What is “negative” about political negativity?: On Halberstam, Joy Division, and Grace Jones (London’s Burning #3)

This post follows up on the previous one, which discussed Halberstam’s concept of political negativity.

This bluring—or “ambiguity,” if you will—of subject/object position is even more evident in Grace Jone’s cover of “She’s Lost Control.” In my view, it is the best piece from which to theorize Halberstamian negativity, primarily because Jones’ shifting between first and third person narrative positions echoes the perspectival shifting Halberstam identifies as central to the “transgender look.” A critique of Mulvey-esque notions of “the male gaze,” Halberstam’s “transgender gaze” challenges many of Mulvey’s assumptions about the (liberal) subject, agency, and narrative form. In Mulvey’s view, the gendered conventions of narrative cinema prevent women from exercising agency by (1) taking them as objects of the gaze, not gazing subjects, and (2) denying them coherence, wholeness, and full/authentic subjectivity (e.g., through the fragmentation of their representation). The male gaze treats “woman as image, man as bearer of the look.” In this scheme, one can either be a subject or an object; this logic tolerates no ambiguity, only coherence and consistency. Unlike the male gaze, “the transgender gaze is constituted as a look divided within itself, a point of view that comes from two places (at least) at the same time” (Halberstam 2005, 88). The transgender gaze positions participants as both image and bearer of the look. In Halberstam’s read, the trans gazer is “a figure who combines momentarily the activity of looking with the passivity of the spectacle” (Halberstam 2005, 88). Combining activity and passivity, subject- and object- positions, trans looking relations assume an ontology of ambiguity—which, as I will develop later, is Beauvoir’s ontology.

The narrator in Jones’s cover performs this ambiguity in two main ways. Before I get into the analysis, let’s have a listen:

So, ambiguity: (1) The song’s first lines introduce a first-third person shift between “she/her” and “I’: “Confusion in her eyes/That says it all/I’ve lost control/She’s clinginging to the nearest passerby/I’ve lost control”. This shifting continues throughout the song, thus firmly establishing the narrator as both “image” and “bearer of the look.” There is also a point around 2:50 where Jones says “she stabbed me in the hand”; in this line, the first and third person positions are not alternated, but brought into the same “frame,” as it were. We do not know if “she” and “me” are the same person or not. In fact, readers of Fanon will remember that hegemonic whiteness and Eurocentrism compel black/colonial subjects to view themselves from both first and third person perspectives. Thus, this perspectival ambiguity could be read as quite consistent with black Atlantic experience. It is not the sign of lost control, but one of the conditions (or, in Beauvoiran terms, the “situation”) upon which black Atlantic subjects come into and exercise control in the first place. We should not take Jones’s proclamations at her word: she’s not losing control, but quite the opposite. Though the last few minutes of the song suggest that Jones’s narrator is loosing control of her vehicle, Jones herself remains securely in the driver’s seat throughout the track. The boredom and ennui with which Jones delivers many of the lyrics indicates that she’s rehearsing a tired stereotype: “of course you think I’ve just lost control again.” Jones is being sarcastic when she claims to have lost control. This sarcasm is evident in the delivery of this line (most notably around 3:05 and 5:40), and in the laughter that recurs throughout the track. Jones isn’t laughing because she’s mentally unstable, she’s laughing at us, at those of us who lazily and eagerly buy into the stereotype of the mad black woman, mentally, intellectually, and appetitively out of control. (My reading of the laughter is thus quite different from k-punk’s.)[i] The music may sound less controlled, but because it can be located within a Caribbean dub tradition, those elements which seem out of control to English ears are actually carefully-engineered by the record’s producers, in the same way that blue notes, while sounding flat to Western diatonic ears, are actually normal and intentional within classic blues and jazz. Just as trans cinematography undoes the conventions of narrative coherence and resolution (Halberstam 2005, 86), dub practices destabilize “narrative” musical conventions. Moreover, Jones’s vocals, though they are intended to express someone losing control, are actually the result of quite well-controlled vocal technique. It is a mistake to think Jones has anything but complete control.

Even Kodwo Eshun interprets Jones’s loss of control as a version of technology-gone-wild. The track, he says, creates “the sense of automation running down, the human seizing into machine rictus” (1998, 095). As I argued in my JPMS article, Western pop music tends to use technology-gone-wild as a metaphor for its fears of uncontrollable black female sexuality. Jones’s performance critiques both these “controlling images.” Unlike the fembot in Duran Duran’s “Electric Barbarella,” which does break down, sieze up, and behave uncontrollably (all while being very white and blonde), Jones never seizes up or comes completely undone. Rather, it is us who are losing control of her; refusing controlling images, rejecting stereotypical and hegemonic interpellations of both herself and her work, Jones destabilizes white, Eurocentric, heteropatriarchal frames/views/gazes and gazers. Jones’s cover, both its narrator and its dubby music—disturbs mainstream US listening norms and listening positions. We’re the ones losing control, not Jones. And by “we” I mean white people.

Jones’s cover impacts the way we theorize the life and work of one particular white person—Ian Curtis. Though Curtis always maintains a third-person narration—it’s always she who has lost control—this original, when heard alongside the cover, strongly suggests that it’s in fact Curtis who is on the verge of losing control—of his jittery dances, of his epilepsy, of his will to live. Though Curtis, with his famous suicide, is commonly read as a classic macho tragic hero or martyr, I suggest that it is more interesting and more productive to remove him from this rockist/heteromasculine narrative and situate him instead as an instance of Halberstamian queer un-becoming or failure. Or, more simply, I think we ought to queer our readings of Ian Curtis. (Also important here: He was replaced by a woman—Gillian Gilbert took his place as New Order formed from Joy Division.) I won’t develop such an analysis of Curtis. I only suggest it as a way of transitioning into a discussion of Halberstamian un-becoming.

Just as Joy Division’s version of the song calls on the tendency to feminize irrationality and unruliness (e.g., in the discourse of hysteria), Halberstam focuses on some specific ways that, in patriarchy, feminized behaviors and comportments, and femininity itself, function as forms of failure—namely, as failures to be masculine/masculinity. Liberal individualism conceives of the self “as active, voluntaristic, choosing, [and] propulsive” (Halberstam 2008, 150); patriarchy ascribes these traits to masculinity. Activity is conceived in opposition to passivity, and, as feminists have long recognized, this active/passive binary is mapped on to binary gender: masculine activity is opposed to feminized passivity. Patriarchy, then, imagines resistance and opposition in overwhelmingly active terms: “I wanna destroy passerby,” “I want a riot of my own,” “fight the power,” “fuck tha police,” and so on. In contrast to The Sex Pistols’ macho-inflected negativity-as-self-assertion, Halberstam offers a theory of negativity as passivity, or negativity as the failure to be active. “Radical passivity,” Halberstam explains, is “the willingness of the subject to actually come undone, to dramatize unbecoming” (Halberstam 2008, 151). This undoing and unbecoming is not an intermediary stage in the process of fully realized being; rather, such undoing privileges “decay,” “detachability,” and “permanent dislocation” over “idealizations of…integrity” (Halberstam 2005, 124). If passivity is the lack of work or action towards a goal, then I think it is fair to say that it is not exactly a decaying (this implies entropic dissolution, and thus a finite end point); it is neither a coming-undone, nor a coming-to-be. Thus, Halberstam’s claim that “radical passivity” is “the refusal quite simply to be” (Halberstam 2008, 150; emphasis mine), is her most accurate formulation of this point. I emphasize the “to be” because it shows that the real target of political negativity is neither an identity (heteromasculinity) nor a political position (liberalism), but an ontology—namely, the traditional Western privileging of being over nothing (or, as in Hegel, the reduction of nothing to a type of being). But what does it mean to refuse “to be,” to refuse being? This is where Beauvoir’s existentialism becomes quite helpful. Both her ontology and her ethics give us a good sense of what it might mean to refuse “to be.” I will address Beauvoir’s ethics in the second half of this article, which focuses more on the “political” aspects of political negativity. Staying focused on the “negativity” component, I now turn to Beauvoir’s ontology to flesh out how Halberstam’s concepts of radical passivity, partiality, and failure critique the ontology that grounds Western heteropatriarchy and liberalism rest.

[i] http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/008729.html