It wasn’t until the set of rewatches over the past year that I realized how completely insane the soundtrack to this film is… besides the ones you mention, Radiohead, Salt ‘n Pepa, Cracker, Lightning Seeds, Coolio, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones? Bananas. Love how this film rejected musical generic boundaries.
Ridiculous, perhaps, to post on this fascinating piece and comment thread almost two months after the fact, but here goes:
One thing that strikes me in relation to Matt and Matthew’s posts regarding the connections to ‘Jackass’ is that, for all of the points of overlap, there is a real absence in the NekNomination video of the laughter that is so prevalent in Jackass (laughter among most members of the Jackass crew, both in front of and behind the camera, and laughter intended for the viewer). As Cynthia Chris has pointed out, one of the striking features of ‘Jackass’ is how fungible and mobile it renders the three positions in the triangulation of jokes posited by Freud in ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’: joke-teller, joke-object, and audience. In Freud, the role of the audience or onlooker is key to the “tendentious” joke’s function of lifting repressions or offering an opportunity for exhibitionism (in the sexual field) on the teller’s part—with both functions at the expense of the joke-object (comic butt). Distinctions among all three positions are broken down in ‘Jackass’, pointing in the direction of Freud’s later essay on “Humour” and his discussion of forms of laughter at the self that have a liberating element in the midst of failure or distress. ‘Humour’ for Freud signifies the ego overriding the superego, and a “repudiation of the possibility of suffering.” The ego insists “that it is impervious to wounds … in fact, that these are merely occasions for affording it pleasure.”
As other comments here point to, the NekNomination video shares with ‘Jackass’ the mobility among the three positions, emphasized even further by the ritual of the nomination itself. Could these videos be seen to represent something like the affirmation of the ego and the pleasure principle in the face of suffering/failure described by Freud, but bypassing the laughter that characterizes related forms like ‘Jackass’, other prank videos, or reaction videos (again, despite many formal similarities like the use of slomo replay across these forms)? In the absence of laughter, which in ‘Jackass’ often seems linked to the experience of contingency (the moment when the prank/stunt totally works or totally fails), the formalistic/ritualistic quality of the Neknomination video comes to the foreground. So I’m left wondering whether this shift away from laughter/generic framing as comedy alters the aesthetic/ethical stakes of videos in the Jackass vein, or simply clarifies these stakes for us.
Thank you both Zachary and Brendan for your thoughtful comments! I think you’re getting to something really interesting in your comparison between “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop” - the eroto-de/construction of nakedness as vulnerability. Interestingly nakedness becomes a rather complex thing to define in Miley’s videos - and it can’t be confused with something ‘true’ or ‘real’. As Zachary points out, “We Can’t Stop” offers an abundance of introspective and auto-erotic moments (which are often connected to nakedness), but Miley is surrounded by people throughout most of the video and the ‘self’ that emerges within the collective never appears vulnerable, lonely or in any sense naked. In the official video of “Wrecking Ball” Miley is completely physically naked (except for her boots) - which is what Sinead O’Connor reacts to - but I think she is powerful and in a sense affectively armed in this nakedness. It is only in the director’s cut that you get a real sense of emotional nakedness - and I would argue that this VIRTUAL nakedness only appears as a result of the complete stillness, sterility and absence of ACTUAL nakedness in this version.
Importantly, the director’s cut wouldn’t have the same affective power if it weren’t produced as a contrast to the official version. The fact that we know of Miley’s alternative violent response to the topic of the video, makes her stillness very striking. The single tear is starkly different to the tears Miley makes to the walls, but the structural tears are constantly reflected in that one tear down her cheek. It comes to express an absence of violent eruption at the same time as it mirrors the possibility of violence. There is a really powerful play of internal vs external and actual vs virtual nakedness here, but the core of its power does not come from Miley’s separate incarnations, but the contrasts, mirroring and duplicity they produce.
Miley Feminism is thus not simply a punk ethics and aesthetics. It’s not just a play of surfaces, wild rampages of demolition, and expressions of resistance to ‘the system’. Neither is it just a play of destruction and reiteration of the neoliberal apparatus. There is also the presence of something beyond this - something that is certainly produced by its machinations - but exceeds the forms it takes. I guess I would describe this as the contrasting force in itself - and I find it beautifully expressed in the juxtaposition of the various Mileys we’ve encountered this week. This is possibly the closest we can get to a ‘true’ or ‘real’ message in Miley’s oeuvre (obviously acknowledging that there can be no such thing) - a message of critique or complication for the sheer fun of it.
I’ve really been interested in the all the comments this week about Miley’s work - the curator’s note here got me thinking about this idea of “vulnerability” and the paradoxical way that functions with Miley’s performance - on the one hand, her physical nakedness, her boyish girl-to-woman body, the long shadow of a history of the white female body as needing “protection”; on the other hand, this video coming on the heels of the “We Don’t Stop” video and the backlash to its representations and the VMAs performance and thus her vulnerability being about her under attack by those who decried racism (in what she seems to imagine as a post-racist society) or those who vilified her while ignoring Robin Thicke. I wonder about the way her vulnerability gets constructed because it seems so intentional that we see her as “human” and “helpless” yet also able to do harm. Zach directs us to think about these two videos (Wrecking and We Can’t) in conversation and I think the stark contrast is telling, but both seem invested in reminding us of her white feminine form (albeit queered by her boyish/quasi-boi/still “developing frame) - in “We Can’t Stop” by surrounding her with non-whiteness and here by forcing our gaze on her face and her form, clothed in a whiteness, in a sterile setting that does not try to hide itself as anything more than a soundstage.
This last bit is what makes me cautious about how we read Miley’s aesthetics and its relationship to a punk or anarchic mode of being - the way that Miley seems, like Britney before her, to court our gaze and viewership in part by staging herself as part of a machine that she is fighting against. I can’t help but think that “Wrecking Ball” is about fighting back against the “haters” that don’t love her as they should and “the system” that, true to Britney, she fights while continuing to participate in. We could read her destruction as intensely queer because she ruins nothing staged as real and nothing we can see as necessary; or we can read it as destroying nothing and thus just participating in the ongoing machinations of a neoliberal machine. Miley Feminism seems to be about that both/and; one in which you reap the benefits of being young, privileged, white and feminine and also play with the trappings of queerness and race.
First of all, I’m sorry that I am just now getting around to commenting on this great wrap-up post! I’m glad that you have chosen “Wrecking Ball” because it has always stood out to me, especially after seeing the director’s cut. Many of Miley’s other songs and videos are characters by extreme anarchic action and a sense of wild abandon. With the exception of Adore You (another fascinating video—and relevant to our discussions about masturbation/auto-eroticism), this director’s cut seems to be one of Miley’s only moments of stillness, of reflection.
Since the other music video we examined closely this week was “We Can’t Stop”, I am thinking of how we might put that video in conversation with this one. “We Can’t Stop” has Miley surrounded by bodies and her language is quite collective—she uses the plural third person and even refers to “dancing with Miley” as though she were not herself. And yet, in the midst of this big party with “sweaty bodies everywhere” we see a lot of auto-eroticism and commentary on the self: she is one among many and yet our focus is still strongly on her. In the director’s cut for “Wrecking Ball”, however, Miley is alone in the extreme—the starkness of the video is almost unsettling. Although her body is the only body in the video, we don’t get the same sense of auto-eroticism or self-pleasure. In fact, the lyrics position Miley in relation to someone else, the unnamed “you” who both wrecks and is wrecked by Miley.
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is an interrogation of the various types of wrecking that Miley offers us in her ouevre. Certainly her masturbatory performances are a kind of erotic wrecking—of the self, of sex, of gender, of her past, etc. And yet, the wrecking we witness in the director’s cut here is self-splitting or self-wrecking in a different kind of way: it’s vulnerable but also confrontational—her gaze never breaks from us. Perhaps this nakedness is just as anarchic or queer as her unstoppable, ouroboric, ratchet moments, especially in its excessiveness, its unabashedness.
Sorry for being a bit out of the loop here! Or, perhaps my late entry might demonstrate somewhat how the loop is also an open loop, subject to intrusions, penetrations and transformations.
First, to address MOR’s curiosity about Chris’s “befores” and “afters” and Jose’s “thens” and “theres.” As I mentioned previously, I think Jose was very careful that his formulation of queer utopia would be grounded in a “concrete” sense of historical/political place and time, even as it veers future forward while reading back the past. Jose probably wouldn’t be too excited about a queer utopia that literally was forged with historically abstract “multiple trajectories.” But I think Chris’s project is crucial in checking the chrononormative impulse that saturates and schedules our daily lives and the lives of those around us.
Regarding Miley as ouroboros, or ouroborotic, I very much like the idea, except there seems to me something fatal or ending in this figure. We often see the thing that eats itself as an object lesson of negative cravenness. However, while I was working on my Masters thesis, which surveyed the concept of “masturbation” across a perhaps unwieldy terrain of texts (!), I became enthralled with the “Klein Bottle,” a self-intersecting, non-Euclidian geometrical structure that cannot be represented faithfully in three-dimensional space: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klein_bottle
The “self-intersectionality” of this form interests me, not in the sense of it being hailed as a paean to autonomous reflexivity, which seems pretty much untenable for subjectivity to thrive at all. I liked the Klein bottle because it dramatizes the structure of the mobius strip, which Grosz (I think via Alfonso Lingus [edit: LINGIS]) made appealing as a way to rethink lesbian corporeality, and perhaps corporeality and intersubjectivity in general. For me, the Klein bottle is a way to draw back “depth” into subjectivity without giving up the erotics of surfaces that Grosz importantly advocates for. The Klein bottle can be read as self-penetrating, yet also, self-phaging; a penetration and a consumption, however, that is initiated and conditioned by the presence or interference of otherness. Miley’s self-intersections consume and penetrate, and are occasion for our own self-penetrations and self-consumptions. Selfing is othering. And depth is surface.
Michael, I love this. I have not read Jean-Luc Nancy, but it appears from what you’ve posted here that I must get into it asap.
Masturbation, historically, has been regarded as an insistence; either one that is dangerous to the self because it emerges as an insistence within the self, or, the opposite, as a medical insistence of the 19th century to treat hysteria in women and therefore restore a proper sense of femininity to herself. There is thus this enigmatic double valence by which self-feeling both discovers the self (see also 1970s feminist rediscovery of masturbation as empowering) and also ruins, or, wrecks the self. I find the latter resonant with a Bersanian commitment (insistence?) on self-shattering, or, self-wrecking. And this is I think at the heart of Miley’s auto(allo)erotic affective demolition.
Yet, maybe it will be important to keep in mind José’s critique of self-shattering as too abstract, too anti-collective. I would read this along with Butler’s contention (as far as I’m reading it) that the self’s undoing (and doing) is categorically an action, or imposition—or insistence—of the other. Self-wrecking, then, might be most beneficial when it occurs in relation to an otherness that insists on wrecking us. Queer of color critique seems, to me, to fit this bill. And I think, in the context of this theme week, Eva’s contribution has productively wrecked many of our insistences without, I think, foreclosing the project of a reflection on Miley—indeed, Eva’s critique is undoubtedly part of this reflection.
This seems to me to be a fundamental tension in queer theory at the moment: the tension between self-insisting and self-wrecking, a tension that quite possibly cannot be resolved. After all, self-insisting would appear to be the main political mode of queer of color critique and critical trans politics—a self-insistence that aims to wreck the oppressive other’s self-centeredness. Is this self-insisting and self-centering, or selfing, commensurate with those projects’ aims to wreck or decenter selfish normalcy? Is there not some kind of contradiction that inheres in an anti-selfish project that is enacted through performative acts of self-insistence?
Queer theory, in my reading, is a theory of selfishness (this is how I came upon the trail of masturbation in the first place); it is a theory of selfishness because it is a theory that seems to destabilize the conceptual presuppositions of selfhood, while at the same time, affirming a right to a self(ish)ness, more or less, of one’s own choosing. If selfing is, in some way, an insistence that generates necessary resources for subsistence in an oppressive world, in a world that attempts to deprive us of those resources that make survival possible, and if the self-insistence of minoritarian subjects is not only prohibited by oppressive regimes that are themselves self-insisting, but is also vitally necessary in opposing and toppling those regimes, then something like a right to autophagy would be a queer political project that might get us out of the deadlock that anti-narcissism or anti-selfing perpetuates. That would be a queer political project I could get behind, or, should I say, that could get behind me.
Eva, I love your use of “echolocation” here, as it complicates my earlier arguments that there is something, perhaps, inherently queer about doublings. In the sense you use it, the doubling this video performs is a reinforcement that locates the video within the normative narrative of white privilege (white centering and the concomitant marginalization of others).
I also think of Echo, the “other” (or one of many others) in Ovid’s telling of the myth of Narcissus who is categorically decentered by Narcissus’s self-gazing. This particular dramatization of Narcissus is no doubt the one that dominates critical discourses on the left. In recent works by Zizek, Badiou, Sloterdijk, and Butler—”selfishness” and “narcissism” stand for a kind of absolute core of social evil. White supremacy, Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, ableism, capitalism, American exceptionalism and unilateral militarism, the global north—all of these are reduced to manifestations of narcissism by leading figures in critical and queer theory. But it is this default position of anti-narcissism that I am invested in critiquing and challenging.
First, there is the paradox that all of these narcissisms seem to be social forms of narcissism. As collective identifications that draw strong social (if negative and repugnant) bonds between people, these narcissisms may stand in the way of a certain vision of social justice, but they are social phenomena nonetheless. In this way, they trouble the notion that narcissism can ever be conceived as a totally individuating process or psychic state that threatens social fabric.
One might talk of the impossibility of narcissism as it is generally figured—isolating, unilateral, self-involved. Reflexivity or self-centering, as it were, might be the effect of otherness, and a deep desire for it—an identification that places one in both positions, self-and-other; center and margin.
I guess what I’m wondering, then, is: Does this video’s echolocation of white centeredness only reinforce this norm as a kind of obstinate, white narcissism? Or, might its—and Miley’s—self-centering gesture radically toward (and away from) the other, the elsewhere, the not-yet-here, even as it fails to transcend the terms of the here and now, the status quo? And if so, can we make use of that gesture, since, as far as I read it, the gesture of Narcissus is always already an invitation, a skin-side-out (to crib from Sedgwick) performance of shame that effaces its desire for connection with the other(s)?
Thanks for the responses, everyone! Thinking about the course between rapture and violence in these films does seem to present other examples — sequences which again tend to get passed by. Some of the beatific serene tableaux, bodies arranged on rocks in high angle extreme long shot in Dumont’s TWENTYNINE PALMS, is one case in point. Hard as it is, watching the films more than once (in my case, Niels, making it happen by assigning IRREVERSIBLE on my contemporary French cinema class!) does seem to recalibrate your reactions somewhat, opening up the sheer range of aesthetic-emotive materials conveyed, from bliss to repulsion. My sense of IRREVERSIBLE, something I try to explore elsewhere, is that the film’s crucial pivot is Marcus/Vincent Cassel, his course from animalistic brutality to higher brain function and empathy with Alex, a very witty deconstruction of Cassel’s star persona. For all its visceral assaults, IRREVERSIBLE is a very measured, controlled, precise piece of cinema…
Hi Again everybody,
Chris, I totally agree with your analysis of the “Hard Out Here” video. But I don’t see it as so different from the “We Can’t Stop” video. Both use black women’s bodies to define a white woman’s sexuality and desirability. The sort of reciprocity that Ryan points to with Miley getting spanked does not change that Miley’s sexuality is being defined here through a proximity to blackness. The end result is that each video (“Hard Out Here” and “We Can’t Stop”) seems to reify the other as a sort of echolocation of the (relative) flexibility of white normativity.
And to respond to Zachary, yes I think that the fame part is a large part of what sets Cyrus up as normcore. I am thinking of normcore more as a way to be extra-normal. So as Ryan points out Miley is in the center of the video by convention, and that is exactly my argument that the set up of the video is conventional.
Ryan, yes I agree that the video is entrenched in the racist capitalist structure of the larger industry. But I think that makes it even more crucial to discuss the expressions of power in “all of this “cultural” stuff.” What I am saying here is that race is an important part of a queer analytic frame and not something that should be overlooked or sidestepped just because it makes an argument uncomfortable or untenable. Analyzing race in culture is more than just calling something racist and moving on to what you really want to say. For me, as I have said, that means examining the power dynamics in that situate my object of study. I cannot figure Cyrus as The Super Queer because for me a queer futurity of the not yet here could not possibly be about a re-centering of whiteness.