"[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

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's Paglia Got to Do With It?

By Jack Halberstam


Oh no! It was just as a new semester began, as the football season kicked off and right when Jersey Shore moved to Miami…right when Justin Bieber was adjusting his diaper for the VMA’s and the Jackass crew had figured out new ways to showcase male moronism in 3D…indeed just as Gaga chopped up her filet mignon to wear the next night at the VMAs, just then, someone let Camille Paglia out of her box.


Once a decade, Paglia, an acid tongued Susan Sontag wannabe, rents space in some national newspaper to tell us that we are all wrong about everything. Usually we are all wrong about a cultural icon we all love…or else we are all wrong about an entire movement of theory and philosophy, or we are simply wrong about our historical moment, the meaning of sex, the politics of gender, Madonna, Italians, John Donne, lesbians, drag queens, the economy, universities, cultural revolt…and now, we find out, **newsflash** we were all wrong about Lady Gaga. Yup, we were wrong. We all thought that Lady Gaga was actually doing something interesting, cultivating new combos of avant-garde innovation and popular recycling. We thought she sounded good, looked even better and straddled the divide between Warhol and whimsy while flashing her notoriously ambiguous meat purse. Many of us found her musically interesting, culturally thrilling and inordinately fabulous. We liked her in leather, in chains, in a wheelchair, in bed, in a sandwich, in a pussy wagon, on the phone, in jail, under meat, we liked her but then we found out that, well, we were wrong.

Lady Gaga, I learned from Camille Paglia, is just a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed eyed internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think without an Iphone app at hand or to know anything without a twitter feed. She is a rich girl playing at being marginal, “a diva of déjà vu,” less sexy than a drag queen, less talented than Elton John, less charming than Lily Allen (is that possible??), and a “rootless” pretender who manipulates her fans, the “little monsters,” into pathetic displays of fanatical admiration. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex, and the triumph of a kind of Baudrillardian age of the simulacra (only she wouldn’t cite Baudrillard because he is French and therefore…wrong).

In a kind of counter-Haraway move (think Haraway of “Cyborg Manifesto” rather than Haraway of “Companion Species Manifesto”), Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognized an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that was exciting and wondrous (even as it was also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia, sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Camille Paglia sees only same-old same-old or, in her words “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”


Like a bad drag queen imitation of Allan Bloom, the prophet who preached the end of culture just two decades ago in The Closing of the American Mind, Paglia worries that “the younger generation” is missing out on all the really important cultural texts that made up her own education. The Iphone generation take pleasure in cheap imitations when they could be thrilled by “real” culture, i.e. canonical English literature; they are literate in texting but hopeless at real expression and they are not even original in their forms of rebellion. Paglia has always seen it all before and she never tires of sending her readers back to school circa 1950 to bone up on their John Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Like a manic T.S. Eliot guarding the “great tradition” and prowling around its archive with claws out, Paglia reminds one of the schoolmarm host of the British quiz show The Weakest Link. Ann Robinson became famous for dispatching her victims on the show with the immortal words: “you are the weakest link, good bye.” And it is this tradition of learning (rote memorization of the tried and true authors memorialized by new criticism) that Paglia returns to time and time again. Why the popular media returns to Paglia time and time again is another question! But probably the answer has something to do with a kind of media masochism, a desire to be spanked for not paying attention or for succumbing to banal mind candy. But at any rate, when Paglia does come out of her box, we get to watch a completely unselfconscious right-wing libertarian blurt out high-minded nonsense while thumbing her nose at all the other academic drones who believe in crazy shit like “the construction of gender,” the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction and the mediated nature of reality.

Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations.


Many people have noted that Lady Gaga lives in the long shadow of Madonna but noting this is not the same as totally collapsing two performers from very different historical and cultural milieux. Weird then that Paglia condemns Lady Gaga for her “poker face” when she adored Madonna’s performance in 1990 in “Justify My Love” because it confirmed that “we are nothing but masks.” Strange that Paglia charges Gaga with “obsessively trafficking in twisted sexual scenarios” while casting Madonna’s Christian upbringing as inspiring because “without taboos, there can be no transgression.” Bizarre that Paglia is so taken with Bowie’s androgyny and Warhol’s relation to the marketplace but can find not a single shred of glamour or talent in Lady Gaga’s gender-blending and articulate performances.

Ultimately, what Paglia thinks about Gaga is about as interesting as what Sarah Palin thinks about feminism or what Glenn Beck thinks of Eminem. More important is the issue of what narratives about the popular, the avant-garde, innovation and cultural appropriation make it into the mainstream media. And somehow, Paglia always seems to find an open page ready to receive her rants, her crazed generalizations (“most of Gaga’s worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”), her nutty projections about a generation, a culture, a movement. While Paglia is stuck in 1990, still spinning her narratives about atrophied affect, cultural decline and sexual inertia, we have actually entered new debates, developed new vocabularies and in creative interactions with new media, we have all of us become little monsters, chasing our own gaga urges and moving steadily further and further from the modernist splits between high and low, good and evil, sex and death.


Author Bio:  Judith "Jack" Halberstam is Professor of English and Director of The Center for Feminist Research at USC. Halberstam teaches courses in queer studies, gender theory, art, literature and film.

Halberstam is the author of
Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters and a new book from NYU Press titled In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

11 comments:

  1. Wonderful! You nailed it! When I read Paglia, I kept thinking maybe I should send her a copy of "It's the end of the world as we know it" so she could play it every time she pulls out this screed of hers and rereads it, thinking she's the prophetess of doom. Again. And Again.

    I'm as old as she is. And yes, I've seen icons like Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. Live. Several times. And a few more she wouldn't even think of mentioning. I find Gaga an absolutely delightful artist, standing on the shoulders of her predecessors, some of which quite frankly predate Paglia AND Me.

    I don't know when Madonna became the Patron Saint of old line hard line feminazis, but those of us who paid attention know that Madonna borrowed incessantly and recycled anything useful; she just didn't credit her inspirations, something Gaga does all the time.

    So fine, Camille, you've had your little outburst so please go back to your moldering vinyl records and autographed Betty Friedan. The rest of us are living in the world as it has become, long after those of us thought we discovered feminism back in the 60s and 70s and proceeded to throttle any woman who did not conform to the ideology.

    That would be women like me. Old hippie, old butch, shamelessly unreconstructed and unabashedly Politically Incorrect.

    I'm a free bitch, Camille, and you are definitely NOT!

    Thank you, thank you for this great great piece. Tweet it far and wide. There are a lot of people, especially young women and old ones too, who need to read it.

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  2. Love it, Jack. Maybe you could pitch a Gaga class for next semester? I'm sure there'd be a waiting list of little monsters like myself dying to take it.

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  3. Prof. Halberstam, I really enjoyed this elegantly written and incisive essay. I'm teaching a course on American culture this semester at Columbia and will use your piece for my session on contemporary pop music and Gaga.

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  4. Gosh...this is why I love Gaga Stigmata!!!

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  5. Thanks all - a Gaga class....I am on it!! Gaga-ology 101.
    Jack

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  6. Right On, Mister Jack !

    I got some gaga ology on my own blog to slap down paglia paleo-popism.


    http://mammadiblogs.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/apologia-di-gaga-not-by-gaga-of-as-in-for-her-him-it-whatever/

    ReplyDelete
  7. Camille Paglia is wasting her breath ! ! !
    www.whitefungus.com

    ReplyDelete
  8. Mikey Mikey Boom BoomSeptember 21, 2010 at 11:14 AM

    Thank you so much for bringing these points to light! I recently read her "Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex" and was appalled at her broad generalizations of my generation and insulting slander of my fellow Gaga fans. She clearly misses the point entirely because she is analyzing the work from an outdated standpoint. She also fails to recognize the world of tweets, video games and cellphones my generation lives in was not created by my generation, it was created by hers. We can't help that we were born into it. I immediately thought of this site after reading the article and am pleased to see your piece here. Thanks so much.

    I also want to add that I think it's pathetic that an older, established "artist" such as Camille Paglia, who is also a university professor, would so unabashedly cut down a young artist at the beginning of her career. And one who works so hard as she does! Whether or not she thinks she valid, at the very least Gaga pushes herself to do better every single day, and is constantly at work with a slew of other artists, designers, dancers etc. who come at the work with an equal amount of passion. Note that she failed to mention any other current pop star or musician or artist hat we "should" be fans of. That is because no one is creating commercial work that fits Camille's standards. So I guess we should all just watch old Madonna videos and Marlene Dietrech films and never create anything new.

    Thanks again for a great article and bringing an important criticism to light.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ahhhh another one of my favorite topics, Camille Paglia!!!!! I first read Sexual Personae, then went on over the years to Vamps and Tramps , Sex, Art, and American Culture and most recently in the last few years Break, Blow, Burn which is her take on 43 of the "best" ( in her opinion) world poems. I have to say that I enjoy her immensely ... that is when she is not aggravating the living shit out of me. This must truly be one of the most annoying women in the universe!

    I had not read her Sunday Times article on Lady Gaga, but I did read an excerpt and did not find her wrong in many instances. It was just her interpretation of her observations that, in my opinion, is faulty. First, as we know, all of her insights of Gaga will be colored by her adoration of Madonna, but I do have to say that I think she got a lot right about what Gaga is doing. What she is criticizing is actual intent and meaning. One of her criticisms seems to be that she is an amalgam of images that we have seen before. She mentions Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani, Pink and she acts as if this is some fault... some accidental plagiarism. She is missing the point. Our culture today is a mishmash of all the images that have been drilled into us by our technology. Nothing is real anymore. Even the TV that we watch has been branded "reality" but what does it matter since no one can tell the difference.

    In truth, how do we judge or know anything? All of our senses are influenced by the constant barrage of media. We are told what is pretty, what is sexy, what is appropriate to desire. Paglia says Gaga is false... a false sexuality... but this over the top representation of what passes for sexual imagery is of course not sexy... that is the whole point. We have taken sex and made it commercial surface pornography. And of course, this is what is always surprising about Paglia.... her absolute inconsistency of position. Paglia has always been a great defender of the pornographic. So all of a sudden she has an objection because she herself is not turned on? I think the truth is that Paglia has bought in too deeply into the culture, and perhaps Gaga is not beautiful enough for her. She feels repugnance for someone who oozes the sexuality of the freak! I think Paglia is too straight for this Lady!!!!!

    Paglia criticizes her nonsense syllable lyrics and her avant garde pretensions and says she does not possess the life force of Tina Turner or Janice Joplin. To me this is the crux of her problem. Paglia is 63 years old. Her youth was inflamed by rock and rebellion. Her music was fueled by cultural revolution and the hope that society could be changed for the better. This is not the current world of youth. This optimism is long dead. It has been replaced by the empty imagery of television and the vapid communication of Twitter. Instead of the life force of Madonna , she finds "mutilation and death" in Gaga. Too bad she has not taken a look at how the youth of today manages stress with razor blades. Yes, I believe Gaga is about emotional poverty. I believe this is the point. No matter, how much she may exhort her little Monsters to love themselves... it comes from the mouth of a damaged messenger. She is saying ... look at us.... look what we have become..... Yes we are not real anymore ....but we must accept ourselves. It is, in essence, the acceptance of the damned. In my mind, this is what performance art does. It points to the degradation of the soul , it highlights the underbelly of crass commercialism, it illustrates how even something so primal and pure as sexual desire can become perverse.

    Frankly, I think if Paglia was even 20 years younger , she would be in love with this new Lady. She is not the shiny Barbarella, nor the Madonna for the masses..... this Lady is "Through the Looking Glass" where all is not what it seems... it is dark, disturbing and as false as it gets..... and that is the point!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ahhhh another one of my favorite topics, Camille Paglia!!!!! I first read Sexual Personae, then went on over the years to Vamps and Tramps , Sex, Art, and American Culture and most recently in the last few years Break, Blow, Burn which is her take on 43 of the "best" ( in her opinion) world poems. I have to say that I enjoy her immensely ... that is when she is not aggravating the living shit out of me. This must truly be one of the most annoying women in the universe!

    I had not read her Sunday Times article on Lady Gaga, but I did read an excerpt and did not find her wrong in many instances. It was just her interpretation of her observations that, in my opinion, is faulty. First, as we know, all of her insights of Gaga will be colored by her adoration of Madonna, but I do have to say that I think she got a lot right about what Gaga is doing. What she is criticizing is actual intent and meaning. One of her criticisms seems to be that she is an amalgam of images that we have seen before. She mentions Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani, Pink and she acts as if this is some fault... some accidental plagiarism. She is missing the point. Our culture today is a mishmash of all the images that have been drilled into us by our technology. Nothing is real anymore. Even the TV that we watch has been branded "reality" but what does it matter since no one can tell the difference.

    In truth, how do we judge or know anything? All of our senses are influenced by the constant barrage of media. We are told what is pretty, what is sexy, what is appropriate to desire. Paglia says Gaga is false... a false sexuality... but this over the top representation of what passes for sexual imagery is of course not sexy... that is the whole point. We have taken sex and made it commercial surface pornography. And of course, this is what is always surprising about Paglia.... her absolute inconsistency of position. Paglia has always been a great defender of the pornographic. So all of a sudden she has an objection because she herself is not turned on? I think the truth is that Paglia has bought in too deeply into the culture, and perhaps Gaga is not beautiful enough for her. She feels repugnance for someone who oozes the sexuality of the freak! I think Paglia is too straight for this Lady!!!!!

    Paglia criticizes her nonsense syllable lyrics and her avant garde pretensions and says she does not possess the life force of Tina Turner or Janice Joplin. To me this is the crux of her problem. Paglia is 63 years old. Her youth was inflamed by rock and rebellion. Her music was fueled by cultural revolution and the hope that society could be changed for the better. This is not the current world of youth. This optimism is long dead. It has been replaced by the empty imagery of television and the vapid communication of Twitter. Instead of the life force of Madonna , she finds "mutilation and death" in Gaga. Too bad she has not taken a look at how the youth of today manages stress with razor blades. Yes, I believe Gaga is about emotional poverty. I believe this is the point. No matter, how much she may exhort her little Monsters to love themselves... it comes from the mouth of a damaged messenger. She is saying ... look at us.... look what we have become..... Yes we are not real anymore ....but we must accept ourselves. It is, in essence, the acceptance of the damned. In my mind, this is what performance art does. It points to the degradation of the soul , it highlights the underbelly of crass commercialism, it illustrates how even something so primal and pure as sexual desire can become perverse.

    Frankly, I think if Paglia was even 20 years younger , she would be in love with this new Lady. She is not the shiny Barbarella, nor the Madonna for the masses..... this Lady is "Through the Looking Glass" where all is not what it seems... it is dark, disturbing and as false as it gets..... and that is the point!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. That Paglia article made me rage so much. As a result, almost every single sentence in this article was as satisfying as eating a very delicious dish one prepared on their own. Reading Paglia was the labor part, and reading this article and its delicious satire was the indulgence.

    ReplyDelete

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