Chronicle 108, inspired by the death of Princess Diana, presented some reflections on celebrity and its mediating function in social relations. To sum up,my thesis was that we identify with the celebrity not because of the “emptiness” of our lives, but, on the contrary, in order to escape their over-fulness with others. Although I tried to remain on as high a level of generality as possible and avoided dwelling on this particular incident, a few readers reproached me with expressing too much interest in the Princess. Not unironically, as a result of my column, I participated in a panel discussion on her death at which a university audience appeared to find my interest far too tepid. Whence these further reflections on the topic of celebrity, whose paradoxes only GA can dominate.
What is the attraction of celebrity? The infamous paparazzi-stalkerazzi symbolize in their very predictability the celebrity’s desire. Their noisy presence is obnoxious, but one fears the silence of their absence, with its ominous implication that they are busy elsewhere. The celebrity, like “the rest of us,” fears being upstaged by celebrity, finding him/herself at the wrong vertex of the triangle of desire. The only person who cannot be upstaged by the real or evoked figure of a celebrity is another, still more celebrated celebrity.
We cannot escape the “lure of celebrity,” not because of our vain desire for fame, but because the weapon of celebrity is always available to be used against us. This was not always the case. In the days before the mass media, celebrity was not necessarily favorable, and social status largely separate from it. The list of personages at Di’s funeral is a sign of celebrity’s cannibalization of all other forms of public social ranking; movie stars, opera singers, fashion designers, and statesmen all fall henceforth in the same category. If Di can be said to have had an effect on the world, it is the definitive subordination of monarchy to celebrity, the implicit if not conscious goal toward which she, more unswervingly than the other young royals of her generation, worked in life, and which she can be said to have accomplished by her death, as demonstrated by Queen Elizabeth’s coerced gestures of mourning. Celebrity, like money, sets a quantitative measure in place of a jerry-built system of equivalences. And in the postmodern world, celebrity tends to achieve balance with monetary wealth. “Poor celebrity” sounds like an oxymoron; the criminals, victims, and occasional heroes who acquire temporary notoriety are excluded from the celebrity category by their very incapacity to profit from this notoriety–in talk show appearances, endorsements, book contracts–over the long term.
Celebrity as a “fungible” value like money creates a linear ranking rather than a simple binary opposition between the famous and the anonymous. Or rather, it creates both ranking and opposition, such that the sacred-profane duality of the latter defers resentment from the former. For the celebrity whose existence contrasts with our nonentity consoles us for our relative lack of prestige in our local setting. This is a more nuanced version of the basic ternary structure of compensation I outlined in Chronicle 108. If the third person in a hierarchy identifies with the first to make up for his inferiority to the second, this identification confers on its object a supplementary “externality” or sacrality, reflecting the fact the identification is an imaginary compensation for a real inferiority. This compensation is “inauthentic” not in its flight from reality into fiction, but, on the contrary, in its return from the fictional to the real, countering a “rational” hierarchy with an “irrational” transcendence.
The inauthenticity of the cult of celebrity led several readers of my previous column to contest my assertion that they were obliged one way or another to react to it. I share their dislike for the cult of celebrity and their avoidance of personal investment in it. But we should recognize that our disdain, far from striking a telling blow at the cult, in fact contributes to it. Every penny lost to the cult of celebrity through our intellectual sense of superiority generates dollars of countervailing contributions from the faithful. Just as groups such as the already half-forgotten Heaven’s Gaters thrive on the contempt of outsiders, which they invert into proof of their own secret superiority, so does the mass cult of celebrity thrive on the contempt of the professional-intellectual class, whose status is exemplary of what the cult is meant to undermine in the first place–authority founded on the superior use of one’s mental faculties. There is no more tenaciously significant resentment, because the difference it attacks puts in question the fundamental equality before language that is the foundation of human morality.
Celebrity, like all ethical categories, is not an essence that we recognize as a subject “intends” an object, but a form of mimetic interaction. If our neighbor’s cult of Diana annoys us in its ostensibly irrational self-abasement, we should remind ourselves that when our teen-aged children pierce holes in their bodies and turn their music to deafening levels, their real motivation is less their own “visceral” pleasure than their parents’ annoyance. And so we are swamped in a celebrity-aware reality, one from which we seek not without self-conscious irony to liberate ourselves by holding discussions that inevitably contribute to the very phenomenon we denounce.
Celebrity being a form of sacrality, it is no doubt natural that those fascinated by it wish to define its significance in transhistorical terms. Jonathan Alter did this in the September 15 Newsweekin prose that already seems delirious: “Diana is now the first woman to join a tiny group of 20th-century megastars in the English-speaking world: Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Winston Churchill, Muhammad Ali, JFK, Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan…” Wasn’t Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe a “megastar”? Babe Ruth died nearly 50 years ago; who will remember Princess Di in 2047, and for what? No, the very point of celebrity, as opposed to fame–what distinguishes Di from the other names on the list–is that it is contestable and contentious.
Recognition of uncontested glory does not serve as a means for expressing resentment, but for transcending it. But the postmodern self–yours and mine–is no longer willing to lose itself in irreversible admiration. Our lack of “heroes” is a sign not of the lack of heroism in our age, but of our lack of interest in recognizing it. Thus our age prefers celebrity to fame.
The celebrity hovers between being famous and being “famous for being famous.” A celebrity, after all, is always known for something. Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared in a number of major films (notably Moulin Rouge) and made a number of spectacular marriages. And Princess Di was at one point the future Queen of England. The important thing is that the celebrity’s fame is never fully stable and justified. We must be able to question and belittle the fame we use as a weapon against our less-famous superiors. In this regard, Di’s reputedly limited intelligence served her in good stead, as did her eating disorders and even her amatory self-indulgence. The inclusion of Di in the same category as Winston Churchill is a naively hyperbolic expression of the dynamism of celebrity. If she were really on Churchill’s level, there would be nothing to gain from asserting it; it would be a simple fact, not an act of faith.
History isn’t usually made by nice people; morality is no guarantee of “world-historicality.” But if I may be excused for exploiting a much-drawn contrast, I think what most people found refreshingly saintly in Mother Theresa is that her devotion to others requires neither special talent nor good fortune but is an example accessible to all of us. In combating the evils of the world, she put less of an emphasis on denouncing them than on engaging in positive action to correct them. Such is the way of love, which makes equals of all of us. If we would diminish the weight of celebrity in our lives, our best efforts should be devoted to acting out of love rather than resentment in our dealings with others; our neighbor’s cult of distant celebrities is above all the expression of his resentment of us.