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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gaga's Anaphase, Gaga's Sonogram: the Mirror, the Cell, the Vagina, the Image

By Roland Betancourt

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

Dyed my bangs black. Its my new monsterlook. Let the mitosis of the future begin. Off to meet Judas.
11:01 PM Feb 26th via Twitter for BlackBerry®

Lady Gaga’s “tweet” concerning her new bangs serves as a forerunner for the “Born This Way” film. Her statement follows a very simple formula: she has made a physical modification to her look, and that physical modification becomes the new look for her monsters. While it is her look, it structures a new “monsterlook” that will be surely mirrored by Little Monsters. The TwitPic itself is produced on her Blackberry in a mirror, as many of the (in)famous MySpace profile pictures of the early days of social networking. Gaga uses the cryptic phrase, “Let the mitosis of the future begin.” Upon viewing the “Born This Way” film, this statement retroactively becomes foreshadow and reference; but at that moment of ignorance before the video was released, this statement latches on to its utterance context for meaning. Therefore, one is led to understand a connection between her image and its reproduction. It is as if she is saying to her Little Monsters, this is my new look, go and replicate it yourselves.

After viewing “Born This Way,” one understands this statement anew, this time within the context of the video and its focus on birthing and reproduction. It is necessary to point out here the bane of every high school biology teacher who has had to teach students about the difference between mitosis and meiosis. While meiosis is the production of sexual reproduction cells, which contain half the chromosomes to produce an animal, mitosis is the exact duplication of a single cell. Mitosis is the type of reproduction that occurs for single-celled creatures – it is a form of non-sexual reproduction. Therefore, there seems to be an incongruity here. Did Gaga mistake perhaps this basic difference? No. Gaga has stated that “Born This Way” emerged as an Immaculate Conception. Was she referring to the birth of Christ? Staging herself as the Virgin Mary as I have argued here before, having been impregnated by God through the grace of the Holy Spirit? Of course not, for the Immaculate Conception refers not to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the conception of Mary herself as a vessel free of sin so as to be capable of bearing the Son of God.

What Gaga has done is create what the Ancient and Byzantine Greeks referred to as chōra, a container or dwelling place. This existed for the Byzantines as a conceptual trope for the Virgin Mary, primarily addressed in the Byzantine world as the Theotokos (the God-bearer). Chōra, rudimentarily, in Platonic philosophy, was the space in which anything could be said to exist. Therefore, it served as a useful ontological construct for the entity of the God-bearer, whose body was the “Container (Chōra) of the Uncontainable (i.e. the Son of God).” Gaga has often placed herself in this position of the Virgin Mary, either advocating her chastity to stress her creativity or wearing the McQueen Annunciation dress. What she has done now is given birth to a race that partakes in this being, a race of immaculate humans – free of prejudice – that may exist as open receptacles of ideas and images. Yet this mitosis, this reproduction of an open container, is both a violent experience and presents a dangerous receptacle.


The violence of mitosis is in fact the manner in which evil is described as being created in the “Manifesto of Mother Monster.” Just as in mitosis, where the microtubules latch onto the chromosomes and tear apart the cell from within during anaphase, Mother Monster is violently split into two.

But on that same day, as the Eternal Mother hovered in the multi-verse, another more terrifying birth took place: the birth of evil.
And, as she herself split into two, rotating in agony between two ultimate forces, the pendulum of choice began its dance.

The text, however, can be misleading. We rely on word and image during the video to develop an understanding of the nature of these births. As she slowly speaks the Manifesto, the scenery changes and we are led through what seems like an early modern image of Hell; the music crescendos, and we are presented with the image of evil a few seconds after she has told of its birth, but not yet described the split. Costume-wise this is a different Gaga: she is not the Mother Monster that we saw earlier. It is not until after we see this evil Gaga pull a machine gun from her vagina that we are told how evil was created: “And, as she herself split into two...” For a brief period, the nature of the offspring is uncertain: are there two opposing individuals, or one with a dual nature? This ambiguity is lost when reading the Manifesto as a text independent of the video, but it is nevertheless crucial; Gaga employs this conflicted process of self-generative unfolding to suggest a fundamental confusion of natures and persons. She twists in agony because there are two ultimate forces, which we are left to believe are good and evil. Thus implying that good and evil pre-exist the birth. 

It therefore follows that Gaga’s birth of evil is not the birth of the force of evil, just as Mother Monster is never described as Good, but rather it is the incarnation of evil in flesh. Good and evil become potentialities of the flesh, forms of being that dwell within the container of Gaga’s image, and upon that incarnation are echoed in matter: the costume change between good and evil Mother Monsters. The “she herself” makes clear that Mother Monster is good and evil, that she is one and the same. Like the cell that has undergone mitosis, she is the shared interval of difference between good and evil, the distance between them, that makes possible both their sameness and difference. Same DNA, but she was born this way. Like a mirror, they are the same image but one is the “right” (figuratively and literally), and the other is left (literally) or an inversion of the “right” (figuratively) image. Their difference presupposes a more primordial similarity.

Now, I would argue that since we do not know what any of the births really were (other than seeing the embryonic heads being pulled out of her womb), we cannot be certain of the otherness of the offspring – precisely since it is a mitosis. We simply know how they were born, we know they were born this way. We may pretend that those beings pulled from her womb are the new race within humanity, but this is not what the Manifesto says precisely. The Manifesto says:

...a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. But the birth was not finite. It was infinite. As the wombs numbered and the mitosis of the future began, it was perceived that this infamous moment in life is not temporal, it is eternal. And thus began the beginning of the new race, a race within the race of humanity...

It is the act of perception of the atemporality of birth that forms the new race; it is not any birth in itself that mothered the new race. Birth and creation exist exclusively in the act of perception. Thus, the mirror-epistemology that structures the video demonstrates the importance of perception in these births, because there is no birth outside the praxis of perception.

When giving birth to a race free of prejudice, the Mother Monster is always depicted as a mirror image. She is mirrored in childbearing, having at times one presence but two countenances:


Her vagina, her birth canal, is the fissure of this mirroring: it is the non-interval, the non-slash through which the image is constructed. This image already has two countenances, two persons, but one nature, one body. The images of butterflies – creatures idealized for their bilateral symmetry – are prevalent. There is not a Gaga separate from a mirror: both are one and the same. Her vagina is the very origin of the images, it bears witness to the folding and its replication. Like the mirror-constructed image of the TwitPic and its viral distribution on Twitter, this image of Gaga giving birth in “Born This Way” is constructed in and by the mirror. In contemporary society, there is no better reification of Lacanian psychoanalysis than the MySpace mirror image, whereby identity is literally realized by the mirror – an almost too-crude literalization of Lacan’s Mirror Stage.

However, if it is true that birth did not occur until the moment of perception, why did the embryonic heads already bear the marks of the new epistemic humanity? Preliminarily, let me answer that by pointing out that the birth had not happened, only the wombs had numbered. We do not see the new humanity until after the Manifesto, before they are merely embryonic heads: non-animate potentialities, who merely bear a resemblance to Mother Monster. Perhaps more convincingly, however, is that as the “Eternal” Mother, Gaga never ceases to be a mother, but she also never begins to be a Mother: she is properly eternally a mother without beginning or end.

It is precisely this notion of perpetual birth that is conceived in the video. She states that birth “is not temporal, it is eternal.” Birth does not occur at a definite time, but rather is eternally occurring; not enduring or occurring in time, but wholly outside of time. Thus, time is collapsed and narrative merely structures a hermeneutics, thereby enabling common mortals to comprehend the cosmological ontology she has created and properly so; cosmology and cosmogony lose all distinction and become one and the same. In other words, the creation of the universe is the understanding of the universe.

Therefore, good and evil have always and will always coexist. Evil is not some other that has emerged to corrupt humanity; rather it is inherent within it. The new race that is without prejudice is birthed through “perception,” through the perception of this atemporality. It is the perception of this splitting/birth, this dichotomy between good and evil, that allows for a race without prejudice to exist within humanity, for humanity is the synthesis of the two. Humanity is the commingling of good and evil. But what precisely is this evil?

Unlike the image of Gaga giving birth to a race without prejudice, the image of Evil is not mirrored: even when giving birth to the machine gun, Gaga has one countenance and one person – despite the clear bilateral symmetry of the image. Only the image of Zombie Boy is mirrored, but he is not Mother Monster (although his mirrored and singular images deserve more attention, beyond the scope of this paper). Moreover, the image of evil is a sonogram:


The image of evil is not a direct image, it is an image that is seen darkly through the flesh, but is not the flesh, it is not externally manifested. It is not a direct contact, but rather an image formed through the reverberation of sound. Quite simply, a sonogram is not an optical image, but rather an info-graphic – it charts the echoes of physical bodies in order to produce an image from that data. This image’s format has a clear association with birth and expectancy. It therefore suggests that the birth of evil is an indwelling of an image that lurks within, as a potentiality in each human who is to be a container for infinite birth. Evil is the singular, oblique image of the self, the image that denies its own fluidity. It is not-viralized, it is not mirrored, it is instead kept within and not exposed. Evil is being insincere in the external representation of one’s own image of the self. It is an image that is corrupt:


Her image is not properly produced, perhaps due to interference from that concealment, seen darkly through the flesh. Like the murky sonogram, the image here represents the incongruous sound waves, it demonstrates itself as an icon of sound. Of supreme importance is that it is not virtuously pixilated as the Blackberry-taken, TwitPic-distributed image of social networking. Instead, it bears the formal traces of an alien corruption, one that we are not accustomed to seeing.

Therefore, the thesis of “Born This Way” becomes quite clear here. The perpetual birth of the self exists as the perpetual duplication and distribution of one’s sincerest image. “Born This Way” inaugurates an important shift in Gaga’s work, particularly towards the focus on the ontology and phenomenology of the contemporary image in circulation, in its physical incarnation as Vicks and Durbin have pointed out. It also represents the inexcusability of closeting – one’s true image should not have to be excavated through a sonogram: found in the stalls of airport bathrooms, or under the masquerade of a bully (i.e. the foot-tapping Larry Craig, or homophobic Dave Karofsky on Glee).

The question that remains to be asked and which I have brought up previously in my response to the “Born This Way” Grammy performance regards the important shift that this entire visual and rhetorical logic evidences in contemporary identity politics from that of the 1980s and 1990s. The militant insistence on “just being yourself” is coupled with the virality of the contemporary image and its cloning logic. Gaga is not at all advocating an inherent, insular construct of the self, but rather allowing one to continuously partake in whatever virality he or she chooses. The Monsters will reproduce her bangs and form themselves in her image. The “Manifesto of Mother Monster” was produced and recited by Mother Monster, but is a Manifesto of/for her fans. She is both her image and her representation, as the “Born This Way” film clearly articulates.

Her Little Monsters have the same DNA, but they were born this way. I-dentity is relegated to the shifter, as it always has been. It is the “I” that is the most powerful construct of identity, so personal that only you yourself can utter it if you wish for it to signify you. Even I am incapable of expressing to you this sentiment unless you put yourself in the place of my I. Here the deictic, relative pronoun, this constitutes the identity that exceeds the virality of your DNA. It is the preference of nurture over nature. Since birth is an anachronic renaissance, the “I” that once provided us with the insincere myth in language of a stable, fixed, and continuous identity for our self has been displaced to the relative pronoun, that whose deictic function craves an antecedent for any possible signification – and if there is no antecedent available, it must be taken adverbially to mean “in this manner.” The I is a shifter as much as the this, but we suspend disbelief to delude ourselves that we know what we means. By forcing identity onto a more dependant shifter, Gaga has forcefully pushed us beyond any lazy shorthand for defining our I-dentity and placed all weight onto our articulation of the perpetual this that constructs our performance of everyday life.

Author bio:
Roland Betancourt  is a PhD student at Yale University in the History of Art department focusing on Byzantine art and image theory, with an outside concentration in contemporary art and popular culture. In 2009, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in art history and anthropology. 

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4 comments:

  1. I absolutely love the ideas presented in this piece, especially the notion that evil is a "closeted" image (as represented by a sonogram) that pretends to have a stable/unchanging essence/identity. Thanks so much, R, for this incredible piece. You've given us so much to think about.

    MV

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  2. Great insights here, Roland. It's also interesting that the sonogram is the very first of a long sequence of one's images that will be uploaded on Facebook, Twitpic-ed, etc.

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  3. Roland BetancourtMarch 7, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    Thanks, and yes, I was thinking about this issue about the virality of the sonogram. To what extent does the sonogram get reproduced online, and does the fact that it is your mother(s)/father(s) that reproduces it as "your" image matter? I also love that Gaga has recently been playing with some more of these ideas about shifters in her recent Tweets regarding Maria. For example, writing "She(You)"... I feel another piece coming up...

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  4. Good essay, but perhaps considering the more "pragmatic" aspects that may have influenced the trajectory gaga has chosen with the cinematography, particularly concerning the mirrored scenes, might have been in some way more expansive in the analysis. I would also like to emphasize the notions of good and evil in that good, by nature, gives birth to evil and vice versa, as neither can exist without the other, since both fundamentally function as opposing forces.

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