Friday, August 16, 2013

The Real Deal

Melancholy beauty queen staring into space and feeling the distance between the things we want and the things we get. Lana Del Rey can conjure an image. We see her dancing in her red dress, her hair done up, longing, longing, longing. In both the lyrical and musical themes of this song she transmits vividly the public image that she has created. She brings to mind the detritus of some heroic age when women lost their virtue tragically while nonetheless retaining all of the qualities—tarnished in a way that makes them more desirable—that endangered that virtue in the first place. The haze of smoke before a beautiful face, lipstick on a highball glass, laughing conspiratorially in darkened corners, and late, broken mornings are all signs of the image of womanhood that Del Rey produces in her work and embodies in her public persona.

But this image is of something that has never really existed. It is a cinematic image, a composed image drawn from mass culture. It is an image of an image, a simulacrum whose relationship to reality is mediated through many levels of representation. Its reality is of an artificial sort. Not because Del Rey is inauthentic in portraying her vision of womanhood but because that vision was of something already manufactured. As much shit as people have given Del Rey for daring to curate an image of herself out of earlier forms of popular melodrama, what she did is perfectly consistent with the role of the image in contemporary culture. In our late version of capitalist modernity not only has the line that separates reality from the representation of reality become completely obscured for many people but images themselves have been invested with their own reality. How else to explain why someone would buy a shirt with an image of a corporate logo on it? Simulacra have become everyday things. Television shows can be based on films that were based on novels. A singer’s persona can be based on tragic women that never existed.

But we can see it a different way. Del Rey is one instant of our society’s relentless ideological assault on the historicity of the past. Modern capitalist society’s image of itself as both the product of “human nature” and as “the end of history” depends on the dehistoricizing of the past. Thus rather than understand the past as the scene of conflicts, struggles, and dilemmas that relate to who we are in uneven and complicated ways, we have been taught to see the past as a series of images that are either colorful in nature or simply dioramas that stage in costume and design earlier versions of ourselves as we are now. Depicted this way the past loses its historical connection to the cultures that it generated in order to understand itself. The art and styles that the past produced as an attempt to represent its own social contradictions are reduced to surfaces, to a compendium of images divorced from the social contexts that gave them meaning. This is another way of saying that for Del Rey the past provides the wardrobe and props that go into building her persona and nothing more.

But there is yet another way of seeing it. We can also say that knowing that Del Rey’s persona is a construction does not necessarily diminish the enjoyment that we might take from her work. Moreover, knowing that it is all manufactured and artificial does not have to complicate our relationship to her or her music. The “truth” of authenticity is, in fact, a convenient explanation that we only draw out when we want to disqualify something that we don’t like. What actually matters is the way we perceive the world, and we make “history” and “the truth” conform to our view of reality. There is, indeed, no such thing as ideology because ideology presupposes “distortions” that prevent us from comprehending things as “they actually are,” when there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that we act as if we believe things even when we doubt their validity. For example, even when we are keenly aware of how much we are alike other people in our society, we nonetheless act as if we believed in pure individualism. To rephrase it one more time: Lana Del Rey is an authentic reproduction of something that never was and no one but ding dongs understands it any differently.

I bring up all of these possible ways of thinking about Del Rey not to present to you choices as to which is the best manner of considering her work. I bring them up because they are all equally valid explanations. The social is never explained easily because every simple social artifact encapsulates the multiple and heterogeneous vectors and contingencies that make up our reality.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Who Wants It

If we take it on what its creators probably consider its own terms, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” wants to aestheticize that turbulent period before desire is consummated in a consensual sexual encounter. Many of us can relate to that terrible moment of indecision as you are drawn toward someone, even if you know the attraction is wrong or the product of short-sighted thinking. If you live long enough sometimes you even have sex with people you don’t like or respect or are that attracted to. Sometimes cheap lust gets the better of us in the madness of the moment. But if that’s what Thicke was trying to get at, that’s not all the song does. The song ultimately reproduces an understanding of consent that complicates whatever good-natured representation of desire it meant to project.

I’m not the first person to find the song “rapey.” I am, however, a little uncomfortable with the idea that any cultural product can lead directly to action, no matter how compelling the object. What culture does do, I think, is provide an interpretation of actions. As such, culture belongs to the realm of knowledge, which is fundamentally distinct from the real world. This might seem like academic hair-splitting to some of you but please bear with me. In elaborating Marx’s theory of knowledge, Althusser observes that it was by positing the distinction between reality and the knowledge of reality that Marx was able to discuss the historical foundations of knowledge. A real object, a real structure, a real system can be understood solely through the categories of knowledge available to us at any given historical period. Thus while the real thing is always there, people can only explain those features which are apparent or even perhaps visible to them given the historical condition of their knowledge. The most obvious example of this is astronomy. So long as we have existed, humans have looked up at more or less the same stars, yet how people consider the stars in relationship to their world has changed across historical periods and cultures. Marx’s argument was part of his relentless critique of any idealist or transcendental categories. Knowledge is not something that transcends the limits of the human, somehow bearing a one to one correspondence with reality in Marx’s thinking. It is, like everything else, a part of history. Understanding history, then, allows us to understand knowledge and vice versa. Or to put it a slightly different way, comprehending culture (knowledge) allows us to comprehend how people explain what they actually do (the real world).

To return to the song, I don’t believe that “Blurred Lines” promotes rape as such nor do I believe that the song leads directly to rape. What it does do, nonetheless, is reveal and circulate the interpretation of consent that leads some people to rape. As many people have observed, the key lyrics are “I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it/ […]The way you grab me/Must wanna get nasty.” The song fails to recognize consent for what it is: a dynamic process that is ultimately settled in the last instance by a mutual agreement that is dependent on and respects the agency of all the subjects involved. Instead, the song conceives of consent as an obfuscation of an already-decided compact ("I know you want it"). It is a needless deferral occasioned by a superficial prudishness (“you’re a good girl”) that hides what is really animalistic desire (“must wanna get nasty”). In this view, consent is not what allows sex to happen but rather what unnecessarily delays sex from happening. So described, consent seems pointless and annoying. The song isn’t rapey because it condones rape but because it aestheticizes and sets to a beat a rapist’s understanding of consent.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Demórate Aquí

Some things you remember easily. The way the back of her ear tasted. Her hand balled up in yours, then spreading out to take hold of your fingers. Your pleasure at her inelegant gait. When she pulled the armrest up from between you in the theater in order to lie on your lap as she watched the movie. The way she slipped into an accent that made you laugh every time. The softness of her stomach. Sitting at the bar with your groceries piled up between you. The expression that you managed to catch a glimpse of as she watched you make her family laugh. The loud way she made fun of assholes, which was both charming and terrifying. How she sat watching television with her right hand curved toward her mouth. Her immodest self-belief, which might have been the most attractive thing about her. The way she fixed you in her eye as she lay in bed waiting for you.

Some things you remember only if you make yourself remember. The long, silent walk when she stared straight ahead for reasons you could only guess at. The contempt in her eyes when you made a stupid joke about her friends. The time she was openly disgusted with the way you kissed her. Her frustration and anger at the life of which you were a part. Her unresolved past relationship. When she stopped answering your messages and both of you pretended that it meant nothing at all. The time you spent waiting for the inevitable, convincing yourself that it was ultimately for the best. But more than anything else, your dismissiveness. Your impatience. Your neediness. Your jealousy. Your inflexible nature. And that last conversation.

Mariah Carey’s “Beautiful” depicts how we get infatuated with people. The song catalogs the details we obsess with at the beginning—what they look like, how they dress, and the narratives we construct around those features. There is also something languid and unhurried about the song that conveys the ease with which we slip into the patterns we associate with love and affection. The interplay between Carey’s and Miguel’s voices creates the final effect: love is the culmination of two people finding in each other the thing they were looking for yet did not expected to find. And love is easy, isn’t it? At least until it stops being easy. The other part, the part where things disintegrate, is treated honestly less often in commercial pop music. But in my mind heartbreak produces more compelling music, even if you hear fewer of those songs on the radio. Chavela Vargas’ rendition of “Las simples cosas” is perhaps the rawest and most forlorn recounting of heartbreak you will ever hear. She called “Las simples cosas” the most beautiful song in the world and who the fuck are any of us to disagree with her? “Linger here in the light of this midday,” she growls. “Do not leave now dreaming of your return because love is simple and all the simple things are devoured by time.” Beginnings and endings, memories you want and memories you don’t, and the inexorable working of time. In the long view, it all seems so simple.