Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Hegelian dialectics, and whether they function to liberate individuals from current oppression, or whether as a theory it lends itself towards conservative social forces wishing to infinitely delay any change into the future. Naturally, in my search for an answer, I turned to pop culture, specifically pop music, for an answer. In my exhaustive (read: ten minute) survey of contemporary music, I reached the conclusion that, ultimately, the aesthetic conversation between Lana Del Rey and Marina Diamandis (of Marina and the Diamonds) provides an example of this dialectic, and I conclude that, based on my reading of their respective aesthetic motifs, the dialectic has potential as an emancipatory metaphysic, rather than a necessarily repressive technology of conservatives.
Before I get into the pop music, let’s just take a moment to review Hegelian dialectics. The relevant parts are that every social condition or relation is contingent, that is, it relies upon two or more individuals or forces, each of which only exists in this relation to the other. A slave only exists in relation to a master, just like the bourgeoisie exists only in relation to the proletariat. These two forces, necessarily opposing, come into conflict, whether through direct material violence or through the forces of history, and negate each other to, potentially, allow a new condition to exist based on the fusion of each force in question. What form that new condition takes is never resolved, and is itself contingent on other historical forces. Everything is necessarily contingent on an otherness exterior to itself.
As I argued in my recent comment exchange with Riley Walker on his excellent post about fascist aesthetics (https://wetlandsmagazine.com/2012/10/21/fascism-among-us-susan-sontags-fascinating-fascism-and-modern-sexual-politics/) I believe that personal identity, and in particular gender identity, is constructed out of a similar dialectic to Hegel’s; “I” only have meaning in relation to that which is “not me” (“The Other”), and so my identity is only ever created by the logic of another person. The queer only exists as the negation of heterosexuality: Without a referent to heterosexuality, “homosexual,” “bisexual,” or “queer” mean nothing. As I’ll argue here, I believe such a theorization of identity offers a more ethical and thoroughly hopeful conception of political action than a merely self-focused view, which supposes individuals are capable of formatting their own identities out of pure, isolated acts of will.
Now on to the good stuff. Both Lana Del Rey and Marina Diamandis have recently exploded onto the pop music scene, each of them championing a differing aesthetic of femininity and, pointedly, theory of identity formation and creation. Viewing them in light of each other exposes how each theory of femininity is reliant upon the other’s: Del Rey’s makes sense only in relation to Diamandis’, and vice-versa. I hope that analyzing them together in the light of the Hegelian dialectic of identity offers out hope for a vision of resistance and transgression which I find profoundly empowering as a mode of critique.
Lana’s current album, Born to Die, tells the story of a woman in love. Though the actual timeframe is never revealed, she dresses herself in a rich 1950s air, a hyperfeminized, passive, and traditional understanding of womanhood endemic to American society at the time. She isolates the 1950s as the height of the imposition of a hyperfeminine ideal on the bodies of women, best explained by her lyric in the titular song of the album, that as women, “We were born to die.” If nothing else, that was surely the logical end-point of the 1950s: That women were born merely to die, to surrender their individuality to men, to man, to patriarchal forces in general; that the only space where she was valued was in the family, and even then, largely, as a vehicle for producing (male) children. As a historical force, this woman was largely a passive one, standing by as signs and figures were written onto her body, eviscerating the possibility of a political agency that we would not find until the following decade. I think this naturally the “structuralist” theory of womanhood—that the female body was trapped in a web of media signs and signifiers, patriarchal forces, which she had little agency to resist.
Diamandis, on the other hand, champions a nearly post-structuralist account of womanhood, stressing the radical freedom of the individual to shape themselves within the historical structures into which they are thrown. Her aesthetic is that of the high 1960s with a dash of the 1980s (she cites her influences as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and Marie Antoinette), each decade a time of revolution and transgression, witnessing entire populations rising in revolt of the values under which they had been raised. More importantly, however, she expresses her views on relationships as fundamentally dialectical in her single Power and Control: “Women and men we are the same/’cause love will always be a game/We give and take a little more/Eternal game of love and war.” For Marina, then, there is no ‘50s woman—there is no passive agent in any relationship. For her, each participant in the relationship is continuously shaping itself in relation to its opposite: The 50s woman comes to understand herself in relation to the 50s man, and only in that understanding does her identity make any sense. She sees herself as a passive, accepting woman because she has, at some level, shaped herself as such—even if she acts passively, she actively accepts these roles. People are not passive bags of flesh onto which signs and signifiers of the social order are written; ultimately, they themselves hold the pens and whiteout, constantly writing and rewriting themselves in relation to that external social order.
The issue for Marina is always of dominance and submission: Which person is the object of desire, and which one is the person doing the desiring frames her aesthetic critique of patriarchy. For Marina, to be the desiring person is to be “losing” the game of love. As she says in Power and Control: “Think you’re funny, think you’re smart/Think you’re gonna break my heart […] Yeah you may good lookin’ but you’re not a piece of art.” In each relationship, for Marina, there is always one with the potential to “break” a heart, and always the person who can be broken. This is the central conflict in love for Marina: The question of who has control over the other—Electra Heart, Marina’s ironic and adopted identity for the album, refuses to surrender dominance, and wants the glamorous life of power to the bitter end. As sung in her single, Primadonna: “Primadonna girl, yeah/All I ever wanted was the world/Can’t help that I need it all/The Primadonna life, the rise and fall.” Marina appropriates the hyper-feminized identity of ‘60s woman to subvert the worst tendencies of patriarchy: Playing around with power, she desires to invert it. In short, for Marina, all relationships (romantic or otherwise) are at root BDSM-style relations, in content if not form. It’s merely a question of how literal the chains and whips are.
Their biggest divergence, then, obviously, is how they approach the question of power and domination in relationships (both romantic and social). For Del Rey, woman exists in patriarchal social relations as a creature without agency, who passively accepts her fate. For Diamandis, woman always has the potential to invert power relations by asserting herself in a rejection of the current state of things. This is not to say that Del Rey is asserting women literally lack agency—Merely that patriarchal systems render philosophically and code materially women as “object” onto which power is projected. Whereas Diamandis finds a revolutionary site of resistance in every instance of patriarchal domination, Del Rey fails to isolate any possibility for the inversion of present power relations.
Lana’s pessimistic ‘50s aesthetic, however, is one which is feminist in its own right: Throughout Born to Die (Album here, not the song), we see Lana’s character struggling as being the object of desire. She is locked into a role that lacks the “class consciousness” necessary to invert power relations: In her breakout song Video Games, she sings of a man with whom her character is in love driving up, “pull[ing] out a beer” saying “get over here.” Continuously, Lana is shown as longing for this man clearly trapped in a mindset that sees her as a tool of his enjoyment. Lana reveals no path forward, however, or exposes no weakness in the system of patriarchy. This is still political, however. Lana reveals the immiseration of woman within patriarchy at a time in history when we are seeing restrictions to birth control, limitations on comprehensive sex education in high schools, restricted access to abortions, claims to the “legitimacy” of rape made by so many politicians, among other things I’m sure I am leaving out. What Lana does is expose the problem—She diagnoses patriarchy as the symptom we express, though offers no prescription through which we can find salvation.
Additionally, where Marina expresses the possibility for redeploying power to achieve emancipation from oppression for one individual, Lana takes this argument one step further and concludes with the obvious pronouncement that such a logic necessarily places one member of that relationship beneath the other member. This is the inevitable, dialectical relation of all domination: The master encounters a slave to affirm themselves as masters, and no matter the relation there is always the dichotomy between the two groups or people. By viewing power as dialectical, Lana necessarily reveals that power in relationships (whether political, sexual, or economic) is zero-sum: Either victorious and powerful or weak and submissive. Her glamorous, luxurious, 1950s love stories exemplify the death of Woman required by the culture of the decade: The purpose of woman was to reproduce, to be married, and to submit to the commands of patriarchy. There is nothing requiring this to be so, however: The sadness and lamentations expressed by Lana indicate that woman herself comes to see she is trapped in a “false consciousness” of submission, that nothing requires her to be there but society’s commands and her own will to obey. This is similar to Shulamith Firestone’s argument in The Dialectic of Sex that woman is the true proletariat of history, and that, like the slaves achieve consciousness by recognizing each other as slaves to the master, woman can do the same by coming to consciousness in a collective revolt against patriarchy and reproduction. If this is so, then Marina expresses the option of reclaiming power as a site of protest: The hegemony of the dialectic of power offers the possibility for an alteration in the material coordinates of power at any given time. No system of oppression is inevitable.
Lana, then, theorizes woman as class: Marina inverts this to reject the idea of class altogether. There is no universal line of oppression, for Marina, but rather only contingent and unique oppressions in each particular relationship—Specific oppressions which can be subverted, transgressed, poked at, played with, and ultimately inverted.
What are the political consequences of this aesthetic movement from lamentation to ironic jubilance? I think they are profound, especially for sexual and gender politics. Let’s just take a look at the “War on Women.” As in Lana, you see women immiserated by their social location—the site of violence, of oppression, the abjected and bare bodies rendered destructible by patriarchy, bodies which ultimately may come to feel trapped in a system they have no control over, and who resign themselves to acceptance of the status quo for lack of any alternative. In Marina, however, you encounter the response: The reappropriation and re-articulation of power-as-resistance—women reclaim bodies, utilize them as sites of resistance (sex strikes, body art, and mass protest are just a few examples) for the furtherance of the political goal of the negation of patriarchy, the dominant system of control, riddled with internal contradictions, and which provides the very material conditions for the possibility of women’s liberation in the first place. While it may be inevitable that someone in any political relation is dominated or oppressed, that only means that if this dialectical relation of power is inevitable. This dialectic, then, just becomes a question of how this power is exercised and upon whom. Dialectics hold out the possibility of a less-oppressive world order because every social condition can be uprooted and thrown to the forces of history. The truly political act, then, is one of recalculating the material coordinates of our present-day reality: Do we embrace Lana’s lamentations on how upsetting and profoundly disturbing it is to be the object of oppression, or do we orient ourselves toward Marina and play with power as a way to protest it?