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At Face Value: Gaga, Surfaces & The Superficial

I have been thinking this morning about Lady Gaga, and what it is about her that makes many intellectuals and artists reluctant to fully embrace her, and I believe part of what’s up is that many are made uncomfortable by her complete lack of irony. She presents a text that is earnestly flat, earnestly surface, and earnestly pop, rather than self aware or winking. Although many of her texts — particularly her video texts — seem conversant with critical theory, or at least offer an array of images and narratives that can be “read” through critical theory, it is never fully clear that she knows precisely what she is doing. She will invariably follow these moments with statements in the press that are either absurdly pretentious and “meaningless,” or else aggressively shallow, seeming to mimic the well-worn tropes of divadom and celebrity (ie her obsessive love affair with her fans). And so artist-intellectuals, if they are to authorize her work as “art,” first want to know once and for all whether she is self-consciously performative, or just ridiculous. They want some authoritative confirmation that she is something more than another pop star simulacrum, albeit one who is slightly better read, and who wears more outlandish clothing.

But I would argue that Gaga is meant to exist within this liminal space between “pop” and “art.” I think, were she to resolve that tension, she would no longer be Gaga. And I think part of what’s up is that for Gaga, theater and “authenticity” (or what for her, represents, “authentic,” honest art) are not dichotomous. And I think “theater” is perhaps the most appropriate term for describing her performance. Like Gaga, much theater, especially musical theater — a form that is often associated with queers and queerness, or at least with (predominately white, middle class and upper middle class) gay men — refuses irony. And musical theater is quite possibly the art form most reviled by much of the intelligentsia, save for the occasional nod to Sondheim’s genius.

Stephen Sondheim, a Genius

I believe many of us remain threatened by art that is aggressively, earnestly superficial, and that embraces popular, familiar or mass-produced aesthetics without self-commentary (art which owes some debt to camp aesthetics, amongst others). For confirmation, head over to htmlgiant and check out the spirited discussion about our colleague A D Jameson’s excellent review of the film Drive. In response to A D’s praise of the film, a bunch of folks have been expressing their anxiety over whether this film is solely an exercise in style, whether it lacks “depth” and “meaning,” as these concepts have traditionally been constructed by many literary writers: As either thematic content (ie this movie has something distinctive to say about politics, history, “the human condition,” etc.), or “rich characterization” via psychological depth (motivation, counter-motivation, backstory, subtext, etc). In response, A D says something I quite agree with: “I’m one of those poor deluded souls who thinks surface is depth. Well-done direction is its own content.”

I think there is one perspective on the value of art-as-art (ie the one frequently espoused by Chris Higgs at htmlgiant) that is all about defending art’s prerogative to exist devoid of “content” or “meaning,” as solely aesthetic phenomenon. I think this is an important argument to keep in the mix, in order to protect art from moralistic policing, but I don’t think it’s the argument that most interests me. I like A D’s comment that surface is depth, because I like how it deconstructs the binary between surface and depth, and acknowledges that surface, style, the superficial can communicate in their own way many of the qualities we associate with “depth” — qualities like pathos, emotion, drama, subjectivity, qualities which in my own writing, continue to interest me quite a bit even as I push back against traditional forms and norms regarding things like characterization.

Although surfaces, the superficial, are fundamental to art, I feel like we (the ‘we’ here, I guess, being writers and intellectuals) have too fully ceded superficiality to the capitalist marketplace. By mass-producing aesthetic objects, commodifying aesthetics, applying monetary value to aesthetics, capitalism devalues aesthetics as art. (I realize I’m not really saying anything new here). And we allow this to happen. We are also maybe still way too beholden to “Western” philosophy’s construction of the “self,” the “soul,” as somehow separate from the body and its surfaces.

I think this is one of the reasons I have been drawn to writing that foregrounds the body, writing by fierce folks like Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Lidia Yuknavich, Rebecca Brown. When we place the body at the center of our work, it becomes much harder to separate ourselves and our “characters” from the body, its surfaces and sensations. Lady Gaga’s work also involves the body and its many permutations and mutations, both “real” and “imaginary.” Something else I believe, but am still struggling to articulate, is that art that embraces surfaces and superficiality over the construction of psychological “depth” acts in a more direct way upon the body of the reader, viewer or spectator through affect, and by invoking sensation. For instance, pop music makes you dance.

Photo by Jacqueline Klimas

I have been drawn to fashion and pop music in my own work in large part because of how they connect me with my body, and allow me, in my live performances of my written texts, to involve my body as its own text. In my everyday life, I spend a lot of time in my head, disconnected from my body (I think this is probably true of many writers, stuck staring at computer screens). This dissatisfies me. It may seem counterintuitive that fashion allows me to more actively inhabit my body, because we have grown accustomed (I just typoed that “accostumed,” which I think is deliciously apropos) to thinking about fashion, especially outlandish and performative fashion, as something which cloaks or masks the body. But we forget that the mask cannot exist without the face. That in fact the mask transforms the face, and allows the face to express sentiments, characterizations, gestures, flourishes, that would not be possible without this surface alteration. For some of her initial appearances surrounding her Born This Way single and album, Gaga attached prosthetics to her face that made it appear the shape of her skull had changed, that sharp, geometric bones had grown along the sides of her head. In interviews, she claimed that these bones had been with her since birth, but she had been waiting for them to grow, to show themselves to the world. How would it shift our understanding of “art” and “writing” were we to take this seemingly ridiculous claim at “face value?”



46 thoughts on “At Face Value: Gaga, Surfaces & The Superficial

  1. I just always assumed intellectuals had a hard time accepting her because she’s a marginal singer and a really shitty songwriter whose entire project is to co-opt (not that I have anything against co-opting in general) meaningful artistic moves from widely unknown artistic scenes for the sake of shocking the bourgeoisie. From a cultural perspective, she becomes interesting as a sort of bullhorn for all the subversive shit that the rabble never got a hold of until now. From a humanist perspective though, she’s just as talentless and derivative as a Britney Spears, but with a better search squad for shit from which to derive her act.

      1. I guess I think that parts of this are true, but that I dislike the dichotomy here between “the rabble” and the “unknown artistic scenes,” and what feels like a derisive tone being cast toward the former; I also think there’s maybe an unexamined rejection of derivation here, and I also do not cosign the “talentless” thesis. I also think the “cultural perspective” is major and has implications for how we talk and think abt the art part as well as the cultural. And I must admit I am not really sure I understand what “humanist perspective” means, and think I am not versed in how the term humanist is being used here. Like secular humanism? Like, the enlightenment’s construction of the human?

        1. Hey Tim. You’re right. “Rabble” wasn’t really a good word for building ethos and there was definitely some snarl in my tone, but I wanted the implication of disorder (inherently a major aspect any “mass” audience). I should add that pop audiences are fine by me, but if we’re going to try to discuss critical theory, it doesn’t do any good (in my opinion, and we may have to agree to disagree here) to pretend that the “consumer audience” is the same as a more selective one.

          I mean humanist here in the broadest sense–merely, like, “human-centric.” The humans I’m talking about, though, are Gaga and Britney Spears, which was probably unclear. I was just trying to divvy up art as a “topic of study” and art as “something made by artists.” Gaga is interesting (to say the least) if your concern is critical, and much less interesting for intellectuals who are looking for a performer to patronize.

          1. This makes sense and is super clarifying.

            I spend a lot of time enjoying pop aesthetics, and things that are aimed at a mass or pop audience. And I think part of what I have been trying to do is find a way to enjoy pop that isn’t always all about placing critical distance (incl. irony) between myself and the thing I am enjoying (which offers its own rewards, but grows tiresome). You know, “so bad it’s good,” “guilty pleasure,” etc.

            I want to appreciate enjoyment of pop as plain old pleasure, but without buying into this idea, which I suppose comes in part from Marxist criticism, that this means I am without agency, or I am part of some unthinking, anaesthetized mass.

            Just like I think there are ways to employ surface or pop aesthetics in art that are not self conscious, I think there are modes for being an engaged, active, viewer or spectator of pop that eschew the kind of critical distance intellectualism traditionally authorizes. I think I can be absorbed or in some way taken over by a pop work and still be an intellectual.

    1. So from that point of view, the problems intellectuals have with her is her lack of talent, because intellectuals don’t seem to have a problem with, say, The Beatles. Who did plenty of what you describe here. (They’d just be the talented version of it.)

      So in other words, it’s an aesthetics issue? I ask because that would interest me greatly, being an aesthetics guy myself.

      1. Hey Adam. I’d say it’s definitely an aesthetics issue, although if you push a Beatles fan far enough on it, I suspect they’d eventually need those “redemptive” acid years to justify their love.

        And speaking of Madonna…

      2. The Beatles were not even especially “talented,” initially, no? I remember hearing somewhere that George Harrison had to teach them to play their instruments. They also gained artistic “cred,” as I think Joshua’s comment indicates, as they transitioned from pop to more experimental rock.

        There is still a significant anti-pop sentiment amongst the “rockist” music critical establishment, which I think has a lot of overlap with this (semi-false construct) I have been using of “artist-intellectuals.” The anti-disco backlash, which has/had so much to do with gender, race and class, has never really ended. Dance music is social music. Social art is folk art. Folk art is not high art, is not real art. Many so-called avant garde scenes are not any more immune to this way of thinking than the entrenched, institutionalized artistic establishment they spend so much time critiquing.

        Aesthetically, the things that Gaga has (so far) been good at — knowing her way around a hook, turning out ear worm singles, delivering clever but opaque lyrics, belting like a true dance floor diva — are all things that, as Johannes might say, are associated with softness and the rabble.

          1. that was a quip, for one.

            also, my drummer friend thinks ringo was great for knowing what and when not to play in a song

            also, his drumming on “tomorrow never knows,” for example, was totally sweet and ahead of its time

            but he is an example of a good drummer who is not a technically impressive drummer.

            also, the amazing talent of the songwriters and of the producer are so great that the playing, which was also frequently great, is like the 3rd most notable thing as far as the music.

            i love the beatles

        1. Does not knowing how to play one’s instruments equal not talented? Many in the punk scene, not to mention the No Wave scene, might take issue with that…

          I dunno. The early Beatles songs are pretty durn good, right from the get-go. Those kids had talent. (What they didn’t have, perhaps, at least at first, is technical expertise—but that I would maintain is something different.)

        2. Oh, and I once read a very lengthy, very detailed critical book on the Beatles (by a music scholar) that argued all their best stuff was up to Revolver really—but that after that it all started to go downhill. So that guy wasn’t on board with the freakier stuff.

          He thought their technique just got sloppier and sloppier the more acid they took. He had many negative things to say about Lennon’s deteriorating abilities as a guitarist. Flat out hated THE WHITE ALBUM (which I myself love).

    1. Thanks. I always freak myself out of writing stuff like this, and I think I need to stop doing that, because I want to share with people what is happening inside my brain. The problem is I see how people criticize the Montevidayo folks for saying things that have already been said elsewhere, or not naming their debt to previous theorists, particularly art theorists, and I’m like, Dude, the Montevidayo people are way smarter and better read than me, what the fuck am I going to do or say?

      1. For a long time I didn’t write anything like this stuff because I had the exact same fear. But now I think that you should just get in there and say stuff. Sometimes you say something and people tell you, “so and so said that better,” but that’s a fine way to learn how to say it better.

        Also, this is why I like to do so much applied analysis. I don’t know if I have a better formulation of defamiliarization, for example, than Viktor Shklovsky’s. So maybe I can’t offer the world that. But I can use Shklovsky’s concept to read contemporary things, and offer new interpretations to folks (I hope). There’s value in that (I also hope).

        I really enjoyed reading this, Tim! There’s a lot to engage with; I’ll be thinking it over. Thanks for writing it…and good to see you last night! I miss you when I don’t see you around (which is probably my fault, since I haven’t been going out much). Have a blast in San Diego…

  2. Hi Tim. I like a lot of what you say here. I spend some of my time trying to show 19-year-olds with Western/modernist educations that surfaces have meaning, that surfaces ARE meaning, that “depth” is not a category by which we should evaluate our artists. Depth is the level of analysis, I think, which audience brings to art, and it seems crazy to spend time/space arguing that any cultural object is unworthy of deep analysis.

    I wonder about this thing you say–“And so artist-intellectuals, if they are to authorize her work as “art,” first want to know once and for all whether she is self-consciously performative, or just ridiculous.” Do artist-intellectuals want this? It seems so…retro. What happened to the death of the author? Needing to figure out who constructed the construction-that-is-Gaga or whether Gaga herself is some kind of brilliant or even if she “knows what she’s doing” seems beside the point. That Gaga’s video-texts are “better read” than other pop videos demonstrates their richness. As someone who reads Gaga texts obsessively and earnestly, I’m unconcerned about Gaga’s brilliance or deservedness to be called an artist–I’m concerned about what I can get out of her texts.

    1. I agree with this. I guess I think maybe a lot of artist-intellectuals are a lot more “retro” than they think they are — I think we can see this in Josh Kleinberg’s concern in his above comment w/ differentiating himself, or differentiating true outsider art from “the rabble.” I hear a lot of folks say things like, “Her fashion is interesting,” or “Some of her videos are rich texts,” but who immediately qualify this statement with some critical comment to show they remain very invested in differentiating their appreciation of individual Gaga texts and products from Gaga more broadly; I think they want confirmation that she is one of them, and not one of “the rabble” before they are willing to, like, officially endorse her.

  3. Lots to think about here, Tim, and I’ll try to muster some reply. (I’m going to be writing a lot more about Drive.)

    One thing that struck me while reading this is, why do people equate style with superficiality or shallowness? “Superficial” means “on the surface”; the idea is that it’s some kind of sheen or veneer added to the actual thing, which is then obscured or prettied up. But film style is the complete opposite of superficiality! How a director blocks out a scene, frames shots, determines mise-en-scene, builds the montage…those are not superficial qualities. They are the heart and bones of actual filmmaking.

    This is why style is content. As Roger Ebert likes to put it: it’s not what the film is about, it’s how it’s about it. The superficiality of Drive, in fact, is its use of cliche. On one level, it looks like “just another existential car movie.” But the joy and surprise of the films is that, no, that’s not what it is at all! Rather than being some rote, unimaginative genre exercise, it’s a deeply thoughtful film that engages very seriously with a long tradition in filmmaking, and offers new solutions to old formal problems. It’s very mature stuff (and not just because of the excessive violence).

    1. “Jackson Pollock, all he did was throw paint on canvases. How superficial…”

      Hey! For that matter, isn’t all painting superficial! I mean, they’re just putting paint on the surface. The Really Deep Painters actually investigate the structure of the canvas—really bore down into its psychology.,..

      1. There’s also Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” for a representational example that attacks the same conceptual space. I have artist friends who say that Magritte is clever and superficial, but ultimately an unimportant artist (one even went so far to say he wasn’t even a very good surrealist!). If only they questioned their assumptions!

  4. Great work Tim.
    I will just chime in that I agree with everything that’s being said here re: surface, but that Gaga’s situation seems to be something a little more complicated. If the bones had been with her “since birth” they seem to be functioning as something that she has carried within her for awhile that are now showing themselves. It is not just the surface we are reading anymore.

    Another way to frame this would be looking at her body modification in relation to its reference of Orlan. While Orlan shows how her modifications are fake, films them, etc. etc. Gaga pretends they have appeared from nowhere. Similar questions could be asked about her relationship to Madonna. What seems to be frustrating to me is that Gaga is specifically not dealing only with the body as a surface, but is now trying to reclaim the inwardness that the 80s performance art she clearly loves tried to get rid of. I have no real doubt that we can talk about the surface that you and AD want to talk about (and, would ally my own work, with those ideas as well), but I question whether this is what Gaga is doing.

    (I’m going to go eat dinner, but I also wonder if this might be something going on in Drive too….)

    1. Hey! Devin! We should talk about Drive sometime! Or anything else, really…

      I should add that I myself know next to nothing about Lady Gaga. I have only heard about her. She is the Tim Jones-Yelvington of the pop music scene, I have heard?

      Tim, you should get Martin Seay to chime in on this, or respond to it with his own post.

    2. But see, I think her pretending that the modifications have appeared from nowhere (and actually, I think the rhetoric is that they appear from somewhere, they were there from birth and waiting to emerge) is foregrounding theater. Gaga had a quote somewhere around the same time that I thought was fascinating — She said something like, Theater isn’t artifice. Theater is very serious. Or maybe it was — theater is “real.” Now on the one hand, this statement sounds unintelligible. Because of course theater is artifice. And what is the problem with artifice? But I feel like there is a fascinating discursive move here that MAKES unintelligible our concepts of reality and fantasy, and the dichotomy between the two. As well as our dichotomy between the body and self, and between surface fashion and interior subjectivity.

      When I was an undergrad Women’s and Gender Studies major, I would sometimes get frustrated w/ how for some students, our critique of biological essentialism re: gender and sexuality resulted in our avoiding the natural sciences altogether. I think social constructionist theories of gender and sexuality, which I know played some role in shaping 1980’s feminist performance art, have not always adequately grappled with the relationship of bodies and biology to the social mediation of gender and sexuality. But I think we need to be ready to muck around with the natural sciences and our own materiality as we deal with the social construction of gender, whether that is by trying to understand what biological research is actually saying (usually it is something far more complex and less essentialist than what is communicated through media), examining scientific discourse to show how gendered constructions and ideologies shape it (as well as shaping biological research’s “context of discovery”), or by acknowledging that biology is far more fluid and mucky and organic (literally!) than the fixed, supposedly authoritative notion the dominant culture has of “science.” This is something else I like about Gaga’s bones thing, how she’s appropriating and fucking around with evolutionary narratives and, if I remember the beginning of that video correctly, writing her own history of evolution where she situates herself as some kind of alien mama for a whole race of gooey people. How audacious, and also deliciously silly.

      I guess what I am trying to get to is that I am interested not in (or not JUST in) work that is insistently surface, but also in work that tries in some way to destabilize or transform the very concepts of interiority and surface as we have traditionally understood them. We know Gaga’s bones are attached to the surface of her skin, and she knows this, but by telling us they grew from inside her, she make the imaginary “real” WHILE showing the constructedness of the “real.” By appropriating the “born this way” rhetoric of the gay and lesbian mainstream to describe qualities she very clearly was NOT born with, I think she leaves our definitions of “natural” and “unnatural” in somewhat of a disarray. She also takes her fantasies — something that we tend to associate with our internal subjectivity, or a self that somehow transcends our bodies — and wears them on the surface of her body, showing how the “self,” in addition to being to some extent socially constructed and mediated (surface, etc.) — is nonetheless embodied. Just like there is not a “self” or soul that transcends the social-cultural processes that created it, there is also not a “self” that exists independently from our bodies. I am interested in this work, work that continues to explore what DOES interest me about interiority (characters’ fantasies, for instance, are a frequent obsession for me in my fiction), but does so THROUGH surface and spectacle. And also, relatedly, I am interested in work that plays with the so-called artificial without having to announce its awareness of its own artificiality. Forget self consciousness and embedded critique; let’s dance.

      1. In the process of trying to find the quote abt theater and artifice, I stumbled upon this, which I think is kind of great:

        “I learned that to be a great artist, you must be emotionally very thin.”

        What do you mean by “emotionally thin”?

        “Your tears and your anger and your happiness must be just under the surface of your first layer of skin.”

        “Is that the same as being vulnerable?”

        “Yes. But I like to say ’emotionally thin’ because it’s much more dramatic. Vulnerable to me implies only tears.”

        …She says “emotionally thin” means the same thing as “vulnerable,” but of course it does not at all, she has created an entire new, nonsense way of thinking about how we inhabit our emotions and bodies, where emotions reside in some weird liminal space between layers of skin. Both surface and interior, simultaneously. And once again, the embrace of drama, melodrama and theatrics. “Emotionally thin,” when I first hear it, also sounds to me like emotion spread thin — emotion that is horizontal rather than vertical, shallow emotion, emotion that opts for intensity over “depth.” The kind of emotion we associate with marginal groups like teenagers, women, emotion we tend to devalue.

      2. Tim!
        I think you’re right about all these things. And I don’t want to get caught up in any sort of argument about LG w/r/t what she’s specifically talking about or whether it’s worth talking about. It is! I’m gonna respond one last time and then duck out of this discussion–I’d love to talk about it more to you in da club as we say, but I’m trying to not get sucked in to internet discussions for time reasons. I hope that isn’t seen as a cop-out–if anyone wants to email me or talk further who doesn’t have access to me in person we can do that too…I just have cats to pet.

        Honestly, what frustrates me is that I find the ways LG talks about these things you mention to be messy–and not in a good messy way–messy in a “showing us one thing and doing another.” Here’s a quote from SImon Reynolds on the matter (It’s from a Mark Dery piece which a lot of people have problems with (myself included)):

        “The original [glam-rock movement] was very much using artifice and ambisexuality and aristocracy as subversion within rock culture, which at that time was very much on a populist/authenticity/songs-more-important-than-image tip. [Glam] was a dialectical move within rock culture. Gaga’s glam is signifying in a context where pop is already all about artifice, fantasy, aristocracy/bling, and certainly the gender-bendery [thing] doesn’t set off any great shock waves.”

        While I understand how important it is for Gaga to reclaim the gay “born this way” slogan in regards to the gay mainstream and I also have no argument with her continuing the long move in pop towards theatricality and artifice, these things represent exactly that sort of proper self-consciousness we are engaged with every day, and have been for a long time. This is, again, not a problem, in my opinion, but it adds a very serious level of depth and character understanding to herself as theatre/as artifice. She becomes just as much a character, with real self-worth, interest, understanding, even the dreaded liberal humanist soul, etc. as anyone else who’s dressed up in a costume, within a play, to confuse their persona, like Hamlet, King Hal, or Rosalind (foregrounding TTTTTheatre, if you will). If you’ve got all of this surface and depth, and a confusion between them, we have a very rusty critical tropes we can drudge up to talk about her. And, trust me, I do not want to get on Johannes’ bad side or seem like some Bloomian. I just don’t buy that she can only be understood as pure surface. She’s just not that kitschy, imho. This isn’t to say she can’t be enjoyed on any number of levels, but if she’s gonna be the great siren of muckiness Imma be over here reading some China Mieville books and drinking mud.

        As for Drive, AD, I’ve got some serious problems with the Asian horror face-stomping leading to homeboy wearing the Hero-mask while listening to techno about being a hero. This is what I might call the Fight-Club problem of masculinity and you see it in a lot of bro-lit these days I think, but I don’t really want to talk about this on the internet as it’ll just bum me out and lead to some type of flame war–let’s try and chat about it sometime soon. But, you know, it was a good movie.

        I also have some serious problems with it being called Drive and there being, like, 10 minutes of driving in the entire movie.

        You guys are all awesome.

  5. Great post. I’ll write a longer reply on Montevidayo later. Thanks for calling Mntvyo smart, but the purpose with that blog was not to shut people down but get people to talking about things like this, so I’m glad you’re doing it.

    I think you’re very right about a lot of this – the need for example for “critical distance”, a common trope in the poetry world that to me leads to boring but self-righteous works. I trace a lot of this back to Greenberg’s idea of “avant-garde” vs “kitsch” – The “avant-garde” (though these claims are totally wrong as pertaining to the historical avant-garde in Europe, Surrealims, Dada etc) is substance, critical distance, learning, separation from mass culture; while “kitsch” is “style” over substance, mannerism, visceral art (“miraculous” art) that doesn’t demand serious work from its viewer (and learning). That’s still the idea it seems to me for a lot of poets.

    The thing about Sontag is that at the end of the day she’s always so puritanical; and even when talking about style, she’s opposed to too-much-style, to mannerism etc, and she’s opposed to photography for being surface-y and manipulative.

    I think for “surface” to be “mere surface” it has to exist in the vacuum, independent of what it’s doing to our culture, how it’s acting, what it’s doing. For example, I just taught a class about Raul Zurita’s brilliant work of transvesticism, Purgatory, where we ended up reading this transvestite piece of pageantry (written in opposition to Pinochett’s dictatorship) through exactly Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” and how they deploy catholic images (ie “style icons”).


    1. “Thanks for calling Mntvyo smart, but the purpose with that blog was not to shut people down but get people to talking about things like this, so I’m glad you’re doing it.”

      I know — I think this is a problematic tic I have developed that is way more about my insecurities than y’all, almost like I’m issuing a disclaimer to let people know that I know I don’t necessarily think I know what I’m talking about, just in case it sounds to somebody like I indeed don’t. Imma work on eradicating it.

    2. …I haven’t read enough Sontag to pick up on her puritan streak, I have only read Notes on Camp (where it is true she does place some critical distance between herself and the aesthetic she is seeking to document) and some of the photography work, and the latter some time ago. What I remember about the photography argument was not necessarily a rejection of photography for being surface, but rather a caution for activists (or perhaps it is just that at the time, I was reading it more through an activist lens than an artistic one) about assuming that photographs will communicate a particular message in and of themselves, separate from commentary and/or context of reception. (The whole thing about Virginia Woolf and the war photographs and war photographs and other images of atrocity do not necessarily communicate an anti-war message unless people are already anti-war, etc.) So that what I remember her saying seems not unrelated to what you are saying no, about surface having a relationship to “what it’s doing to our culture,” etc, no?

      Some of my reaction to Notes on Camp comes again from an activist lens, I think. It is perhaps true that gay men who “camp” are disinterested in structural issues of political economy, but I am not willing to say that this makes camp apolitical. I feel like any strategy of survival, resilience, or subversion on the part of a systematically marginalized group is political. It’s like bell hooks’s critique of the ball scene as depicted in Paris is Burning (separate from her critique of Jennie Livingston’s gaze, which is a different issue), her argument about these young queer people of color must be driven by internalized oppression because they expend so much time and material resources so they can perform class and race drag, walk down runways looking like white women from “Dynasty,” etc. And although I understand the importance for oppressed communities to talk about internalized oppression, I am also bothered by the moralism of her argument and how it pathologizes these young people and denies them their agency and fierceness and refuses to see the subversive qualities and the theatricalization and ritualization of resilience in what they do.

      In the social justice movements and communities I inhabit in my paid work, there is an anti-surface, anti-superficial, anti-materialistic moralism that I think I am trying to figure out how I want to critique, concurrent with my interest in addressing these issues within lit communities. For instance, I think for broader movement-building to happen across intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc, we need to be able to on some level embrace the role that things like fashion and theater might play in how some communities access liberation or resilience. If a homeless queer person of color says, Beyonce is sickening, that statement is significant, it means something to them, Beyonce’s iconography means something to that person that social justice folks, if they really care about solidarity, should take seriously, even if elsewhere we want to criticize Beyonce for her emphasis on material accumulation or her shaky relationship to feminism.

  6. yes, totally re camp is political. I think of Lucas de Lima’s discussions of the “death drops” [http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1674] might be of use. I’m working on a longer response but I am just about to have to cut that short. Maybe tomorrow i’ll finish it. I think you’ve done a great job in raising an issue I’ve been trying to grapple with too.


  7. Sorry for being super late to the conversation, but I wanted to tell you, Tim, if you haven’t already checked out Steven Shaviro’s book The Cinematic Body, you might take a gander at his chapter on Warhol. He quotes Warhol as saying that “he’s only interested in the surface of things.” He argues that Warhol’s project is about eliminating depth, becoming pure surface. It’s a great book and that chapter in particular is killer.

    For my part, re: Gaga/Madonna, I see no correlation with Madonna. Gaga’s project seems to me to produce a kind of dislocation of hetero desire (constantly she fluctuates between sexy and grotesque) whereas Madonna’s project seems to me to produce a kind of pure hetero desire (there is no grotesque in Madonna, only sexy). A few weeks ago I attempted to demonstrate this difference to my postmodern lit students by showing them the video for “Like A Virgin” and “Bad Romance.” I think comparing the two in terms of their visuals as well as their lyrics does a fine job of illustrating the differences between them, between seduction and revulsion, purity and corruption, noticing how Madonna is alone for the taking while Gaga is constantly accompanied by others (her back up dancers), fear and safety, vulnerability and invincibility, etc.

    I thought this was a great post, Tim. And thanks for bringing me into it. As you say, I am a proponent of art’s meaninglessness as well as it’s emotionlessness. Between those qualities is where I locate the aesthetic experience, which is to say: for me (and Kant) the beautiful is experienced as confusion. This sensation (confusion) usually occurs at the level of surface, so in many ways I think we are on the same team in terms of our admiration for surface. Our difference is as you’ve rightly noted: unlike you & Adam I’m uninterested in the aspect of depth. For me the idea of depth brings an end to confusion and thus an end to the aesthetic experience.

    1. I don’t really know if I make any distinction between surface and depth. (Which isn’t to say I disagree with you, Chris. I just don’t know if I personally find that particular metaphor useful for discussing art. But I tend to be down on most metaphorical criticism in general…)

        1. I suppose when I think “depth” I think some attempt to read through the text to something other than what is present. Symbolism is an example of depth, as I understand it, and so is authorial intention. I loathe both symbolism and the concept of authorial intention because both of those seek to ignore the surface in favor of something else, i.e. depth.

          So, I don’t think of the distinction between surface and depth as a metaphor. It seems very concrete to me. Which is to say, I never ask “what does a text (or some aspect of the text) mean?” Nor do I ask, “Why did the author choose to…blah blah blah?” Both of those questions are attempts to locate depth: looking for meaning or intention. Instead, I ask “what does a text (or some aspect of a text) do, how does the text do it, and why is that significant?” This approach, to my mind, is an attempt to survey surfaces rather than plumb depths.

          But as I’m typing, I can see that my thinking could be seen as an echo of your idea of surface as depth….so maybe we are in agreement here?

          1. Hi Chris,

            I tend to dislike metaphorical criticism in general, and especially when it’s unproductive. For me the surface/depth metaphor isn’t a productive metaphor. I just don’t understand what logical distinction would underlie why some aesthetic or formal qualities would be assigned to the “surface” side, and some to the “depth” side, or why that distinction would then matter.

            If we can do away with that surface/depth dichotomy, why then would you loathe “both symbolism and the concept of authorial intention”? (i.e., would you continue to do so?) (Of course I understand if you want to preserve that dichotomy.)

            The question of meaning and intention are very relevant for me at the moment; I’m taking a class right now with Walter Benn Michaels. (Incidentally, one of my classmates is someone I believe you know: Matt Moraghan.)

            Always good to talk with you,

            1. Hey Adam,

              Good to hear that you’ve met Matt; he’s is a great guy…super smart and interesting.

              In terms of the dichotomy, I was trying to use Tim’s model to explain my perspective. I have no vested interest in that binary, per se. I am, however, deeply invested in an approach to literature that resists hermeneutics, resists the desire for meaning-making, and resists the desire to hypothesize about the intention of an author. All three of those heuristics are deeply indebted to a Hegelian approach to art I find unappealing and unproductive.

              For me, a work of literature is a machine best engaged through description. A work of literature, for me, is not a form of communication or a message in need of deciphering. To be totally crude, I approach a book the same way I approach a toaster: I don’t ask, “what does this toaster mean?” or “what were the intentions of the creator of this toaster?” Instead, I ask “what does this toaster do, how does this toaster do it, and why is that significant?”

              Of course this is a super truncated, blog comment version of my admittedly unorthodox approach, but it gets close to my perspective, I think. (If it helps, as Matt will tell you, I am an unabashed Deleuzian, knowledge of which might help account for my perspective?)

              Yes, yes, always glad to be in communication with you.


              1. Sorry for the delay, Chris. Blame UIC! Yeah, Matt and I are in two classes together, both of which are conspiring to steal all our time… But isn’t that what school is supposed to do?

                I am, however, deeply invested in an approach to literature that resists hermeneutics, resists the desire for meaning-making, and resists the desire to hypothesize about the intention of an author. All three of those heuristics are deeply indebted to a Hegelian approach to art I find unappealing and unproductive.

                This might be the central difference between us, because I myself am deeply invested in all of those things (especially hermeneutics). And I’m much more a Hegelian than I am a Deleuzian. :) You can blame Curt White for that.

                The thing is (and I’m sure you know this but), toasters are totally different things than works of literature. You’re absolutely correct not to ask what the toaster means, because toasters don’t ever mean anything. They function or they do not function. But this comment, to pick a relevant example, which is a work of literature, means something. I wrote it intending to communicate something to you. And I want you to understand what I meant by it. Literature is, at least in part, a hermeneutical activity.

                And certainly one can make artworks that are more like toasters than like this comment; not all literature need be preoccupied with hermeneutics. And there are other ways to approach even meaningful texts. But I think it would be a categorical error to then claim that artworks cannot be approached like this comment—that is to say, hermeneutically. (Which I admit you are not necessarily saying; you’re expressing an interest, an approach. But you are making a claim that your approach is “the best way”; I’d be curious to hear more about why you think that is—e.g., the grounds underlying that position.)

                (A side note: This appears to me to be Michael Fried’s classic “Art and Objecthood” debate expressed in other words. Certainly there are artworks that are objects—they don’t “mean anything”—but there are also artworks that do mean, because their authors did intend. Those artworks may be categorically different from one another—hence Fried’s distinction between art and objects—but to recognize the existence of one or both is not to deny the existence of either.)

                As for your FB comment—yes! You and I should have a debate this December! That would be rad! Let’s set it up…

                Multiple cheers,

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