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.

The multisensory operations of electric media (complemented by the mass reproduction of photography through print) bestowed remote events and entities with the semblance of concreteness. The literate public read and spoke to each other about the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century, and were perhaps provided with a few etchings to stoke their imagination. But the newsreel delivered to 1940s theatergoers the animated likenesses of Hitler, soldiers on the march, and batteries discharging ordinance. The camera exposed the suffering of expropriated farming families of the dust bowl to the readers (lookers-at) of newspapers and magazine. Roosevelt used radio in its intimate, private aspect to bolster the confidence of a nation wracked by economic depression, while Hitler wielded it as a tribal drum, cranking Germany into a revanchist frenzy. Thanks to the television, the site of Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination was simultaneously Dallas and the American living room.

Writing in the early 1960s, and having lived through the ousting of silent film by the "talkie," the golden age of radio, and the television revolution while studying and then teaching literature, Marshall McLuhan declared that the emergence of the electric media paradigm entailed "the total reorganization of our imaginative lives." Anyone who doubted him then was kidding themselves, as must be obvious to any of us today.

Irrespective of their subtler effects of upon a person's basic patterns of perception and cognition, the speaker and the screen (complemented by photomechanical printing) turned the developed world into a grand practical experiment in hypnotic inception—one in which "the pseudo-events which rush by in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those informed of them," as Guy Debord eloquently and coldly phrased it.

Poster for the film Bus Stop (1956)

When Emma Bovary's voracious appetite for romantic novels motivated her somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic life, their influence was discursive. If her fantasy of a passionate rendezvous with a dark stranger was "planted" in her by print matter, her own domain of actual experience supplied the private sensations (her lover's face, build, and voice, the furnishings of the villa where they consummate their affair, etc.). Hollywood has since provided the fervid romantic a pseudo-material basis for her dream of the perfect first kiss with Mr. Right: components of particular actors' faces, voices, and gestures, of mises en scène, and perhaps the emotional stirrings of a soundtrack enter into her reverie and perhaps become the benchmark by which she assesses her actual encounters with actual men. Likewise, whereas Don Quixote modelled his conduct after what he'd read in books about adventure and chivalry, the modern male fantasy of power and heroism is likely to be an esemplastic pastiche of media imagery and the sensory "echoes" of events in which he actually participated. As Baudrillard observed, the imaginary comes to determine the real—and the imaginary's potential to do so is multiplied when it confronts us as something actually seen and heard.

What's the difference between the delusional schizophrenic and the "sane" consumer of electric media circa 1960? One hears the voices of people who are not actually present and witnesses events that have not actually occurred, and is alone in this. The other hears disembodied voices and sees the mirages of false events, but everyone else around him hears and sees them too.

The speed with which television and film rose to challenge print matter and ultimately eclipse it in terms of cultural significance shouldn't have surprised anyone. On the one hand you have the visual monotony of static, monochrome text; on the other is spectacular light, motion, and sound. Parsing requires more effort than witnessing; by the same token we find it more difficult to look away from a dynamic event than a static object. In any case, we can't choose not to hear a person speaking to us from across the table, a sportscaster narrating a baseball game via the radio on our nightstand, or The Beatles playing for the studio audience of The Ed Sullivan Show on the television across the room. The spectacle of electric media demands our involvement.

Perhaps there exists an alternate timeline where the evolution of radio, television, film, etc. followed a different course. Picture a world in which the recording and radio broadcast industries were wholly devoted to birdsong, white noise, and arrhythmical, droning vocalise, and where every cinema and television screen is lit up by animated congeries of shapes, accompanied by a soundtrack of hissing and popping sounds. It's absurd—and so is the idea that the majority of electric media's content would consist of anything but simulations of events involving humans.

The forms of entertainment devised for the new media found their templates in what was already popular. Silent films imported vaudeville and melodrama wholesale from the stage. Before the radio drama eased into the episodic format which television would borrow from it, its earliest instances were composed, performed, and broadcast live as plays to which audiences could listen as though it were delivered by a wireless théâtrophone. The early recording industry sold phonographs of musicians performing the sorts of ditties that sold as sheet music. (However grand or groundbreaking, no innovation can truly transcend the sociotechnological moment of its creation.)  

Given the transnational reach of the entertainment industry (whose radio and filmic wings were initially subsidized by the likes of Edison and Westinghouse) and the mesmerizing power of its modern products, it was only to be expected that the people whose images appeared on screens large and small across the globe, and whose recorded voices were played back through speakers to millions of listening ears, would ascend to a stature dwarfing the heights to which any actor or musician could hope to clamber in any previous epoch. During the twentieth century, the actor and singer achieved the mass recognition which Western culture had previously reserved for Christian saints, Greco-Roman heroes and gods, heads of state memorialized on paper money and metal coinage, and perhaps a select few literary canonical images like Hamlet soliloquizing to the skull in his hand. Centuries passed before Jesus had adoring followers on four continents; Charlie Chaplin pulled it off in just a couple of decades.

Even in the time of Mrs. Crackenthorpe's Female Tatler, the publishers of gossip had a penchant for dishing about actors and singers—but most usually when they were rumored to be having an affair with some member of the upper classes. When the performing artist became the indispensable ingredient of an enthralling spectacle reproduced in every city and town, the press followed the money. If the editor of a daily tabloid or weekly human-interest magazine with a national readership had to deliberate between publishing a cover story about a garden-variety scandal involving a socialite whose name mattered to nobody living outside New York, or the saucy details of Marilyn Monroe's latest divorce, then that editor was a bona fide idiot who wouldn't have been in business much longer.

September 1955 edition of Hollywood scandal
magazine Confidential

The qualitative difference between the public's experience of the print-era personage and the celebrity of the electric age cannot be overstated. As a creator of content, Charles Dickens was like a remote pen pal whom you've never met in person, but periodically writes you very nice letters. Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, is somebody you've seen around the neighborhood. In the movie theater, on the sidewalk, in the supermarket, in your living room. You're personally familiar with the way she speaks, how she carries herself, the kinds of clothes she's accustomed to wearing, and so on. Perhaps once or twice she's sung you to sleep. Why then wouldn't you prick your ears when somebody speaks of her? Why wouldn't you be interested in what she's been up to?

But this is all wrong. You've never seen, heard, spoken to, or been in the bodily presence of the actual human being named Marilyn Monroe. You're only familiar with the machine reproduction, the simulation of Monroe. Where most of planet Earth is concerned—and was concerned during her lifetime—Monroe was content. A pseudo-person. Flat, and yet deeply multitudinous. Larger than life, but something both more and less than alive.

Edwin booth was a famous actor. Humphrey Bogart was a movie star. Brad Pitt was a superstar.

What separated Bogart from Booth was the reach of the medium in which he appeared as an actor. Booth's performance was limited to a single stage in a single place on a given day, whereas a Bogart film could be screened several times a day in thousands of cinemas across the world. What separated Pitt from Bogart was the sophistication of the media apparatus delivering Pitt content, filmic or otherwise. And it is the "otherwise" that contains the alchemy by which the recording of an actor projected onto or transmitted through a screen becomes a tissue in the living body of myth.

It is not only a question of how much time a person spends engaging with celebrity content, the diversity of the media in which that celebrity appears, or the amount of chatter the celebrity generates in the papers, on daytime television, or across a pub table—it's a combination of the three. For the name and the image to become mythological, their media must be multi. The images must be produced and reproduced, viewed in their multiple iterations, and variations of the narrative recited and repeated.

If, somehow, the only image of Marilyn Monroe to enter circulation was the famous subway grate photograph, her name would be a cultural footnote; she'd have been a fleeting meme, like the Double Rainbow guy or the Ermahgerd girl. But Monroe was routinely glamorized in magazines for over a decade. She appeared in movies and (occasionally) on television and radio. She recorded music. She gave interviews. She was married to other celebrities; the tabloids gossiped about her personal life. And, of course, her name came up in the person-to-person speech of normies. All of these artifacts and events corroborated each other, in spite of their variances, like the four books of the Gospels, or the different treatments of Orestes by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Ovid. The circulation and the multidimensionality of her media image imbued the simulation of Marilyn Monroe with the seeming depth of reality. Her life, consubstantiated with her circulating artifacts, traced a petroglyph across the media landscape; her mythology is the public reading of that cipher, and the control it exerts on people's movements when its contours are in sight.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych (1962)

Andy Warhol may have been vacuous, sociopathic, and weird, but he comprehended like nobody else of his time the sea change to our collective imagination of which McLuhan spoke. Perhaps he understood it even more acutely than Adorno, whose disdain for the culture industry prevented him from engaging with it in good faith, constraining him to examine it from the perspective of a bitter outsider. As an enthusiastic viewer of the spectacle, and as a visual artist who was also a profoundly empty son of a bitch, Warhol's praxis was like that of a human art-generating AI, spitting back out the images he'd been given.

Historically, the circulating image bespoke the power that put it into motion. Religious iconography reproduced across continents, as legible to the Portuguese as to the Russian, attested not only to the truth and grandeur of the Christian religion, but the social capital of its universal church (divided as it was since the eleventh century). The low-relief portrait of the reigning emperor on Roman coins guaranteed the money's value on the basis of imperial organization and military might, and redounded to the supernal prestige of the head of state who bore the likeness that synecdochically stood for that value, that organization, and that might. But the spectacle to which the celebrity belongs artfully camouflages its social function (the exercise of power and control) behind the fait accompli of its own ubiquity.

What Warhol blithely captures in the Marilyn Diptych is the simulation's prerogative to authenticate itself, to serve as its own point of reference. Monroe was iconic because she was everywhere. She was everywhere because she was iconic.

Once again, Debord articulates the tautology better than anyone else: 
The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than "that which appears is good, that which is good appears." The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.

The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.
Warhol's contribution was to turn the mirror on the spectacle from inside the spectacle, straying not one millimeter from its own universe of discourse. 

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