Have a Good Time

November 14, 2011

Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left

Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.

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February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

January 23, 2011

Footnote on contemporary fans and their transnational affective communities

“Thus, insofar as power expresses itself as the violence of unbinding, compearing community foments its nonviolent resistance through an anarchist politics of immediate conjunction, coalition, and collaboration ‘between’ the most unlikely of associates.  Second, as ‘the appearance of the between as such’ (viz. of the space of relationality/conjunction rather than of discrete relational/conjunctive subjects), compearance requires of its agents a qualifying ethico-existential capacity for the radical expropriation of identity in the face of the other—a capacity, that is, for self-othering.”—Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities

“America, I want you to know that before I’m an American I’m a Britney fan.”—Chris Crocker on Maury, 20 September 2007

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.  Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police.”—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”

“The alleged Wikileaks source, a 23-year-old American soldier called Bradley Manning, leaked the info by burning it onto CDs marked ‘Lady Gaga’, listening and lip-synching along to her mega-hit ‘Telephone’ as he did so, in the way that a 1950s cartoon character might whistle tunelessly to give an impression of benign innocence.”—Dan Hancox

May 12, 2010

Don’t stop / pop plots

Near the end of that Ke$ha video from last month, Paul Muldoon and the Princeton Tiger kid say that they haven’t even mentioned the title “TiK ToK” yet, and that it’s deeply poetic and stands for time, ticking away.  So, OK, can we actually talk about that tick?  For a second?  Instead of laughing it up over the idea of talking about it?

Because there must be things to say about the moment that just passed, when two of the songs that were everywhere were “TiK ToK” and “Telephone,” a complementary pair of digital odes to, or even eulogies for, analog technology.  Jack Halberstam observed that most of the phones in the “Telephone” video were landlines: immobile, outdated, restrictive, even analogous to patriarchy insofar as they were to-be-escaped-from.  I might go further, and try to direct the observation differently—do we even talk on “telephones” anymore?  Is the distance of tele– (always a phantom distance) even there, in the way it was just a few years ago?  And if the song and the video had been called “Cell Phone,” would the play on imprisonment have been too obvious?  From one point of view, the key metaphorical idea that allows the feminist/liberationist politics of “Telephone” to function at all is one that’s looking ever more old-fashioned itself.  It’s the idea of unreachability, of an imperfect phone which can’t always be accessed or access you—which, even if it’s mobile, might actually get no service in the club, making it that much easier for you to ignore the male voice that’s trying to get to your ear.  How much longer will that kind of unreachability last, when, to take one example from Tony Scott, the technocapitalism that holds us hostage can now get wireless access in the bowels of the New York City subway?

(“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station,” right?)

There are, I would say relatedly, an awful lot of phone lines in the video for “TiK ToK,” almost everywhere and again a part of the world to be fled from, as Ke$ha and “Barry” steer clear of the police who want to shut them down and drive to the club where the party’s about to start.  It’ll start when Ke$ha walks in, and, there, it’s a matter of being arrested in the right way: as she says to the DJ, “With my hands up / You got me now.” (I guess I should try to make it clear that I don’t mean to be treating Ke$ha as a kind of not-good-enough Lady Gaga imitator here, which strikes me as a pretty lazy and wrong move for so many people to have made. I would prefer to call her a Gaga analogue…)

If it’s debatable whether or not we still talk on the telephone that these poles stand for, I think another question isn’t: clocks don’t say “tick tock” anymore.  Frank Kermode famously pointed out some time ago that they almost never did: the difference between “tick” and “tock” is (in most cases) a fiction, even one identified by Kermode as a model for all plots, in its imposition of meaningful duration onto an inhuman, “purely successive” tick-tick-tick-tick.  “Tick is a humble genesis,” Kermode says, “tock a feeble apocalypse.”  One thing he doesn’t say (I think) is that “tick tock,” as opposed to “tick tick,” is, in addition, a useful way to distinguish what a clock does from what a bomb does, or the duration before an apocalypse that isn’t so feeble.

I think Ke$ha and Lady Gaga are both interested in these kinds of fictions, even as they’re also both attuned to certain ways in which, this being 2010, the bomb has already gone off.  (Gaga says the Apocalypse has happened; Ke$ha says it’s the end of time.  And there’s a miniaturized, concentrated, half-defused bomb that’s going off permanently in both “TiK ToK” and “Telephone”: the cell phone that’s being “blown up” by the guys calling them.)  Where to go from there?  How to think about getting a real party started?  Doesn’t an always-already-fictive or “unreal” analog tick-tock feel more escapable than the soundless, eventless digital alwaysnow of late capitalism, described so well in this terrifying video?

It’s always 9 to 5.  It’s a question of reachability—spatial, temporal.  So how great is it that the recent episode of The Simpsons that began with “TiK ToK” went on to feature not only a subplot about Lisa’s fight against the dumb-blonde stereotype—the stereotype that wrote Mark Dery’s vile column on Lady Gaga for him, and that seems to constitute about ninety percent of what many people have to say about Ke$ha—but also a main plot centering on a bomb threat that led to video surveillance of (almost) all of Springfield?

More on this later, maybe.

March 13, 2010

“In the beginning was the telephone”

Filed under: music,telephony — by JR @ 1:01 am
Tags: , ,

“Love, for Derrida, is till death do us part, or rather it is on condition that we are in some sense always already parted both from one another and from ourselves: ‘I mourn therefore I am’ would be Derrida’s rewriting of the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am.’  The ‘I am’ is only possible on the basis of memory, language, and others.  My relation to myself is, from before the word go (or the word ‘gaga’ or ‘mamma’ or ‘me’), ‘plunged into mourning.'”
Nicholas Royle

“So, a telephonic interiority.”
Jacques Derrida

“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station / Tonight I’m not takin’ no calls”
Beyoncé

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