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Distributive Woundings: What Halsey's Lillith / Diablo IV Anthem Teaches Us About Digital Power

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

"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?


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