Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

EDGES BLOG: Our Gaga, Our Selves: Review of Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism, Part 2

Professor Roger Lancaster offers a review of J. Jack Halberstam's recent book Gaga Feminism. Check it out below. 

(Part 1 surveyed Lady Gaga’s career to date, especially in relation to the gay community. Part 2 reviews J. Jack Halberstam’s recent book.)

Part 2: Rise and Fall of the Haus of Gaga

Now it so happens in the course of popular culture studies that events sometimes outrun the capacity of scholars to describe and analyze them. Something like this must have befallen J. Jack Halberstam, whose recent paean to the performer is titled Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. (Halberstam published for many years under the name Judith but now goes by Jack.)

Scattered across the book are what appear to be late revisions to a text that was already substantially conceived before the release of “Born This Way,” as Halberstam struggles to keep his own line of arguments separate from the pop star’s garishly essentialist version of queer life in that single. “Contrary to Lady Gaga’s own manifesto, you will not be born a gaga feminist….”; “Forget about ‘Born This Way’ and focus on the rhythmic freefall accomplished by Lady Gaga….”

Unevenness aside, the resulting book is to be praised on many counts.

It aims to provide “a fun, user-friendly, and quasi-academic handbook for a new feminism.” Specifically, it tries to infuse radical queer gender politics (with its emphasis on identities in flux and flow) with the spirit of Occupy Wall Street (with its logic of the 99%).

In plotting this course, the author keeps class inequalities and systems of racial domination in plain view, and he attempts to integrate these hierarchies into his discussion of policies related to gender and sexuality (especially, for example, gay marriage).

There are some touching dialogues between the author and his two stepchildren, as the latter work out some of the varieties contemporary genders. “Of course … he is a girl,” says one of Halberstam: “a boygirl.” In piecing together such child-centric accounts, which figure substantially in the author’s own thinking, Halberstam steadfastly refuses the ubiquitous child sex panics of our time. This is laudable.

And then there’s sheer verve. Halberstam attempts to track “emerging formulations of gender politics” through the public figure of a pop icon; this makes for a high-stakes gambit.

What Halberstam calls “gaga” (rhymes with “dada,” stands for “going gaga”)

derives from Lady Gaga and has everything to do with Lady Gaga but is not limited to Lady Gaga. In other words, just as Andy Warhol was a channel for a set of new relations between culture, visibility, marketability, and queerness, so the genius of gaga allows Lady Gaga to become the vehicle for performing the very particular arrangement of bodies, genders, desires, communication, race, affect, and flow that we might now want to call gaga feminism. Gaga feminism, or the feminism (pheminism?) of the phony, the unreal, and the speculative, is simultaneously a monstrous outgrowth of the unstable concept of “woman” in feminist theory, a celebration of the joining of femininity to artifice, and a refusal of the mushy sentimentalism that has been siphoned into the category of womanhood. But this is not necessarily a brand-new feminism, and Lady Gaga herself is certainly not an architect of a new gender politics. Rather, there is some relation in her work between popular culture, feminine style, sound, and motion that hints at evolving forms of sex and gender at a moment when both are in crisis. Lady Gaga, as both a media product and a media manipulator, as a megabrand of sorts, becomes the switch point for both kinds of body futures—she represents both an erotics of the surface and an erotics of flaws and flows, and she is situated very self-consciously at the heart of new forms of consumer capitalism.

Such passages embrace a series of assertions, some plausible, some less so: Gaga is a channel; gender and sex are in crisis (yet again—or perhaps always and forever); phony effects herald a new world in the birthing….

If these assertions seem all-too-familiar, it is perhaps good to remember scholarly gushings around the figure of Madonna in the 1980s, which similarly papered over gaps between entertainment and politics, theory and performance, image and audience.

Of course, one is also reminded of Meaghan Morris’s cautionary piece, “Banality in Cultural Studies.”

To raise an obvious point (and perhaps to belabor it): Even without broaching a discussion of commodity fetishism or reviewing the history of the public sphere, Halberstam might have teed the discussion more substantially off difference between forms of communication deployed in celebrity PR or commercial culture and forms of communication used in social or political movements.

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Certainly, there are overlaps between the two, not to say hybrid forms. The one kind of publicity is sometimes appropriated or captured by the other. Madison Avenue loves nothing more than the perpetual “revolution” of product renewal. Advertisers periodically market consumption as substitutes for social change: the countercultural “Pepsi Generation” became, in parts of Latin America, “the Pepsi Revolution.” Correlatively, political activists have always staged events with an eye toward how they would be covered in newspapers, on the evening news—or today, on the blogs or Facebook.

But blurring aside, the main goal of commercial culture is to get you to purchase a product, or at least to think well of it. In getting you to buy the product, it aims to convert the capitalists’ initial outlay of money into profits, hence more capital. That is all. Even commercial entertainment—whatever its secondary effects or audience-based reappropriations—is essentially about the marketing of digital downloads and tickets. (“Shock effects” are most helpful here, and that is a great deal of the Gaga story.) By contrast, the object of political culture is to convince you of an argument, to rally support or opposition in some tangible way (lobbying, voting, protesting, organizing)—and in so doing, ultimately to organize the distribution of rights, protections, powers, allegiances, and freedoms.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter: OWS, the so-called anti-globalization rallies from a few years ago, and nascent protest movements worldwide all represent attempts to reverse the neoliberal subsumption of politics to commerce.

Minding such a distinction, however tenuous, might have given Halberstam more critical leverage over his material, including celebrity hijinks and “queer notions of bodily riot and antinormative disruption.” Ignoring the question allows him to revel and enthuse rather than analyze.

Myriad such enthusiasms are vented over the course of the book:

The significance of SpongeBob SquarePants to contemporary gender norms, I believe, cannot be overstated; while earlier generations of boys and girls were raised on cartoon worlds populated by cats and mice, dogs and rabbits chasing each other across various domestic landscapes, this generation has come of age to an animated mythological universe populated by characters with eccentric and often simply weird relations to gender.

Perhaps there is something to this, but locating “weird relations to gender” in modern cartoons overlooks a lot of the history of mass entertainment. Even classic Warner Brothers cartoons from generations ago featured Bugs Bunny donning drag in order to seduce the feckless Elmer Fudd or some other adversary. Anyway, subversive gender messages and sexual decodings are nothing new; audiences have always colluded with image-producers to spy out secret or not-so-secret meanings. Queer film critic Parker Tyler was all over this by the 1970s.

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Or, consider this:

Gaga feminism is a politics that brings together meditations on fame and visibility with a lashing critique of the fixity of roles for males and females. It is a scavenger feminism that borrows promiscuously, steals from everywhere, and inhabits the ground of stereotype and cliché all at the same time.

No doubt there is something to these assertions. Feminist and queer scholars were writing about postfordist flexibility and the waning of gender fifteen to twenty years ago—at a time when lines like “Everyone is gay” (Nirvana) and “Are you woman enough to be my man?” (Pearl Jam) were still fresh enough to produce genuine frisson. One of the more challenging proposals from LGBT studies of that period was essentially this: It turns out that sexual flexibility, gender flux, and instability might well “fit” with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. (See here Rosemary Hennessy’s book, Profit and Pleasure.)

By contrast, the overall effect of Halberstam’s book—especially in the context of his careful refusal to give any sketch of a political program—is a surprisingly complacent flattening-out of practices: Dressing-up, acting-out, and other forms of supposedly “creative anarchy” can be imagined to be “political,” without caveat or context, and without reference to their siting in circuits of production and consumption.

This is ultimately the repose of the image-consumer, not the stance of the cultural critic or social activist.

Might it be time to demand a tad more from cultural studies?

Halberstam purports to give an anarchist account of how “new modes of communication and new forms of social relation” might be working out, on the social ground. And here, he goes out of his way to pitch his case against the clown prince of philosophical Marxism, Slavoj Zizek, whose remarks at Occupy Wall Street he dislikes: “carnivals come cheap.”

Halberstam especially dislikes Zizek’s exhortation that the protesters actively work for social change when they return to “normal life.” Actively working for something seems to be contrary to the spirit of “going gaga.” By contrast, Halberstam champions carnival as a form of politics in situ, because carnival participants supposedly come to see “normal life as one of the fictions of colonial and neocolonial power.”

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No doubt Zizek might better have said “everyday” rather than “normal” life, given how the word “normal” immediately sets teeth on edge. Still, it is difficult to take Halberstam’s line of counterargument seriously.

First, whatever else OWS was, it was not a carnival: a collective eruption of laughter. It was a solemn, serious, speechifying occasion. Those seemingly interminable debates among anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, and socialists were not meant to be parodical, satirical, or festive in any sense.

Second, even if we use the term as a very strained metaphor (which both Zizek and Halberstam do), “carnival” is not political protest or confrontation, at least not directly. Authorities tolerate its rituals of inversion and reversal precisely because these temporally delimited outbursts give symbolic vent to people’s aspirations for a different, better world: They pose no immediate threat to the hierarchies they invert. What they do instead is to provide for a space of subversive imaginings and collective memory. Therein lies carnival’s power. As Mikhail Bakhtin makes clear, these longings and memories might be sprung into history, realized as politics, under certain propitious circumstances.

Third and last, Halberstam repeatedly tilts against capitalism—and in sensible, clear-headed mode, he wants to build on already-existing alternatives to the status quo. “Hear, hear!” say I. But already-existing institutions that might plausibly stand between the increasingly dispossessed masses and unbridled markets—organized labor and political parties—are absent from his discussion. Indeed, his general line of patter suggests that such old-fashioned organizations have no place in the coming “gagapocalypse.” It goes unsaid exactly how “swap meets, co-ops, neighborly exchanges of goods” and so on might model other economic ways of being on a significant scale (pace arguments by J. K. Gibson-Graham).

In the resulting noise and posturing, capitalism itself—even in its most basic operations—goes undefined.

To his credit, Halberstam has a lot of very sensible things to say about gay marriage: A one-size institution won’t serve everyone’s needs. All number of signs—divorce rates, cohabitation practices, and non-coupled ways of making kinship—point to the inadequacy of marriage in the modern dispensation. And anyway, why should we be demanding inclusion in an exclusionary institution?

Still, one might have expected more empathy with, say, gay couples who wish to marry so that one partner might receive immigration status, or middle-aged lesbians who wed to ensure that the surviving member of the pair receives social security benefits.

On such points, the unevenness of Halberstam’s polemic wears thin: The fuzzy logic of OWS’s “the 99%” keeps giving way to potshots at a vaguely defined “middle class.” Too often, the interests of this so-called middle class—the bulk of which technically falls into the ranks of the more-or-less-stably-employed working class—are rhetorically folded into the plots and machinations of the very rich, or are subsumed into agendas of the now-fading neoconservatives. This strategy allows Halberstam to lodge the radical queer politics he advocates, with its principled aversion to marriage as an institution, among the poor and in communities of color.

Each of these moves is doubtful.

Worse, such moves detract from our side’s political failures. Radical queers (and I count myself in this camp) have been very good at critiquing marriage, but we have utterly failed to advance a winnable package of rights, protections, and benefits that might vie with marriage on a new institutional playing field. Nor have we been effective at rallying substantial numbers of people to work for political alternatives to marriage.

Now perhaps it demands too much of a “quasi-academic” book to ask for a coherent class analysis, a systemic view of capitalism, or even a plausible definition the author’s political orientation. This last point is especially vexing. For all the sound and fury of Halberstam’s “anarchist mistrust of structure,” his concern with corporate tax giveaways while the poor are underserved on such issues as health care actually suggests a fairly conventional variant of activist liberalism.

The net effect of Halberstam’s work is to bring queer polemic to the cusp of the present socio-economic crisis, then forestall the posing of crucial questions.

I conclude this review, then, with a smattering of open-ended questions:

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Are we still to think—forty years into modern feminism and gay liberation, and thirty years into a parade of monstrous fabulosities that have issued prolifically from glitter and glam to Rocky Horror to Gaga—that sexual flux and depictions of it are intrinsically subversive?

And if “express yourself” (or some poststructuralist variant thereof) is to be the battle cry of radical queer politics, then do the powers that be really have anything to fear?

If, by contrast, our beef is that a moribund institution like marriage doesn’t provide benefits for everyone, or that GLBTI youth are underserved, and if what we want is a broader distribution of goods and services, not to say action on climate change, then is what’s called for today a radical queer movement as such—or is it a queer caucus in a revitalized socialist movement?

Lastly: If post-New Left criticism worked off an additive approach that effectively erased exploitation by folding class into a series of prejudices—racism, hetero-sexism, classism—then is it not time to begin to think about these terms in a different sort of way: synthetically, perhaps, and weighted, with class as the one form of hierarchy inextricably linked to capitalism?

(Part 3 will tack back to Lady Gaga and examine questions internal to gay communities, broadly understood.)

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