Britney Spears’s new single is called “Work Bitch.” Although there’s no comma, this sentence seems to be in the imperative mood. As the club beat starts in, we expect to be told to “work” figuratively, fabulously, a la RuPaul (relieved not to have to “twerk it” any more).

Instead, though, Spears’s song evidently intends its directive literally. This is a song about work.

You wanna live fancy? Live in a big mansion?
Party in France?
You better work bitch, you better work bitch
You better work bitch, you better work bitch
Now get to work bitch!
Now get to work bitch!

At first it seems like this might be some kind of 53%er ideology  Hey, if you want stuff, you have to pay for it. No (government) handouts here. If we want to read the song this way, the irony would be that two of the top-billed writers are, as always with Ms. Spears, residents of socialist Sweden (Sebastian Ingrosso and Otto Jettman).

Yet if we look more closely at the song’s lyrics, the signs point in a different direction. First, the payoffs listed are hardly talking-points of the right-to-work crowd (“You want health care? A place to live? You better work bitch.”) Instead, Spears asks: “You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work bitch.” What lends this line its cognitive dissonance (and actually makes it a pretty cool lyric) is the fact that anyone who can buy an Italian sports car on salary is unlikely to be interpellated as “bitch.”

Meanwhile, there’s another valance of “work” here: “You want a hot body? … Look hot in a bikini? You better work bitch.” Not only do “you” have to work (to buy a Bugatti), but also work out (to have a hot body).

All of which leads me to suspect that the highly-paid, over-toned, under-respected “you” to whom the song is directed is Spears herself. It’s as though Spears is channeling another voice (this is becoming a theme here at the Difference Engine). This notion helps to account for the bizarre British accent she tries on in every second stanza. “Sippin’ Mah-tinis…” then back to the American South: “Party in Fraynce.”  She becomes a medium, in the antiquated sense of the word.  Like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters.

Which begs the question: whom is Spears channeling? Who is her Zuul?

“Here comes the master!” the lyrics announce. Which sends us scurrying to Lacan’s Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Norton 2008).  Here’s Lacan’s graph of the master’s discourse:


In the graph of the discourse of the master, we see the master, S1, telling the slave/worker, S2: “you better work bitch!”

How can this discourse, which is so wonderfully well understood, have maintained its name-as is proven by the fact that workers work, whether they are exploited or not?
Work has never been given such credit ever since humanity has existed. It is even out of the question that one not work.
This is surely an accomplishment of what I am calling the master’s discourse. (167–68)

Let’s assume for the time being that the master is the culture industry, demanding that its employee—Britney Spears—”work it hard, like it’s your profession.” The nature of this work is equal parts working in the studio,  working it on stage, and working out at the gym. In the last-named instance, this worker’s body is not her own. And to that degree, in Hegelian (but not historical) terms, she becomes the Knecht: the bondsman or slave.


The work of the slave, Lacan writes, produces a surplus (objet a). What is this surplus? At first its seems to be the surplus value (profit) generated by the worker/slave (“you want a Bugatti?”). Yet, Lacan says, this surplus value is just an imitation of something else: surplus jouissance.

What Marx denounces in surplus value is the spoliation of jouissance, And yet, this surplus value is a memorial to surplus jouissance, its equivalent of surplus jouissance. “Consumer society” derives its meaning from the fact that what makes it the “element,” in inverted commas, described as human is made the homogeneous equivalent of whatever surplus jouissance is produced by our industry—an imitation surplus jouissance, in a word. (81)

The master, Lacan says, is hiding something. “His truth is hidden from him and a certain Hegel stated that it is delivered to him by the work of the slave.” (79).

For Lacan, the master’s hidden truth is that he lacks complete mastery: he lacks and desires, and this desire is signified by the objet a, the surplus produced by the slave’s work.

Rather than progress having been made through the work of the slave… it is a matter of the transference, plundering, spoliation of what, at the beginning of knowledge, was inscribed, hidden, in the slave’s world[.] In this connection it was the master’s discourse that had to impose itself. But also, by virtue of this fact, reentering into the mechanism of its repeated assertion, he had to apprehend the loss of his own entry into discourse and, in a word, see this object a emerge, which we have nailed down as surplus jouissance. (79)

The culture industry needs the surplus jouissance generated by the pop star because of the truth that it hides from itself, which is that the culture industry is not (or no longer) an industry at all. When Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term “culture industry,” media monopolization and the studio system rendered the idea of industrial cultural production fairly self-explanatory. A studio head would green-light a project, and a cultural commodity was produced. The wheels of advertising and distribution would spin, and the commodity would be foisted upon a mass audience, whether they liked it or not.

In the internet age, however, the model is no longer industrial, but financial, functioning more like the stock market than the assembly line. From social networks, user-generated content and bespoke radio to downloading and file-sharing, the culture industry has become less a content producer than a conduit provider. The cultural capitalist controls the medium, but not the message. He enjoys as little mastery over mass taste as the finance capitalist over stock prices. Which is to say: some, but not all. Lacan writes:

The first line [of the chart] comprises a relation, indicated here by an arrow, which is always defined as impossible. In the master’s discourse, for instance, it is effectively impossible that there be a master who makes the entire world function. Getting people to work is even more tiring, if one really has to do it, than working oneself. The master never does it. He gives a sign, the master signifier, and everybody jumps. That’s where you have to start, which is, in effect, completely impossible. (174)

So what’s a cultural industrialist to do? Generate buzz. It’s not just the worker that has to jump—it’s everyone. To this degree, the message to “work!” is in fact directed to all the people doing the (unpaid) affective labor of tweeting and facebooking and blogging about Britney’s new track (present company included). “Tell someone in your town, Spread the word, spread the word!” the song demands in the second verse. One might even suspect that this is why there’s no comma between “work” and “bitch”—the relationship between the words is paratactic, not interpellative (So not “work, bitch” but “work! bitch!”)  We’re not being called out as the master’s “bitch”—that’s built into the command to work. Insteadt, this naughty word both generates and represents the surplus of notoriety (the jouissance of the culture industry) that gets us tittering and twittering about this song. “Work!” The song says. And then, tacked on, the small surplus of transgression that seems to inspire our discursive work, but really proceeds from it.

3 thoughts on ““Here Comes the Master!” The Work of Culture

  1. Editors’ Note: For obvious reasons, we assume that the above comment is not from the real Slavoj Žižek, but rather from one of the internet’s many counterfeit Žižeks. …All you other sham Slavojs are just imitating…

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