A photograph in Des histoires

A photograph in Des histoires vraies titled “Le Divorce” shows a man urinating, and a woman, whose face we cannot see, standing behind him with her arms wrapped around his body, one hand holding his penis. Calle writes that this picture was a pretext to hold her husband’s penis one last time, and that the same night he asked to end the marriage. While this reiterates the chronicle of male attention that can only be obtained by way of subterfuge, the story is also significant for the phrase with which it begins: “In my fantasies, I’m the man.” In another photograph in the book, her husband is posed nude with his penis tucked between his legs, out of sight, the “amnesia” of this story’s title referring to the fact that Calle says she can never remember after the fact the colour of a lover’s eyes, his height or the shape of his penis. But visually what is “forgotten” is that he has a penis at all, while in the “divorce” photograph a few pages later, she has, in the image, come close to acquiring one. It is only visually, thought Freud, that the fact of female “castration” can be apprehended; here it is visually that Calle attempts to endow herself with a penis. In these pictures and texts, Calle seems to be both accepting and attempting to sabotage, put right, the classical psychoanalytic notion of woman as lack, as the being with, as Irigaray puts it, “nothing to be seen.” Her wish for a real penis, and for the attention of men, masks her desire for the phallus that will allow for the possibility of expression within the symbolic order, an option closed to her in Lacanian terms given her gender. But like the pseudo-satisfaction of her marriage and her meeting with Henri B., this possession too is a fake, a stolen voice. The viewer knows she does not really have a penis, that she is “castrated,” metaphorically “blind.”

Norman Levine has noted that for the protagonist of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film Proof, Martin, a blind photographer who struggles with the absence of his father, the camera has become a “prosthesis, the phallus that he does not have.” (12) Martin’s “missing eyes as phallus in the Lacanian sense of signification,” writes Levine, “evoke the castration and blinding of OEdipus.” Something similar transpires in Calle’s work. The camera has allowed her to speak “like a man,” to investigate the world and to translate what has been outside the domain of the masculine symbolic order into its own terms. The camera has made it possible for her to insert the visions of her blind subjects into the chain of representation of the sighted (i.e., masculine) from which they have been excluded, and this activity mirrors her attempts to assert herself, “blind” because a “castrated” male, into that same representational order.

In their film, Shepard reveals that like Calle he is unable to identify with the phallic powers of the father. He whispers into the microphone of his video camera that he does not want to take Calle to Florida to visit his father because the man refuses to believe Shepard is his son, and had his mother followed for years by a detective in the hope of finding her with a lover. The lack of recognition by the masculine leaves both Shepard and Calle outside representation, in the position of the woman, “castrated.” Both are, in this way, “blind.”