"[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

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gaga/Lacan: ARTPOP and the Discourse of the Hysteric

By Jacob W. Glazier

In quest, without respite, of what it means to be a woman, [the hysteric] can but stave off her desire, since this desire is the other’s desire, never having achieved that narcissistic identification that would have prepared her to satisfy the one and the other in the position of the object.
Écrits by Jacques Lacan, p. 378

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face…
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?
Behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?

“Aura” by Lady Gaga

The notion of hysteria as that of a suffering or wandering womb has been around since Antiquity. Yet, it was not until Sigmund Freud, in his famous case study of Dora, that hysteria became systematized vis-à-vis psychoanalysis as a form of pathology. In the middle of the twentieth century, Jacques Lacan took up hysteria and articulated it as a kind of discourse – an intersubjective relation or language game that we can inhabit. The following is a reading of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP project and album, pre-release, through the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, especially in regards to the hysteric’s discourse. These two thinker-artists, Gaga and Lacan, converge not only in their relation to the discourse of hysteria, but also in their project to commandeer desire, which it seems enables them to be read in tandem in a very complementary way.

As has been argued in numerous Gaga Stigmata (GS) articles, “Applause” acted as a preparatory setting-the-stage or, in the psychoanalytic sense, as a void or lack pregnant with possibilities from which ARTPOP proper could spring forth. Little attention, however, has been given to the chronological and structural primacy of the song “Aura” in its provision of the imaginary framework that foregrounded the possibility of the ARTPOP project in the first place. Being the very first song “leaked” from ARTPOP (even before “Applause”), “Aura” frames and situates the entirety of the ARTPOP project within the discourse of the hysteric, which lends support to the reading of Gaga’s project as necessarily subversive insofar as the hysteric’s discourse goes after the hegemony of the master through the demand that the master legitimate itself even though this is ultimately impossible.


That is, the hysteric is structurally situated within discourse in such a way that casts her very being into doubt – who am I? – and, consequently, she commands the master to fill this lack for her by answering the injunction – tell me! However, this commandment veils the fact that in the very act of questioning/demanding, the hysteric gives herself over to the master, thereby setting-up a symbolic dependence via the hysteric-master tension. “Aura” is precisely about this back-and-forth tease between the hysterical Gaga and the master: her fans, the media, the paparazzi, Perez Hilton, et al. – all of these constitute her big Other in the Lacanian sense, the master she desires to interrogate and to incite into performance for her pleasure. Gaga sings “do you want to see me naked lover?” Only if you perform for her first by telling her who she is. Read in this way, “Aura” situates the ARTPOP project within the sadomasochistic hysteric-master relationship and, thus, the songs, performances, etc. that fall under its auspices can be understood as various riffs off of, what is first and foremost, Gaga as hysteric.

Indeed, the very title of the album, ARTPOP, alludes to its hysterical intentions: to destabilize and conflate meanings. That is, it amalgamates disparate domains – ART + POP – not only literally, to the letter, but more metaphorically within the semantic field. Gaga wants to fasten the binaries of the ART-POP dialectic: “we could, we could belong together.” In so doing, the signifiers of each domain are engendered into confluence, thereby creating a unique and different realm of meaning.

Lacan calls these nodal points of reference the point de capiton, quilting or anchoring points, whereby desire vis-à-vis meaning is allowed to flow in unique and particular ways. Importantly, though, these channels are always contingent or, in other words, the signifier may be coaxed into adjoining another, different signified. In a sense, then, the point de capiton is a kind of tautology, a dialectic that is reflexive and self-referential. In “Applause”, Gaga captures this quite nicely when she sings,

          One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me.
          Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.

In these seemingly menial tautological iterations, Gaga is quilting herself and the entirety of her pop-culture, fantasmatic, and ideological project to the world of Art. She, in part, accomplishes this by calling-forth desire through her refusal to satiate meaning; or, to say it differently, through the hardcore polyvalence of her signifiers. The way in which she sings certain lyrics leaves their manifest meaning (i.e. what she is “actually” saying) largely ambiguous and up for interpretation, suspended in a hermeneutics of difference. This led some to label “Applause” as the victim of a “bad mix.” That is, the volume levels of the vocals and music seemed off: it was hard to hear what Gaga was saying because her voice was so similar to the production. RuPaul’s producer Lucian Piane was one such critic,


What these critics fail to realize, though, is that it is the polyvalence of signifiers as such that titillates and gets desire flowing. For example, when Gaga spells out A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E in the backing track, I first heard this as “it is the end of you.” It was not until the lyric video came out that I recognized there was a discord between what I heard and what the “official” lyrics were. Realizing this, I could not help but smirk because, in a sense, I felt as though I had been duped – of course she is spelling applause, I thought; that is the very name of the song! There are also other parts that tricked me. In the chorus the official lyrics are “make it real loud,” but it can also be heard as “make it real love.” Certainly, too, the utterance “Koons” is highly ambiguous (Koons ≈ coon ≈ cunt). This is not to say that there is some hidden or sinister meaning that Gaga is trying to sneak by us à la the alleged backmasking in Led Zeppelin’sStairway to Heaven.” Rather, it is the exact opposite. There is no one secret meaning that Gaga wants us to hear; she wants us to hear legion meanings, meanings without enervation in order to arouse our desire.

What’s more, Gaga invokes what is the sine qua non of our desire: the Thing or, das Ding. She sings, “give me the Thing I love.” The Thing is a fantasmatic object that generates the perpetual deferral of desire and that we hope will fill our lack thereby providing us with unmediated jouissance – unbridled orga(ni)smic pain-pleasure. We use various objects in the world to try and incarnate the Thing only to become frustrated by their necessary incompleteness. In ARTPOP, Gaga manifests this chiefly as Jeff Koons’s gazing/garden blue ball sculpture.

She inscribes the dignity of the Thing into one of the most banal objects possible: a simple sphere, something that we might find in the clearance bin at Wal-Mart at the end of summer, lest we forget its label status. It is not McQueen or Mugler this time, but a Jeff Koons sphere – and that makes it different in kind from the blue garden balls you find at Wal-Mart (or, does it?). This is, of course, subversive in its conflation of high culture with low, the former being art and the latter being pop, and is in line with Gaga’s continual project of raising the superficial to the level of the real.


Simultaneously, the blue ball is also a semblance of the frustration of the analysand’s desire during analysis, similar to Rifai’s description of glamouring in GS – a trick that keeps the listener frustrated and desire coursing. Any G.U.Y. reading this will understand the feeling of having his libido terminated before he is able to achieve completion. The result: blue balls. Or, blue Koons balls to be more precise. It is certainly noteworthy where the Koons blue ball is placed on the ARTPOP album cover – in front of Gaga’s intimate, private parts. In one sense, this placement crashes together the antinomies of testicles-vagina, male-female, public-private in traditional Gaga-trickster fashion. However, in another sense, she also recapitulates the phoenix theme from Born This Way by actually birthing the blue ball. In this way, with ARTPOP, she is giving birth to male frustration as such.

But in the Lacanian sense, not only Gaga, but also femininity in general, is a midwife to the male subject insofar as woman is a symptom of man; that is, femininity can only ever be an object of desire for the male gaze. On the album cover, the blue gaze-ing ball creates the statue of Gaga; it reifies the female as object. This is not only true in a psychoanalytic sense but also in a very literal sense since Jeff Koons created both the blue ball and the statue of Gaga.

Similarly, during the early ARTPOP era, Gaga has continually displayed herself as the Roman goddess Venus in a huge, voluminous wig with ‘hair to the gods’ (think a disheveled, crazed hysterical woman). By embodying Venus, the goddess of love, desire, and fertility, Gaga is positioning herself as an object of the male gaze, par excellence: the divine nexus of jouissance that remains eternally unattainable and therefore excruciatingly frustrating. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, this is known as the objet petit a, or the object of ultimate desirousness.

“Aura” is perhaps Gaga’s way of laughing at our frustration, and there is no better theme song for the hysteric than “Aura.” The inaugural lyrics disclose this fact: “I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice!” The lyric points to the horrific and hidden kernel around which the hysteric’s discourse eddies; namely, the impenetrable lacuna and question of “am I a man or a woman?” The very speech-act in the lyric – “I am a woman!” – belies this underlying and incessant questioning that challenges the hegemony of the master: What is a woman? Who am I? What do you want? Che vuoi? In “Aura,” Gaga speaks for us through the hysteric’s injunction to the master: Tell me!

She needs us to define her as a woman, as a subject that does not wander but possesses some viscosity of substance. This is hysterically humorous in the psychoanalytic sense precisely because the woman as subject does not exist. Gaga seems to be in on the joke when, in a quintessential act of trickery, she inverts the etymology of hysteria. The word hysteric has its roots in the ancient Greek meaning belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb, and in the nineteenth century was generally thought to be a disturbance of the uterus, a wandering of the womb. No, Gaga declares, she is not wandering – she is a woman of choice!

Furthermore, in the hysterical condition, the nervous system has gone awry such that paralysis or pains occur sans any organic etiology. In other words, the hysteric slips through the iron fist of medicine or of any kind of technical manipulation of the body. In this way, Gaga as hysteric is able to render herself diffuse, to become an effervescent and ephemeral aura, and to thereby escape even the medieval humiliation/torture masks that Betancourt analyzes in the Swine iTunes Festival performance. The body of the hysteric is a conundrum, an in-assimilable anomaly that, by its very nature, thwarts any kind of totalized symbolic interpolation. This is made explicit by Gaga in the lyrics to “Do What You Want (With My Body)” featuring R. Kelly:


The body, in the hysterical sense, is an incendiary irrelevance – a technical means to an end, a medium of signification, a canvas on which to paint (cf. Pierrot). This, of course, has been a central motif in Gaga’s project since the very beginning. That is, the coding and recoding of the body vis-à-vis fashion, makeup, hair, or, more generally, costuming. The difference in ARTPOP, however, is the explicit adaptation of the hysterical position that has allowed Gaga to position herself against her old way of costuming by literally stripping herself down (e.g. the naked pictures in V Magazine, the onstage changing during the iTunes Music Festival, the performance of “Applause” at the MTV Video Music Awards).

Her “voice” and her “heart” will go on, will endure sans a body. In the “Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” Žižek reads Friedkin’s “Exorcist” as illustrating how the voice acts as an alien intruder, a foreign entity that possesses us and speaks not on our behalf, but from somewhere else. In this way, the voice is not at all part of the organic body and, least of all, speaks on our behalf. The voice, for Gaga, constitutes a creative and sublimatory means of persistence in the face of having her body snatched away from her – her significations come from a realm beyond the organic, beyond the body, and are fed primarily by us, the fans. 

So, too, with the “heart” or love from her fans Gaga is able to endure. This relationship can be read as a relation between the hysteric and the master with Gaga being the former and her fans being the latter – as she sings in “Government Hooker,” “I can be anything, I’ll be your everything.” She creates a symbolical dependence with her fans to tell her who she is, what she can be; she is whatever they desire her to be, which in turn keeps their desire fluid and pulsating (think: fans as poppies/opium during the “Applause” performance on GMA). The hysterical Gaga is too wily, though, to be rendered qua object and, instead, flees from any formal attempt to pin her down and assimilate her within a libidinal economy. She shape-shifts in order to remain forever desirous and is therefore eternally elusive, always as the objet petit a.


In a previous analysis of “Aura” on GS, Cavaluzzo reads the female-burqa dialectic as a double-dare to the hegemony of phallogocentric culture: “can a masculine culture handle a woman’s soul?” If the woman removes her makeup, her wigs, her clothing, her shoes, her jewelry will the man still be able to bear what lies underneath? Will patriarchy be able to accept the woman just as she is, stripped down to her bare essence? If we situate this song within the hysteric’s discourse of psychoanalysis we see that the foregoing analysis misses the point completely. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

The whole point of “Aura” is that there is nothing; there is nothing underneath all of the covers; there is only a lack fetishized by the male gaze.

Or, more precisely, there exists a woman that does not exist, nor has ever existed. There are only burqas and more burqas all the way down. Further, though, masculine culture or the male libidinal economy can never, in the psychoanalytic sense, “handle a woman’s soul” because its very existence is predicated on the female as object of desire. There can never been an assimilation between the two opposites, male or female, since there is “no sexual relation” to begin with.

Gaga changing mid-performance and onstage during the iTunes Music Festival 2013.
It follows, then, that “Aura” and perhaps Gaga proper, in their very essence, are a joke. A joke by way of inviting and enticing us to see the real beneath the artifice, the woman behind the burqa. It is in this sense that when Gaga changes on stage and unveils the popstar, she is actually doubling down on the joke. She is saying: “Look! I can show my body underneath all of this costuming, underneath all of these burqas, but you are still not going to get what you want. The truth is, you can never get what you want. I am just as elusive and desirous as ever!”

The realization of this joke, in some respects, is similar to the end of analysis for the analysand. Namely, the neurotic analysand comes to have a flash of joui-sense (pleasure-meaning) when his narcissistic and imaginary fantasies collapse, and he realizes that the analyst has no new knowledge to offer, no secret access to jouissance, and no better contact with the Thing. The funny thing is that Gaga gets the joke even before “Aura” starts – at ARTPOP’s very conception. She laughs hysterically: “HA HA HA HA HA HA!”






Additional Works Cited:

Fiennes, S., Žižek, S., Eno, B., Myers, T., Amoeba Film., Lone Star Productions., & Mischief Films. (2006). The pervert’s guide to cinema. London: P Guide.

Freud, S. (1952). The case of Dora and other papers. New York: Norton.

Hysteria. (1961). In The Oxford English dictionary (5th Vol.). Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

Lacan, J. (2007). Écrits: The first complete edition in English (B. Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.


Author Bio:
Jacob W. Glazier, M.S. Ed., NCC, is a Ph.D. Student pursuing a degree in Psychology in Consciousness and Society at the University of West Georgia. He has his Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and practices at the Center for Counseling and Career Development at the University of West Georgia. Jake is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Jake is working on his dissertation with the aim of appropriating queer theory in light of Lacanian psychoanalysis, especially in regard to the arts of drag and fashion.

Let’s be friends: http://www.facebook.com/tfcjake
Or email: jacob.w.glazier@gmail.com

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