Date of Publishing:
April 6, 2017

unknown photographer

Queering Dizziness

Karoline Feyertag

There is a lot of “queering something” these days, although Queer Theory is certainly not yet part of the major scientific or philosophical discourse. I will argue that dizziness is not just another concept, which needs queering, but that dizziness is fundamentally linked to queerness. In the end, my argument of “queering dizziness” could possibly be turned round to “dizzying queerness”. Dizziness is shaking the human body and the very ideas and concepts of normality we derive from it. Dizziness helps transcend binary categories and introduces confusion in our minds. Therefore, queer persons, who define themselves as queer, might be as well the “agents of confusion” we are searching for, here at the symposium in Graz.

In June 2015 I met the French historian and feminist art curator Nathalie Ernoult for an interview on dizziness at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Ernoult took part in curating the exhibition “Elles” at Beaubourg:

Elles@Beaubourg,  2009-2010 © Centre Pompidou

This exhibition consisted in rendering visible the women-artists of the Pompidou-art collection. The selection of the art works changed three times in between 2009 and 2011 and therefore gave place for a large number of women-artists to be shown.Nathalie Ernoult gave one pertinent artistic example, which addresses dizziness and gender issues: Zoe Leonard’s photography “Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman” from 1991, which was also part of the exhibition. The American photographer Zoe Leonard started a series of museum photographs in the early 1990s. In the musée Orfila in Paris, which is part of the School of Medicine at the University of Paris, Leonard came across this preserved head of a bearded woman – preserved under a bell jar. In an interview, the artist recalls the effect this discovery had on her:

“I was shocked when I came across the bearded woman's head. I couldn't believe that here was this woman's head, stuffed and mounted, in a jar. […] I am moved by her, anxious to know more about her life, the quality of her life. But, these pictures don't tell us all that much about her. You cannot see her or know her by seeing only her severed head. These pictures are about our culture, about an institutional obsession with difference. Those anatomical models were made in the seventeenth century, and that woman was put under the bell jar in the late nineteenth century, but I see these images as contemporary, because the system which put her head in a bell jar is still in place. The world just hasn't changed that much.“

Leonard first says that she was shocked by the way a woman’s head was exposed under a bell jar, like a trophy. But she quickly comes to speak about difference, our “institutional obsession with difference”. And she points out that the system, which put this head in a bell jar “is still in place”. We still cling to established norms; we claim to know what is “normal” and “abnormal”. A woman with a beard was never perceived as “normal” and therefore was preserved in a medical history museum as an “artefact”.

Regarding this head – whose gender is not evident – makes us dizzy. It provokes confusion in our heads, uncertainty, ambiguity, and trouble. We are here, in front of a preserved, stuffed head from the nineteenth century in France, we still see a lace collar as if it had not been removed. In nineteenth century dress code, the lace collar supposedly signified the female gender. But we also witness a beard and short cut hair. So these secondary gender markers, the beard and the short hair cut, suggest the opposite sex and we wonder: Is this the head of a man or of a woman?

Now, I want to ask: Why do we have to wonder in the first place? What makes us wonder? Does not philosophy always start with the dizzy experience of wondering?

Already Plato wrote in one of his dialogues: “By the gods, Socrates, I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things. It sometimes makes me quite dizzy.”[1]

And I want to ask further: Why do we need to decide between two possible answers – male or female? Why can’t we live with the ambiguity of an undefined sex? And why can’t we live with an undecided sexuality?

It seems as if feeling dizzy for a too long time makes us sick. Dizziness is also considered an illness – the “vertigo illness”. Therefore, the need arises to end this state of dizziness and of not knowing how to control the uncontrollable. This feeling of dizziness can be compared with an ilinx: it is like being torn into the centre of a vortex in the sea, or looking down into the abyss of a waterfall. To add, Zoe Leonard documented the Niagara Falls in another work series. One of these photographs is re-printed in the first edition of the Berlin Journal “ilinx”, Rebekka Ladewig, our key note speaker, being one of its editors and main contributors.

Niagara Falls No. 4, 1986/1991
© Leonard: Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln.
(in: Echterhölter, Gießmann, Ladewig, Butler,Ilinx – Berliner Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft, Nr. 1, 2009, p. XXI)

Within the course of our research on dizziness as a resource, we have tried to find appropriate translations of the German term “Taumel”. Besides dizziness and its connection to the medical condition of the vertigo illness, dizziness also connects with turbulence and trouble.

Trouble stems etymologically from the Latin verb turbulare and means “disturbance, agitation of the mind, emotional turmoil”. Turbulentus also refers to a jester – maybe queer – and to a turbulent movement, for instance a waterfall. The verb “to trouble” stems from the Latin perturbare “to confuse, disorder, disturb,” especially states of the mind.

So maybe at the core of the question of dizziness and queerness we find trouble in the sense of not feeling at ease with or in a given situation, feeling discomfort, disorientation and tumult – and also feeling a certain “gender trouble,” a trouble of knowing where to belong.

My reference to Judith Butler’s book “Gender trouble” only emphasises dizziness’ inherent connection with any kind of trouble. Because dizziness has this capacity to shake bodies, normative assumptions, as well as perceptions, it challenges dichotomy or the norm. Especially with regard to the gender binary, the acknowledgment of dizziness as a resource can help us moving beyond dichotomies and engendering social spaces of compossibility, that is of togetherness and creativity.

The question of the bearded woman therefore is a question of sexual difference, of gender trouble but of dizziness as well: This head created confusion. Without knowing, this bearded woman was an “agent of confusion” avant la lettre.

One last example shall elucidate what I try to explain. Although the freak shows of the 19th century seem far away and left behind, the apparent success of a young bearded woman might question this presumption.

Embed from Getty Images

Harnaam Kaur

The 24-year-old Harnaam Kaur has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as “youngest female with a full beard”. Kaur, who has been in the news in the British media in recent years, has polycystic ovary syndrome. This causes her body to produce more male hormones, which can trigger the growth of excess body hair. On Social Media she told us how much she had suffered, been injured, bullied and how very proud she became of having realised her young girl’s dream: becoming a fashion model on the Catwalk. I quote:

“I grew up being told I was too fat, ugly, and disgusting to even model. I was told I’d never walk the runway. I used to look at models and tell myself that I will never ever be able to do what they are doing. I am not pretty enough or beautiful enough and I don’t have the ‚right‘ body type. I was laughed at when I said I wanted to model.” (Kaur on Instagram, 22.02.2016)
“They called me everything under the sun, threatened me with knives and stabbed me with pens,” she says. (The Guardian)

Kaur’s words seem like an echo and answer to Judith Butler who stated in her book “Bodies That Matter” the following question:

“How is it that the apparently injurious effects of discourse become the painful resources by which a resignifying practice is wrought? […] And further, how is it that those who are abjected come to make their claim through and against the discourses that have sought their repudiation?”

Kaur’s answer to Butler’s question might be found in her becoming the first bearded woman model on the Catwalk; she describes her “turning point” a follows:

“By 15 I was skipping school, contemplating suicide, and self-harming. I wanted to punish my body for looking this way. I wanted to hurt it. One day, I emptied a bottle of pills into my hand. It was my turning point,” she says simply. “I thought, ‘Fuck this shit!’ If the bullies are allowed to live, why shouldn’t I?” (The Guardian)

And when she finally opened the Royal Fashion Day in March 2016, she posted on Instagram:

“I was humbled to be the first model to walk and open the show for #royalfashionday with the portrait of the legendary #davidbowie looking down on me! Every path is my runway! Walk with your head up high and ooze confidence always!” (Kaur on Instagram, 22.02.2016)

The question remains, if these injuries Butler mentions really lead to a general empowerment and the subversion of existing norms or not. The story of Harnaam Kaur seems to confirm this hope for empowerment although history proves the contrary.

Freaks, Tod Browning, 1932

Tod Browning’s film “Freaks” from 1932 is a famous example of re-framing the dichotomy of “normal” and “abnormal” by displaying the abnormal “freaks” at the margins of a society, which takes pleasure in “regarding the pain of others” (Sontag 2003). Implicitly, also Zoe Leonard’s photograph of the “Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman” is referring to this topic of freak shows in the 19th century and to their medico-sensational treatment. Today we would maybe speak of disabled people or – in a re-appropriating manner and re-signifying practice – of queer “agents of confusion”.

I now conclude with a short comparison of dizziness and queerness:

First: both queerness and dizziness are used to signify an abnormal condition of the human being.

Second: both queerness and dizziness affect the body and the mind. Both notions refer to a corporeal and a socio-political condition: this condition is characterised by a raised degree of uncertainty and imbalance. It might be illustrated by several distinct discourses like medicine, art, philosophy, neuroscience, psychobiology, psychoanalysis, etc.

Third: both queerness and dizziness challenge binary thinking and thinking in dichotomies.

Fourth and last: the creation of “safe spaces” of togetherness, research and creativity is a vital precondition in order to facilitate the interaction of queer and dizzy “agents of confusion”. These safe spaces of compossibility may come to light by a royal fashion show, a museum exhibition, a laboratory or even a circus.


Photo: between 1881-1895. Annie Jones toured with P.T. Barnum's circus in the 19th century.

Quoted from John Llewelyn, “On the saying that philosophy begins in thaumazein,” in Post-Structuralist Classics, ed. Andrew Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 173.