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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Refusing to Atone for Atonality: Gaga’s Rupture of Affective Mirroring

By Amanda Montei

The following piece is the fifth in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here; the fourth, here.


Lady Gaga notoriously serves up deceptively simple lyrics, but in “Judas” there is an apparent note of mockery in her voice, an accent that vamps up and parodies the hyper-masculine biker culture that lays the narrative framework for the video. The vocal tone is reminiscent of much of her other work, particularly “Poker Face,” with its drawn out yet truncated pronunciation of final consonants and syllables (e.g. “Ma” instead of “My”). This apparently mocking, slang-slanted tone is inviting, and begs interrogation from the viewer, but also seems to have a special relationship to Gaga’s use of aesthetic tonality.


The tone of Gaga’s career – that is, “its global or organizing affect, its general disposition or orientation towards its audience and the world” – is essentially the tone she evokes in the “Judas” video writ large. Sianne Ngai has written, using Melville’s narratives as a reference point, that tone can no longer be considered something inherent to a work, but is rather a process of affective circuitry that occurs between an aesthetic object and its reader/viewer.[i]

Gaga’s vocal tone in “Judas” reeks of irony, as does the general “disposition” of the video: the lyrics are Madonna-esque in their pop girlishness; the conceptual framework of the video, in characteristic Gaga style, is ostentatiously chic and iconoclastic; the dancing is relatively simplistic, at times even charade-like (Gaga shapes a heart as she sings “still in love with Judas, baby”); the bathtub scene is highly satirical as an unapologetic embodiment of “pop” soiling religiosity. But as Ngai reminds us, irony is a target-directed stance, and Gaga infers no clear target in the video. If Judas and Jesus are to be interpreted as dual dueling forces, whose side is Gaga on? Not even the gun – the infamous lipstick gun – can really be said to indicate any sort of organizing affect, as its normally masculinized violent inflection is re-inscribed, making it a symbol of the “feminine.” Interestingly, it is at this point that the video goes silent, and a marked void or absence pauses the narrative flow as Gaga sweeps her hands up her body, signaling a nod to feminine desire as void, as only defined, in Western patriarchy, by what is not male. Or in Mary Magdalene/Gaga’s case, what is not Jesus and/or Judas.


But the video quickly abandons this pause, and we return to scenes of desperate “clinging” to. We get another scene, in the tub, and we wonder: who is Gaga in bed with?

The final scene is perhaps the only indication of any clear target of irony. Finding herself torn between the duality of good and evil, between Judas and Jesus, Gaga/Mary herself becomes the victim of stone-throwers. She collapses in a bird-like akimbo fold, and we end on Gaga (now outside the narrative, though there is no indication as to where she “stands”) with a single jewel on one cheek, a single tear on the other, and her face full of yearning. Are we to believe that Gaga then is the aim of the irony here? This could be said to align with lyrics from the bridge, which explicitly name Gaga a “fame hooker.” Is the irony directed then towards fame itself? Or is she a networked symbol of all of us, torn between too many dualities? Or, in a circular fashion, can we conclude that Gaga’s split loyalty between the false dichotomy of good and evil – which is the heavily frontloaded force throughout the video – is the ultimate target of Gaga’s ironic play?


Clearly, we cannot place Gaga’s performance here – or elsewhere – into such a definitive aesthetic category. Recent reactions from the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue only highlight the amorphousness of “Judas”:

In her “Judas” video, Lady Gaga plays fast and loose with Catholic iconography, and generates several untoward statements, but she typically dances on the line without going over it. Perhaps that is because the video is a mess. Incoherent, it leaves the viewer more perplexed than moved. The faux-baptismal scene is a curious inclusion, as is her apparent fondness for the Jesus character. But if anyone thinks the Catholic League is going to go ballistic over Lady Gaga’s latest contribution, they haven’t a clue about what really constitutes anti-Catholicism.

Donahue seems hardly able to contain the frustration he feels with the “loose” use of iconography, Gaga’s dancing “on the line without going over it,” and the “faux” quality that makes the video unable to be reductively labeled as simply anti-Catholic.

Gaga’s tonal ambiguity is precisely where the power of her work lies. By circumventing this ironic target-practice, Gaga’s work consistently gives the viewer the “meta-ironic feeling of an irony intended for and available to everyone but oneself.” To use Mikel Dufrenne’s term, the “expressed world” of the video, and of ideology itself, is destabilized, leaving the viewer in state of suspension. This denies any viewer the experience we normally associate with Hollywood glamour and fame: projection. We cannot map ourselves on Gaga, not even to say that she has created in “Judas” an aesthetically pleasing critique of Catholicism. This process of atonality forces viewers and Little Monsters everywhere into a confrontation not only with “Bartlebyan stuckness” – which for Ngai is inextricably linked to ideological marginalization – but also into a queer revelry within such stuckness.

Ngai argues that traditionally, two kinds of textual interactions have been used in art and aesthetics (both in practice and in criticism). The first is sympathy, which gives us “a perfectly symmetrical circuit of affective communication.” We feel what a character feels, and we identify with them. While “Judas” is full of “objectified affect,” and points to this through hyperbole and artifice (fake nails, fake eyebrows, Gaga faking feelings towards Jesus when she really loves Judas), we cannot feel what Gaga feels as we aren’t sure, in a holistic sense. Gaga-as-Mary, after all, is still just Gaga-as-Mary, where Mary as a character is a conduit for Gaga’s persona, which constantly invades our readings of her work.


The second kind of viewer-text relationship is that of projection, wherein the viewer misrecognizes the work, and slaps their “self,” and the feeling the objectified text evokes in them, right onto the work. The artwork is then understood “as if the feeling a work elicits “were an intrinsic property of the work itself.” In both models, aesthetic encounters are reduced to “affective mirroring.” The process is a closed circuit, and the viewer can momentarily step into, in a Freudian-Lacanian sense, Ideal (but false) figurations of stable and fixed selfhood. This is normally how we interact with celebrity – fame is where we find ourselves. Gaga invites the death of this kind of interaction with fame symbolically, killing off Mary/Gaga/Fame Hooker in the final exultant scene.

It is only when our aesthetic judgment is forced “out of its mirror stage,” that we become incredibly uncomfortable with the affective experience we have with an aesthetic object. Ngai uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man to show how an alternative, negative model of aesthetic engagement produces “dysphoric feelings” in a reader/viewer – feelings of stuckness that mimic feelings of stuck agency – by offering only “the perception of an unfelt feeling.” We have a crystallized version of this in the scene of the “feminine” (as the category exists in Western thought/ideology) mentioned earlier: Gaga/Mary is captured in a moment of suspension standing on a bed of rocks in a fashion model pose as a wave hits her back. The moment is acathartic and liminal. Such a state of deferment is particularly analogous to the “feminine,” in that “woman” as a category is unreachable in any stable way, and as such, the gender category is a vast lacuna (as are all the other “categories” Gaga spotlights here), which Gaga proceeds to fill in with a kind of cultural fete.


Gaga’s work, which simply cannot be divorced from her persona-performance, actually furthers Melville’s negative model by triangularizing tonality. We are left only with questions, with responses, with G.S. and theory, and this points radically towards a vacuous space of unfeltness that exists at the center of a constellation of ideological binaries and systems, which seek to censure/censor her politics. Gaga takes pleasure in this space, and here is where her work becomes particularly radical. She actually transforms the feeling of stuckness – the state of abeyance experienced by marginalized groups in our imperialist late-capitalist moment – into a fuck-you moment of proudly debauched and decorated joy in resisting absolutist tonality. In turn, we feel this. She offers us that. This is not to say that she valorizes marginalized states of stuck agency, but rather that her work, if we let it, allows us to affectively proceed towards a pleasurable engagement with Symbolic rupture.

Refusing to allow pop a “status as an object of general unconcern,” and refusing to allow the “affective mirroring” normally associated with fame, “Judas” refuses to atone for atonality. This move seems to answer Claire Johnston’s call for a feminist/queer film practice that “opens up the possibility of a different Symbolic Order,” as well as Kristeva’s notions of rupturing “the structure or system of exchange and communication on which signification is founded.”[ii]



[i] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004).

[ii] Johnston, Claire. “Towards a Feminist Film Practice.” Movies and Methods. (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of Berkeley, 1985).

Author Bio:
Amanda Montei is recent graduate of the CalArts MFA Writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ms. MagazinePAJ: A Journal of Performance and ArtPANKNanofictionNight Train, Harriet, and others. She blogs for Ms. Magazine, and sometimes maintains an amorphous blog of her own at bluebloodbabyblech.blogspot.com. She lives in Los Angeles.

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2 comments:

  1. I'm intrigued by your use of (a)tonality... I think it's a really interesting concept, and it inspires me to write a response, incorporating the music/sound! All in all, really cool analysis!

    sgunst

    ReplyDelete
  2. Also, your deconstruction (and subsequent manipulation) of Bill Donahue's remark was brilliant. Thanks for that.

    sgunst

    ReplyDelete

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