Monday, November 29, 2010


This is fashioned as a response, of sorts, to a post by Bat, Bean, Beam on Pixar's Up and its relation to the housing crisis. As I personally didn't find Up especially compelling, I'll be returning to it explicitly only through Bat, Bean, Beam's analysis and, most importantly, through the way the picture above can be used to structure my remarks.

"In the very last image before the credits of Up start rolling we discover that the house has landed gently just where Ellie had fantasised as a child. It is a comforting resolution, inevitably so, full of symmetry and sentimental denouement, and yet at the same time unsettling, for it leaves us with the picture of a dream without its dreamer, of an economy without people. It is also therefore, in one final ambiguity, a picture of the crisis."

 Brian McCarty, Self-Evident

"[T]he picture of a dream without its dreamer" calls to mind, for me, Brian McCarty's photograph for the Three Apples exhibit, Self-Evident. If you think of it in light of my analysis of Jason Han's I Haz Mouth (painted for the same exhibition), you might be able to see where I'm going with this. The Kitty on the right, in the foreground, in this case however, is not being caught up in an infinite loop of (partial) self-representation; instead, it is the subjectiveless subject. What this picture suggests is the dream whose dreamer is, at the end of the day, a little lump of plastic.

And, importantly, what this piece of affective junk (to use a phrase I keep returning to) dreams is a little girl floating away with a handful of balloons. This is, like any dream, a deeply ambivalent image; it takes only a small step to realize that the "childlike wonder" that this image is supposed to instantiate as an eternal present needs only to be subject to time to become exhilarating terror, worry, and tedium.

In this sense, Kitty's dreams position her in that ambivalent space, either subjective object or objective subject. As we see, it is not simply the fact that objects dream of the things-in-themselves; they also, like Kitty's spoken mouth, are permanently caught up in games of meaning. We might also, to put a Lacanian twist on it, say that Kitty's dreams are the dreams of the other, in this image the little girl, who Kitty knows must long for the freedom of flight and absence, of that transcendent sort of objectification that repeatedly occurs in cries of "look at me, mommy!"

With this, JR's essay Bubble / dreams / forever now comes into play. Gaga who, through her art, her mirroring, and her explicit claims about her project, positions herself as an object to be consumed, and uses this position to advance her bubble dreams. As JR points out, instead of the strict "post-bubble world" utopianism of Capitalist Realism, though, her bubbles diamondize, re-introducing themselves as not just the solution, but also the problem.

With this we have the first of the groups of things that I am trying to apprehend here. One way to put this is to say that the bubble is the medium which allows for the slippage between the balloon and the diamond. This metaphorical relation between the balloon (that ambivalent utopian figure, the dream object that only fulfills dreams after the dreamer has left the picture) and the diamond is conducted through the bubble, that object that is both financial and material.

What, though, exactly, is a diamond, in this sense? The ultimate embodiment of this sort of diamond is, for the moment, Katy Perry. To get there, though, requires a reading against the popular understanding of Perry's project, of which I take Anwyn Crawford's brilliant article Warring Brassieres as the best example. This argument, which posits Gaga's post-feminist, cyborg, utopian weirdness as the leftist version of the counter-revolutionary, reactionary, anti-feminist utopianism of Perry goes toward the truth without ever quite, I think, reaching it. For what is really remarkable about Perry's music is that it, while in the middle of presenting all of these fantasies about becoming consumable, buries deep within itself the vicious pain that this process involves. Think, for instance, of her endless choruses, especially the one in California Gurls, that always end up with Perry basically wailing inarticulately. If it weren't for the massive amounts of work done in post-production, from structural shaping to lathered-on AutoTune, what we would have as the core of this song would be simply Katy Perry screaming.*

This is something that I've tried to approach with my song Internalized Diamonds from my second Valentine's Day EP, but I think a better example is my friend Daniel's youtube video katy perry, embedded above. In the video, a distorted version of Prozzak's Strange Disease plays as a cropped image of Perry in a diamond Hello Kitty outfit spins into and out of a diamond shape.

What this video seems to be identifying, to me, is that Katy Perry's music is an attempt to navigate a world which is truly post-bubble; not just in Friedman's sense of the steady expansion of capital markets with no collapses, but also in the sense of a world which no longer has the capacity to mediate between its dream-balloons and its impossibly hard, sharp diamond-value.

Diamonds, then, could be said to be figures of the pain of unconverted surplus-value, the real promise of profits that will never be realized. The diamond is also, though, a figure of a sort of reductive performativity, the moment when the free shuffling of arbitrary signifiers becomes suddenly refigured as a monstrous destiny instead of a liberating game. This is, I take it, why Perry is so productively represented as the antagonist to Gaga/Rihanna/et al.'s performative protagonist.

In an earlier post on this blog, titled Cobbling, I posited a sort of deconstruction of the (typographical) diamond as both the initial cause and potential solution to the X. The post ends with a link to the video that inspired it in the first place, another by Daniel called Easy Target. This X is the mythological X, the X that both "marks the spot" but also the X that "Xes out," both calling attention to an object and effacing it. The connection, then, between the diamond and the X, can be seen as a sort of Trojan Horse, as the eternal diamond gets internalized as a defense mechanism which only serves to smuggle in the "seek & destroy" protocol of the X. This is, I take it, a sort of summary of the movement that underpins Katy Perry's celebrity-node, and why Internalized Diamonds is about her.**

What we have, now, is the balloon-bubble-diamond structure that identifies the cultural task of commensurating the cultural qualities of the ambivalent utopianism with the hard reality of floating surplus-value by way of both speculative and idealized real bubbles.

It is not quite so simple as all this, though. Because the initial balloons, we must remember, carry a house, and it is the houses that, in a way, are the real subjects of the bubbles.*** Balloons-bubbles-diamonds that well up in the hearts of pop stars are one thing; the ones that buoy houses function in an entirely different way.

In the direction of representing the house as subject, we basically have recourse only to the haunted house. One must only recall the frenzied refrain of the remake of House on Haunted Hill - "the house is alive!" - to see what I mean. Although that movie itself, in the particularities of its representation, tends more towards the Thi13een Ghosts end of the haunted house spectrum, where the house isn't so much "alive" as it is a giant machine, a space constructed to harness spiritual energy and constructive of it.

Closer to a real living house, although it initially seems much further, is something like the Hammer film The House That Bled To Death. In this film, a house that is purported to be haunted is occupied by a family, until a bunch of spooky things force them to vacate. At the end, however, it is revealed that the father of the family is actually (among other things) an actor who has falsified the haunting in order to provide material for a book "based on a true story."

This is an exquisite example of the use of a metafictional technique (what this revelation really reveals is that the director of the film is doubled, as this author's real work has been to direct the film from within) to debunk both the spiritual and psychological narrative (the couple even discusses the possible traumatic effect of the fabrication on their child, only to sort of blithely discount that it could have done any real harm) of the living house. The house is not alive in its ability to magnify spiritual (read: historical) resonances, nor due to the unique makeup of its occupants (as in those films where paranormal phenomenon are being investigated by groups of people who have had a near-death experience), but precisely because the house is revealed, in the final analysis, to be the only concrete subject in play.

Poltergeist, with its explanation of the horror it represents as being a product of the bad bureaucratic decision to move the cemetery and leave the corpses behind (presumably a move by the bureaucrat to inflate the bottom line), is a sort of inversion of this logic. The house as spirit-condenser (although the film attempts to distance itself from this by claiming the invasion is a poltergeist, which is differentiated from a "haunting" in that it is precisely both temporary and not spatial) is thus sort of a way for the house to rebel against its own reduction to being just property. The house is pissed off because of the lack of a level basic human decency in the conditions of its construction.

The real auteur of the living house genre, in this specific sense, is Wes Craven. Although his films never treat themselves in this manner. And this is precisely because he almost categorically rejects the spiritual or psychological reduction that functions as the broadest generic signposts. The only prominent counterexample to this, I think, would be Nightmare on Elm Street which, if you take into account that Craven directed both the first and the final (New Nightmare) iterations of this franchise, then you realize that what results is ultimately almost identical to The House That Bled To Death.****

What Craven does, instead of using these reductive genre motifs, is figure the house as the ultimate space in nearly all of his films. How this almost inevitably pans out is with the climactic chase through the house. The house which - again, almost invariably - has been booby-trapped. What this does is to render the house not just a passive interiority or a disinterested spatial determiner, the navigation of which allows for the creation of tension, but as an, or more precisely the, active intercessor.

The trope of the chase scene is precisely a tool which structurally effects the reduction of all participants to objects, in order to clear space for the tension of mapping interiority onto the landscape. By this I mean that the chase wrenches the subjectivity of, in Craven's films for instance, the chaser by reducing him to an inhuman monster, and the chased by reducing her to abject terror; and in so doing, replaces the processes normally associated with interiority (self-determination, reflexive thought, ability to interpret sensory input) onto the landscape. That the most common form of chase is the "car chase" underlines this, as the car itself already reduces the subject to an object, and the roads become these very externalized thought processes. Thus the house's interior becomes an interiority, and the booby traps a conscious mode of interacting/shaping the trajectories of the (human) objects, as well as determined reactions to sensory stimuli.

This is not all, however. Perhaps the single greatest image of the house as subject comes, paradoxically, in Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, a movie set around a broken down car in an irradiated desert. The films climax sees the kids booby-trapping the trailer to self-destruct, to kill the mutant cannibals they have lured back inside. What this moment offers, more than just another image of a burning house, is a reference to an earlier image in the film; the father, attached to a cross, being burned alive. The house as martyr.

Much more can be said about this (just think, for instance, about the two houses in Scream 3 - the simulacral, film set reconstitution of the house from Scream for "Stab 3," and the director's mansion in which it ends - or the fairy tale of the hidden gold in The People Under The Stairs), but perhaps this is enough to return to the initial argument. It is, I hope, uncontroversial to point out that the 2008 financial collapse was a collapse of the housing markets; it would certainly be insane to suggest that the collapse was triggered by the houses themselves, as though houses across the country and then the world had themselves started to crumble and deteriorate. What was "toxic" were the financial assets; what were "subprime" were the loans; the houses themselves were, quite frankly, incidental, mere incentives, their value only in their unparalleled ability to anchor confidence in the free-flowing capital that soared above them.

What is the point, then, in insisting on this close attention to these fictional houses, these representations capable of consuming the balloon-bubble-diamond, when what they refer to is in reality nothing more than another empty concrete signifier, ready to be shuffled out of the equation as soon as another one can be molded to fit into its place?

The answer to this can, of course, never be entirely fixed. On one level, we might insist on the analysis of the concrete, overdetermined components of this problem, in order to approach a more honest appraisal than that offered by one which only takes into account the abstractions that served as the causal determinations. On another is perhaps the impulse to refuse the free-play of signs, to resist the infinite malleability that conditions the possibility of both creating and salvaging these crises.

These impulses are shared with, and perhaps engendered by (in me at least), the recent movement toward the direct action tactic of occupations. That word which invokes the spectres of both home-ownership and military occupation, and which refers to the tactical taking over of a factory (or university) by the workers (or students) who perform work within it.

To offer a sort of concluding gesture, then, it might be pointed out that the term "housing bubble" refers not just to the market truth, but also, according to this new schematic, the way in which the "house" itself (under the right subjective conditions) becomes the ferrying mechanism which traverses the gap between balloons and diamonds. This is (or at least I certainly hope it is) more than just another way of making the observation that the house is the ultimate figure of the American Dream, with its dual ideal of speculative advancement and interpersonal mastery. It instead opens up (again, I hope) the possibility that the house, as the highest possible form of affective junk, can be made to operate not simply as a facilitator of capital, but also as a powerful impasse. Like Hello Kitty, standing rigid and plastic on the grass, dreaming without a dreamer of the little girl floating away on her balloons.

*If you've ever listened to an acapella of a Katy Perry song, especially I Kissed A Girl, you'll know what I'm talking about
**To put it in these new terms, one could say that the problem with the dominant analyses of Katy Perry are that they recognize her existence within this world where the diamonds and the balloons have become incommensurable, but focus only on the balloon-aspect of her performance.
***Not the least reason for this is that pop stars/celebrities are always figured as the objects of these bubbles, never the subjects.
****Craven's most recent, My Soul To Take, might also easily be seen to fall into this trap. I get the feeling that it does avoid this, but to explain precisely how it does evades me at this moment.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Eating Death

If there is one moralistic message which underlines every cultural object I can think of, it is that to consume wrongly is to condemn oneself to death.

Could the obscene outpouring of pleasure at slaughtering zombies signify anything else? When ideological rigor is pursued - whether through veganism, socialism, free market capitalism - is this not the ultimate thesis we see being played out?

And, underlying it, the ideological equation of consumption with death.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hello Kitty's Mouth

Jason Han, I Haz Mouth

There is something incredibly off-putting, to many people, about Hello Kitty's mouthlessness, that arguments from design pragmatism or relative degree of cuteness (rightly) don't quite squelch. The claim that it embeds her in an antifeminist position is well-taken, with the argument usually being that it reproduces a sense of the value of women as being contingent on their voicelessness. Jason Han's painting, I think, points a way through that impasse.

What we get, in this painting, is a suggestion that Hello Kitty with a mouth speaks not just imagistically, but that her speech is actually itself just a representation of her mouth. And, because of the very minimalism that supposedly accounts for her lack of a mouth, something even stranger – the speech bubble itself begins to look less like a representation of speech, and more like a third, incomplete Kitty, with the triangle at the bottom even serving as a potential ear. At a very basic level, then, we have the suggestion that when Kitty is given the tools of language, what she becomes capable of producing is a perfect partial self-representation.

The weirdness of this is compounded by the fact that the mouthless Hello Kitty is actually more expressive - there is an intuitive sense in which the !!! above her head signals something more concrete than the speech bubble with a mouth in it. Which is counterintuitive if you take the mouth to be something like the condition for the possibility of expression - in this case the mouth allows for the creation of an image which refers to an external language which itself is part of a specific discourse which is technologically and historically marked and gendered and so on, while the lack of a mouth allows for the expression of direct astonishment, which only after this is registered becomes ambiguous (is she astonished because her doppelganger* has evolved a mouth, is her astonishment a projection of envy, etc).

This ambiguity, though, is itself wrong, in a way. It is sort of weirdly genealogical, a reading forward through language the conditions of arriving at the beginning. That is, it is a sort of speculative historicizing, a guessing at the past on the evidence of its potential future. So to say something like that the !!! is one of envy, with the implication being that the mouthless Kitty has always desired a mouth, cannot help but be backwards, as we see in the painting itself that the expression of a desire for a mouth can only be predicated on actually having a mouth. Kitty can't want a mouth until she's got one – and when she does, it's what she's reduced to.

The equation, then, of a lack of a mouth with a lack of a voice, is made to seem outright perverse by this painting.** Which is, in itself, pretty great, but there is another aspect of Jason Han's painting that I think really cements its wonderfulness.

Renée Magritte, Les Deux Mystères

The most obvious way to read this painting is as a commentary on the more famous (and earlier) La Trahison des Images, where that painting is itself situated in this one, on an easel. Re-painting that painting certainly compounds the thematizing of semiotics, but instead of taking further the exploration of the insufficiency of the signifier, what we get is another realist representation of a pipe, and this one with no tagline disavowal. On the contrary, it almost seems to point up the interpretation that Foucault suggests of the earlier painting, that the painted words “ceci n'est pas une pipe” refer not to the pipe above but to themselves – this “this” is not “a pipe.” Because if we believe that the realist image must contain a linguistic disavowal to maintain the distance between a signifier and its signified, then mustn't we come to the conclusion, of this new pipe, that it is a pipe?

And certainly no one believes that pipe outside of the easel is any more a real pipe than the pipe within it. As Foucault also points out, the large pipe is not itself "in space" the same way the small pipe is - the large pipe could be on the wall in the back, but it could just as easily be floating in the foreground, actually the smaller of the two pipes; or it could be a sort of hazy apparition, no pipe at all but a dream of a pipe by the not-a-pipe on the easel.

Thus, the congruence; in one, the not-a-pipe that dreams a pipe; in the other, the mouth that speaks itself. Structurally, then, we have a sort of complicated coherence between the represented Treachery of Images and the two Kitties. Complicated because it is the Kitty who has been inducted into the linguistic order who is doing the dreaming, and the Kitty who is still outside of it that must, then, be the equivalent of the painted words.

This complication, I think, points to the basic disjunction in the mode of representation that exists between the pipe and Kitty. The whole argument of La Trahison des Images revolves around the pipe as representation, as it is its status as such that creates the space necessary to be able to coherently refer to it as not itself. Whereas with Kitty we are not dealing with a representation (in manifold, often very subtle ways) – such that a direct take-off of La Trahison des Images would necessarily mean something entirely different. A painting of Hello Kitty with “This is not a Hello Kitty” below it would necessarily mean something entirely orthogonal to the meaning of a painting of a pipe with “This is not a pipe” written beneath it.

The short of it, then, is that the gap between these apparently identical instances (of Kitty's potential mouth speaking only itself, and of the not-a-pipe that only dreams of a more-real pipe) is exactly the gap between an image and a representation. And, to put blithely what I've been trying to put subtly, that what this perhaps draws out is the insufficiency of a politics of representation to account for Kitty. Without, of course, simply shoving the question to the side altogether.

*One of the most basic ways you can tell a “real” Hello Kitty product from a counterfeit is that Hello Kitty always wears her bow on the left ear. Which means that the Kitty with the mouth would have to be either a counterfeit Kitty or, I guess, Kitty's twin sister Mimmy. I don't really find this particularly meaningful so much as funny.

**Two things: first, there are actually two ways in which Kitty has always been voiced, in that the first product of hers was a coin purse with HELLO printed in block caps over her head (thus her 'name' – although, canonically, her name is Kitty White) and also in that whenever she is put into a narrative context, or anywhere else where she needs to speak, she is perfectly capable of doing so. Second is that I think this is where the lolcats meme-speak of the title comes into play, for me at least, as that is exactly an example of voice being given to the voiceless as being infantilizing and generally the opposite of empowering.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Post-Kanye: Nicki Minaj

Following up on Sole's question about whether or not "post-Kanye" is a genre (and bracketing, for the moment, my initial reaction).

Instead of Drake, I'm going to propose as the seminal text of this speculative genre the first verse of Nicki Minaj's "Still I Rise."

This verse, in which Minaj appropriates the voice of the "hater" and turns it into a sort of negative mythologizer, completes the turn that Kanye's music's central implicit critique had begun.

To sketch out what I mean roughly: my central claim is that Kanye's important contribution to hip hop has been as an internal node which reconfigures the popular conception of the hater. Before Kanye, the hater was hip hop's way of figuring a sort of antagonistic ignorance. This comes in a number of flavors, from an ignorance of the emcee's work ethic or biographical hardship, to a willful disavowal of the emcee's inarguable talent. Likewise, the reactions vary from bemused indifference to conversion attempts.

With the rise of Kanye came the rise of the "I <3 Haters" meme. Kanye lets us see what we've been blind to all along - the haters vocal ignorance is not to be disdained, but to be capitalized upon! Ignorance is no longer even a relevant category, as the critic* is transformed into a commodity. So you can love them, because they are no longer castrated figures of potential negativity, but instead are simply assets.

This, of course, leaves hip hop's structural narrative at an impasse. The hater as commodity proposition is something that only works so long it is positively avowed - if people stop making the argument, it stops being true. Like a real commodity, this new concept is a sort of organized negativity, an absence that structures presence. Thus Kanye's revolution within hip hop is to basically remove the possibility of a structural antagonist.

In this analysis, the problem with calling Drake post-Kanye is, basically, that he is more like an acolyte of Kanye's. He is one of the ones most vocally preaching that one must love thy hater, as it does wonders for the authenticity of the Degrassi kid rapping about his rags to riches story.

What "Still I Rise" does differently, though, is to take Kanye's critique and reintegrate it into the larger narrative. This song in particular, with all its transcendent kitsch, gives to the hater the necessary negative force to constitute a real threat that must be struggled with while also keeping the lovable commodity intact. What this results in is basically a hater who has an uncanny ability to see the important themes that underlie an emcee, but only negatively.

The mythology that Nicki Minaj attempts to sell is never more perfectly stated than in the first verse of this song. She is post-geographical (a Queens native signed to Young Money; "and what's her nationality she Chinese right?") and post-heterosexual ("you know her last name Minaj she a lesbian! / and she ain't never comin' out") and situated within a (really very weird) female pantheon ("she tryna be like Lil' Kim her picture looks the same" "she ain't the next bitch"). The only theme that's missing, and this is crucial, is exactly her ongoing thematic self-commodification - for one verse, Nicki Minaj is not a Harajuku Barbie. And it is, I would argue, exactly because this structural movement takes precedence.

Which starts to point in the direction of why Nicki Minaj is so fucking great, but then I'll have to write that some other day

*Critic, in this sense, is something that the rap lexicon would recognize but is not the same as the category born through hip hop. The gap between the "hater" and the "critic" is, basically, that critics actually exist - haters are just extrapolations of rhetoric. This is why Jay-Z can say "I'm like fuck critics, you can kiss my whole asshole / if you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward." Here though, I just mean by critic something like "negative assessor."