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Cultural Studies

The Fame Game


by Alex Prescott-Couch

Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of US Weekly to subscribers. Combined with the approximately 800,000 newsstand copies sold, about two million Americans pay every week to leaf through page after page of the smiles, tears, tragedies, and triumphs of the famous and photographed. Whatever the drama or celebration, the pages – awash with pictures and dotted with text – guide the reader through an emotional program of tension (“Is Brad and Angelina’s marriage on the rocks?”) and release (“Lindsey’s new look”), giving instruction of what to feel about the events of the day. Should one feel outrage or concern at Kardashian’s latest stunt? Betrayal or vindication at Brad’s suspected dalliance? The exclamation points and rhetorical questions tell the tale. 

Paparazzo statue, Laurinska street, Bratislava. (Photo: Benmil222; used under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence)

One of US Weekly’s most famous features is a two-page spread of photos depicting the quotidian banalities of celebrity life. These photos are overlaid with spunky exclamations – “They cheer at baseball games!” “They walk their dogs!” –  to the effect that even these people must hail cabs, buy babywipes, eat hotdogs, and wait for restrooms. Those who might seem to roll out of bed to a red carpet and take their morning coffee on a talk show couch, even they need to attend to the biological and social requirements of everyday life. The pictures and captions both embody and invert the standard sensationalism – a pack of paparazzi have dug up the dirt, and the joke is that what’s so startling is the utter lack of spectacle. “Stars – They’re Just Like Us.”

I’m not sure that Fred Inglis would like a review of his A Short History of Celebrity to begin with US Weekly. He might think such a beginning expresses surrender to the temptation to write a “lofty malediction over the celebrity cult” (p. 13) rather than a more fair-minded, less curmudgeonly treatment that his book seeks to present. Or it might provide the mistaken impression that celebrity is a new invention of the industrial mass media, exactly the impression he wishes to dispel by tracing the concept and practice of celebrity back over two hundred and fifty years. Maybe he would simply find it too easy.

Yet, despite such objections, the image encapsulates two main themes of his vivacious history of celebrity – the way celebrity and celebrities serve to educate our feelings, and the way celebrity makes us experience certain individuals as both intimately familiar and utterly supernatural. This notion of celebrities as otherworldly intimates who reflect and construct a certain point in the “history of feeling” is the thread that ties together the sometimes meandering but usually insightful biographical vignettes that constitute his “history” of celebrity.

Inglis begins his tale in eighteenth-century London, “the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity” (p. 37). Powered by the forces of incipient industrialization, London was a mix of marketplace, gossip hub, urban sewer, and bourgeois leisure garden. Importantly for Inglis, it was also the site of a transformation in the nature of public acclaim. Up into the eighteenth century, public acclaim primarily took the form of “honor” or “renown.” “Renown” was the sort of acclaim “assigned to men of high accomplishment in a handful of prominent and clearly defined roles” (p. 4). Monarchs, military heroes, and learned men – just to give three examples – were known to their societies, but their acclaim was based on great deeds and rooted in their position in the social hierarchy. But in eighteenth century London, a new sort of acclaim was emerging, the “celebrity” possessed by the actors and artists that edified and entertained the urban bourgeoisie. This fame was still mediated by the social hierarchies omnipresent in eighteenth century England – as Inglis notes (p. 44), famed actor David Garrick kneeled to his audience – but signs of a celebrity-conscious consumer society were unmistakable. The life of Lord Byron most clearly exemplifies this tendency. Bryon scandalized London society by skillfully seducing aristocrats – including his half-sister – and then brazenly writing up his escapades in the verse that made him famous. Unlike renowned literary figures of the past, Byron was not only a social position but a man, an individual so overflowing with personality that his lyrics seemed a mere spillage from his life of passionate feeling. Byron’s public acclaim was bound up not simply with the work but with the life brought to expression in the work. Thus, Byron plays a key role in what Inglis dubs a “history of the feelings” not only because he was a public promoter of the Romantic ethic of authentic sentiment but because his life illustrates the new constellation of feelings through which the public relates to the famous, “the interplay of envy, admiration, generous acclaim, malicious denigration, prurient attentiveness, swift indifference” (p. 57).

Inglis’s narrative continues in nineteenth century Paris, the center of a new political and urban imaginary. As perpetual political upheaval forged a new language of democratic self-assertion, the city space was being restructured to make way for the boulevards, public parks, and glasshouse department stores that inscribed the ethos of the World Exhibition into the environment of everyday experience. These new aspects of the city augmented the oft-discussed arcades, those “fantasy avenues of the rich open to everybody to gaze into the shop windows and dream of unfeasible extravagance” (p. 86). With such spectacles just lying around in the streets, it isn’t surprising that urban perambulation became one of the chief entertainments of the rising bourgeoisie. The creature of the flaneur embodied a new culture of going out to see and be seen, a culture in which glamour and fashionable appearance became crucial. Individual attention-seeking paralleled the economics of the urban spectacle in which shops’ profits followed the number of passers-by lured in by their storefronts. This notion that success consists in successful attention-seeking is of course one of the cornerstones of modern celebrity culture.

The story continues in the money-and-gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. With the Weltgeist drifting across the Atlantic and the Hudson overflowing with cash from real estate, railroads, oil, steel, financing, the boom of big business generally, a new moneyed magnate aristocracy emerged with its own understanding of the basis of social respectability. While old money and a good name retained a certain status (p. 116), mammoth wealth more and more took the place of blood and breeding. The aura of money – and the realization that the whims of the mighty controlled the destinies of the working poor – raised curiosity about the goings-on of the mansioned rich, and newspapers adapted to slake this curiosity by passing on inner circle gossip. The mix of admiration, envy, bitterness, and adulation that Inglis sees as the constellation of feelings mediating our relations to celebrities today was born in the gossip column and in media profiles by journalists who were both muckrakers and sycophants. The mass press was a celebrity-making machine.

These first three stages – London, Paris, New York – form the core of Inglis’s history of celebrity and orient his analysis of a smattering of topics in the twentieth century. He devotes a chapter to the way our understanding of geography changed as the leisure industry cordoned off certain parts of the world as exclusive vacation destinations, and he provides some insightful commentary on the paraphernalia of capitalist success (yachts, diamonds, vacations on the Riviera, etc.).

One of the most interesting – but also most problematic – chapters, concerns Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, “supreme celebrities” (p. 160) in the era of mass politics. Inglis emphasizes the elective affinity between the theatrics of 1930s political celebrity and literal theater performance – the elaborate pageantry, the controlled outward appearance, the mechanisms of psychological projection that bring the audience under the performer’s will. Moreover, the air of intimate familiarity yet inapprehensible mystery that defined these dictators’ public image would reappear in the perception of Hollywood stars.

Since modern celebrities and dictators are both receiving public recognition within technologically advanced societies with developed media apparatuses, it should be no surprise that there are similarities in the modes of public acclaim. Yet the relationship between the public and the prominent in consumer society and that between a dictator and his subjects in an authoritarian state are importantly different, and more careful attention to this would have improved the discussion. First, the authoritarian press is beholden to the authorities rather than devoted to uncovering their secrets. Pravda was hardly a muckraking outfit. Second, celebrities operating in the market are dependent on the whims of an adoring public, while a despot is largely immune to such caprice. Mussolini didn’t need the paparazzi to hold the attention of the public. Third, the press served to maintain the dictator’s image rather than create it on its own. Magazine profiles aren’t going to contain any surprises. These features reflect the general fact that in a consumer society the customer is king, but one would be hard-pressed to say this about the subjects of an authoritarian government.   

The last chapters bring the narrative into the present. Inglis discusses the era of great film stars with great sympathy, and does an admirable job articulating both the cultural importance and personal magnetism of icons like John Wayne, Cary Grant, and especially Marilyn Monroe. Despite the backdoor dealings and blatant criminality of Hollywood filmmaking in those days, such stars were able to represent “the best part of the national character narrative in which the audience believed” (p. 190) and “the impossible version of the best selves audiences could hardly be in everyday life” (p. 206). They showed an audience a way of looking, acting, and feeling. Inglis possesses notably less patience for the current denizens of the fashion world and reality TV. Unfortunately, Inglis’s inner curmudgeon here seems to get the better of him.  He writes, for instance, of fashion models:

“Having no accomplishments to display, no action to render as artistry, pitifully lacking such personal resources as reflective intelligence and meaningful experience, they are quick to take offense, and, living between public adulation on the catwalk and in the restaurant, and the hot, endless tedium of the dressing room, it cannot be a surprise how many turn to the deathly, uncreative recreations of passing sex and playful cocaine” (p. 245).

There is fairer treatment to be had.

Inglis’s discussions of particular figures in these last chapters are often individually insightful, but the chapters don’t possess the unity of previous sections. While he is a perceptive observer of popular culture and his general erudition is impressive, Inglis’s method of stitching together biographical sketches becomes less illuminating the closer we get to the present where much of this biographical detail is familiar. In these last chapters, we get a patchwork of fascinating details and commentary but not enough conceptual tools to systematically comprehend the historical changes behind the biographies.  

Moreover, some of shortcomings of the end indicate problems profound and present from the start. The narrative that Inglis provides is so readable and his prose so full of verve that problems with the basic analytical categories and argumentative strategy can be easily covered over. The most obvious of these is the term of “celebrity” itself. First, are we talking about a person, a concept, a social role, or something else? One might think that distinguishing these doesn’t make a difference, since they are all interconnected: particular persons are celebrities in virtue of occupying a certain role in the social matrix, and applying the concept of “celebrity” to a person can have the effect of promoting or stabilizing this role (e.g. being classified as a celebrity leads one to be featured in celebrity magazines, which maintains one’s position as a celebrity). However, it’s important to differentiate person, concept, and role because the effects of each are distinct. It’s one thing to say that particular individuals, or a class of individuals, molded our feelings, actions, and ideals in a particular way. For instance, perhaps stars of the classical Hollywood cinema made us long to be debonair democrats, as Inglis says. It is quite another thing entirely to say that the concept of celebrity (or Hollywood starlet) affected feeling. Yet this is what Inglis seems to be getting at when he remarks that understanding the concept is important because it “serves to pick out those lives and ways of life which shaped themselves into the significant constellations of the past and provided quite a lot of people with stars to steer by” (p. 3). I take the idea here to be that the concept organizes people’s understanding and experience of success, and this way of understanding success has particular consequences. Similarly, it is important to distinguish the effects of the concept from the effects of the social role the concept picks out. For instance, a potential consequence of being universally acclaimed for one’s wealth and glamour may be to develop a certain dependence on the attention of others. It would be a very different thesis to claim that the need for continual attention a consequence of conceptualizing one’s position as a person who is universally admired. In the first case, the admiration of others is what is creating your need for attention, while in the second case, it is your conception of yourself as a celebrity that creates the need.

I mention these distinctions not to be pedantic but because I believe their elision explains the book’s strange combination of ease and obscurity. What makes the text both readable and confusing is that while much of the narrative focuses on the reception of particular individual celebrities, one of the main purposes of the book is to examine the consequences of the concept of celebrity and social role it picks out. If Inglis wants to understand “what celebrity does to people” (p. 16), then examining “historical examples, of individual life stories which neither constitute a sample nor provide epitomes” (p. 3) can muddle the issue.

Another pair of concepts that I believe could use some sharpening is the contrast between “renown” and “celebrity” that structures the text’s historical narrative. It isn’t clear how helpful this conceptual pairing is. First, each term groups together a rather heterogeneous array of features regarding the basis and object of public acclaim as well as the feelings of the admiring and the admired. Yet it isn’t clear whether these features are closely connected enough to form an ideal type that is useful for analysis. For instance, many current celebrities – the Prince of Monaco – receive acclaim on the basis of the social prominence of their offices and the public deeds that that their social position make possible. The fact that their prominence is attached to great public deeds performed from privileged positions of the social hierarchy (and those deeds reinforce the honor of the office) does not prevent them participating in “the interplay of envy, admiration, generous acclaim, malicious denigration, prurient attentiveness” (p. 57). Of course, we’re dealing with ideal types here, but the point is that the types Inglis picks out don’t seem to possess any sort of internal logic.

Given that the features of acclaim Inglis groups together often pull apart, the reader (or at least, this reader) had the feeling that the narrative of the book would have been clearer and the discussion of particular figures more illuminating with the addition of a few more distinctions. For example, when Inglis discusses Seamus Heaney (!) as the epitome of new celebrity, one feels something has gone awry. Heaney is of course well known in the literary world, but does the social role he occupies and the type of attention he commands bear even a family resemblance to that of Paris Hilton, let alone The Situation? There are some obvious distinctions – e.g. between those who are famous for their work and those famous for their social life – that would have helped the reader get a clearer sense of the historical and cultural topography. Adding some categories and making some distinctions would better enable us to explain our ambivalent feelings about the cult of celebrity. Inglis often expresses this ambivalence, and provides examples of why we should be ambivalent, but there is a slightly more general level of analysis that would be helpful. Without a more general discussion of different sorts of celebrity, Inglis’s attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff might seem appear to rely more on predilection than principle.

Despite these worries, A Short History of Celebrity is an excellent book. The prose is fabulous, and Inglis is brimming with insight and humor.  Moreover, one can’t help being drawn into tales of the rich and fabulous. However we may flatter ourselves, the stars are just not like us.

Fred Inglis: A Short History of Celebrity
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4008-3439-6
Hardcover, 322 pages, US$29.95

Alex Prescott-Couch is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard University. He lived in Berlin from 2005 to 2008.

(c) 2010 The Berlin Review of Books.


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