Celebrity As Simulacrum


Celebrity As Simulacrum

Joshua Gamson,
Claims To Fame: Celebrity In Contemporary America,
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

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 celebrity-fan interaction.

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 is produced.

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 screen.

Its a helluva start,
it could be made into a monster
if we 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

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)

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 the “music”.

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 limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem.

– Rush, Limelight

The 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.)

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 contagious
Here we are now, entertain us.

– Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

The 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.)

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?

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).

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) Simmel.