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Monday, January 21, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on his essay "Re-Membering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism”

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QMy review [forthcoming from SF Site] attempts to tackle deconstruction as it sometimes seems problematic. Do you see any problems with deconstruction? What’s your take?

Barzak:  I don't really have a take on deconstruction. I studied it as a theoretical way of writing about reading in grad school, but it wasn't what I thought of as the most useful or even interesting way to write about the experience of reading. Most of the time deconstructive criticism seems to miss a lot of things, or to make assumptions. I don't feel like the essay I wrote at the end of Birds and Birthdays is a deconstruction of the paintings I was working with, but more of an observation of a pattern I noticed (and that others have noticed, I saw, through my research) as I looked at a lot of Surrealist art over a period of years. I don't think the male artists intended to exclude women, but I do think it's something they undeniably did. It's similar to the way that many people don't understand the nature of privilege because they've been born privileged, and they assume everyone has the exact same opportunities in life as they have, and if someone hasn't made something of themselves then it's their own fault and maybe they need to work harder, etc. When in reality, I know a lot of people who work hard, really hard, and nothing comes of it but a crappy paycheck and the person they work for has inherited a business or was given a great sum of money from family wealth that allowed them to basically start out on third base from the beginning. That sort of thing is something people don't see--they assume everyone has the same start in life, but they don't, and this does affect one's ability to move through social and economic classes. I think for the men within the Surrealist movement, they were working from a cultural template where women were the wives and mothers in general, and this was simply something that they couldn't see because it was so normalized. They saw a lot of other things about their culture that they wanted to change, but I think this just wasn't one of the things they were able to see very clearly. I don't think it means they're horrible people, or that they excluded women intentionally. But it was there.

For me, deconstruction is a tool of reading applied to a particular painting or a piece of writing or some other readable/interpretable text. I don't think I did that, really, in my essay. I think I was mainly tracing a gender relationship pattern or dynamic I saw as I researched the Surrealist movement itself, both in how women weren't given space in exhibitions and how not one woman's signature was included in the famous manifesto, and how the female body was employed, over and over, in Surrealist iconography in a way that the male form simply wasn't subjected to. I hope that my observations on that pattern don't minimize the artwork of the men, though. I mainly wanted to point it out, and to hopefully direct some attention to the work of the women working on the margins of the Surrealist circles their male friends, lovers and husbands or brothers inhabited as central figures.

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