to support the transformation of the body into a commodity. Yet the object of the proposed exchange is complex. While pin-ups in the 30s, mainly found in men's magazines, were often perceived as lewd, lascivious and obscene, they had, by the 40s, come to be viewed as the exact opposite. Owing to their popularity amongst GIs fighting WWII, they were now perceived as ‘morale builders,’ both fortifying and shielding GIs from some of the horrors of war. Fully in line with the rhetoric of fetishism Freud proposes, the pin-up welded feminine beauty and glamour to masculine strength and courage in battle. As Susan Bernhard (2002) writes in her preface to an edition of her father's glamour photography, Bruno Bernhard received letters from lonely GIs, writing about their personal dreams and longing for a pin-up photo of a ‘girl back home,’ who would give them a reason to keep fighting. Far from supporting an obscene desire, they now had a calming effect that served to libidinize the war effort, getting men to expend their energies for the nation rather than expend themselves in individualistic pleasure. Owing to this taming, pin-ups in the 50s became ubiquitous. No longer relegated to the cultural margins of men's magazines, they re-emerged as the infamous Playboy ‘centerfolds’, where each ‘bunny’ had a life-story and her special month of her own, even as they also appeared on billboards, calendars as well as on the cover of women's magazines. If a few years earlier they had helped sell a war, they now served as a diversion from an atomic age, while also helping to advertise everything from socks, to sport cars, to groceries to girdles. Once again at stake was the secondary, ‘mythic’ meaning attached to an alluring feminine body - consumer optimism, economic progress, which is to say the hegemony of capitalism.

Yet the pin-up always also served as an apotropaic charm against corporeal mutability. Freud's definition of fetishism, afterall, foregrounds that any rhetoric of denial obliquely confirms what it seeks to deflect; setting up a memorial to the repressed knowledge in the creation of a substitute. The classic Freudian formula of fetishism - ‘I know, yet still I believe’ - need not only refer to the question of privileging certain body parts so as to stave off a knowledge of feminine castration, and in so doing allow the masculine viewer to avoid confronting his own castration. In relation to the pin-up one might say, posing the feminine body so as to foreground its artificiality presents the representation of wholeness contradicted by any bodily experience, at the same time that it displays the perfect body as a pure surface defying all signs of mutability. Even while the woman in the image is alluring because she is equated with her beautiful body, actual corporeality is precisely what we don't see in the image. We see only a pose and we know that this is why we enjoy these images. Or put psychoanalytically, I know the body I see is nothing but an image, that real bodies are neither whole nor immortal, but I want to believe there are bodies outside the cycle of mutability. It is, furthermore, compelling to note that Bruno Bernhard saw his pin-ups as a gesture of nostalgia, which had a concrete basis in his flight from Nazi-Germany in 1937. “A beautiful pin-up can conjure up deeply personal yearnings and the memory of a time and place that no longer exists,” he argued in relation to his aesthetic practice. The apotropaic rhetoric of fetishism he deployed in his pin-ups was neither directed at selling a war, nor at screening out knowledge about feminine sexual difference. Rather he sought to stave off his own traumatic memories of loss by turning eminent death into beauty. “We don't take the image in,” he continues to explain, “we move outside ourselves, into the image, as though we were entering another world - a dream. We connect with the dream as if we had lost it somewhere in our memory, and then suddenly found it again - luminous, ageless and flawless. And for a brief moment, it is as if nothing has changed”(Susan Bernhard, 2002; 14). Thus mutability haunts his pin-up images, even while it is frame by them in two senses: On the one hand the beauty of the surface is meant to fortify against, indeed stave off any acknowledgement of death, at the same time that these photographs declare this apotropaic mitigation to be their explicit their purpose. On the other hand these beautiful surfaces contain death, because they translate a living body not just into an image, but into a self-consciously stylized pose; into a complex signifier for the economic, political and psychic exchanges negotiated over beautiful feminine bodies.

Deconstructing the beauty myth

As one moves to the reiteration of the pin-up by women artists such as Hannah Wilke and Cindy Sherman from the 70s onwards, one is struck by the fact that they bring back into the frame of their photographs precisely the vulnerability and mutability that is visually and thematically evaded, though obliquely articulated in the classic pin-up; visually because the displayed body is reshaped to appear there as a perfect body, and thematically, because the aim of the pin-up was to pacify as well as to induce consumption. At the same time both artists no longer subject themselves to poses dictated to them by photographers but rather self-consciously appropriate the classic pin-up repertoire of poses. Indeed they explore the consequences of the pin-up formula's concern with using beauty to ward of mutability (be it the trauma of the photographer, the experience of war of the consumer, or the promise of material prosperity), by making the interface between the beautiful image and the abject flesh their focus; i.e. uncannily juxtaposing the two, where the classic pin-up supplanted the latter by virtue of exclusively visualizing the former. In doing so both artists seem to have taken Roland Barthes' discussion of the mutual implication of perfection and monstrosity to heart: “Perfection is one end of the Code” he had claimed in S/Z, “insofar as it...wipes out the distance between code and performance...and since this distance is part of the human condition, perfection, which annuls it, lies outside of anthropological limits, in supernature, where it joins the other, inferior, transgression...the essence of the code (perfection) has in the end the same status as what is outside the code (the monster)” (1979; 71). While Hannah Wilke's narcissistic self-display brings into play real mutability, Sherman deals with symbolic mutability. The connection between their work, in turn, is that in both cases their deconstruction of the pin-up is aimed at the vanishing point of glamour photography. In the case of Hannah Wilke this meant including her immanent death by cancer in her self-performances, in the case of Cindy Sherman it meant staging her body as pure simulacra, which is to say the absence of any real body. Thus in their effort to make what is culturally meant to be invisible visible, namely the monstrous body, both artists anticipate the feminine corpse as the logical consequences of beauty on display. Indeed, the consequence of performing a pose so perfectly that all distance to the code has been annulled renders the equation between an abject or dead body and perfect beauty image monstrously visible.

Hannah Wilke, who died of cancer in 1993, was throughout her career, engaged in an ambivalent re-iteration of the glamour of feminine beauty informing the iconography of pin-ups. On the one hand she narcissistically enjoyed exhibiting her body. In a piece entitled Hannah WilkeSuper-T-Art (1974) we see her imitating the pathos gestures of the classic pin-up, using a white sheet to cover and uncover her breasts, thus not only teasing us into dismantling her body but also teasing us about our voyeuristic desire to reshape it according to our fantasies. Because we inevitably find ourselves confronted with her own fantasies, which are what she is putting on display for us, as she ironically plays with codes of feminine allure. On the other hand Hannah Wilke not only felt constrained by cultural laws determining the codes of beauty in such a way as to exclude all forms of mutable body images, but also found herself the target of feminist attacks. “I am the victim of my own beauty,” she liked to claim, (Kreuzer 2000; 103), insisting that her perfect body caused others to observe and objectify her, as well as render her the target of aggression. Lucy Lippard, for example, troubled by Hannah Wilke's shamelessly pleasurable deployment of her nude body in her performances, called her “a flirt and a feminist,” as well as “a glamour girl in her own right” (Kreuzer 2000; 105) as though unable to grasp that the political resonance of her ironic resignification of the pin-up resided precisely in a refusal to accept the equation between displaying ones beautiful body and reification.

In the series S.O.S. Starification Object Series, Hannah Wilke came to argue against any simple thinking in opposites. Appropriating the codes of pin-up iconography need not mean that one has subjected oneself to a masculinist logic of the gaze, where the feminine body is always and exclusively a disempowered object. Rather what is uncanny about these images is that they insist on making a claim for both - the pleasure in presenting one's beauty to an audience as a form of self-fashioning on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fact that any such self-articulation can only occur within an already existent discourse of beauty and feminine allure. Whose enjoyment, one must ask, is on display? That of the artist (and her narcissistic pleasure), that of the viewer (and his voyeuristic desire) or both? Given that Hannah Wilke is casting her body in explicit reference to a lexicon of feminine poses, is she turning herself into an allegorical figure, or is she appropriating a traditional iconography to find an adequate language of the body to express both her desire for attention and self-expression? At the same time, the title “Starification” explicitly recalls the word “scarification” so as to invoke, in the sense Roland Barthes proposed, the mutual implication between what exceeds and what falls short of the code of perfect beauty. A body that is put on display, that is endowed with star qualities and thus idolized, is always also a stigmatized body. It is no longer ‘normal,’ because the object of unusual attention, and as such both exceeds but is also excluded from the ordinary. What Hannah Wilke thus also calls upon us to ask is whether the body is subsumed by the pose it has taken upon itself, or whether imitation leads to the expression of authentic subjectivity. With the plastic vulvas placed all over the exposed flesh, Hannah Wilke, furthermore, also re-introduces to our gaze that which any obsession with beauty seeks to evade, namely bodily imperfection; the scars that mar any perfect surface. The troubling of voyeurism she thus effects is, moreover, so poignant precisely because the body, over which it is negotiated, is itself perfect. To stay with the Barthes figure of thought, what occurs is precisely the distance he calls the mark of the human condition. By juxtaposing a perfect fulfillment of the code with that which falls short of it, she effects precisely the distance between code and performance, origin and result, model and copy, which the classic pin-up in its perfection seeks to obliterate.

Or put another way, she brings the question of real bodily mutability back into the framed image, and it is precisely the reality of mortality which then came to play such a significant role in the last of her performances, the series of photographs entitled Intra-Venus(1991-93), in which she shamelessly displayed her cancer-ridden body, destroyed both by her illness as well as the chemotherapy that was meant to heal her. Once again she has recourse to the body poses of the pin-up, only now the monstrous details marring her bodily perfection are part of the body itself, the scarification real, as if that death force which had always been present invisibly beneath the surface of the skin had now broken into visibility. As in the classic pin-up the body is reshaped, yet not by virtue of artificial lighting and retouching, but rather by actual corporeal processes. And as in the pin-up these images work by adding and subtracting paraphernalia - flower pots, toy animals, gain in weight, loss in hair. Yet to the end we also recognize the narcissistic pleasure Hannah Wilke had with her own self-representations. While her mother had been dying of breast cancer, Hannah Wilke had taken hundreds of photographs in the hope that to image her might be a way of resuscitating her. Now, faced with her own fatal illness, the ironic resignification of the pin-up she once more falls back on brings about yet another twist to the Barthian formula. Precisely because she insists, with irony and humor, on showing what is considered culturally monstrous - namely the body in pain, the body dying - she refuses to obliterate the distance between code and performance, indeed insists on the radical distinction between the two. While the poses are the same as in Starification, the body that performs these is now truly excessive - over-sized, out of shape, marked by the loss of body parts, by the scars on the body. These are deeply humane images, both of impending death, as well as of a woman's courage to honestly face the reality of her body, which is to say to accept the authenticity of her corporeal existence beyond narcissism. As they are intimate images, troubling any attempt on our part at dismantling and reshaping them for our enjoyment. Instead they challenge us to engage in an intersubjective exchange.

In the work of Cindy Sherman we find a different configuration of surface glamour and traces of death violently breaking into visibility. When she decided in the late 70s to embark on her Untitled Film Stills project - paying homage to the publicity photographs of the 50s and 60s - she did so explicitly in a gesture of nostalgia. At the same time, Sherman conceived of these photographs as pure simulacra (authentic copies without any originals), thus literally obliterating the distance between origin and result, between model and copy, so as to render not the human condition with its flaws, but rather the perfected posthuman body. Her homage to the era of the pin-up thus emerges as a deconstruction in the sense that it exposes the feminine pose as pure virtuality, as a rearticulation of an entire repertoire of poses, gestures and passionate attitudes, without any point of reference in real corporeality. In so doing she also, of course, ironically performs what Ballard claims the pin-up induces, namely a reshaping of bodies, except that in her work the gesture of dismantling serves to render visible the fact that the glamorous surface of the pin-up aims to protect against the implenitude of the body, even as it gestures towards this. In the Centerfolds-Series commissioned by Artforum, Cindy Sherman explicitly re-iterates the pin-up as a performance of a deadly arrestation of the feminine body, so as to point out the obscene kernel at the heart of glamour photography, even while self-consciously taking the visual argument of the centerfold to its logical conclusion. In these seemingly deanimated or frozen figures, Sherman quotes the gestures of the classic pin-up. She, too, lies supine, clasps her breasts, stretching her arms above her head or crouches on the floor, so as to imitate a gesture of submission. In so doing she gives visual body to her claim that the fascination of alluring feminine beauty resides in the fact that it subjects itself unconditionally to the gaze of the spectator. The disempowerment of the pin-up is meant as a reflection of the power of the voyeur. At the same time the demythologizing gesture Cindy Sherman performs also aims at rendering visible that our voyeuristic gaze is inevitably thwarted, precisely by breaking one of the rules of the code. In none of the photographs does the model look directly at the spectator. Thus, in contrast to glamour shots of Mae West, Jayne Mansfield or Marilyn Monroe, any pleasurable exhibitionism emerges as depletion, as if the deanimated body, completely absorbed by the image and severed from any referenciality, were the inevitable consequence of the visual logic of the pin-up.

In contrast to Hannah Wilke's performances, Cindy Sherman rejects any notion that the act of appropriating material from our cultural image repertoire might fruitfully serve a pleasurable recasting of oneself. Instead she foregrounds the destructive aggression inherent to any gesture of identification. To define or re-fashion oneself in relation to an already existing image repertoire comes to be equated in her work with a cannibalization of the image. The woman imitating existing glamour images of the feminine body draws all vitality from her predecessor - the model of these images - leaving her a lifeless shell. Yet in Cindy Sherman's re-introduction of the category of mortality into glamour shots, the one who imitates previous glamour poses herself falls prey to a corpse-like arrestation or freezing of her body into an image, once she has fully appropriated the image of her model, of whom she is merely a copy. For according to Sherman, any unconditional identification with feminine stereotypes inevitably bears fatal traits. If you fully equate yourself with an image, allowing the code and the performance to conflate, there can be no independent subjectivity. To assume the pose of your predecessor means dispersing yourself in the vacuity of the appropriated corporeal image. By insisting that any identification with our culturally exchanged poses of glamour leads both to a consumption of one's predecessors but also to the fact that, in the process of appropriation one is, in turn, consumed by the images one imitates as well, Cindy Sherman ultimately claims that corporeal dissolution is the ground and vanishing point of her skillful game with simulacra. Precisely because her concern is figural death, she follows Andy Warhol, whose own obsession with reduplicating glamour shots led him to produce his series of clichés or copies of renown images of celebrities, so that in the emptiness thus performed, the invisible mutability haunting all glamour and celebrity photography could be rendered visible.

Escaping fatal attention

Chuck Palaniuk's novel Invisible Monsters(1999) offers a third gesture of deconstructing the mutual implication between perfect beauty and corporeal monstrosity. The novel sets in with its three characters - the model Shannon McFarland who has suffered an accident that has left her face disfigured, the transvestite glamour queen supreme Brandy Alexander (who Shanon has discovered is her brother Shane) and her girlfriend and co-model Evie Cotrell (a transsexual)- caught in a fatal embrace. During Evie's wedding reception the narrator, Shanon, has set fire to the bride's wedding gown, while the latter shot-guns Brandy, seemingly because she takes her for her sister, and thus her rival in love. Kneeling next to Brandy, Shannon introduces the stylistic device that will hold her narrative together. “Most of my adult life,” she explains, “has been me standing on seamless paper for a raft of bucks per hour...and some famous fashion photographer telling me how to feel...Give me attention. Flash. Give me adoration. Flash. Give me a break. Flash” (1999; 13 and 19). The narrative she tells is a scathing critique of post-modernity's obsession with surface beauty, celebrity and image. Only at the end does Shannon confess to her brother - sounding uncannily like Hannah Wilke - that she had in fact shot herself in the face, mutilating herself beyond recognition because she had come to realize that she “was addicted to being beautiful...addicted to all that attention” but also “tired of staying a lower life form just because of my looks...trapped in a beauty ghetto...stereotyped.” She needed “some way to get ugly in a flash,” with no turning back possible. Indeed, because she needed “to explode my comfort zone,” she could only do so by radically dismantling her body, so as to irrevocably escape the discourse of beauty it was inscribed by.

Shanon's confession is possible only after she was accidentally re-united with her brother, who was at the same hospital that she drove herself to after shooting herself in the face, and who, in the course of her narrative, emerges as her uncanny counterpart. While she chose the career of model, he chose to mutilate his face, and then, after having been thrown out of the house once his parents discovered his homosexuality, chose to reshape himself literally in imitation of what his sister looked like in the glamour photographs taken before her accident. Palahniuk thus also has recourse to the Barthean formula which places perfect beauty and monstrosity in the same generic class. Indeed at the end of her psychic voyage Shannon will explain, “if I throw off my veil now, I'll just be a monster, a less than perfect, mutilated victim. I'll be only how I look” (1999; 279). This paradigm of beauty - the famous model - becomes monstrous by dismantling her face, while her disfigured brother reshapes his entire body to attain precisely the alluring feminine body she now hides behind a veil. While Shane thusliterally re-iterates the pin-up poses of his sister, appropriating these to form his new identity as Brandy, Shannon now ironicallyre-iterates them, mentally still identified with her status as model, yet owing to her mutilated face she is now also called upon to question this code of identification. Yet as Brandy explains to her, these veils are themselves a tease. “It's lingerie for your face. A peek-a-boo nightgown you wear over your whole identity” (1999; 112). The ‘starification’ that was her everyday existence has now been exchanged for a life of ‘scarification’.

Significantly, however, the uncanny exchange between sister and brother (and with it the exchange between physical perfection and monstrosity), predominantly deploys an economy of attention. Shannon may be addicted to the attention she gets as a model, yet she is struck by a sense of vacuity inhabiting her “looking-good game,” and thus feels intense jealousy at the fact that, once her mutilated gay brother pretends to have died of AIDs, he becomes the irrevocable center of attention of her parents. As she explains to Evie “Just by being all burned and slashed up with scars, he hogged all the attention” (1999; 73). Her decision to imitate him by disfiguring her face (at a point when she is not yet aware that he has, in fact, already begun to imitate her with the help of beauty surgery), is thus initially nothing other than a further turn of the screw of her own narcissism. Far from making her invisible, her newly acquired monstrosity allows her to draw even more attention to herself. Indeed she notes, “being mutilated can work to your advantage. All those people now with...scarification. What I mean is, attention is attention” (1999; 53). Yet she is now also able to begin to critically distance herself from her former appearance, precisely because her identification with beauty has become troubled. She understands the police photos of her disfigured body to be the logical continuation of her portfolio, revealing what was always lurking beneath the surface of her beauty. At the same time Palahniuk has her watch an infomercial she did with her friend Evie prior to her accident on T.V. several times throughout the narrative so as to demonstrate his protagonist's slow awakening from her narcissistic self-absorption. For she now comes to recognize that within an economy of attention everyone is trapped in a reality loop that never ends. The audience present at the T.V. show only watched themselves on the monitors, not the two beautiful women selling their products, while she had watched only herself when watching this infomercial, and thus never notices that her boyfriend was already flirting with Evie. Watching only herself, she misses essential clues, as does the audience.

Palaniuk's deconstruction of the logic of the pin-up also takes the form of his protagonist critically disclosing how she used to live her life as a pose. Her need for an audience emerges as a different type of anguish, not least of all because it so clearly serves to protect her from her sense of the vacuity of her life. In a particularly revealing scene we find Shannon and Evie in Brumbach's Department Store. They are the stars of their own personal unnatural habitat, because they have transformed the furniture section into the stage for soap-opera scenes they perform for the edification of shoppers, who happen to pass by and believe themselves to be experiencing real drama. In a similar vein Palaniuk has the two models go to several photo shoots where their beauty is enhanced by comparison to the ugliness of their environment - a junkyard full of dirty wrecked cars they are forced to climb around, a slaughterhouse, where “whole pigs without their insides hang as thick as fringe from a moving chain” (1999; 241). Whether they are posing in their personally orchestrated real life drama in the department store, or for photo shoots in unusual locations, what Shannon and Evie talk about is Shane, the mutilated brother, as though he were the uncanny double to their pin-up refigurations. Palahniuk keeps repeating Shannon's transformation of every event in her life into a photo shoot, by having her imagine a photographer, telling her how she is to feel. We are thus asked to see her as over-interpellated by the code of beauty. As she recalls her story in the course of the narration, she discovers that she was always nothing but a pose without a self, and as such figuratively invisible even before she mutilated herself to literally become invisible.

Palahniuk thus reveals indifference and blindness as the vanishing point of our cultural obsession with attention. The logic of narcissism he thus deconstructs is one inherent to the promise of love contained in the pin-up's command to reshape oneself to fit an imagined voyeur's fantasies. As Shannon notes, “I'll be anybody you want me to be. Use me. Change me. I can be thin with big breasts and big hair. Take me apart. Make me into anything, but just love me” (1999; 266). Yet as Shannon comes to realize, living an image means being caught in a never-ending reality loop, trapped in herself, because she perceives the world only as a mirror reflecting herself, and thus avoids what Stanley Cavell has so poignantly called the challenge posed by the ordinariness of the Other, or simply by love. This narcissism, which equates the endless transformability of ones body with an equally endless promise of ‘false’ love, proves to be lethal because inhuman. One of the conundrums Shannon is caught in is that you get attention as an image, but this economy also destroys you as a person. Another conundrum she finds herself confronted with is that in a world where ‘my body is my story’ (1999; 259), a monstrous body is invisible because people don't want to look at it, while in relation to its canny other - perfect beauty - all people want to do is to look at it. In both cases, however, the obliteration of all distance between code and performance, regardless whether it exceeds or misses the mark of the ordinary, is coterminous with an obliteration of the human; which is to say with a recognition of oneself as a subject.

When in 1984 Bernhard of Hollywood became the first still photographer to be honored with an Academy award, he explained in his acceptance speech: “My aim has been to capture the human essence of my sitters and transfer it to the sensitive emulsion of film. My definition of the ultimate photographic portrait ... is a photographic biography of the physical and mental makeup of the sitter - and, at the same time, an autobiography of the photographer.” At this point in his speech he turned around to face his photographs of Monroe, Gable, Dietrich and simply added, “thank-you,” a compelling acknowledge addressed to those, who posed for him. For Chuck Palaniuk, writing at the end of the 20th century, the pin-up has become the trope par excellence for a totally self-absorbed narcissistic culture based on an avoidance of the humanity of the other. If the classic pin-up in the 1940s and 1950s served a consumer ideology, selling both WWII and a post-war belief in the american dream, Palahniuk's critique is aimed at an ideology of surface beautify, where the body on display sells nothing less than ‘me’. The surplus value at stake is neither money nor nationalism but rather attention and the narcissistic love this promises. Yet in contrast to Hannah Wilke, who could only embrace the mortality written onto her body in her Intra-Venus Series, and in contrast to Cindy Sherman, whose Center-Folds remain caught in performing the emptiness of glamour photography, Chuck Palaniuk ends on the note of restitution. Shannon, in fact, finds a viable way out of her ‘looking-beautiful game’.

Early on in the text, while they were both at the hospital, Brandy had tried to convince her that reshaping one's body was a form of rewriting one's identity, and indeed, Shannon discovers that transforming your life into a story proves to be a form of healing. “Who I was before the accident is just a story now,” she tells herself. “What I need is a new story about who I am” (1999; 224). Yet significantly her escape from the impasse of the fatal attention beauty affords is in fact to relinquish the narrative ‘my body is my story,’ and doing so precisely with the help by of a radical repudiation of the body. This liberation from lethal narcissism is, moreover, co-terminous with an acceptance of love for her uncanny double; for the brother who has now fully obliterated the distance between the copy he has turned his body into and his model, Shannon MacFarland, whose beautiful body has irrevocably vanished. In the concluding scene of the novel a final exchange takes place between brother and sister that brings acknowledging the humanity of the other back into the frame. Shannon visits her brother in the hospital where he is being treated for the gun-shot he received from Evie, and while he is still unconscious from the anesthesia, she offers him a gift of love. Given that he looks more like her than she can ever remember looking, she bestows upon him her identity, so that he can now be Shannon McFarland, the famous model, in her stead. “Be the new center of attention,” her speech act declares. “Be a big success, be beautiful and loved and everything else I wanted to be.” Giving away her life, by giving away an identity irrevocably tied to bodily beauty, is her way to prove to herself that she can exit from the endless loop of narcissistic self-absorption. As she explains to her unconscious brother, “I am giving you my life to prove to myself I ... can love somebody ... completely and totally”(1999; 253). While her future resides in embracing the ordinary, relinquishing her veils, having her identity no longer tied into her image, her hope resides in knowing that she is no longer avoiding love.

Literature used

Ballard, J.G. (1993). The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Flamingo.

Barthes, Roland (1970). S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bernard, Susan (2002). Bernard of Hollywood. The Ultimate Pin-up Book. Köln: Taschen.

Cavell, Stanley (1969). “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must we mean what we say. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kreuzer, Stefanie (ed.) (2000). Hannah Wilke. Unterbrochene Karrieren 1940-1993. Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst.

Palahniuk, Chuck (1999). Invisible Monsters: New York: Norton.

Poschardt, Ulf (2002). Archeology of Elegance. 20 Jahre Modephotographie. München: Schirmer und Mosel.

Schjeldahl, Peter und Els Barents (1987). Cindy Sherman. München: Schirmer und Mosel.

Tuska, Jon (1973). The Complete Films of Mae West. New York: Citadel Press.


© Elisabeth Bronfen 2003