by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

To be obsessed with images, with surfaces, with appearances: what does it really mean? In particular, what did it mean to Andy Warhol? Images are nothing like objects. When things retreat into their images, the way they do on TV, they lose their solidity, their palpability, their presence. Images have a weightlessness that is both mysterious and soothing. They haunt us, like ghosts; they empty out space, the better to flicker interminably in the void. Images are premised upon a visibility so extreme that it relegates the world to a state of almost transparency. They resemble their objects so utterly, so perfectly, that the objects themselves become almost invisible. The most perfect resemblance, Maurice Blanchot says, is the one that has "no name and no face." An artist is somebody who wants to turn the whole world into images; but he usually ends up making more objects instead. That is at least how Warhol regards the matter: "I really believe in empty spaces," he says; "although, as an artist, I make a lot of junk... I can't even empty my own spaces." It's a dilemma that assaults him day after day: "I'm sure I'm going to look in the mirror and see no one, nothing. People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?" Maybe that would even be the most satisfying outcome. If only Andy could vanish into the mirror, into the camera, into the tape recorder... To be an empty image, and nothing but an image, just like Marilyn or James Dean or Elvis... But try as Andy may, his body never entirely disappears. Instead, "day after day I look in the mirror and I still see something--a new pimple. If the pimple on my upper right cheek is gone, a new one turns up on my lower left cheek, on my jawline, near my ear, in the middle of my nose, under the hair on my eyebrows, right between my eyes. I think it's the same pimple, moving from place to place." This pimple, you might say, is Warhol's fleshly double, his abject objecthood, the thing that binds him to his body, or to himself. The thing that prevents him from turning into an image. "Nudity," Warhol tells us, "is a threat to my existence"; and the pimple is the point where he's exposed naked, for all the world to see. Your blemishes are the most intimate secrets you have; but they are also the first things that everyone else notices. That's why Warhol "believe[s] in low lights and trick mirrors... [and] in plastic surgery." You can never have too many skin creams and lotions and ointments.

No moral, aesthetic, or metaphysical issue is more important for Warhol than the question of how to get rid of pimples. "If someone asked me, 'What's your problem?'", he tells us, "I'd have to say, 'Skin.'" And he's right, of course. Everything that matters is already out there, right on the surface. "Don't think, but look!" as Wittgenstein said. Faced with the trauma of an acne outburst, or with the heartbreak of psoriasis, I must learn not to bother with searching out deep structures and root causes. For such disorders can only be treated topically and symptomatically: that is to say, only on the level of surfaces and effects. It's impossible to dig down to the origin; the best solutions for skin problems are always aesthetic or cosmetic ones. As my trusty old Home Medical Guide puts it: "Since the cause of acne is frequently misunderstood, the 'victim' may be accused of being responsible for his or her condition. Parents often blame their youngsters for eating too much junk food, eating too little, eating too much, not washing properly, not getting enough sleep, sleeping too much, being obsessed with the opposite sex, having no interest in the opposite sex, ad infinitum. The truth is, none of these things has anything to do with acne, and if there is any 'blame' attached to the disorder, it may well belong to the parents' genes... No exact cause is known." Parents are all too likely to read acne as a sign of deviance: of not being properly heterosexual, most likely. But a careful, patient attention to images and surfaces undoes all such imputations of guilt. As Nietzsche says in a similar context, "that no one is any longer made accountable... this alone is the great liberation--thus alone is the innocence of becoming restored." Warhol scrupulously abstains from pejorative judgments: "It's so nice, whatever it is. I approve of what everybody does: it must be right because somebody said it was right. I wouldn't judge anybody." Instead, he dispenses expert advice on skin care: "I dunk a Johnson and Johnson cotton ball into Johnson and Johnson rubbing alcohol and rub the cotton ball against the pimple." Or again: "if you have a pimple, put on the pimple cream in a way that will make it really stand out." Or yet again: "Haven't you heard about those ladies who take young guys to the theater and jerk them off so that they can put it all over their face?... It sort of pulls it tighter and makes them younger for the evening." If one remedy doesn't work, then simply try another. In the end, Warhol says, "I've never met a person I couldn't call a beauty. Each person has beauty at some point in their lifetime."

Warhol, too, shows us how to "have done with the judgment of God"; but in a far gentler manner than Nietzsche or Artaud. I suppose that's why it's no big deal that he went to church every Sunday. For Warhol has none of the anxieties that plagued his great Modernist forbears, none of their transgressive urges or buried ressentiment. Why worry, if nothing is true, and everything is permitted? Lacan says somewhere that the real formula of atheism is not, 'God is dead,' but rather, 'God is unconscious.' If that is so, then Warhol--whatever his private observances--was undoubtedly the least pious of men. When everything's just an image, there's no Symbolic Order left to transgress. And that goes not only for God, but for all the other fetishes of modernist faith as well: sex, money, and politics. They all come down to appearances, and nothing but appearances. Sometimes a penis is just a penis, is what Freud ought to have said. Think of it not as the Phallus, but as a convenient dispenser of facial cream. Castration is a matter merely of local and passing significance. The organ is nothing in itself; it's all a question of how you use it. And there are as many different uses as there are different male and female bodies. "Everybody has a different idea of love," Warhol writes. "One girl I know said, 'I knew he loved me when he didn't come in my mouth.'"

That's what Warhol's religion really comes down to. "The Factory was a church," Gary Indiana writes, "the Church of the Unimaginable Penis, or something... The sanctity of the institution and its rituals is what's important, not personal salvation. Maintaining the eternal surface." Maintaining the image, you might say. Nothing is hidden in Andy's church, and nothing is transcendent: what you see is exactly what you get. Movie and media stars are the only objects of worship. Only Elvis or James Dean can tell me what it is to be a man. Or some other icon of the time: maybe, even, Fidel Castro. Castro was a hot media figure in the 60s, though his glamour has faded considerably since then. It's odd, the way his name always used to come up. At one point in Warhol's 1967 film Nude Restaurant, Taylor Mead teasingly claims, in close-up straight to the camera, that "I was in Fidel Castro's dictionary... I made it with the Big One, Big Number One of Cuba." Viva responds by telling how, in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, a political prisoner was castrated by Batista's secret police for refusing to talk. At which Mead muses, in that offhand, campy manner of his: "you would think Castro would be the castrator." In fact, several years before this film was made the CIA had indeed plotted, if not to castrate Castro outright, at least to devirilize him by lacing his food with female sex hormones. They figured that his beard would fall out, and his voice become high-pitched and squeaky. Once Castro's macho image was ruined, they thought, he could easily be overthrown. An obsession with Fidel's sexuality seems to be present in other CIA projects of the time as well, such as the plan to kill him with an exploding cigar. This may well be one of those times when a cigar isn't just a cigar. Isn't the United States government's hysteria about the Castro regime--one that still persists today, even after 36 years--the result of envy and fear at the prospect of Fidel's "Big One"? The CIA spooks never succeeded in putting any of their strange schemes into action; but the very existence of such plans testifies to the potency, as it were, of Fidel's media image. Just like a pimple that won't go away, his flashy and fleshly presence on the international scene in the early 60s was an affront to norteamericano manliness as then embodied by John F. Kennedy. Following the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson more prudently (if no more successfully) decided to pick on Ho Chi Minh instead. After all, nobody would exactly say that old Uncle Ho had sex appeal.

Warhol, for his part, goes JFK and the CIA one better when it comes to devirilizing Castro. In his 1965 film The Life of Juanita Castro, not only does Fidel's estranged, anti-communist sister take center stage, but Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara are all played by women. This gender reversal testifies to the fluidity of postmodern bodies. It's not really a matter of deflating Castro's ego, or his cock, but of showing how his potency--how virility in general--is always an affair of bluff and display, of pure pretense. That's just show business. In the world of Warhol's Factory, castrator and castrated, or Castro and castration, are able to exchange places with the utmost of ease. Warhol describes the idea of the film as "fags on the sugar plantation"; he renders the Cuban Revolution as high camp. In Marxist terms, history is repeated a second time, as farce. Warhol's treatment not only outdoes the CIA, but trumps Hollywood as well: it is even more campy and over-the-top than Richard Fleischer's 1969 would-be blockbuster Che!, despite the latter's amazing casting of Omar Sharif as Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel. The Life of Juanita Castro is ostensibly based on a Life magazine article in which Juanita denounces her brother as a tyrant. But it is actually inspired, Warhol claims, by reports that Raul Castro was a transvestite, and that Fidel himself had made "attempts to become a Hollywood star," and had even appeared as an extra in an Esther Williams musical. Was the Cuban revolutionary regime's notorious persecution of gay men a result of Castro's own sense of masculine panic, his need to bury a disreputable past? Warhol's film, you might say, presents a new Fidel, releasing his bitchy inner queen from the prison of Marxist-Leninist virility. The romantic machismo of Third World revolution runs a poor second to the sexually more ambiguous allure of celluloid stardom.

The Life of Juanita Castro is a wonderfully skewed film, in all sorts of ways. The actors sit in rows, facing the place of the camera, with Juanita front center and Fidel and Che on either side of her. Except that the supposed camera to which the actors always direct themselves is not the one that actually shoots the film. We see the stage instead from an oblique angle, well off to the right. The result is that, for instance, when Juanita or Fidel 'steps up to the camera' for a monologue and a close-up, she actually moves out of frame. The show must go on, but it isn't really being addressed to us: for we are way too off-center to engage it. This formal absurdity is only heightened by how the script is presented to us. Ronald Tavel, Warhol's screenwriter, sits on stage along with the rest of the cast. He reads aloud from his script, telling the actors what to do and say. "Fidel, smoke your cigar for a while with great satisfaction." "Juanita, say to Fidel, 'You never really cared about the poor peasants.'" "Fidel, turn to Juanita and yell, 'Puta! Gusana!'" The actor then repeats the line or follows the instruction, usually with over-emphatic gestures and intonations, but trying--with more or less success--to keep a straight face during the process. Marie Menken, who plays Juanita, has an especially hard time. She seems fairly sloshed throughout the film, frequently mumbling or mispronouncing lines, totally garbling Spanish phrases, and querulously complaining that the words she's been told to recite don't make any sense. Sitting in a wicker chair, fanning herself, and taking occasional swigs of beer, she displays all the mannerisms of a fallen grande dame. Overall, she exudes an air of amused indifference mingled with haughty disdain, as if to say, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' Menken's 'bad' performance is the most memorable thing about the film, but all the actors have their moments. At times, Tavel instructs the entire cast to laugh, or cry, or smile as if for a family portrait. The result is something like a well-orchestrated political rally: the same stereotypical actions and expressions are manifested at once by everybody present. The whole film, in effect, is being dictated as we watch: which is just right for a film about a dictator. Language, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, is a performance and not a structure: "the transmission of the word as order-word, not the communication of a sign as information." The Life of Juanita Castro thus performs the Cuban Revolution as camp spectacle, rather than informing us of its accomplishments or failures. Which is why Warhol says, deadpan, that the political "point" of the film is, "it depends on how you want to look at it."

Nothing could be further from the old familiar practices of ideology-critique and the alienation-effect. We aren't deceived or stupefied by this spectacle; but it doesn't give us space for critical reflection either. This is a point that Warhol's critics have often misunderstood. We're usually asked to choose between two readings of Warhol's work: one that praises him for exposing the institutional structures of commodity capitalism and the art world, and one that condemns him for being in complicity with these same institutional structures. But aren't both of these readings beside the point? After all, "if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?" Of course Warhol is in complicity, and of course he is always calling attention to that complicity. But the real interest of his work lies elsewhere. It's too late: the political and art worlds are high camp already. You may hate "the society of the spectacle" with a puritanical fervor, as the Castro regime so ostentatiously does, or as Guy Debord and the Situationists did. But if you care at all for pleasure, if the old corrupt Yankee-controlled Havana of nightclubs, casinos, and whorehouses holds any allure for you whatsoever, then such purism and puritanism clearly won't do. You'll have to work around and within the spectacle, just as Andy did. Near the end of Juanita Castro, Fidel accuses Juanita of opposing his regime only for the sake of publicity, just in order to further her career as a singer and dancer. "But I am a great singer, I am a great dancer," Juanita scornfully replies.

Isn't that the point, right there in a nutshell? As Nietzsche said, even philosophers ought to learn how to dance. What good is virile self-control, or political and aesthetic discipline, compared to the pleasures of a good Cuban cigar and (with a nod to Che) of an Argentinian tango? Warhol recounts asking Emile de Antonio, in the late 50s, why he was having trouble finding acceptance in the art world. "You're too swish," de Antonio replied; "you play up the swish--it's like an armor with you." And, Warhol adds, "it was all too true... I certainly wasn't a butch kind of guy by nature, but I must admit, I went out of my way to play up the other extreme." Come the 60s, this strategy finally paid off. I distrust any account of Warhol, no matter how celebratory, that doesn't take his swishiness into account. If nothing else, Warhol says, he "always had a lot of fun with [the 'swish' thing]--just watching the expressions on people's faces." Of course, this sort of campy aestheticism has been a common strategy of survival for gay men for quite a long time: at least since the invention of hetero- and homosexuality in the later 19th century. Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and Michel Foucault all urge us to transform ourselves into works of art. If Warhol is "the last dandy," as Stephen Koch calls him, it's because he pushes this posture further than anyone else. Warhol is the first to understand that the whole postmodern world is in drag, and not just certain special individuals. In Marxist terms, the actual conditions of production have already outrun whatever we may think and say about them. Warhol is content merely to dramatize this fact. There's no place for us to look, except into the mirror. There's nothing left to do, except go to another party. There are no real men and no real women; it's all insinuation. "I dreamed of scented rooms and endless permutations of identity: boys becoming girls, girls becoming boys who do boys like they're girls," as Grant Morrison writes in his recent comic, The Invisibles. Despite Warhol's massive postmortem institutionalization, his swishy aesthetic retains its provocative force today. It's a permanent reproach to the American cult of virility. It's scarcely possible to take seriously any more, after Warhol, all those tough, high-minded claims these days for an art of political critique on the one hand, and for an art that teaches virtue on the other.

And that's the difference between Warhol and the CIA. The CIA sought in all seriousness to subvert Castro: to castrate him literally or metaphorically, to subject him to the Law of the Father. To render him accountable, in one way or another. Warhol, in contrast, frivolously seeks to pervert Castro: to dress him in drag, and perhaps to drag him into bed. That's what drives the gender play in The Life of Juanita Castro. Behind every great man stands a woman, popular wisdom says; and in this case, Fidel himself is also that woman. Mercedes Ospina plays a rather butch Fidel, swaggering and smirking her way through the part. But she isn't in drag; she makes no attempt to pass for a man. She's just there, in a dress and without a beard. For masculinity is an image and not an object: a superficial performance, rather than an attribute of bodies. It's Fidel's very womanliness that drives him to act so butch. The effect of Ospina's performance is that of an infinite hall of mirrors: a woman playing a man who is really a woman in the guise of a man. Tavel's script heightens the atmosphere of silly delirium. It gleefully mixes political clichés, bitchy reproaches and insults, and moments of absurd overdramatization. At one point, Fidel makes an excruciatingly long speech in bad Spanish (it consumes a full 15 minutes of screen time), while the other actors all fall asleep and snore loudly. (Castro, of course, is as notorious for his long speeches as Warhol is for seemingly interminable films like Sleep and Empire). The film also abounds in sly sexual innuendoes, and in teasing flirtations between the various players: especially between those two big maricones, Raul and Che. It's much more fun to casually cruise a Party meeting than to work twelve hours straight in the hot sun cutting sugar cane. Politics is pervaded and perverted by desire: not by that big, fatal passion that consumes your very being, but by those silly little whims and compulsions that vex you from day to day. Marxism and masculinity must both be redefined. Fidel Castro is nothing but a capricious, bitchy diva, spoiled rotten by too much early success on the world-historical stage. His revolutionary virility is a grand production number; if he carries it off well enough, he hopes, history will absolve him. Fidel is best understood, then, as a fabulous camp icon: a dialectical Bette Davis or a Commie Joan Crawford. And now, in the late 90s, when he's become passé, still holding the line for an obsolete vision of Leninist virtue, doesn't he bear a striking resemblance to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard?

It all comes down to images, and nothing but images. Warhol's art really is about fashion and style. It couldn't care less about what's beneath the surface. Nothing could be more "corny," Warhol says, than "agonized, anguished art" that seeks to uncover hidden depths. The critical spirit finds the world to be radically deficient. Images never satisfy it; it always wants something more. But Warhol just shrugs his shoulders, and suggests that enough is enough. The world, for him, is not deficient, but, if anything, overly full. The junk we collect, Warhol warns us, will fill up all our spaces. The junk Warhol himself collected still hasn't even been catalogued properly. You may remove a pimple today, but you'll discover a new one tomorrow. There's too much out there already; why get excited about one organ more or less? The virile fear of castration is utterly foreign to Warhol. Straight men tend to get all touchy and anxious about their potency. But the straight man is only there to feed the comedian his lines. It's the latter who gets the laughter, and the money, and the applause. That's why Warhol prefers style over substance, swish over machismo, images over things. Why ever bother to dig beneath the surface? You can always make selections and corrections on the skin itself. You can add additional layers, covering acne with makeup, or treating it with sperm or with benzoyl peroxide. "When I did my self-portrait," Warhol tells us, "I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don't have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes--they're not part of the good picture you want."

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