Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal

“Corporate Cannibal”, the new Grace Jones video (directed by Nick Hooker) is utterly astonishing. Jones is 60 years old (!); and this is the first new work she has released in close to twenty years. But “Corporate Cannibal” is anything but safe and nostalgic.

Corporate Cannibal

The video is in black and white, and the only images that appear on the screen are those of Grace Jones’ face and upper body, black against a white background. But Jones’ figure is subject to all sorts of electronic distortions. The most common effect is one of elongation: her face is stretched upwards, as if she had an impossibly long forehead, as if her notorious late-80s flattop haircut had somehow expanded beyond all dimensions. Or else, her entire body in silhouette is thinned out, gracile (if that isn’t too much of a pun), and almost insectoid. The image also bends and fractures: her mouth stretches alarmingly, her eyes bulge out and expand across the screen like some sort of toxic stain. And sometimes Jones’ figure multiplies into two or three distorted, and imperfectly separated, clones. Nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds; the screen is continually morphing, and everything is so stylized and disrupted that we don’t get a very good sense of what Jones actually looks like today. Her facial features remain somewhat recognizable — Grace Jones has never looked like anyone else — and at a few moments, we get a brief almost undistorted close-up of her eyes, nose, and mouth — but there is something monstrous as well about this individuated “faciality”; and in any case it is gone almost before we have had the time to take it in.

Corporate Cannibal

The electronic manipulation of Jones’ image throughout the video is reminiscent of the ways that Nick Hooker manipulated images in his earlier videos — except that those earlier videos are in full color, and they generally appear trippy and pyschedelic. There is nothing of that feel in “Corporate Cannibal,” which is altogether violent, ferocious, and sinister. This is due partly to the starkness of the black and white; and partly to the harsh minimalism of the video, which returns insistently to the same few distorted poses, even though it is unstable and continually in flux. Hooker’s color videos are about free-flowing metamorphosis; but “Corporate Cannibal” is about modulation, which is something completely different. I mean that modulation is schematic and implosive, rather than free-floating and expansive. The modulations of “Corporate Cannibal” don’t give us the sense that anything can happen, but rather one that no matter what happens, it will be drawn into the same fatality, the same narrowing funnel, the same black hole (again, I am not sure whether this is the right pun), the same code of electronic processing and morphing. There is no proliferation of meanings, but rather a capture of all meanings, as they are drawn down into the same obsessive grid of distortions and transformations.

Although the video’s background is white, and Grace’s figure is black (again, can we separate how this works and what it means pictorially, from how it works and what it means racially?), nonetheless the video as a whole does not suggest any sort of figure-background relationship. It is rather the case that Jones’ distorted body is a signal traversing an (otherwise blank and empty) field — there is nothing there besides this figure, no background at all. This also means that the video is not a “picture” or a “representation” of Jones’ face or body; the video image does not refer to a source or model beyond itself. Rather, Jones’ figure is itself the electronic image or signal — rather than an external referent to which this image/signal would refer. Indeed, at the very start of the video, and at certain moments within it, it is impossible to decide whether what we are seeing is a manipulation and distortion of Jones’ figure, or whether it is just “noise” or feedback, an artifact of the electronic manipulation field itself. For Grace Jones’ body and voice are themselves, already, electricity, light (or darkness) and sound, digital matrix and intense vibration. The video is modulating Jones-as-signal, rather than distorting some pre-existing image-of-Jones-as-real-body. The electronic image is itself a visceral embodiment of Jones, rather than being an immaterial picture of an embodiment that would exist elsewhere. And Hooker is not manipulating her image, so much as he is modulating the electronic signal that she already is (and, presumably, doing this at her command).

Corporate Cannibal

In this sense, “Corporate Cannibal” is the latest in a long history of Grace Jones’ reinvention of herself, via the rearrangement of her body. Jones’ performances in the 1980s can be contrasted with those of Madonna. Both singers emerged from the world of disco, and from a culture of campy performance that was largely associated with gay men. Both became gay icons, as women “performing” femininity rather than naturalizing it. Both flaunted an aggressive sexuality that was at odds with the old-style patriarchal norms of what women should be like. And both grasped the ways that this post-second-wave-feminism sexual “freedom” was deeply complicit with consumerist commodification, i.e. with the way that it was not just particular objects that worked as commodities, but that lifestyles, personalities, etc., were themselves increasingly being commodified.

And yet, despite this common ground, there was (and is) a vast difference between these two performers. Madonna put on and took of personas as if they were clothes; indeed, the clothes were often what made the persona. The brilliance of this strategy was the way it suggested that everything was postmodern surfaces, or styles. There was nothing beneath the surface, no depths and no essences. Every “identity” was factitious; and this allowed Madonna to play with them, freely and pleasurably. Because these personas were all stereotypes and fictions, none of them had any real consequences, none of them were irreversible, and none of them had any cost other than the up-front financial one.

Grace Jones’ transformations were altogether more troubling, more aggressive, and more transgressive. In a sense, these transformations were incised more deeply in the flesh, for all that they were (no less than Madonna’s) a matter of clothes and styles and the powers of the fashion world. In part, Jones’ transformations were “deeper” than Madonna’s because they had to be: without Madonna’s white skin privilege, Jones couldn’t treat her self-mutations as casually as Madonna did. She couldn’t retreat to the anonymity that was the implicit background of Madonna’s performances, the neutrality and lack-of-depth that existed (or rather, didn’t exist) behind all the costumes. Grace Jones (nee Grace Mendoza), as a black woman, is always already “marked” as a body — in a way that Madonna Ciccone is not; which means that she cannot simply dismiss depth, and present a play of pure surfaces, the way that Madonna can. She had much more at stake in her metamorphoses than Madonna ever could have had.

And so, if Madonna’s transformations were always playful and fantasy-like, Grace Jones’ transformations were considerably harder and harsher — which doesn’t mean that they were devoid of pleasure, but that Jones’ own pleasure in them was not necessarily something that she shared with her audience — her figures, unlike Madonna’s, are not necessarily ones you can identify with. (Think of the difference between the coyness of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the Ballardian savagery of Jones’ “Warm Leatherette”). Another way to say this is to say that Jones is definitely a dominatrix, while Madonna isn’t (even if she sometimes plays around with the edges of s&m). Yet another way is to say that, while Madonna plays with the image of “femininity,” pointing out its artifice, its artificiality, and its inessentiality, Grace Jones instead blasts this “femininity” apart, blows it up altogether. Her metamorphoses always have a transgressive edge. She assaults the divisions between male and female not with a cozy androgyny, but with a cold and forbidding, ungenderable more-than-masculine hardbody. She similarly assaults the divisions between white and black by simultaneously embracing the worst stereotypes and snarling Fuck You at them. In messing so seriously with both gender and race, Jones pushes beyond the human, transforming herself (before it became fashionable) into a posthuman or transhuman, a robot; or even more, as k-punk suggests, into a chilly and affectless object-machine, whose “screams and the laughter seem to come from some Other place, a dread zone from which Jones has returned, but only partially. Is it the laughter of one who has passed through death or the scream of a machine that is coming to life?”

The difference between Madonna and Grace Jones is therefore both affective and ontological. Where Madonna is playful, Jones is playing for keeps. And where Madonna critiques subjectivity by suggesting that it is just a surface-effect with nothing behind it, Jones critiques it by actually delving beneath the surfaces, or into the depths of the body, to discover a dense materiality that is not subjective any longer. Jones no longer accepts the subordination that Western culture has so long written into the designations of both “woman” and “black”; but she does this neither by recuperating femininity and blackness as positive states, nor by claiming for herself the privileges of the masculine and the white; but rather by subjecting the whole field of these oppositions to radical distortion, to implosion, or to some sort of hyperspatial torsion and distortion.

“Corporate Cannibal” is entirely consistent with Jones’ past experiments, and in fact pushes them to a new extreme. Our technologies have ramified and changed since the 1980s, and Jones has followed them by emerging as the new video flesh (in a manner that was prophesized by Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that came out at the same time as Jones’ greatest hits — the early/mid 1980s — but that today, in “Corporate Cannibal,” is no longer a matter of prophecy and science-fictional extrapolation, but simply one of sheer present actuality). In the video, Jones is frightening, ferocious, predatory, vampiric. She has become pure electronic pulse, materiality of the electronic medium (which we were always wrong to consider intangible, dematerialized, or disembodied) — and she will utterly devour and destroy (convert into more image, more electronic pulse, more of herself) whatever thinks it might be able to stand apart from the process.

All this is made explicit in the lyrics to “Corporate Cannibal”: but conversely, these lyrics only have their extrarordinary effect because they have found the proper regime of images to make them operative. Jones’ voice is at first wheedling (“Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate”), before it turns stentorian, imperative, and threatening; and at the end of the song it modulates again, beyond words, into a predatory growl or snarl. She is telling us flatly that she will destory and devour us (“I’m a man-eating machine… Eat you like an animal… Every man, woman, and child is a target”). She is a vampire, but not a romantic one: rather, the song expresses Jones’ absolute identification with Capital as a vampiric force (remember that Marx long ago described capitalism as vampiric: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks”). Jones sings: “I deal in the market… A closet full of faceless, nameless, pay-more-for-less emptiness… You’ll pay less tax but I will gain more back… I’ll consume my consumers.” Her lyrics absurdly juxtapose the cliches of corporate-speak (“Employer of the year”) with those of pulp horro (“Grandmaster of fear”). All this is set against a grinding, dissonant musical accompaniment, with harsh backbeats and shrieking guitars that are, however, more downbeat than metal (a number of blogs have compared the music to that of Massive Attack a decade ago, at the time of their album Mezzanine).

The overall effect is terrifying, although the terror is overlaid with an awarness of the cliches or stereotypes of that which induces terror. This is extreme expression for a world in which there are no longer any extremes, because everything can find the niche in which it is marketable. Grace Jones is forcing us to confront the way in which, today, even the transgression that might have thrilled us twenty-five years ago is little more than another marketing strategy. Or the way in which, beyond all those discourses about race and gender and “the body,” the only thing that is “transgressive” today is Capital itself, which devours everything without any regard for boundaries, distinctions, or degrees of legitimacy; which “transgresses” the very possibility of “transgression,” because it is always only transgressing itself in order to create still more of itself, devouring not only its own tail but its entire body, in order to achieve even greater levels of monstrosity. Or, as Dejan puts it, in the video “you can see directly the intimate bond between animation and the mutability of Capital,” as Jones’ electronic mutations or modulations track and embrace and coincide with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in our world of delirious financial flows and hedge funds and currency manipulations and bad debts passed on from one speculator to the next — all of which depend upon, and indeed energize, the same digital technology that also makes Nick Hooker’s video manipulations possible. I think that “Corporate Cannibal” — with its continual modulations and deformations that are no longer just on the surface of the world but inhabit and shape its depths, and with its violent Weird energy (in the sense of post-Lovecraftian “weird fiction” with its simultaneous slight hokiness and intense anxiety and dislocation) — gives the most profound expression or articulation that I have yet come across to the affect of the vertiginous “globalized network society” we live in today.

28 thoughts on “Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal”

  1. “Grace Jones’ transformations were considerably harder and harsher — which doesn’t mean that they were devoid of pleasure, but that Jones’ own pleasure in them was not necessarily something that she shared with her audience — her figures, unlike Madonna’s, are not necessarily ones you can identify with. ”

    Isn’t this true of the (rather extreme) mutations in black pop that took place in the 80s? The rather sudden death of soul, reggae and funk (and to a lesser degree, jazz) as emblems of ‘authenticity’ ‘spirituality’ and ‘sincerity’ certainly led to the ‘post-human’ alienations of house, techno, d’nb, ragga and hiphop. Despite the protestations of ‘realness’ (and later celeb gossip) these genres are ostensibly ‘post-human’ and detached.

    The overwhelming success of Michael Jackson (MTV’s down David Cronenberg character) led to a rush to imitate this ‘alienation’ of desire (Jackson seems to vanish into the production with each album, until it’s just traces of life – yelps, gulps, whoops etc.). A lot of his biggest hits seemed to be about surveillance, stalking etc.

    Prince seemed rather alien in a different way (I find all his ‘sexy’ lyrics rather Ballardian – compare ‘Littler Red Corvette’ with ‘Warm Leatherette’).
    Even Marvin Gaye’s last album veered towards android sexuality.

    Of course, the reaction to this seemed to be a (mainly white) obsession with the ‘authenticity’ of pre-Coltrane jazz, Motown, Atlantic, James Brown (himself ‘vanished’ into sampling), ska etc. P-funk was treated more ambiguously in this discourse (being the ‘missing link’ between the spirit and the machine in black music discourse).

    There was also a huge reaction in rock (and its criticism) – from the blue collar posings of Springsteen, U2 et al to the dressed down whinings of ‘indie’ – it aimed to be ‘of the people’. This discursive polarisation remains with us today – however false.

  2. would you say that the nature of control in the ”control society” is also of the modulation-variety: for example, the EU introduces sanctions against Serbia until Karadzic is arrested, then they loosen them up a little bit with the promise that when Mladic is arrested the sanctions will be lifted, and then when Mladic is arrested it turns out the sanctions will continue in modulated form, because the point of control, in fact, is infinitely deferred, a void, a spectral entity – spectral Capital or the Prince of Darkness or whatever you call it

  3. Hi Steve! Hope you are well. Digging your blog. Just wanted to add to what you say here, with a bit of history.

    Jones distorted her body image way early on. Check out the full length video of “Slave to the Rhythm” here:

    note the section from 13 sec to 25 sec – kind of like a “hand done” version of some of the elongation we see in Corporate Cannibal.

    I would also balance out her “Slave to the Rhythm” which, in its lushness, has an attractive quality, with what Material did in the song “Conform to the Rhythm” on their LP, Memory Serves, which has a completely different take – where the rhythm isn’t seductive, but is a tool of oppression, and the slavery isn’t optional and fun, even though the LP itself uses a variety of musical and rhythmic tropes from funk and disco.

    To my ears, Corporate Cannibal is her “Conform to the Rhythm” – the gloves are off, and she’s not playing games – this isn’t fun anymore – you must pay attention.

    The problem is, the musical “world” she’s singing into doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to the greed of the Corporate Cannibals she’s singing about – the corporations of the music industry are in a death spiral and have been since my days back at Napster. However, Jones is setting her sights at larger targets than the petty myopic pilferings of the Music Giants – she’s clearly looking at the Machine Itself. What prompted me to write was an article I had just read about Sony’s involvement with the Congolese disaster which erupted from their demand for Tantalum.

    As she “channels” the horror of the industrial machine, says she consumes without humour, and one can see the accuracy of that in the wasted lives of the Congolese children forced into mining labour to dig tantalum for PlayStations, so NAFTA/EU children can blow up aliens in video games.

    Eeek. It’s late. Gotta go. best, HW

  4. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

    Wedge, yes your points are good — a lot of this relates to Kodwo Eshun’s discussions of posthumanism, science fiction, etc., in Black Atlantic music.

    Henry, hello, good to hear from you. Yes, I have seen the Slave to the Rhythm video and I agree with your overall analysis. Note that in “Corporate Cannibal” there is one line: “slave to the rhythm of the corporate prison.”

    Dejan, cf. Deleuze on modulation and control.

  5. Yeah, iread Eshun on this – but I’ve always wondered why black Atlantic pop made such a sudden shift (disco and MTV played a part, but it doesn’t account for such a radical overhaul).

    There’s obvious historical reasons for the lack of nostalgia – but there seems to be an active opposition to those ‘old-fashioned’ black pop values that is now impossible to shake off. trad ‘Nu soul’ et al often sounds more ‘fake’ than Beyonce, Kelis etc.

    I suppose there’s a whole other thread dealing with the unsettling role of plastic surgery in all this, too (it wasn’t just the Jacksons!).

    I recall Joe Carducci (blue-collar rock conservative) commenting in 1990 on how black pop will be ‘haunted’ (telling term) by its lack of ‘live’ rhythmic ‘heat’.

    But what’s cooler than being cool? ICE COLD!

  6. cf.

    watch Harvey’s beautiful head and the lines behind him
    as he lectures on Capital:

    it might be cinema——
    much, much slower, but almost the same—-

    —–when we leave that sphere where everything is obvious
    and we enter into the sphere of production.

  7. Grace is more than alive, a few weeks ago she was performing at Lokerse Feesten , Belgium . Seems she is not turning any older, where she gets that energy?
    I must have this 12″ , this is an urgent release request!

  8. All this pomo conjecture is fine and dandy, but considering the ominous story telling narrative of Corporate Cannibal and This Is Life (another track on Jones’s Hurricane album) shouldn’t all you book learned folk be obsessing over Miss Lou right now instead of Madonna? It’s pretty obvious the “insect-like” character Jones portrays in the Corporate Cannibal video is merely her stylized take on the anansi spider.

  9. I just want to say that this is one of the sharpest, most brilliant articles I’ve read on Grace Jones in a long time. Thank you.

  10. Blah, blah, blah…. I totally agree with Gracebook. There’s not much to say about this video than “great work Jones & Hooker!”.
    The lyrics are quite explicit and the video enhaces the whole idea, and that’s all.
    Don’t cry…
    It’s only the rhythm…

  11. Hello Steven Shaviro,

    I attended a talk you gave last year at the Pervasive Media Studios in Bristol after being recommended your work by my lecturer Patrick Crogan from UWE. I was greatly inspired by your talk. In particular, the way you related Grace Jones’ digital morphing to changes in the form of Capital itself. I have recently done a project on Apple’s PhotoBooth application. I have cited a lot of your concepts in my work because of the similar use of digital morphing / stylization techniques. I thought you might find it interesting. The essays are posted at these addresses:

    Thank you again for the inspiring talk and I look forwards to reading more of your work. Regards, James Addicott

  12. Early on, I commented on my blog (that) Nick Hooker’s “morphing” of Grace Jones in CORPORATE CANNIBAL was directly derivative of Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plant stalks. As a matter of fact, side-by-side comparisons of screencaps from their collaborative work (would it be otherwise?) and Blossfeldt’s images exhibit the uncanny similarities. Clearly Grace is organic, and will continue to spread, like mercury, as technologies grow.

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