Politics and Celebrity

Peter Levine offers an imaginary speech by Barack Obama, responding to the charge of celebrity:

“Modern celebrity culture is a terrible thing. I can hardly believe that my daughters, growing up two generations after the height of the women’s movement, should be exposed to relentless news about someone who happens to be thin, blond, rich, deliberately uneducated past high school, without any apparent interest in a regular job, and who intentionally acts dim and vapid in order to appear attractive. I sometimes feel as if we have slipped 50 years backward. […]

“I recognize that my family and I are in some danger of being sucked into the celebrity culture. By definition, the presidential nominee of a major party is famous. In today’s climate, becoming famous means that suddenly the public is interested in our personal lives. I was never a celebrity until I ran for president. It is exciting for us, but also troubling. At some fundamental level, it feels wrong. […]

“The government cannot ban or censor celebrity culture. It can support local civic engagement, education, and arts as alternatives. And our leaders can speak out against the culture. In this, I would gladly join my Republican opponent.”

It’s a good speech, though in reading it I found myself thinking mostly about why it would fail. People don’t like to be chastised for their recreational choices, when they feel most entitled and least beholden to moral demands. There’s a tremendous industry of professionals devoted to supplying their desired quota of drama and intrusive coverage of the celebrities, and that industry has a self-image and profits to defend.

The downside of celebrity culture is its exclusivity, which I think Peter Levine has dispatched handily in other postings. Though there is something radically egalitarian about putting average people through the celebrity gauntlet in various reality shows, there’s also something disappointing about the great influence that even minor notoriety and fame can grant. We don’t care about just anyone’s opinions, just as we don’t care about just anyone’s infidelities or weight issues.

Those who have been selected for attention gain a kind of capital they can spend politically, and that puts truly deliberative processes at risk. Kevin Powell is one example of this, but then, so is Sean Tevis. Even as we convince ourselves that we’re ‘keeping it real’ by attending to the real lives of some few stars and celebrities, we’re really raising those few above the mass, granting them respect and distinction in the name of equality. Celebrity culture has the strange capacity to twist the horizontal until it is vertical, such that we look at elites and see only leveling and authenticity. That’s a problem, and I doubt very much that a celebrity, even a scholar-cum-celebrity like Senator Obama, can solve it.

Worse yet, I’m not sure that he should. Celebrity culture is just the latest attempt to narrow the field of our attentions to see one thing clearly. We’re lucky, in some ways, that we now attend to the minutia of social life rather than the divine image or the natural world. This keeps us attuned to the needs and accomplishments of our fellow human beings and receptive to cruelty and bad judgment, whereas previously we seem to have organized our world around the divine or in superstitious attempts to garner scientific knowledge from aesthetic depictions of nature. At the end of the day, the majority of the gossip that celebrities both snark at and depend on is true, and that much truth is a major achievement, especially when it is regularly reported and sourced and fact-checked in a competitive environment of professionals seeking to get it first and get it right. And as we’ve seen repeatedly, gossip muckraking can easily become political whistleblowing in the right context, even as it also risks destroying the distinction between the two completely.

3 thoughts on “Politics and Celebrity”

  1. Do you really think that the problem with our celebrity culture is "exclusivity"? I think that two of the more truly odd characteristics of our celebrity culture are (1) that almost anyone can become a "celebrity" and, (2) once one does become a celebrity, then the "boundaries" between the celebrity's life and the rest of us are completely annihilated. So, in the first case, celebrity is not "exclusive" because it's almost completely democratic, open to everyone, as you note in reference to reality TV. And, in the second case, it's not "exclusive" either, since we are more "included" in the lives of celebrities than we are in the lives of our real families and friends.

    You may have meant that celebrity-culture promotes exclusivity inasmuch as it manufactures and reinforces economic stratification –celebrities are richer –but I think that's just an accident of the phenomenon, not its essence. And not all celebrities are richer, of course, nor are they all "elites." They're just radically "accessible," or at least their lives are.

    To use a tired old formulation, what I find most disturbing about our particular brand of celebrity culture is that it completely destroys the public/private distinction. Sometimes it's important to get rid of that distinction (like, for example, with the abortion debates), but other times it's not– like, for example, when the blurring of the public/private boundary leads the rest of us to believe that we have an equal right to the ugly details of a celebrity's marraige… or the text of his private prayers.

  2. Hmm… I have to quibble with (1): anyone can become a celebrity in the same way that anyone can become rich, which is to say that market forces only allow a very few to achieve celebrity. Yet something about the structure of celebrity makes us feel this 'anyone' in a very different way, affectively mistaking the 'any' for an 'all.' I feel like there's a kind of 'bad equality'(in the spirit of Hegel's 'bad infinity') at work in this perverse equality of opportunity to be on display, and that (2) is actually the manifestation of ressentiment insofar as we take revenge on the famous by enforcing exposure and confessional habits that we gradually begin to demand of ourselves.

    Do you have any interest in a SPEP panel on these issues? (Celebrity in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: The Ontopolitics of Fame)

    Might be fun….

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