Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Postmodern Celebrity

Today’s celebrities are not like yesterday’s. And we are poorer for it.

So says George Packer in a New York Times op ed. We worship celebrity, he explains because we are burdened with overwhelming inequalities and a lack of opportunity.  

Packer defines celebrity:

What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.

Packer is correct. We do not live in an age of widespread opportunity. He doesn’t say it, but in the Age of Obama opportunity and enterprise have been overtaken by a politics that emphasizes, as I have suggested, “bread and circuses.”

We believe that hard work is not rewarded, so we settle for non-stop entertainment.

Why would people not lose faith in institutions when the institutions seem more interested in increasing their power than in serving the people?

In the old days, the distance between the individual and the celebrity was narrower. We aspired to improve ourselves; we sought out role models; we worked hard at our tasks; we believed in just rewards. We weren’t stymied by bureaucratic overregulation, brainwashed by schools or fed the party line by the press. And we did not witness people being receiving extravagant rewards that had no real relation to their contribution to society.

The old-time celebrities come from a bygone era. Do you remember them:

The “stars” continued to fascinate, especially with the arrival of TV, but they were not essential. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Perry Como, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Paar, Doris Day and Dick Clark rose with Americans — not from them — and their successes and screw-ups were a sideshow, not the main event.

Today,  celebrities are everywhere. People who would, in the past have been business leaders are now elevated to the rank of celebrity.

Packer offers an illuminating list:

Our age is lousy with celebrities. They can be found in every sector of society, including ones that seem less than glamorous. We have celebrity bankers (Jamie Dimon), computer engineers (Sergey Brin), real estate developers/conspiracy theorists (Donald J. Trump), media executives (Arianna Huffington), journalists (Anderson Cooper), mayors (Cory A. Booker), economists (Jeffrey D. Sachs), biologists (J. Craig Venter) and chefs (Mario Batali).

There is a quality of self-invention to their rise: Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to the subject of a Hollywood hit; Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z; Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart, and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them.

No one can aspire to the wealth and influence that these celebrities wield, so everyone is left with the unenviable task of picking up the crumbs that the rich and famous throw at the masses in grand gestures that resemble noblesse oblige.

Packer has grasped the salient point, but he should have taken it a step further and asked who is in charge of public education and who dominates the marketplace of ideas.

Packer suggests that ordinary people are diminished to the point where they can only participate vicariously in these “celebrity monuments” by purchasing a trinket with the celebrity’s name or signature affixed to it:

The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods: to flash their favorite singer’s corporate logo at concerts, to pour open their lives (and data) on Facebook, to adopt Apple as a lifestyle. We know our stars aren’t inviting us to think we can be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind.

George W. Bush’s signature legislative achievement in the field of education was the No Child Left Behind Law. Now, in the age of Obama, celebrities like the president have been leaving everyone behind.


Sam L. said...

"Celebrities" are a dime a dozen. Many of us non-celebs are greatly unimpressed.

n.n said...

Worship of mortal gods does not follow from economic status or social opportunity. That requires an individual to defer their dignity as they prostrate themselves before mortal beings.

It's ironic that people who reject a divine God are more likely to accept mortal gods. It's the same irony as rejecting private monopolies while favoring authoritarian (i.e. government) monopolies.

It is, of course, understandable. Men and women dream of material, physical, and ego gratification, which only a mortal god will promise to fulfill.

Anonymous said...

(Read really fast)
I don't know about you, but I feel no dignity when standing before Justin Bieber or Tom Cruise. They are so much smarter and wiser and worldly than I am. I buy every tabloid I can. I'm on TMZ and Perez Hilton all day trying to catch the latest about my favorite celebs. Who needs God when you have these people? I know I'm believing in the truth, and that's fame. Fame and notoriety are all that matter. You ride around in limos, get all the sex you want, and people worship you. Why be a leader when you can follow someone like George Clooney? I mean, like, c'mon... And they wear Armani suits and wear Rolex watches. Who doesn't want one of those? They get them in their promo bags for the Oscars and then complain about the material suffering of people in exotic lands they get to see on UNICEF tours. I wanna have all that money so I can do that! When you have money, you're so much more real and can do so much good. I can't believe Donald Trump became a Republican. I fired him from my celebrity list. Republicans are evil... they want us to go back to the 1950s, and that was the time when noble Hollywood writers of conscience were harassed for being suspected communists, and that was so mean. Communism is a great idea in theory... it's just all these bad, greedy people who make it seem bad. I know if Richard Dreyfus or Michael Moore was our Communist leader everything would be perfect. And we'd all get to go to movies all day. It'd be so awesome, ya know? Kind of like President Obama and how he's standing up for us little people who don't have any power. His administration is so transparent and cool that he goes on Oprah and even she is in awe of him. And Chris Martin from Coldplay is, like, the ultimate celebrity. He's all-knowing and has some bitchin' positions on incredible issues like artistic freedom. That's the stuff that matters. If I didn't have my iPod, I'd just have to die because there wouldn't be any point in living anymore, ya know? Wow, man. It just all blows my mind. I think I'm going to become an actor so I can express myself and give back to the community. And then I can become one of those open-minded Scientologists who gets to join Sea Org. Real celebrities fly around in private jets and protest acid rain, nuclear war, global warming and other peoples' carbon footprints. Wow, that's power! So mind-blowing! Dude. Stuart Schneiderman and all his comment posters are such old-fashioned squares... it, like, makes me want to yack up my organic vegan strawberry soy milkshake. Uh. Can you imagine reading about someone dissing therapy on his blog every day??? I mean, I've been in therapy for years, man, and I think it's just so amazing. I now know that I'm a person, and it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks of me. My ego is intact. Starbucks used to be so rad but it sucks so bad because all they care about is profit and everyone drinks it now. Give me a minute to catch my breath, okay? .......

Anonymous said...

(cont'd from above)

...... Good, that's better. I needed a swig of organic guava juice... the kind that Beyonce likes. NYC Mayor Bloomberg is right... no one needs more than 8 ounces of soda at a time. But sometimes I need some adrenaline that I can't get from my brother's Ritalin, so now I exclusively drink Juan Valdez's sustainable grain-fed, free-range coffee. Do you have any idea how cool nature is??? I mean real nature, like the kind you see at the zoo and on PBS with Dr. Tyson. He's an African-American astrophysicist, so he's my favorite smart person because he's so smart. I was watching one of his programs about the solar system on our Energy Star television. The sun is a star, you know. Anyway, I'm in love with the sun because the sun creates hemp and all this other vegetation and Johnny Depp thinks that's cool, so I do, too. I'm pro-choice because Sharon Stone told me I should be on "Inside the Actors Studio" years ago. I love TV. Al Sharpton knows what it's like to be black, and so do I because I raked leaves on a service project in an urban ghetto when I was 12. So I'm, like, posting on this blog, u know, so that all you squares out there know that I'm a real person! And I care about people! And you don't. You're all mean. Goodbye. I'm going to a Writer's Guild rally to protect our rights from THE MAN! Yeah! Dignity is being a follower of a good cause. Your cause is hate, hate, and more hate. Hate all the time. You're like, "The Hate People." Inequality sucks. Like Danny Glover says, Che lives! Chavez was a man of the people because Oliver Stone said so. Google is so cool because those guys are, like, trillionaires or something. I'm kind of overwhelmed after all this talking... I think I'm going to go back to my parents' living room and watch some Real Housewives. You know they're real, right? Word.


n.n said...


I take it you are anti-mortal god, right? Don't you want their promises of material, physical, and ego instant (or immediate) gratification without perceived consequences? Several hundred million lost human lives in the streets, in the toilets, can't all be wrong.

That said, I am still waiting for delivery of my beachfront property in Hawaii, but they assure me that I, and several other billion people, will enjoy that luxury in equal measure. In the meantime, I am following the directions of a Leprechaun to find his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Don't harsh my mellow! Praised be the mortal gods, and Leprechauns, who demand nothing more than the sacrifice of children, without a voice and without Arms, and green clovers, respectively, to earn their favor.

Anonymous said...

You forgot the pixies. And the fairies. That bothers me.


Ghost of 503 said...

I respectfully disagree. I don't think it's because of economic status or social opportunity but more to do with the fact that thanks to the wide-spread fragmentation of pop culture (NPR actually did a great series on that very topic) celebrity-worship has filled a de-facto void where common culture used to give everyone a sort of common ground. People zealously follow celebrity because it's one of the few "shared" (pop) cultural experiences that are really left.

Anonymous said...

Read Packer's piece. Odd, his sole touchstone for male "charm" is actors reading scripts. Cary Grant his idol, but managed to wedge in Clark Gable's stint as "rent boy".

Slippery concept, which he targets only at male attitudes. Quick survey of mine: D. McCullough, A. Cooke, Shelby Foote, John Candy, D. Attenborough, Jacob Bronowski, Jim McMahon ... others.

I think men want inspiring leaders & thinkers; heroes & athletes. Charm is more a woman thing (could be wrong; nothing wrong w/that!!!) -- Rich Lara

David Foster said...

"Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation."

What on earth is he talking about? There isn't exactly a shortage of government spending on health care, in a whole variety of ways.

Why is what Gates is doing with health inferior to what Andrew Carnegie did with his library endowments?

Dennis said...

I must be a bit strange. I have respected a number of people for their skills and abilities, but have never wanted to be like someone else. In fact, I don't understand why so many people are fascinated by celebrities.
The joy in life to me is to become the best I can be at everything that interests me. I am a unique individual just as I consider everyone else as unique. To not attempt to be all that you can be seems to me to waste one's life.
Challenges are there for us to overcome. Not tilting at windmills, dreaming the impossible or just striving to accomplish goals is allowing someone or something to control you. How can one ever hope to reach their goals with the attitudes that large numbers of people seem to ascribe?
being a free person demands one's individuality.
There are a large number of people who have done well in life who have given back to those in need. They just do not go out and pontificate about it because it takes away from being a good soul.

Dennis said...

The best revenge is to do well.

Bobbye said...

Wonderful rant! Thank you. I think you covered everything. I copied your rant to notepad for future reference and laughs. Glad to have a fellow traveler with a sense of humor, satire and irony. Again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Bobbye. Thank you for recognizing the satire... I was beginning to get nervous. Given the state of our culture, if we can't laugh, we'll cry. I choose to laugh. And believe in yetis.

Sam L. said...

Tip! Away, I'm blown! OY! and WOW!

Wehre can i get some of that stuff you took?

n.n said...


I'm not greedy. I only want a pot of gold... and a beachfront property in Hawaii. The pixies and fairies can keep their treasures. At least until the next vote for redistributive change.

Anonymous said...

Sam: Just listen to this kind of nonsense long enough, and recognize the sheer absurdity of it, and then watch the self-righteousness and self-importance, and the magnitude of this bizrarre entertainment culture, and then get a sense of humor about it... and you can do it, too. It's just insane. It's a spectacle. And the stable, conservative, classically-educated, frugal, traditional Judeo-Christian mindset is the only defense you have. Things get pretty clear. And you can have fun, because it's all so self-evidently silly. Keep calm and carry on and jealously guard your sense of humor. We'll make it through all this.


Anonymous said...

n.n: You're secure. Just make sure you keep Smaug and Lono happy and you'll have your wish. Mahalo!


Anonymous said...

The rise of the celebrity culture probably has a lot to do with the increased influence of women in our society. Women are generally very interested in anyone who is well-known, regardless of what they are well known FOR.