Commercialized Transgression, Cultural Studies, and Lady Gaga as Capitalist Realism

Recently I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. After reading it, it was clear to me why he would identify Lady Gaga as an example of capitalist realism, though he hasn’t said much about it. Some people have asked me what my opinion is on Lady Gaga and my reply has been mostly one of indifference. My criticism of Lady Gaga isn’t that she’s a “bad” feminist—it’s that she’s a capitalist hack who collects artists of color to increase her cred (gah). But I get the sense that most people who celebrate Lady Gaga for her performance artist schtick aren’t critical of capitalism. Counter-critics assert that Lady Gaga is not glorifying commodity culture but parodying it by offering herself as a “figurative mirroring or projection of consumer culture.” The problem with such an argument is that ironic derision, risk, spectacles, subversion, and transgression are all thoroughly integrated into the polymorphous techniques of capitalism and are indeed representative of its flexibility, its ever-expanding markets and its ability to appeal even to intellectuals, queers, feminists, and politicos of varying sorts. The “transgressive” tactics employed by Gaga produce what Michel Foucault might call an “incitement to discourse”—igniting blog posts, cultural criticism, theory which effectively produces the image of Gaga and generates value, meaning, and interest in her project while transgression-as-capitalist tactic remains obscured. 

In college, I was interested in creating a special area of concentration in cultural studies. But the strand of cultural studies that I was interested in was more aligned with European (mainly British) marxist-inflected type of cultural studies rather than the US-brand of cult studs that focuses on trying to find transgressive narratives in popular culture. The US-type of cultural studies posits a false dichotomy being the modernist, elitist investment in high brow culture and their more populist interest in the people’s media—television, commercial films, fashion, etc. If you are trying to draw attention to the circuits of production and consumption inherent to cultural production under late capitalism, you are automatically assumed to be on team-Adorno, who celebrated the modernist avant-garde and generally had an elitist attitude about culture.

This polarization of the terms of debate is a tactic of capitalist realism because it depolicizes and naturalizes capitalism in its uncritical elevation of popular culture: “An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact” (Capitalist Realism). Thus, resistance to Lady Gaga is written off as “moralizing” feminism—as if promoting Lady Gaga didn’t support the values of capitalism or commercialized “transgressive” performativity. I’m pretty sick of people playing the “moralizing 2nd wave feminist!” card as a way to deflect criticisms of the fairly flimsy foundations of an apolitical aestheticized (post)feminism.

When US academics sift through popular culture to look for subversive messages, it’s not surprising at all that they find them everywhere (yet even with the proliferation of subversion in commodity culture, their analyses can still sound very forced). In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher discusses how we have entered an era where even the process of rebellion and subsumption is outdated: now there is kind of a preemptive subsumption, whereby the desire for rebellion is always incorporated, effectively placating subversive energies by channeling them into consumerist outlets. He writes:

Yet the old struggle between detournement and recuperation, between subversion and incorporation, seems to have been played out. What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture. Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. 

These gestural revolutionary attitudes and queer stylings (according to the NYT, 2010 was the “year of the transexual” in the fashion world) actually can function to reinforces capitalism. But the circuits of cultural production are so alienated from us in our milieu (and capitalism is so thoroughly naturalized) that trying to think about the relationship between culture and capitalism often doesn’t even enter the picture. It’s not that I am against immaterial forms of production (culture, subjectivity, affective labor, etc), but that I think we have to be more discerning about what types of immaterial production reproduce capitalism.

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