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| The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art
Book by Robert James Belton; University of Calgary Press, 1995
The principal purpose of this book is to explore and to transcribe these
conventions and cultural fashions as webs of codeterminacy along lines
suggested by Clifford Geertz. He portrayed ethnography as an essen-
tially semiotic endeavour, necessitating what he called "thick descrip-
tion." This method enables the ethnographer to recognize social
behaviour less as an object than as a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superim-
posed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregu-
lar, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and
then to render. . . . Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of
"construct a reading of") a manuscript - foreign, faded, full of ellipses,
incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries. . . . 7
4 Wallace Fowlie, Age of Surrealism ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1950), p. 142.
5 The results of the survey were published in Le Surréalisme au service de la
révolution 6 ( 15 May 1933), pp. 13-6.
6 Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists ( New York: Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1962), pp. 135-8.
7 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures:Selected Essays ( New York:
Basic Books, 1973), p. 10. The term "thick description" (defined by Geertz
I will treat the social world of the male Surrealists as a text, and I will
make occasional interventions inspired by a miscellany of methodolo-
gies, including Lacanian discourse, various linguistic analyses, and art-
historically conventional iconography.
Roland Barthes' descriptions of idiolect, the speech habits of a par-
ticular individual, and ideology are useful here. In his famous "Rhetoric
of the Image", he writes that the number of responses of the same lexia,
construed here as "image," varies according to the individual reader. It
is, however, not without an order of sorts, for it depends upon the dif-
ferential movements of what A. J. Greimas called "semic axes" - that is,
paths through fields of association or horizons of expectation. "The same
lexia," writes Barthes, "mobilizes different lexicons," each lexicon cor-
responding to a different semic axis. 8 An individual, he continues, can
have more than one lexicon, the number and identity of which deter-
mine the person's idiolect. The point is that while speech habits do dif-
fer from individual to individual, only in the most exceptional
circumstances does an utterance completely escape intelligibility. This
intelligibility may only be approximate, but it is nonetheless describ-
able. However, Barthes recognized that this entails retrieval of the semic
axes, achievable only if one undertakes a massive inventory of connota-
tion. He continues, "This common realm of the signifieds of connota-
tion is that of ideology, which cannot help being one and the same for a
given history and society, whatever the signffiers of connotation to which
it resorts" (p. 38).
The task of this study, therefore, is to undertake an inventory of con-
notation by sifting through the surface structure of men's images of
Woman and isolating the ideological misapprehensions which underlie
its deep structure. In turn, this will expose the determinants of the Sur-
realist horizon of expectations, providing a number of possible semic
axes to follow.
One might think that the best way to approach the visual artists would
be to explore the influences of older artists, the positions which painters
occupy in the hierarchy of modernism, and so forth. This is what has been done elsewhere time and again, with results ranging from the encyclopedic to the formally reductive.
on pp. 6-10) is taken over from Gilbert Ryle's "Thinking and Reflecting"
and "The Thinking of Thoughts," in his Collected Papers, Vol. 2 ( New York:
Barnes and Noble, 1971), pp. 465-79 and 480-96.
8 Roland Barthes, "Rhetoric of the Image", in The Responsibility of Forms:
Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, trans. R. Howard ( Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991), p. 35.