Mainstreaming the Avant-Garde: Gender and spectacle at GAGAKOH

Curator's Note

Lady Gaga clothed in white, bridal and barefoot, walks slowly in a procession inspired by a stately Shinto wedding parade along a busy Tokyo street to nightclub Tabloid, the performance space that she is about to share with artist Terence Koh. What follows is part pop, part avant-garde and part promotional tool. Here at the Gagakoh charity event sponsored by cosmetics company MAC, she appears as Koh’s bride, passive and willing, oscillating between performance art and pop; the atonal Gregorian-esque chant from Koh, the gay kiss, the white paint and powder covering their bodies, the pseudo-religious imagery ending in the symbolic consummation of their marriage of pop and art. Gaga appears to have found her art alter ego in Koh, both are flamboyant, press hungry performers who share a queer sensibility.

At Gagakoh, Gaga is spectacle. Indeed, she exists as spectacle, both on and off stage. Here she appears to be pushing against the boundaries of a mainstream pop performance. Operating as both a marginal and central figure, playing the art performer off against the pop performer, Gaga is seemingly inviting the viewer to consider that she not only exists for and is aimed at, a mainstream audience, but also aspires to operate in other cultural spheres. By drawing on avant-garde techniques she is aligning herself with a more serious set of practices, here Koh’s art credentials, which permit her to function simply as an icon, straddling the worlds of art and pop with ease.

In this context, as a totally constructed identity, Gaga is freed of normativity, and can both revel in heteronormativity and subvert it. It may be impossible to read her as straight as she consistently highlights gender performativity; she plays male and female, queer and straight. Add to this her professed love for the monster and the grotesque, she can be placed firmly against mainstream pop princesses and can be read as interrogating the performative nature of both gender and sexuality, and their relationship to stardom and celebrity in contemporary culture.

The pop-queer persona, the ferocity of her image and performance style, exemplified here in particular, operate as a rich signifier asking us to use her image in whatever ways are necessary. Yet before we rush to label Gaga as the only progressive mainstream pop star of the twenty first century, we must first consider that the surface mirroring of every environment she encounters may well only speak to self-reflexive mimicry with no purpose.


Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture


Thanks Kirsty! Great post! I guess the question here is whether Lady Gaga is progressive or just an icon of progressivity. To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about her, though - the fact that we can’t quite tell. In addition to all the other boundaries you mention, the boundaries between subject and image are blurred - to the point that Gaga becomes her own iconographic status. In her interview with Jonathan Ross, she’s continually asked what her ‘real’ name is - and she merely responds "it is Gaga"; "I am Gaga".

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Gaga's art of pop

I’ll second Karin and thank you for this thought-provoking post. Davide Panagia has written very persuasively about the incompossibilities of style and substance and how "Lady Gaga has transformed Pop into an art with a set of aesthetic convictions, possibilities, and ambitions all its own". He argues, and I think I agree with him, that in Gaga’s inheritance of Warhol we see a reversal of his turning art into pop. Rather, with Gaga, we see the alchemical turning of pop into art.



Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture


Here’s a link to Panagia’s article in case anyone is interested:


Kristopher L. Cannon's picture

The Object of Avant-Garde Objectivity.

 I really enjoyed your post Kirsty, especially with an artifact that would seemingly get less public visibility than her music videos. I like the comments from Karin & Michael and find them interesting in relation to your statement about her existing "as" spectacle.  I have been toying with the idea of how Gaga becomes an object simultaneous to her offering-up objects with subjectivity (Jack Halberstam has mentioned this in relation to the glasses that smoke in the Telephone video).  It seems that you suggest that something (performance as spectacle) is coming undone for her to become something else (spectacle itself), and Michael also draws attention to transformations taking place (pop to art and blurring subject and image).  Do either of you think that this might also be a "becoming spectacle," "becoming spectacled object," or…

If she draws attention to the transformative, transitional and temporal unfolding (enfolding? undoing?) of these boundaries, she also seems to offer images attentive to object-orientation—illuminating, enacting and potentially embodying objectivity or object-ness.

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Gaga and Object Oriented Ontology

It is interesting that you raise questions about Gaga and Object Oriented Ontology, Speculative Realism (and specularity) and Object Oriented Philosophy Kris, especially since Steven Shaviro’s work has been preoccupied with both OOO and Lady Gaga’s videos (although he has not to my knowledge brought the two together).

As you mention Judith Halberstam has tentatively and tantalizingly mentioned that the video for "Telephone" is itself "an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy".  She specifically cites Meillassoux (mostly associated with the post-Kantian non-correlationist wing of Speculative Realism), Zizek (who is more on the dialetical materialist side of things), Deleuze (who hasn’t really, with the exception of Jeffrey Bell, been thought about in relation to speculative realism) and Ronell (the great theorist of the telephone) and she claims that "this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion". This is undoubtedly true and what is intriguing about this chaining is that Gaga’s video brings together many of the disparate strands of SR and OOO/OOP. It might be helpful to quickly chart some of the background.

Speculative Realism describes the work of a very disparate group of scholars (Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman) reanimating some of “the most radical philosophical problematics” through a “fresh reappropriation of the philosophical tradition and through an openness to its outside” (Collapse). The term was coined by Ray Brassier, organizer of the first symposium on speculative realisms, the proceedings of which appear in Collapse. However, Speculative Realism is generally considered “a useful umbrella term, chosen precisely because it was vague enough to encompass a variety of fundamentally heterogeneous philosophical research programmes” as Brassier admits in a recent interview. These philosophies, while at once radically different from one another, could be said to find some coherence in their opposition to correlationist philosophies; to quote the Ray Brassier interview again, “the only thing that unites us is antipathy to what Quentin Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism’—the doctrine, especially prevalent among ‘Continental’ philosophers, that humans and world cannot be conceived in isolation from one other—a ‘correlationist’ is any philosopher who insists that the human-world correlate is philosophy’s sole legitimate concern”. The Wikipedia entry for Speculative realism offers some further shared ground:

While often in disagreement over basic philosophical issues, the speculative realist thinkers have a shared resistance to philosophies of human finitude inspired by the tradition of Immanuel Kant. What unites the four core members of the movement is an attempt to overcome both “correlationism” as well as “philosophies of access.” In After Finitude, Meillassoux defines correlationism as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." Philosophies of access are any of those philosophies which privilege the human being over other entities. Both ideas represent forms of anthropocentrism. All four of the core thinkers within Speculative Realism work to overturn these forms of philosophy which privilege the human being, favouring distinct forms of realism against the dominant forms of idealism in much of contemporary philosophy”.

A foundational text for Speculative Realism, then,  is Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, a text which boldly insists on the “necessity of contingency” and critiques the post-Kantian primacy of, as Robin Mackay puts it, the “relation of consciousness to the world—however that may be construed—over any supposed objectivity of ‘things themselves’. Meillassoux calls his own non-correlationist philosophy a Speculative Materialism. One critic of Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, in his Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction marries revisionary naturalism in Anglo/American analytic philosophy to speculative realism in the continental French tradition. He terms his own approach as “transcendental realism” or “transcendental nihilism” (a position he shares with critical realist Roy Bhaskar) while the British philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant works with a post-Schellingian materialism to produce a speculative nature philosophy that he calls “neo-vitalism”. Graham Harman, heavily influenced by the Actor-Network Theory of Bruno Latour has long been advancing an object-oriented philosophy, emphasizing ‘vicarious causation’ which turns toward objects and demands a humanitarian politics attuned to the objects themselves.

Despite their many differences these four thinkers have been most closely associated with the development of what has come to be called “Speculative Realism”, a term Brassier thinks is now “singularly unhelpful”. After Meillassoux, these thinkers have forced radical reconsiderations of the relationships between philosophy and science, philosophy and theology, and philosophy and nature, among other things. Their work shares some affinities (and obvious disjunctions) with the “dialectical materialism” of Alain Badiou (who critiques SR for lacking a political dimension), the “transcendental materialism” of Slavoj Zizek (who critiques SR for lacking a theory of the subject), and even the post-Cartesian philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion and his “saturated phenomena”.

What Kris and Jack Halberstam bring to light is that SR hasn’t really engaged with gender or queerness in any explicit way. And Gaga’s videos are full of possibilities for a SR reading. In his response to a post I wrote on Gaga and tele-historicism for the blog In the Middle, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, points out some affinities between the way I talk there about Gaga and historicism and a Latourian Actor Network Theory. Cohen says:

"MOR’s post reminded me, in many good ways, of one of my favorite pieces of his writing, "The Open," his intro to _Queering the Non/Human_. There he writes of objects and materialisms, but if we think about tele-historical identities alongside the agential objects with which they form a network, I think we get at the complexities of the video-landscape MOR is speaking about (and maybe the ways in which tele-historical identities reside not just within singular human bodies: where would Lady Gaga be without her outfits and objects? Even her hair is an object with life of its own …). ‘Even if humanity as finitude, as being-with-toward-death, vulnerably exposes us, we are far from inert as we project ourselves into the future of queered humanity. Karen Brand’s notion of ‘agential realism’ deftly captures this queer phenomenology in so far as bodies intra-act, dynamically and causally. Like Judith Butler’s iterability, this agential materialism, which brackets ‘things-in-phenomena’, allows for new articulations, new configurations, for what Luciana Parsi calls ‘affective relations’, a community constituted through ‘posthumanist performativity’ … Such an ethico-politics (and the queering of the normativities of queer theory itself) depends on what Agamben calls ‘the open’, a process which does not follow some preconceived teleological programme. Queering the non/human is not a means to an end but a means ‘without end.’ (Michael O’Rourke, "The Open", xix)

The full post is here for those interested:

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that objects (and Gaga’s becoming-object) are very important in her music videos and performances. It might be useful to think about Gaga’s prostheses not just in terms of the gender/queerness of her personae and performances but also in terms of the disability/crip politics she is advancing (I’m thinking particularly of the video for "Paparazzi" here with the wheelchair, crutches). Gaga’s Object-Oriented Philosophy is a big part of her "allure" for me so I look forward to further discussions about this.




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