Lady Gaga's Phallicity

Curator's Note

What has Lady Gaga got to do with the future of queer theory, gender theory and the phallus? We argue that the first 2 minutes and 13 seconds of the uncut version of “Telephone” engineers a fascinating play with the enduring fantasies and fictions of an absent/present or constructed phallus. In several interviews Gaga evades questions as to whether she possesses a penis (she has told Jonathan Ross that she has a “really big donkey dick”: and in this video clip her genital region is continually suggestive of phallic plentitude while simultaneously deflating that imagined female phallic presence.

Gaga’s phallicity creates a space for re-thinking the phallus beyond or alongside both the dominant psychoanalytic and gender/queer theoretical positions. For Lacanian psychoanalysts there is a seemingly ineffaceable slippage between the fleshy penis and the phallus as universal signifier. Queer theory draws on this account and unsurprizingly tends to emphasize the infinite repeatability of the failure to collapse the distinction between penis and phallus. Both sets of accounts make the mistake of anthropomorphizing the phallus, materializing it, even re-transcendentalizing it as master signifier. Gaga’s tele-dildonics promises something different.In this clip, her girlboner is what Butler calls a “transferable phantasm”, since it never returns to the gendered body as origin. Gaga’s phallic queerings particularly reterritorialize the female body as the phallus metonymically slides from crotch, to anus, to breasts, and  to other objects, including the  telephone she suggestively slips out of a fellow inmate’s jeans. “I told you she didn’t have a dick”, the ambiguously female guards tell us but Gaga’s blurred crotch offers no such certainties as to whether she has or is the phallus.

The very plasticity of Gaga’s “dick” depends both on a displaceability (we can read the phallus off other body parts) and a demystification (we cannot be sure that any particular body part actually symbolizes the phallus). Gaga’s expropriable phallus plays with theoretical fictions which Butler would agree are useful ones. On the one hand her slippery tele-member confounds the penis-phallus distinction without materializing a tangible phallus.  Gaga’s cock is one we just can’t get our hands on. On the other hand, Gaga’s forcefully reiterated deprivileging of the phallus is an equally dissatisfying de/revisualisation of her (phoney) dick. And this is precisely because the female phallus is no/thing, and can never be seen.

Gaga’s phallicity, or, the felicity of her phallic recirculations and visual vacillations, is that the phallus is not real, is merely an idealization, but that it is still really useful. It is not so much a question of whether Gaga has a dick, but rather what she does with it.


Bravo Karen and Michael! The humour and playfulness in your post delivers some enjoyable new directions for imagining/imaging the phallic woman. Where does Gaga go with these recirculations and vacillations? To the bedroom of course! The simulated bdsm dance routines featuring men in fishnet stockings and stilettos in Alejandro are ripe for a psychoanalytic reading, I think. 

Also, I wonder how this phallicity plays into, with, or even against, her persona of Mother Monster? Extra points for coining (?) the word tele-dildonics! The telephone as phallus in this video, and the refusal to use it for communication purposes perhaps points to the limits of this useful fiction. I wonder if it is at this point that the Mother Monster face of Gaga intervenes, or creates something new?

Thank you, Dom, for a really inspiring response! You're raising some very interesting questions! I think that Gaga's monstrosity is closely linked both with her phallicities (the felicitous performances of phallic plenitude) and her inphallicities (the intentional phallic failures). Like you suggest, I would even argue that some of the Mother Monster's queerest and most powerful spawn emerge in those frictive and intensely generative vacillations. However, we argue that what specifically arises from Gaga's tele-dildonic play is not a phallus-instead-of-communication, but rather a new phallic communication through migratory simulation. The video communicates through it's phallic imagery. The phoney phallus does not merely take on the shape of the telephone -  it becomes telephonic. It's not just a new creation, but a new type of creativity.

I stumbled over a post by Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects which seems to me to address a number of the issues which we have all been raising over the last four days both in our curations and our comments. Before I draw out some of the important threads I'll link to the full post by Bryant which can be found here: The first thing I noticed was the way Bryant talks about mess as something we abhor in our research practices, a term he takes from the social scientist John Law, who in his book After Method: Mess in Social Science Research makes a case for "quieter and more generous methods". This might make us think about the debate around the terms feminism, new feminism, and postfeminism which has emerged in and around the comments on Jessalynn's post. Bryant writes: "What we abhor, to use John Law’s apt term, is a mess. Everywhere we think in terms of relations between form and content, form and matter, where one key term functions as the ultimate form (which for Aristotle was the active principle and associated with masculinity) and where all else is treated as matter awaiting form (which for Aristotle was the passive term and was associated with femininity). In short, our theoretical framework tends to be one massive metaphor for fucking and the sexual relationship. Of course, it’s always a fucking where the men are on top in the form of an active form inseminating a passive matter. And again, that active form can be the signifier, signs, economics, the social, form, categories, reason, etc. What’s important for masculinist ontology is that form always be straight and one. I’ll leave it to the reader to make the appropriate phallic jokes here". What Jessalynn and Dom and Karin have been arguing for has been a way to think in terms other than this masculinist logic, in terms of waves, or a diversification away from a hierarchized model of feminism (towards new feminisms) or a hierarchized model of method (Jessalynn's girl studies method being just as useful and valid as the Butler-inspired ones deployed elsewhere this week). What Law argues for is "symmetry" as opposed to a phallic ontology/methodology and he calls for a wide ranges of metaphors for both imagining and responding to our worlds (he calls these "method assemblages"). Among his metaphors for imagining and taking responsibility for our worlds are "localities, specificities, enactments, multiplicities, fractionalities, goods, resonances, gatherings, forms of crafting, processing of weaving, spirals, vortices, indefinitenesses, condensates, dances, imaginaries, passions, interferences". These all seem like good ways and good words to use in order to think about researching, relating to, and responding to Gaga. They are metaphors, Law says, for "the stutter and the stop" much like the "" in Gaga's "Telephone". The second thing which struck me was the potential resonance between Bryant's post and Kris Cannon's question in response to Kirsty's curation where he writes: “I really enjoyed your post Kirsty, especially with an artifact that would seemingly get less public visibility than her music videos. I like the comments from Karin & Michael and find them interesting in relation to your statement about her existing "as" spectacle. I have been toying with the idea of how Gaga becomes an object simultaneous to her offering-up objects with subjectivity (Jack Halberstam has mentioned this in relation to the glasses that smoke in the Telephone video). It seems that you suggest that something (performance as spectacle) is coming undone for her to become something else (spectacle itself), and Michael also draws attention to transformations taking place (pop to art and blurring subject and image). Do either of you think that this might also be a "becoming spectacle," "becoming spectacled object," or… If she draws attention to the transformative, transitional and temporal unfolding (enfolding? undoing?) of these boundaries, she also seems to offer images attentive to object-orientation—illuminating, enacting and potentially embodying objectivity or object-ness”. Levi Bryant, of course, coined the term “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO) and has done much to shape the development of this nascent field in ways that are messy. Moving on from his discussion of our abhorrence for mess in favor of a phallic univocity, he says: “What the masculinist passion for ground abhors, however, is the idea of a multiplicity of heterogeneous actors acting in relation together. It is not economics that determines all else. It is not biology that determines all else. It is not neurology that determines all else. It is not signs and signifiers that determines all else. It is now cows and roads that determine all else. It is not history that determines all else. No, the world is populated by chairs, cows, neurons, signs, signifiers, narratives, discourses, neutrons, chemical reactions, weather patterns, roads, etc., all mutually perturbing one another in a mesh. In other words, we have all sorts of negative and positive feedback relations between these different spheres functioning as resonators for one another”. Gaga's videos are peopled by a variety of objects in a dance of relation with eachother and many of these have been mentioned during the curations and comments this week. Among the litany we might think of dresses, hair, wigs, glasses, cigarettes, crutches, heels, body suits, wheechairs, telephones, and so on. These objects are enmeshed and mutually perturb each other. As Bryant goes on to write: “What we have here is a mesh of non-linearities without ground. What we have here are all sorts of agencies and objects feeding back on one another, modifying one another, perturbing one another, translating one another”. And what this has to do with our post on Gaga’s phallicity becomes apparent when Bryant sets out his agenda for castrating a certain Lacanianism. He claims that: “What I’ve tried to formulate is an ontology without phallus in the Lacanian sense of the term; or rather an ontology where phallus is recognized properly as the masquerade that it is (here an analysis of projective identification in the portrayal of woman as masquerade is an appropriate critique of psychoanalysis). The point is not that the signifier and fantasy do not play a role, but rather that we must see the role that these things play as a role among other actors in a complex network of feedback relations. An ontology without phallus is an ontology where there is no fundamental interpretant, no ground of all else, no final explanatory term. In this regard, the idea of nature as Goddess is every bit as much a phallic fantasy as the idea of the signifier overdetermining all else. We need to learn how to think in terms of amongstness rather than beneathness (or aboveness, returning to the analogy to the missionary position?)”. Our reading of the sliding significations of the phallus in Gaga's “Telephone” precisely reads her phallus as being “in a complex network of feedback relations” with other body parts (breasts, ass, and so on) and objects (shoulder pads, glasses, hair clip, and so on). And we do so in terms of “amongstness”. And this brings me to a comment which Dom made in response to Madison’s post (but which could just as easily have referred to ours) about collaboration and objects. Dom writes: “Madison and friends, I’d like to point out another tool that Gaga uses in her image play- collaboration. Whether in videos with high profile directors and costars, performance art, or fashion an already established culural player is never far from Gaga’s latest production. Butler’s "Undoing Gender" stresses the importance of a call and response element to performativity, which can be seen in both her collaborations and the mainstream success. Like a true star Gaga’s gravitational pull draws objects, glamour, the grotesque, and various participants in her orbit. As to whether Gaga relies on prior understandings of feminism (instead of creating entirely new ones) this mode of production suggests her methods utililse what is already there. Through these collaborations Gaga raises questions about feminism/anti-feminism variously through her own image, through objects associated with her image (the spiky clutch), and the attraction and repulsion dynamic with both. Karin and Michael have introduced another way to think about what Gaga (un)does by becoming and privileging objects in her work to complicate Butler’s gender as a "drag" performance”. It is at this point that I’m reminded of Bryant’s shift from discussing the phallus to a “review” of Ian Bogost’s book Unit Operations and his alien phenomenology of objects (in Dom’s parlance we might call this a “monstrous phenomenology). Bryant explains that “in Unit Operations, Ian [Bogost] contrasts unit and system. As Ian writes, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems… I contend that unit operations represent a shift away from system operations, although neither strategy is permanently detached from the other” (3). This asemiotic understanding of unit operations hinges on the fact that “the unit can always explode the constraints of system, or that systems are always occasional, local stabilities from which units can escape to create a new surprise”, a sentence which could describe any Gaga video performance and the system of heteronormativity which she explodes. Bryant wants to focus in on the operation part of unit operations and how this leads to messy creativeness and amongstness rather than phallicity. He explains that “In his early work (I suspect we’ll find that he’s of a different view once Alien Phenomenology comes out), Bogost is deeply influenced by Badiou’s concept of the count-as-one (which has been a longtime fascination of mine as well). The count-as-one is, in Badiou, an operation that transforms an inconsistent multiplicity into a consistent multiplicity, literally counting it as one, or transforming it into a unit. The count-as-one is an operation, something that takes place, not something that is already there” and goes on shortly after to say that “In short, unit operations produce, they generate a new entity, whereas system operations re-produce, they iterate an already existing pattern or object. This, really, is what to be thought in the mesh of exo-relations among the heterogeneous actors populating the heteroverse of flat ontology: What are those exo-relations that reproduce existing units and relations and what are the operations that produce entirely new entities or agents? And if we are to think this, we must think a complex interplay of a variety of different types of entities, how they contribute to the production of new entities, and must avoid our phallocentric inclinations that would erect only a single ground of being...we must think processes of unitizing without abandoning objects”. As both Dom and Kris have intuited, Gaga’s unit operations, her video games, produce rather than reproduce and Karin has called this a “new type of creativity” in her response to Dom above. What the various discussions this week have brought home to me is that there is not one "single ground" of Gaga’s being, not one single interpretation of her image or her performances, that there is a mesh of objects in relation to each other and in a gravitational mobility toward her, and that this mess or mesh of "exo-relations" produces a new kind of felicitous phallicity. MOR.

Karin & Michael: what a brilliant post and, of course, written with the wit I crave from queer literati. I think that I am going to do what I have been doing (asking questions), but also with an attempt to imply where my arguments may lead for further discussion.

The fickleness of Gaga's phallus seems like such an interesting topic and so I want to torque the discussion by tossing in an additional example. In addition to Telephone, which includes the various objects Michael has already discussed so brilliantly, consider Gaga's live performance at the AMAs. I think that this example is one which could also bridge several of the discussions taking place this week--ranging from gender (and feminism) to sex/ed behavior and objects to art + fashion + avant-garde aesthetics. The object we would see here is the ever-so-subtle (penis-shaped) bulge, appearing when she bends--a bulge afforded by the way her belts, strap(-on?)s, and/or stitched seams align--a bulge she gets because of the clothing she wears. Not only might this be a moment (a la OOO) where the clothing becomes hard because of the way Gaga wears it, but it is also a moment where Gaga gets a hard-on because of the fashions she fetishizes.


At the same time, this is a site where phallicity might return at the intersection of queer theory and psychoanalysis.  Kathryn Bond Stockton offers a very compelling argument about "cloth wounds" in her book Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame. Clothing can be said to queer us, as Stockton contends, when the perpetual, performance of gender is woven into a material lie that we buy: Wearing the “weave” of cloth meant to conceal our sex behind gender only guarantees estrangement. Culturally-coded cloth “reveals the category (male or female) of the person’s genitals it purports to cover” (p. 44). It is an inescapable “bold revelation” that makes us strange for adhering to conventional covers. Even if I attempt to “transgress” these social fabrications by wearing a skirt over (what you will have to trust are) male genitals, I manufacture double self-deception: the skirt remains tagged by sex and gender connotations—both sewn to inescapable cloth connotations—and perpetuates a fantasy that “transgression” need not refuse or reconfigure binary logics altogether. Clothing queers by aversion, flaunting the possibility to unweave its conventional configuration. Clothing queers us by flaunting its aversion to our conventional configurations; this is a fixity that we can only be queered if we unweave ideological cloth connotations altogether. So we must embrace the shame of being queered or undress to reveal what need not be hidden in the first place.

Gaga operates within the coded realm of cloth, but she twists cloth-connotations into pretzeled logics and/or meanings because of "what she does with it" (to quote the post out of context). Yet, if we consider the how cloth might function with its own subjectivity (to queer her/us), might we then reconsider your final statement?  To wit: "It's not so much a question of whether or not Gaga has a dick," but what a (cloth-)dick does with/to her.  Considering this, we might find many monstrous motives that clothing may have (for her/for us), and we might also recognize various ways in which she embraces the shame of clothing to undermine cultural connotations of gendered clothing (and sexed signifiers expected to align) in order to m/align or (self-)shatter her position (her dick, her phallic plentitude) as a singular, reducible object of analysis. 

This is a really great question Kris, thanks. Your comments throughout the week have done much to force a long overdue rapprochement between OOO and queer theory/gender theory and also psychoanalysis. Many of the figures I’ve been mentioning (Vitale, Bogost, Bryant, Harman) have been recently involved in a vigorous debate about both the absence of gender/queerness in OOO and OOP and the masculinism of the field. What has emerged from that vigorous debate is a welcome consideration of the very politicality of Speculative Realism itself. And gender is now firmly on the agenda. To address your question though: I would suggest that yours is a properly object oriented analysis since it thinks from the point of view of the cloth(ing) itself. However, I’d be slightly less likely to subscribe than you are to the idea that the cloth does something *to* Gaga which self-shatters her dick/phallic plenitude. I would suggest, as I have in the previous comments, that the clothing and genitals intra-act, are mutually perturbing each other. I will come back to this shortly. A couple of useful OOP concepts to help with this question are Graham Harman’s "allure"and "vicarious causation" which appear throughout his work since Guerilla Metaphysics and are helpful for queer scholars interested in affect, touch, intertemporality, erotics (all questions you have raised at various points this week). Steven Shaviro—who has been writing about Gaga’s videos— writes both critically and appreciatively about Harman’s ideas. He says: “In his book Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman writes of allusion and metaphor, and this leads to discussions of humor, tragedy and comedy, and charm, and allure. These aesthetic discussions are among my favorite things written by Harman. Aesthetics, as Harman develops it, is both a way to break out of the charmed circle of correlationist epistemology, and a broader way of discussing how objects interact with other objects on all scales. That is to say, aesthetics is not just a human attitude, but a primordial form of relation and interaction. And this leads Harman to suggest, in a lovely (and justified) hyperbole, that “aesthetics becomes first philosophy” (“Vicarious Causation, in Collapse 2). Now, I find this sort of approach useful and liberating from my own Whiteheadian point of view. Aesthetics describes what Whitehead calls feelings: i.e. the ways that objects affect, and are affected by, other objects, even (and especially?) when there is no cognition going on. The failure of epistemological cognition does not mean the impossibility of ontological interaction. Aesthetic modes of expression correspond to “vicarious” (in Harman’s sense) as well as to noncognitive (in a Whiteheadian sense) modes of interaction — they are ways of positively expressing “what we cannot speak about. So I find Harman extremely valuable on this point of aesthetics — even though I see objects as continually jostling up against one another, “prehending” one another, i.e. primordially relating to one another and defining themselves by means of the multiplicity of their relations — a view which (as I have noted before) is very far from Harman’s vision of objects packed away in vacuums, unable to touch one another except “vicariously.” To recapitulate, Harman proposes a theory of engagement with the world that is based on the autonomous presence of objects, which he calls real objects, and that do not fully relate with each other; instead, Harman imagines what he calls "vicarious causation," that is a relation between a real object, for instance a person, and qualities and surfaces of a second real object, the sum of which he calls a sensible object. Harman posits "five distinct sorts of relations between all these objects": containment, contiguity, sincerity, connection, no relation at all”. The operator that distinguishes among these relations and defines the fullest of them, sincerity, is allure, defined as the distance between the real object and qualities that stream out of it, constituting the sensible object with which we engage: "Whereas real objects withdraw, sensual objects lie directly before us, frosted over with a swirling, superfluous outer shell". At the surface (if I were to borrow Harman’s term), Harman’s philosophy is similar to Bond Stockton’s since her innovation is to write about gender from the viewpoint of the cloth but Bond Stockton and Kris help us to describe the conditions and characteristics of allure in ways which expand Harman’s concept and introduce gender. So, my quick answer to your question would be that the cloth and dick continually jostle and prehend each other, that they are defined by the "multiplicity of their relations" and that, yes, this intra-action does shatter Gaga’s position as a "singular, reducible" object or being. But, and this is where we very slightly differ I think, it is more a question of what is done "with" her than "to" her. MOR.

Thank you for a really exciting response, Kris! I want to add another (less OOO-related) perspective to Michael's follow-up. Some of the remarks that Kris makes about the cloth hard-on remind me of Halberstam's analyses of butch appeal in Female Masculinity and some of Kate Bornstein and Pat Califia's texts on trans-erotics.

I agree with Michael and Kris that the hard-on that Gaga and the cloth/phone/(other objects) create appears through an inter-relational process - there are no separate hard-ons, but rather a mutual hard-on effect. Gaga doesn't just 'do something with the dick' - they create something together. This is the case with all her uses of gendered (or gendering)objects though, and there is still a certain slippery game that feeds on these interactions. Maybe a more accurate way of wording it for me would be: 'what matters is the use (or effect) that comes out of Gaga's interaction with the dick'. It is this hard-on effect (and affect) that I particularly want to get to, so I'd like to dwell a bit further on its specific logistics.

First, I want to emphasise that this is performance - and I don't think that the inter-relational erotics (the hard-on effect) can be contained within the Gaga-object relation. It interacts with a certain amount of cathartic phallicity: in other words, it relies on the fact that the audience experiences and takes part in creating the hard-on. Second, I would argue that none of these relations could be sustained without a distinct erotic tension. As Kris points out, Gaga uses a number of discordant gender signifiers and I think that the mutual gaga/audience/object hard-on is created and kept up through these. They have what Jacques Rancière might call a certain 'dissensual' power. Neither the phoney phallus in Telephone nor the cloth hard-on in the AMA performance would be particularly exciting (or particularly 'hard' - it probably wouldn't stand out at all!) if it were not for the simultaneous 'shameful' display of Gaga's overtly feminine body, clothes, shoes, make-up etc. I don't think the (dis)sensual effect of these two performances (their monstrous gender f(r)iction) is merely a subversion or an undermining of cultural gender norms. It also creates new mutational (and continually mutating) forms of gendered becoming.

I guess this is how I would respond to your final question, Kris: I think that Lady Gaga's monstrous (and 'shameful')conjugations with her various gendered objects are (pro)creative. The forms her continually transposing relations take are dissensually reinventing themselves.

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