[above: Still of Lady Gaga in "Paparazzi" 2009]
In a truly fascinating interview, which should settle the question as to "how not dumb is Lady Gaga," the artist cites Princess Diana as an inspiration for her "Paparazzi" music video:
This song is not really about loving the camera. This song is about something much more dangerous. It’s about fame-whoring and seduction, but it’s also about social death. Diana, in truth, is the most devastating and iconic martyr of fame. That woman died because of her fame.To drive her point home, Gaga describes how she layered knife stabbing noises into the audio track of the video beneath the sound of flashbulbs popping. The idea that "Paparazzi" is a commentary on social death within mediatic society isn't that much of a stretch, considering that the rest of the video portrays a mansion littered with the corpses of dead domestic servants, inter-cut with shots of $100 bills marked "United States of Lady Gaga," diamond tiaras, pearls and other expensive-looking bits and bobs. I can't shake the feeling that when Gaga insists she is an artist interested in making "pop music" that her use of the term "pop" is far closer to Andy Warhol than her casual references to the artist -- inventor of the concept of "superstars" as well as that of the "15 minutes of fame" -- as a source of inspiration may seem.
Gaga has even made her own video "Manifesto of Little Monster" (a term she reserves for her fans) dated 12/18/1974, whose reference, as far as I can tell, might be to the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization as a separate agency of the UN...
All of this begins to pose some disturbing problems for anyone seeking to understand the cultural climate of the Great Recession and late capitalism more generally. What is the link between fame-whoring, seduction, image consumption and social death in mediatic societies? And how is all this linked to Lady Gaga's own rise to fame? If Mike Davis and others have begun to cognitively map the contours of social immisseration that have been generated by late capitalism in periurban zones, how do we begin to represent the form of social death taking place within the advanced capitalist core?
What follows is an attempt to trace a genealogy of what I consider to be détornements of Marx's general law of capitalist accumulation -- or so-called immiseration thesis, which connects human sacrifice to capital's tendency to accumulate surplus in the figure of the terrifying god Moloch -- which begins with Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, is pantomimed by David Bowie during his visit to Warhol's Factory in 1971, picked up by Queen's 1984 video "Radio Ga Ga," influences Madonna's concept for "Express Yourself" in 1990, and culminates in Lady Gaga's media performance art of the last few years. I will argue that the trope of Moloch as an alienating social death machine -- so iconic in Metropolis, and so much more compelling than zombie and vampire tropes, as a representational figure of capital accumulation -- returns to haunt the postmodern imaginary as a symptom of our encagement within an impersonal global economic system and collective social death during the long downturn of these last four decades of capitalism.
Metropolis and the General Law
[Above: screen shot from Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)]
"The 'House of Terror' for paupers, only dreamed of by the capitalist mind in 1770, was brought into being a few years later in the shape of a gigantic 'workhouse' for the industrial worker himself. It was called the factory. And this time the ideal was a pale shadow compared with the reality" (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 339).In the course of a mere sixty-three years, the 1770 vision of one capitalist dreamer for an ideal prison workhouse for the poor in which adults would be forced to toil for an inhuman 12 hours a day, would quickly become a terrifying reality in England. In 1833, Parliament reduced the working day for children of 13-18 to a mere 12 hours. Thus, "House of Terror" becomes factory. Punishment, labor. And workers are now subject to the rhythms of an 'infernal machine'.
After analyzing the struggle over the working day, and the resulting development of more efficient forces of production (through cooperation, technological advances, discipline, etc), Marx tackles the central contradiction at the heart of capital's laws of motion, its general law of accumulation:
"It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse [...] It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is therefore at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital" (ibid, 799).This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of the "general law" -- some friends and comrades are publishing that in the next issue of Endnotes, which will be a must-read piece -- which fell out of favor during the 20th century as Marxists and commentaries tended to dismiss it as an "immiseration thesis" that had not been empirically demonstrated throughout the development of capitalism. It should suffice to say that Marx was making an argument about the long-term dynamics of capitalism, whose tendency is to create unemployment. In the period since the 1970s, the general law has come back with a vengeance. Current underemployment figures are in the double digits in the US and across Europe; periurban slums grow on the peripheries of cities throughout the world. But how do we represent the accumulation of forms of misery on one pole and capital surplus on the other that are unique to the crises that beset late capitalism? What are the contours shaping this new form of social death?
In Fritz Lang's expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, a city split between rich above-ground industrialists and subterranean workers quarters, the young prince autocrat of the city, Freder, stumbles upon a violent explosion of the city's power station, the M-Machine -- we may as well call it the M-C-M' Machine-- which kills several of the workers. Horrified, he envisions in the fantastic art deco curves of the M-Machine the face of pagan god Moloch, swallowing line after line of workers into his infernal belly.
With the supercession of the industrial age of classical capitalism by some new postmodern or late capitalist mode of production, it has become increasingly difficult to represent the general law of accumulation in such a vivid, figural way. To represent the totality of capitalism -- the new form of M-C-M' -- as "machine" or "system" seems like a hyperbole of the '60s and a throwback to classical capitalism. The concept of the metropolis (which I have commented upon in relation to Agamben and Tiqqun here, and in relation to Fredric Jameson's project here) captures some of the the spatial dynamics of late capitalism, but it lacks a figuration of human sacrifice, misery, brutalization. While I'm generally inclined towards theoretical anti-humanism, I think this requires that we understand, historically, the forms of brutality that are internal to the humanist project. It strikes me that a sort of schizophrenic or manic-depressive mood-structure is one starting point for understanding the new "de-centered subject" of postmodernity (and I have written about this in relation to black sites), but this account hasn't yet been given a collective valance because our society tends to individualize psychological states as a collection of personal symptoms and pathologies. Culture frequently presents us with visions and tropes of world apocalypse, which seem more like symptoms of some unrepresentable form of social death and encagement rather than attempts to figure that social death rigorously.
A Video Genealogy of "GaGa"
1971 -- Andy Warhol Meets David Bowie
Our video genealogy of what I will call "GAGA" -- not to be confused with the Lady herself, but which I will consider to be a more general figure of collective social death and projections of the future of which Lady Gaga is the most recent synthesis -- begins with Andy Warhol. Or rather, it begins with a certain visit that a young David Bowie paid to the pop artist's Factory in September of 1971, after the release of his album Hunky Dory which contains a send up to the social reality of advertising, fame and mediatic society Warhol exposed in his silk screens and films.
Notice how Warhol jumps at the end when someone points a rolled up piece of paper to him. Radical lesbian feminist Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, for exerting too "strong" of an influence over her, and the artist was notoriously jumpy until the end of his life. She apparently presented him with a script for a play she had written titled Up Your Ass, to which Warhol reportedly responded, paging through "Oh yeah, this is great! Have you ever thought of becoming a typist?" Solanas was in and out of mental institutions for the rest of her life, and perhaps mistook Warhol for the media culture of which he was a reflection, but she managed to write an epic manifesto of her own
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex. It is now technically feasible to reproduce without the aid of males (or, for that matter, females) and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so... The male is a biological accident (SCUM Manifesto, Verso imprint, 35).Needless to say it was Bowie who best captured the Warholian problems unleashed by mediatic society and the disturbing reality of Warhol's prophesy that "in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame," with his lines "Put a peephole in my brain / Two New Pence to have a go / I'd like to be a gallery / Put you all inside my show."
As many have noted, developments such as YouTube, reality television and cable news, are the most conspicuous evidence that we have all been put inside Warhol's show. This image of Bowie splitting open his torso in The Factory, disembowling himself for the camera, and pulling out his beating heart is striking, not to mention the strange routine in which he pantomimes the third wall of the cinema and portrays it closing in around him. The gesture is without a doubt a figuration of the exposure and human sacrifice which celebrity culture and media society has become. Have we really become latter-day Aztecs, creating luminous gods out of our slaves, throwing our surplus at their feet as we objectify them, only to destroy them on television for all the world to see?
1984 -- "Radio Ga Ga" and the advent of the PC
In January of 1984, Apple introduced its Macintosh computer to the world during a commercial which was aired once during the Superbowl. The Macintosh would become the first commercially successful personal computer with a mouse and graphic user interface, replacing the inhuman command line interface which had predominated until that point. The commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, whose visions of the future had previously included 1979's Alien and 1982's Blade Runner. The visual and graphic citations of Metropolis are chilling.
Apple's "1984" spectacular smashing of the silver screen with the power of personal computing is doubtlessly an attack on the Soviets. The talking head on the screen says: "We have created for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth." But there is an ambiguity to the advertisement which seems to also question the prevailing ideology of corporatism, where the heterogeneity of market competition under capitalism threatens to flip into its opposite number, complete homogeneity. When Apple resurrected the commercial in 2004 on the 20th anniversary of the Macintosh, by digitally inserting an iPod, and its now ubiquitous earbuds, onto the heroine, this attack of the underdog upon IBM took on another valance. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of any alternative to consumer society, one can't help but notice that the apparent heroine of market competition and the Big Brother of corporate control have become flip sides of the same "garden of pure ideology."
An analysis by Fredric Jameson of our post-Cold War ideology comes to mind. He writes in Seeds of Time that
our conceptual exhibit comes more sharply into view when we begin to ask ourselves how it is possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail, the most imperceptible of displacements, to reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and of the most unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom (32).But there is another video from this year which attempts to recon with the transition from spoken and written language to the new postmodern dominance of video technology. Queen's "Radio Ga Ga" begins with intercut scenes of World War II destruction and a family listening to its radio and ends on a particularly sinister note: masses bow to a new figure of M-Machine complete with a blinking disco clock sans numéros, all while the metropolis around it and the worker's quarters are destroyed. The video dialectically combines a Utopian longing for a post-industrial future (or present) along with a terrifying new form of domination: the immolation of the word, in a society of the image and entertainment.
1990 -- Madonna Urges you to "Express Yourself"
Directed by David Fincher and with a price tag over $5M, "Express Yourself" was the most expensive music video ever made at the time. The Material Girl polices her intellectual property with an iron fist though, so I can't post the video. You can see it here.
Madonna envisions herself in the world of Metropolis as the rich wife of a cold industrialist with whom she has become disenchanted. Scenes of hunky rough trade performing meaningless manual tasks are inter-cut with the star sulking around her luxurious apartment with a pussy cat.
Championed as a song about "pussy power" and accompanied by a moralizing epigraph cribbed from Metropolis "Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind," Madonna preaches her lesson on love: "What you need is a big strong hand / To lift you to your higher ground / Make you feel like a queen on the throne." The material girl sings that "You don't need diamond rings." What we need is more personal and sexual expression of the self.
But what this disaffected lady of the house really needs is a nice piece of rough trade, a hunky man from the worker's quarters to heat up her cold bourgeois love life. So she sends her pussy cat down into the depths of the machine to hunt one down for her while her husband is away. In a sequence that has been hailed as an "empowering" act of gender-bending, Madonna appears, wearing her husband's clothes (complete with his monacle) to dance on the steps of the M-Machine, grabbing her crotch, and giving the distinct impression that what she means by heart and woman power is using a position of wealth to recruit fuck buddies from her husband's empty gesture factory. An icon of media and advertising might, Madonna fancies herself the industrialist of love, exploiting the sexual desire of the masses rather than their labor power.
Filmed one year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dialectical ambivalence of the imagery from Metropolis is spectacularly resolved in "Express Yourself." Gone are the Utopian longings and dark visions of Queen's "Radio Ga Ga" or Apple's "1984." Industrial work has become a sort of empty gesture. Sexuality has replaced the factory as the icon of capital accumulation; fucking replaces labor, and the contradictions of capital are thought to be resolved by diverse expressions of sexual desire. The following year at a conference in UC Santa Cruz, Theresa de Laurentis will coin the term "queer theory" to express this new paradigm of thought, and the "plasticity" of Madonna's gender performances will be analyzed by successive generations of "queer theorists" as "subversive." However, if there is anything gender-bending about this performance it is that Madonna seems to suggest that women have an important role in perfecting capitalism: they can resolve the contradictions attending the division of labor (hand and mind) with a new affective economy of desire (heart). Above all, Madonna's "Express Yourself" is an allegory of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, first published as an article in 1989.
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold war, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."We may as well designate this thing that we have been tracing, this series of late capitalist détournements of the M-Machine GAGA, which would figure some new form of social death in which, without a sense of history, there can no longer be a projection of any alternate future. Without language, the social link has unraveled. An economy of affective labour powered by cybernetics and communications technology replaces an older mode of production and both sexuality and emotions (or mood structures) are colonized by capital, which begins to reproduce itself through our very psychological and affective makeup.
Mama, Papa, Goo-goo GAGA
[Above: Lady Gaga falling to her death in "Paparazzi"]
I think that this blog post about "Lady Gaga's Lesbian Phallus" is correct in its argument that "postmodern feminism" is basically the prevailing ideology of contemporary culture, its characterization of the collective infatuation with the Lady's genitalia as symptomatic, and that a psychoanalytic reading of Lady Gaga is an interesting take. I also think the post is pretty much full of incoherent psychobabble. It is also not clear to me how Lady Gaga's music video for "Telephone" and the joke about her not having a penis "can subvert the morphological imagination of the dominant heterosexual order, by upsetting the gender (and racial) hierarchy that are still very much with us." Isn't the predominant order precisely one of subversion? In what way does this apparent "upsetting" make the jump from Symbolic to the Imaginary? Is this a real subversion or an imaginary one? What is the value of imaginary "subversion"? How is Butler's theorization of a lesbian phallus *not* penis envy? Or rather, how is penis envy a parody of the non-existence of the phallus which is itself already a sort of dialectic between presence and absence? Lacan and Freud both thought that showing up the absence of the phallus was the discourse of the hysteric. So it isn't clear to me how we distinguish Butler's "parody" from a generalized hysterical relation to psychoanalysis itself. It's also strange to invoke psychoanalysis in relation to this video without discussing the concept of jouissance -- after all Gaga and Beyoncé poison a restaurant full of people and then perform a dance number around their corpses -- and without an analysis of the deliberate castration of male speech "Sorry; I cannot hear you / I'm kinda busy" and "Stop callin' Stop callin' / I don't wanna talk anymore." Gaga and Beyoncé force B's beau, Tyrese Gibson, to speak through txt message subtitles. If anything is being cut off in this song, it is the human voice and the signifying function of language itself, which is chopped up, spliced into repetitive sequences and carefully deformed into scripted lines so clichéd they're hillarious.
One should also point out the racial politics of this new narrative from Gaga and Beyoncé about social death. It is the black male who is destroyed by the media machine and the transition to a new affective economy. March was the worst month for job losses, but black men have suffered from an enormously disproportionate rate of job loss. An American Progress report notes:
What’s more, the recession overall has hit men much harder than women—so far, four out of every five jobs lost has been held by a male worker. Black men lead the unemployment surge, with an unemployment rate of 15.4 percent. This comes as a result of a range of barriers to employment, including disproportionate employment in vulnerable industries and labor market discrimination. Over a third of young black men ages 16 to 19 in the labor market are unemployed. In fact, a recent report found that 8 percent of black men have lost their jobs since November 2007.We could also ask how this narrative of social death in "Telephone" is a sort of cultural commentary on the world war in the Congo which has been raging for the past 25 years and has killed well over 5 million people and led to the rape of many women. This is essentially an anarchic resource war for the minerals which make up the essential components of every cell phone. Is Gaga mounting slipping a cryptic critique of the industry into a music video and concert tour sponsored by Virgin Mobil? Perhaps. But it strikes me that the racial death narrative of this film is too strong to deny.
In fact, Tavia's post is profoundly symptomatic of what I take to be Lacan's central insight into the vanishing conditions of possibility for the practice of psychoanalysis and the "talking cure" under late capitalism. It is something that Lacan called "lalangue" and "linguistricks" which he used to mark the transition from a society structured by master signifiers and paternal authority to one with a more permissive attitude, a transition inaugrated by the 1960s in which reflexive identity games and lifestyle politics predominate. A transition in the exercise of social power from the "No" of the father to the "Enjoy" or "Express Yourself" of postmodernity. Gopal Balakrishnan puts this very succinctly in his article on Lacan for the journal Lana Turner. He writes
The hegemontic sentences of Communism, the Nation, and the Master Race have faded away. What emerges from below are the slavish counterparts, fantasies that no longer need to be bound into a coherent symbolic edifice. Operating below the level of meaning, these buzz words of the spectacle connect strands of coded babble around "issues." This has become the primary mode of social integration today. Lacan sought to identify the repeated letters in the code of these circulating fragments of enjoyment. At this level of communications, the signifier has been parasitized by another kind of unit, bytes of nonsense to which the subject is half-wittingly, though passionately, attached. The end of ideologies brings with it the viral colonization of the psyche by memes: "you may" and "enjoy" but also perhaps "be different," "just do it," "change." According to Zizek, all this is resulting in radical alterations in the order of human things -- or perhaps it is simply disclosing what always already was: "a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements which, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another...The only struggle is between the good and bad infections." ("Zizek's Lacan: What is Truth" Lana Turner, 153-154).So what does any of this have to do with Lady Gaga? We might begin by asking how her music is so infectious. How does she fit into this set of figural depictions of Marx's immiseration thesis?
[Above: Lady Gaga crippled dance sequence in "Paparazzi" (2009)]
It's easy to see how Lady Gaga has solicited so much breathless excitement from everyone, myself included. Sure her videos are slick, she's a smart writer with a knack for writing hooks and concocting infectious beats. She makes an almost encyclopedic amount of references to pop culture which makes people feel like they have cultural caché for pointing them out. She wears amazingly imaginative and ridiculous outfits, interviews like Andy Warhol etc etc etc.
But Lady Gaga is something of an adept practitioner of what we have identified as lalangue. She seems to subvert authority and exude self reflexivity at every turn with a nod and a wink, as if she knows that you want to transgress along with her. But unlike those who think her performance is "subversive" or "transgressive," she knows that there is no longer anything to symbolically transgress. GAGA transparently shows us that the primary mode of social integration and communication under postmodernity is through "bytes of nonsense." That we relate to one another through fragmented bits of babble to which we are enthusiastically and passionately attached, but about the "why" of these attachments we know very little.
"Mum-mum-mum-mah / Pa-pa-pa-poker face / Pa-pa-poker face"
"Don't think too much just bust that clip / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick"
"Baby there's no other superstar / You know that I'll be your / Papa-paparazzi"
"Duh-duh-duh-duh / Dance. Dance. Dance. / Ju-just dance."It is this sense in which Lady Gaga's name, and the name that I take to be the symptom of this whole phenomenon, GAGA -- derived from Queen's account of the death of language under the crushing weight of video technology -- is the quilting point of this whole mode of social death which takes the form of fragmented enjoyments, noise that comes stuttering out of Gaga's mouth, half second video clips spliced into a montage, broken and distorted drumbeats. GAGA is different from the other recurring stutters, "ma ma" and "pa pa," "duh-duh," in that it is a different sort of signifier than Lacan's famous master signifier, "the Name of the Father." GAGA is a new sort of master signifier which cannot be disobeyed because her very discourse is one of affirmation. GAGA is fatuous, insane, doting. But GAGA points out that death is internal to all your fragmented enjoyments. Your voice on the other end of a telephone is linked to collective social death. Your amused consumption of her image is a function of the social death of mass media homogeneity. As the GAGA Manifesto succinctly points out: our social bond is primarily through visual perception (not language), a social "bond" that is in actuality "a lie...for which we kill". Why do we kill to defend a lie? "We are nothing without our image. Without our projection."
Like Andy Warhol before her, Lady Gaga is a careful mirror of media spectacle. This isn't subversive. But it does offer a chilling reflection of a new form of encagement in which desire is blown apart and its fragmented bits become ecstatically enthralled to incoherent fantasies and strings of babble. This is the psycho-affective circuit through which capital must pass in a new cycle of M-C-M'. Not only labor but also the structure of desire has been thoroughly converted into the variable capital of a new psycho-affective economy, and we can either throw our desires into circulation or lose this admittedly impoverished or illusory social bond.
Perhaps the only space left for subversion in a world ruled by the "Enjoy!" of GAGA is the refusal of "I'd rather not." What would a dialectical negation of both of these positions look like?
I think the negation of the negation would look something like these latest "flash mobs" organized by txt messages turning into riots in Philly.
The train wreck of history only moves in one direction. Perhaps its time we start programming some really destructive memes and get stuck on different stuttering verses
"We are the crowd / We're cu-coming out"