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.

If it seems ridiculous to us sophisticated moderns that Nayaka villagers should listen to an entranced elder speaking "as" a devaru, believing that such an occurrence is as real and natural as water evaporating or seeds sprouting, we ought first to turn our attention to our own acculturated acquiescence to the illusions of the affluent world's media environment.

When we view an animated simulacrum of Scarlett Johansson thrown up on a theater screen, we typically treat it as though it were equivalent to the Scarlett Johansson, the actual living entity, despite it literally being a trick of the light. We might say we admire Johannsson, that we wish for her happiness and continued success, that we're disappointed in her for accepting this or that film role, or otherwise speak of of her as though she's a human being with whom we're personally familiar, even though the only Scarlett Johansson we have ever contacted is a fragmentary pseudo-entity that visits us through our screens, speakers, and copies of glossy magazines. To 99 percent of us, the Scarlett Johannsen we know is a media entity. A nonhuman person.

It is in this continuity between premodern and contemporary behavior that the kernel of truth in the hyperbolic term "celebrity worship" consists. Except in truly pathological cases, the kernel remains a small one. Twenty-first-century churchmen who sigh about emptying pews are apt to condemn celebrity culture as an empty alternative religion—but simply from the role electric media has played in displacing organized religion from civic life, it doesn't follow that it is a case of conversion from one faith to another (as when a person raised in a Christian household proclaims the Shahada and begins attending services at a mosque). Most self-identified fans of actors, musicians, social media "personalities," etc. aren't in the habit of chanting Dua Lipa's name in a mantric trance, ascribing the creation of the world to one or more of the Kardashians, or gathering together to affirm their devotion to Elon Musk so that he may carry us all to the stars with him one glorious day. Seriously calling celebrity worship a religion entails extending the definition of "religion" beyond its customary bounds, and misunderstands the phenomenon to the same extent as a "civilized" Christian missionary of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries who conceptualized the social practices of a nonliterate island tribe in terms of the familiar structure of European religious institutions and customs.

Kurt Cobain shrine by "Fetus-Facade" (2013)

Religion or not, the public has nevertheless attributed to the flickering simulations of persons in the the media environment an almost mythic degree of importance. ("Americans care more about Depp v. Heard trial than war, abortion, inflation," read the headline of a New York Post article citing social media engagement stats.) Even if "worship" isn't the appropriate term for fans' and followers' behavior with regard to celebrities, people still make stars into touchstones of their identities and social lives. They are remote figures of whom we wish things and make demands. We often hope to emulate them; we sometimes fantasize about communing with them; not infrequently do we ascribe greater significance to the representations and narratives of their affairs than to the actions of the people around us and their roles in our lives. (Have you listened to any white millennial women talk about Beyonc√© at any time in the last ten years?)

While we can't properly call the preoccupation with rich and famous a religion, it is absolutely appropriate to say that the images and narratives of the walkers of the red carpet constitute a mythology.

The meaning of the word "mythology" is even more indefinite than that of "religion." We're prone to using it so broadly as to make it fungible with "ideology," or so narrowly that it refers exclusively to bodies of stories about or intersecting with supernatural beings (typically by people who don't believe in those beings' reality). While I won't presume to define the term once and for all, I think we can make the idea of it somewhat less amorphous by insisting on four uncontroversial attributes.

(1) Whatever form a mythology takes, it subsists in circulation, enactment, and entailment. A primary oral culture is a hothouse of myth precisely because it is a milieu in which knowledge dies unless it is continuously relayed from person to person through speech, and mythologizing information about the world condenses it to facilitate retention. (Chaucer: "For lewed peple loven tales olde; Swiche thinges kan they wel reporte and holde.") In a religious society whose doctrine and practice are grounded in a sacred text (medieval Europe, for instance), the writings and their content do not constitute a mythology on their own. A mythology is inert and effectively dead unless it informs the group behavior of human beings. The mythological dimension of medieval Christianity in Europe existed in those chapters and verses that had a life outside of the text, along with those stories not contained in the text but accepted as biblical truth—the lives of the saints and apocryphal tales about Jesus as a youth, for instance. That life might consist of apt citation, circulation as aphorisms, the repetition of an episode from scripture as a means of offering advice, visual representations of biblical persons and events, pernicious stories about the evils of witches, Saracens, and Jews, feasts and festivals, passion plays, mystery and miracle plays, and, of course, attending church services.

(2) At the center of a mythology are either individual human beings or "nonhuman persons" from whom the members of the group which practices it stands at some remove. This much is obvious: there would be no need in any language to distinguish between what is performed in "prayer" and in "conversation" if the persons or entities addressed in the former could be reliably expected to voice a reply in intelligible speech. But the distinction between mythology and ideology is discovered in the anthropic bent of the former. The world-narrative of scientific materialism is an anti-mythology insofar as it depersonalizes the cosmos; the Marxian view of history treats its human subjects as abstract forces. It becomes a constituent of a national mythology only when a ruling Party humanizes the narrative with the addition of secular saints and heroes elected by historical forces as Joshua was selected by Yahweh to lead the Israelite conquest of Canaan.

(3) The mythologizing of a person from the past is a function of the media in which the "facts" or his or her life are recorded and transmitted. Oral culture mythologize the past out of necessity. In an age such as ours, a nonhuman person like Richard Nixon (he is now a person in the abstract) has a double existence. The historical Nixon's life and career have been extensively and dryly chronicled in books that few people read. The mythological Nixon comes to us as the grumbling, awkward, conniving cartoon character in FuturamaBlack Dynamite, and a million caricatures with their arms raised in a double-handed "victory" gesture as they labially intone "I am not a crook." The mythologizing of a person living in the present depends on the media through which events surrounding them are transmitted. Napoleon's mythologization was accomplished by different means (and to different effect) than the mythologizing of an Obama or Trump. Once again, distance makes the difference. Taylor Swift might be a mythological figure to most of us—but to any of the former boyfriends whom she (allegedly) sings about, she's an ex. 

It may go without saying that mythological entities are regarded as important, though the reasons for that status vary. 

(4) The matter must be regarded as true, or at least plausible enough for credibility, to qualify as the stuff of mythology. Captain Ahab is known by people who have never read Moby-Dick—he has a life outside the novel—but we can't call him a mythological figure because everybody knows he isn't and was never an actual person. 

Khloé Kardashian by "Ann's Heart" (2022)

Under these terms, we see that the culture of celebrity "worship" is patently mythological. All mythological figures are media entities, but not all media entities are mythological figures. (My online friends from the days of AOL Instant Messenger are examples of non-mythological media entities, as are the majority of Twitter users.)

We could go farther and call a mythology a relationship between persons mediated by an always-absent (and possibly fictive) third party. Its outward signs bear many similarities to, say, a pair of young siblings speaking together about the time their father performed such-and-such amazing feat, or discussing how he might behave in some hypothetical situation or other. But in the mythology, the "father" is nowhere to be found; neither sibling has ever engaged with him face-to-face or known anyone else who has, and yet the siblings share a common understanding of the details of his appearance, history, personality, values, etc. Moreover, the qualities ascribed to him smack of exaggeration, if not artifice. ("One time somebody tried to rob Dad and then Dad punched him so hard his head exploded...another time Dad did a cannonball and the splash was so big it emptied the pool...all my teachers have a crush on Dad...Dad is the smartest person in the world...")

Though myriad variables (many of which are impossible to observe directly) determine the features of a culture's particular mythology, the primary influences must be that society's composition along lines of political economy and technology. The tendency of preliterate, prescientific hunter-gatherer groups toward animism or polytheism is the reasonable outcome of an existence in which the necessities for life must be extracted directly from one's environs, aleatory events in the world (floods, wildfires, the outcomes of hunts and births, etc.) are apt to appear as though they were guided by temperamental but reasoning agencies, and good relations with the community are integral to surviving periods of precarity (piety in an animistic culture amounts to being a good neighbor to the spirits). The belief in a supreme empyrean deity and the frequency with which it is observed in ancient urban societies presided over by dynasties of absolute rulers suggests the old chestnut "as above, so below" would be more truly spoken if its clauses were reversed; the correlation between alphabetic literacy and monotheism implies the tantalizing possibility of a causal relation—but only the possibility.

The role of mass media (particularly electric media) in engendering the modern mythos of the celebrity leaves no room for speculation, and we are in a better position to trace its emergence than to guess at the provenance of the idiosyncrasies in the worldview of a people from another time. If it seems odd or historically aberrant that this modern "pantheon" exalted by the masses rose to such heights of importance on the platforms of the performing arts and tabloid journalism, recall once more that the animistic beliefs of "primitive" peoples were continuously reaffirmed and gradually modified over time through ritual performance and spoken testimony. Theatrics, costume, and attestation have ever been the mythological corpus' blood and lungs.


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