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.)

It is worth our while to touch on Roland Barthes' specialized and idiosyncratic definition of "myth," which intersects with McLuhan's remark that the purpose of myth is to boil down a complicated process or situation into a concrete, enduring metaphor. We won't recapitulate Barthes' semiotic description of myth as stacked tiers of signs, signifiers, and signifieds, but it will suffice to say that the gist of his conception is of a language developed to "transform meaning into a form." One of the recurrent examples he cites in his 1957 essay "Myth Today" is the cover photograph of a then-recent issue of the magazine Paris-Match, which depicted a black youth in French military garb giving a salute. Here many of us might say that this is a cut-and-dry instance of propaganda, disseminated to simultaneously dismiss the enduring problems of France's imperial history and to suggest that it all worked out in the end because the final result was more French patriots. Barthes examines the procedure in more granular detail:  

Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion... Entrusted with 'glossing over' an intentional concept, myth encounters nothing but betrayal in language, for language can only obliterate the concept if it hides it, or unmask it if it formulates it...driven to having either to unveil or to liquidate the concept, it will naturalize it.

We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason. If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an instrument. Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the obviousness of its motivation. But for the myth-reader, the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.

Note the crucial distinction between "justification" and "naturalization." Every justification contains an apology, an argument for the desirability of a thing after its positives and negatives have been weighed against each other. Naturalization means the preclusion of justification. It prevents the question from being asked, obviating the demand for an answer, apology, or explanation.

The mythology which accretes around the individual celebrity through the circulation of media artifacts and discourse varies on a case-by-case basis—the Cyndi Lauper narrative is not the Aaliyah narrative is not the Lady Gaga narrative—but a general theme (or, rather, an effect) is the naturalization of their status and the prolificity of their image.

The celebrity, as a person—the living being whose entity and actions constitute the vital basis of the circulating content—is typically somebody who sings in a recording studio and onstage, pretends to be a fictional character for a camera, plays a sport that is broadcast in real time, and so on. To be sure, he or she tends to be very good at it. For these invaluable services, he or she earn a fabulous income, own multiple houses, enjoy the mobility of a private jet, have people on call (and the social clout) to clean up any messes made by his or her misbehavior, can expect to be intently listened to by the hoi polloi and elite alike whenever he or she chooses to speak out on a given topic, etc. In short, the actor, the singer, and the basketball player accrue a great deal of power on the basis of his simulacrum's place in a mass media pseudo-event, and its provenance is effectively laundered before it ever has the opportunity to be soiled by public examination.¹ We are told (without being told) that the wealth, influence, and the obeisance the celebrity commands is owed to him by all that is just and fair in the world.

On the one hand, we find a trick of prestidigitation wherein the naturalizing function of Barthes' myth-language conceals the contingent historicity of the media apparatus that pumps the celebrity content through the world's veins. The cynosure of the simulated person in the media spectacle renders transparent the social machinery that delivers it. On the other it it obscures the contingent events by which the celebrity entertainer maneuvered or was maneuvered into their particular station in the manufacture of the spectacular panorama.

The controlling parents, the family wealth, the prep school, the social capital of a relative or a peer network, the series of lucky breaks, their being at the right place at the right time to meet the right person with the right connections to land the right gig, the army of professionals employed to make them appear brilliant and beautiful—all of the circumstantial advantages and aleatory turns of fortune that made possible the celebrity's ascent are syncopated in an individualistic narrative of inborn gifts and diligent striving.² Not that talent, ambition, or industriousness are irrelevant to achieving success in a viciously competitive field, but the particular form of success story epitomized by the celebrity discounts every variable except for the native virtues of the superior specimen and the old "everything happens for a reason" chestnut.

In this respect the celebrity mythology acts as the most pervasive vector for the bourgeoisie myth of the equitable meritocracy. The affable, well-regarded joke-teller whom we all know (or feel we know), who makes us laugh and tells us what we want to hear during his weeknight television appearances—well, why shouldn't he earn fifty-seven thousand dollars a day looking into a camera and telling the jokes written for him? Doesn't he deserve it? He's so talented and so hardworking and so seen! Got a problem with it? You're just jealous. You don't have his gifts or talent, you didn't make the right decisions, you didn't work hard enough. What are you doing with your life, anyway?

The system works. The world is just. Everything happens for a reason. The social positions and compensation allotted to Stephen Colbert, Sam Bankman-Fried, and the Amazon delivery driver is each of them a moral outcome. The first two are entitled to their fortunes, their mobility, and their access, while the third deserves to piss in a bottle or else risk missing his quota. Before he decided not to work in television or found a cryptocurrency exchange, he really should have considered the consequences.

It is wholly understandable that we should admire the feats of the athlete, the musician, the actor, etc.—but the historical aberration that has been naturalized is the contemporary practice of sainting them, paying more attention and attributing more significance to their spectacular content than to any number of immediate people and events. Whatever the effects of celebrity culture's technical architecture on our basic habits of cognition, engagement promotes estrangement by tacitly diminishing the real in the face of the spectacular. No photographer, videographer, nor fawning columnist will ever make your neighbors or coworkers at the office seem as alluring or singularly interesting as Adele or Leonardo Dicaprio. It's only natural that we should hold the celebrity dearer than the scum around us.

This phenomenon cannot be disjoined from the fictive experience of sharing a personal connection to the mass media eidolon. Both the the contemporary form of the parasocial relationship and its pervasiveness are owed to electric media's sensuousness, the technical voodoo that conjures an illusion of propinquity. We do not feel we are voyeurs, but participants; we feel we are someways sharing our life with the comedian, the K-pop star, the romantic comedy actors, and the supermodel. We spend so much quality time with them; the proofs of their excellence are faultless (tautological) and endlessly abundant (by fiat). Who would we be, what would we even do without them? Why shouldn't they be some of the most important people in our lives? Popular consent to their exaltation is made a foregone conclusion at the pleasure of the arbiters of circulation (one of whom is lately a software algorithm).

April 13, 2017

The media entity requires a medium, and the spectator's engagement with that medium persists long after the pop star goes on an indefinite hiatus, the Instagrammer sets their account to private, or the actor's erratic behavior gets them blacklisted and their apology tour leaves the arbiters of taste unimpressed. Like GM and Apple, the culture industry built its business model around planned obsolescence. The cartel that invests in the person-as-brand has no illusions about the long-term viability of their products; its scouts and analysts tirelessly search for the Next Big Thing, even as it reaps the yield of having delivered the current Big Thing.

Though the hype machine implicitly and explicitly trumpets every A-lister as a sui generis phenomenon to be loved and cherished on the basis that only they can be who they are and do what they do, not a single one of them is truly indispensable.

Napoleon discovered himself positioned on the lever that moved the world as an outcome of (and an increment in) the inscrutable operations of history. The entertainment technocrats responsible for, say, placing the actor Chadwick Boseman in a position where he could be popularly regarded as a modern civil rights hero, go about their business with more far more intention and methodological rigor than the undeliberating stochastic processes from which the so-called Great Man is made. The culture industry's role in determining the spirit of the age permits it to select for us the outstanding representative of that age—or representatives, plural, as it never invests in only one candidate. 

If a catastrophic earthquake levelled Seattle in 1989, forestalling the careers of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, etc., some other milieu of musicians from some other region would have filled the vacancy. If Robert Pattinson had flubbed his audition, another young man with an aptitude for handsomely brooding on camera would have starred in Twilight and had his photos pasted up in collages across teenage girls' bedroom walls. Exxon doesn't lapse into paralysis and panic when a well unexpectedly runs dry; neither does the culture industry. Another avatar of the zeitgeist would have been selected, another voice chosen to speak for a generation. (So much for the idea that a media personality is somehow more valuable to society than the teacher, the EMT, the trash collector, or the bus driver on the basis that he or she is simply irreplaceable.)

The particular product itself is unimportant. What matters is that there is a product, that the conveyor belt never stops running, and that the spectators' habits surrounding the devices in their lives be consistently reinforced.

Still from Pearl Jam's "Do the Evolution"

As a whole, the mythology of the celebrity—composed of the entire "pantheon" (however inclusive or exclusive our criteria for membership) and the artifacts which vitalize these spectacular persons by means of their circulation—all hinges on the fundamental dogma of the media entity: the ascription of personhood to the representation, and the spurious understanding of the relation between the spectator and the media entity as one existing between two persons.

Debord called the spectacle "not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." In the final analysis, this is true—but the relation between the spectator and the celebrity is refracted through so many layers that it becomes not only indirect, but wholly abstract.

Typically, what we call a parasocial relationship between a person and a famous figure unaware of their existence is actually the functional relationship between a person and a machine, or several machines.

I am indebted to a recent article in Damage for this wonderful quote from Herbert Marcuse:

The machine that is adored is no longer dead matter but becomes something like a human being. And it gives back to man what it possesses: the life of the social apparatus to which it belongs. Human behavior is outfitted with the rationality of the machine process, and this rationality has a definite social content.

While the phantasmagoria of popular media may explicitly advertise a product, glorify a lifestyle, drill a pop hook into one's ear, cast a particular figure in the starring role of one's masturbation fantasy, etc., the implicit social content consists of the goading imperatives of engagement. We might characterize it as a metronome which guides the subject toward a certain rhythm of life—one whose tempo is set by the update, the airtime, the release calendar, the months of reruns, the prerelease hype and the post-release dissection, and so on. These cadences of engagement harmonize with those of the shift schedule, the news cycle, the holiday season (as a period of intensifying consumption), the annual floods of pumpkin spice, gingerbread, and irish cream products, and all the other resonant counters of the pseudo-cyclical time observed by capitalist society, where production has long since ceased to be commensurate to real human needs, and the interests of an aloof proprietarian class not only inscribe the patterns to which life adheres, but the meaning that is to be found therein—which today finds its most succinct expression in the social media bio, the short statement of self-identity and purpose which typically consists of one's job and a list of consumption habits.

The celebrity is the human face with which the adored machine confronts us, and the luminous avatar of hegemonic soft power: the kind of power that compels without the sword or truncheon, whose methods of extortion consist of offering and withholding pleasure instead of threatening pain, and possesses the means to organize the social environment such that it conditions us all to make precisely the choices that power the mechanisms of control. To borrow another line from Debord, the celebrity is the evangelist from whose virtual mouth is preached is "the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue." Her personal mythology is a couple of aphoristic verses embedded in the abstruse Nevi'im of advanced capitalism, routinely cited by those who breezily admit they have not parsed the whole book and have not read those lines in their context. 

1. I'm less disposed to call a football game a pseudo-event than a Marvel movie, but the social importance given to the former is no less grotesquely outsized than the latter. 

2. Being at the right place at the right time is something we've seen an awful lot since the beginning of the digital revolution. The webcomic Penny Arcade is a good example: as I've said before, it didn't become the biggest comic on the internet (at least for a time) by being especially brilliant, but because it got there first. About a decade after Penny Arcade's 1998 debut, the supply of webcomics far outstripped demand; one wonders what sort of careers Holkins and Krahulik would have followed had they been born ten or even five years later. We could say the same thing about members of the first wave of popular bloggers or YouTubers.

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