by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

How we love to recycle and replay the Fifties--even those of us who weren't around then. Fifties fashions, Fifties hairstyles, Fifties cars and motorcycles, Fifties music, Fifties personalities: these still define what we mean by cool. Think of James Dean, think of Marilyn, think of Elvis. Elvis, especially, eternally returns to haunt us: he's forever at the center of the American psyche. More people have encountered him dead than ever saw him when he was alive. Rumors abound: of assassination plots, faked death certificates, secret cloning programs, reincarnations, preternatural singing from closets and bathrooms, sightings on UFOs. It's all gotten so baroque, multilayered and self-referential. Even the Elvis impersonators have their own impersonators now. After all, wasn't Elvis, in the latter part of his career, when he performed in Vegas wearing that rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit, already a simulacrum of himself? Daniel Clowes, in his comic book Eightball, envisions a time, in the not-too-distant future, when "there will be nostalgia for the nostalgia of previous generations: 'I'm not into The Fifties per se; I'm into the Fifties revival of the Seventies!'-- 'Bah! I'm into more of an Eighties Fifties!'" The Fifties are the fulfillment of the American prophecy: the age, not of Aquarius, but of the Emersonian self-made man, and of Zarathustra's Eternal Return. Now, as the millennium approaches, our culture is deliriously awash in clones and replicas of the Fifties, citations and allusions, everything always carefully encased "in quotation marks." Maybe we aren't into Elvis per se, so much as we're into the idea of "being into Elvis." Elvis is rather like the mythical phallus of psychoanalysis: there but not there, a simulacral shimmering, present precisely in his absence. Sometimes we want to have Elvis, and sometimes we want to be him: but in either case we fail, since he remains a virtual image, visible but intangible, always ever so slightly beyond our reach. Elvis's talent, beauty, and grace--the sound of his voice, the ease of his smile, the swaying of his hips--are things you and I can only dream of.

Or maybe catch them at the movies. Clarence (Christian Slater), the hero of the recent film True Romance (written by Quentin Tarantino, and directed by Tony Scott), sways between fantasies of being Elvis, and of having him. He learns lessons of daring, courage, and devotion to his true love from conversations with Elvis in the bathroom. He marches in there to piss like a man, and there's the King staring back at him from the mirror, giving him words of encouragement and big-brotherly advice and approval: "Clarence, I've always liked you." If this carries a charge of homoerotic attachment, well then, so much the better. After all, Clarence's standard pick-up line is to tell a woman that he's not a fag or anything, but still he wouldn't mind going to bed with Elvis. That's how cool Elvis is. That tells you just how much Clarence adores the King. Wanting to sleep with Elvis is in fact the American dream: it's precisely what Clarence and the women he meets have in common. And so all the rituals of traditional male bonding and rivalry--locker room pranks, pissing contests, comparisons of penis size--get turned into something goofier and finer. The toilet, rather than Robert Bly's backwoods, is the site of Clarence's initiation into manhood. Under Elvis's benign guidance, he's transformed from a lonely nerd, who works in a comic-book store and obsessively watches martial-arts movies, into the real-life hero of his own true romance. He runs off with his girlfriend Alabama (Patricia Arquette), survives confrontations with Hollywood and the Mob, and finds health, wealth, and happiness in a nuclear family of his own, ending up on a sunny beach not far from the site of Elvis's 1963 movie masterpiece, Fun in Acapulco.

Elvis, now and forever, is totally cool--as the protagonists of True Romance never tire of reminding us. It's not so much what Elvis means that is important, as the sheer fact of his ubiquity. What has he done to multiply himself--even and especially after his death? Just how many of him are there? These are questions, not for hermeneutics or semiotics, but rather for population genetics. Like rabbits released in virgin territory, Elvis replicas and Elvis impersonators have wreaked havoc on our cultural ecology, overrunning and overturning the entire postmodern landscape. As soon as Elvis appeared, all the earlier crooners were driven quickly to near-extinction. Good-bye Perry Como, good-bye Bing, good-bye Frank. And no one subsequently has really been able to compete: not Mick, not Michael Jackson, not even Axl Rose or Eddie Vedder. I mean, would you trust one of them to be your bathroom confidant? As any evolutionary theorist will tell you, adaptive fitness is defined, not in terms of quality of life or innate value or even personal longevity, but solely in terms of ultimate reproductive success. Horrifying, but true. The body of the man, Elvis Aron Presley, was only a vehicle for that berserk replicator, the Elvis meme. And it's of no concern to the meme that the later recordings are boring, or that Elvis himself put on too much weight in those final years, and led such a lonely, empty, unfulfilled life. Andy Warhol once said that "Picasso was the artist I admired most in all of history, because he was so prolific." The greatest artist, in Warhol's view, is the one who has left the largest sheer quantity of images and copies behind. Picasso, of course, was a master in this respect: he went so far as to doodle on the backs of checks, hoping that this would induce the recipients to never cash them. But even Picasso couldn't impose his replicas upon our culture to anywhere near the extent that Elvis did. Warhol understood this perfectly: that's why he never bothered with painting mock Picassos, as so many lesser artists have inadvertently done, but went right ahead and silkscreened multiples of the King.

Of all the crooners of that era, none has vanished so utterly and so precipitously as Dean Martin. Throughout the Fifties, and all the way into the late Sixties, his singles and albums reached the Billboard Top Forty, his TV specials were close to the top in the Nielsens, his nightclub act was the biggest draw in Vegas, and his movies were huge blockbuster hits. And then, all of a sudden, nothing. Dino seemed to have dropped out of show business altogether--aside from hosting an occasional Celebrity Roast. It was as if some Big Brother had retroactively erased him, not just from the airwaves, but from the memories and dreams of the American psyche. We know all there is to know about Elvis and Liberace, not to mention such living fossils as Sinatra and Bob Hope and Don Rickles and Wayne Newton--but Dean Martin? Not a trace. Fifties nostalgia skips right over him, and Andy Warhol never silkscreened his portrait. Scarcely anyone under the age of thirty even knows who he is. It's as if he had disappeared as suddenly and as totally as the dinosaurs; or worse, as if he hadn't ever existed in the first place. We recycle nearly everything else, but there aren't any Dino impersonators around. Dean Martin's story is not the traditional one of a star's rise and fall, not the familiar case of inferior adaptive fitness and lost evolutionary battles. Think rather of him as a singularity, a limit point, a supernova collapsed into a black hole: a fractal discontinuity in the warp and woof of American culture. Think of his disappearance into a haze of alcohol and Alzheimer's as a silent and almost invisible catastrophe: like the disaster of which Blanchot writes, that "takes care of everything," that arrives without ever arriving, and whose violence consists precisely in effacing those very traces that any actual cataclysm would have left behind.

So what happened? Merely to ask such a question, say Deleuze and Guattari, "plays upon a fundamental forgetting... it places us in relation with something unknowable and imperceptible." Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Nick Tosches' brilliant biography, doesn't restore Dean Martin to collective memory, or place him anew in American cultural life: rather it affirms the inaccessibility of his character, and recapitulates the irreversible erosion of his image. For nothing can bring Dino back: his relaxed, sleazy charm is out of sync with the moment, and insensible to nostalgia. The man who cynically crooned "Memories are Made of This," Tosches writes, "hated memory itself." Dino instinctively sought out that primordial oblivion that exceeds and ruins all remembering. "Underneath the feeling in his voice, underneath the weaving of those colors, there was always lontananza," the immemorial distance of a past that never has been present, and never can be made present. Elvis may well be the phallus; Dino just "pissed ice water," a less exalted symbolic use of the masculine organ. No matter what he was doing, Tosches says, Dino "never had much interest in this world"; he was "a menefreghista--one who simply did not give a fuck." Even in his glory days, the Fifties and early Sixties, Dino seems barely there, a gorgeous, unworldly apparition: the Zen master of the Rat Pack, as Lee Graham calls him. "No one knew him," Tosches writes. "The smart ones took that for granted. To [golfing buddy] Nicky Hilton, Dean was like a beautiful poem that he loved but could never understand."

What Andy Warhol was to the hip New York art and fashion world, Dean Martin was to rootless, suburban Middle America. Martin and Lewis started out playing to sophisticated nightclub audiences in New York and Chicago, but Dino the solo performer flourished in the pleasure palaces of Southern California and Las Vegas. There he unerringly sought out, and slyly, lazily pandered to, whatever was the most "anti-serious, anti-art... Dean would become the personification of tastelessness itself, projecting the image of one in whose scale of aesthetics a single good tit joke would outweigh all of Sophocles and Shakespeare" (Tosches). The story is indeed much like Warhol's: Martin, too, is a self-made man, born of immigrant parents, who anglicizes his name, and who achieves fame and fortune through an art that embraces and celebrates American culture at its most commercial and derivative. And Dino, just like Andy, refuses either to redeem this culture or to critique it. Martin and Warhol both rather embody the vulgarity and anonymity of mass culture--in the precise sense that a mirror indifferently embodies whatever has been placed before it. They take all the images offered them and reiterate them to infinity, uncritically, but at a curious second remove. Dean Martin the singer had nothing to express. He was perfectly willing and ready to record any song whatsoever, depending on what the market would bear. Just like Warhol, he let others choose his material for him. He never spent time rehearsing, and never troubled himself to listen to the finished product. Usually, in his stage act, he couldn't even be bothered to finish singing a song that he had started. But no matter what the material, no matter how ludicrous, corny, fake, or inconsequential, his smooth, easygoing voice always "wove it into a lie of gold" (Tosches). The effortless detachment of Dino's singing and acting could well be regarded as a sleazy American version of the spiritual discipline depicted in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. According to Zen, an art is performed to perfection only when it is unclouded by restless desire, freed of anxiety and of forethought. But this can only be achieved, Herrigel says, "by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless... by a readiness to yield without resistance." The pupil of Zen "must learn to disregard himself as resolutely as he disregards his opponent," until "the last trace of self-regard vanishes in sheer purposelessness." Well, the only difference between West and East is that Dino didn't need long hours of practice to attain such a state. He had no worldly entanglements to overcome. It just happened naturally. Sinatra, it seems, was an egomaniac and a control freak. But Dino "was not like Frank. He got no thrill from this shit, being onstage, hearing himself on the radio, seeing himself ten feet tall on a screen" (Tosches). Since he really didn't give a fuck, everything just came out right, all by itself.

Dino's songs, therefore, aren't about desire: at least not about the desire that in our culture is commonly figured as 'lack.' They are too relaxed, too casual, too blithely aware of their own insignificance. They have none of the urgency and tension that are the marks of sexual desperation. And they enact none of the melodramatics that typify ungratified yearning. The careless lilt with which Dino suggests "let's fly way up to the clouds" ("Volare") is a rebuke to Romantic myths of the ironic infinitude of desire. And similarly, the deadpan blandness with which Dean in the role of Matt Helm tosses off dumb one-liners in the face of imminent death nullifies all the old claims for tragic dignity, or for high seriousness in art. Forget the castration complex, forget the Hegelian struggle for recognition between master and slave. There is no hint of transcendence, or even of longing for it, anywhere in Dino's act. His songs are suspended rather in the idle hedonism of a blank, dimensionless present: a blurry, contextless realm devoid of antecedent or consequence. They express a sensibility that's perpetually jaded, perhaps, but without any trace of bitterness or disappointment. That's what makes these songs so sensuous and caressing, but also so oddly impersonal and indifferent. Booze and Percodan may have helped, but from the very beginning such was Dino's way. All Dean wanted out of life, Tosches writes, was "a bottle of Scotch, a blowjob, and a million bucks." Nothing else was worth striving for. In Dino's own terms, "that's amore": all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This sublime disinterest is Dean Martin's glory--just as it is Warhol's--and the source of his powers of seduction. It accounts for our sense that, although Dino (just like Elvis) is a pure product of American culture, he's somehow (in contrast to Elvis) not altogether in it. We desire Elvis because his taut young all-American body seems to contain the living force of all desire. But if we desire Dino--or if our parents once did--it's precisely because he doesn't desire us in return, because he seems to be beyond desire and beyond responsiveness, because clearly he doesn't need us to validate his existence. He has none of Elvis's ambition, none of Elvis's craving for admiration and approval. Dino is the quintessential early-Sixties swinger, carelessly consuming booze and broads, because the spectacles of excess through which he stumbles leave him utterly detached and unaffected--even bored. Say that his leering 'drunk act' is a glitzy, postmodern, Las Vegas update of Baudelairean dandyism. Or better, say that Dino is the original slacker--so perfectly so, indeed, that today's slacker generation has totally forgotten him. Elvis is retrospectively cool because he was once so hot; his restless soul is always being called back. But Dino's cool is at so low a temperature as to be immune to revivification. Tosches describes it as "a preternatural cool, as divorced from the passing modes of the day as he himself was from the world that in turn embraced and discarded them... Dean was an effulgence of the warp between the square and the fashionably cool; and as such, somehow always would elude the fate of the cool, which invariably was to become the square." Dino belongs, then, neither to dialectical History with its ever-evolving fashions, nor to the Eternity that idealist aestheticians imagine to transcend mere fashion. Rather, he moves in another dimension entirely, that of the Nietzschean untimely: a "now" too evanescent to be contained by any form of presence, an "unhistorical" stylization that affirms itself at once within and against the ideologies and fashions of the current moment. "This deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it" (Foucault). Dino wondrously combines a suave, refined aesthetic detachment with a calculated wallowing in whatever is most crass. Such an oxymoronic hybridization of sensibilities is his way of expressing the "apotheosis of that which is perishable" (Bataille), or the play of "becoming, the innocence of becoming, forgetting as opposed to memory" (which is how Deleuze and Guattari define the "untimely").

This untimeliness is the key to the mystery of Dean Martin's sudden disappearance. If Elvis, with all his clones, is the triumphant product of processes of natural selection, then Dino is the anomalous, ephemeral, and sterile expression of an illicit counter-movement: of what Brian Massumi calls the forces of "unnatural selection." Memes, like genes, are potentially immortal replicators. But immortality ain't all it's cracked up to be, as Elvis has undoubtedly discovered by now. Timeliness and fame are their own punishments. Your very ubiquity guarantees that you will never again enjoy the thrill of new discoveries and fresh conquests. The hordes of screaming fans no longer bolster your ego; they are just another irritation from which you find it impossible to escape. You can beef up your security, and lock shut the gates to Graceland, but that just makes you feel like a very expensive prisoner. In any case, you've grown bloated and ugly, and every surface you look at turns into a mirror. There's nothing left to do, except sing the same songs to the same crowds in the same casinos, night after night, suspended in an eternal present. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. But what's the alternative? Surely nobody believes in the old Romantic myths of damnation any longer. Maybe Elvis OD'd because he thought it would offer him a way out, or at least refurbish his image. But there's nothing more banal than a drug suicide--even that of Sid Vicious has lost whatever transgressive allure it may once have had. If damnation and salvation are binary opposites, this only means that they are virtually indistinguishable. According to Nicole Hollander (Sylvia), damnation is indeed a fate worse than death, since Hell is a place "where a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes is repeated for all eternity." But the distance separating that ultimate horror from a steady diet of Late Elvis is, alas, far less than one would hope or imagine.

Evolution is a dead end, even and especially for the survivors. The greater your domination, the more exquisitely fine-tuned your adaptation, the more surely you will stagnate. Lamarckian theories (which assert the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and thus the possibility of continual self-improvement) are wrong: for even the most advantageous mutations only come about in spite of a species' genetic and cultural 'striving,' rather than because of it. In nature as in Hollywood, the big money is always being invested in sequels and remakes. Remember the words of the sage in the Borges story: "mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men." The problem is not that we live in a world of simulacra, as Baudrillard so naively thinks. No: the problem is that nothing is ever simulacral and inauthentic enough. The copies, the impersonators, remain all too loyal to their models. What would it take to imagine a simulacrum that, as Deleuze wishes, "denies at once both the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction"? Not a faithful rendition of Elvis, nor a critical parody of Elvis, but a performance that is more "Elvis" than Elvis himself ever was: only this can release the singer from the torment of his own endlessly repeated identity. But what could it mean to will--to select, in a Darwinian sense--your own divergence, your own alteration, even your own extinction? "Man is something that must be overcome," Zarathustra cries; "what have you done to overcome him?" And according to Severo Sarduy, the "hidden goal" of camouflage, in fashion as in combat, in humans as much as in insects, is less adaptation and survival than "a kind of disappearance, invisibility, effacement and erasure." Zarathustra thus praises those who "want to perish of the present," whose very "life is a going-under." But doesn't Dean Martin embody such a counter-teleology, both in his life and in his art? Isn't his sterile hedonism a rebuke to the horrors of infinity and eternity and all-too-faithful reflections? Martini in hand, let us then embark on Dino's way, and embrace his strategies of disappearance. After all, as Tosches suggests, that's what we Americans do the best: "Dean was the American spirit at its truest: fuck Vietnam, fuck politics, fuck morality, fuck culture, and fuck the counter-culture, fuck it all. We were here for but a breath; twice around the fountain and into the grave: fuck it."

What more is there to say? Elvis may well be the Savior; but Dino offers us no redemption, not even one "in quotation marks." Now, in his retirement, he is more untimely than ever, exiled as he is from the New Hollywood of cellular phones and twelve-step programs. Why, in 1988, the last time they reviewed him in Variety, they even complained about his lack of "social consciousness over the unfunny aspects of intoxication"! Can you believe it? Don't look to Dino for lessons in temperance, or foresight, or heroism, or any of the other virtues. You won't find him singing on a UFO, or giving advice in the toilet. But isn't that precisely his greatness? As his ex-wife Jeanne sums it up for Tosches: "Dean can do nothing better than anyone in the world. He can literally do nothing... He was always content in a void." Dino's very untimeliness makes him more postmodern than any of us. That great decentering, that crumbling of the foundations, so often approached with anguish and loathing--well, Dino has lived it for years, no problem, without a trace of anxiety. Tosches gives us a final picture of Dean Martin in old age, watching Westerns on TV, and sipping glass after glass of wine: "every swallow brought breath that bore neither memory nor meaning nor even deliverance from them--he no longer needed that deliverance--but rather the strange sweetness of something that may or may not have ever been." Memory has become indistinguishable from fiction; and redemption, or the lack thereof, just isn't an issue any more. Yes, the world has receded into its own flickering image, and nothing is true or false any longer, and it's very late, and the TV has been on for hours. But what's the matter with that? Images proliferate endlessly in the void, regardless of whether anyone is there looking at them or not. You don't watch programs on TV; you simply watch TV. Turn down the volume and go to bed, there'll be something else in the morning.

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