If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gaga's Mistake: You and I Can Write a Bad Romance

“You and me could write a bad romance,” sings Lady Gaga in her hit "Bad Romance." We could indulge in love kitschy, sadomasochistic, sloppy, cheap--and above all, fun. You and I could write a bad romance.

You and I. But Gaga sings, over and over in our collective memory, “you and me.” Fudging lyrics to fit meter is no high crime in pop or poesy--any number of masters have deployed apostrophes to drop syllables or accents to conjure them. But Gaga could just as easily have sung, “you and I could write a bad romance” in the allotted space, incurring only the small artistic cost of appearing literate.

There are other possible explanations, but they don’t seem worth running down. More likely, given Gaga’s dedication to and training in her craft, it is an intentional mistake, and one that mirrors perfectly one of the more famous solecisms in English literature.

“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky,” begins T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Whereas “we” is correctly replaced by “you and I,” “us” would correctly be replaced by “you and me.” Eliot’s phrasing is probably chosen to create the rhyme with “sky.” In a poem about a frumpy anti-hero’s meditations on his myriad failures and perceived incompetence, the mistake also serves an important artistic function.

Gaga’s mistake resembles Eliot’s more than superficially. Eliot’s “love song” about the protagonist’s failure to enter even the atrium of love is a kind of “bad romance.” But Eliot’s bad romance is almost diametrically opposite that of Gaga. Eliot exposes and dismantles the illusions of genre whereas Gaga reanimates them (what one might call the difference between modernism and postmodernism).

Eliot re-imagines the scenes of Victorian comfort with an eye to their potential for surreality and ambivalence. The speaker experiences himself at an ironic distance from his world, unworthy to touch its offerings. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendent lord [...] Almost, at times, the Fool.” “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (45-6). When he plays the part of Lazarus, “come from the dead,” he would be emotionally destroyed “If one, settling a pillow by her head, / Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all’” (95-9).

When Prufrock imagines pleasures, they escape him. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” Prufrock should have been shrunk by synecdoche to “a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (73-4). But his imagination does not lack for the stuff of Gothic entertainment--mermaids, the undead, claws, costumes. His very distance from the world makes it loom larger and more fantastic. He is constantly thinking of his appearance and how it might be, and has been, shuffled to produce difference effects, different arrangements of pleasure.

Lady Gaga; a pair of fabulous claws.

Prufrock is not far from Gaga. Like their divergence around the mistake concerning us/we--whether one is to play the part of subject or object--their imaginaries are complementary. Prufrock’s “do I dare?” is answered constantly by Gaga’s will-to-daring, a bravado that aspires to present itself as testing nothing less than the universe, as Prufrock likewise sees his every move. Prufrock’s imagined costume-drama is played out in each of Gaga’s public appearances. If the mermaids would not sing to Prufrock, Gaga is now the hybrid monster who sings to everyone constantly.

Prufrock puts forth a question that could easily fit into the theme of “The Fame Monster” (or “Ziggy” or “The Wall,” etc.):
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 
And how should I presume? (57-61).

How to dare the universe given the omnipresent pin of reflective contemplation, a pin that both destroys and magnifies? Gaga’s performance does not refute Prufrock’s premise but embraces it, “wriggling on the wall” of the specular society. To be pinned is to be exposed, for better and worse.

Whereas Prufrock’s governing affect is sexless malaise, that of “Bad Romance” is sexy defiance. The lyrics are half snarled, and even the idea that the romance she desires is “bad” both accepts and defies an attribution about what is good/bad romance made by an antagonistic critical community. Thus she and her followers become criminals, monsters, psychos, and their attacks the "revenge" of the suppressed classes.

But the pleasure Gaga announces is not dependent on the success of the vengeful attack; this is not a territorial counter-attack. In that way it is a defiance different from the punk rallying cries to take to the streets and burn this motherfucker down. She wants your revenge itself, not a tactical outcome from it. Just dancing--for fun, defiantly--is the goal, rather than some upheaval caused by or following the party.

The wagers Prufrock and Gaga make in this game are different, but they agree on much of the terrain. While both break the artistic rules of their day in flashier ways elsewhere, the solecism is the wink that gives depth to their commentaries on an obsessively self-reflective culture. The evident error provides the foothold for deviation to blossom as intentional performance, rather than deterministic reaction.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Consumerism is a constant byword of cultural criticism. Consumer culture is bad, consumerism is bad; these can stand in for some kind of richer engagement with Marxism that would inevitably lead one to a non-liberal politics. I most often see this word used by soft lefties being careful about overcommitting with their language. And there is, obviously, something to it. We (and I say "we" because if you are reading this you are almost definitely of this group) consume a whole fucking lot, and are at the very least deluged with demands or supplications to do more of it.

But what of the other half? Where is production? The rhetoric of anti-consumerism treats production as something immune or at least anathemic to perversion. At worst the processes of production are themselves perverted (this being the core of Marxist humanism and the ontologisation of labor)--in which case we need to get back to the "good" production, the essence that is definitively good. (Does anti/consumerist discourse have any concept of good consumption?)

This juncture, of course, points to what is most desired by capitalist reproduction: not a consumer society, as Foucault shows in his 1977-78 lectures on the collapse of anti-scarcity models, but a producer society, and it is around this nexus that late capitalism has been able to incorporate some of the social genetics of an earlier generation of anti-capitalism. The tales of Heroes of Labor have ironically become more accessible as the Stakhanovite ethos has been demythologized into the only means to achieve marginal superiority over the pack (or herd). If there is any substance to theses on the move to an information economy (or whatever one's preferred term for a digital world) it is in capital's much better ability to avoid underconsumption. At the same time we have an increasing pressure to produce, not because we need more shit--no one says that--but because production, in the few hundred years capitalism has been working on this, is now better at the almost-immediate capture of relation into circulable value. Consumption can only make you so stupid before it dulls its own effectiveness; now you need to get to working producing that stupidity, with a fervor and skill only you can know.

This provides some context for why "inoperability" might be, if placed in a Marxist narrative, actually useful.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Darwin and Deleuze: species in motion

How does the temporality of evolution work? And if species are evolving, how is there such a thing as "species" anyway--why not a total flux? Darwin is clear that "species" is not a precise term. The difference between a "species" and a "variety" or subspecies is murky because species arise from varieties.
"Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species.... These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage" (The Annotated Origin 51).

Actual exemplar organisms can only constitute a series with discrete differences, but somehow these series amount to differences of species, for we see quite clearly that sheep are not pigs are not cows. But in another sense, one which Darwin must affirm, sheep are pigs differentiated only by temporal duration and environmental transaction.

(Incidentally, the text I'm using is this really beautifully done facsimile of the first edition of the Origin. Worth the 25-35 bucks if you can afford it).

This paradox sheds light on the metaphysical subtlety underwriting Darwin's new concept of evolution. The extant alternatives of Paley and Lamarck both wrangled with the difficulty of change in metaphysically conservative ways--both essentially see change as a surface phenomenon, Paley by punting processual agency to the deity (if it exists at all), Lamarck by tethering change to individual intention. (Darwin, on the other hand, upholds "unconscious selection"--the selection process might be concealed to all intentional actors.) Most importantly, change is not an extra metaphysical layer, the proverbial icing on the cake, but existence itself. Species exist as temporal accumulations. A being is a discrete organism and a point in a series of discrete organisms, but it is also and necessarily a blur of motion in a dimension of being that does see the series, a dimension better termed becoming; thus a being is "an actual passage." Darwin's fundamental, if unstated, metaphysical revolution then opens a whole new and profitably analytic despite the evidentiary gaps and downright errors in the Origin. (Remember he did not have Mendelian genetics at hand--can you imagine affirming Darwinism without a gene theory of inheritance?!)

The metaphysics of Darwinian evolution are put forward more concisely by Deleuze in a lecture on Spinoza:
"The affection envelops an affect...It is not a comparison of the mind in two states, it is a passage or transition enveloped by the affection, by every affection. Every instantaneous affection envelops a passage or transition. Transition, to what? Passage, to what?... There is a specificity of the transition, and it is precisely this that we call duration and that Spinoza calls duration. Duration is the lived passage, the lived transition." (From the Deleuze's lectures transcripts on Spinoza's affect)

The Origin of Species touts not just a theory for how species arose, but a radical redefinition of the concept "species" of which it is equally originary.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Marx and Engels, Imitating Animals

The imitative capacity is one of the hallmarks of the human. In some accounts this is used as a differend for splitting off "animals." But it is quite obviously a problematic way of doing so for it means that nonhumans, as things imitated, will always be interpellating the human. Freud is pretty clear on this and many recent applications of psychoanalysis have rightly picked up on the way in which a theory of the unconscious makes a hard split between humans and nonhumans impossible (I'm thinking of Lippit's Electric Animal where he discusses Freud and Breuer, and Ziser's "Mirrors" piece in Angelaki for Lacan). Marxism, especially when emphasizing labor, also seems like it must endorse a naturalistic community. I'm not going to go into why I think this pertains to each of the brands of Marxism now on offer, but as a general principle it seems that any formulation of community offers an immanent critique of anthropocentrism as either a form of identity politics or as unable to account for marginal cases.

That said, we can also point to any number of cases within those (as well as more conservative philosophical traditions) where the mimetic or reflexive capacities function as a such a differend in the final analysis. Marx and Engels present a paradigmatic case in The German Ideology, writing,
"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life."

Humans can indeed be distinguished from animals by any differend you like; that's why anthropologism is an effective ideology. I'm not bringing this up to dwell on an anthropological machine that has already been well criticized, or to give Marx and Engels a spanking for a sloppy humanism or their ontologization of labor. Rather, this passage exemplifies how these elements fit together. If one wishes to tally consciousness (or any other reflexive capacity you like) as the distinctively human capacity, one also accounts for the emergence of production ex nihilo. One starts producing in a distinctively human fashion without a prior model, even though that production will then be the production based on models.

Making sense of this story seems to require some kind of naturalistic mechanism, an accrual of habits no different from the instincts of other beasts (which would then beg the question of how an ontological split occurs). We seem to be, from this false origin onwards, already within Benjamin's (and before him Scholem's, and now Agamben's) world just like ours but slightly different--the difference being, we never were human. For my money Nietzsche is still the best expositor of that account.

However, I think another route is also possible, and this is to be found in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (technically only by Engels but based on Marx's notes; it's like when P Diddy released Biggie's tracks post mortem. One could offer a more high brow reading of this authorial situation through Specters of Marx). Here the imitative capacity is again crucial to the kind of animal the savage human is, but it is not cut off from other animals. As anyone could tell you, other animals imitate as well; there is no ground for this capacity by its very nature (I learn to imitate by imitating your imitations). If imitation is already in circulation as part of nature (Deleuze brings this out in his reading of Hume) then humans can develop economically by being with animals, rather than being against them.

Engels writes that the "first great social division of labor" came into being by the differences in production between nondomesticated and domesticated animals capable of rendering, "not only milk, milk products and greater supplies of meat, but also skins, wool, goat-hair, and spun and woven fabrics, which became more common as the amount of raw material increased."

Now the chief article which the pastoral tribes exchanged with their neighbors was cattle; cattle became the commodity by which all other commodities were valued and which was everywhere willingly taken in exchange for them - in short, cattle acquired a money function and already at this stage did the work of money.... In the climate of the Turanian plateau, pastoral life is impossible without supplies of fodder for the long and severe winter. Here, therefore, it was essential that land should be put under grass and corn cultivated. The same is true of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But when once corn had been grown for the cattle, it also soon became food for men.

Engels goes on to argue that, having learned to eat like animals, the pastoral tribes soon required a large labor force. Slavery becomes necessary and the social division of labor is complete. The fundament for this arc, however, remains the differential productive capacities of humans and nonhumans, and the attempts to at first borrow and then steal from the forms of labor available to different species. One might argue that humans have succeeded in this expropriation better than any other species, but one can hardly maintain that it is unique to humans.

Perhaps what is most interesting is that we can easily think of predation as this kind of expropriation, but it is the herbivorous herd animals that humans ultimately imitated to the greatest extent and which allowed for civilization to arise. Humans ultimately did not transform their species-being by taking the products of animals (meat, eggs) but, as Marx and Engels earlier wrote, by learning to "produce the means of subsistence," the mode of living off of grains. Humans were the first domesticated species.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Before the Law": immaterial labor, grad students

"Before the Law" is usually read as telling us something about The Law, and for a time it did. Today I am less inclined to engage with the pseudo-mythical object 'Law' and instead see it as a story about immaterial labor. Legal administration is one of the classical forms of immaterial labor (child-rearing/socialization/education being the other major example, pointing to the significance of patriarchy in bringing the one to the fore). What does the gatekeeper do but (what we call) immaterial labor? Without him the gradients of social channels collapse into each other; multiple ontologies violently attempt to reach equilibrium and crush the human in their waves of affect. So at least is the explanation for Law. And this story now extends far beyond the Law. The lost object is nothing particular, simply the rippling alterity that constitutes sociality.

The gatekeepers are essential to maintain these gradients. We should not allegorize their job but see them laboring honestly. What is more interesting is the position of the man from the country. He too has accidentally become an immaterial laborer. In fact, this is what he always wanted to be. He is petitioning the Law to become a gatekeeper (he is a graduate student). However, because he encounters the gatekeeper he is put in suspension as the object of that labor. There he performs the immaterial labor of suspending narrative and preventing the reader, the secondary petitioner, access to the Law. He is the proletariat of immaterial labor (he is a graduate student).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Transgender and the survival of humanity

When I first saw articles like this I freaked out a little bit. The decimation of fish populations through estrogenization of waterways seems like a bad thing, and the extrapolation that a similar fate awaits humans also seems bad. But then I took a longer-view perspective and I think it will probably work out. The reason all this estrogen is going into the water is because oral contraceptives for women are an important way to control birth rates now that child mortality is less of an issue for developed nations. But there are still way too many people, and simply slaughtering millions or billions does not seem desirable. Nor do 'political' solutions to the ecological problems of too many humans seems likely to succeed. A massive, non-targeted transgenderization or de-genderization seems like a much better way to displace the priority of reproduction in gender/sexuality formation. There are some objections to this I can imagine which I won't go into now, but overall I can imagine the world being a better place after suffering a crippling blow to the global economy of reproduction.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Against Brett Favre

I love essays titled "Against So-and-so." Even if it's a little black and white, such a title is sure to encounter negativity. That's what makes people refine their positions and take stances. Usually the title is something like "Against Georg Lukacs," "Against Epic Theater," or "For Marx." Well, if Against Brett Favre is what's available I'll take it.