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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Oh Jo, Make Me a Cyborg

By Samantha Cohen

The following is the fifth piece in our series on Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I.” For previous analyses, click here.

This year for my August 16 birthday, Gaga released a fantastical-violent video-world containing my favorite things: cyborgs, “nature,” mythical creatures, dolls, Jo Calderone. Also on my birthday, a friend sent me excerpts of Martin Buber’s essay I and Thou. The umlaut on “Yoü and I”’s “u” makes me almost think that Gaga intends for me to connect her video with the German essay, and I’m going to. Also, I’m going to argue that Gaga creates a world in which real love involves violence and objectification; a world in which cyborg love is the best kind.

So okay, Buber says that an individual person has no spirit – spirit exists only in the connection between two people. And the lovers in “Yoü and I” do animate each other, make spirit together, etc., but also something else is happening here. Buber laments this something else. “All response,” he says, of a You to an I, “binds the You into the It-world” (1). The beloved, in other words, never escapes becoming an object.

But in “Yoü and I,” as opposed to in I and Thou, objectification and spirit-making are part of the same process of becoming.

The world of the “Yoü and I” video challenges the idea of the natural: who can say that the fields are natural while they’re traversed by a cyborg? Who can say that anything’s natural in a world that contains mermaids and phoenixes? In becoming an object in “Yoü and I,” the beloved takes her place in the world; she takes on a set of constraints within which to create, to act in a world of other constructions.

“Yoü and I,” obviously, is about relationships. We see a lot of them. I’m going to go relationship-by-relationship below, discussing the spirit-making/objectification in each.


The video opens on an already-object Gaga – Cyborg Gaga. Cyborg Gaga has obviously already gone through a relating process that has both turned her into an object and given her the spirit that enabled her to disappear (in order to make art?) for two years.

Cyborg Gaga sets up early the pain and the necessity of becoming an object. The lanyard straps of her high heels are cutting her, making grotesquely bruised and bleeding ankles, yet she’s returning to Nebraska for a man who wants her “in a corner of (his) bar with (these) high heels on.” She’s returned to re-undergo the bloody process of objectification. Cyborg Gaga craves to be an object, and thus to be re-animated.

The lyrics also reveal Cyborg Gaga’s desire to be an object in that she’s returning specifically in order to be her lover’s “baby doll.” In the world of this video, we see that baby dolls are not innocent. The baby doll in the video’s intro is displayed by a ghoulish ice cream truck driver, and Cyborg Gaga’s reactions are both to nuzzle the doll to her face, as well as to wince and cower from it. I read these opposite reactions as illustrative of Gaga’s desire to both be and possess a love object, as well as her fear of the painful process of transformation.


So I want to argue that Jo Calderone is not a hetero man but a queer butch or else a drag king. Mostly my rubric for this is the same know-it-when-you-see-it approach that my high school English teacher claimed applied to both good writing and pornography, but also, I’ll turn to Judith Halberstam. Halberstam makes a distinction between “Butch Realness” and “Femme Pretenders” (classifications I might change to simply “butches” and “drag kings,” as I think drag needs some degree of camp in order to qualify, and also that it’s problematic to use some kind of “natural” butch- or femme-ness to make distinctions between “real” drag and “pretend” drag, but I’ll use Halberstam’s terms). Halberstam says that we can recognize “Femme Pretenders” by “heavy eyebrows…deliberately overdone” (check), and by poses that are “deliberately, loudly theatrical and even parodic” (check, check). Jo’s beer bottle throwing, snarl, shoulder action, and anachronistic greaser style mark him, I think, as queer. Along with the spelling of his name, the typically female Jo rather than the male Joe.

The queerness of Jo and Nature Gaga’s relationship is important in this video because it demonstrates that objectification is part of all love relationships, not only heterosexual/heterosexist ones – that feminism will not lead us to a world without human-objects, nor should we want it to, for reasons I’ll get to soon. Objectification between Nature Gaga and Jo comes, though, through consensual BDSM, which is not fully enacted here, but is clearly suggested, I think,

We see Gaga’s consent in this relationship when she slaps Jo’s hand away playfully, showing her agreement to enter into a relationship of slapping/grabbing, as well as asserting her agency not to be slapped or grabbed. The violence in this relationship is ironic and playful, while also doing the necessary objectifying work.

Jo, too, is aware of his own object status. He poses and postures, greases his hair and rolls up his sleeves for Nature Gaga. (And for us. Mm.)

So here’s why, according to Donna Haraway, we shouldn’t want not to be objects: Haraway describes the cyborg condition as a shift from “white capitalist patriarchy” to “informatics of domination” within “a post-gender world” (3). Her A Cyborg Manifesto critiques the feminism of the 70s that would have goddess-women frolicking in a field, howling at the moon. The earthy nature goddesses in “Yoü and I” may be free, but ultimately they’re prancing in circles in boring nightgowns, incapable of real action in the object/cyborg-world. By opting out of objecthood, they’re opting out of personhood. They barely interact with each other, making them spiritless, Buberianly speaking. They do not sing.

Through objectification and playful domination, it seems, Jo Calderone has rescued Nature Gaga from her fate of field-prancing and brought her into the It-world, which is where she is able both to have a love relationship, and to make music. We see, near the almost-BDSM moment, Nature Gaga running fierce and determined toward the camera, away from the coven of goddesses. Also just after that moment, Gaga is playing the piano with more animation (spirit) than before, and her body movements take on a robotic (cyborgian) quality.


Let’s contrast the kind of objectification and domination between Jo and Nature Gaga with those practices between the video’s traditionally patriarchal couple: Virgin Bride Gaga and her Betrothed.

The wide-eyed and worshipful Virgin Bride Gaga is being treated as an object, but she isn’t aware of her status as such. Virgin Bride’s Betrothed unwraps her possessively, engulfingly, but Virgin Bride Gaga hasn’t consented, as Nature Gaga has, to the terms of her objectification – she’s too innocent to be capable of consent. Though the bride’s Hunk enacts the least amount of physical violence on his love object of any of the video’s lovers, he is somehow the creepiest. There is no question of future violence toward Virgin Gaga, and not seeing it only makes it more menacing. This video has already established a world in which no one is innocent. Virgin Bride demonstrates that innocence is not a thing to strive for, as innocence only means surrendering to objectification without really consenting.

Besides being childlike, Virgin Bride is ghosty and ethereal. She’s see-through. And I see her see-through wedding as a critique of the flimsy love narrative propagated by popular media – a critique of the idea of love as cute and non-violent and transcendent. The sweet, transcendent love between a virgin bride and a strapping hunk does not exist in the actual world of this video: in this video-world, in order to transcend, you have to become a ghost.


For me, the world of the barn is a world of metaphor, an unconscious world. Here, there are more incarnations of Gaga than I can confidently count (it’s unclear who is the same self and who is Other) and time passes nonlinearly, as in dreams. (Is the black-haired Gaga in a water chamber, for example, pre-mermaid Yuyi, or a failed attempt at mermaid making, or something else all together?) Is the male lover person creating or caring for these hybrid Gagas? The barn represents visually and non-logically what is happening in all the video’s relationships: object-creation, unspeakable violence, tenderness, love, myth-infusing, hybridity.


Buber says, “Only silence toward the you…leaves the You free. Where Buber seems to present this leaving-the-beloved-in-silence as a non-option (or a tragic option?), in the world of “Yoü and I” the leaving, optimistically, is an option. We see the Is in this video leave their Yous free via silence here: Jo postures and puffs and looks at the sky, leaving Nature Gaga free to experiment with her music. When her lover leaves, Mermaid Yuyi flips her tail excitedly and has little moments of exultation in her new objecthood. And Cyborg Gaga has left for two years, she says, imaginably to be in a free and silent state, but is now returning for more objectifying love. Solo freedom, it seems, is the other side of object-love, but the free in this video are relation-made objects already. In this world, Spirit-imbuing objectification-love can happen, and then silent freedom, in cycles that range from a song bar to two years.

At the end of the video, we see Cyborg Gaga’s face, and it is the first face in the video that we trust, that isn’t menacing or empty in some way, and we realize that this is because we, the viewer-lovers, have created Cyborg Gaga. She is our object. By watching, we are guilty of this process of objectification-love, but also we are responsible for making Gaga possible – for entering into the relationship that makes the spirit by which she creates.

Works Cited:

1) Buber, Martin, and Ronald Gregor. Smith. I and Thou. New York, NY: Scribner, 2000. Print.

2) Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. London [u.a.: Duke Univ., 2006. Print.

3) Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. 2009. Print.

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1 comment:

  1. Yes! This conclusion is spot on. Gaga's amorphous and expanding identity is driven by our objectification of her; she exemplifies the object at the heart of the subject. A great way to critique Buber! I wonder how this translates into writing. The autobiographical elements in this essay do seem to construct an author-object. What are we doing as readers to and for this object/signifier Sam Cohen?


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