The sad death of Michael Jackson at 50 reminds me of the last time I wrote about celebrity, on the occasion of Princess Diana’s death 12 years ago. At that time, influenced by the high status that was integral to the Princess’ popularity, I emphasized the role of the celebrity as an alternate mediator who allowed us to escape the potential superiority of others in our own milieu. If I am confronted with the signs of your superior status, I do not put forward competing signs of my own, but those of my celebrity-idol, whose status is far above anything either of us, you in particular, could possibly achieve.

This mode of celebrity was no doubt present in the case of Michael Jackson as well, although the singer’s penchant for self-mutilation and his sexual-legal troubles tempered the admiration he inspired, far more than for Di, with pity and even repulsion. At the time of her death, every girl wanted to be Di; no one of either sex would have wanted to be Michael Jackson. But before turning to his specific case, we should consider the question of celebrity in more general terms.

In the everyday world of nominally reciprocal relations, we owe each other a certain degree of consideration and polite acknowledgement. Celebrity may be understood as a supplement to the symmetry of a normal encounter. Whereas in the general case, meeting a person X is experienced as neither a gift nor a penalty, to meet a celebrity is, in principle, to receive a benefit; one is “privileged” to meet him or her. This supplement indeed defines celebrity, since one cannot be said to experience the other as a celebrity in its absence. Of course this does not prevent us from rejecting this experience and the supplement it provides; this would be the equivalent of refusing to worship a god whose divinity we can disavow but not claim to be simply unaware of.

No doubt there are different degrees of celebrity, quantifiable by such measures as TV time, magazine covers, and paparazzi. Furthermore, there are different arenas for celebrity whose participants rarely compete with each other. Athletes and singers famous in one country may be unknown in another. In the intellectual world, the late Jacques Derrida was a major celebrity (especially in the USA), but the average Michael Jackson fan had never heard of him, and would not have known how to react to his celebrity if s/he had. Yet despite its different degrees and flavors, celebrity is essentially a binary matter: either I feel compelled to treat you as a celebrity (resisting the compulsion is another story) or I do not. To put it differently, the vast majority of us do not possess a measurable degree of celebrity. Treating a “local celebrity” like a real celebrity is an act of make-believe. At the same time, persons of exceptional beauty or demonstrated talent may, without renown or reputation, appear to us as if surrounded by the aura of celebrity.

Not surprisingly, the phenomenon of celebrity confirms GA’s analysis of the scenicity of culture. The normal social gathering of two or more persons is not organized like a ritual scene, a concert, a lecture, or a classroom; scenes form and un-form, attention shifts from one person to the next. Persons who seek to monopolize attention are stigmatized, unless they display some esthetic privilege—talent or beauty—in justification. In what might be called the “default scenicity” of modern communities, the sacred center is merely implicit. The degree of this implicitness may be said to measure the community’s secularity, which even in the most extreme case allows us to distinguish between ritual or simply cultural phenomena and the interactions of daily life. Celebrity in our sense depends on the high level of overall secularity characteristic of the modern world, to which it adds a supplement of sacred presence. This supplement is not something inserted into this normal context of interaction so much as a supplementary scene of interaction. An implicit public, “institutional” scene surrounds the celebrity and makes us unable to relate to him as we do to ordinary people. The imaginary aura figures the focused attention of the public scene.

Although the public centrality of the celebrity overlaps with that of the big-man and his descendants, the historical roots of celebrity, whose originary model is the firstness manifested in the originary event, go back farther to phenomena such as that of the shaman, whose psychological peculiarity makes him a privileged mediator of the sacred in certain tribal societies. Like the shaman, the celebrity does not owe his role to an accumulation of surplus; his function is esthetic and “spiritual” rather than economic.

The celebrity nonetheless shares many benefits with the big-man, notably wealth and visible influence, and consequently shares as well the Schadenfreude that attends his every misfortune. The parallel between checkout-aisle accounts of celebrity suffering and disgrace and the “sacrificial” cultural form of tragedy is all too obvious. The human who dares occupy the center is an object of universal resentment that risks making him a Girardian scapegoat as soon as his centrality no longer appears indispensable. Since the celebrity’s area of operations is peripheral to social crisis, he rarely becomes an object of real violence. But to operate constantly on the public scene as an object of collective desire and resentment distorts the lives of all but the strongest, creating ample material for the tabloids.

Celebrity takes on its modern features in the mass-mediated urban cultures of the industrial era. Modern celebrity is a feature of democratic or incipiently democratic societies. It is, as Doug Collins used to say, pre-humiliated, a self-ironized version of what classical culture called fame. Heroes are not celebrities, and we rarely treat them as such; the aura of celebrity exceeds the recognition due to merit, making the resentment it generates both more virulent and more superficial. “Humanizing” celebrities contributes to their pre-humiliation: the trivia of their lives makes them comparable to ourselves, undecidably objects of greater sympathy and greater resentment. At the same time, the achievements for which we celebrate them help reconcile us to our anonymity. Actors are everymen who centralize our everyday problems; sports figures possess rare talents, but in areas peripheral to the needs of the modern world; and the abilities of entertainers like Michael Jackson are expended in performing our resentments as a sacrificial ceremony.

The aura’s power in social life is greater to the extent that the arena of interaction is of a more general nature, which is why celebrity fandom particularly affects young people, most especially adolescent girls, who are crucially concerned with acquiring their own aura of sexual attractiveness or glamour. The movie magazines so popular in Hollywood’s Golden Age supplied models that allowed young girls to ignore the limitations of their immediate environment, while providing guidance for not a few (such as Frances Ridste in San Bernardino, who dropped out of high school to become Carole Landis) who had the confidence to seek a celebrity of their own.

For many, perhaps most who live in societies where a certain level of comfort is taken for granted, fame is the highest dream, as summed up in Warhol’s immortal quip that “in the future, everyone will be (world-) famous for fifteen minutes.” Daniel Henninger, in the July 3 Wall Street Journal, called “Michael” the last celebrity now that, thanks to the Internet, Warhol’s fifteen minutes have become a real possibility. Jackson won his fame through professional skill and hard work in the decades before the media became interactive and anyone could hope to achieve “viral” notoriety by uploading a video to YouTube.

The originary reciprocity of the “moral model” was not a static symmetry. The big-man’s command of the feast began as a simple extension of an individual clan’s periodic responsibility. When we achieve our fifteen minutes of fame, we are only reestablishing the structure of reciprocal gift-exchange that prevailed in pre-agricultural society; each recipient of the “gift” passes it and its accompanying mana to another down the line. Even if only a tiny proportion of the planet’s inhabitants have a chance at a quarter-hour of fame, “viral” or otherwise, this possibility, like the temporary celebrity accorded the participants in reality programming, or the chance at star-making on programs like American Idol, helps take the edge off the sacred resentment inspired by the occupants of the center.

Jackson got his start as a “crossover” artist in the 70s, when pop music was still largely divided between white and black performers. Rock ’n’ roll, like jazz between the wars, was predominantly an importation of black musical modes into the world of white entertainment. By inscribing the integration of whiteness and blackness on his facial features, Jackson sought, with a bizarre authenticity, to extend his original crossover persona into the incarnation of universal humanity—”self-fashioning” with a vengeance. To appear as a fusion of black and white (as well as male and female, infantile and adult) was to realize a fantastic transcendence of the differences that obscure our common human origin. That this dream, however much one spends on plastic surgery, is an unrealizable chimera does not deprive it of its desperate nobility.

But whereas at the start of Jackson’s career African Americans, although advantaged through affirmative action in university admissions and certain job markets, were not yet freely accepted by the general public as celebrities on a par with whites, in today’s celebrity world, blackness, with its deeply rooted victimary credentials, is an unalloyed benefit. Among today’s major celebrities, African Americans are represented far out of proportion to their share of the population. Oprah Winfrey as celebrity-everywoman is the most obvious example, but the list includes musical performers, athletes and actors, poets and novelists, not to speak of the First Celebrity in the White House.

In contrast with Jackson’s fantasy of human synthesis, today’s emphasis on “diversity” embodies the opposite fantasy, with all the hypocrisy entailed by requiring us to be uncompromisingly diverse yet magically equal in all respects. Yet the ethical problem addressed by victimary thinking cannot be resolved by its logical refutation. However inconsistent its methods, the political-cultural process has been accomplishing the ever-necessary reconciliation of ethics and morality better than any a priori. One who would deplore the contribution of White Guilt to the success of Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama has no alternative but to celebrate this success as the only effective means of reducing the guilt.

What connects the two aspects of post-millennial celebrity that mark Michael Jackson’s fame as the product of an earlier era: the rise of minority celebrity and the partial demystification of celebrity itself in the age of the Internet is that, just as the former phenomenon has helped improve the reciprocity of intergroup relations, the latter helps reconcile center and periphery by demystifying celebrity’s shamanistic role. These developments touch on the two central human paradoxes referred to in Chronicle 375: the secondary conflict of ethics and morality, by compensating what was once the arbitrary advantage of one group over another, and the primary tension between periphery and center, by making occupancy of the center less rigidly exclusive. They illustrate our claim that the fundamental problems of humanity remain those that humans have with each other, always essentially the same, always in need of new solutions.

As for Jackson himself, it is not quite enough to say that his death is a demonstration of the unsustainability of mega-celebrity in our era. Reshaping his body into a living symbol of human unity would have been merely pathological had he not been able to enact during his performances the synthesis he sought to incarnate. Jackson’s was a true “performance art” that reveals the tasteless silliness of what normally goes under that name. In his all-time best-selling Thriller, his ever-graceful movements of simulated violence took on a universal meaning as the expression and esthetic transcendence of human resentment in general rather than (as in much black music since) the celebration of that of a specific ethnic group.

We stand in awe of the titans of the past because we have chosen to live in a world that has no place for them. Our world of diversity and microfame owes Michael Jackson, the Last Celebrity, the tribute of old-fashioned immortality.

Addendum (July 19, 2009):

Shortly after releasing this Chronicle, I received some independent information concerning Michael Jackson’s expressions of antisemitism, part of which I reproduce below:

While much of the world mourns the untimely death of the “King of
Pop” Michael Jackson, it is worth recalling one of Mr. Jackson’s
more unfortunate qualities: he was an anti-Semite.
In case you think I am making this up, allow me to refresh your memory.
Back in November 2005, Jackson was *caught*
( [this link provides the reference and the opportunity to purchase the article for $3.95 – eg] on tape in a voicemail to one of his former business managers
calling Jews “leeches”. The tapes were played on ABC’s Good Morning
America program, and Jackson was heard saying, “They suck. They’re
like leeches. It’s a conspiracy. The Jews do it on purpose.”
And in 1995, Jackson provoked a firestorm of protest when he
released an album called HIStory containing a song entitled “They
don’t care about us” which had the following lyrics: “Jew me, sue
me” and “Kick me, kike me”. He subsequently promised to re-record
the song and delete the offending lyrics.
But then, in February 1996, Jackson nonetheless *released*
(  a video of the
song in which he had re-instated the brazenly anti-Semitic remarks.

If I were to be asked how antisemitism is compatible with what I called the “bizarre authenticity” of Jackson’s attempt to sculpt himself into a figure of universal humanity, the answer would be, “sadly, all too obviously.” Independently of a history of black antisemitism going back at least to W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic Souls of Black Folk (see Chronicle 90), the Jews are the group most likely to be excluded from a “universal” reconciliation between opposites. Whatever their oppression, their firstness sets them on the side of the oppressor. Better to accept firstness, lastness, and everything in between, rather than squeezing out their uniqueness in a synthesis that will always be harder on the first than on the last.

To be charitable to the dead, I would say that, on the evidence provided, Jackson’s antisemitism tarnishes, but does not altogether negate, the “desperate nobility” of his persona.