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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ga Ga Glossolalia

By Devin O’Neill

The following piece is the eighth in our series on Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

My problem with critical theory in a nutshell is that attempts at rationally deconstructing art are inevitably hamstrung by the fact that if what the artist meant to say could be expressed in denotative and linear language, the art wouldn’t have had to be made in the first place.

Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull is not saying anything explicit. It’s not saying “capitalism is death” or conversely “money is everything.” It can be analyzed after the fact, but that’s what criticism is: autopsy. That’s all. It has very little to do with the creative impulse, which is at least potentially irrational, a disruptive fact that the structured, source-citing arguments of critical discourse seem to skirt by simply not talking about it. I could attempt to write antirational criticism, but then it would just get called art and it would be published somewhere else. The skull is a meaning-bomb, not a meaning. This bit of an interview should clearly elucidate the gap between the critical and artistic processes. Granted, it’s only one approach, but the point is that it can’t be discounted as an alternative way of envisioning creative discourse:

There have been some strong reactions in the LGBT community to Gaga’s presumption at recording an “anthem.” Criticism of the anthem’s message, of course, must presuppose an understanding of what the anthem is saying. There are messages blazoned in big block letters across the song (the genetic essentialism of the “born this way” idea; the direct mentioning of queer subpopulations in the lyrics), and they’re taken at face value. These are the messages, by and large, being reacted to by the “Gaga doesn’t speak for me” demographic. To say with such emphasis that she doesn’t is to presume that on some level she’s trying to (and it’s to presume that she isn’t “you”; the disinclusion of Gaga as a member of the LGBT community in popular rhetoric continually confuses me. She’s hard, in my mind, to see as traditionally, heteronormatively straight. She’s at least genderqueer).

Reacting to a song and performance like “Born This Way” with straightforward, politicized analysis somehow seems a more cogent and aware method of systematized thinking than to react to a Captain Beefheart song the same way would be (this would be seen as reductive). But Gaga deceives (lies): because her lyrics are simple sculptures, with visible edges and directions, people give up on further interpretive depth. Is this their laziness, her design, an accident of the work’s construction, or some combination of the three? Whose failure or success is it that people don’t look closely at the ragged edges of these simple shapes?

This tension is brought to a head by the “Born This Way” video, and the possible trajectories and rhetorical touchstones embedded in these images bend the entire conversation about interpretive depth over and fuck it in the ass. We are experiencing pop mysticism here, and mysticism is generally (duh)ssociated with the transcendence of binaries. In addition, the texture and language of STYLE is a gateway to the infinite, explosive to analysis: since analysis involves a breaking-up of something into its component parts for a review of its functionality (from the Greek analusis), how small do we break up the globally and laterally affective images in this video? Do we meditate on the material of the threads in her birthing outfit? Opine on the pink color of her hair? Count the number of times her cunt-gun fires a bullet? Here we descend into the fractal apophenia of artistic psychosis, and not even William Blake can save us. In a stylistic exercise, which Gaga excels at, the infinite is in every thing.

But paradoxically, many of my colleagues have voiced frustration with regards to the reductiveness of the song and video: they don’t want to be a Gaga “clone,” they don’t want to be “born this way” – they want to transcend their biology. This discussion of transcendence of the biological is grounded in the static nature of the biological – an illusion. They themselves reinforce the binary by rebelling against its “nonexistence,” and in the process, blind themselves to the fractally textured potentiality for interpretation latent in the song and video. She tries to tell them – the birth is infinite. They don’t hear her, and they don’t hear Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto either. Gaga’s embrace of technology and augmentation of the body is a transhumanistic exercise. Her music could not exist without machinery, and she herself is to be modified and remixed: here she’s remixed her very self into two (un)equal and (non)opposite versions. The idea that she could be preaching biological immutability in the lyrics to this song is an assertion ignorant of her entire body of work and creative methodology.

Being free of prejudice in the larger sense is a necessarily mystical act, since it implies a shedding of the constraints of biosubjectivity: regardless of our liberation ideology, we are limited brains with limited perceptual and praxical equiptment. We achieve this goal of freedom from any prejudice only in death (if then). She is positioning god-symbols; lines of progression and worship, not attainable goals or objects. The infinite is integral to her practice and the infinite is not handled well by politicizing critics, whose positions require counterpositions structured in AT LEAST binary arrangements. Is this video an argument for binaries or against them? Shut up. It isn’t an argument at all. Argument implies limitedness, and she’s babbling the glossolalia of the forever, both verbally and visually.

The capital H-I-M in the song functions as a lighting rod for this mystical experience, just as all god-metaphors do. Further objections have been raised about the religious, and therefore presumably conservative, undertones of the song. Again, this perspective willfully blinds itself to her words, her images, basically all the rest of her art. That this is seen as a valid critical response is baffling to me. Contradiction and complication are Gaga’s constant companions, at the left and right hand of the mother. These are the weapons with which she continually deflects reduction, and in so doing, keeps us (and the media) interested.

Therefore, the only proper way to engage with Gaga’s work is to worship her like a deity. By this, I mean: regard her as an infinite entity proffering a trajectory toward transcendence. This act does not have to be mindless (not to discount mindlessness), it can be a purposeful and creative exploration of the potential of religiosity. This may be the source of some of the conflict between the little monsters and their critics: they see us as fanatics, and we are proud and ironic about our fanaticism. Or are we? Their bafflement only fuels us, just as bafflement must fuel the Phelps family or the denizens of 4chan.org. As Grace Slick said: you gotta find somebody to love. Or, at least, it’s a lot of fun. She is our Mother in this way, in her new video: a simulated, stimulated entity that offers us boundless connectivity and license for intimate joy and, at the same time, boundless freedom and the concurrent violence and pain of division and isolation. The binary symbols in the video are symptoms of the fact that in our current, un-ascended form, these trajectories are seen as antithetical, unable to be unified. But in the video, they are unified in Gaga. She does not need our linear reasoning to enable herself to exist as both.

So: who is anyone to assert that the linear, logical pursuit of an ideology of liberation in this context is a more valid critical method than doing a bunch of MDMA and just dancing to the song? I ask this as a serious question.

Author Bio:
Devin O’Neill is a writer, performance artist, PR practitioner, and compulsive liar (what’s the difference?) based in Long Beach, CA. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Some of his projects can be found at http://www.popocalypse.com/ and at http://devinoneill.blogspot.com/.

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  1. What a GREAT PIECE. So many great pointed points delivered dead on target. And succinctly. I use three times the verbiage, don't cover nearly half the ground, or say it half so well.


    "...the disinclusion of Gaga as a member of the LGBT community in popular rhetoric continually confuses me. She’s hard, in my mind, to see as traditionally, heteronormatively straight. She’s at least genderqueer."

    Amen! She's definitely as queer as I am (though I am much butcher). I think the discomfit from the "she doesn't speak for me" demographic is that she is NOT speaking ONLY for LGBTQs ... she's speaking for every freak, misfit, outcast, isolated, ridiculed, teased, bullied, isolated, shunned, rejected person out there. She's speaking to the entire queer world, in the original sense of queer, not the watered-down, restrictive, exclusive appropriation of the word to mean only LGBTQ people. By claiming exclusive rights to the term, we've disenfranchised probably 80% of the truly queer population. If Gaga is not queer, I don't know who is.

    Born This Way both annoys and threatens precisely BECAUSE it is expansive and inclusive, it's an anthem for all the marginalized and disaffected communities. She's letting more people into our sandbox and some of us don't like it that she seems to be requeering queerdom without ever actually saying the word. Maybe because she knows, as an artist, it's unnecessary.

    As she made perfectly clear (well, as clear as Gaga makes anything), Born This Way is an infinite eternal process and this state is not confined to the biological and genetic. As a non-bio mother of two daughters, I can tell you emphatically that we do come into the world with a certain type of personality. While my daughters have evolved and changed as they've grown up, in personality and temperament, they are both pretty much the same as they were when they came howling into the world. Only taller.

  2. don't like the rape imagery of "bend the entire conversation about interpretive depth over and fuck it in the ass" i stopped reading at that point.

  3. how exactly does that have anything to do with rape?

  4. As the above comment suggests, ellen, i didn't intend that imagery to have anything to do with rape. Let's take pegging as an example. Being fucked in the ass, for me, as a male, is a transgressive act, no less than, possibly, being the one doing the fucking. I find your interpretation rather restrictive, but I certainly didn't mean to hurt you, and I'm sorry if I did (I was about to say I didn't mean to hurt OR offend you, but that would probably be a lie). Your interpretive experience is to be respected but I didn't want you to come away thinking I was being intentionally malicious.


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