In March 2004, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts screened Yoko Ono’s film Rape (Yoko Ono and John Lennon, 1969). The 77 minute, black-and-white documentary turns an unsuspecting young woman (Eva Majlata) into both participant and victim as she is apparently selected at random and pursued through the streets of London by Ono’s cameraman (Nic Knowland). With Ono having conspired with Majlata’s sister to set her up, Knowland chases the terrified woman (who is living in Britain illegally and speaks virtually no English) back to her sister’s apartment. The film ends with Majlata curled up on the floor, shielding her face from the intruder. 35 years down the line, the audience’s response to this infamous experiment in cinema verité was considerably more subdued than on its original release. My aim here is to analyse Rape in political terms, attributing its loss of power to what Slavoj Zizek has described as the enigma of postmodernism. From there, I will argue that Rape offers us clues as to how we can (if we are so inclined, of course) seek to overcome the enigmas of postmodern “consensus” politics; a problem for which Alain Badiou, on whose philosophy much of my argument is based, has recently sought to offer solutions.
As of writing, the most valuable and interesting discussion of Rape is to be found in Joan Hawkins’ book Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde. Hawkins correctly identifies the importance of gaze theory in analysing the film:
To a foreign woman whose papers had expired, Knowland’s camera might well have conveyed an “air of authority” that it would not have conveyed to a native Brit. That is, Majlata may have been intimidated – and intimidatable – by the camera partly because she knew that strictly speaking, she wasn’t currently “legally” in Britain. Certainly, the gaze of the camera goes a long way toward emphasising (for the audience) her status as foreign, “exotic” Other. To borrow Ella Shohat’s phrase, it demonstrates the way the patriarchal gaze is intimately linked to the “disciplinary gaze of the empire.” (1)
It should be noted that, in the film, Majlata does not appear intimidated from beginning to end. When first confronted with the camera, she smiles and tells Knowland that she does not speak English. She then tries to communicate with him in other ways: at first, by speaking German and Italian, then (after Knowland blocks her way along a path) by waiting for him to let her past. Knowland’s silence and his refusal to communicate with Majlata is what eventually leads her to feel intimidated. To contemplate how times may have changed, let us briefly imagine what would happen if a filmmaker attempted to remake Rape today. Most “victims” would either play-up to the camera or respond by treating the filmmaker as they would any other person who pestered them on the street. As for the fact that Majlata was living in Britain illegally, it must be remembered that, in the 1960s, filmmakers would have been seen as part of the Establishment (one only needs to think about the links between the BBC and the government). Who, other than an underground artist funded by her rich, rock star husband, would have the resources to film people at random off the street – indeed, at one point in the film, Majlata asks Knowland (in Italian): “Why are you making this film? For whom?” Most people in the Western world today, after witnessing various high-profile tests of the media’s independence (from the Watergate scandal of the 1970s right through to the Hutton Report published in Britain in 2004), take a pluralist view of the media. This attitude also exists within illegal immigrant circles, many of whom will trust news crews, for instance, to blank out their face for televised interviews. The difference between the 1960s and now is the way in which the gaze of the filmmaker has been internalised: whereas the filmmaker was once a figure of authority, she is now a peer, perhaps even just another geek with a digicam.
A weakness, then, in Hawkins’ analysis is that she fails to realise the importance of precisely how (in psychoanalytic terms) the gaze is internalised. Conjecturing on how Ono and her husband and co-director John Lennon could be so confident that Majlata would not smash the camera, Hawkins concludes: “Ono knew it would be safe (camera equipment is expensive) to terrorise someone on the street only if that someone was female. If one of the main points of the film is that women are easily victimised by the camera’s incessant gaze, the easy terrorisation of women was also a necessary social precondition for the filmmaking process itself…” (2) Hawkins’ criticism of Ono – that her film capitalises on the very injustice it seeks to expose – can be refuted if we evaluate Rape in revolutionary terms. To do this, we need to turn to the theorisation of revolution offered by Alain Badiou and, in turn, the discussion of Badiou’s ideas in Slavoj Zizek’s monograph, The Ticklish Subject.
At its most basic starting point, Badiou’s project is to distinguish knowledge from truth:
Truth is first of all something new. What transmits, what repeats, we shall call knowledge. Distinguishing truth from knowledge is essential… For the process of truth to begin, something must happen. Knowledge as such only gives us repetition, it is concerned only with what already is. For truth to affirm its newness, there must be a supplement. This supplement is committed to chance—it is unpredictable, incalculable, it is beyond what it is. I call it an event. A truth appears in its newness because an eventful supplement interrupts repetition. Examples: The appearance, with Aeschylus, of theatrical tragedy. The eruption, with Galileo, of mathematical physics. An amorous encounter which changes a whole life. Or the French revolution of 1792. An event is linked to the notion of the undecidable. Take the sentence ‘This event belongs to the situation.’ If you can, using the rules of established knowledge, decide that this sentence is true or false, the event will not be an event. It will be calculable within the situation. Nothing permits us to say ‘Here begins the truth.’ A wager will have to be made (3).
What the Truth-Event renders visible is the one excessive element which is a part of the situation being submitted to the Truth-Process, but not counted within the positive structure of Being. By rendering this excessive element visible (whatever it may be), the preceding positive ontological order must radically change. And it is this formal relation between the Event and the Truth of the situation it articulates/renders visible, which allows us to distinguish between a genuine Event and its mere semblance. To elaborate by example, Zizek explains: “Nazism was a pseudo-Event and the October Revolution was an authentic Event, because only the latter related to the very foundations of the Situation of capitalist order, effectively undermining those foundations, in contrast to Nazism, which staged a pseudo-Event precisely in order to save the capitalist order.” (4)
So in what sense does this framework relate to Yoko Ono’s film Rape? Hawkins is absolutely correct to identify the importance of gaze theory in any analysis of the film. To this, however, I wish to add the suggestion that it was the patriarchal gaze which, whilst belonging to the situation of women in 1969, was not “counted” by it – in other words, the gaze was not an acknowledged part of Being. Rape became an Event by transforming the invisible gaze of patriarchal/colonial power into the concrete gaze of a film camera.
In 1968, a year before Rape was made, Ono published Thirteen Film Scores which included the “score” for Rape [or Chase]. About half of the film scores written and published by Ono during this period were never actually made, raising the possibility that their realisation as completed films was unimportant and that the scores were artworks in themselves. Chrissie Iles has observed that “all Ono’s films are fundamentally conceptual” and that “Ono’s own definition of an artwork [is that which is] capable of embodying several forms (a score, a performance, an object, and a film) and the idea of ‘event’.” (5) As an artist who (by virtue of her relationship, both artistic and personal, with John Lennon) had the funds to pursue virtually any project she wished, it is interesting to wonder why Ono chose to turn certain film scores into actual films and not others. If we look at Rape and consider the differing impacts of the score and the film, the reason why the film is artistically more successful than the score is due to the way in which the film renders concrete and external the internalised gaze, the existence of which theorists such as Michel Foucault could only “show” us via abstract philosophical argument.
Immediately after Rape was released to the public in 1969, Ono and Lennon faced a barrage of hostile criticism from the press (who interpreted the film as being a comment on the press intrusion about which the celebrity couple frequently complained). The criticisms were focused on the obvious ethical concerns around forcing Majlata to participate in the film against her will. Within the moral horizon of the time, as a question of knowledge, it may well be that what Ono and Lennon did was wrong. However, if we are to submit Rape to examination under Badiou’s framework of the Truth-Event, then questions of moral knowledge suddenly become less relevant (perhaps even completely irrelevant if we consider that the Truth-Event shatters the preceding positive ontological order of Being). Back in 1969, Ono seemed at least intuitively aware of this when, sitting alongside her husband and co-director, she told an aggressive reporter at a press conference to “leave our morals alone.” Whereas Hawkins describes this attitude as “an uncharacteristic act of what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called ‘bad faith’,” (6) it is my belief that Ono (who studied philosophy at Gakushuin University in the 1950s) was well aware that the film, as a revolutionary critique of the capitalist system, could not possibly be morally integrated within that system. Zizek points out that: “Badiou calls the language that endeavours to name the Truth-Event the ‘subject-language’. This language is meaningless from the standpoint of Knowledge, which judges propositions with regard to their referent within the domain of positive being.” (7)
The Enigma of Postmodernism
Yet Rape has almost become morally integrated within the postmodern, late-capitalist experience as something not terribly problematic. Today, it is near-impossible to watch Rape unburdened by thirty-five years of subsequent absorption and readjustment by visual culture. Hawkins herself writes: “the film has its pleasurable moments… Like any good stalker film, it is thrilling to watch.” (8) It is interesting to note how Hawkins invokes a genre which only came into being in the late 1970s with films such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). It would be useful to consider the “relationship” (in terms of theory) between Rape and the hidden camera show Candid Candid Camera. Typical of this 1970s “adult” version of the original Candid Camera show is a famous sketch in which we watch men turn-up for a job interview to find that the receptionist is a nude woman; the comedy value derives from observing the men’s shock and embarrassment. What is interesting about this sketch is the knowing-yet-cynical attitude towards the male gaze, entirely typical of the “enigma of postmodernism” identified by Zizek, whereby two inconsistent attitudes coexist (9). In this instance, there is an acknowledgement of the pleasure derived from the male gaze (both by the men in the sketch and the viewers at home) and yet there is also a contradictory acknowledgement of the sexist attitudes and injustices sustained by the very same gaze (which is why the sketch is considered funny, as we observe the men’s reactions as they try to avoid looking at the woman). So if Rape is genuinely less shocking today than it was when it was released, this is hardly due to some mysterious, gradual erosion in morals amongst documentary filmmakers, television schedulers and audiences. Instead, it can be put down to the enigma of postmodernism, whereby leftist intellectuals can view the film as a feminist masterpiece whilst also acknowledging that, as Hawkins puts it, the film “enacts a kind of double violation, a double erasure of the female subject” (10). The only way we can break out of this contradiction is to assign Rape the status of a Badioean Truth-Event.
Badiou’s Aesthetics and Politics
Before getting too excited about this prospect, however, we must turn to a consideration of Badiou’s aesthetics. Although Badiou admires several avant-garde artists and their works on an individual, work-by-work basis, he laments the reactionary stance implicit in the avant-garde; the way in which all avant-garde movements simultaneously react against what came before whilst heralding the birth of a “new” art. As Badiou scholar, Peter Hallward, puts it: “Badiou dismisses this short-lived effort as a mere “didacticoromantic” mélange – didactic in its ‘desire to put an end to art, the denunciation of its alienated and inauthentic character,’ and romantic in its ‘conviction that art would then be reborn as absoluité, as complete awareness of its own operation, as the immediately legible truth of itself’.” (11) For the avowedly neo-Platonist Badiou, there is no prospect of an aesthetic truth producing a political truth. The conclusion to be drawn, as Hallward explains, is that art “carries its own self-sufficient truth. The poem is a ‘purity folded on itself’.” (12)
Badiou’s apolitical aesthetics would seem to reduce the previously-apparent political potential of a project such as the recent flash mobbing phenomenon. Here, the collision of time and place is used to create an unexpected commotion, as large numbers of flash mobbers suddenly descend on a pre-arranged public place (usually posted on the internet only hours beforehand) to perform ridiculous one-off stunts (such as impromptu disco dancing or handing out free bananas to bewildered passers-by). Despite the fact that flash mobbing would appear to be just another variation on the Situationist art “happenings” of the 1960s (albeit radicalised by the use of new communication technologies), it is interesting to note the nervousness with which law enforcement agencies have greeted the phenomenon; some within the legal profession have conjectured that, in the future, flash mob organisers may require permits – a development which would probably defeat the point of the exercise, given that it depends so much on the element of surprise. This nervousness – entirely political, of course – suggests that flash mobbing could be used as a political tool. In fact, protest groups are already said to be learning the lessons of flash mobbing (which seems to have died as an artistic movement and a quirky pastime). And if flash mobbing can be used to pursue political change then it seems clear that other art forms might offer similar possibilities. Indeed, one is tempted here to invoke André Breton’s famous claim that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” (13)
So does Yoko Ono’s Rape (and pseudo-Situationist art works generally) offer us a template for instigating a challenge to the political order of things? Both Badiou and I would say ‘no’ and we need only turn to Badiou’s lecture on the “Truth-Process” to realise why:
[T]he truth begins with an axiom of truth. It begins with a decision, a decision to say that the event has taken place. The fact that the event is undecidable imposes the constraint that the subject of the event must appear. Such a subject is constituted by a sentence in the form of a wager: this sentence is as follows. ‘This has taken place, which I can neither calculate nor demonstrate, but to which I shall be faithful.’ A subject begins with what fixes an undecidable event because it takes a chance of deciding it. This begins the infinite procedure of verification of the Truth. It’s the examination within the situation of the consequences of the axiom which decides the Event. It’s the exercise of fidelity. Nothing regulates its cause. Since the axiom which supports it has arbitrated it outside of any rule of established knowledge, this axiom was formulated in a pure choice, committed by chance, point by point. But what is a pure choice? A choice without a concept. (14)
Given, therefore, that we cannot move from knowledge – the positive order of Being – towards truth through any kind of calculation, it would be pointless to posit surrealism or Situationism as some kind of template for revolutionary political action. Concerned with the dawn of “consensus” politics (in which politics has been reduced to a matter of competent administration) Badiou writes: “what I call political is something that can be discerned only in a few, fairly brief, sequences, often quickly overturned, crushed, or diluted by the return of business as usual.” (15) Political action, therefore, is simply a matter of waiting for an opportunity to exercise “pure choice” and make what Badiou calls “the wager”.
So, to come full circle, in what sense might we claim that Rape could have changed the world? As but one small moment in the much more epic “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, Rape surely played its part. Faced with such pressure, capitalism and mainstream media had to find some way of integrating the sexual revolution into its continued existence and this is why I have drawn parallels between Rape and Candid Candid Camera. The question is whether or not the enigma of postmodernism can be overcome so as to prevent capitalism from morphing and eventually integrating the excessive element identified by the Truth-Event. The irony is that this question is literally unanswerable until the Truth-Event itself comes along otherwise it would be merely a matter of knowledge and not a Truth-Event at all.
I would like to conclude, therefore, by offering a suggestion worthy of consideration by all those artists, activists and philosophers, who, given the chance to make the wager, would become revolutionaries. As Hallward points out, politics “is a matter of making the most of the few opportunities that do open up, of exploiting the few chinks in the established armour, without yielding to the temptations of [party] political rearmament.” (16) My suggestion is that, whilst we should be open to the idea that a chink in the armour may appear anywhere at anytime, artworks, like Rape and flash mobbing, which violently disrupt time, place and identity, might be particularly “worth watching”. New media technologies (from 16mm filmmaking in the 1960s to the internet and mobile phone text messaging today) frequently provoke nerves amongst the Establishment and it is the very vagueness of this nervousness which might present revolutionary opportunities. If the Establishment cannot quite put its finger on the dangers then it is entirely possible that those dangers might lie outside of knowledge and therefore be ripe for the Truth-Event to come along. Perhaps Badiou is right in his claim that an aesthetic truth can never yield a political truth-event; but, then, does it not make some sense to consider Yoko Ono’s Rape to be a political act, rather than an artistic work, in any case?
- Joan Hawkins, Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000, p. 134.
- Hawkins, 2000, p. 127.
- Alain Badiou, “On The Truth-Process”, Open Lecture at the European Graduate School, August 2002.
- Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso, London and New York, 1999, p. 138.
- Chrissie Iles, “Erotic Conceptualism: The Films of Yoko Ono” in Japan Yes Yoko Ono, ed. Alexandra Monroe and Jon Hendricks, Society and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2000, p. 202.
- Hawkins, 2000, p. 127.
- Zizek, 1999, p. 136.
- Hawkins, 2000, p. 128.
- Slavoj Zizek, “The Spectre of Ideology” in Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright (eds.), The Zizek Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999, p. 84.
- Hawkins, 2000, p. 133.
- Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 194.
- Hallward, 2003, p. 207.
- André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism”, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1972, p. 125.
- Badiou, 2002.
- Quoted in Hallward, 2003, p. 45.
- Hallward, 2003, p. 45.