A Brief History of Celebrity (with special reference to Asia Argento)
from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
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.”