Gaga Feminism: An Interview With J. Jack Halberstam (Part I)

December 5, 2012, 11:26 am

J. Jack Halberstam is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and one of queer studies’ most prominent and accessible public intellectuals. Jack has challenged the fields of literature, cultural studies, film and television with path-breaking volumes like Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (2005), Female Masculinity (1998), The Drag King Book: A First Look (1999, in partnership with photographer Del LaGrace Volcano), and In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005). More recently, in The QueerArt of Failure (2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex Gender and the End of Normal (2012), Halberstam has taken queer theory’s classic intervention, revealing what is hidden in plain sight, to interrogate everyday knowledge that is often neglected by cultural critics — cartoons, pop videos, and the questions children ask.  A fellow blogger, Halberstam can be read at Bully Bloggers.  

In this three-part interview, Halberstam discusses Gaga Feminism, a concept that, as Queer Ideas/Queer Action series editor Michael Bronski argues, “embraces the anarchist potential of our dynamic present.” (x)

Tenured Radical: The first time I saw Lady Gaga she was performing “Poker Face” on American Idol in 2009, and I thought “Who is this person?” I could tell that she was drawing on a long drag tradition, but there was also something wholly new going on. What was there about her work that captured the contemporary feminist moment for you?

Jack Halberstam: Right, excellent question. What about Lady Gaga — her appearance, her performance repertoire, her political engagement — offers access to contemporary feminism? I think for me, my first experience of really watching Lady Gaga was in the “Telephone” video (2010) on YouTube. I was really excited by the video and its layering of different genres–blaxploitation, lesbian prison films, Thelma and Louise (1991), American road movie, female friendship narratives–through and across a simple but infectious beat. I was drawn to Lady Gaga’s embrace of contradictory signifiers: high camp, low lesbian drama, strip culture, haute couture, emancipation, incarceration, and to the fact that those signifiers do not resolve into any unified message, at least in her performance persona.

This lack of resolution or moral outcome feels right for contemporary feminism, as does Lady Gaga herself as a contradictory figure who offers much as a symbol of contemporary feminism. It is this figuration that interests me much more that Lady Gaga’s own politics, which can veer toward a gender essentialism that is problematic for feminism and for queer politics.

TR: Gaga feminism caused me to think about the fissures that have appeared between queer studies and feminist studies over the years. Sometimes it seems that the only thing these two fields have in common is a preoccupation with gender. But it seems that “going gaga” presents an opportunity for a more transformative, capacious and daring conversation that is feminist, queer and fully attentive to the public sphere. In your view, where should this conversation between queer studies and feminism be going?

JH:  I have to say that as someone for whom feminism was formative and foundational as a political discourse, I am stunned at how disinterested people are in feminism now. And when I say “people” I mean young people, popular audiences, intellectuals and so on. I believe that part of the split between the perceived anachronism of feminism and the perceived coolness of queer theory can be traced back to the sex wars of the 1980′s and the homogenizing popular representation of feminism as anti-sex, anti-male, white and essentialist.

I am not interested in returning to those debates so much as opening up our definitions of feminism – rewriting its genealogies, reframing its theoretical contributions, recasting its contemporary political frames. And so, “going gaga” represents a methodology that steps away from oppositions between queer and feminist, men and women, homo and hetero. To “go gaga” is to revel in and participate in the recent riotous disregard for clear distinctions. Conversations between queer and feminist theory, I hope, are currently moving away from antagonistic oppositions and towards something much more exciting.

TR: Towards the end of the preface you write: “This book models the art of going gaga: a politics of free-falling, wild thinking, and imaginative reinvention” exemplified by “the marginalized, the abandoned, and the unproductive.” (xv) Can you make some links for us between this and your previous book, The Queer Art of Failure (2011)?

JH:  I wrote Gaga Feminism shortly after finishing The Queer Art of Failure and so it contains much of the same energy, some of the same critical thinking. It even shares an archive of animated film with that book. What is different in Gaga Feminism is my desire to reach a broader audience, readers without Ph.D’s or intellectuals outside of the university. As in The Queer Art of Failure, however, Gaga Feminism wants to break with academic protocol; challenge pious sentiments about the right and the good; craft a new language of opposition. I was also making common cause in both books with the emergent politics of “occupation.” In fact, in September of last year I was giving a book talk in Brooklyn for The Queer Art of Failure and was talking about the London riots, the Paris riots and the manifesto by The Invisible Committee titled The Coming Insurrection and an audience member asked me if I had stopped by Occupy Wall Street – it had just started and obviously what I was expressing about a new anarchistic sense of resistant politics was very much in sync with the burgeoning Occupy movement.

TR:  As you point out, your work is characterized by its commitment to a broad audience. It’s funny, it works from mass-marketed and vulgar texts, but most important, it’s well written. Particularly for younger scholars who are searching for their own writing voices, can you tell us something about what inspired you to do queer scholarship in such a publicly engaged and accessible way? Have you yourself gradually “gone gaga” over the years?

JH: What inspired me? Not wanting to ever read dense and constipated prose again? Losing total patience with elaborate formulations of totally banal ideas? Watching someone like [Slavoj] Žižek take up all available space in the public intellectual realm and knowing that there were more interesting ways to bring critiques of capital and critiques of gender and sexuality together than most public intellectuals manage? Loving the parodic version of “Born This Way” more than the Gaga version? Have I gone totally gaga? Well, it is an ongoing project – lets just say I am making good progress on that front!!

In part II, Tenured Radical and Halberstam explore listening to children and unexpected intellectual interventions.

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