How can we doubt the value of celebrity? Since human beings have always valued above all else the recognition of their fellows, what could be more desirable than to be “celebrated”? In a world where some achieve this status, what possibility of compensation remains for the others? If our consciousness of death and the resulting self-concern that Heidegger called “care” are spin-offs of our originary fear of our fellow humans, our passion for recognition supplements the emptiness this consciousness knows to be inevitable. We would believe, all experience to the contrary, that, given this recognition, we will become “immortal,” ultimate triumph of culture over nature. The human consciousness born of culture that made us aware of dying in the first place pays its homage to culture in making it a compensation for death.
The kind of global recognition we associate with celebrity could come into being only with states that transcend the sphere of personal interaction. In old Egypt, but not in tribal cultures or even chieftainships, the chance of an inhabitant of Thebes being known to an inhabitant of Memphis, or even to a Theban from another district of the city, was presumably very small, yet everyone would know of the Pharaoh and the chief members of his court–including, no doubt, its prominent entertainers. The End of Culture situated the beginning of secular literature and of “modernity” in the broadest sense at the point where popular resentment of the privileged status of the rulers ceased to be blocked by their unquestioned sacred status. Secular culture emerges from ritual when the resentment that accompanies recognition can no longer be resolved in the process of recognition itself. There are whisperings of this in Egypt and Babylonia, but in the West only the Greeks created a full-fledged literature because only they had freed themselves from the tyranny of a central distribution system. No doubt the Egyptian peasant resented the pharaoh’s glory, but circulating, if at all, in the private sphere, his resentment posed no threat to the social order and was incapable of generating a new culture. In contrast, the Greeks needed to express resentment in order to control it. Just as language arose to avert the dissolution of the proto-human social order, so did “high culture” to defer the resentments that threatened Greek and particularly Athenian society–resentments that fatally limited it and eventually destroyed it.
All the literary categories we inherit from the classical age appeal directly to our resentment of those who occupy center stage. To define this centrality in terms of power or wealth is to miss the essential point that a moment in a theater reveals: the identity of the object of our envy with the object of our attention, whose sacrality is definable by this very fact. No doubt, in pre-celebritary times at least, this attention is determined by control over the social center and its means of violence. But these hard facts are beyond our power to change by “cultural” means. Drama permits us to confront the objects of our resentment in a venue where we are free to grant or withdraw our recognition. We watch the action on stage only because we choose to do so, and by so choosing, we make the characters’ centrality depend on us. The payoff is that those Aristotle calls “better than ourselves” are humbled by tragedy, while comedy rewards those “worse than ourselves” for not provoking our resentment.
Despite the increasing differentiation of specialties and increasingly rapid exchange of ideas, goods, and services, the context of modern celebrity is a “winner-take-all society” that accords a premium of recognition to the few top stars of each of these specialties that raises their market value far above that of their second-rank competitors (see Chronicle 46). The increased circulation of information that computers and particularly the Internet make possible devalues local hierarchies in each field by absorbing them into one great global hierarchy. The value and reward of being the best violinist in town is diminished when you can purchase a recording of the best violinist in the world. Local recognition remains effective only for those whose skills are not part of a global market. A plumber does not compete with superplumbers as a model competes with supermodels or a trial lawyer with Johnnie Cochran.
Celebrity, they say, is an artifact of the media, but not only do the media act in response to demand, what is demanded is, precisely, celebrity that can be discounted as manufactured by the media. The aura of ludicrousness that surrounds “being famous for being famous” is what makes celebrity sustainable. It devalues the very center stage on which our eyes are fixed in a latter-day equivalent of the “pity and terror” generated by the tragic hero’s downfall. We mock celebrity not least by calling it “celebrity” rather than “fame,” emphasizing thereby its aleatory character. We particularly enjoy pitying celebrities’ misfortunes, experiencing the paradox of finding our anonymous lives preferable to theirs. The aspects of their lives that interest us most are precisely those that reflect no outstanding signs of distinction save those that derive from celebrity itself, although even today, most famous people have become so through individual accomplishments–and not always aided by social advantages.
In the postwar “affluent society,” most people are capable of living decently from the product of their labors but not of competing for global recognition in any arena. Their real-life competitions are on a lower level, and it is here that global celebrity serves a function that compensates for the resentment it generates. As Girard pointed out, internal mediation is always more violent than its external form; one envies one’s neighbor’s small superiorities far more obsessively than the glory of those one never confronts directly. It is this envy that is assuaged through our resentful identification with celebrities. To accept this identification is, no doubt, to admit our own inaptitude to share their status, but the star provides the worshipper in compensation a point of comparison that trumps all local inferiorities. As I explained in Chronicles 108 and 114 (on the subject of Princess Diana), by accepting to forgo the extremely improbable chance of competing with such a person for the spotlight, one obtains a powerful ally against the humiliations of one’s own environment. Learning the details of Di’s wardrobe avenges the mortification of the neighbor’s new dress.
Yet in our post-millennial era, a worshipful relationship to celebrity becomes increasingly less operative. The sacred mystery surrounding the great media stars of the past can no longer be recaptured. Perhaps the chief reason for the extraordinary outpouring of grief at Di’s death was the general sentiment that no future royal and perhaps no one at all would ever again play a similar role. Certainly no plausible successor has come forward in the three intervening years.
First raunchy talk shows and now “reality” programming demonstrate that the publicized activities of self-selected ordinary people are more effective than those of stars in deferring today’s resentment of anonymity . Since the advent of television (at least), we have repeated ad nauseam that stardom is less a quality of certain individuals than a desideratum of our system of public communication. Yet the star’s quasi-sacred trappings are incompatible with this insight. The cynical debunking of stardom that inspired countless films starring the stars themselves is predicated on a naïve and resentful distinction between the film’s enlightened audience and the naïve and resentful masses. The fact is that the general public until recently and the young still today have found it of value to single out a few entertainers by criteria that are not entirely arbitrary. Only today, when this value has diminished, does the resentful mechanism cynically understood as having always been behind the process come to the fore in reality.
The old star-making system never chose its beneficiaries arbitrarily; the benefits were simply too great. The fierce competition alone guaranteed a rational selection process. In contrast, the new life-game shows, both by reducing the benefits of “stardom” and by focusing the entry criteria outside any predictable career path, are able to give us “ordinary people” whose ambition is not mediated by an unusually high level of talent or ambition–people toward whom the spectator has no reason to feel any kind of inferiority. If the talk shows specializing in embarrassing but (fairly) exotic problems such as incest and sexual perversions are the antithesis of the old star-making vehicles, reality shows are a synthesis of talk-show ordinariness and star-making ambition.
The change is no mere substitution of lucidity for “false consciousness.” The gradient that leads from Hercules and Achilles through the TV celebrities of the fifties and the Jerry Springer guest list to the participants in “Survivor” or “Big Brother” cannot be described by the idea of demystification. Achilles and his real-life counterparts played world-historical roles; they “deserved” to be famous. Even the fifties actress-turned-quiz-show-panelist had paid her dues to show biz. As celebrity becomes more trivial or, to use Doug Collins’ term, “pre-humiliated,” its beneficiaries inspire a more internal mode of resentment: I could not defeat Hector, but I could certainly see myself competing with these people. But this very fact demystifies their fame, and fame in general; it consoles us for our own anonymity by emphasizing the arbitrariness of celebrity. We enjoy resenting “undeserving” celebrities because it legitimates our resentment of the others.
Resentment is not a purely passive relation. The lessened distance between me and an “ordinary” celebrity allows for a less artificial form of identification than adulation of a star. It permits something of the openness we feel–or used to feel–in identifying with fictional characters. I can watch “someone like myself” on television and admire his ingenuity or mock his foolishness simply as a fellow human being. His antics can nourish my daily conversations with other members of the general public just as well as the latest football scores or Hollywood gossip, and without making me feel inferior to those of whom I speak. This, in turn, makes my relationship with other celebrities not only more bearable but less resentful. Absorbed bobo-like in creating my own life-narrative, I can afford to look with indulgence on those who seek centrality through pre-humiliation. The very unclearness of the question of exactly who the bobo’s audience is, professional peers or fellow “serious hobbyists,” mitigates his resentment of the unique mediatic center and its less-than-serious inhabitants.
Although yuppies and bobos, media celebrities and “ordinary-people” celebrities continue to coexist, the post-millennial is rapidly separating itself, even as we speak, from the postmodern. A few years from now when everyone is talking about the new post-millennial age, you will be able to say that you saw it described here first.