Monday, July 8, 2013

Everybody's Talking 'Bout: Spring Breakers

1. A contemporary (absolutely contemporary) episode in the venerable tradition of young women as protagonists in the narrative of the aestheticisation of life, a.k.a. “The Tyranny of Things.” C.f. Madame Bovary. The desire to make one’s life into art, i.e. the desire to experience aesthetic intensity, has been culturally grafted onto femininity.  Or rather: women's oppression has meant a certain deployment of the aesthetic plot, a certain use of the aesthetic ideal and emancipatory resource.

2. At the two moments in the story where direct sexual exploitation is possible and inferred as possible by the film – prostitution for money for Spring Break, grooming and prostitution by Alien – the protagonists substitute violent agency (robbing the chicken shop, becoming Alien’s partners-in-crime rather than his "employees"). The reality of gender oppression is presented and then refused, not in the name of some abstract or utopian femininity, but by an assumption and appropriation of “phallic” acts (i.e. violence and objectification – at the collateral cost of self-objectification). This appropriation of phallus is what I’m calling the “critical fantasy” of the film – made clearest when Alien “suck[s] y’all dicks.”  

3. This “critical fantasy” is artistic and not somnolent. The fantasy of dream attempts to bridge or reconcile desire and the reality principle, and in doing so effaces itself as fantasy. In contrast, art as critical fantasy rigorously empties out this reconciliation and in doing so reveals itself as a figuration of desire (the distinction is Lyotard's in Discourse, Figure). Spring Breakers pushes the desire for women's emancipation (or what substitutes for it in the film's logic: appropriation of phallus) as far as it can go within the limitations and resources of youth culture and marketing. The result is not so much a nightmare but a fantasy that is increasingly revealed to be fantasy, to be dreamt (Alien says so much in the final scene) and therefore impossible on its own terms (one simply can't do what the protagonists do at the end of the film). This means not only an edifying recognition that the gap between desire and reality has to be bridged in reality - rather than prematurely and symbolically bridged in fantasy - but that the desire itself, being a result of its situation and participating in the contradictions of that situation, has itself to be reconfigured after the phantasmatic encounter of its own limits. 

4. First axiom of popular contemporary feminism: it’s a good thing when women have power over men (i.e. reverse patriarchal power relationships). Second axiom of popular contemporary feminism: it doesn't matter what this power over men looks like or does (i.e. we are not to be critical if counter-patriarchal power relationship repeats and/or glamorises patriarchal patterns of oppression, e.g. identifies female subjectivity with the sexualised body; identifies success with violent and hedonistic “intensity” and commodity accumulation; participates in anti-democratic / imperialist governance). In its critical exhaustion of a certain counter-patriarchal fantasy, Spring Breakers shows both the strategic power and the limitation of this axiomatic setup. On the one hand, hijacking and weaponising misogynistic sexuality has some efficacy for the protagonists (reclaiming the word “bitch,” for example) as does the appropriation of the violence reserved under patriarchy for men (a double violence then: once to the male victim and again to the society that forbids women be violent; a violent reappropriation of violence). On the other hand, the film also shows the normative and critical limitation of this setup within a certain cultural field - power as violence after a certain point falls outside of any pattern of retributive justice (Wretched of the Earth notwithstanding) and becomes pure and excessive jouissance; commodities empty, rather than express, their possessors. We can perhaps locate the film’s founding ambiguity here – both the power and the limitation of the strategy of appropriating phallus within the "youth culture" mode of contemporary consumer capital. 

5. The film stylistically transitions between music video genres – teen angst/discovery ("Not a girl, not yet a woman") descending into its extimate other: rap. The “duplicity” of the women (platitudes to their mothers, “finding themselves” while killing others) is strung between the “doubleness” of these music video languages. Note the stylistic reliance on the music video is almost explicitly thematised: “Pretend you’re in a video game; pretend you’re in a movie” – when it should be: “pretend you’re in a music video.” 

6. What is the status of the voiceover in contemporary female artist’s music videos? It features as an extended prelude in Rihanna’s We Found Love, Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble, Lana Del Ray’s Ride. This technique is writ large in Spring Breakers – repeated so often and so forcefully its sense and function begin to emerge. Important that within the structure of contemporary music videos by male artists (that more or less self-consciously occupy the opposite pole to Rihanna, Swift, Del Ray et cetera, e.g. Thicke’s Blurred Lines) there is not and could never be an introductory voiceover. Reflection is pronounced in the dominated strata of a given hierarchy because the dominated appear to themselves as problematic: young women faced with the fetishized, monetised female body experience their own sexuality as a profound problem (classical structure of alienation). Assuming agency therefore requires this problem be problematized in the Foucauldian sense, i.e. reflected on, reorganised, with a view to real transformation. The voiceover is the gesture of this problematisation. For patriarchal power the best weapon is obviously to act as if the problem is a non-problem, transparent, given et cetera – i.e. just to start the sexist song without monologue or framing.

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