Celebrity is power

The history and psychology of celebrity

celebrity

The rich get richer, the famous get even more famous. The history of celebrity is longer than we think, and celebrity is much more embedded into our institutions and psychology than we care to admit. From early childhood we mirror and mimic our caregivers, in adulthood we mirror and mimic celebrity. It is important that we understand celebrity in modern society so we can engage with it more appropriately, writes Robert van Krieken.

 

If you’ve ever wondered why humanitarian campaigns are so often fronted by a celebrity like Angelina Jolie or David Beckham, rather than an explanation of the worthiness of the cause, it was explained well by former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anan. In 2002 he told a group of celebrity advocates that putting their name to a message brings an issue to people’s attention in a powerful way, helping to break through ‘the barrier of indifference’.

The underlying logic of the celebrity production process had already been explained by the first US Vice-President and second President John Adams in the early eighteenth century. The ‘mighty secret’, wrote Adams, is that all the activities that generate celebrity are those that ‘attract more forcibly the attention of the world, and procure a better advancement in life’. Adams had put his finger on what is and always has been key to the celebrity production process: the generation and management of attention throughout society and culture. The history of celebrity has largely been about the different ways in which attention is shaped and directed as communications technology has developed over time.

The phrase usually used to capture celebrity – famous for being famous – trivialises this dynamic and gets it the wrong way around: being famous does indeed make you even more famous.

Being recognized and the capacity to attract attention - demanding expressive and communicative skills that we tend to see as superficial - is itself a self-reproducing form of capital, so that we need a term like ‘attention capital’ to capture this particular kind of currency. The US sociologists Robert Merton and Harriet Zuckerman used the term ‘the Matthew effect’ – referring to the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew – usually summed up as ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’, to refer to the way that being recognized as a prominent scientist tended in itself to generate even greater recognition. You can see the Matthew effect at work in relation to any human activity. The phrase usually used to capture celebrity – famous for being famous – trivialises this dynamic and gets it the wrong way around: being famous does indeed make you even more famous.

Because there’s an abundance of information and knowledge, the resource that’s in short supply is attention. Production can only become consumption once the attention of potential consumers has been captured. Andy Warhol was a master of the logic of celebrity, taking a familiar object like a Campbells soup can or a well-known face like Marilyn Monroe’s, and leveraging the attention they could inherently attract into a new attention-trap. Like money, attention earns interest, it’s self-reproducing because it generates even more attention. This is why we now consume brands as much as products, and why audience ratings, circulation figures, hits, likes, views, downloads, followers and so on are so important – and so valuable. Paying attention to an attention-rich public figure, a celebrity, is in turn a means of generating attention for oneself: this is an essential aspect of how the various forms of social media function.

For me the term ‘celebrity culture’ gets in the way of properly understanding celebrity, which is much more embedded in the structure of our relations with each than the word ‘culture’ usually implies. I think it’s more useful to think in terms of ‘celebrity society’, to emphasise how much the logic of celebrity has become embedded in the institutions and relationships ordering our lives.

Most historians of celebrity now argue that it’s a mistake to see celebrity as a characteristic of the twentieth century or even the late nineteenth century, and that we should push the history of celebrity back to around 1750. This is roughly in line with the emergence of a public sphere, when there was an explosion of books and newspapers, theatrical, literary, artistic and musical productions, and intense discussions in European coffee houses. This emerging public sphere generated new ways of making money around highly visible authors, musicians, dancers, performers of all sorts, and we’ve never looked back.

Donald Trump sneaked up on most of us, spending a lifetime building up his celebrity identity, refining Brand Trump, accumulating not just cash, but a huge pile of attention capital that he cashed in at just the right time, when the discontents of globalisation reached fever pitch.

But I think celebrity has a much longer history. The word first appeared in English in 1565, when Bishop John Jewel observed that the Apostles would baptize people, not in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, but of Jesus alone, because that name was ‘of more fame and celebritie’. So already at that time people were aware of the important role that a recognizable name could play. As soon as the printing press got properly going, books, pamphlets, newspapers created a new space for the production of celebrity. Martin Luther was only one of the more prominent examples, using his publications to create a ‘Brand Luther’ that quickly made him a Europe-wide celebrity. Print and art also made it possible for ‘second-order’ celebrity to emerge, so that writers, poets and painters could themselves become celebrities by writing books or poems about, or painting portraits of already well-known figures.

The first moves towards the creation of ‘ordinary’ rather than aristocratic celebrity was the Christian Church’s promotion of the cult of saints. Saints constituted early examples of the condensation and representation of value into a name, an image, and assorted artefacts of the relevant saint – bones, clothes, etc. which then circulate in a given community independently of the actual human being. In the early Middle Ages, St Bernard of Clairvaux was a superstar of the day, St Frances of Assisi and Anthony of Padua could generate wildly enthusiastic crowds in search of miracles, but also simply the shared experience of saintliness, not that dissimilar to the experience of a musical star’s performance today.

In my view it’s a distraction to get concerned about footballers or actors suddenly becoming epidemiologists, when there are much more important examples of the dynamics and mechanisms of celebrity. The relationship between celebrity and power is crucial, the issues are not trivial, and we need to get better at recognizing the enormous political potency of celebrity. Donald Trump sneaked up on most of us, spending a lifetime building up his celebrity identity, refining Brand Trump, accumulating not just cash, but a huge pile of attention capital that he cashed in at just the right time, when the discontents of globalisation reached fever pitch. The dominant perception was that the idea of a reality TV star and real-estate tycoon becoming President was a joke, but nobody’s laughing now. Trump has understood and harnessed the forces running through the formation of collective consciousness that for too long have been treated as peripheral and trivial. If we don’t take these dynamics seriously, we will only be at the mercy of those who do.

In terms of demand, from the day we’re born, our identity is built on observing and mimicking the people around us, beginning with our parents and a constantly expanding circle of characters we rely on as reference points – both positive and negative - for the development of our own selves.

Celebrity is not mere mindless diversion, or distracting illusion. Under certain conditions, attention capital can be leveraged to link up with various other sorts of economic, social and political capital, to create a perfect storm of world-altering societal transformation. It is worth remembering, for example, that the media coverage of Hitler’s 1924 trial following his failed putsch which turned him a celebrity for right-wing nationalists, was one of the factors launching his career as a political superstar. When you look around you, the world seems to be dominated by political leaders intent on aligning their celebrity persona with very real political power: apart from Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi in India, here in Australia Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

In the recent film, The Lost Leonardo, about the discovery of a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the ‘Salvator Mundi’, and sold to Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah for $450 million, there’s a point where one of the commentators observes that the huge crowds of people at the National Gallery in London weren’t really coming to see the painting, they were coming to be able to say that they had seen the painting. This gets to heart of much of the logic of celebrity. It’s as much, if not more, about the social and emotional relationships formed between ‘fans’, as it is about the relationship between a fan and their celebrity. Here there were two layers of celebrity: Leonardo da Vinci himself, and how he was represented in the object, the ‘Salvator Mundi’, that in turn became a ‘celebrity’ in its own right. Celebrities function as ‘attention traps’ because they constitute ‘nodes’ in social networks. They represent, in a condensed form, key aspects of current social, political and economic currents and dynamics. This is what makes them a focus of attention, and in this sense they work as a kind of social ‘glue’. They are often, if not always, also simply extremely talented and skilled, but an important aspect of the social constitution of that talent and skill remains how they function to facilitate social networks among the social group identifiable as their fans.

The same logic also applies to non-humans, anything that has a widely-recognized name: towns, locations, universities, animals, historical periods, buildings, lakes, waterfalls, ships, works of art, poems, novels, film, and plays. Still, celebrity is mostly about human personalities. There’s a never-ending supply of people wanting to become celebrities, willing to do anything, if only to achieve immortality. The first recorded example was in 356 BC, the year Alexander the Great was born, when Herostratus burned down the temple of Artemis so that he would be just as famous. Like it says in the song Fame, ‘I’m gonna live forever, Baby remember my name’. And that’s exactly how Herostratus did become immortal, in the expression ‘herostratic fame’.

In terms of demand, from the day we’re born, our identity is built on observing and mimicking the people around us, beginning with our parents and a constantly expanding circle of characters we rely on as reference points – both positive and negative - for the development of our own selves. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers often use the idea of the mirror to capture this feature of human psychology: our identity emerges from an on-going process perceiving others as reflecting who we either do or don’t want to be.

We all know about Andy Warhol’s 1968 observation that ‘In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes’, but in 1979, he added: ‘I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous’’. This is a pretty accurate summary of the overall direction that celebrity is moving in – towards a shorter pathway to celebrity, along with its greater distribution among a larger number of people, but for shorter periods of time, taking up an every-increasing proportion of our attention. This then generates what I’ve called the ‘pyramid effect’: the more the base of the celebrity pyramid - the field of minor celebrities like bloggers, influences, Youtube and Tik-tok stars, Instagrammers, and so on - expands, the higher the tip of the pyramid, the capacity to stand above that crowd as a mega-celebrity, will rise. The larger, more diverse and more differentiated the field of celebrity is, the greater the capacity of those higher up the scale of visibility to use it a springboard for their own visibility, recognition and indeed political power.

Once we take all these various aspects of an ever-changing celebrity society seriously, it might then be possible to experience celebrity as less of a mysterious neurosis of the media age, and more as an understandable and manageable feature of the world we live in, with which we can engage in an active, creative, and thoughtful way.

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