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  • drannouchkabayley

The 2024 Oscars saw the 'surprise' reprise of Ryan Gosling's hit song 'I'm Just Ken' from the Barbie movie. There are so many things to say and say again about the Barbie movie. But what I want to focus on here is not so much that film, but what Gosling's Oscars performance did that has been done so many times before and yet is in truth never enough in terms of creating truly radical adaptation. Let me start by saying i loved this and it made me belly laugh. And as a piece of comedy at the Oscars it was perfect. But what I want to do here is really focus in on what the performance does and how it does it. Because in his shiny pink and diamond suit, in several of his poses and postures,and in the moves and the stripes worn by 'the Kens', Gosling (and his directors) were 'diffracting' another movie: 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'.

'Diffraction' is a term that comes from quantum physics but was coined by feminist new materialist scholar Karen Barad to talk about difference-making or the way differences are made. Not difference-making in the sense of this is different from that (categorisation). Nor in the sense of 'difference' is opposite to 'the same' (binary thinking or even 'dialectic'). Not even in the sense of a sliding scale of differences or differences between other differences, each more different than the other (categorisation again but on a spectrum). Barad's 'diffraction' is about the processes of difference-making as they differ from each other. So basically Barad is not looking at individual differences at all, but at the way differences are made, and made again, and made again, and again and so on, to infinity. So, in brief tracing difference-making patterns tell us everything we need to know about how we come to know something (rather than focussing on what we know and that being enough). Focussing on how we know means we can really see how knowledge structures dictate the way we understand and build our world(s).

So, what does the Oscars performance of 'I'm Just Ken' have to do with all this quantum theory / philosophy? Well, to my mind, the interesting thing is that the show doesn't just reference 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', it diffracts it. It aims to difference it.

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953) is at least in this day and age, phenomenally disturbing. But what I want to draw attention to is the one iconic musical number in it that has been diffracted time and time again: Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. What is it about this unsettling hit - that shows Marilyn Monroe refusing the advances of a literal gang of men, whilst groups of women are trussed up in what might be described as 1950s soft bondage, reduced to being literal objects, whilst the song suggests Monroe's character (Lorelei) is just in it for the money. When I read that line back it seems rhetorical and sarcastic, but let's not forget that this movie has been reviewed time and time again as one of the greatest movie musicals in history. So let's go to that scene again.

The idea that Monroe/Lorelei has any power of refusal here is laughable. Though she smacks the gang members on the nose with her fan, she is so clearly utterly powerless, part of an unfolding sadomasochistic game of cat and mouse where she is the only cat and yet is surrounded by an seemingly ever growing army of mice. The scene has gone down in history and is in some ways rather indicative of Monroe's own life struggles with powerlessness. But why reprise it now in 2024 in the form of 'I'm Just Ken'? In order to really see the difference-making patterns let's look at a few other of this scene's diffractions.

Flash forward from 1953 to 1985. Madonna is a huge hit and in January of that year releases Material Girl. The diffraction here shows Madonna playing herself, but unlike Monroe/Lorelei, now the message is that in order to impress her the rich studio boss has to throw away his diamond gift and instead pay a man to give him his beat up old truck to take her out on a date. Of course, this is just a ruse, he is the 'big cheese' and is shown right at the beginning of the music video ordering an underling to get Madonna to meet him 'now!' Clearly not much has actually changed. Madonna hasn't subverted or upturned the power relations here, the trappings are simply different: here the man lies about who he is, but it all still upholds the trope of being desired by the rich, top dog 'prince'. Women aren't literally bound up and turned into objects to adorn the homes of wealthy men, but perhaps the echo of it all still haunts the space in and around Material Girl as if to say, one day you too can be a discovered, desired, diffracted Monroe.

Flash forward again from 1953, to 1985 to 2001. Moulin Rouge has just come out. Now it's Baz Luhrmann's turn to have go. Nicole Kidman plays 'the Spakling Diamond', a Parisian prostitute who aims to get the attention of the richest man in Paris not just to pay to sleep with her, but to pay for the whole theatre she works in to be renovated. Her theatre director assures her that with the Duke funding her she will become 'a real actress', suggestive that what is being diffracted is not just Madonna and Lorelei, but Monroe's own biograohy.

In the scene from Moulin Rouge, this time the mistaken identity game is different to the one in Material Girl. This time Kidman/Satine mistakes McGregor/Christian for the Duke and they start a love affair. The scene doesn't use the iconic pink colour in Monroe or Madonna's versions, but the trope remains, the woman rebuffs the men in their formal top and tails in order to turn them on more. She has no real power at all. My favourite part of the film challenges the trope - Christian says 'a life without love that's terrible'. Satine responds 'no, being on the street that's terrible'. Christian rebuffs, 'no, love is like oxygen. All you need is love'. She scoffs at his (and the Beatles' who's song lyrics he uses) idealism. But this is what's perhaps most interesting in this diffraction. It is not the grand scene itself, but the response the characters and perhaps by extension, us the audience, has. When a trope is played again and again and again and it's challenged it does perhaps seem scoffable. It seems against common sense. And that's the power of tropes and fables and stories. They create our so-called common sense. Sometimes that common sense could do with a bit of challenging. Not in the sense that we don't need oxygen, but that the story-atmosphere has had all its creative oxygen drained out of it. So how? How can we find some fresh air?

Flash forward again from 1953 to 1985 to 2001 to 2020. This time Margot Robbie directed by Cathy Yan, plays Harley Quinn. Again, like Moulin Rouge which diffracts loads of hit songs from the 60s onwards to make a film, Birds of Prey: The Emancipation of One Harley Quinn diffracts the DC comics' character Harley Quinn. DC and Marvel characters have been going for decades reprised and diffracted themselves for as many years. So in a sense we have diffractions of Monroe, diffracting diffractions of DC characters. Believe me, once you go down the diffraction rabbit-hole you can really see how these stories form an almost lattice around our imaginations. I say this in disagreement with Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell who proposed that there are a finite number of stories in the world. I've argued elsewhere, along with greater scholars like de la Cadena and Blaser and Savransky, that stories are multiple and where they are not, where it seems that there are only a few tropes, it means the strangehold on our imaginations to dream other worlds, other myths, other values and therefore other possible futures, is too tight. Or perhaps in the spirit of Moulin Rouge's way of diffracting famous songs to make a point, I might chime with Hendrix that 'there must be some kinda way outta here'.

Bird's of Prey diffracts Monroe, but also self-consciously diffracts Moulin Rouge on account of the fact that Ewan McGregor, who also starred in Moulin Rouge, is no longer the idealist championing that love is more important that oxygen, but is in this film the dark misogynist Black Mask, Harley Quinn's abductor. This time the Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend scene is diffracted differently. It is shown for what it arguably is: a fantasy that is in fact a creepy tale of the sadomaschocistic objectifcation of women. As Harley is punched hard in the face she drifts off into another world where she's playing Marilyn/Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . Here, the gang of suitors is transformed into Black Mask's gang of thugs and Harley is trying to dance around them whilst one lets off a machine gun. Instead of kissing her, McGregor/Black Mask punches her in the face again, which brings her to. He's asking about the location of his big diamond. (Interestingly, the diamond itself is featured as an object in its own right but also containing at the molecular level, a code that will reveal the account number of an even bigger fortune. This is rather like our story-tropes. The diamond stands up on its own but is latticed all the way down to the atomic level with tinier and tinier versions of the trope. The trope here: money.) Harley looks straight to camera, her face bloody and bleeding, perhaps almost disappointed at being brought out of the fantasy (which was little better than the reality) and says to the audience 'call me crazy but I thought the guy was meant to get the girl the diamond.' Harley/Robbie here draws our attention to the fact that the story appears to have been subverted, but in reality it's all still the subjucation of women.

Flash forward from 1953, to 1985, to 2001, to 2020, to the oscars of 2024. Here again we get the now familiar signatures of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but this time it's no longer a pretty blonde woman, but a pretty blonde man in the pink clothing. Gosling/Ken's costume is sewn through with diamonds and the gang of suitors in other diffractions are now all 'The Ken's' who do still flirt and 'suit' in those unmistakable stripes, but who are also all still versions of Ken, whilst Ken himself is now finally the star of the show. Now he diffracts Barbie, diffracting Harley (who is actually the same actress as played Barbie), diffracting Satine, diffracting Madonna, diffracting Lorelei.

I loved the Barbie movie, but herein lies the issue of 'diffracting' the iconic 1950s film through it in this performance. As hilarious and delightful as I found it, I feel like we missed a step. Whereas Harley drew attention to the sadomaschocistic objectification of women, and whereas indeed the Oscars performance does have some mock-slapping / violence depicted as he sings 'will she see the man behind the 10 and fight for me', I am left wondering whether - once again - the trope has actually been changed. And indeed, in the Oscars the performance uses the song as a means for Ken to claim his power. Does Ken need to claim his power in order for Barbie to be liberated? There's something 'a little murky' here.

Putting a man in a woman's shoes as it were, does not necessarily change the trope itself, it simply reverses the power roles of the players. The game is still the same. Power and domination remains unquestionable, unsubvertable, unthinkable. It seems like the way the world works. Like 'common sense'. And that argument gets wheeled out time and time again to justify all sorts of things. It often gets paired down to something called 'human nature', which as posthumanists and new materialists alike argue is a fantasy that has had very real and very bloody consequences in the world. As zoologist and new materialist Donna Haraway argues, how can we start to create tropes that are more "response-able". Is it time we left the weird, Enlightenment legacy of an irrefutable split between 'nature' and 'culture' behind? Enter again the potential of Barad's idea of diffraction that moves beyond the binary splitting, gendering, and categorisations of 'things' and instead focusses on processes of difference-making rather than units of difference.

I think the Barbie movie aimed to address this by storying Ken to understand that he was "Kenough' without having to dominate a woman to instrincally feel that. It also had Robbie/Barbie declaring that she wanted to 'do the imagining'.

This speaks deeply to third wave and posthuman feminisms that arguably focus more on performativity and worldingg, changing the instrinsic structures of stories not just who 'wears the crown' in them. So, indeed some re-storying was made, but there was still a lot of focus on who ruled Barbie-land. Again, it's a lot to do in one movie, and it could be argued that Barbie-land represented the storied world of Western women's imaginations so who rules it is key. But I am left wondering if we are still in need of a new radical diffractive storying of Diamonds that questions the trope of a somehow irrefutable need to play out sadomashocistic gendering or if, after four attempts now, Kenough is Kenough.

"The more that you give away, the more that you have; the more that you have the more that they take."

This is the endless bind that both starts and ends Halsey and SUGA's pop Diablo IV anthem, which was released in 2023. What began as a song written by Halsey in 2021 under the title 'Lillith' found a new home in the game's universe as it's musical anthem. Both inspired by, shot in, and transposed to digital from Chapelle des Jésuites in Cambrai, France, both the game and the music video take the 17th century's 160-ft mural as the springboard to tell a story about claiming power back from the hands of the pre-bibical figure of Lillith herself.

To understand what digital power, pop and k-pop stars Halsey and SUGA, game universes, and distrubitive wounding all mean in an arguably posthuman 21st century, I think we need to start by looking at Lillith - who she is and what she stands for in contemporary storying. We can move on to the rest later.

Briefly, in Semitic folklore, Lillith is written as Adam's first wife or consort, banished (or escaping depending on who you read) from the garden for not being quite docile or subservient enough to Adam. Even the oldest man in the world had a bit of a midlife crisis it seems. Eve came along after. And according to the Old Testament, she stirred up some trouble herself. Lillith is interesting because you might argue that she was the Semitic world's first recorded feminist. And of course she's been demonised for thousands of years, and been the subject of many revisions and re-writings in 20th and 21st century.

Diablo IV is a pretty dark game that sees you - the protagonist player - enter into hell to confront Lillith who needs your blood to enter the human world. Creepy. But a story that’s not unheard of. What's interesting is Halsey and SUGA's anthem because through it we get to explore young people's view of the processes implicit in demonisation of all kinds and how this plays out in daily life - especially through concepts of distribution and distributive agencies so associated with 2.0 platforms, games, and digital life in general.

So what is distributive agency. Well, we can see it perfectly described here in the pop video:

In the video we see Halsey dressed as a knight entering Lillith's chamber / Chappelle du Jesuites. The forces that attack her don't seem to belong to any-ONE in particular. Instead, the mural itself seems to throws deadly arrows, or wound with deadly claws without any materialised archers or wild beasts present in the chamber. What we do see, however, is the mural. These assailants exist not in the paintings, but as the paintings, and every time Halsey glances at them they attack her. The interesting thing is that these attacks are very real. Her body is visiably ripped and scarred. As scholar Karen Barad states, bodies are the marks that make them. This is to do with how identities materially form bodies (not as things that are applied to a body that pre-exists them) and vice-versa - or as Barad would have it ‘material-discursively’.

So what's this thing called 'distributive agency'? Kochelman (2017) describes semiotic agency in distribution not just as an image or signifier (so an alarm call or cry signifying trouble) standing in for direct contact with the troubling thing itself (and thus crucially giving you a chance in the gap between signifier and signified to get away) but where "organism and environment are so inseparable when functionally understood that it is tempting to call such a unit an evorganism". Ok this is a bit clunky, but basically, as we see in Halsey's video, it means the gap isn't there. The signifyer (the beasts and archers in the painting) is the thing it represents. The image is no longer representative it is performative. There's no gap. The image wounds. It 'marks bodies' (Barad, 2007).

So let's go back to Lillith. Does she represent the so called first 'evil woman/demon' or does 'she' in fact create her, as part of her becoming-reality-process? in other words what we see in the video is a story of multiple flows. Who creates who? In semiotic distributive agencies, everything is crumpled together like a piece of paper squashed down into a ball. You don't know which came first because that doesn't make sense. Image is reality just as reality becomes image. And importantly, there's no gap, no easy way to point the finger because everything is performatively entangled with everything else. In some social science universes this is called complexity.

This is fascinating when we look not just a Lillith, but at ideas of demonisation and how these fuction as a way to create the illusion of an us/them stable or simplified universe. Halsey herself resists such labels and labelling in her own life. When interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine Halsey rightly lashed out at 'the internet' (another distributive phenomena loosely brought together in one term that doesn't quite fit the reality of it or its many complex parts) when 'it' (the internet) called her 'tri-bi' (meaning bi-sexual, bi-racial, and suffering from bi-polarity). "I fucking hate it, the idea that something like that would be trivialized down to a fucking hashtag." Halsey's songs deal with all sorts of feminist, LGBTQIA+, and disability issues and she's become something of an icon for this. (It is possibly also of interest here to mention that Halsey is a stage name, and actually refers to a place - a street name rather than person's name. Halsey herself is thus a street composed of multiple people, architectures, and histories, a true distributive sense of personal identity, echoing, in line with Deleuze 'that we are already more than one'.)

Returning to the Diablo IV music video as well as in the interview in real life, we see Halsey not battling Lillith, but taking on the image of Lillith. This is interesting because after all the distributive wounding she suffers in the video from the images of devils attacking a human young woman just for being there, she becomes the myth itself. BUT given Halsey’s oeuvre its not hard to imagine that here she is not the demon, but what the demon originally stands for, in other words, the rebellious woman, drawing attention to how ‘monsters’ are made.

The lyrics of the anthem suggest that this is the originary 'stitch-up', as it were.

Now to the lyrics: "The more that you give that more that you have" is a classic tale of learning how to be generous and how that generosity actually benefits you. But here its moral is followed by: "The more that you give away the more that they take." Suggesting that if you are generous in this society, 'they' (and again this is not one or more persons but a distributive agency) still will find away to take the power that that generosity itself has given you. I would argue that this really sums up a lot of GEN Z's cultural zeitgiest - 21st century contemporary neoliberal society has found a way to monetise every part of life to the point that there's really not much left for anyone. This classic meme speaks to this kind of thinking: if we accept ‘there are more than two genders’ then amazon can find a way to market it. The marketing of course - the structure - is still binary though. So nothing can is really rebellious at the structural level…. Furthermore, there's no one unit to point the finger at. The violence is distributive.

But Halsey didn't write this version of the song alone.

K-pop, multi-million selling artist SUGA here is featured addressing young people's angst and aggression: "step out of the moment that's been trapping you in all this negativity of hatred and insanity, don't dwell on the past it's time to make a change, look around believe in what you see, I have returned to hell." SUGA doesn't come to 'save' or ‘kill’ Halsey/Lillith, but is adding to the complexity of distributive voice in the video. Halsey/ Lillith describes herself in the song as "I've been disruptive, I've been corrupted, I am disgusting" as she crosses the hall of distributive attacks, seemingly a contemporary young woman's journey taking on all the labels given to a modern day Lillith. SUGA himself has described to the press his own struggles with rage and angst, but most interestingly he has been at the centre of a pop culture explosion as to whether he is straight, gay or bisexual, with fans rallying to question why obsession with this labelling is in any way important. What I want to focus on here is that both Halsey and SUGA are involved in pointing out the deep scars that ever tightening categorising inflicts on young people - now digitally from all directions, with a big digital consumer-capital aspect to it all.

Furthermore, one of SUGA's more interesting k-pop videos plays with similar notions of distribution and identity. In Daechwita , which is a Korean word that refers to a kind of military service music, we see SUGA turn into a traditional Korean king - a historical image made real. SUGA appraches himself as king, expecting the kingly version to lop off his head only to find the executioner has actually released his bonds. In a sense SUGA has crumpled time taking agency in a distributive self across time/s rather than existing within a linear form of time. Present-day SUGA then shoots the image of himself as historical king, breaking free from the myth that he has been doomed to walk in the footsteps of. Which one in the end however, is sacrificed? Historical 'SUGA' or 'contemporary' SUGA? In distribution it's hard to tell, because that’s not the point. The point is that reality - like history - is multiple and it wounds. In 'real' life In September 2023, SUGA finally went up to do his compulsory military service, having managed to postpone it beyond the usual compulsory age so it’s not hard to read the song as SUGA modelling a very interesting form of protest strategy that draws on distribution in and through a reworking of the notion of ‘time’. in other words, stories can be changed by reworking the multiple agencies present therein. Very 2.0.

It's not hard to see how the Diablo IV Anthem music video was made buy these two pop icons in light of all this. It's a rallying cry against - well no-ONE in particular, but the very processes involved in distributive wounding and distributive self-making that are so present in contemporary digital cultures. The most important thing is however, that right before Halsey becomes Lillith at the end of the video, she first changes into the digital image of a woman-warrior in a game world. She momentarily becomes rendered, signalling that she could indeed be puppetted by you, the player, the supposed agent of the game. This is the most critically exciting part of the whole lot of it, to my mind, because it fuses ancient, Renaissance, and contemporary myth-making with new 2.0 digital image-making as if to say: don't you see this has been going on forever. Another agency becomes present: you. Viewer, reader, audience. The ‘real’ protagonist in the attention wars of 21st century digital media.

Game cultures have come under huge flack for being and encouraging deeply misogynistic behaviours and here we see a quick few frames of Halsey undergoing attack, as herself, as Lillith, and now as a game character. The lyric "because you let anybody with a body control you" draws attention to this. Who's body? Which Body? How do we undertake activisms in a world where the body itself is no longer just a unit but has become part of a distributive agency in a digital multi-platformed world?

My newest publication is out! And it's part of this weird and wonderful edited collection on new ways of doing research in and beyond the academy. In the chapter, I talk about how arts (novel writing), sciences (diffraction and the way light moves) and histories (the infamous tale of Countess Bathory) all come together in my newest project, a novel called 'The Blood Countess' to create different ways of understanding the world. In the edited collection, I take the opening part of the novel - which is about near-death-experience (NDE) - and ask, what happens if we see the world from the non-binary perspective of 'not-quite-dead-but-neither-entirely-alive'? What assumptions about the world change when we start imagine it from a totally different perspective?

Ok sure, but what has all that got to do with education? When we challenge what knowledge is, how it functions to create the world we live in rather than see knowledge as a tool that describes the world, we get to do different kinds of things with it. We get to dream the world differently. We get to create new dynamic solutions to seemingly impossible problems. The same way light shifts and moves its basic structures (from particle to wave) depending on the obstacles it encounters, knowledge diffracts into new forms, making new approaches to the world possible. What kind of worlds do we want to create from this perspective? That's a question for education, because education feels stuck in the same old boring patterns that don't quite fit the world we live in anymore. As scholar Donna Haraway says 'we need new stories to tell the world with'. I would add to this, we need new forms of education to create new responsive worlds...

The edited collection got a write up in The Guardian for - well - being weird and rebellious. Exactly what it says on the tin really! (You can read the article by clicking on the link below). My chapter is called 'The Heart of Research: Fictioning and Diffractive Writing as Critical Research Practice'

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