Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 8)

YouTube screencap ganked from npr.org.

Just kidding. There's still one more to go after this. I'm just having too much fun.


I would like to submit two provisional definitions.

First: the celebrity. He or she is a media entity whose content—those artifacts bearing some aspect of their likeness and/or their name—passes some arbitrary threshold of circulation such that it alters the behavior of some arbitrary number of viewing and/or listening persons along similar lines. We can set the bar as high or as low as we please, though it is generally understood that a proper celebrity commands the attention of some tens of thousands of people or more.

This is not a rigorous definition—surely some more thoughtful person can do better—but it designates the celebrity status as function of media "presence" (which we put in quotation makes because the template for the artifact is very seldom present where the majority of spectators are concerned), and also of the artifacts' effects on those who engage with them. The second part is more slippery than the first, since it doesn't differentiate between something as simple as hovering over a recognized name on a film's IMDB page and something as drastic as recording a sobbing excoriation of the press' calloused treatment of a troubled pop star and uploading it to YouTube. But in either case, the act is elicited by a history of engagement with content, not with the human beings to which is its attributed.

Second definition—tentatively, and far less rigorously—content is stimuli administered by a device. That device might be a film projector, a television screen, a smartphone, a Kindle, a car's stereo system, or whatever. Note that "content" wasn't the vernacular term which encompassed written material, television programming, film, music, etc. until the internet age.

There is no reason that a "device" can't consist of a stack of folded pages covered in printed text, sandwiched within a paperboard cover. But, to be fair, print matter alone elevates few people to celebrity status these days. Most of what we read, we read on a screen.

This framing rightfully ignores the value judgement that was once implicit in the attribution of celebrity as opposed to notoriety. Irrespective of degree, Chris Chan is as much a celebrity as Meryl Streep. The images of both appear on our screens, their recorded voices emanate from speakers in our vicinity, we read words they've written or are quoted as saying in our browsers. We are interested in what we see them doing. We speak of them (or post about them) as though we know them. We buy tickets to see a film Streep stars in; we may have spent money purchasing a commemorative Chris Chan coin or a Sonichu medallion. Questions like why? or what have they done to merit our interest and money? or are irrelevant. (No, the money spent on an Etsy purchase of a felt Sonichu badge doesn't go to Chris Chan, but the buyer is nevertheless investing in the Chris Chan "brand.")

We needn't concern ourselves here about the ways in which public attention feeds back to the human behind the celebrity image as social capital, remuneration, invasive scrutiny, psychosis, and so on. It will suffice to say that the culture industry rewards and warps its actors as well as its spectators.

Valentine Weigel, "Tree of Dark and Light"
from the Studium Universale (1695)

We might analogize the mass media complex with a forest orchard. Perhaps and the roots and their mycelia cultures would be the social organs committed to extracting and refining the raw materials used in the manufacture of televisions, video game consoles, personal computers, stereos, smartphones, and so on. The trunk would then be the infrastructure of content creation and distribution, from wireless networks to fiber optic cables to loading docks to recording studios, etc. At the risk of straining the metaphor, the leaves are the power grid, the fuel source, by virtue of which the conveyor belts turn, the wifi hub emits a signal, the screens light up, the little red bulb on the camera flickers on. The content would then be the flowers and the fruit: dispensable in the short term, but absolutely necessary for the grove's long-term survival. They allow the ecosystem to perpetuate itself through reproduction, and can only do so by attracting pollinators—in this case, the members of the public who buy the devices, subscribe to the streaming video and music services, routinely glance at the social media feeds, watch the livestream, and so on.  

Shut up. It's an excellent metaphor.

In this sublime and inspired parable, the celebrity—as the face and the voice of the device—is the characteristic of the flower to which the pollinator responds. Angiosperms couldn't have outcompeted the gymnosperms to blanket the planet's surface without making themselves attractive to insects; the Walt Disney Company wouldn't be a multinational corporation with myriad subsidiaries involved in real estate, property management, hospitality, insurance, private equity, venture capital, payroll software, etc., if Walt's films hadn't packed the cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century.

I realize that I appear to have walked into a blunder. This example fails, you say, because Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Goofy, et al. can't be called celebrities because they aren't human. But then again—neither is the celebrity. At least—not the celebrity which the spectator confronts, which is only content.

We cheered when Elliot Page came out as transgender; we're cheering for Velma from Scooby-Doo "coming out" as a lesbian. On our end, the fact that an person named Elliot Page exists independently of the film, the televised appearance, and the magazine profile (as opposed to the non-human Velma) amounts only to a quantitative difference. The real celebrity, who doesn't require a voice actor, a team of animators, scriptwriters, etc. generates more content by virtue of having a life outside the film role whose events can be publicized (made the basis of content) at anyone's pleasure.

see? google can't be evil.

If Velma had verified and frequently updated Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok accounts, gave staged interviews to Hollywood journalists, was "photographed" beside Elliot Page at the Oscars, seemed to progress through "arcs" in which she flew high on the success of a film or other personal endeavor, entered into a whirlwind relationship with another famous cartoon character, had a feud with Azealia Banks, went through difficult times, made some unfortunate fashion choices, etc.—all convincingly and compellingly simulating the public presence of a famous entertainer—people would be just as fascinated, emotionally invested, and eager to chatter about it in all the usual venues. Maybe the only difference would be that we'd blame a production staff rather than Velma herself when her content disappoints or upsets us. (To really commit to the simulation, Velma's "handlers" would have to be willing to make choices they know won't go over well, and not be pressured into dialing them back right away.) 

In any event, we'd stay tuned. We'd watch whatever TV series or film she's featured in. We'd mash the like and subscribe buttons. We'd teach the algorithm to deliver us the content that keeps us tapping and scrolling and viewing. We'd boost the stock values of Alphabet, Meta, Twitter, Warner Bros. Discovery, Samsung, Comcast, and every other entity with a hand in putting Velma content in front of us. Some of us would be interested in knowing where Velma buys her clothes, which brand of concealer she uses, which candidate she supports in the Democratic primaries. When Velma speaks, we'll listen. When Velma acts, we'll watch. When Velma breaks into tears in a vulnerable moment during a livestream, our hearts will go out to her.

At that point, pointing out the difference between Velma and the "real" celebrity will be as unwelcome as pointing out and explaining the special effects to the person beside you, who'd very much just like to watch the movie without you dragging them out of their immersion with your niggling commentary.

Image copy/pasted from Mixmag Asia. (Article headline: "Japanese virtual
idol Hatsune Miku will perform at Coachella 2020.")

The literate public's interest in the proto-celebrity beau monde of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, fueled by the burgeoning newspaper industry, was not simply so much gawking at fashion and scandal. Not entirely. The beau monde represented power. If, reading between the lines in a fashionable intelligence column, one saw one noble family snubbed by another, she might have been glimpsing political machinations among the national milieu of policymakers, legislators, and primary landowners. The bourgeoisie's efforts to imitate the manners and dress of the nobility (and their perusing the fashionable intelligence to understand the field) were likewise about power: they wanted to consolidate and legitimize their own by adopting those signifiers of status borne by the aristocracy of the dying ternary order.

As we've seen, the ascension of electric media pushed the economic and political corps d'elite out of the fashionable eye, which gazed increasingly upon the performer whose likeness circulated in television, film, and recorded music. In a sense, this represents the abstraction of social currency from actual political power—all the better for everyone involved. The public is more likely to continually smile on the actor and the musician in their capacity as a social avatar, since they can't have market crashes, ill-conceived military adventures, mass layoffs, rapacious oligopolizing, or boneheaded domestic policy decisions laid at their feet. By the same token, the oligarch and his plenipotentiaries in elected office can rule more effectively (where their own interests are concerned) when the public's attention is on Ezra Miller and Billie Eilish instead of on them. Isolation of functions with a view to efficiency was from the beginning the guiding ethos of capitalist organization.

The paradigm shift from electric to digital media presents another possibility for abstraction: making the human performer superfluous to the media entity. It's possible that Hatsune Miku and Hololive are forerunners of things to come—the celebrity's apotheosis into pure content. (A true creature of myth.)

Yes, yes, I know that each Hololive figure is the personal brand of its creator/performer, but that could be temporary. I don't know what kind of contracts they signed with Hololive, but if it or a similar agency were to retain the rights to the characters' likenesses, Korone and Gawr Gura could become roles that streamers are hired to play, just like Batman or James Bond in the movies. Future fans may well discuss the merits of various "eras" of a VTuber idol whose avatar was passed along to several different performers over the years.

For that matter, imagine a Disney that reviews its long game and decides that it can't permanently retire any of its Marvel Cinematic Universe characters. In true comic books style, Iron Man is to be brought back from the dead, but Disney understands that everybody would notice and grouse at the inconsistency of anybody other than Robert Downy, Jr. appearing as the character. But—what if Downey signed a $500 million contract licensing Disney to use his CG likeness in all future Marvel films, forever? What if technological improvements allow for a simulation of Downey that's absolutely indistinguishable from a video recording of him? What if Downey's voice could be digitally synthesized, obviating the need to drag him into a recording booth or find a string of actors to imitate him in the next fifty MCU films?

What if Disney just says fuck it, we've got the technology, so from now on all new MCU characters going forward will be 100% computer generated? I mean, sure, maybe an actor will be needed for purposes of motion capture, but at that point they're just looking for any rando with the appropriate frame and some aptitude for communicative body language. It would be like casting for Jason in a Friday the 13th flick: only the assiduous superfan would commit to memory the name of the man wearing the "mask." Same goes for anyone brought in to record dialogue that's then deepfaked to produce the appropriate pitch and timbre. The reality of the character would achieve a height of independence and seeming concreteness that isn't possible when he shares his likeness with a human performer who has a separate existence (or media presence) from him.

In 2007, we called Crocker crazy—but now "Leave Britney Alone" seems rather ahead of the curve. What might have come across as a uniquely unhinged parasocial relationship in 2007 might not look all that strange lately (especially not if you're familiar with the fan culture surrounding Japanese and Korean pop stars). Perhaps history will discover the same prescience in the kids who state in their social media bios that they "kin" Rebecca from Cyberpunk Edgerunners (or whom-/whatever), throw a fit when a VTuber is reported to be dating somebody "IRL," or are eerily committed to their "waifu" or "husbando" from a video game. After all, any behavior is only called "pathological" or "abnormal" until the swelling number of instances normalizes it by fiat. 



  1. Very interesting to read your stuff as you get older and the new generation of normal alienates you further from the mainstream. The very fact that you even question the normalcy of a digital "waifu" is essentially blasphemy in the so called progressive wave (progressive sure, but to what end? Devo was right...). That along with the questioning of anything that might be seen as abnormal by most rational people.

    Macross really had it right with Lynn Minmay. Way back then the power of the virtual Idol was discovered, but alas no internet to exploit it. It's like someone discovered cold fusion by mistake and then just forgot about it. In this sense Japan is the cutting edge with Hatsune Miku, vocaloids, and all the other what-nots.

    But like you say, all celebrity is virtual; it always has been. Even the King of a kingdom was really just the embodiment of state ideals rather than a multidimensional human being.

    1. It's not just my getting older and distrusting The New. I grew up with the early versions of all this stuff, after all, and I don't think it was any less screwy back then. It's not like I can say my lusting after Darkstalkers characters was perfectly healthy behavior on the basis that Morrigan x Lilith hentai took a while to load on a dial-up connection.

      I can't judge the kids TOO harshly for falling into the same traps as I did. I just worry that it's getting harder to wriggle out.