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.