"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Gaga over Gaga: Lost in the Funhouse of the (Reified) Real

By Virginia Konchan

“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” ―Guy Debord 

 “I'm telling you a lie in a vicious effort that you will repeat my lie over and over until it becomes true.” ― Lady Gaga 

The paroxysm of “authenticity,” since its modernist deconstruction, can’t cure postmodern anomie, at a time when politics, religion, self-esteem, personal expression are entirely bound up with the logics of branding and the blinding halogen lights of commodity culture, manufacturing not just celebrities but the desire to be them (mimesis, or facial reconstructive surgery), as well as dissatisfaction with our own imperfect bodies, financial and existential woes, and (occasionally) humdrum lives. When representation engulfs the real, the compensatory mechanism (inflated valuation of subjectivity, in identity politics) kicks in: can, then, the desire to worship or admire the other (as subject, not purchasable fetish) be the only “authentic” meme, driving the totalized spectacle, left? If surrendering the need for gods is last step on the journey to disillusionment (“You revolutionaries want another master, and you will get one” as Lacan warned in 1968), Gaga lights a path beyond institutionalized dogma, and the image regime, by demonstrating the performance of the real as nothing more than a metastasized staging of the desire for recognition, and (ew) love.

For Gaga, to be seen is to exist. The danger inheres in the absence or deconstruction of the spectacle, or, in psycho-sexual development, the failure of the mirror stage: without the media feed and cameras, how do iconic celebrities, and the rest of us, reify our existence, or ego? The body of an icon, like that of all market subjects, is experienced by spectators as an object designed to scandalize, sell products, and attract. Writers and other creative artists share in this dilemma of self-promotion and marketization: is constant self-and other reification through textual representation (enacting the schism between self and personae, site and parasite) that different, in the history of oral performance and codified text, than the rabbit hole of the entertainment industry?

From Gaga’s “Manifesto of Little Monsters”: “There is something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras. So precisely, so intricately and so proudly. Like Kings writing the history of their people, is their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as the kingdom. So the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the Kings. They are the Queens . . . It is in theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image . . . the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be or rather to become . . .”

If celebrities (and the cult of celebrity) are materially invented and produced by man, as archetypes sustaining the human drama, their cracked surfaces and flaws show us that defying natural laws or performing ideality is a paid performance by professional stuntmen and women, assisted by teams of choreographers, make-up artists, clothing designers, and funded by us. “Glamour is what I sell, it's my stock in trade,” as Marlene Dietrich quipped. And glamour, as we know, makes life sexy, but, like hard living, can also kill.

The polarity between life and representations or reproductions of life was cogently articulated at the dawn of industrialism when Walter Benjamin declared, in 1936, all perception of post-auratic art to be perceptual mimesis: we are only shocked, moved, or stunned once, by the original event or form, and all that comes after is (mis)recognition, degrees of familiarity, and habituation to the supplement, dramatizing our alienation from sentience, the other, and ourselves.

In admiring celebrities, historical figures, and artists who seem to transcend biological or class determinisms (embodying the Greco-Roman will-to-form) we run the risk of conflating the spectacle of the medium (the “body wholly body,” to quote Wallace Stevens, “fluttering its empty sleeves”) with the message, or ceasing to believe (the coup of neoliberal aesthetics) in the value or existence of a “message,” obviating the politics of resistance and conscious deliberation, at all.

From the onrush of “open letters” penned by Sufjan Stevens, Sinead O’Connor, and others counseling Miley Cyrus back from the brink after her twerking episode, to celebrity ripostes and biographies exposing the collateral damage of media-fueled celebrity, when not resulting in actual death (i.e. Amy Winehouse and Brittany Murphy), never has the line between art and performance, iconicity and humanity, production model and duplicate, copyright and forgery, been so attenuated (nor our memory of the “authentic,” so atrophied) as today. Our collective amnesia of the real, spurred by celebrity culture, post-Cold War hijinks of technological progress (genetic engineering, robotics) and reality TV, has roots in surrealism, and other revolutionary movements breaking with official, and mass culture. In 1922, André Breton distanced himself from the Dadaist taste for scandal for scandal’s sake, yet Louis Aragon pressed on, writing in the preface to The Libertine, “I’ve never looked for anything but scandal.” As does Gaga: “They can’t scare me if I scare them first.”

The argument, like that of porn as liberation, that celebrities, even if manufactured, produced, and consumed, do so volitionally, retaining, agency, is nothing if not fraught, and often entails a culturally enforced process of teaching a woman to “confess” to enjoying social or actual prostitution, as dramatized in the 2013 biopic Lovelace, about porn star Linda Lovelace’s economic and sexual exploitation by her manager, pimp, and husband, Chuck Traynor, and the porn industry. The star herself can become mesmerized by the mirrors of her overexposed image, and addicted to the biofeedback of fans and paparazzi (not like the saline-drip of social media).

Eddie McCaffray, on Gaga's "Do What U Want (With My Body)": “Gaga’s body is either something valueless, such as garbage or raw meat, or something flagellated, such as that of an abuse victim, that of someone with an eating disorder, that of an addict [ . . . ] If it is valueless muck, it can be refashioned however fame or art (pop) demands. If it is merely a conduit for trauma, it allows that trauma to create a space from which Gaga can emerge as coping-mechanism-cum-messiah.” McCaffray’s presents a view of Gaga as a disembodied other, stripped of subjectivity, and her social function as either stigmatic repository for our shame, sexuality, and violence, or, in her performance of illness and hysteria, a stigmatic fetish, easing our anxiety over lack, and the void (the modernist nausea of non-being; and today, in zombie capitalism, bodies emptied of personalities and selves), to avoid its projection onto men.

We live in an era dominated by the anasemic drive (e.g. Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia), mourning the inability of the necromantic body to signify, and substituting contingency and flux for meaning, and market transactions, relationships. Our troubled relationship to the stigmatized body is echoed in the enforced discipline and punishment of female reproductive body (fitness industries, post-industrial meat production, fertility politics, abortion debates), and its dangerous affects and outlaw desires. An aesthetics of waste (what writer Joyelle McSweeney calls magpie aesthetics), ecocritical, formalist, historicist, trans, queer, Marxist or feminist, can also been seen as a political refusal of the body-cum-artwork’s capitalist (Stalinist, fascist) utility and form: within the culture and entertainment industries, taboos only need to be broken once for the “norm” to be shattered.

Openly confessing to having struggled with anorexia and bulimia since age fifteen, Gaga’s Body Revolution campaign, launched in 2012, is accompanied by pictures of her in a slim but not anorexic or pre-pubescent state. As Katie J.M. Baker says, “We also know she's still struggling because of how she's trying to cope: by asking for support and validation from her millions of ardent fans. Gaga wants to empower others, clearly, but she's also letting us watch the narrative of her eating disorder play out. Gaga’s Body Revolution campaign . . . is inarguably inspiring — it's heartwarming to see dozens of posts from women and men who are insecure about features ranging from love handles to missing limbs proudly post photos of their half-naked bodies . . . Gaga proves she really is just like her fans by "showing the world that it's not okay to critique her body" instead of suing the publications that called her fat or claiming she's ‘dehydrated’.”

Gaga—not so much as sex symbol but androgene—has come to represent, then, the limits not only of commodified performativity, but its breaking point, within the body: rhetorics not of transcendence or ideality but the politics of self-harm: the occupational hazard, in the entertainment industry, of illness and addiction, at war with the off-stage desire for health and intimacy.

Gaga, Madonna’s closest heir, troubles not just iconic but historic stereotypes of women in power (witch-hunts, libidinal repressions of Victoriania), and yet the revolutionary message is largely that of defiance. Testing the boundaries of mainstream and avant-garde theaters (of the absurd, oppressed and cruel), and the sturm und drang of contemporary performance as “high art” (pageantry, spectacle), Gaga spits at vertiginous imaginaries dependent upon monetized and ideological investments for survival (“Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it's broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker's reflection”), reclaiming the right to bleed publically, for cash, not as shock art, but an embodied prolegomena, with witnesses, of her “truth” (what else is real)?

Bio: Virginia Konchan is a writer and critic living in Chicago. Her work has appeared widely in such places as in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and The Believer. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and regular contributor to The Conversant and Jacket2, she lives in Chicago.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kanye Alive: the limits of human personality

By Devin O’Neill

Kanye West is a truly awful human being.

His recent partnership with that paragon of regressive gender norms, Kim Kardashian, only reinforces his obnoxiousness. We had hoped, previously, that he might surprise us; that his life’s trajectory might transcend the petty struggles that we deal with under the heel of money, sex, power, the dominant modern narratives of a culture in capitalistic squeeze. But he’s marrying her.

There are no restraints on his ego, and there’s no self-aggrandizing, culturally transgressive sentiment he won’t verbalize. He’s a completely unedited human being, and that’s not something you can be in civilized contemporary society. There are certain limits to the acceptable reach of your personality.

One of the most rancid examples of his expulsive blitzkrieg is “Blame Game,” off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – a record title that should tell you a lot about how Kanye thinks of himself.

The song is a serious trip into emotional hell. It’s one of the most psychologically complex, tortuously self-absorbed hip-hop songs I’ve ever heard.

The track is a lament over the end of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend a few years ago. In the wake of that relationship, maybe even during it, she was having sex with someone else, someone local, while he was on tour, apparently.

Kanye vacillates, during the course of the song, between detailed description of his own ability to satisfy her kinks and an almost frantic rant, an outline of his desire to keep track of her and control of her, to prove himself worthy, to understand who’s at fault for the end of their relationship. This rant is separated, via his production tweaks, into a chorus of distorted voices, almost as though his schizophrenic brain is arguing with itself.

At the end, serving as one of the most uncomfortable moments in contemporary music, is an extended monologue by Chris Rock, in which Rock plays the ex’s new lover, describing in lurid variety her expertise at pleasing him sexually. After each lascivious entry in the pornographic catalog, Rock demands to know where the girl (nameless, here) learned all these tricks. She replies, robotically: “Yeezy taught me. Over and over again.

In an additional layer of horror, this scene is constructed as though Kanye were hearing it through her phone, which accidentally called him back – he’s eavesdropping, via butt-call, on the most simultaneously emotionally devastating and Kayne-aggrandizing conversation imaginable.

Except that none of this actually happened. It’s all a product of Kanye’s fevered imagination.

Hovering over all this is John Legends plaintive chorus:

Let’s play the blame game, I love you, more
Let’s play the blame game for sure
Let’s call out names, names, I hate you, more
Let’s call out names, names, for sure

…and ending with an impossible mantra, one we can’t, oh god, get behind, but must, because if we’ve had our hearts broken we’ve felt it.

I can't love you this much.
I can't love you this much.

It’s not enough for Kanye to resort to a rapper’s conventional arsenal of egotism – sex with lots of big-booty hos, massive gold chains, cars, rims. No, he has to create a twisted internal portrait of his mind so excruciating and disgusting in its detail that we see how much of a monster he is, see the lengths he’ll travel to throw a tantrum, we see the wasteland of his heart and still can’t entirely sympathize with him because he paints his own obstinate self-love with such a clear brush. And he does all this over an echoing, skittering beat that sounds like a trash-filled alley, topped with layered pianos and strings.


In case you’re missing my point so far, an idiot is not capable of making this kind of music.

This is the reason that I’m so deeply skeptical, almost disgusted, at the public’s reaction to the “Bound 2” video. Something sinister lurks in everyone’s reaction to that video, and to Kanye West in general.

It’s not that the video isn’t ridiculous. It is. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve discussion, criticism, or parody. It does. Kanye loved the parody James Franco and Seth Rogen made.

But the conversation, the direction of the conversation, is evidence that people don’t really understand Kanye West, and they don’t want to. And that’s a shame. It’s an erasure of a contemporary cultural force that’s unrivaled; that cuts a perpendicular path to the assumptions we make and the conversations we’re having. He’s proof that art isn’t dead, but we’re trampling over him while complaining that it is.

He’s an egomaniac, to be sure. He’s incredibly full of himself and he doesn't miss any opportunity to talk about how awesome he is.

He’s like Muhammad Ali in that way. Muhammad Ali was an egomaniac. He never missed an opportunity to let people know that he was the greatest in the world. THE WORLD. He talked shit to his opponents constantly (during matches!), to the audience, to the media. It was his aggressive, unique way of inhabiting his own life. Many people thought it was awful. In instances even I think it was awful.

Ali revolutionized the sport of boxing by sheer power and magnetism of his personality. At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in – and indeed craved – the spotlight, where he was sometimes provocative, frequently outlandish and almost always entertaining. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing. He transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to completely “define the terms of his public reputation.”

Of course, Ali backed up his bravado with skill. So does Kanye?

Believe it or not, I’ve left a lot of things out.

Some people have reactions to his body of work that really baffle me – but they’re evidence of how oversimplified his public image has become. The other day, someone in a comment thread expressed that they were impressed with “whoever makes Kanye’s music,” but they don’t really like HIM. As though he were an industry-manufactured pop star. Many don’t seem to realize that he started as a producer, and that that’s still his primary identity: he’s as anally obsessive about his music and image as somebody like Trent Reznor, and he crafts every second of his songs with careful precision. Every beat, every instrument, every voice and every collaborator. When you listen to a Kanye album, he is responsible on some level for every sound you hear.

And what sounds they are. Just take a second and listen. I promise it won’t be torture. Three tracks. Just three. Listen to all the instruments, all the layers, all the composition and production. Even if you hate him.

Listen for how the piano shifts the mood of this first track; the gospel element it brings in. He made that album after his mother died, and he felt he needed to sing, in order to get his emotions out – but he can’t sing. Hes a terrible singer.

So he used autotune instead. Because nothing will stop him. Not even his own complete inability to sing. If you couldn't sing for shit, would you try to make an album that consists entirely of you singing? He didn’t even blink.

So what is it that makes Kanye West such a problem to deal with? Why, in the midst of all of this work he’s making, does he feel the need to be so insufferable? Why does the public experience him as such an obnoxious fuck, and why don't they experience any of the other dimensions of his work?

I think, really, the problem is our inability to resolve him into something we can easily digest. We don’t really like the energy he puts off: it’s manic, uncontrolled, it doesn’t respect the tacit social contract that celebrities are supposed to have with their audiences. He’s not ashamed of his wealth and power. He has not been slowed down and made less hungry by his success.

Celebrities are supposed to be grateful. After all, we all want money and power, right? They’re not supposed to want more things than they already have, because they already have so much. Of course, Kanye doesn’t want THINGS, exactly. He doesn’t just want more cars and gold-plated toilet seats. He wants the ability to change the world, to make a dent in it. He thinks he still has something to give, and he speaks loudly about that. This Breakfast Club interview is pretty illuminating:

This is the most infuriating aspect of Kanye, worse than his womanizing and his self-love and his manic personality: his social politics. Because people can’t for the life of them understand what he’s saying. Why does he go on and on about Steve Jobs in interviews? About Michelangelo? About fashion designers we’ve never heard of? What business does he have comparing himself to these people?

He is a human being at the very center of a very big cultural machine; that he’s right about. None of us have the perspective on the situation that he has. He knows what capital can do, which is why he dismisses Charlemagne’s accusations in that interview, that he doesn’t need to be materialistic to change the world. He knows that one has to have access to the system in order to restructure it. He, between the two of them, is the more realistic: global revolution isn’t going to be possible unless those billionaires start changing how they think. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have made similar assertions.

The machinery of capitalism has to be rewired.

But is he really the one to do it? This disgusting performing freak?

Im not arguing here that he’s got it all figured out. He’s fucking up constantly. He’s letting us watch the process of him fucking up, which is much more terrifying than him simply being omnipotent. His naked hunger is vulnerable, just as vulnerable as his naked pain and uncontrolled behavior in songs like “Blame Game.” We are not supposed to talk about the things he talks about. That ache and that rage and that all-consuming desire are not proper topics for public conversation.

They may not even be proper topics for art. That may be what we’ve decided. But this is his gift, for this moment in history: he’s bringing transparency to the forces shaping our culture. This is the hell of the contemporary male ego. This is the pressure. This is what a successful career in his industry looks like. This is the schizophrenia it produces.

He’s smart enough to take himself apart and lay his guts on the table, he’s skilled enough to sculpt those guts into impeccably produced songs, and he’s a good enough artist to not leave anything out. To not edit. To let us look the beast in the eye.

He dreams bigger than songs, though. He dreams of a multi-billion-dollar company that democratizes inspiring design, the way Eames dreamed. And we would prefer it if Kanye’s dreams died.

Really, truly. That’s what we want. We want him to shut up, we want him to stop trying, we want him to calm down, we want him to make a million more versions of “Gold Digger,” his biggest pop hit. Anything but this. Anything. This shit is embarrassing.

Our failure to get him to resolve into something easy and digestible has resulted in all kinds of distortions. It’s resulted in a flattening out of his identity. We edit a lot of things, a LOT of things, out of our picture of him. We don’t have a conversation with him so much as we hold up abstracted quotes and yell at them.

The “Bound 2” video is an excellent example. A good portion of the public has managed to delude themselves into believing the cheesy tenor of the video, the flat production, the ridiculousness of the concept, were all a complete accident. They believe Kanye’s a bumbling idiot with no sense of humor. This despite all the evidence to the contrary: an entire career of self-deprecation, self-lampoon, irony, and deep cleverness.

This next video was executive produced by West himself. He threw a bunch of money on the table and set Zach Galifianakis loose.

People manage to convince themselves that “Bound 2” was meant to be taken seriously, even though in it Kanye is fucking Kim Kardashian WHILE driving a motorcycle across the country. On the motorcycle. Fucking her on the motorcycle. The moving motorcycle.

And then of course, there’s that quote from the interview cited above, on The Breakfast Club:

“What was treatment for the ‘Bound 2’ video?”

“Oh, I wanted to take white trash T-shirts and make that into a video.”

“So you wanted it to look bad?”

“Yes. I wanted it to look as phony as possible. I wanted the clouds to go one direction, the mountains to go another direction. The horses…because I wanted to show you that this IS the Hunger Games. I wanted to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it.

That identity marker – a Black Dude – is clearly a central issue for West. He makes both race and masculinity festering wounds in his work.

He is loud, loud, loud about the effects his relationships with women have on him in his songs. And about the sex he wants. And about the sex he has. And about the emotional knots he ties himself in when he’s trying to satisfy his own urges. And about the culture’s relational expectations and pressures on him as a black male. It’s an outgrowth of the rest of his self-obsession: he’s not curbing his sexuality or insecurity at all, and if he feels a feeling, he’s going to rap about it. If he wants a blowjob, he’s going to tell you.

This produces some of the most complicated emotions I experience when dealing with his work. Because the things is, I know exactly what he’s rapping about. I could pretend to you that I’m never starved for sexual affection, that male sexuality doesn’t sometimes feel like a dirty burden, that I don’t feel the urge to shout about it, just to confess, and excise guilt for the things I want. “This is what I like! I don’t care!” But I’d be lying to you.

I’ve experienced incredible, sickening rage and jealousy when I lose my current partner to somebody else. I’ve experienced the urge to sexually dominate another person. I’ve experienced an ego-saturated link between my sexual prowess and my worth as a human being. I’ve experienced the urge to be dirty, and to subject partners to dirty, aggressive things.

There’s something about the line...

Black girl sipping white wine
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign

…that makes me thrill, given the culturally marginalized identity he’s operating from. And I think Kanye knows that. I don’t think Kanye accesses these things because he’s naive about their implications. I think he knows that his innermost impulses, externalized, cause problems. The images would terrify. So he externalizes them anyway, come hell or high water. Because that’s what he thinks art is.

He makes me, in some ways, very uncomfortable as a male listener. Because I know I’ve thought those things. I know I’ve felt those things. I know, for example, that I’ve experienced being on the receiving end of oral sex as a power trip, even thought I’m not “supposed to,” even though that’s all cultural, even though there'’ nothing inherent in the act that makes it that. My interest in dissecting those impulses fuels my interest in BDSM, and feminism, and masculinity generally. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend I don’t feel those things. I do.

I know I’ve wanted to be rich and powerful, and I know I’ve experienced conflict and self-loathing over that. I know I’ve gone back to relationships, thoughts, and patterns that I shouldn’t have, repeatedly. I know I’m in constant conflict with my desires for success, and acceptance, and sex, as a male. Do I take risks with my own creative work because I’m being fearless, or because takings risks will make me sexier, splashier, will get me the kind of attention I want? What’s my real motivation here? Which of my internal drives are the most important? Why am I writing this article?

He and I are living in the same hell.

I don't know which is better, getting laid, or getting paid.
I just know when I’m getting one, the other’s getting away.

All this frantic energy reached a head with Yeezus. It’s one of the most strained, painful, borderline insane musical landscapes I’ve ever dealt with, and listening to it straight through is a harrowing experience. It’s what biological tension sounds like; the urge to reconcile a million different animal impulses without compromising any of them. This is impossible. You can hear the thing cracking under its own pressure. And it’s breathtaking.

This is the context “Bound 2” is placed in. After an entire album full of screaming existential hell, it breaks at the very end like a beautiful sunrise. It’s pop-y, welcoming, and the chorus reaffirms the importance of love and connection and careless partying. After suffering Kanye’s demons along with him for nine tracks, it’s like being able to breathe again.

This is why the video is perfect. It’s jokey, cheesy, expansive, and oriented around his new relationship. It paints K and K as stars of their own B-grade tourist photo-op fantasy, and his tone in the song is nonchalant, facetious, tossed-off; a relief. Whatever, I’m an asshole, fuck it, sure, let’s go on vacation. It’s a giant blast of ridiculous sunshine. It’s the only thing that could possibly counteract the Night on Bald Mountain that is the rest of the album.

That journey, just like Kanye’s journey in general, is not a safe one. Kanye West is not safe. That is the main thing he is not, artistically. He doesn’t let anything stand in the way of his work, least of all his own inhibitions. Nothing but emotional honesty from Kanye, despicable as you might find him. No games. The moment-to-moment mess.

For all these reasons, I, as a culture producer, find his career both inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring, because I hope to be that honest someday. I’m not that honest. Not yet.

Terrifying, because I can see quite clearly the way he’s treated. His ideas are simplified. His intentions are misinterpreted. His complexities are reduced to caricature. His biggest dreams are laughed at. The more emotionally honest he is, the more hated he is.

If I get where I’m trying to go, this could be my future. So people can laugh all they want, but I’m watching, and I'm taking notes.

I was at his concert at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and I was high on LSD. He stopped between songs, right before “Runaway” (“baby, I’ve got a plan: run away as fast as you can” – another admission of his own repellence), and launched into a discussion about his recent interviews. And then he raised his hands to the sky, and yelled “Y’ALL LIKE IT WHEN I TALK SHIT? YES OR NO!”

He said this as he stood in the middle of his incredible, MOCA-ready multimedia stage, surrounded by solid green lasers.

The response from the thousands present was unmistakable. One massive “YYYEEESSS!!!”

Despite his complete lack of restraint, despite all his awful excesses, there is one thing that Kanye West will never do: he’ll never stand in your way if you want to dream big. It’s the exact opposite of his philosophy. He said in his Zane Lowe interview, and he’s said over and over, that he wants to serve as an example: you can do anything you want. Anything. You. Want. If he ever stopped or gave up, that promise would be bunk. He’s got a lot riding on him.

Make no mistake: Kanye West is not your enemy. He’s on your side. If you asked him, to his face, what he thought you were capable of, I’ll bet you a hundred dollars he would look you straight in the eye and answer: “anything.”

It may, of course, all collapse, go up in smoke. His ideas about design or clothing or a democratized innovation empire might prove to be so much bullshit hot air. But he is not going to agree with you about that before he tries. And he’s not going to pretend that he doesn’t think he can do it. He’s going to go on saying that he can.

And he’s going to go on being a complete human mess as revealed through his music; he’s not going to clean up his songs for you.

His struggles with corporate America might change form; his loud, brash, public-interview-contentions with the boardroom policies of major global organizations. I suspect that he’s just now encountering this world really deeply, this weird world of billionaires and fashion houses, and since he’s Kanye West, he doesn’t know how to shut up. Soon, he’ll learn to shut up just like the rest of them, just like the rest of the suits, the corporate leaders. He’ll learn to properly tailor his image. Maybe. I hope not.

It was telling when he said, during that Breakfast Club interview, while smiling knowingly: “I’m learning to simplify and repeat.” That phrase is straight out of corporate branding. I’ve heard it at a million seminars. I hope he doesn’t use it to kill his own madness entirely. Though, of course, he’d be much easier to deal with if he were Coca Cola.

He has reached beyond where he is supposed to be. He is not supposed to be Coca Cola. That is his primary crime.

His relationship will probably continue too, at least for a while. He’s managed to find somebody almost as hated as he is. Who else could he marry? Who else would know how to put up with all this shit? Who else could he hook up with that’s capable of buying him Christmas presents and commiserating about the press?

He is not a moral exemplar and he is not a finishing-school teacher. He’s not someone you want to learn etiquette from and you definitely don’t want to take the stories in songs like “Blame Game” as ethical parables. They’re not. They’re too complicated, fucked, and filled with genuine human feeling to be parables of any kind. He will never resolve into easy focus if he keeps doing things like that. It’s hopeless.

Kanye West is a truly awful human being.

But he’s awful in all the ways that I’m awful. And for this I love him very, very much.

Author Bio:
Devin O’Neill is a transmedia storyteller, branding practitioner, and performance artist. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Make friends with him at https://facebook.com/devinoneill

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gaga/Lacan: ARTPOP and the Discourse of the Hysteric

By Jacob W. Glazier

In quest, without respite, of what it means to be a woman, [the hysteric] can but stave off her desire, since this desire is the other’s desire, never having achieved that narcissistic identification that would have prepared her to satisfy the one and the other in the position of the object.
Écrits by Jacques Lacan, p. 378

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face…
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?
Behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?

“Aura” by Lady Gaga

The notion of hysteria as that of a suffering or wandering womb has been around since Antiquity. Yet, it was not until Sigmund Freud, in his famous case study of Dora, that hysteria became systematized vis-à-vis psychoanalysis as a form of pathology. In the middle of the twentieth century, Jacques Lacan took up hysteria and articulated it as a kind of discourse – an intersubjective relation or language game that we can inhabit. The following is a reading of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP project and album, pre-release, through the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, especially in regards to the hysteric’s discourse. These two thinker-artists, Gaga and Lacan, converge not only in their relation to the discourse of hysteria, but also in their project to commandeer desire, which it seems enables them to be read in tandem in a very complementary way.

As has been argued in numerous Gaga Stigmata (GS) articles, “Applause” acted as a preparatory setting-the-stage or, in the psychoanalytic sense, as a void or lack pregnant with possibilities from which ARTPOP proper could spring forth. Little attention, however, has been given to the chronological and structural primacy of the song “Aura” in its provision of the imaginary framework that foregrounded the possibility of the ARTPOP project in the first place. Being the very first song “leaked” from ARTPOP (even before “Applause”), “Aura” frames and situates the entirety of the ARTPOP project within the discourse of the hysteric, which lends support to the reading of Gaga’s project as necessarily subversive insofar as the hysteric’s discourse goes after the hegemony of the master through the demand that the master legitimate itself even though this is ultimately impossible.

That is, the hysteric is structurally situated within discourse in such a way that casts her very being into doubt – who am I? – and, consequently, she commands the master to fill this lack for her by answering the injunction – tell me! However, this commandment veils the fact that in the very act of questioning/demanding, the hysteric gives herself over to the master, thereby setting-up a symbolic dependence via the hysteric-master tension. “Aura” is precisely about this back-and-forth tease between the hysterical Gaga and the master: her fans, the media, the paparazzi, Perez Hilton, et al. – all of these constitute her big Other in the Lacanian sense, the master she desires to interrogate and to incite into performance for her pleasure. Gaga sings “do you want to see me naked lover?” Only if you perform for her first by telling her who she is. Read in this way, “Aura” situates the ARTPOP project within the sadomasochistic hysteric-master relationship and, thus, the songs, performances, etc. that fall under its auspices can be understood as various riffs off of, what is first and foremost, Gaga as hysteric.

Indeed, the very title of the album, ARTPOP, alludes to its hysterical intentions: to destabilize and conflate meanings. That is, it amalgamates disparate domains – ART + POP – not only literally, to the letter, but more metaphorically within the semantic field. Gaga wants to fasten the binaries of the ART-POP dialectic: “we could, we could belong together.” In so doing, the signifiers of each domain are engendered into confluence, thereby creating a unique and different realm of meaning.

Lacan calls these nodal points of reference the point de capiton, quilting or anchoring points, whereby desire vis-à-vis meaning is allowed to flow in unique and particular ways. Importantly, though, these channels are always contingent or, in other words, the signifier may be coaxed into adjoining another, different signified. In a sense, then, the point de capiton is a kind of tautology, a dialectic that is reflexive and self-referential. In “Applause”, Gaga captures this quite nicely when she sings,

          One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me.
          Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.

In these seemingly menial tautological iterations, Gaga is quilting herself and the entirety of her pop-culture, fantasmatic, and ideological project to the world of Art. She, in part, accomplishes this by calling-forth desire through her refusal to satiate meaning; or, to say it differently, through the hardcore polyvalence of her signifiers. The way in which she sings certain lyrics leaves their manifest meaning (i.e. what she is “actually” saying) largely ambiguous and up for interpretation, suspended in a hermeneutics of difference. This led some to label “Applause” as the victim of a “bad mix.” That is, the volume levels of the vocals and music seemed off: it was hard to hear what Gaga was saying because her voice was so similar to the production. RuPaul’s producer Lucian Piane was one such critic,

What these critics fail to realize, though, is that it is the polyvalence of signifiers as such that titillates and gets desire flowing. For example, when Gaga spells out A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E in the backing track, I first heard this as “it is the end of you.” It was not until the lyric video came out that I recognized there was a discord between what I heard and what the “official” lyrics were. Realizing this, I could not help but smirk because, in a sense, I felt as though I had been duped – of course she is spelling applause, I thought; that is the very name of the song! There are also other parts that tricked me. In the chorus the official lyrics are “make it real loud,” but it can also be heard as “make it real love.” Certainly, too, the utterance “Koons” is highly ambiguous (Koons ≈ coon ≈ cunt). This is not to say that there is some hidden or sinister meaning that Gaga is trying to sneak by us à la the alleged backmasking in Led Zeppelin’sStairway to Heaven.” Rather, it is the exact opposite. There is no one secret meaning that Gaga wants us to hear; she wants us to hear legion meanings, meanings without enervation in order to arouse our desire.

What’s more, Gaga invokes what is the sine qua non of our desire: the Thing or, das Ding. She sings, “give me the Thing I love.” The Thing is a fantasmatic object that generates the perpetual deferral of desire and that we hope will fill our lack thereby providing us with unmediated jouissance – unbridled orga(ni)smic pain-pleasure. We use various objects in the world to try and incarnate the Thing only to become frustrated by their necessary incompleteness. In ARTPOP, Gaga manifests this chiefly as Jeff Koons’s gazing/garden blue ball sculpture.

She inscribes the dignity of the Thing into one of the most banal objects possible: a simple sphere, something that we might find in the clearance bin at Wal-Mart at the end of summer, lest we forget its label status. It is not McQueen or Mugler this time, but a Jeff Koons sphere – and that makes it different in kind from the blue garden balls you find at Wal-Mart (or, does it?). This is, of course, subversive in its conflation of high culture with low, the former being art and the latter being pop, and is in line with Gaga’s continual project of raising the superficial to the level of the real.

Simultaneously, the blue ball is also a semblance of the frustration of the analysand’s desire during analysis, similar to Rifai’s description of glamouring in GS – a trick that keeps the listener frustrated and desire coursing. Any G.U.Y. reading this will understand the feeling of having his libido terminated before he is able to achieve completion. The result: blue balls. Or, blue Koons balls to be more precise. It is certainly noteworthy where the Koons blue ball is placed on the ARTPOP album cover – in front of Gaga’s intimate, private parts. In one sense, this placement crashes together the antinomies of testicles-vagina, male-female, public-private in traditional Gaga-trickster fashion. However, in another sense, she also recapitulates the phoenix theme from Born This Way by actually birthing the blue ball. In this way, with ARTPOP, she is giving birth to male frustration as such.

But in the Lacanian sense, not only Gaga, but also femininity in general, is a midwife to the male subject insofar as woman is a symptom of man; that is, femininity can only ever be an object of desire for the male gaze. On the album cover, the blue gaze-ing ball creates the statue of Gaga; it reifies the female as object. This is not only true in a psychoanalytic sense but also in a very literal sense since Jeff Koons created both the blue ball and the statue of Gaga.

Similarly, during the early ARTPOP era, Gaga has continually displayed herself as the Roman goddess Venus in a huge, voluminous wig with ‘hair to the gods’ (think a disheveled, crazed hysterical woman). By embodying Venus, the goddess of love, desire, and fertility, Gaga is positioning herself as an object of the male gaze, par excellence: the divine nexus of jouissance that remains eternally unattainable and therefore excruciatingly frustrating. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, this is known as the objet petit a, or the object of ultimate desirousness.

“Aura” is perhaps Gaga’s way of laughing at our frustration, and there is no better theme song for the hysteric than “Aura.” The inaugural lyrics disclose this fact: “I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice!” The lyric points to the horrific and hidden kernel around which the hysteric’s discourse eddies; namely, the impenetrable lacuna and question of “am I a man or a woman?” The very speech-act in the lyric – “I am a woman!” – belies this underlying and incessant questioning that challenges the hegemony of the master: What is a woman? Who am I? What do you want? Che vuoi? In “Aura,” Gaga speaks for us through the hysteric’s injunction to the master: Tell me!

She needs us to define her as a woman, as a subject that does not wander but possesses some viscosity of substance. This is hysterically humorous in the psychoanalytic sense precisely because the woman as subject does not exist. Gaga seems to be in on the joke when, in a quintessential act of trickery, she inverts the etymology of hysteria. The word hysteric has its roots in the ancient Greek meaning belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb, and in the nineteenth century was generally thought to be a disturbance of the uterus, a wandering of the womb. No, Gaga declares, she is not wandering – she is a woman of choice!

Furthermore, in the hysterical condition, the nervous system has gone awry such that paralysis or pains occur sans any organic etiology. In other words, the hysteric slips through the iron fist of medicine or of any kind of technical manipulation of the body. In this way, Gaga as hysteric is able to render herself diffuse, to become an effervescent and ephemeral aura, and to thereby escape even the medieval humiliation/torture masks that Betancourt analyzes in the Swine iTunes Festival performance. The body of the hysteric is a conundrum, an in-assimilable anomaly that, by its very nature, thwarts any kind of totalized symbolic interpolation. This is made explicit by Gaga in the lyrics to “Do What You Want (With My Body)” featuring R. Kelly:

The body, in the hysterical sense, is an incendiary irrelevance – a technical means to an end, a medium of signification, a canvas on which to paint (cf. Pierrot). This, of course, has been a central motif in Gaga’s project since the very beginning. That is, the coding and recoding of the body vis-à-vis fashion, makeup, hair, or, more generally, costuming. The difference in ARTPOP, however, is the explicit adaptation of the hysterical position that has allowed Gaga to position herself against her old way of costuming by literally stripping herself down (e.g. the naked pictures in V Magazine, the onstage changing during the iTunes Music Festival, the performance of “Applause” at the MTV Video Music Awards).

Her “voice” and her “heart” will go on, will endure sans a body. In the “Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” Žižek reads Friedkin’s “Exorcist” as illustrating how the voice acts as an alien intruder, a foreign entity that possesses us and speaks not on our behalf, but from somewhere else. In this way, the voice is not at all part of the organic body and, least of all, speaks on our behalf. The voice, for Gaga, constitutes a creative and sublimatory means of persistence in the face of having her body snatched away from her – her significations come from a realm beyond the organic, beyond the body, and are fed primarily by us, the fans. 

So, too, with the “heart” or love from her fans Gaga is able to endure. This relationship can be read as a relation between the hysteric and the master with Gaga being the former and her fans being the latter – as she sings in “Government Hooker,” “I can be anything, I’ll be your everything.” She creates a symbolical dependence with her fans to tell her who she is, what she can be; she is whatever they desire her to be, which in turn keeps their desire fluid and pulsating (think: fans as poppies/opium during the “Applause” performance on GMA). The hysterical Gaga is too wily, though, to be rendered qua object and, instead, flees from any formal attempt to pin her down and assimilate her within a libidinal economy. She shape-shifts in order to remain forever desirous and is therefore eternally elusive, always as the objet petit a.

In a previous analysis of “Aura” on GS, Cavaluzzo reads the female-burqa dialectic as a double-dare to the hegemony of phallogocentric culture: “can a masculine culture handle a woman’s soul?” If the woman removes her makeup, her wigs, her clothing, her shoes, her jewelry will the man still be able to bear what lies underneath? Will patriarchy be able to accept the woman just as she is, stripped down to her bare essence? If we situate this song within the hysteric’s discourse of psychoanalysis we see that the foregoing analysis misses the point completely. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

The whole point of “Aura” is that there is nothing; there is nothing underneath all of the covers; there is only a lack fetishized by the male gaze.

Or, more precisely, there exists a woman that does not exist, nor has ever existed. There are only burqas and more burqas all the way down. Further, though, masculine culture or the male libidinal economy can never, in the psychoanalytic sense, “handle a woman’s soul” because its very existence is predicated on the female as object of desire. There can never been an assimilation between the two opposites, male or female, since there is “no sexual relation” to begin with.

Gaga changing mid-performance and onstage during the iTunes Music Festival 2013.
It follows, then, that “Aura” and perhaps Gaga proper, in their very essence, are a joke. A joke by way of inviting and enticing us to see the real beneath the artifice, the woman behind the burqa. It is in this sense that when Gaga changes on stage and unveils the popstar, she is actually doubling down on the joke. She is saying: “Look! I can show my body underneath all of this costuming, underneath all of these burqas, but you are still not going to get what you want. The truth is, you can never get what you want. I am just as elusive and desirous as ever!”

The realization of this joke, in some respects, is similar to the end of analysis for the analysand. Namely, the neurotic analysand comes to have a flash of joui-sense (pleasure-meaning) when his narcissistic and imaginary fantasies collapse, and he realizes that the analyst has no new knowledge to offer, no secret access to jouissance, and no better contact with the Thing. The funny thing is that Gaga gets the joke even before “Aura” starts – at ARTPOP’s very conception. She laughs hysterically: “HA HA HA HA HA HA!”

Additional Works Cited:

Fiennes, S., Žižek, S., Eno, B., Myers, T., Amoeba Film., Lone Star Productions., & Mischief Films. (2006). The pervert’s guide to cinema. London: P Guide.

Freud, S. (1952). The case of Dora and other papers. New York: Norton.

Hysteria. (1961). In The Oxford English dictionary (5th Vol.). Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

Lacan, J. (2007). Écrits: The first complete edition in English (B. Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Author Bio:
Jacob W. Glazier, M.S. Ed., NCC, is a Ph.D. Student pursuing a degree in Psychology in Consciousness and Society at the University of West Georgia. He has his Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and practices at the Center for Counseling and Career Development at the University of West Georgia. Jake is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Jake is working on his dissertation with the aim of appropriating queer theory in light of Lacanian psychoanalysis, especially in regard to the arts of drag and fashion.

Let’s be friends: http://www.facebook.com/tfcjake
Or email: jacob.w.glazier@gmail.com