S. Alexander Reed

S. Alexander Reed is author of Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, and co-author of a 33 1/3 book on They Might Be Giants’ Flood.  Current writing topics include genre theory, punk zines, and Laurie Anderson.  Reed’s band Seeming has several albums out on Artoffact Records.  An associate professor at Ithaca College, he previously taught at NYU, the University of Florida, and William & Mary.  Big Science was the first tape he ever bought.

"She Said It To [K]no[w] One: Cultivating an Anti-Public Sexuality in the Early Works of Laurie Anderson"
Laurie Anderson’s 1982 Big Science addresses topics so grandiose that they belong to nobody: America, language, transportation.  In a rare move for a woman in pop, Anderson narratively casts herself as large both in authority and number: monumental but diffuse.  In this we hear the contradictions by which most writers understand her work: humanity versus technology, presence versus absence, and a host of gendered oppositions—male to female, gendered to genderless, embodied to virtual (see McClary, Murphy, Tick, Chua, McKenzie, Melville, Rappaport).

In my talk I look more closely than previous scholars at how Anderson’s artistic negotiations of gender developed 1968-1981, pre-Big Science.  I use rare archival materials to illustrate her steady trend away from sexual frankness (“I dream pleasantly of rape”) and toward the depersonalization and apparent desexualization so central to her most influential output.

Over this timeline, Anderson’s art indicates an increasingly conscious critique of a culture that demands that women’s personalities and “real” (read: sexual) lives be public property.  In one illustration of this demand, biographer Goldberg would “ask friends… what questions they would ideally like to have answered in a volume on Laurie Anderson.  More than once they responded, ‘What is she really like?’”

I specifically don’t answer this question.  But this talk does demonstrate, first, that Anderson’s turn toward the monolithic and the diffuse evades precisely this sort kind of probing.  Second, it also seizes the gendered posture of control from which such invasive demands emanate.  And third, it creates a conspicuous void around sexuality: a suggestive silence in which expectations are thwarted and alternative possibilities tacitly swirl.  Anderson’s most enduring works find their curiously gendered power, then, not merely from the oppositional paradoxes of topic and timbre, but from a documented and conscious labor toward a radical and new triangulation of private and public.