A longer version of this essay appears in "Celebrity," the Winter 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This abridged version appears on TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Lapham’s editors.
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
Label celebrity a consumer society’s most precious consumer product, and eventually it becomes the hero with a thousand faces, the packaging of the society’s art and politics, the framework of its commerce and the stuff of its religion. Such a society is the one that America has been attempting to make for itself since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort—nearly fifty years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street—deserves an appreciation of the historical antecedents.
Associate celebrity with the worship of graven images, and not only is it nothing new under the sun, it is the pretension to divinity that built the pyramids and destroyed both Sodom and Julius Caesar. The vanity of princes is an old story; so is the wish for kings and the gazing into the pool of Narcissus. The precious cargo that was Cleopatra, queen in Egypt, was carried on the Nile in a golden boat rowed with silver oars, its decks laden with the music of flutes and lyres, its sails worked by women dressed as nymphs and graces.
The son et lumières presented by Louis XIV in the palace of Versailles and by Adolf Hitler in the stadium at Nuremberg prefigure the Colorado rock-star staging of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential nomination. Nor do the profile pictures on Facebook lack for timeworn precedent. During the three centuries between the death of Alexander and the birth of Christ, the cities of Asia Minor were littered with tributes to an exalted self. Wealthy individuals aspiring to apotheosis in bronze acquired first a prominent vantage point and then a prefabricated torso representative of a goddess or a general. A flattering hand fitted the custom-tailored head; as with the cover photographs for Vanity Fair, prices varied according to the power of the image to draw a crowd.
The Rule of Images
The historical variables testify to the presence of the constant, which is the human hope or dream of immortality, but they don’t account for the broad-spreading glory that disperses to nothing. That achievement was reserved for the mechanical genius of the twentieth century that equipped the manufacturers of celebrity with the movie camera, the radio broadcast, the high-speed newspaper press and the television screen. The historian Daniel Boorstin attributed the subsequent bull market in "artificial fame" to the imbalance between the limited supply of gods and heroes to be found in nature and the limitless demand for their appearance on a newsstand.
Perceptions of the world furnished by the camera substitute montage for narrative, reprogram the dimensions of space and time, restore a primitive belief in magic, employ a vocabulary better suited to a highway billboard or the telling of a fairy tale than to the languages of history and literature. The camera sees but doesn’t think. Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, the object of its affection doesn’t matter; what matters is the surge and volume of emotion that it engenders and evokes, the floods of consciousness drawn as willingly to a blood bath in Afghanistan as to a bubble bath in Paris. As the habits of mind beholden to the rule of images come to replace the structures of thought derived from the meaning of words, the constant viewer eliminates the association of cause with effect, learns that nothing necessarily follows from anything else.
In place of the gods who once commanded the heights of Mount Olympus, the media present a repertory company of animated tropes enthroned on a never-ending talk show, anointed with the oil of sweet celebrity, disgorging showers of gold. It doesn’t matter that they say nothing of interest or consequence. Neither did Aphrodite or Zeus.