Survival Is the Apocalypse: Britney Spears, Bataille, and the Phantom Zone

by on Mar.13, 2011

Aside from the iconic “…Baby One More Time” and Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle”, I really can’t handle the late ‘90s / early ‘00s incarnation of pop associated with Lou Pearlman. It all feels like a bad hangover from the late ‘80s, with the early ‘90s as the blackout at the end of the night. But while the stars of Christina and Timberlake have since spiraled in opposite trajectories (with Pearlman sentenced to 25 years for being a total asshole), Britney Spears has (de)stabilized into something of an anomaly within the pop constellation. More electron than star, she occupies a kind of probability distribution rather than a specific nodal point, manifesting as this or that image whenever an observation takes place, and only then. I’m an unapologetic fan of late career Spears, which at this point comprises just two albums, Blackout and Circus, and is about to include a third, Femme Fatale. But Blackout had the misfortune of being released during the apex of Spears’ extended public/personal meltdown, culminating in her disastrous performance of “Gimme More” at the MTV VMAs in 2007:

As opposed to the conscious plasticity of Madonna or Lady Gaga, Spears’ image seems to be something that happens to her, as if her album title In the Zone is a reference to being banished along with Zod and the other Kryptonian criminals into the Phantom Zone, “a featureless state of existence from which they can observe, but cannot interact with, the regular universe.” In Superman II, this translates into being imprisoned on the surface of a two-dimensional image tumbling forever through the infinity of black space:


The Phantom Zone

There’s something about this image that speaks to me on a kind of ontological level, as if the celebrity condition is just a distilled, horror show version of the human condition against the backdrop of a truly terrifying void. Whether our technology is a computer screen or a pool of water, the surface is what both mocks and anoints us. It is what nurtures and imprisons. It is the field of power, and it reflects precisely what it tries so hard to keep us from comprehending: that life is the image of nothingness.

I watch the above VMA performance and think of Britney’s listless affectations and druggy stare not as placeholders for a consciousness, but as the marks of a survivor. To live within the image, as an image, as we all do, is to be torn from nothingness by a cosmic violence. Survival itself is the apocalypse. The world is the end of the world.

Don’t believe me? Look at Britney’s face in that video. “Such a smile smiles at nothing because it is the grin of nothingness itself, belonging to no individualized face, the revelation of no interior sentiment.” This quote is from Jason Smith’s essay “Bataille’s Joyous Apocalypse” (from SOFT TARGETS v.1.1), and it’s in reference to an 11th century illustrated manuscript called “Apocalypse of Saint-Sever”, several images of which Bataille published in the May 1929 issue of Documents along with his own commentary.

"The Flood" from Apocalypse of Saint-Sever

J. Smith: “In his ‘General Interpretation’ of the Saint-Sever miniatures, [Bataille] claims to be astonished to find such scenes of destruction and horror (‘blood, severed heads, violent death and the convulsive play of still-living entrails’) accompanied by figures that ‘symbolize’ this terror not through the gravity and pathos of their expressions, but by a look of stupor, faces staring out but not at us, smiling stupidly at nothing in particular.”

Smith then quotes Bataille: “ ‘It is surprising to find in this book’s illustrations forms that, though apparently symbols of a disastrous state of affairs, are nevertheless overcome by an almost imbecilic serenity: it is as if, rari nantes in gurgite vasto, during a sudden surge, ridiculous figures surfaced at the crest of a wave, staring forward with an inane, senile look on their faces.’ ”

I’m admittedly misreading this by applying it to the moment of life, which I view as inextricable from the moment of death: both are dislodged from chronological time into the eternity of right now. This eternity is beyond our comprehension but not our experience, and though we cannot explain it, we can evoke it through the image that we create and inhabit. To persevere for no reason: this is what survival is. Not to make art out of suffering but to make an art of suffering. This is the human spirit.

This is Britney Spears:

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6 comments for this entry:
  1. m kitchell

    the heterogeneity of the song in the last video is sort of astounding. i got distracted for a moment and wondered if youtube had done it’s auto-playlist continuation thing, but then i came back & found the same video. which, of course, is amazingly impressive in its own right, and further indicative of a connection between bataille’s thoughts and britney.

  2. Lucas de Lima

    The last video is amazing. The flatness and evilness of Britney’s phantom zone is something like the opposite of Gaga’s dialectical synthesis in “Born this Way,” where she gets to be both evil and good, dead and alive, Madonna and MJ.


  3. Edmond Keany

    Good info. Thank you for this.

  4. Jared Randall

    The psychological self-violence and apocalyptic imagery in the last video are amazing. At the same time that Britney is fighting her own phantom (defeating it or being defeated by it? — the same thing, Britney defeating Britney in the “moment of death,” something that can only be experienced, as you say, and not explained in any satisfactory fashion) there is an eruption that “paints” her, white wedding gown and all, in vibrant sprays of color that closely resemble the bloodiness of the Saint-Sever visuals. Amazing connections here.

  5. Monica Mody

    While reading Jason Smith’s essay, I had this vision of Bataille as the Laughing Buddha. And of the Laughing Buddha as Bataille. Transvalued, I mean.

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