Lady Gaga’s work demonstrates an intriguing mix of elements from within posthumanism, as her work seems to destabilise a number of humanist, binary categories including human and machine, human and animal, subject and object, self and other and male and female. In some ways, Gaga embodies what we might consider the figures of the posthuman – such as cyborgs, monsters, and non-human hybrids. Yet, beyond this, Gaga’s work also critically engages with the deconstruction, or critical questioning of what it means to be human. Her work explores how we are, at our core, composite creatures, formed of, through and with “others” around us rather than being autonomous individuals. Sarah Lucie argues that “the posthuman lens aims to move past binary thinking that separates the human from nature, from things, from technology”.[1] These kinds of disruptions are on full display in Gaga’s aesthetic work in the Artpop (2013) album era.[2] Images of Gaga as part-human part-machine are evident in the video for her song ‘Applause’ through robotic references to Fritz Lang’s (1927) dystopian film Metropolis. The same video features a splicing of her head onto the body of a black swan, whilst the video for ‘G.U.Y.’ sees her head transplanted onto the famous Lego model, ‘Yellow’, by artist Nathan Sawaya. However, we can also find bodily augmentations and disruptions in her earlier work. On Gaga’s Born This Way (2011) album, the cover art depicts her as part-human part-motorcycle, her arms as bike forks. In the ‘You and I’ video from that album, Gaga’s performance as Jo Calderone plays with gender performance, disrupting the binary of male/female. Jo Calderone is a male ‘drag’ persona of Gaga, which builds on Gaga’s self-identification as queer: playing with gender expression through both femininity and masculinity. Nevertheless, the video displays hetero-romantic and -sexual desires and fantasies, ultimately operating within heteronormative (binary) assumptions.

However, in the same video, Gaga’s merging with animal, contrastingly suggests a trans-species-sexuality as she embodies a mermaid figure, complete with fin and gills, who then engages in sexual scenes with a human man. This suggests a further remove from humanistic binaries, moving towards a more critical consideration of trans-species entanglement. Elsewhere in the You and I video, Gaga appears part-machine with a mechanised arm; wires and tubes protruding from her shoulder. Multiple scenes reference a Frankenstein-esque ‘making of’ her – strapped to a gurney, being oiled like a machine. Considering these examples, it is evident that Gaga’s persona is one where the self is constantly crafted rather than fixed or core, moving away from humanist species specificity and instead finding new ways to articulate hybridities, alternativities and different subjectivities through a disruption of ontological specificity.

Lady Gaga being oiled like a machine. Screenshot from the official ‘You and I’ music video.

This disruption, or breaking of ontological sanctity is epitomised in Barad’s definition of entanglement, which is “to lack an independent, self-contained existence. […] individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating”. Gaga’s subjectivity, then, which emerges from intra-actions with different phenomena at different times, explicitly embodies and embraces posthuman ideologies. As Costa et al. argue, “one of the most significant theoretical interventions of the posthuman or nonhuman turn has been the subversion of all kinds of dualisms, particularly the binary nature/culture and its privileging of the human to the detriment of other ontologies and agential entities”.[3] The way that Gaga draws on a variety of natural, cultural and technological influences demonstrates a “blurring of boundaries, a dissolution of the ‘ontological hygiene’ by which for the past three hundred years Western culture has drawn the fault-lines that separate humans, nature and machines”.[4] As Graham explains, the humanist view wherein the ‘self’ expresses “autonomous agency” through “the exercise of reason” was “only ever an illusion”.[5] Drawing on critical posthumanism as a rejection of humanism from within,[6] we can see how Gaga’s work becomes, at times, postanthropocentric in its scope, demonstrating an acknowledgement of the entanglement of subjectivity between humans, animals, machines, objects and others. This is exemplified in Gaga’s seventh studio released album, Chromatica, which suggests rhizomatic and postanthropocentric thinking with the tag-line “In Chromatica no one thing is greater than another”.  As Braidotti argues, postanthropocentrism deconstructs species supremacy, as well as rejecting “any lingering notion of human nature, anthropos and bios, as categorically distinct from the life of animals and non-humans, or zoe” thus refusing human dominance and demonstrating “a colossal hybridization of the species”.[7]

The emergence of different experiments in being and subjectivity throughout a selection of Gaga’s works suggests a posthuman exploration. Graham draws on the figure of the monster to explore the boundaries between humans and almost-humans:

Monsters serve both to mark the fault-lines but also, subversively, to signal the fragility of such boundaries. They are truly ‘monstrous’ – as in things shown and displayed – in their simultaneous demonstration and destabilization of the demarcations by which cultures have separated nature from artifice, human from non-human, normal from pathological.[8]

It is worth noting that with her self-proclaimed title, ‘Mother Monster’, Gaga claims her space as this monstrous embodiment of the destabilisation of humanistic demarcations. Moreover, those who experience menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth have always been ‘othered’ through their bodily experiences, as they “challenge the boundaries between body and external world”.[9] By specifically claiming Mother, not only Monster, Gaga similarly asserts herself in a boundary position.

In addition to the aforementioned reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in Gaga’s video for ‘Applause’, where she appears wearing skeletal, machinic wings, there are further references to the human-machine hybrid through her work, varying from subtle metallic inserts to full on cyborgs with only Gaga’s face as the human element. The artwork for Chromatica depicts her as part-machine, with an artificial arm and leg-piece (designed by Cecilio Castrillo Martinez), yet her incorporation of the machinic is not merely aesthetic in nature. In her 2020 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) appearance, Gaga demonstrated a further incorporation of the machinic in her live performance through the use of a sound-reactive mask designed and made by Smooth Technology. In this performance, in light of the Covid-19 global pandemic, “Lady Gaga wanted to be wearing a mask, but she also wanted to be performing live and singing live. And she wanted a way to show that she was doing that and really express herself while having this thing covering her face”.[10] This demonstrates the ways in which we incorporate ‘other’ materials into our sense and performance of ‘self’.

Lady Gaga performing with the sound reactive mask made by Smooth Technology in collaboration with Diego Montoya. Screenshot from her 2020 VMA performance.

Gaga’s voice is entangled with the machinic through the microphone and audio rigs of the performance, but by integrating the mask element she demonstrates and highlights this in a manner that also highlights how our contexts necessarily underline our performances and their reception. Moreover, Lady Gaga’s VMA performance demonstrates an engagement with stimuli that disrupts a technology-human binary. Such binaries might conceive of the technology as a representation or extension of the individual, whereas to utilise Barad’s notions of performativity over representation we might instead theorise a causal relationship between discursive practices and material relations.[11] It is through material-discursive phenomena that a particular agency is emergent, and so Gaga’s specific relation with the mask allows a different subjectivity to arise.[12] Rather than garments or wearable technologies ‘representing’ the wearer or being purely aesthetic, the garments/technologies are performative. It is through them that that subjectivity is able to emerge and through which it is evident. They contribute to the available agency in terms of denoting what a subjectivity can be or do and how it can be enacted. Thus, the VMA mask becomes a particular embodiment and enactment that enables certain subjectivities that are also afforded by the present, cultural, moment – that of the Covid-19 outbreak. This links to recent work by David Inglis[[13]] on the significance of the mask in the time of a pandemic and how this draws on a form of new materialism in which the ‘object’ of clothing or technology becomes disrupted as it instead takes on a subject/ive life. For Inglis, the mask of the pandemic is “a testament to human creativity” and that the fashion-isation of the mask during a global pandemic “makes the intolerable, tolerable”.[14] Gaga goes beyond this – not only is the mask culturally and historically laden with thing-power[15] but also technologically so, demonstrating how her subjectivity and positionality as artist is only possible through technological expression.

It is important to highlight the difference between viewing Gaga as cyborg – a cybernetic organism – and Gaga’s work as a critical posthumanist – entangled, postanthropocentric and disrupting the status of self as ‘individual’. The incorporation of technology is not only linked to a cyborg manifestation, which arguably still suggests a dominance of human over machine, or their ultimate separation, but also a posthumanist disruption between human and machine wherein they are entangled and subjectivity is emergent.[16] This emergence is already evident when we consider the performance of a musical artist, as so much of their sound is augmented, adjusted, amplified, altered and mediated through the machinic technologies in use – we do not simply hear Gaga’s voice, it is always entangled with the technologies and machines that surround it to the degree that one cannot be meaningfully separated from the other. However, it is Gaga’s specific embrace of this entanglement that makes her stand out as a posthuman performer – she actively plays with and disrupts what it means to be Gaga.

This is evident through another technology (though not machinic): the technology of make-up. Gaga, on her Haus Laboratories site, states that she “began to experiment with makeup as a way to make my dreams of being as strong as my mother become true. It was then that I invented Lady Gaga. I found the superhero within me by looking in the mirror and seeing who I wanted to be”.[17] This also demonstrates performative, rather than representative, meaning and understanding of ‘becoming’. It is significant that Gaga attributes the emergence of her subjectivity-as-artist to the power of the make-up and the role it played in creating that way of being.

Of course, such a reading is not unproblematic. The site also states:

This is not just another beauty brand. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but at HAUS LABORATORIES, we say beauty is how you see yourself. We want you to love yourself, and it is our mission to spread kindness, bravery, and creativity by providing tools for self-expression and reinvention.[18]

Gaga’s Haus Laboratories draws heavily on ideas of self-branding and self-governmentality linked to neoliberalism and, ultimately, capitalism and consumerism. Moreover, there is a specific link to the gendered nature of aesthetic labour through make-up here, as, although the market is shifting, women make up the majority demographic for the purchase and use of make-up.[19] This could be read in two ways: on the one hand, women are targeted by beauty advertising more and are therefore victims of the negative impacts surrounding objectification and a need to ‘attain’ beauty through consumption.

On the other hand, does this perhaps open more space to explore how women, who have not benefitted from humanistic notions of self, are more familiar with posthumanist entanglement and the intra-action between ‘self’ and ‘other’ through a variety of means? This is evident already through the aforementioned ‘instability’ that (some) women and trans-men (another ‘othered’ group) experience through certain bodily functions, including menstruation (demonstrating a ‘leaky body’[20]) and pregnancy (a total disruption of the lines between one body and an ‘other’).

Lady Gaga as a mermaid-like creature demonstrating trans-species-sexuality. Screenshot from the official ‘You and I’ music video.

If, as according to Braidotti, becoming-posthuman is

a process of redefining one’s sense of attachment and connection to a shared world, […] It expresses multiple ecologies of belonging, while it enacts the transformation of one’s sensorial and perceptual co-ordinates, in order to acknowledge the collective nature and outward-bound direction of what we still call the self.[21]

We might argue that Gaga’s continual, playful performance and expression of hybridity encapsulates this redefinition – attaching herself as belonging in multiple spaces and species. At times Gaga embraces entanglement, emergence and intra-action of objects, art, others, animals and machines such that the humanist sanctity of self is utterly disrupted. Yet, at the same time, Gaga remains a stable reference throughout; she creates coherence and cohesion amongst the fragmentations of identities. Whilst her body may be augmented and adjusted, her head – the physical representation of the mind and rationality – often remains intact. There are uses of facial prostheses in ‘Applause’, as well as technological augmentations in ‘You and I’, but these are minimally invasive and retain Gaga and her human face as recognisable, in a humanistic of privileging of the anthropomorphised/able.

In some ways, Gaga’s VMA mask therefore demonstrates the most radical interference with Gaga’s aesthetic, as it showcases a disruption of the head in a way that makes apparent the entanglement of vocals and tech. In doing so this makes clear that even that which is conceived of as specifically, definitively, Gaga – her vocal talent – is not sacred. Gaga, therefore, not only disrupts binaries between human-machine-animal, self-other, male-female in aesthetic forms, but in performative ways that have “a direct material engagement with the world”.[22] She interferes with her ‘self’ to disrupt the very specificity that the notion of ‘self’ suggests; each performance embodies a new performative entanglement, and her VMA mask will not be the last.

 

[1] Sarah Lucie, ‘Posthuman visions’, Performing Arts Journal, 41:2 (2019), 75-79 (p. 76)

[2] For more on Lady Gaga’s Artpop era as posthuman performance, see Nathalie Weidhase and Poppy Wilde, ‘“Art’s in pop culture in me”: Posthuman Performance and Authorship in Lady Gaga’s Artpop (2013)’, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture (forthcoming).

[3] Claudia Costa, Ildney Cavalcanti and Joan Hara, ‘On the posthuman’, Ilha Desterro, 70:2, (2017), 9-14 (p. 10).

[4] Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 11.

[5] Graham, Representations, p. 41.

[6] David Roden, Posthuman Life (London: Routledge, 2015) p. 9.

[7] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013) p. 65.

[8] Graham, Representations, p. 12.

[9] Linda Nicholson, ‘Gynocentrism, women’s oppression, women’s identity and women’s standpoint’, in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. by Linda Nicholson. (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 147–151 (p. 150).

[10] Lauren Puckett, How The Design Team Behind Lady Gaga’s Iconic VMAs Mask Put It Together “In One Week”, Elle Magazine, 1 September 2020, <https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a33854014/lady-gaga-mask-designer-vmas-interview/> [accessed 3 September 2020].

[11] Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28:3 (2003), 801-831.

[12] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (London: Duke University, 2007).

[13] David Inglis, The Masque of the Pandemic, Dress in a Time of Crisis – Presentations, 27 August 2020, available online < https://dressincontext.org/events/dress-in-a-time-of-crisis/dress-in-a-time-of-crisis-presentations/> [accessed 7 September 2020].

[14] Inglis, Masque of the Pandemic, online.

[15] See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (London: Duke University Press, 2010).

[16] See Herbrechter’s entry on ‘Critical Posthumanism’ in this Genealogy for a detailed account of how critical posthumanism differs from ‘the posthuman’ or the cyborg. Gaga’s work is, I would argue, a critical deconstruction through performance, rather than merely a visual reference to the posthuman / cyborg.

[17] Lady Gaga, From our Founder, Haus Laboratories, n.d., <https://www.hauslabs.com/pages/about> [accessed 2 September 2020].

[18] House Labs, About Haus, Haus Laboratories, n.d., <https://www.hauslabs.com/pages/about> [accessed 2 September 2020].

[19] Stefania Caiola, Luca Palleschi, Rosa Draisci and Rosanna Mancinelli, Cosmetics, chemical exposure and gender differences’, Italian Journal of Gender-Specific Medicine, 4:1 (2018), 21-26.

[20] See Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism and (Bio)ethics (London: Routledge, 1997).

[21] Braidotti, The Posthuman, p. 193.

[22] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. 49.