The accidental death of Princess Diana leads naturally to a reflection on celebrity that we are obliged to take up for the very reason that “the crowd” has been reflecting on it and that we are all, in one way or another, part of the crowd. That there is no simple way to describe our form of participation in mass phenomena is perhaps the most significant revelation of such an event. One cannot ignore it; there is too much publicity. One can refuse to be deeply affected by it; but refusal is a marked position within the situation opened up by the event, the unmarked position being the expression of sorrow. Yet it is superficially arch to deduce from this our slavery to the media. The use of GA is precisely in shedding light on situations of this sort, where we are obliged to sort out the different layers of our relationship to the scene of representation.
The lowest level of discussion is exemplified by innumerable media pundits telling us how much “we” identified with / loved / will miss the Princess, who filled the necessary function of bringing glamour to “our” otherwise banal lives. This form of discourse is at best naive and usually condescending, since the pundit’s celebrity identification exists only to permit him to speak for “us,” as Victor Hugo spoke for the voiceless masses of the nineteenth century; we may take for granted that, unlike “ours,” the pundit’s life is something other than banal. As the pundit’s listeners, we are told what “we” think; our very reaction to this “supplementary” telling, even if positive, deconstructs the superficial naivete of this mode of discourse.
A more sophisticated approach is exemplified by William Pfaff’s column in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, September 3. Pfaff rejects the idea of involuntary “identification” as crudely condescending; he claims that “we” follow the lives of people like Di only because “it was a great story,” and that indeed, if anyone’s life is “empty” and needs filling, it is not ours but that of the celebrity, whose “narcissistic” addiction to the obsessive publicity represented by stalkarazzi has here led to a sad conclusion. While Pfaff is right in taking the naive we-sayers to task, I do detect a whiff of resentment in his paradoxical reversal of the dependency role. Most people would unreflectively consider the celebrity obsessed by public attention to be less mimetically dependent than the “fan” fascinated by the celebrity: if the first is a slave to mimetic desire, she is individualized by it in a way inaccessible to the second. There is indeed something abject about the public appetite for celebrity, although its specific nature has not been grasped by either of the above analyses.
An apparently more useful way to talk about celebrity from an anthropological perspective is to note its resemblance to the sacred. But the word “sacred,” like the quality it designates, hides as much as it reveals. In particular, it hides its mimetically interactive character. Both the naive pundits and Pfaff construct a model of an essentially dual relationship between “the public” or “we” and a celebrity such as Princess Diana. Adding the term “sacred” does nothing to change this: to claim that “we” treat celebrities as sacred, or that on the contrary we just consider them sources of “great stories,” does not answer the question of why or how we relate to sacred beings at all. What good does it do me to “identify” with someone who knows nothing of me? to “believe” in a celebrity / divinity I have no contact with?
Readers of this column may have guessed that the inadequacy of these dyadic subject-object analyses lies in their failure to grasp the triadic nature of desire. My relationship to a celebrity, or to the sacred that he or she incarnates in however diluted a form, cannot be understood in dyadic terms. The value of celebrity, the sacral aspect of which is enhanced in the present case by the sacrificial resonance of accidental death, lies in making us aware by concrete example of the mimetic structure of our relationship to the sacred–but not so aware that this awareness does not require elucidation, since the triangularity of desire is always hidden from our experience even when we “know” it to be present.
Why do we “identify” with celebrities? Why shouldn’t we simply resent those whose visibility, as the very word “celebrity” implies, need not be justified by any noteworthy achievement? If this person, arguably no more unusual than myself, is famous while I am not, what explains his or her value to me? The answer to this conundrum is that we identify with the celebrity against our own milieu. The teenager who takes a rock star as his “role model” in opposition to parental norms is a familiar example. But it should not be taken to imply that celebrities are useful only for purposes of generational or other group definition. The celebrity helps me to define myself even against my contemporaries who identify with that very same celebrity. In this case, our common relationship with the celebrity approximates our originary relation to the sacred, which is in principle the same for everyone. You and I worship the same God, but he mediates our relationship by lending to my actions a transcendental significance–even if he does the same thing for you. The sacred defers our potential mutual violence because the sacred is accessible only as (indefinitely reproducible) representation, not in its (scarce) reality.
The frustration I still recall from my childhood with a way of avoiding direct competition may well have been the original germ of my interest in Girard’s mimetic theory of desire. It works this way: Suppose Jane scores 95 on a math test on which Joe scores 90. She expects Joe to show her the deference due her superior achievement; but instead, he tells her, “You’re not so great; my friend Jack scored 99!” She expected to be able to profit from dyadic comparison with Joe, but discovers that, from his perspective, she is symmetrical not with him but with his other acquaintances, among whom she is not the best. Now Jack, who is best of the three at math, is a person of some rarity; we might even call him, on a local level, a celebrity. He may not really be Joe’s friend, may not know him at all–indeed, he may not even exist–but his even imaginary existence is useful to Joe, not because he “identifies” with his success, but because he can use it as a weapon against Jane.
No matter how tenuous my connection to the celebrity, the simple invocation of a name preserves me from the direct competition of my fellows. Alice may be prettier than Betty; but Betty’s movie magazine depicts the girls she “really” identifies with, who are, needless to say, far prettier than Alice. Charles is buffer than Dan, but the guys in Dan’s physical culture magazine make Charles look skinny. One identifies with celebrities precisely to the extent that one feels the need to define oneself against one’s own milieu. This is what is meant by the oft-stated opposition between the “emptiness of my life” and my fantasy of the celebrity’s fairy-tale existence. But it isn’t emptiness but plenitude that disturbs me–the plenitude of the world of Others. Celebrity-fantasy, indeed, any kind of fantasy, doesn’t fill an empty space; on the contrary, it helps me separate myself from the evidence of my mediocrity that those close to me provide. If I were a hermit, I’d have no need to fantasize about celebrities.
None of this should lead us to deny that figures like Diana are loved, albeit not with the reciprocal human love that has motivated these columns. The quasi-sacred presence of a celebrity makes us potentially more tolerant and even loving to the very neighbors with whom we would otherwise be in conflict, just as love of God makes humans potentially more tolerant and loving to each other. Yet neither can we deny that the celebrity-sacred, even or especially when practiced by the intelligentsia, is a degraded, “sacrificial” form of sacred, just as Arnold-movies and the like, even or especially when cultivated by the intelligentsia, are degraded, “sacrificial” forms of art. All the camp sophistication in the world can’t make my “relationship” with someone like Diana more than a stylish version of Joe’s ploy against Jane. The postmodern age is allergic to centralized exemplarity. Only in death–and especially in unnecessarily early death–can a celebrity come close to a moment of genuine consecration.
The real lesson to be learned from “our” cult of celebrity is that we cannot simply go without sacrality. Postmodern cynicism and demystification have lost their edge and become merely perverse forms of naivete. Yet traditional religions have their limits, and the newer religions strain our credulity.
But sacrality, properly understood, is nothing other than reverence for the personhood of what cannot simply be appropriated by our appetite. Christianity has already taught us that the highest form of worship is that which understands the humanity of the sacred center. The best way for us to extend the Christian lesson of post-sacrificial sacrality into the postmodern era is to conserve our worshipful energy for those closest to us, those alone whom we can really love because we can expect them to love us in return.