Billie Eilish’s Pop Cartesianism

Billie Eilish deploying Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” in the chorus to her new single doesn’t seem to warrant too much thought. But, accompanied by a video in which she runs around a shopping mall picking up fast food, during a year when her figure has frequently been the subject of tabloid thinkpieces, there’s maybe something to be said for her allusion to the seventeenth-century’s mind/body dichotomy.

At first, the song’s lyrics appear to be directed at the haters and those clinging onto her name for clout, but I see another reading. There’s a deeper sense of alienation here, beneath the pop cultural politics — a kind of schizoid monologue wherein multiple Eilish’s are scattered to the winds by conflicting parasitic agents. First, there are the two Eilish’s being discussed in the press — artist and celebrity — and there are two Eilish’s being discussed by Eilish herself in her songs — projected self and introjected subject. There are multiple Eilish’s vying for attention but each can be place into two broad categories: one of mind and one of body.

Lyrically, consider how, at first, the mind takes swings at the body — I’m more than I appear to be, I’m more than my body; the mind comes first (or should) for an artist of my stature. But then, there’s a recoil, as the world’s bodily ideals conflict with Eilish’s own sense of herself. By the end of the first verse, it’s hard to know who is addressing who. For example, when Eilish sings:

We are not the same with or without
Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel
Top of the world, but your world isn’t real
Your world’s an ideal

… I hear a body calling out a mind, afflicted by an unwelcome superego.

It soon becomes apparent that this schizoid vortex of voices and perspectives is where the spectre of Cartesianism cashes out in the twenty-first century. Descartes melds with Freud. We become familiar with the mind and its internal structure of sugerego, ego and id and find ourselves ventriloquising each perspective. Presented to us as angel and demon on each shoulder, bracketing an egoic consciousness somewhere inbetween, but what about that which lurks below the neck? That which Eilish embraces and finds to be a battleground in equal measure? There’s a body without organs lurking under the surface here, trying to make itself heard over the tabloid gossip and Eilish’s own internal monologue.

Psychoanalysis clearly has a lot to answer for. For Deleuze and Guattari most famously — both tangentially involved in the anti-psychiatry movement — Freud’s stratified structure of the mind is nothing but a cage for who we really are and could potentially become. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus, psychoanalysis “royally botches the real” in this regard, “because it botches the BwO.” Deleuze and Guattari were far more interested in bending social rules to better accommodate the divergent subject.

In “Therefore I Am”, Eilish seems to be flexing her line of flight. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she wants in an empty shopping mall, that grand temple to desire, but also that she is able to get away with it because she is Billie Eilish. Is this a defiant individualism? Or something else?

“I think therefore I am” soon becomes a loaded statement. Think how, exactly? Or think what? It is telling that the “I think” of Descartes’ phrase is jettisoned from the title itself. “Therefore I Am” gives new meaning to the phrase “immaculate conception”. No thought, just the BwO. Eilish conceives of herself, divested of pop-cultural influence, from her own mind or outside. After all, the BwO “is what remains when you take everything away”, Deleuze and Guattari write. Is there a hint, below the braggadocio, of an Eilishian program of desire; a “motor program of experimentation.”

“Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication“, Deleuze wrote in Difference & Repetition. This is precisely why the body without organs is better expressed, for Deleuze, by a schizophrenic out for a walk than by a neurotic on a couch. The psychoanalyst explores and deploys symbolisation, that “unconscious mental process whereby one object or idea comes to stand for another through some part”; the schizophrenic finds truth in the infinite intermingling of things.

In practice, for Eilish, this is expressed through singing a song to the haters in an empty shopping mall bouncing around to her heart’s content, following desires without recourse to any of her conflicting selves. In the twenty-first century, does the schizophrenic out for a walk still resonate? Or is a media-hounded pop star in a shopping mall just as good an analogy? “Therefore I am” — here Eilish is all explication.



Parts of this post were recycled from my notes for the first episode of Buddies Without Organs. You can listen back to that here.

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