Celebrity As SimulacrumJoshua Gamson, Claims To Fame: Celebrity
In Contemporary America, (Berkeley: University of California Press,
Celebrity exists as a product of the media-net to seduce bodies into the Net.
The celebrity is the way that cyber-space invades perceptual space: the
celebrity's body is the media body, cloned in every possible way (tv, photo,
radio, ad nauseum). And then in "personal" appearances the image is made
flesh, invades the world of perception as a living hologram, becomes
virtual. Finally, the flesh is sacrificed to the image in rituals of
criminal justice (O.J. Simpson).
Joshua Gamson does not approach the celebrity through the media-net and,
therefore, fails to understand why celebrity looms so large in the life of
people, who consume celebrities via tv, radio, and magazines in the "privacy" of
their homes (that is, when they are wired). What Gamson does understand,
and this is no mean accomplishment, is the capitalist structure that both
generates and parasites off the Net.
We are more than waist deep in the big mud of commercial culture. It is the
environment in which we swim, and like those apocryphal fish, we would be the
last ones to discover water. In this culture of hype, celebrity is king.
Celebrities, those known for "well-knowness," are walking commercials,
advertisements for their selves/personae and for any product to which they are
(via agents) connected. But celebrity is more than a noun; it is a form, in
Simmel's sense, of social interaction. The analysis of celebrity needs, then, to
consider not only the famous but also their fans and the mediators of the
Gamson nicely details the history of this interaction, and the celebrity
discourse in which it is embedded. In the early modern era fame was "deserved
and earned." "By the seventeenth century the pursuit of fame was clearly
becoming democratized." (p.17) The "talented and virtuous" rose to the top, at
first without, and later with, the aid of promotional machinery. Heralding the
20th century the first independent publicity firm began in Boston in 1900,
signalling the crystallization of promotional culture.
During the 1930s the mediator between the famous and their fans came to
dominate the relationship, bringing the phenomenon of celebrity to the third
order of simulation. Gamson indicates how the publicity apparatus churns "out
many admired commodities, called celebrities, famous because they have been made
to be." (p.16) That is, in Simmelian terms, a famousness as a pure form
During this time of the triumph of mediation the celebrity text also
changed: "...celebrities were being demoted to ordinariness in narratives"
(p.34) and from posed photographs to "candid" shots. Also changing was "the
audience [which] was being promoted from a position of religious prostration."
(p.34) Enter the weak polytheism of postmodern culture where the worshipper can
glean abuse value from the celebrity, in addition to cheap grace. Gamson
provides few clues as to why the changes occurred. For example, how has the form
of television, whose celebrity-crammed shows dominate its content now more than
ever, influenced the celebrity discourse? He does provide assistance to active
readers, such as: "Sitting in the dark under a movie screen, watching Charlton
Heston as Ben Hur, a viewer might feel as if Heston could reach right down and
pull her in; sitting in front of a television screen watching Heston in a sweat
shirt chatting with Joan Rivers, the viewer could almost reach down and pluck
HIM out." (pp.43-44) Gamson does not realize that the relation of the viewer to
the TV image, which he describes correctly, is ironic : it only seems
that we could "pluck" the celebrity off the screen; in fact we are wired to the
Its a helluva start,In the famous-fan interaction Gamson is clearly most
interested in the mediators, the element of capitalism, the virtual class. He
has interviewed and read about those who "...form support industries around the
development of celebrity products: personal publicists and public-relations
firms handle the garnering of media coverage and help manage the packaging of
celebrity: agents, managers, and promoters handle representation, affecting the
pricing and distribution of celebrity; coaches and groomers of various sorts
help with the presentation." (p.62)
it could be made into a monster
all pull together as a team.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
we call it Riding the Gravy Train.
- Pink Floyd, Have A Cigar
Gamson is especially good at showing how media journalists are fully coopted
into the publicity machine. Celebrity writers are sucked in as they suck up to
publicist-scripted celebs in order to maintain their meal-ticket to access.
Going further, Geoffrey Himes, a rock journalist writes: "Pressured by
celebrity-driven record companies, encouraged by gossip-hungry readers, and
seduced by the fact that it's easier to write about personalities than art, we
spread the lie that music is the inevitable result of the way musicians lead
their lives."1 Of course it is a
"lie," but when it comes to celebrity the "life" is part of the image and so is
Gamson appreciates the irony that it is the sleazy tabloids, with their army
of papparazzi (who shoot actual, rather than staged, candids) that produce the
only uncoopted celebrity journalism. Refusing to go along with the expensively
crafted fakery they are refused easy access to the celebs and become their
genuine antagonists, the agents of sacrifice.
Had Gamson extended his frame to include politicians as celebrities, he could
have noted that the White House press corps is in the same position as the
non-tabloid journalists are - either they file stories that further the
narrative constructed by White House publicists or they are denied access to
their material of production.
When politicians appear on talk shows and play saxophone to late night TV
viewers, or respond to questions about underwear preferences to an MTVidiot
query, they are (playing at) celebrity. And of course they also garner votes and
"public opinion" ratings as celebrities. Celebrity has become the currency
within all areas of society (politics, education, religion etc.), a fully
generalized medium of exchange, comparable to money as Simmel conceptualized it.
That the rhetoric of persuasion replaces epistemology in a third-order
simulacrum takes on a significance that Gamson misses by confining himself to
the arena of entertainment and failing to venture into political economy.
Living in the limelightThe types of celebrity can also be historized. Prior to this
century and paralleling the changes in the economy, Gamson indicates that "by
the 1920s the typical idols in popular magazines were those of consumption
(entertainment, sport) rather than production (industry, business, natural
sciences)." (p.28) Rationalization, in Weber's sense, has also affected fame:
"...people known for themselves rather than for their achievements are more
commercially useful because they can be attached to any number of products."
(p.78) (Floating signifiers, generalized media.) "Celebrity itself is thus
commodified; notoriety becomes a type of capital. Famous people are widely
referred to within the entertainment industry simply as 'names'..." (p.62)
(Reduction to the pure self-referential sign.)
The universal dream
For those who
wish to seem.
- Rush, Limelight
Because he privileges those entertainers who are interchangeable between TV
talk shows and sitcoms, Hollywood movies, and any advertisement, Gamson fails to
analyze the relationship between the person and his/her persona. Had he
broadened his scope to include rock stars, who are self-scripted, the discourse
of this relationship with the master name Authenticity, would need to be part of
Gamson's work. He would have had to accept the sacrificial or even "tragic" side
of celebrity, understood by Neil Peart and other "serious" rockers.
I feel stupid and contagiousThe audience too can be historized. In "...early celebrity
texts ... the 'public,' modeled as a unified, powerful near-person forever
casting its votes for its favorite personalities, became a crucial character in
its own right. The notion of the public as an entity that 'owned' both space and
the public figures inhabiting it runs consistently though both general and fan
magazines." (p.34) (Again we see the reversal in which what seems to be
empowerment of the (democratized) possessive individual is actually the
production of the possessed individual.)
Here we are now, entertain us.
- Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit
Gamson notes that the publicity industry is not knowledgeable about its
audience, despite its dependence on that audience. He concludes that for them it
is "...not necessary to know, while working on a project by project basis, WHY
certain performers appeal, only THAT they do, for the moment." (p.118) That is,
the celebrity is a throwaway currency - endless supplies can be generated on the
Net, later to invade the world.
Unfortunately Gamson shares much of the mediator industry's ignorance about
the audience. His research includes participant observation with studio
audiences and autograph hounds at awards ceremonies. He details these activities
but understands the celebrity-mad audience no better than does the publicity
machine. Gamson notes that "the amount of energy constantly poured into 'warming
up' and monitoring live television audiences is stunning." (p.110) He fails to
wonder why people want to be cheerleaders for celebrities. He is still in the
second-order simulacrum of production, rather than the third-order simulacrum of
the sign economy, of the triumph of culture over "man".
Celebrities are the gods (or at least god simulacra) of our polytheistic pomo
pantheon. In the aftermath of the death of god, we worship celebrities. Is that
all we need to know about fans of the famous?
Deena Weinstein, Professor of Sociology at DePaul University, is
a cultural theorist and sociologist, and a rock critic. She is author of
Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology and Postmodern(ized)
1. Himes, Geoffrey. "Why it doesn't matter if Kurt Cobain, Snoop
Doggy Dogg, and Axl Rose are jerks in their personal lives (and why it does if
they're jerks in their songs)", Request (41: May 1994).
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