Recomposing Werther

  • Geoff Bender Assistant Professor, English Department, State University of New York at Cortland.
Keywords: Androgyny, sexology, new materialism, visual agency, cultural network


In this article, I use a new materialist methodology to analyse two full-length nude portraits in Ralph Werther’s memoir, The Female–Impersonators (1922). I show how Werther either cooperates with the sexological diagnosis of his “pathological” condition of androgyny or, more provocatively, resists it to make a visual argument for the beauty of his variant body. My theoretical framework presents an alternative to social constructionist assumptions by asserting that agency, as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and others have suggested, is distributed across networks of human and nonhuman objects, exerting a mutually constitutive force to change and be changed by contiguous objects. Objects, from this viewpoint, have power beyond what humans assign them. In this light, I argue that Werther is made by the objects that his body engages within and beyond the photographical frame, but, more importantly, that he also exercises his agency on them, via a series of visual relays, in order to maximise their value for his own rhetorical purposes. I conclude that Werther, as an actant in a complex visual negotiation, ultimately persuades us that his body is not to be pitied, but rather is a form to be aspired to, both culturally and aesthetically.