On the undesirability of total bliss
A review-essay on Jon Leon
In a culture in which unfreedom is the object even of the desire for freedom, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta may offer the disappearance of desire (in the paradoxical form of the immediacy of everything touchable) not so much as a solution — the book is anything but a commentary on celebrity culture or a polemic against the culture industry — but as a factual index of the total poverty of everyday life.
Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta is a small, wordless book by the poet Jon Leon, published by James Copeland for his new Content series. Leon’s book is a series of black and white photographs of photographs and television screens depicting the actresses Zoë Lund, Elizabeth Berkley, and Lindsay Lohan.
First, there’s Lund, the B-movie virgin-whore of Mr. 45 and Bad Lieutenant (which she cowrote), who died (fashionably late) of heart failure due to cocaine. Next is Berkley, the child actress who played the enterprising libber Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell and later the opposite of Spano in the character of Nomi Malone, stripper protagonist of Showgirls. Finally, Lohan is the poster child for child-star syndrome who got her second break as Cady Heron in Mean Girls, but since then can only be seen vacant or crying in Us Weekly and on TMZ.
The first thing you notice about the pictures is that all of the images of Lund and Berkley are taken from movies (Lund in various roles, Berkley in Showgirls). The images of Lohan, on the other hand, are either paparazzi or personal photos; hers are pictures in which she is not a character but herself as celebrity. This difference is intensified by the fact that Zoë Lund and Elizabeth Berkley never look directly into the camera, always off to one side, while Lohan always looks straight into the camera.
It is impossible to tell where Lohan in character ends and Lohan in real life begins. Instead of ending and insisting on this problem of an infinite series of representations without origin, Leon begins there, and thus his book is poised to break out of its po-mo short circuit through, as we shall see, a curiously ingenious method.
Take, for instance, the fact that the photographs are of other photographs or of television screens. The photographs of television screens have the same graininess that photographs of television screens have always had, giving them a sheen of naïveté. Yet I would argue that the tiredness of this kind of image (the innocent — though sophomoric — glee when one first takes a photo of a TV) is integral to the book’s success, assembling perhaps an aesthetic as abject and uncritical as its subject matter — not something filthy and pornographic, not the suffering body, but the banality and obsolescence of life lived after an apocalypse. It testifies to a half-truth that for us the only proper response to the total commodification of suffering and exploitation is the repetition of our masochistic desire for representations of meaningless suffering.
In that sense, perhaps, Leon’s photographs offer an alternative to the hedonism of the Ryan McGinleys of the art world. When the art world turns out as many Dash Snows as Hollywood does Lohans, it is no longer possible to seek refuge in the formal purity of serious art. At the same time, Leon’s photographs in their very form stand against the cynicism inherent in work of artists such Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who are unable and unwilling to imagine art as it exists outside of market forecasts.
In one way, Leon’s desire to have “everything touchable right now,” or as he says in an interview, to have “a Coke with Lindsay,” is a kind of longing for presence that belies his total inurement in the fashion system. At the same time, we can read Leon’s desire for authenticity as a simulation more pure in that it demands the nearness of things and images and the accessibility of celebrity, as opposed to the alienation of such a desire in the forms of fashion and advertising which reduces spectatorship to mere consumption. It demands inclusion not in the seductive spectacle of the fantasy (actually running naked through a wilderness of fireworks with beautiful naked twentysomethings) but instead in the ungrounded real of that fantasy — the fantasy as such.
This lends to Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay a kind of nihilism, one irreducible to the forced choice of McGinley or Hirst. But in general, this nihilism can be characterized more by resignation and surrender than by ecstasy and jouissance: a fascination with surface, a resignation to the present and the attenuation of utopian drive, and the painful inability to imagine an alternative, a pain reflected in the eyes of the women in Leon’s pictures.
The poor quality and uninspired form of the photographs tends toward an unassimilable triteness that refuses both the cynical game of Hirst and Koons, and the uninhibited free expression of McGinley and Snow (or even the gloss of Vice magazine).
It suggests that surrender is the current possibility for true artistic production in a culture where the only recognizable symbols of jouissance have either been trademarked by Levi’s or figured into the extensive portfolio of Saatchi & Saatchi. It is no longer possible to look at a Richard Kern photograph without kind of wishing you were looking at a Terry Richardson photograph instead or, better, Internet pornography in the privacy of your home. You can get all the gory titillation of Acker in online erotica and save yourself the slog through experimentalism. And yet, Leon’s book does not depict abjectness, and the abjectness of everyday life that is evoked by the insipid monotony of his photos lends the project something more ineffably interesting even though the photographs are themselves uninteresting.
Thus the upside of the book’s resignation to inauthenticity (its “surrender” to popular desire), insofar as that resignation is a hallmark of postmodernism, is that it is able to declaim the falsity of that inauthenticity from the real point of its resignation. This is especially true in the longest and most compelling part of the book: for the final sixty or so pages, the famous image from Showgirls where Berkley is shown licking the dance pole repeats, first just one per page, which is soon doubled and then quadrupled. It’s the total gratuitousness of pop culture cranked up by affectless indifference of lulz.
For instance, in the Berkley sequence, one gets the feeling that one is looking at the individual frames of that film, that one has gotten to the minutest level of granularity possible, that like a physicist, one is looking at the elementary particles of this pseudo-scandalous scene that everyone’s older brother talked about and that we all anticipated in reruns. At this microscopic level, where we would expect to find the very kernel of desire that would justify our seduction, we find only the mute repetition of the same.
The book insists upon the falsely true desire to have everything touchable — “false” because impossible and ideological, and “true” because that very falsity is the truth of desire. And the book is all the more illegible for insisting neither on the symbolic reversal inherent in appropriation and détournement nor on death’s potent and poignant negation (which is not a negation), insisting instead on a kind of pure positivity of consumption, on a horrifying dialectical reversal of the culture industry which creates a world so humanized, comprehensible only in terms of human consumption, that it has become entirely inhospitable to humans. It is also a world in which art imitates life only to the extent that it can condition that life, can influence its trajectory, so that a celebrity is predestined precisely to turn out a drug-addled wash-up continuously hounded by camera crews. Otherwise, he or she is judged an antiquated failure. It’s a process that cannot be countered by an ironic mash-up or a mandarin high/low distinction.
The book perhaps gives a new legibility to the false choice between popular art and serious art, which Adorno described as “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up,” namely that the choice between highbrow and lowbrow is not sufficiently combatted by a more fundamental choice between cynical enjoyment and critical fascination. In Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay, we find ourselves in a culture transfixed by the antinomy of desire, the misanthropy of its logic caught between the pain of living out the tragic plot penned by the culture industry and the inability not to desire or to free our desire from profit. Inspiring because uninspired, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is neither an ironic collage of high and low culture nor a “so bad it’s good” recuperation of trashy libertinism.
It’s perhaps impossible to like this book, which exists almost as a negative space within the field of desire, but that might be the point (even if it’s not Leon’s intention). Could there be a work of art that is not likeable, that cannot be redeemed? Could there be a piece of what we call art that is not assimilable to desire, that cannot be mediated enough (by terms like “outsider art,” “pastiche,” “transgression,” “conceptual art,” etc.) ever to become fungible? It may be that the impossibility of enjoying Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is an index of the current impossibility of art itself insofar as its objects are immediately exchangeable and invested with both capital and desire.
Art in general (and poetry in particular) can nowadays only touch the real in its total failure, mostly because life, which should be real, appears only more artificial. And the real some artworks touch in their failure is in no way the real as that which is obscured by art’s artifice, but is instead the real as the real of art as an undecidable choice between theatricality and absorption (or, in Leon’s words, between the perception of life and life itself). The problem is not so much with their collapse, but with our continued insistence on their separation, or, as is sometimes the case with Leon himself, with the veneration of one over the other.
And that’s why I find it odd to see myself writing that Leon’s work, esp. Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay (perhaps contrary to Leon’s intention and certainly contrary to his characterization of his own work), is a kind of rejection of experience as a useful category for social change, where social change is predicated upon a change in consciousness. The poetry of failure, on the other hand, always finds its end in consciousness; it is an attempt to change or raise consciousness through some sort of radical experience — whether pornographic or apocalyptic. Its contradiction lies in being able to make a non-goal (failure, uselessness, waste) into a goal (social change). This return of the goal (in the form of utopia) comes about via an inability to think the desire for the real as a kind of non-desire or disappearance of desire (as in, the real of desire could not be something desirable).
It seems to me that contrary to all the fin de siècle decadence and Brett-Easton-Ellis-ness of his poetry, Leon’s form is essentially against desire and especially the desire for the real in the form of a nude model lounging in a hot tub or a cracked-out topless redneck in the pages of Vice.
That being said, one cannot ignore that, for the most part, Leon appears to be another poet-hedonist, calling as he does for the construction of “a total environment of total bliss,” which the poet-critic Dan Hoy reads as a call to “enable and induce the experience of the impossible.” But the image evoked by the content of Leon’s work is precisely the imaginary capture that ends in the limited capacity to think only in terms of desire and experience, not the impossible. And while that is the Leon which Hoy, and to some extent Leon as well, promotes, I think Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is rather a more complex book than that.
The more interesting and telling aspect of Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay does not appear as a function of its content and only obliquely in terms of its form. Instead, the book “works” in that it is explicitly a book (an art book no less) circulating in the world of interchangeable commodities, except that its almost unassimilable crappiness ensures that it will occupy that world’s suture to the emptiness of being, the immanence of everything’s dissolution in everything else — what we might call “total bliss without experience” or simply “the impossible.”
It is at this point that the book neither represents nor performs, neither positively or negatively, but instead brutally and factually is that which runs perpendicular to desire — whether the cynical desire to have it all right now or the utopian desire to have it all later. It is something more horrible than any negativity, which however pure can always be appropriated dialectically as a misrecognized identity. Instead we get the book as a total positivity, as the fact of beauty, seduction, desire, and ideology prior to any distancing critique. It’s the horror of having “everything touchable right now.” Whether cynical or utopian, desire is always about deferment, whether the dissolution on possessing the object of desire (Lacan’s “ce n’est pas ça”) or the elevation of the object to a plane of total transcendence. Leon’s book is an affirmation of the fact that since you don’t get your desired object you still enjoy. It’s a new twist on the old, “It’s not the destination …”
Is this Leon’s intention? I don’t know. Is it successful? Maybe, maybe not. All I’m saying is that I find in it something more interesting than a project or a solution. Leon starts from the unnamable and impossible real of art, that which runs circles around art; his interest in decadence and exhausted libertinism is accidental. The real of art does not shine through the veneer of glamour, conspicuous consumption, and the commodification of the art world by a violent exposure, by hysterically pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, because the real cannot be an end, cannot be a goal, cannot be represented by a tittering manicule or a roaring J’accuse! Neither can it be the perpetuated fantasies of reconciliation and consummation crystallized in the image of rooftop hot tub as metaphor for utopia.