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  • Decadent Fetishism in Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia
  • Cyrus Shahan

Ulrike Ottinger’s films are supremely interested in the possibilities of female subjectivity. As she has repeatedly tested these possibilities, from her fantastical-masochistic Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977) to her epic Asian documentaries Taiga (1992) and Exile Shanghai (1997), her cinematic aesthetics have demonstrated dramatic breadth. An elaborate, lesbian, antirealist aesthetic that aggressively challenged dominant notions of visual pleasure marks her early films. This aesthetic gave way in the latter documentaries to a steady, contemplative realignment of the female gaze to lay the groundwork for new subjectivities for women. Miriam Hansen has analyzed the former in Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return (1979), in particular how the filmmaker’s use of fetishism, as in Madame X, “radically subverts the terms in which patriarchal cinema has monopolized visual pleasure on behalf of the male gaze” (99). Hansen locates this use of fetishism in the Drinker’s exotic outfits that range from a red couture ensemble to a mirror-like metallic costume. For Hansen it is Ottinger’s use of fetishism, which spawned numerous feminist critiques of the film, that “hyperbolizes the means of representation and thus allows [the female fetishist] to assume some measure of control over them” (103). On the other hand, scholars such as Brenda Longfellow have analyzed how the documentary films deploy fantasies of space, exoticism, and observance in lieu of the fetishism to create a “new subject of vision and pleasure” (Longfellow 124; see also Grisham and Knight). This article is interested in the intersection of these two aesthetics in Ottinger’s 1989 film Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia.

Despite what may appear as an aesthetic binary in her œuvre, Ottinger’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia allays any putative schism between fetishism and “documentary-like” observance in her creation of an alternative space within the realm of Asia. By reading this film as the first subversive step in a joint fetishistic-ethnographic aesthetic, her work as a whole becomes more of a cohesive political project. Her use of fetishism, fused with an economy of erotic female gazes, is indispensable for the unhinging of desire and sexual identity that itself ultimately creates the new subject of which Longfellow writes. Female fetishism is an “oxymoron” (Grosz) because, after Freud, there is no reason for the girl to disavow the mother’s castration, since this will not protect her from acknowledging her own castration. Longfellow, following this line, argues that because fetishism remains “within the province of a paradigm [End Page 174] of castration, lack and disavowal,” it cannot be the lynchpin for Ottinger’s investment in lesbian desire (135). This article, however, makes it exactly this by turning to a notion of lesbian fetishism that detaches itself from patriarchal domination. The notion of a female fetishist remains paradoxical but possible, more so if the female is lesbian, as is the case with the women in Johanna d’Arc. Teresa de Lauretis and Elizabeth Grosz (Volatile Bodies) theorize female fetishism deployed against women’s “socially debased status as sexual objects” (de Lauretis 280). Both seek to refunction it against “women’s social reality as oppressed” (Grosz 102). In Johanna d’Arc, Ottinger achieves this through a “decadent” fetishism (Fernbach) that deconstructs hierarchal binaries that would otherwise oppress the sought-after nonnormative identities. But how does decadent fetishism achieve this? Following de Lauretis, lesbian desire must be unlinked from a position “on one or the other side of the paternal phallus” and instead take up “a mobility of fetishistic or perverse desire” (269). For Amanda Fernbach, decadent fetishism does exactly this and thereby signals a form of fetishism “concerned with the disavowal of cultural rather than corporeal lack” (26). Decadent fetishism, Fernbach argues, “can occur in two ways: either by disavowing one’s own lack from a position of cultural marginality, or by disavowing the cultural lack of the Other from a position of cultural centrality” (26). Both of these occur in Ottinger’s film while she literally mobilizes fetishism and desire.

Johanna d’Arc uses decadent fetishism signalled by costumed dandies and object collectors to deconstruct patriarchal and hierarchal binaries that would otherwise “exert...


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pp. 174-188
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