Celebrity Lies Within

For Bazin . . . film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God . . . it shouldn’t be based on the script. It should be based on the person or the thing. And in that sense, [Hollywood is] almost right to have this whole star system, because then it’s about that person instead of the story.

                                                                       -Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Americans tend to respond to celebrity culture in one of three ways. Some exercise monk-like asceticism, abstaining from celebrity information altogether. Others, the polar opposite, keep the three-billion-dollar-a-year celebrity gossip industry alive by magazinesfeeding on celebrity news with bovine dispassion, morbid curiosity, or unmitigated glee. The rest of us don’t actively seek out celebrity information, but our cultural membranes are permeable enough to involuntarily sponge up a sizable portion of the celebrity news drifting in the Pop-Ether.

I’ll be the first to admit that I can probably name more celebrities than I can bird species, but let’s face it—Pop Culture can be insidiously seductive. For instance, sometimes, we actually think we share secret insights with our favorite TV characters. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, SNL, and 30 Rock demand that we know the actors’ prior performance backgrounds to fully understand what’s going on. In one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Larry David’s ex-wife” falls in love with “Jason Alexander” (played by Jason Alexander) during “Larry’s” filming of the Seinfeld reunion. Seasoned viewers get the irony because we know that the “George” character Jason Alexander played in Seinfeld was based on Larry David in real life.

David Foster Wallace describes how this televisual phenomenon can trigger an unsettling identity shift: “I, the pseudo-voyeur, am indeed ‘behind the scenes,’ for in-joke purposes. But it is not I the spy who have crept inside television’s boundaries. It is vice versa. Television, even the mundane little business of its production, has become Our interior.”

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Here, celebrities transmute from humans into icons. The name “Brad Pitt” morphs into a conglomeration of mass-media suggestions and images. When we gossip about Brad Pitt, just as much as we talk about the person, we also engage in the continuous construction of the simulated “Brad Pitt” image, the sense. Yes, distinguishing between a thing and the concept of a thing usually amounts to a philosophical parlor trick of the “there-is-no-spoon” level of pseudo-depth. In our case, however, the concept “Brad Pitt” has taken on a rich life of its own and only tangentially connects to the man. To put it another way, think about certain people with Bob Marley posters who wouldn’t be able to point Jamaica out on a map. The Bob Marley as “semi-holy prophet with dreads” who resides as a weird semantic concoction inside these people’s heads probably has little to do with Nesta Robert Marley from Nine Mile.

Celebrity icons can signify any number of individual or collective fetishes, e.g., wealth, beauty, status, moral righteousness or turpitude, and so on, but more than anything else, 250px-DrawingHandsthey embody the value of being watched. Consider the Celebrity Red Carpet Event. Most of us know the drill. Before an awards show or premier or some other money-making production, the celebrities attending the event will get out of their vehicles and walk across a red carpet to where the event takes place. Walking to an event is not an event, you say? It is if photographers are there, at the center of a mutant mandala of circular reasoning. We watch celebrities because they are celebrities, who are celebrities because we watch them, and photographers are there to record our folly.

You might respond, “No, Kyle. The real reason for my interest in celebrities lies in the actual performances of celebrities as entertainers. For example, Bill Murray’s acting in Lost in Translation really resonated with me, so I became interested in Bill not only as an entertainer, but as a real person who could translate powerful emotions in a special way.”

Maybe, but how does watching Bill Murray stroll across the Red Carpet provide insight about Bill Murray the person? What do tabloid photos do to enrich our understanding of his performance in Lost in Translation? Whatever we learn about Bill the person in most tabloids functions mainly to create the illusion of intimacy we have with an icon, not a real person. Celebrities have to make a certain impression on us if they want to keep their careers. Look at what happened to Mel Gibson. He’s lucky he made his money when he did.

Visibility itself, however, is a nearly universal value embodied by the celebrity. Our initial interest in celebrities comes from their preexisting visibility: we see them in films, sporting events, reality shows, etc. This sort of interest reaches its zenith with the recent stock of talentless and painfully uninteresting celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. PH and KK basically remain celebrities for the simple fact that they’re already celebrities. Born in the swamp of Pop Cultural inter-reference, Kardashian’s fame sustains itself with the same mind-bending teleology as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and Spinoza’s God. And as with any god (except your god, of course), we keep celebrities alive with our rituals.

The gossip about and images of celebrities becomes primary, which means the celebrity qua human becomes unnecessary, a temporal distraction. Celebrity itself exists in its own eternal ether. Remember the “resurrection of Tupac” via hologram at the Coachella music festival? We excitedly accepted the idea that “Tupac” could perform on stage despite the death of the human host Tupac. Picture a rapping HAL 9000, getting along fine without its human progenitor.

2012 Coachella Music Festival - Day 3

Here’s another one: The Gorillaz, a “band” of cartoon characters. The very fact that a band like this can even exist somewhat self-consciously shows the extent to which public figures are industry-assembled just like any other product. Are The Gorillaz providing social commentary about the nature of modern celebrities, or just genuflecting? I don’t know. What was Warhol doing?

Whence this weirder sort of interest in celebrities—the sort exploited by tabloids and pretty much every talk show aside from Charlie Rose? I have a theory. Consider first that we spend a lot of our time being passively entertained. Americans still spend almost five hours on average watching television every day, to say nothing about movies, video games, YouTube, and so on. I think most of us on some level know that consuming such large amounts of entertainment ultimately doesn’t do much to expand the possibilities of our lives or make us grow as human beings. That’s not a controversial thing to say, is it? We watch TV because it’s easy and fun to do.

But we don’t just want entertainment from our media. We want moral comfort. We want to be assured that we are fundamentally good, dignified, and live meaningful lives. Many advertising “campaigns,” like Chevy’s recent handyman-logging- wilderness-baseball one, capitalize on our desire for existential reassurance from the media. The kitsch romance of the Chevy ads validates our sense of cultural identity using only images. Associations with the product advertised are warm as long as the cultural framework of those watching the advertisement seems reaffirmed (excluding those put-off by the product association right off the bat).

When we constantly see people on TV mostly doing everything but watching television, a tension arises. How can they validate my lifestyle if they don’t partake in it? This is where celebrities come in. The celebrity (i.e. the celebrity image) exists insofar as we pay attention to it. The public spectacle creates the primary form of ontological validation for the celebrity. That is, the existence of celebrities in social reality lies not in the objective existence of the human celebrity, but in the constructed existence of the celebrity image. Think about all those lame Yahoo.com articles and shows about the rising and falling in the social world. Our (approving) gaze endows celebrities with their value.

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But if our act of gazing alone has the capacity to give so much worth to something, then the act of gazing must in itself be pretty damned valuable. Let me put this differently: if something’s valuable because we’re seeing it, then we don’t need to worry about whether our spectatorship is itself a meaningful activity (or whether what we’re watching is meaningful). Watching creates its own value. When we watch a Red Carpet Event, we don’t celebrate the entertainers at the event so much as we celebrate our own spectatorship.

The celebrity scandal also teaches us about the goodness of watching. Scandals bring immoral celebrity deeds to The Light of the Public Gaze. Merely knowing about the celebrity’s misdeed places one in a moral position above the celebrity. The aggressive stare of a disapproving public itself acts as a form of punishment. The act of spectatorship becomes a vessel for Justice. Some purposefully avoid looking at the homeless because they assume only the act of looking will grant the homeless person moral agency.

In the meantime, Pop Culture absorbs us by feeding our egos, like the jokes on Family Guy. A massive chunk of the humor in Family Guy comes from its references to TV shows and celebrities. We laugh at such jokes comfortably because they applaud us for being such well-seasoned media consumers. Those of us who have read up on Tom Cruise’s antics in the tabloids get congratulated on our hipness. As Pop Culture gets more intertextual, expect the mutual back-patting to increase.

Celebrities also teach us that visibility is a valid method of determining human worth. Social media, which is all about being witnessed, attests that we’ve internalized this lesson. The need for visibility also explains why people seem to love to take their pictures with celebrities and post those pictures on Reddit, etc.; they’re essentially coasting on the celebrity’s visibility in order to augment their own. A tabloid / social-media saturated generation believes that being seen is the ultimate form of validation, a whole new way to worship the Ego. Self-promotion becomes the path to self-actualization.

A seemingly endless number of nauseating articles teaches us how to promote our own “personal brands” through social media. Total clarity on what exactly a “personal brand”  is eludes me, but I’ve gathered that it’s less about promoting an independent business and more about “working your way up” and impressing people. Yeah, we all like money, but that’s not the point. This stuff disturbs me mostly by the extent to which it ties self-marketing to self-identity. Lida Citroen makes a living peddling this whole “personal brand” ideology, saying things like “We compete as a commodity,” “Everyone has a brand, by design or by default,” and “Perception is reality.” You could paint that last quote on a billboard in a George Orwell novel.

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This “personal brand” stuff probably just amounts to a pragmatic adaptation made by social climbers to a culture that equates visibility with vitality. We may not like Mel Gibson, but at least he exists in the public conscious. Celebrities’ worth comes mainly from the fact that we pay attention to them. They exist to reassure us that spectatorship is meaningful. But that in turn makes us want to become spectacles. By flattering our moral sensibilities, celebrity culture only dulls them. The next time you see a celebrity duckfacing, please turn the channel.