- Professor Bee Scherer speaking at the closure of ‘Beneath the Mask’ at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury (16 March 2017)
It is fitting to reflect on the continued relevance of Claude Cahun (1894-1954), an artist, whom the BBC recently described as a ‘transgender Jewish lesbian … and anti-fascist’.
Actually, to me this attempt to characterise Cahun, appears to be limiting and misleading: Contemporary terms such a queer and genderqueer, gender-defiant, non-binary etc might be better poised to leave open the complexity and exhilarating messiness of the artists’ identitarian performance who negotiated a unique albeit contested position in the bohemian spaces awarded to identity experimentations and expressions within the north American and European contexts of the ‘rolling twenties’ and the fascist-looming 1930s. This unique window of, geographically limited and fragmented, queer visibility, space and freedoms from New York to Paris and notoriously Berlin, appears as the breathing space before the coming fascist-reactionary storm – a backlash frighteningly foreshadowing the current political crossroads and the potentials of bigotry, neo-fascism, and xenophobia. Claude was Jewish from her father’s side and changed her birth name Schwob to a Jewish priestly name (Cahun = Cohen, Kohen).
In Judaism the horrors of history are well remembered with the Biblical warning זָכוֺר לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח zakhor … lo tishkach (דְּבָרִים Devarim [Deuteronomy] 25, 17 -19). The midrashic interpretation of this dual view on memory points to both internal (commemoration) and external (active non-forgetting) dimensions. This Judaeo-European call for memory as resistance in action contrasts to the Greco-European tradition of philosophy of history expressed in Thucydides’ chapter on method in his Archaeology at the beginning of his work on the Peloponnesian War (i.22, 4). Here, pessimism about the nature of humankind (κατὰ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον, kata to anthrōpinon) mixes with fatalism. Thucydides’ τὸ σαφὲς σκοπεῖν (to saphes skopein), to examine in all clarity the past, does not entail any necessary or even possible recourse to changing the present and future: rather the future will to a great degree repeat the past: τῶν μελλόντων ποτὲ αὖθις … τοιούτων καὶ παραπλησίων ἔσεσθαι (tōn mellontōn pote authis … toioutōn kai paraplēsiōn esesthai).
Cahun’s life and time is inspiration and call for continued action, emancipation, liberation, résistance and subversion of the fundamental societal scripts that prescribe the limits of our own identitarian explorations and expressions.
This day has exemplified this uniting theme beyond technical, theoretical, geographical and historical diversity: The challenges to the societal scripts, normativities, simplifications, reductionisms and biopolitical oppressions around gender and sexualities. Behind these oppressions lies the male privilege and the patriarchal power, which reduces humanity into dualistic sex/gender binaries and proclaims the superiority of one of them – intersected with race, ethnicity, abled-bodiness, age, class etc.
Both biological sex and culturally produced gender as well as sexuality are spectral rather than binary: intersex vs. monosex, trans vs. cis, hetero vs. homo are but false dichotomies; rather, embodied experiences emerge on a fluid spectrum only hampered by essentialising and ontologically dichotomising discourses. Our embodied variabilities express the full possibility of humankind, as Mounsey’s approach to disability puts it as ‘same only different’. Without any reference necessary to any hegemonic (normative) centre that would create a margin, identity assemblages and rhizomatic nods of becoming can appear and be lived without othering – same only different.
Claude Cahun expressed defiance, challenge and queering of gender stereotypes and sexual normativities within the context of the flourishing of ‘sexology’ as a medical, positivist struggle to understand non-normative identities; the contemporary LGBTI+ communities still live in the shadow of early sexologies which pigeon-holed and essentialised identities rather than subverted and exploded oppressive normalcies. During the 1920s and 1930s the distinction between homosexualities and trans-experiences was only emerging and linguistic subversion of normativities moved within different parameters than the current battlefields of gender-just and gender-neutral language. Through art and life Claude, who continued to use the female pronoun for herself, as what we would now call a truly queer artist contributed and pre-shaped the conceptual, feminist, queer and trans theoretical challenges that drive Queer activism today.