The Strangeness of Celebrity

     These two posts on Junior Ganymede and this post by Bruce Charlton discuss celebrity.  I have always found celebrity to be a strange phenomenon because why do the lives of entertainers whom one does not know personally have any relevance to one's life?  And yet, it is a very powerful phenomenon.  

    Celebrity is a distinctly modern phenomenon.  It really began in the 20th century.  This is because celebrity and fame or being well-known are two distinct phenomena.  For example, everyone in Palestine in Jesus' day knew who Pontius Pilate was.  But this was because of his role as the governor, it was the role he filled that was important.  Colin Wilson tells an anecdote in his book Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision about a time when Charles Dickens was on a train and was recognized by the conductor but not bothered by anyone.  Dickens was a popular writer, but popular is distinct from celebrity.  A popular writer is widely read and may draw many people if he lectures, but he is known from his writing, for his work, not known because of a persona.  

    It is somewhat difficult to give a description that encapsulates the phenomenon of celebrity.  But it involves someone who is both well-known but also felt to be someone who a person wants to meet.  A celebrity is felt to be both personal but elevated.  Everyone who lives in the modern West knows what celebrity is without a definition, but I think the difficulty of describing it is because celebrity is instictive.  It operates below the rational level, so it is a feeling rather than an opinion or belief.      

    Our culture has increasingly gone off the rails.  We can't refer to where we are now as a development from the past in the same way that if someone talking a walk to a location falls down a hill and lands in a ditch that we can say the ditch is their destination.  On an earlier post of mine, Francis Berger left a comment about art that describes this well:

    "Once we get into the twentieth century, the signs of degeneration are everywhere.  Unwilling to make something new from the creativity of the past, art beings to deconstruct and destroy itself under the imperative to be original at all costs and 'make it new' (sorry, Ezra Pound).  Everything begins to splinter and roll back upon itself - art becomes a destructive feedback loop.  The great is considered mundane; the mundane, great.  After a while, the kaleidoscope revelry ends and everything just stagnates.

    The idea is that modern art isn't a continuation of what came before but a perversion, a degeneration.  Likewise, celebrity is presented as if it was the most natural thing in the world, a natural development from popularity, but it is not.  

    Celebrity comes from a confluence of two factors, electronic communications technology and the flattening of hierarchy.  Radio seems to be less powerful in this respect, but with the introduction of film and then television, as well as the ability to amplify music so that larger crowds could be accomodated a performer could perform for a much larger number of people than had been possible.  Also, with film and television, the performance is now mediated.  Rather than the show being sustained by the individual performer's ability, we introduce the external factor of them being placed on a screen.  This seems to have a very powerful effect for some people.  In addition, with the flattening of hierarchy increasing in the 20th century, these performers were now viewed as someone who could be known personally.  

    I think the reason that Wilson told this story about Charles Dickens in his book is because Steiner started lecturing just as celebrity culture was about to begin.  However, Steiner was not viewed as a celebrity.  Many people wanted to meet him, but as a wise man or guru, not because of a persona.  

  So, that is one reason why celebrity is so weird.  It is something abnormal that only happened through a special confluence of factors.  

2 comments:

  1. This has made me think. I wonder if celebrity culture is that which take acting, and makes it the basis of what is purported to be real life?

    It is like an assertion that the world of drama is real; that actors are who they act, that the heroism (etc) of what actors do, how they look on screen (and, earlier, in photos) is how they really are.

    In essence, the mass media decided to treat actors and acting as if it was real life; and the public believed them - because of various factors such as a kind of addiction; and because we are evolutionarily hard-wired to regard fame as high status, and status as reality. So celebrity culture is like gossiping about high status people in our community - On Steroids, because massively amplified numbers of other people are doing it.

    Then (from the 60s) more and more other kind of people because this 'real life actors' - musicians, politicians... celebrity photographers, hairdressers, models, chefs, 'scientists', authors etc.

    To be a celebrity is to be an 'actor' who the mass media treat as if real.

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    Replies
    1. "To be a celebrity is to be an 'actor' who the mass media treat as if real."

      Great insight

      "So celebrity culture is like gossiping about high status people in our community"

      Good insight.

      The weird thing about the mass media is that it causes those who appear on it to simultaneously appear to be high status as well as being in our community. That's one reason why it's so powerful. Someone high status but distant doesn't have as much impact as someone perceived to be high status in the community.

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