The destabilization ushered in by the digital revolution doesn’t only apply to strategies for presenting others — to new platforms. It also creates opportunities for new strategies of self-presentation.
In media culture, two models of heightened self — “star” and “persona” — consistently play out. The concept of the “star” isn’t very old — 150 years at most, since the time of Barnum and his creation of modern stardom. The idea of “persona” is thousands of years old.
Both models showcase a performed version of self-hood. Nevertheless, there’s a significant distinction between star and persona. A star’s traits are perceived to be genuine extensions of that person. Julia Roberts the star really is Julia Roberts the person, we think. A star is the whole person — a person blessed with “star quality.” A persona, by contrast, is accepted to be more frankly a construction, an artifice, an invention, an idea on its own terms. Persona is constructed by identifying specific traits of the individual, isolating those traits, and then heightening, magnifying or amplifying them to gain certain effects. Pee Wee Herman isn’t really Paul Rubens but is instead constructed by Paul Rubens. We don’t mistake Pee Wee for Paul. To enjoy Pee Wee, we don’t need to know who Paul really is. The conception of naturalism that informs the star isn’t a requisite here.
Because the star is thought to actually be that person it’s a much trickier concept than persona.
What is a star? The star is not an historical actor — not Alexander the Great, not Nero, not Benjamin Franklin. A star is far less than they were. A star just embodies an abstraction — a congeries of human qualities, heightened, yes, but without being linked to specific historical actions. A star represents only a style of being. “Stardom,” a contrivance, applies a management attitude toward human nature.
The concept of the star has a direct relation to modern media. To project an amplified and magnified self, you need amplifiers and magnifiers. You need machinery — cameras and recorders. The star as we know it is therefore a by-product of the machine age.
A star is a star within a frame of media, and within the industry surrounding and supporting that media. “A star of stage and screen,” “a rock star”, “a star athlete” — there is no such thing as a star without a system. A star is always the star of some cultural system. Star and system are absolutely symbiotic.
Stardom has both production and consumption functions. Culture industries (movies, TV, art, literature, music) need “stars” in order to stabilize the market, predict sales numbers, and reduce risk. Consumers approach the matter with less calculation, singling out certain individuals who, for whatever reason, represent desirable, glamorous or innovative human coordinates. Culture industries are adept at manipulating this response, and (to some degree) controlling it in advance. It is a nearly seamless system. Whitney to Britney to Christina to Gwen, the stars change while the star location remains stable. Maintaining that seamlessness requires, though, heavy audience-response management, i.e. environment control; seeing to it that our affections will be transferred from Whitney to Britney to Christina to Gwen takes a great deal of planning! And as we might expect, there’s a direct relationship between the amount of environment control and the inorganic or inauthentic aspects of our culture.
The idea of the star has hardly changed at all since its invention. Why this stasis? Does the concept of the star simply lack elasticity? Or have our imaginations stalled on this one? Really, the sole profound challenge to the established model of stardom was offered by Andy Warhol, who devised an alternative model based on a radically reductive relation between camera and performer, presented and presenter.
Warhol’s concept of the star came from his insight into a certain technology. Fortunately, technology periodically makes cracks in the control mechanism that are not dependent on one genius’s destabilizing vision. Television famously made a crack in the audience control mechanism long enjoyed by the movie industry. The personal computer made a crack in the audience control mechanism long enjoyed by television. And the digital revolution has produced a very large crack in the entire media control mechanism.
Within the context of the digital revolution, wherein the independent imagination can produce and distribute her/his own work without any obligation toward either the art or show business production systems, what place has the “star” model? If a star is always the star of a system, what becomes of the star concept when a system is undefined or non-existent? And if the old concept of the star depended substantially on the power of disproportion — a few people owning cameras and having the power to distribute to everyone else the pictures made by those cameras — how does the concept of the star change in the age of the webcam? Does the dissemination of image-disseminating devices render the concept of the star outmoded?
Here as elsewhere, conditions of instability are to be treated as an opportunity. The old concept of the star — so long with us, so worn thin — is handed a rare chance to evolve, toward something more interesting and illuminating. The sheer impossibility of defending against an independent imagination’s decision to direct his or her own behavior — who he or she is interested and willing to be — renders the “star” one of the most vulnerable parts of the existing entertainment machinery. The star concept can become a portal through which the forces of transparency might infiltrate the mainstream. The idea of the “star” can become a prime site for the formulation of new stances whose honesty might advance a more satisfying kind of entertainment.
Anyone who is inclined to ponder ways to raise the ambitions of entertainment would do well, therefore, to examine the star concept anew. What exactly about the star model is outmoded? What might be useful still? What’s a star for, really? Culturally, how does it perform? What does it deliver to an audience?
To look to anyone from inside the show biz machinery to advance these issues isn’t logical. Show business is a very tough business. Few succeed in it. Would you be willing to risk the standing you’d worked so hard to attain for the sake of a theory? Not likely. Not many would. That’s just human nature. (Of course, it doesn’t help matters any that show business is structured to work against this sort of risk-taking. The lot of even the most successful film and TV actor is to select among roles, not to generate them — a professional situation that dramatically reduces one’s control and puts any aggressively conceptual use of iconicity out of one’s reach. Few, therefore, ever attain the degree of control that might have allowed them to treat the materiality of stardom in the experimental manner this cultural moment affords.)
Stars of the mass entertainment culture are opaque representatives of industry mechanisms. They appear in the mainstream as indicators of their access to the mainstream. The conventional show biz star does not and perhaps cannot reveal or speak to the workings of the system that presents them without putting at risk his or her own position within it; whatever analysis of the show biz system a star may have been required to undertake in order to achieve their stardom thus remains opaque, secret…. Anyone who cannot sign a treaty with the machinery of presentation cannot become or remain a star. But because they must remain an opaque indicator of the mechanism that presents them — a mainstream indicator of access to the mainstream — the star’s function narrows to, really, tragicomic dimensions.
It falls, therefore, to an outsider to that system — the independent imagination unbeholden to system, who has nothing to lose — to climb into the cracks in the existing star model put there by the digital hammer and to undertake the needed experiments.
Some Useful Precedents
Any High Entertainment aspirant who has a taste for self-presentation might consider the innovation of a new star model — perhaps one in which you’d somehow show the system at the same time that the system showed you. As ever, the form would have to be discovered. Helpful precedents can be identified, though.
The Beaver Trilogy was an early entry in the destabilized interplay between art, self, and media that characterizes our era. Begun in 1978 and completed in 1985 — and therefore in a sense pre-digital — Trent Harris’s film, in which three treatments of a happenstance encounter are sandwiched into a single work, presents a continuum unique in media history. The Trilogy begins with a documentary treatment of an actual encounter in a Beaver, Utah, parking lot, continues with a fictionalized version of that encounter, then embroiders that fiction further in yet another version (offering in effect a fiction based on a fiction). Each of the three parts proposes and explores a different configuration of self in dynamic relation to media; no one relationship is the “true” one. Harris’s film signals that a conception of self that had formed and held steady during the first stage of the media age, from the invention of cinema through to the 1970s, is on the verge of evolving into another, more complex configuration.
The protagonist of the first segment of the film, Greg, is a real person (the small-town Beaver setting is real too). Greg, on camera, eagerly identifies himself as a guy who does impersonations of show biz figures (John Wayne, Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone). Nearest to the heart of this Rich Little of Beaver, Utah, though, is his impersonation of the Australian singer and pop star Olivia Newton-John. At the same time that he reveals his media-imprinting, Greg is honest, open, guileless — real. An enthusiastic Greg invites the unidentified cameraman to come back and tape his Newton-John impersonation at an upcoming talent show. We subsequently watch Greg’s transformation into Olivia (his make-up is applied by the local mortician!) and his weirdly compelling drag performance of one of Olivia’s darker songs.
To convey the integrity of Greg’s situation, in this first section filmmaker Harris goes with a documentary approach. As a style of filmmaking, documentary involves the least amount of authorial intervention, so it gives the impression of being closer to objective truth, but it is still a style; documentary is just a type of artifice that we associate with authenticity. As The Beaver Trilogy proceeds it will continue to test the differences between an authentic or “art” presentation of self and a “show biz” presentation of self.
Greg had offered his impersonations of actors; in the next section of the film, that relationship gets reversed, with a young actor, an at-the-time-unknown Sean Penn, doing an impersonation of Greg. (This, now fictionalized version of the documentary footage is in the tradition of a “biopic,” with the difference that here the source material is itself already mediated.) Penn mimics Greg’s manner as closely as he’s able. Similarly, certain passages of the documentary footage are re-used in order to establish this new version’s fealty to the original story (and thus the integrity inhering to that story).
But some curious changes in the story’s treatment have leaked in. For one thing, the filmmakers who are presenting Greg’s story are now themselves depicted, becoming characters in the story. Furthermore, they’ve been assigned the stereotypical worldly, cynical, exploitive attitudes that movies and television have taught us to associate with “big-city filmmakers arriving in a small town.” The notion of integrity has shifted, from the earlier “art” model to, now, a show biz model, announced by the filmmakers’ attitude that if something looks good on film then the film’s integrity needs to be protected and preserved whatever the consequences to the human subject; in show biz culture, media’s needs trumps people’s. Additionally, this fictionalized version of the encounter with Greg speculates upon the effects that his public performance as “Olivia” might have had on him personally. Sean Penn’s Greg is seen contemplating, and nearly attempting, suicide. Harris has given us a stereotype, consciously-chosen, of what we think the life of someone “like” Greg “must be like” in a small Western town “like” Beaver.
In the subsequent, third version, the core story is bracketed by even more elaborately imagined pre- and post-performance scenes. Greg, now called Larry (!), is played by actor Crispin Glover, who seems to inhabit the character in a way that wasn’t available to Sean Penn, who had directly mimicked the original Greg. (Was Glover shown either of the first two segments?) The filmmaking in this third, fictionalized section of the Trilogy is spookier, moodier, more sensational, more deeply invested in the artifice of narrative. Now a story is clearly being told, and to tell it, more of the conventions of show biz are introduced: added is a pair of local troublemakers, concerned parents, and a sexy waitress in a diner. Even Larry’s performance on stage has been pumped up, accompanied now by fog wafting off dry ice.
We’re witnessing the real experience of real-life Greg being absorbed, step by step, into filmmaking stereotypes. On first consideration it seems that he’s being made fun of, but in fact it’s the pretentions and assumptions of Hollywood filmmaking that are being shown up and mocked. It is Greg’s commitment to his oddness, and his bravery in presenting it to the world, that constitute the real thing, and Trent Harris knows it.
The Beaver Trilogy gave indication that templates long utilized in conventional approaches to filmmaking were no longer sufficient to frame the media-saturated sense of self. The Beaver Trilogy focused on a man. When it comes to understanding role-playing, though, women are often more advanced. Years before the Trilogy, a woman who was actually formed by those templates and who lived through media played another kind of sophisticated shell-game with authenticity.
“I do in life exactly what I do when I act. I go through this extroverted, exhibitionistic period — talking like the character, and so on — as an experiment.”
Cindy Sherman was still a child when Jane Fonda began exploring her own novel take on the coordinates of self-presentation in a media-saturated culture. Fonda had an insight into the power secreted within the ostensible passivity of the Gazed Upon — did it spring from having cameras regularly trained on her as Hollywood royalty, daughter of actor Henry? — and she then proceeded to organize her life around that insight in a way that broke new ground.
The record of her progress unfolds in a series of photographs taken over many years. (The photographs were not themselves the project but, rather, trace the contour of the project.) None of the photos were taken by her. Some were production stills from movies, some were publicity shots or press photos, others were photo-journalistic documents that appeared in newspapers. Arranged chronologically these images describe a consciousness flowering through a succession of roles.
Jane makes her entrance in the late 1950s as Hollywood Ingénue, fresh-faced find of the movie studios. From there it’s an easy segue to publicity stills that promote Starlet Jane — a Young Working Actress learning her craft but still doing what she is told. Next get an eyeful of Jane working another traditional Hollywood role — Sex Kitten — selling it on the beach, nude, come hither, self-possessed. Va-va-va-voom! Zap! it’s Avant Garde Jane in her Euro phase as Barbarella, campy sci-fi adventuress, wife of French director Roger Vadim, open to experiment. Returned to American shores, she’s Activist Jane, at a rally with new husband Tom Hayden. Boo, hiss — it’s the reviled Hanoi Jane, visiting the Viet Cong to see the enemy for herself. Lights, camera, action: it’s Movie Star Jane (just as extremist, really, though it reads as a retreat),
in ’70s hits like Klute, The China Syndrome, The Electric Horseman, and Nine to Five. Feel the burn with Jane the Workout Queen! Marriage to CNN founder and billionaire Ted Turner, lands her another role: Mogul’s Wife.
Hanoi Jane, Mogul’s Wife… Each phase is in quotes. Can she have meant any of them? Did she mean them all? The sets keep changing. Supporting players come and go. Because the subject of the photographs is a famous actress, historical situations and social trends read as theaters — all the world’s a stage, right? Jane, inviting herself into history, absorbs history, makes it hers. Confident that she has your attention, she brings you along on her personal life-adventure. (Imagine the scale of ego involved.) Cindy Sherman would later gain fame for concocting a series of photographic images of female role-playing. But Fonda, while perhaps less clever, was far more radical than Sherman who, bewigged and costumed, carried out her work within the safety of her studio. Switching lifestyle like a change in hairstyle, Fonda did it out there in the world, confident that the cameras would follow.
Transferring a process of image construction to situations and histories that had no direct or consistent relation to commerce or film production, Fonda applied it directly to her life. Jane the subject progressively became Jane the author as well, directing herself through a series of roles. “Jane Fonda” became not just a role but a medium too. The roles changed while the role playing, the authorial self choosing roles, the self-mythologizing, and the process of becoming, remained consistent. What resulted was akin to performance art, set against the backdrop of mass culture and continued over many years. All content — privilege, revolution, beauty — became indexed to the performance. Though she wasn’t associated with the art context, Jane Fonda made sophisticated conceptual use of image production and image function.
Is it necessary to be a bona fide star to use the materiality of stardom in an interesting way? It is not. Consider Angelyne, a Hollywood icon who has never appeared in any Hollywood product. Angelyne’s medium of choice is the billboard — most usually one looming above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, on which she has periodically appeared since the early 1980s in all her self-promoting pink and blonde Tinseltown glory. The self-invented Angelyne is a product, to be sure, but what is for sale is only an image and a concept, the name of which seamlessly blends the angelic and the synthetic. Angelyne succeeds in rerouting traditional show biz promotion into a kind of public art. Another witty take on stardom was concocted in the late 1980s by Adrian Danatt, a British art writer who, briefly donning an impresario’s top hat, offered the world a mysterious and (it eventually became known) entirely fake art collective dubbed The Three. A trio of female models, who supposedly met on a catwalk in Tokyo but actually were hired by Danatt in a casting call, The Three produced nothing but the attention paid them. Moody publicity photographs of The Three, their occasional appearances at art openings, and media coverage of these comprised their work. “The idea,” Danatt explained, “[was] to try to create a perfect media loop in which it’s just constantly revolving around absolutely nothing.”
Fonda, Angelyne, and Danatt worked interesting angles on celebrity, that oh so modern phenomenon which is everywhere shoved at us yet manages to elicit from us only a collective sigh of toleration. For what is the celebrity, really, but a vehicle through which mass media conveys its power and ubiquity? Celebrities are willing dupes of that power — “morally neutral,” Daniel Boorstin called them — and as such they represent a decadence. They accomplish next to nothing in the world of human affairs yet, because they’ve gained entree to our society’s silly but exclusive VIP lounge, the media culture, expect always to be noticed nevertheless. How to make celebrity interesting? That’s the question confronting the budding High Entertainer who chooses to take the subject on. It won’t be easy: only a few stars (Fonda, Madonna, Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Warhol) found ways to use their media access to conceptual, as opposed to a purely commercial, effect. Is there some way to use the space occupied by the celebrity in a more satisfying way?
Some of us have been interested in Paris Hilton for the very reason that she appears to have no other content than the mechanisms of celebrity. Standing before us minus the distractions of apparent talent or ability, she, like Angelyne, is a concept, of her or someone like her. Other than occasionally mewing “That’s hot!” (her own variant on bland Warholian endorsement), the woman has nothing to say, and yet for some time now she has succeeded in moving from media space to media space to media space, web to print to broadcast. Her “content” is her presence in that space, her access to it, her movement from one medium to another. Movement across the surface of the system that presents her is the only “meaning” Paris Hilton offers. Approve of it or don’t, but hers is a very pure position. That she’s from the upper class is crucial to her contentlessness. An heiress needn’t engage the conventional middle-class success narrative. Neither does she seek change nor progress of any sort, as a middle-class person might feel compelled to do. Thus, not only “morally neutral” but refreshingly devoid of the needs associated with most who aspire to a place in media culture, the urge to comment muted, she is able to stand — more accurately, pose — in the foreground as a purer representative of the background. As a result, Hilton functions as a prism through which we observe the disturbing realities of our media system at work.
Whether Hilton is conscious of the concept she embodies isn’t clear. Her inarticulateness frustrates our notions of authorship, and yet the woman is not only making choices but, within the theater that interests her, the correct choices. Clueless she is not, even if the exact amount of her input is unknown. The possibility that the real author of these choices might instead be some manager, talent agent or other behind-the-scenes Svengali is classic show biz opacity, perpetrated a thousand times before. Young Paris may or may not be in charge, may or may not be an artist of the mass media, but isn’t ambiguity of that sort the currency of show biz?
If context isn’t all it certainly determines much: Hilton is considered a joke while her nearest counterpart in the art world, Maurizio Catellan, is looked upon as a genius. A huge difference between these two does have to be noted up front, of course: Catellan consistently makes terrific objects that signal his highly sophisticated strategy. He actually does something, in other words. As befits one who’s working in the art context, Catellan’s intentionality is much more pronounced, much more part of his subject matter — and unquestionably it’s vastly more satisfying to think about a brilliant comedian who is strongly present as the author of his decisions than it is a mere celebrity who may not be. That said, Catellan’s “content” too is similarly the movement across the surface that presents him — in this case, the globalized network of galleries, museums, and biennials. He treats the art system as a system — a platform — across which he merrily skips. “As [he] never tires of repeating,” the art critic Giorgio Verzotti tells us, “profundity should not be sought because it is not achievable, because it does not exist. However there is a great possibility for expansion over this surface.” (Might Hilton, as she dresses for yet another evening on the town, secretly share his outlook?) Catellan’s strategy flattens out the system that presents him. By reducing its meaning to a single dimension — its display function — he puts the powerful system that presents him on display.
By now the attentive reader will have noticed a pattern. Cindy Sherman represents one kind of sophistication about image-production and role-playing, Jane Fonda another. Paris Hilton can be read as having made a contribution to future work of a sort that Maurizio Catellan does in a more explicit and directed manner. Ideas useful to the High Entertainer are to be discovered in both contexts. Can we say that entertainers Fonda and Hilton lack all intentionality simply because they don’t foreground it in the manner of artists Sherman and Catellan? No. Occasionally an “entertainer” will even get to the good idea first! Art and show business are organized around differing cores of transparency and opacity, and the star model will perform differently within each context. The High Entertainer understands this and takes what he needs.
Apropos a new, more useful formulation of the star, what do the experiences of Jane and Angelyne, Paris and Maurizio, tell us? They tell us, for one thing, that if you’re “full of content” — be it critique, analysis, personal neurosis, or any content other than your existential location within a system — you reduce the likelihood that the system will “fill” you with its own content. Include too much personal information and you block the system information from coming through.
Notice too that Fonda and company level no overt criticism at the cultural industries that present them. Fonda was an advocate for social change, not a vocal critic of the movie industry. Hilton offers no critique at all. (Critique isn’t “hot,” apparently.) Catellan dances across a surface that he’s well aware is corrupted by money and power arrangements, but, an honest man, he never pretends there’s no mud on his own shoes. He’s complicit. Star and system, system and star — there is no such thing as a star entirely independent of system yet all three of these figures have managed to hit upon coordinates that can not be controlled or contained. Their success in doing so demonstrates that we need not resort to criticality to advance a new star model.
Memo From the Star Lab
1) Imagine what a system, context, or culture needs.
2) Be that thing, either through real actions or by creation of a persona.
[ 1 ] Gary Herman and David Downing, Jane Fonda: All-American Anti-Heroine