Paris Hilton’s Poetics

February 1, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay, One on One

So, how do you feel about Paris Hilton?

It’s a funny question, I know. Funny, because largely I find no one has much of any feeling at all “about” Paris Hilton. Especially these days. When I put the question on the Facebook, “So, how do you feel about Paris Hilton?” OPEN SPACE blogger Scott Hewicker responded wisely, “Who?”

And yet we all divest ourselves of libidinal energy towards figures who cannot be said to really “exist” in our world as a receptive object of that energy. Celebrities are just extremely legible examples of this. They’re objects we think about constantly, which we analyze with our lovers and friends and families, which we appropriate as the furniture of our fantasies. But the structure is very common. Even the pharisaical haters of pop culture perform it all the time. Like people have “feelings” about what kind of person De Kooning was. Or whoever.

Larry Sultan, _Paris On My Parents' Bed_. Chromogenic Print, 30" x 40". Courtesy Larry Sultan Estate and Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

But to return to Paris, I find the range of response to her cultural apparition goes from repulsion to ambivalence instead of the more typical “love her or hate her.” That is, no one “likes” Paris or sympathizes with her particular performance. The refrain is often that Paris can’t be an adequate object of libidinal investment because “she doesn’t make anything.” This is, I think, a way consumers often differentiate what “Paris Hilton” means from what, say, “Lady Gaga” means.

But au contraire, Paris “makes” or has made an abundance of material. The opening of her Wikipedia page describes her as “an American socialite, heiress, media personality, model, singer, author, fashion designer, and actress.” The material productions involved in Paris’s acting, singing, writing, clothing design, and perfume lines are all part of the larger project, which is the creation, branding, and performance of “Paris Hilton.” You know how the etymology of “poetry” in Greek means “to make”? I’ve been thinking lately that the most proper way to describe what Paris Hilton “does” is “poetics.” Everything she “does” is translated into something she “makes,” that is, she makes herself by doing herself, at all times.

I went to the Stephen Wirtz gallery to see a print of one of Larry Sultan’s photos of Paris Hilton. Julie at the gallery retrieved it as the space was transitioning from one show to another. We brought it out and looked at it together in the light. I learned the story of the photo, which is alternately called Paris and Paris In My Parents’ Bed. The shoot took place in one of his childhood homes in the San Fernando Valley.

I read the photograph as an allegory for Paris’s poetics in general. What Paris’s poetics do is transform her very being and every movement into an associated part of the product “Paris Hilton.” In Sultan’s Paris, Paris herself responds to the ambivalence with which the public generally receives that product. Assuming the center of a zone of excessively careful artifice and theatricality, she responds with absolutely effortful carelessness.

The room itself is impeccably composed, a lived-in space that can’t quite be located in a decidable era. It looks like the child of 1955 and 1985, with all available California kitsch between available for its vision. Paris herself is both contiguous with the scene and radically at odds. Contiguous in her shape and colors, the beige of her robe running into the throw that erupts out of her body and flops onto the floor like an embroidered tongue. But on the other hand, her behavior is absolutely anachronistic. As if she packed her cell phone in a purse on the DeLorean and got a signal in the past.

As an instance of how detailed the composition of the room is, consider the arrangement of the animals on the left side of the image. The lamp on the bed is of course a “cock,” and moreover a cock standing at attention. Its light is the warm bath one supposes washes over Paris’s frame. The teddy bear is strategically placed so that its angle suggests it’s looking at Paris’s ass, or trying to sneak a peek up the robe. It’s a total combination therefore of kitschy urban pastoral innocence (a cuddly teddy bear!) and the shameless posture of the perv voyeur. And Paris, far from being unaware of the lusty bestial conspiracy which Sultan has prepared for her, simply doesn’t care enough to notice. That’s part of the poem of her life. She’s got a text to send. Is it to Nicole Richie?

That is, for Hilton, the photo shoot with Sultan is not just a day in the life; it’s like three hours in the day of a life. The careful composition of the niche into which she’s arranged does not provoke the slightest response. By the fact that at every moment she is performing the commodified poem of her being, the normal or expected responsiveness to the artificiality of the surroundings is mooted. She is just “doing” Paris — a poetics of radical ambivalence, theatrical in its banality.

Sultan’s Paris In My Parent’s Bedroom is in extraordinary contrast to Nick Ut’s Paris Hilton is seen through the window of a police car as she is transported from her home to court by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles on Friday June 8, 2007. I tried to suggest that Ut’s photograph depicts more than Paris Hilton crying in a cop car, that it shows her transplantation from a manor (which the law absolutely strives to protect) to a place radically unfamiliar in her lived experience. Unlike Sultan’s rich staging, however, a cop car is a relatively banal, endlessly repeatable and familiar image. Yet it’s this monochrome leather commonplace of spectacular culture that frames the very uncharacteristic outburst from Paris.

But that outburst has to be juxtaposed to the uniform, consistent product that Paris Hilton makes. You know, “Paris Hilton.” That poem of stoic confidence in the staying power of power. What Ut captured is a poetics gone wild.

And yet what’s also striking is that Sultan’s Paris might provoke a more emotional response than Ut’s. The consistency of her work as an emblem of feelinglessness proves hard to overturn. In Sultan’s image, however, Paris appears in all the glory of how her product operates: feverish ambivalence. And we hate her for it: actively, foolishly, carefully.


  1. Chris Cobb Says:

    “I’ve always tried to make whatever I do mine,” Sultan said, noting that when Interview asked him to photograph the over-exposed Paris Hilton, a celebrity famous simply for being famous, he insisted on doing it on his own terms.

    “I said Id do it if she would go to my parents’ house and let me photograph her in my childhood home in her underwear like a horny teenager,” Sultan said.

  2. Brandon Brown Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks so much for including these quotes—I read those as well!
    I’ll use this response as an occasion to say that one of the most rewarding things about going to see Paris in my Parent’s Bed was to get a sense of how much Larry Sultan and his work meant to so many people. In some ways, precisely the affective opposite of Paris.


  3. Manoel O. Audaz Says:

    Dude no offense but this is jargonist 2 tha xxxtream. “divest libidinal energies” and cultural appropriations. And it depends on object or objectification. They are personae, not like “objects” upholstering the “furniture” of our fantasies but more like masque figures. I mean just say “wanking.” This isn’t a human sexuality textbook, it’s a blog right?

    And no, not everything is “poetics.” “Making” or, more properly, “creating,” is separate from “constructing” and “facture.” And what is Paris’ poetics anyway? Is she the product of them? Talking theoretically isn’t doing theory… its just rewording. Serious, you are suggesting she is generating meaning but she is doing the opposite and erasing it with her particular brand of white-out. We’re not “appropriating” celebrities. They are appropriating us. I’ve read so much of your articles here but this is rather coy.

    I can’t wait for the SF shibboleth to delete this… as per usual. You guys are all rubbing elbows and tossing lexicons around but this is not poetics, its just wordplay.

    Cute stuff though.

  4. Steven Trull Says:

    But Paris Hilton is wordplay.

  5. mac mcginnes Says:

    cograts, brandon, another entertaining post.


  6. mac mcginnes Says:

    congrats, brandon, another entertaining post.


  7. Manoel O. Audaz Says:

    that paris is wordplay… or more a visual-ideational kinda play is exactly what i meant. not a poetics but something more surgical and manufactured.

  8. BB Says:

    Hi Manoel,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    In a way your comment demonstrates perfectly something I was trying to suggest in the post. Here we are, two people who’ve never met (as far as I know), so strangers to one another. Yet, without knowing me, you’ve encountered something that I’ve made (which, for all its cuteness I still imagine “generates meaning”) and then subsequently came to the conclusion that I’ve decided to be coy, that I’m part of a conspiratorial shibboleth determined to wipe out meaning in this world, etc.

    Now, you may not like the phrase “libidinal energies,” and I think it’s good to question that choice of phrase, but what I’m trying to get at is something just like the tone of your comment, aggressive and simultaneously carefree, charged but ultimately dissatisfied.

    Finally, I’m extremely interested in the suggestion that “they are appropriating us” and the question of whether Paris is the product of her poetics. Unfortunately, we can’t access her interiority except by overwhelming expenditures of projection and fantasy. We can’t know what it’s like to be inside her consciousness , what it’s like to abide by her particular agency. Which is partly why the charge of Ut’s photograph is so powerful for me, as it absorbs the spectacular image of Paris into a historical relation (with Phuc, with Ut, with us) that betrays the commodified death march I’m trying to talk about as a poetics. A bad faith poetics obviously.

    Thanks again,

    oh p.s. totally interested in why “poetics” are mutually exclusive from the “surgical” and the “manufactured.” Dish?

  9. Manoel O. Audaz Says:

    the difference would be creative/generative versus found/assembled-

    ie jehova and adam versus frankenstein and his monster would be a distinction i guess.

    i don’t mean to be offensive but perhaps i can’t avoid it because i do think that in the post (and others you’ve written) that you are generating any meaning so much as obfuscating it in euphemistic jargon. you can say “obfuscating in euphemy” is doing the same thing but i do think i am articulating a more precise representation of the idea as opposed to using a more vulgarian term like merchandising in words (plain BS-ing would imply a level of falsity and I’m not saying you are doing that at all.)

    I was saying that a persona is a whoel complex of symbolic (or meaningful/less or whatever) kind of associations rather than an, as you said, “object” which to me is incorrect, inarticulate. Again I apologize for being critical. But an exhibit of Paris Hilton pictures is in itself trivial in the first place– a failed irony, in spite of an argument that there is something serious about it which is a low-degree of “serious.” I don’t think it is that celebrities are “objects” the way a nameless fashion model is where she/he is erased an turned into a clothesline or a mannequin so that the clothes or the faceless ody itself can e foregrounded.

    I totally disagree with you in assuming that “Paris Hilton” means something different than “Lady Gaga” and not just because Paris Hilton does, I think, have a clothing line herself and therefore “makes” something (in spite of the people that really do the making behind-the-scenes).

    Actually, to respond to your first paragraph. You also have somehow inferred from my distaste for elements of West-Coast intellenctual culture and complacency that I think you are a part of some worldwide conspiracy to eliminate meaning. All I meant is that I felt the article was theoretically empty and that the euphemistic jargon was excessive… “drummed up” a bit. I mean, you can say the “poetics” of matt leblanc does this or that or the “commodified poem” of my vitamin water i just drank. Either way it is stretching and uninteresting (in spite of the fact that you may see it is generating my response which is not the case because my response was to make interest where there was none).

    Admittedly I am responding in part as a reader of this blog who has encountered many of your posts here and been like “what the heck?” All this is a bit compounded here. I do get the feeling that you have appropirated, or I should say been appropriated by, the jargon-thick world of West Coast cultural studies masquerading as good art. I mean these photos are no different from what I see in magazines. I gurantee you I can find examples out of a “fine art” context and fill the blogosphere with ersatz-criticism reagarding them. I’m not familiar with the photographers works in these exhibitions. I just googled a few examples from it and its does nothing for me, in spite of the “critical” garnish. Nor is the theme new at all in “our obsession with celebrity and our concerns with our own privacy.” Its really ancient and a part of all portraiture and captive art, photography, total cinema, realism or whatever. I think it is more trying to be cute but cleaned up with the readymade jargon of left-over cultural studies theory which you have exhibited in a manner that is very “cute.”

  10. Manoel O. Audaz Says:

    I guess I’m not the only one.

    See Max Batt’s comments.

    I mean c’mon sfmoma… it is sfmoma right?

  11. Yeaux Sdink Says:

    Waaaaaay too much time and energy spent on a description of a yeast infection.

Add a Comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Follow the comments on this post using the RSS 2.0feed.