It is a curious phenomenon, the Cult of Celebrity. Many varieties abound such as Elvis Lives!, ET news, to the followers of Bahá’u’lláh, the pattern is a part of the human condition. Here I record my current conception of the Cult of Celebrity, and by all means seek or create alternative explanation and comment them. I offer these 3 reasons as central to the dynamics, individual & communal, of celebrity:
– the Ideal Self,
– 300 year legacy / Posterity,
– the Talking Point.
The latter is most obvious in this little blog essay, so please allow me to be brief. Celebrity’s are gossip grist and are accessible to to the greatest number of value systems. Devout Jews can bemoan the deteriorating moral fibre of modernity via Justin Bieber, the man-slut can express the wonder of sexuality via Brangelina or an arrogant intellectual can act vicariously vain via admiration of Sheldon Cooper. The Cult of Celebrity is more truly the loyal fanatics, however the complaining conversations based about celebrity are a negative facet of the Cult of Celebrity. Simply put, the Talking Point is the measure of how much discussion a celebrity creates, any type of discussion whatsoever.
Ideal Self & Posterity are somewhat inter-connected. Each of us has some favoured traits, things we like about ourselves and also things we would like to become. Many of us would like to be remembered and perhaps some have felt the fear of being forgotten, when considering this desire. Who do you remember &/ discuss from 300 years ago? Or only 3 family generations ago? If you, like me, are one of the tired, poor, huddled masses, then maybe you would prefer a legacy of a certain folk hero. A personal preference determines if you prefer Slim Dusty over Che Guevara.
This is in part a negative consequence of the critical tradition upon the other traditions, which in turn encouraged individual rights over community rights (by the way, things have never been better). The Scientific Method, an essential core of modern life, explicitly embraces criticism. In part it enabled a massive metropole in which anonymity reigns, as it does in other megalopolis’. Trains, buses, highways are full of strangers. There is no reason to believe they also want Slim Dusty to be commemorated. Indeed they may nominate Sepultura, or the latest Euro-Vision entrant. Although only Martin Luther may remain a somewhat known name, surely a great many of his followers would accept his legacy as both representative & iconic. A modern city is home to multiple cultures & sub-cultures, which in turn may undermine a collective will to build some great & lasting monument to stand the test of time (like, say, the pyramids of Sudan).
In supplement to that though, memorising the family tree (a tradition in small, illiterate societies) such as the genealogy given for Jesus (of which there are 2 contradictory accounts). This would have been a Talking Point, as well as recognition of an Ideal Self (and a unique, personal connection to them) and functioning as a marker of posterity (how long and to how many people has that ancestor mattered?). More recently then such oral traditions, there were of course those of aristocracy. Imagine a Borgia walking down a hallway, beneath the gaze of portraits, perhaps giving house-guests a tour. The Borgia would have met the three criteria of Talking Point, Ideal Self & Posterity, although the Ideal Self may only be recognised negatively, through criticism of those portrayed.
Both the oral tradition and the aristocratic tradition represent, to the relevant times & places, an immediate form of celebrity, which exists in a mutated form in modern life. Familial schooling in fame could perhaps be decreasing due to the increasing fraction of the population which never kept such records, then or now. Perhaps the mass schooling of hundreds & thousands every year coupled with the consistency of the Scientific Method across platforms (everything should be open to criticism, measurement, etc.) has set the critical tradition to dominate the schoolyard instead of an aura of veneration about some saint, instead of a Cult of Celebrity.
Nevertheless such antiquated ‘celebrity’ as found in oral or aristocratic traditions does supply data to inform opinions about legacy. A bad joke doesn’t live on as long as a good deed (probably). Although the great-great-great grandparent may not be as worthy of respect as some contemporary, an attentive audience would still develop realistic attitudes about what gets remembered & what gets repeated.
So celebrity’s represent how we might like to be right here, right now. They represent a common aggregate of the above concepts. When considered from a 3 century perspective, it suggests who we would like to be remembered as, by those lucky bastard born in the future.