Sunday, September 25, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 6)


It's difficult to grow up in the developed world without building up a set of habits around a television set, some sort of music player, a smartphone, or any other machine that delivers mass media content. Most of us are "followers" of at least a few media personalities. That's just how it is.

Who are my favorites, you ask?

I listen to Clay Pigeon's Wake N Bake show at work, five days a week. Mr. Pigeon picks good tunes. I've enjoyed his radio essays, one-man skits, and street interviews ever since I chanced to catch a few on the Dusty Show while driving around Jersey in the late aughts. He's always struck me as a sweet man. All I know about his history is what he's said on the air: he's originally from Iowa but lives in Manhattan with his wife (whose name escapes me). I believe he used to be a smoker.

The only internet-famous types I keep track of are the boys middle-aged men of RedLetter Media. Best of the Worst scratches more or less the same itch as Mystery Science Theater 3000. I usually skip their takes on recent films (I don't go to the movies much and I don't subscribe to any streaming services), but sometimes I'll click on a new Re:View episode if they're discussing a favorite film of mine or one I've been curious about. I don't follow any of them on social media.

I think that might be about it these days. There are a few blogs I peek at now and then, but I'm not sure that counts. Much as I enjoy reading Nick Carr or Sam Kriss's stuff, I've never felt much personal affection for either of them. Not like Clay Pigeon or the RedLetter Media guys. When you listen to an endearing radio host five days a week, or to a group of conversationalists with entertaining and sometimes fascinating interpersonal dynamics, you're bound to make at least a small emotional investment in them—or, rather, in the simulations of them. I enjoy writers because there's no illusion of propinquity.

I try not to get too invested. Possibly because I've been so deeply disappointed in the past.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 5)

Clara Bow, photographed in 1928


On the face of it, the mythology of any individual celebrity is a modular life-narrative generated in real time via the instruments of mass media, the labor of professionals, and the unpaid contributions of invested observers who gossip, compile and distribute fan-publications, compose fan art, etc. The circulation of media artifacts and their effects on spectators' behavior (disposing them to consume the products with which a celebrity is associated, follow the celebrity on social media, speak about the celebrity to others, or simply to continue watching and/or listening to the celebrity's television appearance, radio interview, YouTube video, etc.) quickens and sustains the living myth's heartbeat. When the magnitude and rate of circulation decreases, or when spectators become less inclined to engage with content and/or consume products featuring the celebrity, their myth comes into a condition of elanguescence. (Clara Bow, the "It Girl" of the 1920s and 1930s, doesn't inspire much devotion or very many retrospective listicles these days.)

As we've seen, the overlapping circles of Western Europe's economic, cultural, and political elite formed the ranks of the proto-celebrity beau monde. The press loved them, and a sizable cross-section of the literate public was captivated by them—but their wealth and power had little to do with the mass media. It is the reverse for their successors, the celebrities proper of the electric age.

The modern celebrity stands aloft on a tautology. Critics of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and the like once groused that so-and-so was "famous for being famous"—but that has always been the case for anyone who sought to earn a living by offering their name, likeness, and work to the mass media complex. Circulation catalyzes circulation. The person with a speaking role in a major film, who chats with late-night talk show hosts, has their photographs festooned across the magazines and tabloids displayed at the supermarket checkout, who's discussed on daytime television, etc., gets slotted for time in these media because they are seen to be significant, and they are significant because they are (or have been) seen. (They are selected, initially, on the industry expert's appraisal of the value they'll add to a product. By coming into circulation, their likeness enters the domain wherein mythologization becomes possible.)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 4)

However much the sensory content of electric media will be emphasized going forward, it's worth addressing how print matter embraced and promoted the imagistic "language" of the mass media.

Let's take for an example the reporting (and advertising) of sartorial fashion, integral to the sphere of celebrity reporting then and now. The following is a passage from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of  February 28, 1873:

words words words

There are no pictures. You had to use your imagination. Moreover, you had to be in the know. I have no idea what is meant by "plastron," "fraises," or "gilet fichus;" they might as well be chemistry terms. Certainly the nineteenth-century woman reading the piece was much more likely to be familiar with sartorial jargon, but even so, pure print imposes certain qualifications for comprehension whenever it strays from the commonest vernacular.

While it's not entirely fair to compare the inside content of a small-town newspaper the cover of a magazine with national circulation, it's nevertheless instructive to look ahead to the February 23, 1895 edition of Harper's Bazaar:

"Paris calling costume from Worth"

There it is: an artist's representation of the dress and its idealized wearer—and the intimations of a lifestyle.

Now let's jump forward another four decades to marvel at the cover of Vogue from August 1, 1938:

"Huh? Great Depression? What depression?
I feel fabulous!"

Even though it's divorced from any explicit context, the photo disinvites any questions as to where this is supposed to be and what's supposed to be happening there. Obviously we require no technical description of the model's raiment; the camera reproduces its "objective" likeness. By studying it, we can guess something of its texture, or the way it must go taut about the elbows and knees. The verisimilitude of the model is such that when we imagine her speaking, we might hear something other than our own interior voice. We see, we feel, we know, we believe. When we talk about sensuous as opposed to discursive content, this is what we mean.


The expansion and diversification of mass media in the first half of the twentieth century altogether supplanted the discursive "virtual reality" of the beau monde with the ensorcelling mythology of the celebrity. The process can be encapsulated as the result of three movements: extension of the mass media's range and its homogenization on a national scale, and the denudation of typographic culture by an emergent paradigm of sensuous content, and the crucible of the free market.

In terms of its reach, twentieth-century media imposed the culture of the metropolis upon the province. This process was well underway during the second half of the nineteenth century, as railways swiftly and reliably transported a growing number of national-audience publications from the city to the town and country. In the same way, secondary cities were likewise bent into conformity with the metropoles. If you lived in, say, Philadelphia or Saint Louis, the majority of the books you read were printed in London or New York. The birth and rapid growth of the motion picture industry (which entailed the repurposing of local theaters as cinemas) accelerated cultural homogenization, as did recorded music, radio, and television.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 3)

Charles Dickens carte-de-visite (ca. 1860–69)


The eighteenth-century newspaper scooped up the beau monde as readymade celebrities. Many of high society's denizens would have been happier without the public scrutiny. Probably it was only those people and families who were either trying to climb the social ladder, found themselves in a position of precarity, or feared the airing of a private scandal who truly cared about what the plebians writing for the newspapers had to say about them. 

Despite the newspapers' role in bringing the affairs of the fashionable universe to the public's attention (and stationing themselves as a sort of magic mirror in the fashionable household), the media didn't get into the business of manufacturing its celebrities until the nineteenth century. True, the papers weren't above bringing eccentrics, perverts, and madmen into the textual spotlight to be gawked at by a public that would have otherwise been ignorant of them (then as now, sensationalistic content moved product), and of course coverage was allotted to the scientist, inventor, political activist, philosopher, or businessman who rose to prominence in their respective spheres of activity. But the first modern celebrity was the figure whose sphere of activity was the mass media itself: the literary celebrity, who made his entrance onto the public stage during the same decades that the fashionable intelligence column became a fixture of the English-language newspaper.

These new sorts of eminences were, like their counterparts on the twentieth century's silver screen and the twenty-first century's black mirror, those best endowed to make themselves a creature of the medium in which they worked, through a combination of ingenuity, talent, restless ambition, and a personal charisma they could weave into the very fibers of their productions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 2)

George Cruikshank, The Prince of Whales or The Fisherman at Anchor (1812)


The germ of celebrity culture as we recognize it today was incubated in the crucible of the mass media revolution. Not the printed and bound book, but the newspaper, which attained a recognizably modern form during the eighteenth century. Government accounting data from Britain suggests that the annual circulation of newspapers rose from about 2.4 million copies in 1713 to 16 million copies by 1801.¹ In addition to publishing current events reports, partisan propaganda, editorial essays, poetry, columns about mathematics, etc., the city periodical was also apt to disseminate a great deal of gossip.

Readers of eighteenth-century London journals such as the TatlerTown and Country, and the World could enjoy regular helpings of juicy content about the impropriety of the upper classes. Though similar in spirit to People and TMZ, they resemble their modern progeny about as much as a tyrannosaur looks like a chicken. Their correspondents typically referred to their subjects by an initial or pseudonymously, expecting the savvy reader to decipher the clues as to whom they referred. Dirt on the rich and powerful was often shoveled up in the form a satirical poem (Alexander Pope's 1712 epic The Rape of the Lock being the most famous example, though it wasn't originally printed in a newspaper), but most often it was served in in the grandiloquent prose of the period.

The ostensible purpose of these primitive scandal sheets was muckraking: the pseudonymous author of the short-lived Female Tatler (one Mrs. Crackenthorpe) claimed her intention was to shame the well-to-do into regulating their own behavior and setting a better example for the "inferior classes."² Doubtless the editors of longer-enduring journals understood that whatever excuse was made for it, lurid content moved product.

From The Freeman's Journal of Dublin (Jan. 16, 1843)

Monday, September 12, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 1)

Heath Ledger shrine by Kaitlin (2012?)

For what follows I am indebted to Shirley in two respects. First: some months ago (this piece was put aside and picked back up three or four times), she and I got in an argument about her sympathetic interest in Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson, which I simply couldn't make sense of. It prompted me to probe the topic of celebrity culture out of (1) a genuine interest in understanding how it works and where it came from, and (2) spite.

Second, she has often suggested that I break up my more precipitous effortposts into more approachable segments, which seems worth giving a shot. Let's see how it goes.


Though the term "parasocial relationship" was coined by modern sociologists observing the effects of electric media in the 1950s, parasocial interactions predate recorded history. Their earliest instances occurred between preliterate peoples and their gods and spirits.

It may be objected that supernatural beings don't actually exist in any meaningful material sense, disqualifying any of them from acting as the second party in a parasocial interaction—but to the members of a prescientific "tribal" society, their reality was as much a given as that of the sun in the sky and the earth underfoot.

On the other hand, one may point out that an individual might have good reason to believe that an ancestor spirit was aware of his or her life and deeds, and we propose that if the believed reality of a deceased but conscious family member should be considered effectively real, then we're actually making the case that the interaction is of an interpersonal rather than a parasocial character.

Maybe. But we needn't go deep into the weeds of ontology to observe that if "nonhuman persons" such as gods or spirits could be said to have reciprocated believers' interest (to the understanding of those believers), they did so only mediately. This is to say that there is in fact a difference between the appearance of a mysterious, unmasked man with antlers who emerges bodily from the forest during a druidic ritual, speaks and responds to the celebrants in articulate human speech, clasps them by the shoulders, and then disappears in a cloud of mist before their eyes, and the hunter who returns to the village claiming that a deer with which he made eye contact was a god in animal guise, recognizing and communing with him an uncanny moment of eye contact.

In a paradigm of primary orality, gods and spirits are media entities. Their images gaze at believers through the bulbous eyes of idols fashioned from wood or stone, admonish or menace people in their dreams, cyclically accomplish their famous deeds during storytelling performances and commemorative rituals, and make their desires known through the voices of human liaisons. Their reality has its basis in communal speech and ritual enactment, the devotional behavior they inspire, and the psychological transformations of the physical environment which they effectuate; they "exist" as verbal relations carried out in the field of experience, set up and maintained by the social group.