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“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

UnitedYikes

For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson_MAIN

He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

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Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

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Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

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For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

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In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Complicity Perfume

Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

Calm Guy As Asian Doctor Screams

Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

Papa Doesn’t Smell The Heat

10 Oct

Mykki Blanco – High School Never Ends (ft. Woodkid) (Official Music Video) from The FADER on Vimeo.

By Tav Nyong’o

My constant teaching has been this: live for the drama, but don’t let the drama live you.

You are not your gadget, you are not the face at the end of your selfie stick, or the Emoji, Bitmoji, Ebroji. You are not the little techAsian monster avatar that the sea of oblivious and negligent faces see you as. Put your phone away and talk to me. You are not the tone that is being policed, or the body that just got housed. Some of us go to protest wearing our graveyard suits, as Brother Corn likes to say. And some of want to be downlow hanging in them baggy jeans that give you nice dreams.

I can learn from you even if I can’t trust you: you just might get my stone face. But still, my teaching has been this: you are not your stoneface, your nervous giggle, your catalogue of embarrassments, or your family basket of deplorables. Get serious for a second, but not too deadly serious. Remember to breathe when you can. There is peace beyond passion, but that great gettin’ up morning already happened, and those who need to know it already do. I need the right to sing those blues.

Mykki Blanco knows it. Mykki has the right to sing those blues and swing them. I spent Sunday evening being happily triggered by his latest video, “High School Never Ends.” It’s off his excellent debut album. Debut album? I feel like I’ve known Mykki forever but we’ve only met once in an elevator. I saw him play out one night in Berlin this summer, while I was still in a cosmopolitan funk about lost dreams, the funeral circuit, fleeting youth, and black bodies getting shot down in the streets of America, hustled out of cabs for a beat down in Germany, or drowned unheralded off Lampedusa. And yeah, I kinda know how that all sounds.

High School Never Ends is “black queer studies,” as the academy wants to call it, no tea, no shade. But those theory drugs may not love you the way they love me, and that’s okay too. It is a raw video, in painful focus, and watching it on my big screen (trigger warning for class privilege?) was its own small drama in my living room. I had to turn it off before the end to spare my friends and my beloved, giving new meaning to the guest croon of French singer Woodkid: “Why don’t you just delete me?”

Why don’t you just delete me … talk about… a great pick up line! Ha! (I hope you laughed) If only, if only our lives could be blanked out like that, if only we could delete ourselves and get contorted and connected somewhere under cover of dark.

If only we could peace out just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did.

Loosely based on Romeo + Juliet (Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the only one who has figured out how to get the mainstream to pay attention to black or brown lives by encapsulating them in white roles), High School Never Ends is really a love letter to the black bwoi or gal who may be planning his next ticket to Berlin after the “Get behind me Satan” moment last night during the debates.

I was that boy once. And, like James Baldwin  before me, I hoped that Europe would be a place where I could breathe. I didn’t want to assimilate, although ich spreche ein bisschen mehr Deutsche jetzt, so there. (Shout out to LaTasha Nevada Diggs for that courage to twerk the English tongue as she is spoke!) I wanted to interinimate, a word I learned from Fred Moten that comes from metaphysical poetry but could also apply to how we move through the world. Tickets, money, passport is the drill: get your life in the dank basement of a Neukölln bar, get bounced by the style fascists at the door to Berghain, do some “research,” and sun your nude ass by one of those lakes or canals that, quiet as it’s kept, the city is really known for. Stay woke, stay hidden, stay sleep.

Wear protective coloration, develop a tolerance for second hand smoke, explore polyamory, private FaceBook group sexscapades, and collective feminist accountability. Eat, pray, love or drink, grieve, fuck, and fuck up badly, as the case may be. Get your life and try not to notice how often protective coloration doesn’t really protect you, but is a ruse of your own making, a trip you may be on solo, an emotional aphasia in which you remain stone face everywhere outside the uchromatic dark. I can tell you; I’ve been there, and I will be again.

I feel Mykki has too: she is a transformer, a rager, someone who has left and returned to performing like so many of my friends, comrades, students, and intrigues. Like me, I think she finds the exit door from professional visibility is a revolving one. “I want to be here now,” I once heard her sing, “because the future is stupid!” And here we are, stupidly, in that present. Mykki is an alter ego, of course, a messy bitch who lives for drama. But don’t conflate her with Joanne the Scammer. Mykki will clock your nazi white Ass, and, if High School Never Ends is any indication, she also subscribes to the Frank Ocean mantra “I never ever fuck someone I wouldn’t beat up” or words to that effect. Call it black queer studies, or queer black studies, or black feminism. Or call it a troubling reverie up I had one night in my brown study: not the “brown” that is halfway to white, but the rocking posture you assume to keep the body thinking and feeling when you feel yourself trapped in some white supremacist freeze-frame.

I’m not the old head here to tell you “high school ends”, “it gets better,” or any mainsplaining shit like that. I refuse to be a man, and Mykki does to, (even when she is). In the video, she plays a game of fuck, marry, kill with the neo-Nazi youth that, quiet as it’s kept, the Left in Berlin has never stopped battling. I fuck with our Anarcho-Marxist dadbros so you may not need to: each one teach one.

After turning the video off after Woodkid’s sweet solo, my dear comrade suggested immediately I teach this video in my class next semester. I jumped up for a second, But then I thought about the student demand. I thought about triggering, boundaries, and this little thing called the traumatic kernel of the Real. (A little Lacan now and then does the body good, but I can also spare you). So I’m going to let that simmer a bit, and let this one circulate in the meantime out in what some smart folks down in Durham may have begun to call the Black Outdoors.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in Conversation with J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

The Black Outdoors tickles my throat; better hyperlink. Are we there yet? Are we here now? I may not be ready for it, but I want to be ready. And I can’t not want you to be ready to; you who I fall a little more in love with every look.

I need to learn the dark arts of black feminist refusal, which are my constant study, and I’m so grateful some one schools me in them every day. “Life is a school, unless you’re a fool,” Carmen McRae once sang. “But the learning brings you pain.” She added.I hear her, but I also hear Billy sing “hush now, don’t explain.” So for  now I end this appreciation to an album and the black feminist poethics that helped me listen to it by saying, bring the pain!

And, possibly, a small proposition: Worry the line, but teach to the letter.

I hear José listening, so I’ll shut up now and thank him for tuning in from an undisclosed Caribbean location. I can say it now: no one belongs here more than us.

And so, my constant teaching has been this, with a nod to the old gods whose language I won’t speak here or now: a greeting passed from mouth to mouth, head to head, from deepest darkest Africa to chocolate city. Let the master be your messenger. Let the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house. Just don’t let yourself be caught out up in it! Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The sky is open. All the rest is commentary. And night moves.

Iphone, U-Phone…Or Is Gaga the new Dada?…Or Roll Over Andy Warhol…

22 Mar

By Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o

JACK:

Andy Warhol was asked in an interview whether he thought people were more glamorous in the past or “now.” He looks into the camera for a moment, no reaction across his impassive face and then intones: “uh….now.” Period. He was completely right of course and glamour in the past quickly fades to camp leaving room for new signs of glamour in the present. In his day, Warhol thought he would like to be reincarnated as a ring worn by Liz Taylor…not so glamorous anymore but how about coming back as Gaga’s sunglasses, or Beyoncé’s lipstick, now that would be glamour! Or how about we think of the return of Warhol as a telephone call from the past, a ringing in the middle of a Gaga video, a call she refuses to answer but has always already picked up? If Andy Warhol’s genius lay in his ability to smash the boundaries between art and advertising, between fame and talent and between production and consumption, Lady Gaga is the new Warhol because while Warhol still glued glamour to subjects, Lday Gaga magically unleashes the power of objects.

The question of whether Lady Gaga just plays into male voyeurism and becomes a ready image for objectification is rendered moot by the fact that everything in her world is an object, including her, and the relations between objects (phone, car, butch, chains, honey, sandwich, prison) are more animated that the relations between subjects – which are for the most part conveyed via neutral interactions deliberately devoid of passion, emotion or affect. The phoniness of the entire mise en scene flattens the hierarchy of being that places subjects over objects and it attributes action to things (the sunglasses smoke in the prison yard scene, the pancakes bite in the diner) and object-like status to people – both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga become the thing they are doing – Gaga makes a sandwich and becomes a sandwich in her white outfit. Beyoncé hoards honey and becomes honey in her bright yellow dress. The becoming-object of Gaga/Beyoncé opens out onto a whole new domain of lesbian aesthetics – one in which the becoming-object is lesbian because lesbianism has already been defined as only always derivative, always unreal, the original phony. While lesbianism was largely absent from Warhol’s repertoire of glamour and success, it becomes the foundation for new formulations of fame precisely because it has always been conveyed as ugly, anti-aesthetic, and some combination of too real (hence unaesthetic) or too unreal (hence…The L Word?). The linking of beauty itself to gayness in Warhol’s world, a link that Valerie Solanas found so enraging that she tried to kill Warhol, has been replaced in the world of Gaga by an ongoing discourse of gender bending. But do Warhol and Gaga share something else, something less tweet worthy – the unbearable whiteness of being seems part of the repertoire of both glamour managers and despite the overwhelming presence of Beyoncé in “Telephone,” this video is wonder bread white…

TAVIA:

Yes, let’s run with the Warhol comparison as a bridge to talking about the racial dynamics at play. Your observation makes me think about of Warhol’s late-career collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat as a point of potential comparison to the Lady Gaga/Beyoncé dynamic. Basquiat has been on my mind recently because I just watched a documentary about No Wave cinema in which some talking head or the other was slagging off Basquiat for selling out the NYC 80s Downtown scene, as if everyone else in the documentary, who just happened to be white, were keeping it real! I do think there is still the assumption that the avant-garde is or should be white, and that people of color who stumble into it are always, through a paradoxical ideological operation, bearers of a commercializing, capitalist logic. Perhaps “becoming-object” takes on a different aspect when the bodies under consideration are racialized ones, bodies who bear a history of, shall we say, “having-already-been-object”?

It seems to me nevertheless (I’m borrowing here from José Muñoz and a slew of smart other Warhol critics) that the Warhol-Basquiat collaboration — while not always the most interesting to me in terms of the work they produced together — had a positive effect on Basquiat’s career when it comes to the unbearable whiteness of the avant-garde you identify. And not because Warhol legitimated Basquiat! But because their work together satirized the very notion of such legitimation. Having short circuited the gap between the avant-garde and mass culture, Warhol was hardly in a position to grant Basquiat the master’s imprimatur. Rather, their collaborations seemed instead to queer the trajectory of artistic influence and interchange, which is what I also see happening in the ongoing Beyoncé/Lady Gaga collaboration.

At one level it is of course the merger of two spectacularly successful corporations: one selling bootylicious diva attitude complete with a deliciously catty “Call her Miss Ross” back story, the other marketing fashion-damaged, art school antics to malls and cellphones everywhere. But at another level what interests me is how this merger sidesteps the stale narratives that tend to script black/white collaboration as either “miscegenation” or as a color-blind kumbayah moment. Their object-oriented lesbianism up-ends sexual anxieties based in reproductive logics and identitarian models of subjectivity.

The Lady Gaga/Sasha Fierce love affair rescripts the old Norman Mailer saw, as recycled most recently by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, about how American music gets its heat from a “musical miscegenation.” The stuttering, repetitive sounds of the disconnecting video/phone should cue us to an alternative logic of recursivity where both icons revisit a eroticized, racialized terrain only to drain it of its depressing teleology. Like Basquiat tagging SAMO© (pronounced Same-Oh) around lower Manhattan, taking the piss out of radical chic art scenesters while scratching his own name into a brand-addled mindscape, Gaga and Fierce amp up the noise to signal ratio on this “same old song.” Boys to the side, their version of musical homosociality doesn’t involve the dream of black people magically endowing white folks with rhythm (as Videophone proves!), but plays a staccato tune in which racial meaning itself is distorted, elongated, and striated, just as some of the most interesting black vocalists are doing with Autotune.

This is the dada or cut-up moment: Beyoncé as Michael Jackson busting a move in the middle of Thelma and Louise in the middle of Caged Heat wants to be starting something that is over and finished and already repeating before its begun …

JACK:

Three really quick responses: 1) Have you seen the Basquiat moments at the start of the Lady Gaga “Bad Romance” video? We are welcomed to the Bath Haus of Gaga – some weird mesh of a designer house, a bath house and a Bauhaus!! – and Gaga and others climb out of their white pods dressed like sperms with Basquiat like crowns on the top of white patent leather suits. Lady Gaga goes back and forth between black and white outfits while singing about love as a disease. It is all very “is the rectum a grave” and the sperm dance scene uses many of the same moves as in the diner dance scene in “Telephone.” In other words, Lady Gaga seems to have absorbed Basquiat along with a whole host of other queer art world references. But of course, you are absolutely right that the avant-garde sort of clings to whiteness in a way that always casts racial narratives as too…well…content driven.

2) True! Becoming-object means something different in relation to Black bodies and yet I think that part of Basquiat’s whole aesthetic was also to turn black bodies into icons, icons into objects and black objects into a different kind of fetish. In fact, are all objects fetishes in this sense or does the liveliness of the object in Gaga/Beyoncé land resist fetishization? Also, of course, to return to your discussion of the lesbian phallus as a sort of fetish, all phalluses disappoint but some are less disappointing than others – the lesbian phallus is defined as disappointment whereas the male phallus/penis conflation promises something that it cannot deliver – like enhancing designer underwear or something. So the video is making distinctions between and among objects, subjects, male, female, phalluses and fetishes and confusing them all at the same time. The many stutters in the voice, the dance moves and the music sort of signal the interrupted relays and connections along the many chains of signifiers. So lesbian phalluses and Black subject/objects are necessarily different than male phalluses, white subject/objects but the meaning of that difference changes all the time.

3) I think Set It Off is a really important reference for “Telephone.” Beyoncé is playing Stony, the one who gets away at the end…Tarantino may think that the Pussy Wagon ensures his male voyeuristic participation in the film but the Pussy Wagon is a kind of stand in for Cleo’s souped up a vehicle – another lesbian phallus and a reminder that the black butch rarely makes a clean get away – see Kara Keeling’s brilliant reading of Cleo and Ursula as the Black subjects who stand outside of the film’s ability to imagine queer worlds (The Witch’s Flight, Duke UP). Oh and apropos of nothing – what about the Stevie Nicks floaty gowns at the end?

TAVIA:

Talk about the witch’s flight! I am not sure what to make of these. I guess we will have to wait for the sequel!

You Cannot Gaga Gaga by Jack Halberstam

17 Mar

 

READ MORE ON GAGA FEMINISM BY JACK HALBERSTAM: GAGA FEMINISM: SEX, GENDER, AND THE END OF NORMAL – TO BE PUBLISHED BY BEACON PRESS, SEPTEMBER 2012!!

Can you hear me? Listen up: I am gaga for Gaga. I know we all are now, and I was already gaga for Beyoncé except now Gaga is gaga for Beyoncé too so…so I am gonna have to call them both up on the t-t-telephone and find out how to get a piece of the action. And the action, by the way, has little to do with the phallus, real, imagined, lesbian or bionic. Thanks to Tavia (see below) for his brilliant and on point reading of the disappointing and disappearing phallus but from here on out, it is about phones, headsets, hearing, receivers and objects that become subjects, glasses that smoke, food that bites. If the sappy, eco-friendly message of James Cameron’s bloated 3-D off-world was “I see you,” the cooky, cocky, whacky voice-mail left by Gaga/Beyoncé is “I hear you.” The ear and the phone are neither vagina and penis nor speaker and listener, in this agenda-bending extravaganza the telephone is an Avital Ronell wet dream – electric speech served with a twist of live wire. And, by the way, what is up with divas and phones? Remember that Blondie was hanging on one, Madonna was hanging one up, even Beyoncé in “If I was a boy,” was turning one off and telling “everyone it’s broken/so that they would think I was sleeping alone.”

“It is a question of answerability,” says Ronell in The Telephone Book, “you picking it up means the call has come through.”

But what is it saying? When you get the call, who speaks and who listens? And what happens when she tells you to STOP CALLING MOTHERF#*KER!

Telephone, for the two people who missed it, is the breakout online Gaga/Beyoncé extravaganza set in a women’s prison in LA. In this ten minute mini film,  Lady Gaga wears her diet coke in her hair, her heart on her sleeve and models a series of hats made out of telephones while she and Beyoncé perform in “Thelma and Louise” meets Marcel DuChamp meets Set It Off. They dip and bob, stutter and wink across a landscape of diners and deserts leaving a trail of bodies in their wake – the crime they are punishing? Honey theft. Yes, like queen bees deciding to kick the drones to the curb while keeping their honey for themselves, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé buzz around dangerously looking for the next sucker to sting.

Watch the video here: Telephone by Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé

In their “pussy wagon” Gaga and Beyoncé chart new territory for femme liberation, female aggression, feminine techno embodiment and instant gratification – using a Polaroid camera, Gaga captures her “Honey Bee,” (that’s Beyoncé to you) leaving the scene of the crime and promises that they are leaving and never coming back. Throwing the picture to the ground, the gesture suggests that images are cheap but check out the sound system. The telephone line goes dead, the connection is lost, the heroines are far from the law, lost to the boyfriends calling on their phones, far from home, and far from dead. Their honey is safe and their desire is as shiny and new as the glittering heels they used to walk over the corpses. Featuring cameos by female body-builders, female body artist Heather Cassils and Gaga’s sister, the video gives sisterhood a brand new name: NOISE . The prison yard kiss with Cassils, in particular, reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics. Cassils has talked in an interview about what the video has done for her visibility:

Interview in OUT with Heather Cassils

The blogosphere is already full of readings and revelations about the video – it is a Foucaultian take on prison and “technological entrapment”; here on Bullybloggers, it has been read as the channeling of Butler’s “Lesbian Phallus”; it is obscene, murderous, cruel to animals, misogynist, man-hating, homophobic and heterophobic; and I think you could safely place it as a Deleuzian exploration of flow and affect not to mention an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy. So whether the philosophy in question is drawn from Zizek on speed, Ronell on crack or Meillassoux on ecstasy, this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion. So what is the “telephone” in this sonic drama and what is Gaga doing with it?

Notice many of the phones in the film are landlines – the phone in the jail (or “club” as Gaga calls it), the green phone in Beyoncé’s bedroom, the blue phone that Lady Gaga wears as she makes sandwiches – these phones are fixed in place, not mobile, wearable but also restricting – “Tonight I’ll not be taking no calls because I’ll be dancing…Stop calling, stop calling, cause I don’t want to talk anymore/Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t want to think anymore/I got my head and my heart out on the dance floor.” The push and pull of the game of telephone resembles the rhythms of hetero dating – she waits, he calls; she answers, he speaks, she yells, he hangs up. But they also resemble stalking—“stop calling, stop calling”—and they sound like the surveillance calls brilliantly dissected as part of the marriage script in Laura Kipnis’s Against Love – “Hi hon, just called to check in…where are you now?” The mobile phone is a player in the battle of lovers and so Lady Gaga and Beyoncé decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone – instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone. The music pulses like a ring tone (like the ring tone it is about to anyway become), it burbles and beeps, hiccups and repeats, insistently, calling and ringing, ringing and calling and chaining us all to the charisma of the pop beat.

Like the ringing music, the choreography is also phony, phonic, supersonic – like the clipped conversations that lovers have on phones with reception and messages fading in and out, the divas strut and twist their bodies into jerking machines – in one remarkable sequence, a break in the dinette dance scene, Beyoncé, dressed in her Michael Jackson uniform complete with epaulets stands with her eyes wide open and her mouth opening and closing to the stuttering “eh…eh…eh…eh” of the music.  Beyoncé is channeling phone here, she is the receiver, the answering machine and the dial tone all in one and all are saying the same thing – no one is home! In another sequence when Gaga is leaving the prison, she stutter steps in another homage to Jackson but also to convey the shift in time-scapes from doing time in prison to taking a dropped call from Beyoncé out in the real world. Time, in “Telephone,” ripples with queerness, stops, starts, repeats: and while time stops for the losers in their way, Beyoncé and Gaga are tripping off to a utopia of milk and honey. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga repeatedly lift their hands to their mouths to make the telephone sign and they sing into handsets and hold the phone like a dick they are about to rip off. Is this film about castration? Oh yeah baby. Your phone is going to be off the hook, your land line is now cordless, your cordless lost reception, your mobile is turned off, your girlfriend is turned on and she is escaping in a pussy wagon with another woman!

Well, so is the phone the phallus after all? Is the mobile phone a dildo? Is the old landline a kind of metaphor for male penis and the new “virgin” cell phone a metaphor for the lesbian phallus? I still think that phallic as phones may be and phunny as the connection between phone and phallus becomes throughout the video, the real sex organ in this piece is the ear, and while the phallus may well circulate, this is pussy power all the way. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé demonstrate a femininity done right and over done to the point of parody. But here is where it gets interesting – while Lady Gaga always seemed like a drag queen in her outrageous costumes, in this incarnation she reminds us that no one does femininity like a fierce femme and while you can already see the drag shows going on in a bad gay bar near you with super tall drag queens lipsyncing to Gaga and Beyoncé and cat-fighting their way across the stage, remember you heard it here first – you cannot Gaga Gaga, honey so don’t even try! She is camping camp, she is dragging drag, she is ironing irony (ok…ok), she  has done it, been it, worn it. And be warned, don’t call her, she’ll call you!

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Weekend Video Inspiration

31 May

Thanks Kandia, for sending this our way.