The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish

eroticdollMarquard Smith
Yale University Press ($40)

by Jeremy Biles

Half a lifetime ago, just after college, I attempted to become a collector of mannequins. At that time, I had not yet learned of the Surrealists’ fetishistic embrace of mannequins; I had not witnessed Duchamp’s endlessly enigmatic Etant donnés, nor dwelled upon de Chirico’s disquieting muses. I did not yet know Hans Bellmer’s iconic poupée, nor had I encountered the famous sculptural assemblage by Salvador Dali, the one comprising a pair of mannequin-passengers crawling with live snails and ensconced within a taxi cab—the “Rainy Taxi” that inspired the title of this very magazine. My desire to acquire mannequins was, or so it seemed to me, a native, naïve, instinctual inclination, born not of my then-incipient interest in Surrealism, but rather driven by a vague erotic compulsion to surround myself with inanimate humanoid figures. I imagined their forms—stiff but curvaceous, mass-made but elegant, fixed but discombobulated—populating, in a sense even animating, my small apartment in all their uncanny stillness.

So I queried nonplussed department store managers, asking for unused mannequins. I scoured the dumpsters outside malls, hoping to procure discarded torsos or disembodied limbs. It was a strange, perverse, obsessive practice, this hunting for bodies amidst the garbage. In any case, I never managed to acquire any of the longed-for figures. (Paying for them was out of the question.) They remained at once conspicuous and out of reach—visible in shop windows and on department store floors, yet seemingly unobtainable. My collection thus remained a dream. Always seeking what I never obtained, I asked, and still ask, What precisely was the object of my obscure desire? What was it that I really wanted, in wanting these mannequins?

A similar line of inquiry drives Marquard Smith’s The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish. Switching the gender of Freud’s famously preoccupying question, Smith opens and closes his book by asking, “What does man want?” More precisely, “What is the nature of man’s—or rather men’s—intimate and erotic relations with inanimate human form?” Much as my erotically impelled search for mannequins took me through the back corridors of malls in search of capitalism’s cast-offs, so does Smith’s account of men’s erotic attachments to dolls, mannequins, and their ilk open onto an investigation of capitalist modernity. But whereas I never apprehended the object I desired, Smith finds what he is looking for: the answer—or at least “one” answer—to the question of what motivates the peculiar desires behind that “most polymorphous perverse sexuality: male heterosexuality.”

In arriving at that answer, Smith undertakes to “tell a story of the ‘invention’ of (male) heterosexuality.” Central to this story is the erotic doll. Smith offers a consistently fascinating, wide-ranging, and often penetrating discussion of “how and why . . . the erotic doll, or the doll figured erotically, emerged and endured as [a] powerful and provocative figure.” His main concern is thus “with how men’s intimate and frequently erotic relations with inanimate human form are constituted visually and materially in historical, cultural and aesthetic networks of modernity.”

Smith’s account of the role of the doll in modernity’s shaping of male heterosexuality draws upon (but also critically departs from) Thing Theory. Smith trains his attention on the doll as a thing, an object, in all its “historical and material particularity,” thereby “foregrounding . . . the doll’s capacities and functionings.” He is less interested in what the doll means (as a metaphor, for example) than on the phenomenological dimensions of “what the doll does, the work that it performs.” This emphasis on the object is expressed in the “three threads” of the book—genealogical, phenomenological, and thing-ological—that “interweave throughout” the book’s three sections.

Section one delineates and elaborates the categories of Pygmalionism and animism. Named after the mythological Greek sculptor who fell in love with a female form of his own creation, Pygmalionism denotes a form of paraphilia characterized by a “love for a thing of one’s own creation, as well as a love for inanimate form and for the prospect of that form’s animation.” Smith recognizes in the Pygmalion story the libidinal nature of creative transformation, arguing that “animism’s animating possibilities work to articulate the nature of a love and desire for inanimate form in general and the erotic doll, the doll eroticized, in particular in the visual and material culture of modernity.” Once created, of course, this doll form “elicits a craving and provokes behaviours and acts”—acts such as attempting to copulate with it, for example. This context informs Smith’s characterization of the doll as an erotic object, a “fetish, a thing, a commodity, a possession, an obsession, an object of desire, an object of love, of worship, of adoration, devotion, an object of lust and even an object for sex.”

Erotic dolls are not, however, merely proxies for human love objects, but are “independent things as such.” Smith attends to the materiality of dolls—wax or fabric, for instance—arguing that the fetishistic character of dolls has to do with desire oriented toward this very materiality. He thus rejects the Freudian concept of the fetish as a substitute object that covers over a loss or lack. For Smith, the fetish is not a symbolic representation, but “a re-presenting, an intensification, an intensifier.” The erotic desire for the fetish aims at “the thing itself as such”—the doll qua artificial, manufactured, and material. The doll is thus aligned with the Marxist commodity fetish, a “part of capitalist modernity’s mass-manufacturing” that conditions male heterosexuality, which is caught up in a “general economy of unproductive and non-recuperable polymorphously perverse practices” deflected from the aim of sexual reproduction.

Section two elaborates this history of the erotic doll as a “fetishistic figure of desire” through four studies. Smith first examines the case of Oskar Kokoschka, who commissioned a life-sized doll of his beloved but unobtainable Alma Mahler—a doll he beat, beheaded, and buried. Forwarding an intricate analysis of the peculiarities of this troubling story, Smith demonstrates how touch, as opposed to sight, is the sense that discloses erotic engagement with the materiality of the thing itself.

In his following discussion of Surrealism’s fascination with mannequins, Smith argues that the shop-window dummy, rather than the “Surrealist object” as such, speaks to modern “capitalism’s capacity for generating an erotics that, in creating the perceived conditions of its own undermining, undoing and demise, affirms all the more so its means, power and will.” Attending to the “history, materiality and technicity” of the dummy as well as the Surrealist mannequin allows him to “speak of and argue for an erotics of artificiality in modernity.”

Focusing on two contemporary forms of erotic dolls—the sex doll and the RealDoll—the next two studies further suture erotics to artificiality. Smith concludes that the mass-manufactured sex doll “has become not only a substitute but perhaps even a model for actual sex. The sex doll,” he writes, “is an option, a choice, a preference.” Thus erotic attachment to the doll expresses a “desire to anthropomorphise and animate objects, and a wilful [sic] self-alienating.”

Alienation is also a key aspect of Smith’s account of the RealDoll phenomenon. Although Smith appears reluctant to cast moral aspersions upon the owners of RealDolls, what he says of the disturbing instances in which they mutilate or brutalize their dolls extends to his view of relations to dolls more broadly: “It speaks of the impossibility of intimacy as a form of knowing, a coming to know, a making known . . . of the innermost . . . nature of the self, of another, of a thing.” The agalmatophile—one sexually attracted to a doll or statue—“senses simply a forever dissociating reflection of his own narcissistic self-alienating.” And yet, in this, “he is no better or worse than the rest of us.”

The final section of The Erotic Doll juxtaposes Duchamp’s Etant données with Bellmer’s poupée. The mannequin at the center of Duchamp’s masterpiece “refuses the logic of the fetish as synechdocal substitute”; it is, rather, a “distorting machine for the perverting of vision.” Smith sees distortion as a positive “activity” of “changing” keyed to “the logics of time, eroticism and transformation itself.” He thus draws readers’ attention to the manner in which the famous “anatomical peculiarities” of Duchamp’s mannequin—its curious labial contours, for instance—are produced through the very materials and “process of its making.” The particular circumstances of that material process—having to do, for example, with the molding of the mannequin’s parts—are not incidental or trivial, but are “built into its very constitution.” The mannequin is everywhere constituted as distorted, and this material distortion piques desire.

The distortions of Bellmer’s famously de- and re-composable doll are of a different sort. Smith discerns in the poupée a “rhythm or logic” animated by an “assembling-disassembling-re-assembling impulse.” Following Bellmer himself, Smith treats the doll as an anagrammatic form, subject to virtually limitless reconfigurations that generate “new desires.” Attending to the history of the doll’s manufacture as well as Bellmer’s proclaimed erotic desire for this object of his own making, Smith casts the doll as a “commodity fetish . . . a paraphilic fetish . . . and an idolatrous fetish.”

If Bellmer’s doll, like the other erotic dolls Smith discusses, is a fetish, it is indicative of “capitalist modernity’s magical thinking.” The fetish, as Marx recognized, confuses “persons and things.” In so doing, it sets the stage for the “invention” of male heterosexuality—its “own recognising and figuring of the individual as both a person and as a thing. It is these ‘qualities’ between persons and things that gave birth to the distinctively modern desires that pulse through and between them.”

So what does the doll tell us about male heterosexuality? What, finally, does man want? Smith’s answer to this “mocking” and “largely rhetorical” question is this: “man dreams of infinite celibacy and total autoeroticism. The doll—as inanimate or animate, willing or unwilling, possessed or possessing, acted on or acting on, a thing with an inexplicable vitality that seems to generate its own laws, demands and desires and, in so doing shapes man’s understanding of his erotic attachment to such form and to himself—is this dream incarnate.”

Is this the dream that drove my own manic desire for mannequins? And should Smith’s conclusion be read not only as a diagnosis but as an indictment of my desire—and, somehow, of male heterosexual desire? Did—does—my fascination with mannequins reveal my sexuality to be the invention of capitalist modernity? I don’t know. But at best this seems to me to be only part of the story. Maybe like all dreams, this erotic dream, embodied in the doll, contains what Freud calls the “dream navel”—the unfathomable blind spot that “reaches into the depths of the unknown,” both calling forth endless interpretation and refusing any final interpretation. Much as the mannequin embodies an uncanny materiality—lifelike and lifeless—the dream navel announces a presence-in-absence, an animated emptiness, endlessly producing interpretations, and endlessly refusing any final interpretation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015