Thinking through Subversion in the Time of Its Impossibility

JVF Conference Papers

While first preparing this paper, I named it “A Short History of Subversion.” But I changed the title because I would have set you on the wrong track with it.

In this paper I will not tell you a story of subversion. I will rather give you an insight into my own history with the term. The story starts with my experiencing the photos of French artist Claude Cahun and the way she staged her gender-blurred appearance in the 1920s as something subversive. I decided to dedicate my PhD-project to the subversive representations of bodies by Claude Cahun and two other artists, the US-American performance- and concept-artist Karen Finley and the Danish contemporary dancer and choreographer Mette Ingvartsen. Before I had started to think more thoroughly about the term subversive and of possible definitions of it, I regarded the subversive as a radical artistic expression in opposition to hegemony. It was only after I had realized that many authors in art studies and art criticism use the term subversive as a label without defining its meaning or calling into question its impact, that I also felt more and more uncomfortable with the way I used the term. What did I mean with subversive? Why did I use the term for the artistic practices of the three artists? For quite some time I tried to find possible definitions of subversion which would fit together with my sources, the artistic practices. But then I asked myself whether the term subversion is too universal, too loaded with all kinds of problematic assumptions and as such, whether I could still relate it to my sources at all. What I put here in a few sentences actually was quite a long process. My thoughts went in all kinds of different directions. By thoroughly dealing with my sources, I realized that the term subversion is not the right tool for my analysis of the sources anymore, or at least not the only tool I should use. What sounds like a failing, and in the first moment also felt a bit like it, was actually a very productive process. Instead of going down a traditional way of academic research – where one sticks to a concept and tries to defend it as well and as coherently as possible, I decided to partly let go of a concept that still fascinated me immensely.

Letting go does not mean that my interest in the idea of subversion has vanished – it just means that I accept the fact that my sources should not be cut short of their complexity by applying a term that shuffles onto them problematic assumptions and prospects. Rather than calling the artistic body-representations I deal with in my dissertation automatically subversive, I will try to critically expose the problems of the concept of subversion and the practice of using it as a label of reception in each case individually.

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