Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan
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Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan

Doubles Beyond the Uncanny

Rosalinda Quintieri

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eBook - ePub

Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan

Doubles Beyond the Uncanny

Rosalinda Quintieri

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About This Book

In this fascinating new book, Rosalinda Quintieri addresses some of the key questions of visual theory concerning our unending fascination with simulacra by evaluating the recent return of the life-size doll in European and American visual culture. Through a focus on the contemporary photographic and cinematic forms of this figure and a critical mobilisation of its anthropological complexity, this book offers a new critical understanding of this classical aesthetic motif as a way to explore the relevance that doubling, fantasy and simulation hold in our contemporary culture.

Quintieri explores the figure of the inanimate human double as an "inhuman partner", reflecting on contemporary visuality as the field of a hypermodern, post-Oedipal aesthetic. Through a series of case studies that blur traditional boundaries between practices (photography, performance, sculpture, painting, documentary) and between genres (comedy, drama, fairy tale), Quintieri puts in contrast the new function of the double and its plays of simulations on the background of the capitalist injunction to enjoy.

Engaging with new theories on post-Oedipal forms of subjectivity developed within the Lacanian orientation of psychoanalysis, Quintieri offers exciting analyses of still and moving photographic work, giving body to an original aesthetic model that promises to revitalise our understanding of contemporary photography and visual culture. It will appeal to psychoanalysts and researchers from Lacanian psychoanalysis, visual studies and cultural theory, as well as readers with an academic interest in the cultural history of dolls and the theory of the uncanny.

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I opened my introduction by taking Mike Kelley’s The Uncanny and Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real as two recent theoretical instances where the return of the double in contemporary visual culture has been read through the traditional Freudian-Surrealist paradigm. I have instead started to argue that the Freudian lens might be inadequate to grasp the innovative features and psychic implications of more recent forms of the double. As we have seen, Foster’s Surrealist reading of mid-1990s art is based on his concept of traumatic realism, as a form of art “in the service of the real”.1 Lacan’s gaze and Barthes’s punctum are Foster’s main theoretical coordinates there to theorise an image where the indexical (what is already in the image) and the subjective (what is outside the image, added to it) are confounded, where the image becomes the place of “a confusion of subject and world, inside and outside”.2 “[I]t may be this confusion that is traumatic”, Foster concludes, which unmistakably points to the classical Surrealist topos of simulation as a loss of “self-possession”, as famously developed by Roger Caillois in Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia (1939).3 In drawing these connections, Foster is following a well-established critical framework, one which Rosalind Krauss had already deployed in 1985 in her ground-breaking analysis of Hans Bellmer’s Poupées in Corpus Delicti. Before commenting on Foster’s use of these constructs for the art of the 1990s, this chapter will take a closer look at Krauss’s text and the theoretical knot it exposed and which has since dominated our critical understanding of the relationship between the human double and the photographic double.
This theoretical knot links some of the fundamental concepts of contemporary visual theory: Roger Caillois’s mimicry, George Bataille’s informe, Sigmund Freud’s uncanny, Jacques Lacan’s picture and Roland Barthes’s punctum. This conceptual ensemble pertains to a precise theoretical constellation that cuts across the historical lineage of a certain notion of photography, from the Surrealists to Barthes’s La Chambre Claire and beyond.4 It is the notion of photography as an event that creates a “wound” for the subject who looks and her illusion of mastery, as Krauss underlines in reading Bellmer’s staging of the “construction and dismemberment” of the Poupées as “tableaux vivants of the figure of castration”.5 Thus Krauss ties Bellmer’s “connection of the doll, the wound, the double, the photograph” to Barthes’s punctum, as a way to define a general condition not only of Surrealist photography but of photography as such: “[t]he automaton, the double of life who is death, is a figure for the wound that every photograph has the power to deliver, for each one is also a double and a death”.6 I am immensely indebted to this essay, and my own early fascination with dolls and photography finds here its own origins in this entanglement of the indexical trace with that something beyond pleasure, “that combination of madness and love, released by the doll and by the essence of photography”.7 This speaks of an affection for photography as the place where the doubling of the analogue reveals the uncanny doubling of subjectivity, the subject’s split between (ideal) image and unconscious truth. But this is a condensed way to say it, almost in the form of a riddle, before the discussion I propose in this chapter. Our theoretical journey here will follow Krauss’s argument in Corpus Delicti rather closely, for this is a text I consider to be the foundational reading for the traditional association between dolls and the photographic image via the notion of doubling as uncanny “wound”. I will then move on, adding in the second part of the chapter a few considerations that will open Krauss’s reading to the possibility of its own obsolescence, vis à vis the contemporary visual forms of the human double explored in the following chapters.

Dolls, mimicry and “subjective detumescence”

To unravel the theoretical associations implied in this brief preamble, it might be helpful to introduce the original Latin and Greek words for “doll”, pūpa and kóre. These terms refer to the toy doll and, at the same time, to a young woman and to the miniaturised image of the onlooker reflected in another’s pupil in a situation of reciprocal gaze. As philologist Maurizio Bettini underlined, by doubling the features of a young woman, the pūpa is an icon but also, for its ability to denote features like sound, mobility and a double surface – the naked and dressed body – an object that exceeds the limits of representation to approximate the living nature of its referent, touching on the limit with personhood.8 The doll’s movable limbs stimulate manipulability, that is to say the interaction of play, turning it into a performative object. At the core of my interest in this book on the contemporary photographic forms of the double lays precisely a semiotic question on the interference between the level of representation and that of the performative and how this is articulated in the contemporary moment. In this context, the doll becomes an object worthy of philosophical speculation for the peculiar semiotic status that characterises it, that of a hybrid simulacrum – as semiotician Juri Lotman already noticed, one is invited to play with a doll, as opposed to the contemplation required by a statue.9 Bettini has underlined how it is the doll’s structural peculiarity – whereby it can be manoeuvred, dressed, undressed and styled – that is at the foundation of this semiotic liminality, which turns the doll into a thing existing at the verge between object and image, between the mobility of a living person and the fixity of a simulacrum. In being performed, the doll exceeds its iconic immobility to approximate the living nature of its referent.
As an inanimate double of the human figure, the doll needs the projection of a player to be “animated” through the workings of fantasy. This points to the performative dimension of the doll, which leads to games of make-believe, of made-up worlds in which ordinary reality’s usual coordinates are deconstructed and constructed anew. Speaking of dolls thus means speaking of make-believe’s opening to doubling and projection, of a space in between self and other, a dynamic of reflection in the eyes of the other, which is already suggested in the etymology of pūpa-pupil. In his anthropologically oriented theory of play, Roger Caillois famously included the game of the doll within the category of mimicry, together with games of illusion, travesty and the broader field of the performing arts. In the case of dolls, there are no rules as such, Caillois observes, except for the will to believe in a fiction.10 In playing with dolls, the “chief attraction” rests in “the pleasure of playing a role, of acting as if one were someone or something else”.11
This opening to doubling, fantasy and make-believe, and more broadly to semi-otic liminality and the performative, is a central aspect that makes of the doll a paradigmatic object attuned to our time’s fascination and saturation with simulations and traditionally adopted by artists as a device to explore the boundaries between ordinary reality and fantasy. The dynamics of fantasy and play connected to the doll proved to be central for the historical avant-gardes in their attempt to dismantle naturalism in literature, theatre and the visual arts, and in the possibility of critical deconstruction of the automaton and the mannequin, icons of the mechanisation and commodification of experience at work in the period.12 Through the doll’s structure of mimicry and play, a text could be opened beyond the level of representation to imply something more than what was represented, to include the primary process, the viewer’s projections and efforts of completion as well as extra-artistic spheres of image making.
In particular, the doll’s implication with semiotic blurring has turned this object into an associate of the photographic medium, whose own semiotic indecisiveness has animated the discussions on the medium’s relations to the fine arts since its origins. At a basic, pragmatic level, taken in their social use and materiality, photographs can be considered, like dolls, very peculiar things whereby the boundaries between image, persons and objects overlap. Even in our current ultra-digitised world, dominated by the incorporeality of cloud storage, a vernacular family photograph still inspires this affection, which is ultimately an affection for what in the photograph is more than image, what in it is trace. From a semiotic point of view, this is photography’s implication with indexicality, its relation of continuity with the referent. On the fact that “someone has seen the referent”, that something ought to be in front of the lens to be captured, Barthes famously based the noeme of photography as ça a été, that has been.13 This principle translates the documentary value traditionally attributed to the photographic image and its fundamental entanglement with presence and time – the mortality of “the absolute past of the pose”, that which nails the subject to a death which is at once going to be and has already been.14 As Margaret Iversen put it, with photography we are faced “with past presence, which is to say, the hollowed-out presence of an absence”.15
This proximity to the referent has historically marked the medium’s conceptuality, which has complicated the consideration of its artistic status within the context of a traditional definition of art as interpretation and techne, manual intervention. As an index, the photographic analogue presents the paradox of a “message without a code”, a message for which an interpretative code is not needed since the referent is presented in its integrity, without the “transformation” involved in the other semiotic categories identified by Charles Sanders Peirce, the icon and the symbol.16 Due to this principle of analogy, photog...

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Citation styles for Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan
APA 6 Citation
Quintieri, R. (2020). Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Quintieri, Rosalinda. (2020) 2020. Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Quintieri, R. (2020) Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Quintieri, Rosalinda. Dolls, Photography and the Late Lacan. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.