A Brief History of Celebrity (with special reference to Asia Argento)

Asia Argento is a post-cinematic celebrity, and she inhabits movie and video screens in a far different way than older generations of actresses did. A classical female movie star, like Greta Garbo, is an image of purity and perfection. She is an object of infinite desire; she seems “descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light (Roland Barthes). She keeps us away from her at an infinite distance — a distance out of which we worship her. It is no wonder that Garbo concluded her career by withdrawing entirely from public view. Coming to the screen several decades later, Marilyn Monroe is unable to match Garbo’s transcendent perfection, or to maintain the same degree of distance. Instead, Monroe supplements her beauty with her performance as a comedic ingenue. Her seeming unconsciousness of her own sexual allure gives us permission, as it were, to approach the mystery of this allure. Even as Monroe retains a definite aura, she also — unlike Garbo — brings this aura down to earth. This descent from the heavens to the earth is what allows Monroe to commodify her image, to multiply it and make it signify — as Andy Warhol so clearly understood. In contrast to both Garbo and Monroe, however, Asia Argento no longer retains even the slightest trace of transcendence. She is directly carnal, directly present in the flesh. And her ferocious intelligence cannot be separated from this carnality. Argento collapses the seductive distance between star and audience, and instead offers us her own hyperbolic presence. Her performance is excessively immanent and embodied. Even her irony is too immediate, too close for comfort.

Argento acts in a double register. She turns acting conventions inside out, at once stylizing and naturalizing her performances, entirely inhabiting her roles, while at the same time distancing herself from them with a deep, who-gives-a-fuck irony. She manages to radiate sexuality in an entirely unselfconscious way; yet this unselfconsciousness is a deeply knowing one, not in the least bit naive, and “completely without innocence” (as Donna Haraway says of the figure of the cyborg). Argento’s knowingness ‘alienates’ us from her sexiness, but also allows it to remain intact. Argento is able simultaneously to display a method-acting intensity of commitment to her role, and at the same time to put her entire performance into postmodern “quotation marks.”

Argento fearlessly and knowningly exemplifies what Jean Baudrillard rather hysterically denounces as the “obscenity” and “transparency” of postmodern society. Baudrillard seems caught in the throes of heterosexual panic, as he describes, with great unease, the way that “the body is already there, without even the faintest glimmer of a possible absence, in the state of radical disillusion; the state of pure presence.” In opposition to this, Baudrillard much prefers the old-style feminine mystique and rituals of seduction, as exemplified by the older-generation movie stars. Seduction is “simply that which lets appearance circulate and move as a secret”; it “makes things appear and disappear.” Garbo and Monroe are seductive, therefore, because they are never simply and wholly present; they allure my gaze, beyond visibility, into the realm of that which is secret and hidden. But Baudrillard is not seduced by someone like Argento, because she is self-demystified, and all too fully there. For Baudrillard, seduction is a sort of metaphysical striptease, a play of revealing and concealing. In opposition to this, consider Argento’s own performance of striptease: in a cameo appearance as a stripper in Abel Ferrara’s Go-Go Tales, her character’s pole-dancing act culminates in an artfully provocative French kiss she exchanges with her Rottweiler. Here, the play of seduction is itself detourned into a literal “obscene transparency.”

13 Responses to “A Brief History of Celebrity (with special reference to Asia Argento)”

  1. jane says:

    SS, for what it’s worth, Barthes’ “descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light” is a revisitation of Dante’s Moveti lume che nel ciel s’informa — “you are moved by a light that is formed in heaven.”

  2. dreamduke says:

    this is a brilliant observation – have you had a chance to see the last mistress – argento repulses and attracts sensually leaving the audience without their bearings but grasping on for some direction even if it is pointlessness -

  3. Henry Warwick says:

    Steven – it’s interesting about this. I honestly couldn’t care less about celebrities in general. Hitherto your essay, my knowledge of the name Argento was “Oh – a brand of inexpensive but comparatively higher quality wine from Argentina.” So, I did a Google search on her and looked her up on imdb and elsewhere, and I can firmly say, “I still don’t care”. I looked into her films and they are all of a type I would never waste my money on or even bandwidth downloading it or time to watch it.

    It’s not that I dislike her personally – I have no idea who she is outside of what I can find online. I just have zero interest in watching such films.

    So, in effect, her celebrity doesn’t exist for me. The mythologies you weave around her are of no value to me. I’m not saying “don’t do that” – you could write about dustbunnies and I’d read it because I’m sure it would be insightful as ever. but in terms of Argento – you might as well be writing about the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus. I’ve at least heard of them – if only through my 11 year old daughter who says they all suck.

    ( She had to write a report on a song, so while the rest of the class picked songs by the manufactured teen idol machine, she chose “Telstar” by Joe Meeks’s band, the Tornadoes from 1961. It was that or “Aquarius” by the Boards of Canada because a voice repeats ORANGE and that’s the name of her Froggie Stuffie Doll, or “Clair de Lune” by Debussy because that’s what she’s learning on piano right now. She likes Telstar, what can I say? )

    Argento could be a teen idol for all I could have cared or known.

    And this brings me to the vacuity of celebrity. Fame has been considered virtuous since the Greeks, but celebrity is something else, as (IIRC) the classical notion of fame is a kind of celebrity based around recognition of virtue. (This is all from memories of Phil 101 some 30 years ago, so feel free to correct me.) But contemporary celebrity lies more in a recognition of itself as itself – somehow one has been able to be noticed in this continuous torrent of data. The people most likely to do this are the ones who are able to put their face in front of other people, especially if it is in a mediated form, so that the face is separated from the body as a sign and is thus open to play and reification as a commodity. This allows the image of the body attached to the face to be used as a resource.

    Example: take a photo of Argento’s body, without her face – one would be hard pressed to correctly identify it. So, the body is a resource or capital base and the face is the commodity it supports. Since, as Bowie noted, everything onstage is a pose – even sincerity, then Argento has no mystery at all. There is no seduction. There is only self-deception and false consciousness. We call it “entertainment”. The importance of entertainment is often underestimated, due to the emphasis of Puritanist ethics that value work over play – play is seen as a distraction between periods of work. The opposite is actually correct: we work in order to socialise – we expend energy to supply food, clothing, and shelter in order to reproduce the species, which exists on a social level and is only available through interaction. So, contrary to Puritanism, we work to play. How we define and acquire work and play determines the structure of our political economy.

    Due to the history and exigencies of our motion picture devices, we are stuck with the notion of actors as celebrities – products of motion picture devices. Actually they’re just people doing a job like you. They just get paid a lot thanks to the mythologies we surround them in. By discussing the “mystery” of a given face or the “seduction” of a face’s apparent affect or the actions associated with the body, we are infantilised into a world of wonder and entertained, and once we are aware we can elect to participate.

    Personally, I have no problem with dismantling the entire edifice and letting the notion of the “star” or the “celebrity” simply disappear along with the inquisition, witch burning, national exceptionalism, class structure, and the rest of the rot…

  4. Giovanni says:

    Must. Resist. Temptation.To.Write… “if you like her so much, why don’t you marry her”?

    Don’t get me wrong, she’s obviously capable and I wish her well (although she claimed she would give up acting quite a few years ago now – whatever happened to that?), but she’s a peculiar celebrity to centre a discussion on celebrity around, seeing as she is barely well-known. Comparisons with Garbo and Monroe seem far fetched given the frankly embarassing differential. Those others were Garbo and Monroe first, whatever role they happened to be playing a *very* distant second. Argento can still act in a much fuller sense of the word.

    Oh, and Garbo was definitely capable of bringing her aura down to earth. Ninotchka springs to mind.

    Since you’re such a fan though I’m going to have to ask if you read her novel.

  5. Giovanni, I know well that Asia Argento has not achieved, in the public mind, the status of Garbo or Monroe or Madonna.

    And no, I have not read her novel; I don’t think it’s been translated into English? maybe I should try to get it in French…

  6. Giovanni says:

    Actually, my brain was malfunctioning there – it’s not a novel as such, more of a collection of loosely connected stories as I understand it, plus the embrionic screenplay for Scarlet Diva. I haven’t read it but a friend of mine loved it. And no, I don’t think it’s been translated.

    Regarding her not having achieved the status of a Garbo and a Monroe, isn’t that the whole point with celebrity? That somebody should be famous, and how that fame, that aura feeds back into your work, possibly narrowing the range of things that you can express, whilst heightening their intensity? Besides, Argento strikes me as somebody who could never achieve that status, she’s just not that type of artist. I think she could become a female John Cassavettes, perhaps, and that would be no small feat.

    Talk to me about Charlize Theron, talk to me about Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johanson (and their male counterparts, for that matter). Those are celebrities.

    Or Lindsey Lohan. There was in fact a rather saddening little photo gallery the other day on the (leftist, moderately progressive – go figure) Italian daily La Repubblica featuring Lohan. They’re obviously stolen picture, some guy on a hill with a telephoto lens. He managed to snap a couple of images, and then sold them to the media in various degrees of magnification. It may add to the reflections on distance in your piece. And there something in it too about the celebrity staring back at the public – take a look.

  7. Henry, but isn’t it better for kids of today to worship INTELLIGENT celebrities like Argento, even if they’re not as populist as Garbo and Monroe, than to worship empty narcissism? Any sign of character that disrupts mediated stupidity is good. And she’s remarkable for not playing like the conventional Hollywood chick-with-a-dick (cf. Sigourney Weaver and the like) but being gender-subversive.

  8. Henry Warwick says:

    Henry, but isn’t it better for kids of today to worship INTELLIGENT celebrities like Argento, even if they’re not as populist as Garbo and Monroe, than to worship empty narcissism?

    no. The idea is to NOT worship anyone, period.

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  10. Anna L. says:

    I do not quite understand the act of worshipping a human being. I can understand adoration, and love, and perhaps have spiritual love, taken off the plan of carnal pursuits, but adoration of another human being. Unreasonable and dangerous.

    People are people, they may possess special talents, or have a nice face/beauty, but they are still temporal and will die.

    What do we ultimately worship the corpse, or what we imagined that person to be, not what they are?

    Is perhaps the worshipping and elevation of such people just a bit an insight of lack of confidence in yourself and negative judgment towards others.

    I just do not see the point of bringing some to some elevated status. Just like sport figures. How are they icons or heroes?

  11. RobDP says:

    I sort of want to say what Giovanni said. But maybe phrase it a little differently, as in — can Argento really be an archetype of postmodern celebrity when her very knowingness (and the transparency of this knowingness, which you describe so well) seems to me to be a very deliberate counterpoint to mainstream cinematic femininity? Which is to say, mightn’t we instead see Argento as a critique of Lindsey Lohan, and the latter as the true image of contemporary celebrity?

    Also, what happened in the 30-40 years between Monroe’s death and whenever we want to date the birth of Argento’s celebrity? My instinct is that as so often there’s a lot more continuity here than Baudrillard would have us believe.

  12. KaRo says:

    Obsession with celebrity culture is natural in a society where most of us are TV drones and most of whats on TV is contributing to the idea that celebrities lives are exciting and being rich, looking pretty and doing nothing should be your main goals in life. I’m not saying everyone is buying into this crap but as a younger woman myself, I look around at my peers and ALOT of them want/participate in this lifestyle and are certainly on their way to becoming incredibly vapid adults.

    I certainly don’t agree with worshipping anyone, leave that for the religious, people should aspire to inspire and be inspired. For me, in Argento’s case I find she’s one of many people I look up to creatively. Not that I want to be an actor, but the woman is involved in all sorts of creative endeavors (music ,she’s a DJ, written poetry, a book, directed movies to documentaries, painting,). She may not be ‘the best’ and she may have failed several times at whatever she’s done, but she is a great inspiration to me for atleast trying her hand at different things despite the outcome or critism that may follow, not everyone may like the things she ends up producing but nonetheless she’s a good example for the younger generation of someone actually DOING something instead of sitting around thinking and talking about doing something.

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