”Striptease - at least Parisian striptease - is based on a contradiction: Woman is         desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore         say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on             the pretense of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious           terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea             of sex and its conjuration.”

      - Roland Barthes, Striptease (84)

Desire is not based upon the subsequent exposures of the ultimate objective (i.e. the naked body), but on the somewhat playful yet ultimately tactical concealment of that objective.

In its most pure form, desire is a drive for some intimate understanding, and that drive is dependent upon the suspension of understanding and the delay of fulfillment. Barthes essay “Striptease” investigates how the exposure of the Parisian dancer is controlled. If she reveals herself, she allows the audience to achieve a level of understanding which would spoil their desire. It’s a kind of paradox: how does the dancer keep from exposing herself as she proceeds to remove every article of her clothing piece by piece?

The dancer performs two acts simultaneously: one of revealing herself by stripping away the physical items that conceal her body, and one which conceals identity through a façade that robs the flesh of its individuality and removes the significance of the naked body. Though exposed, the dancer remains unperceived, obscured by the props, the general environment of the music hall, and the repetitive motions performed. These constitute a collection of symbols: “the Chinese woman equipped with the opium pipe”, the “vamp with a gigantic cigarette holder”, “Venetian décor complete with gondola”.(84) They shroud the dancer in mystery and trigger the beholders imagining of various, inconsistent personalities, disconnected from that individual’s actual identity. We don’t see the dancer, but an imagined version of the dancer brought forth by the props and costumes and even the situation itself. One is faced with a didactic narrative and lead into a state of objectification in which the dancer becomes another character within a larger narrative. One “dresses” that individual, and in so doing, negates the state of nudity by removing the individual character of the human and replacing it with the more ambiguous symbols of narrative. The object of focus achieves a fictitious state. That is, one does not see it as it is, but instead perceives artifice as fact based on the deceptions of the presentation.

A vital component of the striptease is movement, yet Barthes states that the dancing “is in no way an erotic element”, instead the dance serves to “exorcise the fear of immobility” and to “smother the spectacle under a glaze of superfluous yet essential gestures”.(85-86) The dancer reaches such a state of objectification that the constant movement and undulation are nece­ssary to keep the performer from falling into a state of complete abstraction. This combined with “the classic props of the music hall” serves to re-locate the act into the realm of the everyday. This set up removes the individuality of the singular human so that they might temporarily generate an experiential condition in which their nudity lacks intimacy. The results dislodge the act of striptease from the realms of eroticism and sex and push it into the realm of spectacle that is abstract, objective, and playful rather than intimate or serious. In Barthes words, “Striptease is made to rejoin the world of the public.”(87)

The purposeful objectification and abstraction that occur in Barthes description of Parisian striptease can be applied to architectural thought. There is a balance that is struck between the physical and the non-physical attributes that re-orient our emotional and intellectual relationship to the object of our attention. Culture (in the form of symbols) and ritual (in the form of movements) achieve these ends. Architecture is itself a component of cultural expression; in this case though we might define architecture more specifically as a medium through which a collective culture is exercised. History, religion, and art are imbedded into the buildings that we create. Ritual in the case of architecture is not exercised by the building itself, but through the actions of the people who inhabit it in the form of “program”. Program is the ritualistic use of architecture for a particular function. Architecture does not inherently beg a particular function, as shown by the adaptability of architecture to new programs. Yet through the repetitive use of particular formal strategies to solve the necessities of a pre-defined programmatic outline, certain rituals are formed.

Ultimately what “striptease” deals with is the controlled construction of an experience. Accessing cultural and historical symbols, it is possible to negate an individual association, and control or at least curate the relationship of an audience to an act, generating a collective experience. Our dependence upon the inexact workings of our senses and our mind creates opportunities; a constant balance is being struck between our psychological understanding and our physical understanding of places and objects. There is a danger to the implementation of culture and perhaps even ritual: the loss of inherent meaning or individuality, one significance overw­helming and dissolving another. The act of concealment exercised by the Parisian stripper is constructed around this principal. For architecture I would say it is the overlay of multiple meanings that poses a threat to the effectiveness of that architecture. The unwieldy and inexact implementation of such methods can drain away the significance that they contain. Then again, this might be a desired effect; to surgically remove one significance to make way for a new meaning (again, we look to the example set by the Parisian dancer). You might rob the architecture of its meaning so that it can be redefined using new terms.


Graham Jordan 
April 2015

1. Barthes, Roland. “Striptease.” Trans. Annette Lavers. Mythologies. 16th ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984. 84-87. Print.