Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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The History that Will Be: Lesbian Cinematic Representation Before Cinema
Susan Potter

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Cinema occupies a privileged position in the cultural histories of both Western modernity and sexuality. Indeed, some scholars claim in differing ways that modern sexuality (Foucault’s scientia sexualis) and modern culture were both cinematic before the fact. These critical insights have derived from a sustained attention to cinema’s “prehistory.” The focus of this prehistory has shifted away from documenting the various visual technologies and mechanical inventions that preceded the invention of the cinematograph, and turned instead to the broader cultural conditions out of which cinema emerged. To capture this new critical emphasis, we could rename the prehistory of cinema as a genealogy of the cinematic.

Coinciding with this methodological and theoretical reconfiguration, historians of sexuality have reoriented their disciplinary projects away from recovering recognisable sexual subjects towards delineating the epistemological contours and erotic arrangements registered by the archives of sexuality. One of the significant connecting threads between a genealogy of the cinematic and what I am calling “lesbian cinematic representation before cinema” is the representation of the body. What comprises an archive for such an intertwined genealogy is more than a simple matter of availability and selection. Archival materials are not innocent, but already enmeshed in cultural and institutional practices, systems of categorisation and evaluation.

This paper brings together two different but critically privileged sets of texts: Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic motion studies of women, and the electric light dance performances of Loïe Fuller. Rather than being straightforwardly antithetical, each archive inflects the other in complex ways. Not assuming that modernity and modernlesbian sexuality are mutually constitutive, the paper considers the terms by which each archive makes the female body an object and subject of visual knowledge at the same time that a female-centred eroticism is rendered culturally intelligible.

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