here is my new essay, cross-posted on the commentariat
and adapted from an essay i composed for university writing in freshman year.
What is it about the celebrity that tickles the imagination so? So many more human minds are flung into fever over what a certain starlet wore (or didn’t wear! zing!) to dinner than whatever big social cause is supposed to be important to the youth. In absence of cultic holidays, used in ancient times to unify a nation behind a structure presented by the spectacle, our society has substituted events such as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. In the aforementioned shows, faces and dresses to which we can all assign our loyalty parade about, like gods from the mass media machine. Declaring one’s allegiance to a specific celebrity is akin to joining the ranks of a deity’s elite devotees. Thereafter, one is quickly able to discover common ground in social interaction by simply turning the conversation to one’s celebrity of choice. Said exchange becomes a sort of social springboard. One gains the knowledge required to move fluidly through society; one acquires cultural capital (the ability to maneuver with ease through society). Social bonds are seemingly immediately formed merely by common knowledge of celebrities. Since, through media, the cult of celebrity is inherently tied to mass appeal, and nearly all members of society seem to utilize it, the idea of fame has widespread social ramifications. The question yet remains: what is the reason behind our society’s eternal obsession with the celebrity? Aficionados of celebrities speak of them as if they are in possession of intimate knowledge only fellow fans may know. They are the initiated. However, in truth, they have no personal knowledge of their icon at all. What possesses us to take hold of these stars and squeeze them for all their radiance is worth?
It seems as though nothing differentiates the celebrity from the average individual with identity issues. After all as Warhol once said, one day everyone will have his fifteen minutes of fame. There are innumerable opportunities to become known in today’s world, that it is difficult to determine why celebrities are special anymore. Celebrities are only special inasmuch as they are special to society, a rare and therefore valued commodity. Their special status in our culture lies less with qualities we attribute to the celebrities that meet certain norms as determined by pop culture and even less with the unique achievements of the stars. Rather, the controlling will is, most paradoxically, held by those supposedly left most powerless in the panoptic schema. In fact, the entire institution of celebrity is born from the desperation of this position of “powerlessness.” This interpretation is hinted at in the discussion regarding the apotheosis and lionizing of convicted murderers. We create gods out of monsters because we need to feel as though we are retaining our sense of self, even as it gradually is eroded away, a sand castle at high tide. The desperation we feel as our veridical self disappears births a similar desire to create a new frame of reference. After all, if we can only exist as we are seen, then it is more than possible to be seen from a new angle, a new perspective. Thus, we create celebrities, the epitome of a public persona lacking even the slightest shred of personal life. When viewing one’s own life in comparison to that of a star, it seems almost private. We moan our “oohs” and our “ahhs” to perhaps drown out the clicking and whirring of the shutters recording our own lives. With our heads buried in People Magazine, we can easily ignore the ubiquitous presence of surveillance equipment. The celebrity is the one entity until now not mentioned in the panoptic schema: the one in power. Or so they believe. For surely, in terms of cultural capital, the celebrity is simply spoiled with wealth and fame. He can easily obtain anything his heart may desire. He sits in the tower, at the heart of the menagerie. Like the Aristotelian god, he is an unmoved mover. He sees himself in a position of incorruptible strength, as he sits above the rest of the world. He is untouchable… until… he leans into the light, and as the grass naturally follows the direction of the wind, all heads turn to him. He has become spectacle, a cross-section of the panopticon, and the people have their revenge.