Friday, November 28, 2008

Written by Ophelia Deroy

(editor's note) Why are we interested in famous people? Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that social information served as gossip is inherently interesting for us - information about alliances, personal hatreds, couple formation and splits, is intrinsically rewarding to our brain - wherever it comes from, irrelevant though it might be to our own lives. Here, philosopher Ophelia Deroy sketches a different point of view.

"Fame" by David Bowie and John Lennon (1975) .

Perhaps it’s the imaginativeness of tabloids titles which surprises me every morning – anyway, stardom system remains very puzzling to me. I assume it serves a function – and even if it is obviously orchestrated by the medias and business companies (sponsorship for sport celebrities, brand names for singers, etc.), there must be something it appeals to in people...

What is the point of celebrity ?

But is it so sure ? Nick Couldry (LSE) complains about a lack of empirical evidence that celebrities really serve a function. The standard positions in debates about stardom and celebrity culture assume, at root, that the (quasi-industrial) production of celebrity discourse must contribute to some wider social function, whether we call it identity-formation or social integration or both. Here, for example, is McKenzie Wark: ‘we may not like the same celebrities, we may not like any of them at all, but it is the existence of a population of celebrities, about whom to disagree, that makes it possible to constitute a sense of belonging’ (M. Wark (1999) Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace. Sydney: Pluto, p. 33,).

But, as Couldry asks, “where is the evidence that people ‘identify’ with celebrities in any simple way, or even that they regard ‘celebrity culture’ as important, rather than a temporary distraction, let alone that celebrities ‘make possible’ everyone’s sense of belonging?”. I guess the question is biaised (nobody claims that people “identify with celebrities in a simple way” ) but still, it addresses a legitimate worry : interest in celebrities life goes far beyond people for whom reference to these celebrities play a role in identity-formation or in conversation. Who has never read Hello Magazine over one’s shoulder in the tube? How come we all know about Madonna’s divorce – even when not caring for it? It is less obvious to me what function collecting these information serve for people whose sense of identity or belonging doesn’t apparently mix with celebrity gossips ? Is pure distraction a fair motive here?

The “it can happen to you too” effect .

Well, perhaps the question has to be addressed at a more general level. In a recent paper, Toby Young (the son of the sociologist Michaël Young, author of “The Rise of the Meritocracy”) compares attitudes to celebrities and to lottery :

Some commentators believe that the preponderance of reality shows and their casts of freaks and wannabes—the lumpen celebritariat—have devalued the whole notion of stardom. Yet the YouGov survey discovered that appearing on a reality television programme was a popular career option among teenagers, and another poll found 26 per cent of 16 to 19 year olds believe it is easy to secure a career in sports, entertainment or the media. If the existence of the celebrity class does play a role in securing people's consent to our winner-takes-all society, then the fact that the entry requirements are so low helps this process along. If people believe there is a genuine chance they might be catapulted to the top, they're more likely to endorse a system in which success is so highly rewarded. To paraphrase the advertising slogan for the National Lottery, it could be them. As with the lottery, people may know that the actual chances of winning are low but the selection mechanism itself is fair—a level playing field.

The paper concludes that the hidden function of celebrities would thus be to secure the consent of ordinary people to the unequal distribution of rewards, in a unfair absence of genuine equality of opportunity. Basically, you accept an unfair, qua arbitrary system if you think it’s nonetheless fair, qua almost random. Becoming famous is a question of luck – and you just wish you’ll be one of the lucky fews in the limo.

But then, if being famous is about being noticed and admired, you must known that you won’t be admired for any quality of yours – but just for being lucky, which anyone could have been.

Isn’t there here a resilient trace of the idea that people have « their own luck », and a kind of fate – that they bear responsibility for being lucky or not ?

At least this makes sense of two things.

The flux

First, why there should be a constant renewal of living celebrities – by contrast with a system with more perenial stars, or (dead, mythical) legendary figures : it shows that there is actually room for newcomers, and entertains every body’s dream to get his moment of fame.

Why celebrities are not heroes – but aren’t they still prestigious ?

Second, that there is room for typologies of celebrities. The ones that Young is talking about (by which he seems to mean some sort of pop stars) have nothing more special than their audience, except the fact that they managed to become famous – something which cannot be seen as a special achievement, on his perspective, but also has to be accessible to everyone. This contrasts with celebrities acknowledged for (a) their (moral, intrinsic) qualities or (b) their superior achievements, or (c) both. The later encourage a kind of deference, and their prestige rely on the fact that not everybody could have done what they did, or be where they are. So – questions –
How come that the first ones enjoy a kind of prestige, but without deference ? Is this a good typology of famous people ? Do you have another one ? Is there any constant among different cultures, and is the « random-star » just characteristic of (some) contemporary societies ?

The Limo problem

Still, Young’s analysis doesn’t distinguish between the desirability of being famous, and the desirability of having the material advantages that can go with fame (the limo), but not necessarily do. Also, it doesn’t seem that fame is desired as a mean – but as an end. You want to be in the Limo, not necessarily to have it. Or do you ?

Original here

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