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Born Lucy Schwob, the author adopted the pseudonym Claude Cahun from her early twenties, and this interest in shifting names and personae would feature prominently in her artistic and literary endeavors. Originally published in French as Aveux non avenus , Disavowals was not published in English until It consists of ten chapters, each introduced with a photomontage of the author, created in collaboration with her stepsister and partner Suzanne Malherbe. Like Cahun, Malherbe assumed a pseudonym for her creative endeavors, taking on the equally non-gender-specific name Marcel Moore.


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Poetry, essay, photography—Cahun marshals all of these forms in her autobiographical self-revisioning. The confession was an early and seminal form of Western autobiography, with Augustine and Rousseau as the most notable examples. The photomontages that appear at the beginning of each chapter evince a conceptualization of the self as fragmented, multiple, and unstable.


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  6. Masquerade, costumes, role play, and disguise are recurrent motifs. The lens tracks the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep. And then calm—a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph. The inaugural scene of the writing, then—as in Barthes by Barthes —is also a scene of photography: here, the narrator imagines having her photograph taken.

    But might there be a way of reading this scene with Cahun as photographer, rather than subject? This latter reading—of Cahun as the subject who looks and is looked at—accords with the necessary split and doubling of the autobiographical author, who simultaneously writes and is written about. While for Barthes, this experience of the self as fractured and disconnected comes at the point of looking at photographs from his youth and not recognizing himself, for Cahun, this awareness emerges in the act of posing for and taking photographs.

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    Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Trust. In the center is an orb containing an eye cupped by two hands that sit atop a set of rouged lips. Beneath this are overlapping spherical objects, such as a pomegranate, sliced open to reveal its glistening seeds. To the left is another orb, this time a convex mirror with multiple distorted images of a bald-headed Cahun.

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    My best characteristic, the one and only intentional fidelity I am capable of. There is no singular self-portrait to capture the distilled essence of the author artist, but a proliferation of selves: identity is not so much revealed as it is performed, assumed, and accumulated. Cahun actively plays with the codes of gender and sexual identities, shifting abruptly between feminine and masculine modes of dress, and often embracing an androgynous self-image.

    The oval head of a slave; forehead too high She consents to recognise herself. The dynamic process of photographic self-portraiture is emphasized, as the opening scene makes clear. Cahun foregrounds the production of the photographic image: the posing for the camera, the application of make-up, the self-conscious look in the mirror. As I suggested earlier, photographs in autobiography often promise an intimate revelation, especially if they are drawn from private or family collections, which are usually outside of the public domain.

    These words wind their way around a composite portrait of Cahun, consisting of two columns of overlapping faces—all Cahun, but some masked—sprouting from a single neck. Beneath each face lies another, a seemingly endless proliferation of selves. The abstraction, the dream, are as limited for me as the concrete and the real.

    What to do? Show a part of it only, in a narrow mirror, as if it were the whole? Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself. Who, feeling armed against her own self, be that with the vainest of words, would not do her very best if only to hit the void bang in the middle. Is this sexually indeterminate presence a liberated self or a self in crisis? For Cahun, photographic self-representation sponsors a ceaseless reinvention of the self.

    Here, the production and circulation of photographic images is co-opted into a dynamic process of role-playing and self-reinvention: each self-portrait is an opportunity to assume or appropriate another identity, another persona. While each individual image represents a moment in time—fixed—the reuse and recontextualization of these self-images—dissected, enlarged, reduced, repeated—works against the immobility of the photographic images. The images themselves become mobile and mutable. The opening scene, as I have already suggested, can be read as both an account of taking a photograph and being photographed.

    However, it can also be read metatextually as a performance, scripted by Cahun. I'll start again. View all notes The description of posing for and taking a photograph is quite literally a scene being dictated by the narrator, with the beat representing a pause or shift in the timing of movement or action. Later, Cahun makes explicit the performative theatricality of her project.

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    Writing, like photography, is about the envisioning—but not necessarily the fixing or concretizing—of a particular image, moment, or feeling; there is always the possibility of starting over. Even as objects in and of themselves, the photomontages betray a sense of contingency. The text traces a process of identity negotiation, in which different masks and personae are assumed and discarded. However, the effect of the proliferation of selves actually works against the reification of a stable, unified self.

    Given the self-centeredness that lies at the heart of autobiographical writing, it is not entirely surprising that Cahun draws attention to the narcissistic impulse here. Indeed, her highlighting of the narcissistic impulse of autobiographical representation—whether in writing or photography—might also be read as a critique of the narcissistic motivations of self-representation.

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    It is self-fixation, perhaps, but not a fixing of the self. In their insistence on stripping away this contextual detail, Cahun appears almost sui generis : liberated from the familial frame, she is free to negotiate her self-image unbound from considerations of genealogical lineage and resemblance.

    Indeed, in their privileging of theatrical role playing, artifice, and masquerade, these images of Cahun seem far removed from the group portraits or informal snapshots that one might expect to see in a family photograph album. Of course, all photographs, including family photographs, are staged to some extent; even a candid image, in which the subject is unaware that a photograph is being taken, is always framed by the photographer.

    However, reading against the conventional framing of family photographs, how might these self-portraits of Cahun, made in collaboration with Marcel Moore, compel a rethinking of the limits of this category? After all, as artistic collaborations between Cahun and Moore, these images are, in a literal sense, family portraits, staged, directed, and posed for by Cahun, with Moore—stepsister, lover, and lifelong companion—often as the camera operator. It depicts a game of chess between two barely visible opponents.

    On the top left-hand side, a pair of hands, one gloved and one bare, rests on the chessboard. In the foreground are two playing cards—the jack of hearts and the queen of spades. The shadow of an androgynous figure in profile smoking a cigarette, which bears a striking resemblance to the queen of spades, is cast over the bottom right-hand corner of the chessboard. The jack-of-hearts card juts out of the left-hand edge, breaching the rectangular frame of the image; the pair of cards is within the frame of the photomontage but also exceeds its boundaries.

    View all notes While neither candid snapshots nor formal portraits, these images can, I would argue, be read as alternative family photographs. In reading them so, however, it is not only the aesthetics and codes of family photography that are called into question, but also the construction of the family unit itself. Like Barthes, Cahun resists the reificatory potential of family portraiture—that is, its capacity to define and naturalize familial relations. Unlike Barthes, however, Cahun sees in photography the possibility of revisioning and reimagining an alternative family structure.

    The narrator states that he wishes to escape from the framing devices of photography. Barthes places the family photograph album at the beginning of his autobiography so that his writing might proceed free from its image-repertoire. Barthes sees in writing a capacity for revisioning the self that, for him at least, does not exist in photography. For Barthes, writing is preferable to photography because writing can always be corrected, revised, and amended. After all, the two textual forms that are most commonly subject to alphabetical ordering—the dictionary and the encyclopedia—invite revision, correction, and annotation.

    The first three and a half discs of the set are dedicated to the basic track recording sessions recorded at T. Studios in Hollywood, California on July 18, 28, 29 and 30th, and allows listeners the opportunity to experience what it would be like to be in the studio as Zappa perfected these compositions.


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