Fall 2001

Warhol’s Aura and the Language of Writing

A world of likenesses

Tan Lin

For Warhol, the world was a world of likenessess. Language was no different from television or film or one of his photo-silkscreen portraits: a recording medium that allowed someone’s likeness to be transformed into something else in the eyes of someone else. For Warhol, change made some things beautiful, not in any objective sense, but for others, which is to say that change was generally mediated by outside sources: “Jewelry doesn’t make a person more beautiful, but it makes a person feel more beautiful.” Language doesn’t make a person who he or she is; it makes a person feel more like him or herself. Increasingly, the presence that attached itself to people was associated with intangible things, with shadows or with camouflage, or with make-up, with the look of the commodity, with what Warhol termed “nothing,” with negative spaces, and above all with fame. Language, like film or a photograph or jewelry or make-up, because applied from outside, lends a person a presence they don’t have by themselves. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in a chapter on fame, Warhol gave that presence a more precise term, “aura,” and distinguished it from product. But then Warhol had a lot of other names for those amorphous moments and persons and locations that were not precisely tied to a person’s physical body: beauty, fame, “TV magic,” screen presence, fabulous, being “on,” “something.” Somewhat paradoxically, being on TV has the same effect of producing presence, which explains why Warhol’s “greatest unfulfilled ambition” was to have his own TV talk show where he could just list the mundane events of his day, night after night after night. He wanted to call it Nothing Special.

Change incites beauty: “The red lobster’s beauty only comes out when it’s dropped into the boiling water… and nature 
changes things and carbon is turned into diamonds...” Change is a byproduct of time passing, and that is why so much of Warhol’s writing takes the form of the chronicles, keeping a diary, tracking business expenses, or recording events as they happen. Such recording is a kind of waiting, and, specifically, a kind of waiting for exactly the same thing to happen again. Waiting for beauty is a way of flirting with it before it arrives. Warhol loved Marilyn and Jackie because they were beautiful, and his photo-silkscreen portraits of them are endless flirtations with who they are, and who they are becoming (for us). “Beautiful people are sometimes more prone to keep you waiting than plain people are, because there’s a big time differential between beautiful and plain.” Waiting, like those portraits, is serial. Seriality is the best way to experience time as repetition. Repetition is flirtation that never ends.

Most of Warhol’s films and writings are ostensibly vacant, auratic exercises in the ongoingness of waiting for something (which was usually nothing) to happen. Looking at Jackie or the Empire State Building, I feel my eyes flirting with the things 
I am seeing. Love is a way of delaying what we are seeing from happening, and in Warhol’s works anticipation cancels out remembering. Beauty never occurs just once, especially in a disco or other trance-inducing venue. Warhol painted the Shadow Paintings for a nightclub, where they blend in and where they perfectly yet obscurely mimic the motions of bodies on a dance floor. In this way, they repeat what our bodies are doing and, in repeating and thus freezing our motions, they slow down human time like a strobe light in a disco. 
By so doing, Warhol was able to toy with and also question the idea of beauty or love that was no longer subject to pure operations of chance; all forms of chance, like our desires, are radically systematized, mechanically produced (repeated) in the manner that commodities are fabricated. 
In this manner, we fall in love mechanically with the things we desire (to see).

Like simulated shadows on a canvas, like commodities in relation to our desires, make-up could be said to be at once artificial and external to its “product.” Make-up creates the aura of a face or a thing that never changes, that repeats itself ad infinitum. Make-up is a form of camouflage and it is the means wherein a commodity makes itself apparent to our desires; just as camouflage mechanically unmasks the look of natural foliage, so too does make-up mechanically enliven a face that is not quite the face we thought we knew, which is to say that it produces in a mechanical or artificial way, the aura of a heightened human sexuality, a kind of near-repetition of our own desires to see our own desires mirrored in someone else. The distinction between a ‘mere’ mechanical repetition and more ‘natural’ near-repetition fascinated Warhol; by erasing and complicating that distinction Warhol was able to delineate subtle overlappings between boredom 
and love, the affectless and the affect laden. In Warhol, we frequently gaze at a face that is not quite the face we knew; a shadow of 
a body that is not actually our shadow; 
a painting that is a painting in camouflage; 
a soup can that is not exactly the soup 
can that we see on a store shelf. Between the world of unchanging (and commodified) essences and the world of our everyday perceptions, the idea of difference and similitude is simultaneously registered.

Change, like boredom, is the byproduct of time passing. One might add that Warhol’s paintings, like his novel A and his films, are the byproduct of time repeating itself, and thus that thing known as desire. Warhol is the most Platonic of modern artists. He creates an endless series of simulacra of Eternal Forms. All eternal forms shall be converted into formulas (for the things we see) and then repeated in perpetuity. Beauty can never be had; it can only be flirted 
with. Waiting for something or especially someone beautiful to show up is one of 
the best ways of passing the time, as 
Warhol pointed out on numerous occasions. Warhol understood that commodities do not wait for us, we wait for them, and the act of buying something artificial was really just the anticipation of buying something real 
(or vice versa). Emotions are interchangeable with the things that produce those emotions. A commodity is a thing waiting to happen 
to a consumer who has no memory of time passing. An emotion is a thing waiting to happen to a person who has no memory 
of (i.e. is flirting with) time passing. Every
thing beautiful is serial, even a car crash 
or a soup can. Everything is a repetition 
of what we are waiting to see again. In Warhol, we feel the things we are waiting 
to see again.

To repeat: Love is the desire to make beauty repeat itself. Plato said that. That is why Warhol makes us fall in love with shadows, car crashes, camouflage patterns, dead celebrities who wear lots of make-up, and doppelgangers. Looking at a Warhol film or a photo-silkscreen, the highly segmented and Taylorized worker of the human senses (eye or ear) is converted into a kind of psychedelia or trance production line. Waiting becomes labor in reverse (the deathly labor of doing nothing), a kind of camouflage or shadowing. Both are substitutes for our sense of sight and ultimately for not seeing: “I don’t believe in it, because you’re not around to know that it’s happened. I can’t say anything about it because I’m not prepared for it.” Death is the most heavily camouflaged thing in Warhol, and the only thing Warhol didn’t live in anticipation of. We repeat what we want to see or hear. Everything we see is a surrogate for something we can’t quite feel, and vice versa. Reading is replaced by “something like reading”; watching a movie is replaced by something like “watching a movie.”

Most of Warhol’s films are about people not changing because not changing was what most people do most of the time. Change is atypical. Not changing is also known as boredom and Warhol liked “boring things” (POP50), attenuated time frames, desultory and unpredictable mechanical “systems” of production, variable repetition, occasional violence, open schedules, haphazard talk, and blasé mediation. A film about the Empire State building, a film about a man sleeping, a film about a man getting fellated—these were ways Warhol flirted with things that were not yet “happening.” That is why Warhol claimed to have never grown up: “I’m missing some chemicals and that’s why I have this tendency to be more of a—mama’s boy. A—sissy… I’m immature, but maybe something could happen to my chemicals and I could get mature.” That is also why Warhol liked things that are exactly the same: “…most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I’m just the opposite: If I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same—I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Not surprisingly, Warhol disavowed orchestrating the destruction (change) of particular individuals like Edie Sedgwick. No one makes an artwork and no one changes somebody else: “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.”

The eye produces serial images, automatically, and without thought. The mouth produces serial words, automatically, and without thought. Eye and mouth are both surrogate modes of “being oneself.” The most interesting mode of being oneself used to be “having a memory.” Not surprisingly, Warhol’s two favorite surrogates were his tape recorder and his camera, which functioned as his ears and eyes respectively. Both lacked memory. Similarly, the screen tests were about waiting for someone to walk in and sit for a few minutes and manifest, as a kind of deaf-mute image, that thing known as “screen presence.” For this reason, beauty that occurs there occurs in the background and still strikes its viewers dumb. Warhol, in Monte Carlo, at the Hotel Mirabeau remarks: “Damian looked beautiful in a navy-blue Dior.” In Rome: “Just then, Ursula Andress appeared at the top of the stairs. She looked beautiful.” In Blow-Job, the hustler finally comes after 41 minutes. Somewhere in the middle of an eight-hour Empire, the flood lights go on and the Empire State Building begins to shine or give off something filmic, much like the face of Marilyn or Jackie.

The films (like his novel A) are experiments in slowing down viewing (or reading) time or creating a lag between clock time and the rate at which we register perceptual changes. One of the things that slow-motion does is make change harder to see. Oddly, boredom, which most people associate with things not changing, creates for Warhol a heightened state of anticipation, a place where beauty might erupt. In this sense, Warhol’s films and novels mimic the endless staying the same that is existence and the endless continual change that is also and simultaneously existence. One might say that beauty for Warhol was that point where boredom and change overlap. A typical Warhol film was shot at sound speed or 24 frames per second, but played back at silent speed, or 16 frames per second, thus literally slowing down the rate at which an image changes and prolonging the rate at which things stay the same. The slower speed enabled Warhol to capture what he called “nothing”: “…we ran it at a slower speed 
to make up for the film I didn’t shoot.” The slowed-down film heightens the fact that something that we can’t quite perceive 
or register is going on in the background, something unnoticed like wallpaper or something accidentally recorded, like off-screen voices.

All of these repeated elements or serial patterns are forms of ‘nothing’ that make up our day-to-day perceptions, the things we almost register consciously. For this reason, it takes much longer to transcribe or read 
A then it did to actually say it. The best language is the language that just takes place somewhere in the background, language we hear but don’t remember, language that merely fills up the time slowly and completely without us fully processing or consciously thinking about it. It is 
often hard to tell who is speaking to whom; arguments are left unfinished; body language is lost; only one half of telephone conversations are recorded; when people speak simultaneously, multiple voices are often transcribed out of order. Transcribing 
a life in this manner renders it almost impossibly opaque and difficult to apprehend, much less remember. Fame 
is the best kind of background noise; it obscures who we are not. The opposite of being successful is being nothing. Fifteen minutes is a short time for someone who wants to be famous. Novelistic time, like art time, is artificially constructed to feign speed, suspense, and resolution. Warhol preferred boredom, empty spaces, killing time, and no memory. “My mind is like a tape recorder with one button—Erase. If I wake up too early to check in with anyone, I kill time by watching TV and washing my underwear. Maybe the reason my memory is so bad is that I always do at least two things at once.”

For Warhol, aura was inseparable from change and exchange. What makes stories change is other people telling them: Dylan told Warhol he didn’t destroy a painting of Elvis (the rumor) that Warhol had given to Dylan. Later, Robbie Robertson told Warhol that Dylan had traded it for a sofa (the purported truth). The language of A is the language of gossip, of stories being changed as they are exchanged, of the endless mediation and shuffling around of things that happened or the nothing that happened when language records the things that happen everyday. Loving nothing is the finest excuse we have for loving something beside ourselves. Bridget asks, “What did you learn this year that you didn’t know before?” Warhol replies, “Nothing. That’s why I’m wiser. That extra year of learning nothing.” Fame and its handmaiden, flattery, comprise the two major ingredients of Warhol’s world, and they are both spread on the wings of talk: self-aggrandizement on the one hand, self-attenuation on the other; talk about ourselves blown out of all proportion to who we are, and talk about someone else because they are larger than ourselves. Somewhere between fame and flattery, between wanting to be famous and total self-abnegation, Warhol created his surrogate: He claimed he wanted to be “a nobody,” or better yet, a machine.

Language is the things that we say while 
we are waiting for the medium to say them with, which is to say, language is the 
waiting (and passing the time while waiting). That is why Warhol liked things that never changed or that were exactly the same, 
like McDonald’s in Tokyo or McDonald’s in London. They too, are forms of waiting. Witness Ondine, who confesses early 
on that he can’t read novels, presumably because they’re all product and no aura: 
“I don’t mind reading documentaries 
or Schwann catalogs or lists of one sort or another…but I can’t take reading novels…
I just can’t do it.” And that is how A begins: with the language of someone Warhol is fascinated by. The tape recorder “finished whatever emotional life [Warhol] might have had.” What gives it back to him, in this novel, is Ondine’s aura, not his product. 
But Warhol also understood that in a world where everything is produced in order to be consumed, the emotions that connect us 
to someone else’s aura can’t really be bought: “Some company recently was interested in buying my ‘aura.’ They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, ‘We want your aura.’ I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it.”

Warhol never got his TV talk show, but Ondine got his novel. Ondine is a surrogate for Andy. Who is Ondine in A but a kind of extemporaneous star of the words Warhol speaks every day, a foil for who he is not? Language isn’t who we are, it’s a surrogate, a person more fabulous and more beautiful than we could ever be. Ondine was a fabulous talker, but what produced his aura was not Ondine, but a tape recorder. Warhol remarks that he was “fascinated by certain people,” and that this fascination “was probably very close to a certain kind of love.” As with a photo or portrait, so too with someone else’s language. Language is a means of exchanging who we are (our product) for someone we aren’t (our aura). It doesn’t matter who we talk to: “In New York I spend most of my morning talking on the phone to one B or another.” Ondine’s language isn’t Ondine; it’s Ondine’s aura, because for Warhol, language doesn’t just determine who we are, it determines how others see us. “I think ‘aura’ is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. It’s all in the other person’s eyes. You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very well or don’t know at all.” Anyone could have an aura or be beautiful. Warhol’s star system isn’t an ironic gesture; on the contrary, his “star system” is a form of love, or to be more precise, self-love, the love one can’t show to oneself in public. It was, in the end, the ultimate form of sincerity: “I need B because I can’t be alone. Except when I sleep. Then I can’t be with anybody.”

Tan Lin is a poet and cultural critic based in New York. He is a contributing editor at Cabinet.

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