Back in 1997, on the occasion of the untimely death of Princess Diana, I explained the role of celebrities as what Girard calls “external mediators” who assuage our resentment of real or potential internal mediators (see Chronicle 108). However much one may be envious of the life-style of the rich and famous, it is too removed from our everyday lives to be really irksome; in contrast, our neighbor’s ostentatious good fortune really gets under the skin. But when we fantasize about the princess’s glamorous existence, our neighbor’s seems tawdry in comparison. If I am obliged to compare myself unfavorably with you, I will be unhappy. But rather than comparing myself with you, I can compare you with Princess Di as potential centers of my interest and desire, in which case you will clearly be found wanting. No doubt on the cultural scene it is you and I who occupy similar peripheral positions, whereas the princess is a representative of the center: we are watching her; she is not watching us. But that is precisely the point: focusing my attention on the transcendental being in the center rather than on my rivals on the periphery is the very function of the originary scene, and of human culture in general.
A number of recent events have reminded me of the importance of celebrity, most recently, the Michael Jackson trial and its aftermath. On August 8, about two months after the acquittal, a couple of jurors declared that they thought Jackson was guilty but were intimidated by their fellow jurors. (We also learned that both of them had signed book contracts–as it turns out, using the same ghost writer. I will leave my reflections on the judicial system as reality show for another time.) Celebrity trials and tribulations reveal a curious phenomenon: whereas celebrity white-collar criminals such as Martha Stewart tend to be made examples of, and major corporate criminals often receive more severe sentences than murderers (John Rigas, the 80-year-old former CEO of Adelphia, recently got 15 years; Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom got 25), celebrities accused of really serious crimes are inevitably acquitted. O.J. Simpson remains the most egregious case in recent history, although the racial composition of the jury, the incompetence of the prosecution (and judge), and the proximity to the King riots could be cited as particular circumstances. But Robert Blake is not a member of a minority group, and the Jackson trial, held in idyllic Santa Maria, did not make an issue of race, no doubt in part because of Jackson’s pathological doctoring of his appearance.
I admit I never watched the Simpson circus on TV, nor the special coverage of the other trials, mercifully (and rightly) untelevised. (The popularity of celebrity-watching during the Jackson trial put an end to the only decent all-news programming on television, that of CNN Headline News, whose ratings apparently shot up after round-the-clock news programming was replaced by talking-head celebrity coverage.) But it is pretty obvious in all three cases that the defendants were guilty. Who else but Simpson had means, motive, and opportunity to slaughter his ex-wife and her friend? Who else but Blake had means, motive, and opportunity to off his obnoxious wife? And what was Jackson doing in bed with all those boys? Imagine yourself a woman whose husband spends nights in bed at home and in hotels with adolescent boys; how would you react to his protestations of innocence? Or to his $20+M settlement of a civil suit by a previous claimant?
To judge from supermarket check-out stands, perusers of People-type magazines enjoy reading about celebrities’ sufferings: abortions, break-ups, unfaithful spouses, weight gains and losses, illnesses, secret operations–and Martha’s jail term. Yet when a group of average citizens–weeks in the jury room have taught me that people not perceived as “average” are seldom allowed on juries–has the opportunity to punish a celebrity for a murder or sexual offense that he almost certainly committed, not only do they refuse to do so, but if our after-the-fact dissenters are to be believed, the starry-eyed majority reacts quite violently against those few who demur. In these “average” minds the notion of “reasonable doubt” is stretched so far that even a videotape of the crime would have difficulty dispelling it.
Why? In our culture celebrities play the structural role of sacred figures, with all the ambivalence that attends that status. When they engage in peccadilloes that we ourselves can imagine ourselves committing, we take pleasure in the spectacle of their suffering in our place. When they commit unspeakable crimes–like the pharaohs of old who married their sisters–they enjoy a virtual immunity. If instead of making an obscure misstatement about her financial dealings, Martha Stewart had slashed her ex-husband to death with one of the kitchen knives she recommends in her magazine, she probably wouldn’t be wearing that ankle monitor today. Try as I may, I cannot think of a single first-order celebrity who has been convicted of a major crime.
Although greater media density provides us with vastly increased quantities of celebrity news, I am not at all sure that anything profound has changed in this regard since the Hollywood/celebrity phenomenon began in earnest after WWI. Whatever differences we can find between celebrity today and in Hollywood’s “Golden Age” pale before what they have in common. No doubt the criteria for ending entertainment careers have loosened up quite a bit since the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1921, but when it comes to criminal convictions, we should recall that after two hung juries, Arbuckle–accused of having contributed to the death by peritonitis of one Virginia Rappe during an orgy in a San Francisco hotel suite–was finally acquitted. The “aura” that surrounded figures like Garbo or Gable seems quaint today, when stars tend to emphasize how much they are like everyone else (now that “everyone else” has enough disposable income to be “like” the star), but the only significant parameter is that the celebrity is universally known and the rest of us are not. A million or so times more people knew Charlie Chaplin than my grandfather; how important is that zero or two more between Britney Spears and me? And in both eras, there have been means of having one’s “fifteen minutes” (appear on Groucho Marx! become the next American Idol!), but they change nothing essential. Semi-celebrity is great at cocktail parties (“That’s right, I’m the fellow who…”) but its very possibility depends on the primary difference between the known and the unknown, the center and the periphery.
Democracies lack full-fledged external mediators in the sense of persons to whom one attributes a superior essence. Even the domains in which children take their parents as models constantly diminish, and the Harry Potter phenomenon, not to speak of all those inane comic-book movies, demonstrates that on the cultural plane, the opposite has become the case: the parents copy the tastes of their kids because they, at least, are untroubled by the mimetic origin of their desires (see Chronicle 211). As opposed to the great man, the celebrity, as Doug Collins used to say, is “pre-humiliated”: he or she may play a role in our fantasies, but does not serve as a model in the serious aspects of our life—unless our aim is to become celebrities ourselves. There has been some evolution in the direction of greater “pre-humiliation.” Since the advent of TV we commonly sneer at celebrities as being “famous for being famous”–which only makes their difference from us seem more mysterious. Garbo and Gable looked famous; today’s stars just look like… celebrities.
The hypothesis that celebrities are lightning rods for the resentments generated by everyday internal mediation has the advantage of requiring no unconscious: the passage from envy of my neighbor to the consolation provided by the persona of the celebrity is accessible to my consciousness, whether I pay attention to it or not. More importantly, this passage illustrates an essential point about human comparisons: that the ultimate criterion is provided by the center. This is true even when there is no hypostasis of the center-as-God. Whether the celebrity is famous for X or merely for being famous, the real point behind this cynical qualification is that someone has to be famous, that is, central. Someone has to be perceived as standing to me in the relationship of singular to plural, and it is this singularity that protects us against our anonymous but irksome neighbors.
The central figure occupies the same structural position as Hobbes’ Leviathan, but it need not acquire sovereign power over us, nor any power at all except that of being asymmetrically known and therefore significant. This asymmetry is inherent in the structure of the scene. Why indeed does the fundamental configuration of human culture oppose a singular center to a multiple periphery? The answer is simply that if we could have limited ourselves to the one-on-one (or few-on-few) interactions of our ape cousins, we would have done so. The greater intensity of human mimesis makes our desires converge on a center, and in the crisis thus engendered, we discover that none of us can any longer be the “alpha” animal and possess this center for himself. (When “alpha” humans emerge at a later stage of human history, it will be through the mediation of this new configuration.) The central position is that of sacred transcendence; it is not a place that can be occupied by one of the peripheral neo-humans. Yet for this very reason it is the place we all desire to occupy, the place toward which all violence tends and from which all power flows. The source of this power is transcendent, “eternal”; no mortal can claim to be the center, although the powerful often claim to be its earthly incarnation, either in a religious setting or simply as the unique leader of the anonymous mass. Despite the horrors of the twentieth century, the Führerprinzip survives in quite a few places.
But in liberal democratic society, no one makes claims of absolute power. Our leaders are elected for a few years, and if the American presidency is any indication, they tend to arouse in their enemies hatreds stronger than the love they inspire in their followers. At the center of our fantasy life we find not the political leader but the celebrity. “Famous for being famous” is simply another way of saying that the celebrity is transfigured by the simple fact of occupying the center, just as the originary central object was transfigured when it became the object of the first sign (whose permanent signified is the subsistent Being of the center rather than its mortal, presumably edible, representative). As a celebrity, an attractive man or woman who would otherwise attract some fleeting attention is the possessor of a transcendent significance, focusing our desires away from other mortals and allaying our resentments toward them. In our relationship to celebrity, we see in its purest form the scenic configuration of human culture, with the significant object in the center and the “rest of us” on the periphery. If the collective wisdom of our juries occasionally sacrifices the lives of spouses or the sexual innocence of adolescent boys to preserve this configuration, this only goes to show how important it is for the functioning of our society.