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.
Celebrity is about being, not becoming. Once possessed of the sovereign power to find a buyer, all celebrity is royal. The images of wealth and power demand nothing of their votaries other than the duty of ritual obeisance. The will to learn gives way to a being in the know, which is the instant recognition of the thousands of logos encountered in the course of a day’s shopping and an evening’s programming.
The multitasking accelerates the happy return to the old-school notion of fauns and satyrs concealed within a waterfall or willow tree. Celebrities of various magnitudes become the familiar spirits of insurance policies and shaving creams, breathe the gift of life into tubes of deodorant, awaken with their personal touch the spirit dormant in the color of a lipstick or a bottle of perfume. The wishful thinking moves the merchandise, accounts not only for high-end appearance fees ($3 million to Mariah Carey to attend a party; $15,000 for five minutes in the presence of Donald Trump), but also for the Wall Street market in nonexistent derivatives and the weapons of mass destruction gone missing in Iraq.
Smiles of Infinite Bliss
Transposed into the realm of politics, the greater images of celebrity bestow an aura of stability and calm upon a world disfigured by the frown lines of death and time. The headlines bring word of earthquake in Haiti, banditry in Washington, famine in Somalia, but on the smooth and reassuring surfaces of People and Extra, the smiles of infinite bliss, as steady in their courses as the fixed stars, hold at bay the threat of change and the fear of Mexico and Allah.
There they all are—Marilyn and Elvis and Jackie together with Oprah and Brangelina and Barack—a little company of domesticated deities standing in for the lares and penates who sheltered the households of ancient Rome. What get lost are the lines of reason and a faith in government administered by mere mortals.
Einstein once observed that the beauty as well as the truth of science consists precisely in its impersonality; the same can be said of law and government. The founders of the American republic assumed that otherwise ordinary men—if given the instruments of law and institutions governing the uses of those laws—can be trusted to conduct the business of the state. Syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop expressed the eighteenth-century sentiment accurately if somewhat condescendingly when he described President Richard Nixon as "a workable plumbing fixture."
The sentiment didn’t survive the Watergate scandals and the disgrace of the Vietnam War. The less that it is understood what politicians do, the more compelling the need to clothe them in an aura like Andy Warhol’s, one that "you can only see… on people you don’t know very well or don’t know at all." In congressional committee rooms, as on Hollywood banquettes and Wall Street tip sheets, names take precedence over things, the private story over the public act. On air and online, the news from Washington for the most part consists of gossip, suggesting that politics is largely a matter of who said what to whom on the way out of a summit conference or into a men’s room.
Barbara Walters adopted the tone and pose of a rock band groupie when interviewing the newly elected President Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1976. "Be wise with us, Governor," she said. "Be good to us." Not a request addressed to a fellow citizen, but as with the begging of a golf ball from Tiger Woods or the offering of a pudendum to the members of Mötley Crüe, the propitiation of a god.
Carter acknowledged the petition with the benign smile befitting the image that was the entire substance of his campaign, that of the Messiah come to redeem the country, not to govern it. Four years later Ronald Reagan mounted a cowboy-hatted variant of the same message on a white horse. Barack Obama in 2008 scored the apostolic music for gospel choir and guitar, but to notice that he failed to work the miracle of the loaves and fishes is to miss the point, like noticing that David Hasselhoff can neither sing nor dance. The author of two best-selling book-length self-promotions, Obama was elected by virtue of his celebrity, a commodity meant to be sold at the supermarket with the cosmetics and the canned soup, elevated to the office of a totem pole.
Modern Monarchs Eaten Alive
So too the nineteenth-century kings of England after the British throne had been shorn of its political strength and reduced to an expensive ornament. Remarking on what remained of the reverence for monarchy in 1823, William Hazlitt likened it to "a natural infirmity, a disease, a false appetite in the popular feeling, which must be gratified." The dream-buying public wants a "peg or loop to hang its idle fancies on, a puppet to dress up, a lay figure to paint from." The idol is best made from poor or worthless raw material because it is then subject to the whim of its manufacturer.
The bargain is a Faustian one. The media affix price tags to carcasses of temporary divinity, but in return for the gifts of fame and riches, they require the king of the month or the queen for a day to make themselves available to the ritual for the public feast. What was once a subject becomes an object, a burnt offering placed on the altar of publicity.
Diana, princess of Wales, died in Paris shortly before dawn on August 31, 1997, and less than an hour later in Cape Town, South Africa, the news media sought from her brother, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, a truffle of marketable grief. He refused the request, saying instead that he always knew "[t]he press would kill her in the end," that "[e]very proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her… has blood on their hands today."
The earl knew whereof he spoke. Having once worked as a correspondent for NBC in London, he would have guessed that in Tokyo and Madrid the news media already had begun to cut and splice his dead sister into strips of videotape and fillets of twelve-point type. Diana was a celebrity of the most nourishing type, a born nonentity avid for the limelight because she hoped to find the needle of her self in the haystack of her press clippings. Together with her brilliant smile and despite her having received a fair share of fortune’s party favors—youth, beauty, pretty dresses, a prince for a husband, Elton John for a pet—she projected a sense of loneliness and loss. Her fans cherished her neediness, which was as desperate and as formless as their own.
Maybe the earl also remembered something of his reading of the Homeric poems. He had attended Eton and Oxford, two schools still acquainted with the study of classical antiquity, and it’s conceivable that in the media’s terms of endearment he recognized the debt owed to the very ancient Greeks, who allowed their sacred kings to rule in Thebes for a single triumphant year before putting them to death in order that their blood might fructify the crops and fields.
The last 3,000 years have brought refinements, the editors of The National Enquirer improving upon the old ways of preparing the sacrificial meats and arranging their distribution to the suppliants crowding around the entrails. Before noon on the day of Diana’s death, a thousand gossip columnists had spitted her memory on skewers of solid-gold cliché. By nightfall the television producers assembling the long goodbyes had wrapped up in two-hour segments the images that had been the empty shadow of her life—Diana in her wedding carriage, Diana carrying a black child or riding a white horse, Diana in the harbor at Saint-Tropez on an Egyptian’s gilded barge.
At the hour of the rising moon it remained only for the anchorpersons, Barbara Walters among them, to step forward into the studio light and pour out the wine of glistening bathos. It didn’t matter what anybody said, because even the tellers of the most intimate tales were talking not about a human being but about a golden mask behind which they were free to imagine themselves dressed up as Cleopatra or Snow White.
Celebrity Is Money with a Human Face
Akin to the making of sausage or violin strings, the manufacture of celebrity is not a pretty sight—as was noted by Bob Dylan in the midst of an adoring crowd, "I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs"—but not all the contracts exact a pound of flesh. Sometimes the fatted calf need only consent to a loss of freedom, of mind as well as movement. Incarcerated within the packaging of an image, the commodity in question loses the capacity for anything other than prerecorded speech, goes nowhere except in the company of a telephoto lens.
The fallen idol sells as many papers as the rising star, but God forbid that the product should lack the ingredients listed on the label. Were Sarah Palin to suffer a change of heart—maybe read a history book, possibly take instruction from a dictionary or an atlas—her image would lose its currency, risk being shelved in a supermarket aisle with the soda water and the bathroom fragrance.
Like the camera, the market moves but doesn’t think, drawn as willingly to the production of nuclear warheads as to the growing of oranges or grapes. It doesn’t recognize such a thing as a poor celebrity. Celebrity is money with a human face, the "pegs" and "loops" on which to hang the dream of riches. Bipartisan and nondenominational, the hero with a thousand faces unfortunately doesn’t evolve into a human being. Let money become the seat of power and the font of wisdom, and the story ends with an economy gone bankrupt, an army that wins no wars, and a politics composed of brightly colored balloons.
To accept the price of a thing as certificate of its character and worth is to substitute the word for the deed. A further proof of Gresham’s law, the bad money driving out the good, degrading the distinction between the life courageously lived and the life heroically publicized. Because the lesson of an exemplary life unfolds over a period of time that doesn’t fit between the Viagra commercial and the top-of-the-hour station break, the constant viewer accustomed to the handling of disposable goods learns to discount the currency of human greatness, to distrust the tenders of mortal truth and beauty, loses sight of the nondisposable stars that might prompt a looking up from the wonder of his or her own navel.
Too much of Boorstin’s "artificial fame" in the atmosphere lastly can be compared to carbon emissions leaking from a volatile organic compound that is by its nature toxic. Given the media’s personal devotion both to the golden and the fatted calf, I don’t think we can expect enactment of a clean-air standard or some sort of system of cap and trade.
On the national cultural circuits, as among the political camp followers feeding on the spectacle of a presidential election campaign, the mere mention of money in sufficient quantity (a $100 million divorce settlement, a $787 billion federal stimulus) excites the same response as a sighting of George Clooney. Eventually the society chokes itself to death on rancid hype. Which probably is why on passing a newsstand these days I think of funeral parlors and Tutankhamen’s tomb. The celebrities pictured on the covers of the magazines line up as if in a row of ceremonial grave goods, exquisitely prepared for burial within the tomb of a democratic republic that died of eating disco balls.