ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.4 celebrity, or the cult of nothingness

7.4. Celebrity, or the Cult of Nothingness

Recently a fashionable photographer was admitted to the presence of Michael Jackson. Surrounded by his staff, the rock idol was bandaged from head to toe; water was pouring from all over him, collecting in a pool at his feet. The photographer beheld the scene transfixed, not knowing what to make of it. Would he be witnessing the tragic dissolution of the world’s greatest celebrity?

He was relieved to learn that Jackson was just holding a strategy session with his advisers while taking his skin-fading cure. The picture is strikingly allegorical: the world’s number one entertainer melts like a snowman, leaving behind the naught he was molded of. This fortyish Barbie doll has been fashioned to look neither male nor female, neither black nor white; in a way he is heir to the legacy of Marilyn Monroe, who had the reputation that everything on or about her was fake. Jackson is fantasy all over, this is an open secret. This precisely is his secret. That is what makes him perfectly substitutable: he is not bound by age, sex, or race; when he melts away, nothing is left behind. Better yet: he has no real gift for anything. He is lauded by media critics for being unique in that he can both sing and dance; the plain truth is however that he has no outstanding endowments or attainments: what he can do the average person could do. Anyone whose toe has been stepped on can scream or jump like him–and the same could be said of most rock, pop, rap, and hip-hop idols. This too is clear to all unless they are deliberately deceiving themselves; which, however, is not an uncommon symptom of rock worship.

The media have concocted the ultimate nonentity, the perfect nothing. The significance of this accomplishment is that anyone can identify with him. It is a discovery of our age that merit is not a requirement for respect. Merit and fame have separated.

Is this an authentically new phenomenon? It is rather the end result of a long development. The eminent figures of ages long past, personages of myth, fable, and lore, accomplished miraculous feats; they possessed either extraordinary qualities or exceptional will power. Gods performed supernatural deeds, national heroes showed stupendous courage, the saints were capable of unusual self-abnegation. Here we are not disputing whether the giants of history actually benefited humanity or not; by merit we are simply referring to a relative reputation. The merits of the traditional hero, military leader, prince, or king were more or less predicated on the criterion of might as right or power as virtue. Yet the class system deemphasized personal merit, though characteristically the ideology of the ruling class affirmed the moral legitimacy and inherited privileges of the prevailing social order–being a nobleman meant being a nobler specimen of humanity as well–thus for instance the medieval hero was typically the noble knight. Industrialization began to undermine the rigid class system, allowing a proportionately larger role for the individual and, consequently, also for personal merit. The rising new social philosophy of the 18th century championed universality and equality, but in a context where the bourgeoisie actually called the tune and free competition guaranteed individual enterprise: now hero worship would surround differentially the Napoleonic upstart.

Tracing the road that has led to what we understand today by celebrity through successive changes wrought in the image of the monarch, the transition is represented by the 19th-20th centuries, when the ruler is already an idealized model of the citizen and thus, somewhat, of the average person: Louis-Philippe, literally citizen king by nickname; Francis Joseph, easily imitable with his signature sideburns and dinner jacket because, apart from his title, mediocre; so too Victoria, George V, and George VI, the last great successful royal stars. As–at least in their image–average persons, they were, to some extent, already celebrities in our contemporary sense of the word.

The case of the ruler who embodies the average person is somewhat similar to the case of the sports idol; that is why it represents a suitable transition. Sports heroes have to show extraordinary ability (this is why the admiration surrounding them cannot compare with the worship accorded to pop, rock, rap, hip-hop idols, who are genuine, bona fide nonentities), but their exploits are entirely devoid of any true importance: you neither help nor harm the world by throwing or pitching or hitting a ball better than others. From the point of view of their skill, sports stars are certainly exceptional; apart from that, they tend to be nondescript, commonplace human beings, just like popular constitutional monarchs who are exceptional in one respect only: their birthright to inherit the crown. With the ruler fame was due to power, though the exercise of power was becoming increasingly symbolic for the monarchs mentioned above. And at the end of the 20th century there is no king or queen left who could compete with the popularity of a Presley, the Beatles, or Madonna. As John Lennon put it, “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus.”

The nearest predecessor leading to the present-day celebrity is the actor. Actors are ideal candidates for nonentity inasmuch as by profession they lack essence: their vocation is to imitate others. It is specific to the nature of their calling that the better they can “lie,” the better they pursue it. This is however not equivalent to deception, as the audience understand the conventions of the stage. While viewing the show the audience suspend their sense of reality. Professionally actors are admired for the credibility of their performance. This aspect does come into consideration even today. But with the passing of time the most celebrated Hollywood stars typically wound up playing “themselves”–their stereotyped copies, that is–which was a harbinger of the postmodern celebrity.

Yet the actor’s art is also a metaphor of what is most profoundly, if you wish: ontologically, human: the fact that we are in a certain sense condemned forever to act ourselves, play at being ourselves: the stage is an allegory of the inner stage of human consciousness. This is one of the essential though generally unacknowledged reasons for the attraction of the theater; unacknowledged because we do not like to admit the divided nature of our inner selves.

Another important reason for the attraction of the stage is the exact reverse of the above: the dramatic representation reinforces the spectator’s self-image. God incarnated in human shape: Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, the mythological hero, the saint held up, exemplified the human being and condition as well, solidifying the ego of the follower of the cult or religion in question, in accordance with the prejudices and demands of the respective culture. The aristocrat, the royal court of a given historical period also staged, acted out, impersonated the human being as she/he ought to be, is supposed to be. In the Middle Ages, for example, the commoner’s chance of identifying with the royal show was still much narrower than, let us say, in the age of constitutional monarchs, who were already partly fashioned by professional image managers.

This function survives in the role of the contemporary celebrity. The celebrity whose image is omnipresent in the media substantiates, strengthens the fan’s ego, who imagines that they are peers. But while the former archetypes were based on merit (relative to the culture) or some other trait regarded as desirable–thus for example the typical movie stars of the era between the two world wars still had to be physically attractive–the most successful postmodern celebrities are empty receptacles, offering in this manner the greatest latitude for their fans to project themselves into them. The admirer fills a vacuum.

At the same time, the critics hurl superlatives at the celebrity. The Beatles made Liverpool into the cultural center of the world, raved Ginsberg. The critic enters into a kind of pact, a mediation between the star and the fan. Behind the rock idol’s mask, the critic actually exalts the fan. The rules of the game require that both parties pretend not to be aware of this in order for the rite or surgical operation mystically uniting the idol with the cult member to be successfully performed. The rustic who, throwing his cap in the air, ran cheering after the king’s carriage was, in a certain sense, cheering himself too, as the king symbolized the nation. The metonymy “l’état, c’est moi” is easily reversible, and the reversion in fact did take place a hundred years later, when “le peuple est souverain” became the slogan of the revolution. The tables were turned; had the revolution carried out its promise, equality would have been established.

Today neither beauty nor blue blood nor talent nor power separates the fan from the idol; the fiction is that they are equal; the spectators can much more easily celebrate themselves under the guise of their chosen celebrities. Thus could we be witnessing the triumph of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” in the present apotheosis of the celebrity? After all, the criterion of the ideal society consists precisely in one’s identification with the whole human race and each of its members.

Is it an inhuman development that–it would seem–we have discovered: esteem does not require merit? No, because presumably all of us since time immemorial have desired acceptance and respect; and it seems the simplest solution to lift the requirement of accomplishing difficult tasks, of self-sacrifice and tests of valor: unlike the legendary hero suing for the princess’s hand, we do not have to pass an ordeal. Monarchs have more or less had it, the Queen sits mournfully brooding on her wobbly throne, the royal bugle corps is sounding the taps. The princess, on the other hand, is splashed all over the tabloids and greets us featured in special bulletins. Lady Di was the child of our age, a genuine celebrity. While the complex ironies of her tragic death are rich in significance for our theory, we lack the necessary space here for an adequate analysis.

Are we, then, progressing in the right direction? Let us put it this way: the good cause has jumped the rails or has been sidetracked; more aptly yet, a generally favorable tendency is being parasitized.

When the celebrity worshipper thinks that by the apotheosis of the lowest common denominator she has succeeded in stealing into heaven on the celebrity’s back, she is being duped though, to quote Adamov, every victim is at the same time executioner, and since his deceit is also self-delusion, he becomes his own willing executioner. Madonna stares into the fan’s eyes from the screen: “I love you,” she whispers; and since her image has been fabricated to represent her as bisexual, this is meant for every single human being on the face of the earth. By contrast the flesh-and-blood Madonna lives in a fortified compound; should a fan chance so much as to appear before her gate he is turned away by bodyguards; stubborn admirers get arrested and are promptly sued by the star’s hard-working attorneys. In the real world celebrities regard their fans with contempt or at least want to keep them at arm’s length.

This is not surprising. For the average mortal Hollywood stars are the sons and daughters of heaven; people count it among their most memorable experiences to spot them on the street; and should their greeting be returned, the result is sheer ecstasy. Yet the grand masters of public relations do their business so cunningly that the viewers feel the celebrities are their intimate personal friends: they send them homemade pies on their birthdays, write them about their cares and worries, and talk about them before their real friends by their first names. And since fans consider themselves on a par with the celebrity, they look down upon their own environment–just as, in the real world, they are disdained by the star–they neglect their friends, are bored by their spouses, waiting only for the sublime moment when, in the subdued lighting of the TV room, they can again be united with the object of their adoration.

Celebrities drive a wedge between the public and their real environment. Yet they also build a bridge. Two groupies can rave about their idol who creates a shared language between them. Presumably in the Serbian and Moslem enclaves of Bosnia or in the Catholic and Protestant quarters of Belfast youngsters look at some of the same videos. Yet they are ready to pounce on each other. The international rock culture claims to reconcile people around the world. There could be some validity to this claim; however, at this time the indications are not very encouraging.

Videos and the most popular TV shows targeting young people are apt to carry a double message: seemingly they preach love and cooperation while frequently or perhaps for the most part they inspire aggression and destruction. Jackson sings about peace while smashing in windows with an ax; his alter ego is a panther; the power rangers champion peace too while they are punching and kicking. Heavy-metal singers were among the initiators of Band Aid. Apart from these occasional noble gestures, however, heavy-metal and rap stars squarely stand for cruelty and brutality–there is hardly any equivocation in their case.

Let us admit it: equivocation and brutality are choices open for humans. They are human traits unless we determine the meaning of human on a normative basis. In this sense unfortunately even the celebrities who have the most detrimental societal influences are not inhuman. Though their public images are synthetically manufactured, celebrities, once they have been launched into orbit, awaken true human impulses and emotions: the fan projects real human qualities into them.

As far as endowments, accomplishments, and real human values are concerned, celebrities tend to be unremarkable. But in some respects they usually do show exceptional aptitudes: to achieve fame they need to be manipulative, ruthless, and exploitative. (Even these requirements are not always indispensable, since celebrity, like royalty, can be inherited, dynastic–it gives you an indisputable head start to be named Sinatra or Fonda.) From there on, the manager will take charge. But if there is a decisive difference distinguishing the celebrity from the groupie, it is the former’s manipulativeness, ruthlessness and exploitativeness–perhaps above all, impudence.

Celebrities, then, alienate their fans from their surroundings, cut the ties attaching them to society by wedging themselves between the groupie and the environment, creating a kind of virtual reality that does not at all correspond to the real world. In the false belief that a tie obtains between them and the idol, the fans waste their affection. They feel they may legitimately hate their neighbors, the people they meet on the street, while this intimate contact obtains between them and their chosen idols. In other words, it is precisely the ostensible identification embracing all humanity that in practice severs them from other human beings. Rock, rap, break, hip-hop culture creates a certain common ground among its enthusiasts. But this common language nurtures hatred, destructiveness, and violence rather than human solidarity.

In summing up, we will more explicitly situate within our theory the tendency we have examined in this section. We can observe a trend throughout history whereby the role model’s traits change from Code-One toward (though almost never attain) Code-Two ideals. Generally speaking, admiration was first the recognition of power or brute force, sheer force being gradually complemented and supplanted by cunning as the application of power became more and more indirect with the advance of civilization. The group leader who owes his authority solely to physical strength stands in this scheme at the beginning as a theoretical extreme example. In reality of course human beings show a mixture of traits, they are not pure types; yet, as Weber rightly remarked, the construction of ideal types is helpful in comprehending a historical phenomenon. In the course of this development, cunning (Machiavellian intelligence) is to some extent replaced by impartial or benevolent intelligence. As the concept of equality gains credit, on the whole the role model gradually shifts to the person who on the one hand does not wish to dominate but on the other hand renders some significant objectively beneficial service to society. The postmodern (or late-20th-century) celebrity as the most popular member of society and role model represents a peculiar quirk in this development. The contemporary celebrity, who is famous for being famous, sort of cashes in on or exploits and abuses the democratizing tendency by epitomizing triviality and under the guise of equality in effect alienates people from one another.

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