Celebrity

Celebrity is a vital aspect of this research (look at the URL) but, curiously, the term itself is not always helpful. Very few (if any) of the (few) public figures I talk to would want to call themselves celebrities. When I talk to people in NGOs who work in this area not many of them see themselves as working with celebrities; rather their job titles refer to artists, talent or high profile personalities. In that respect celebrity is an unwelcome term. At the same time, indeed precisely because of the discomfort it causes, it is important to take it on. The entertainment industries are rife with celebrity at the same time as the artists and actors involved reject its connotations. Similarly celebrity has pervaded international development causing much debate and diverse responses. It is for these reasons that celebrity is a central focus of this research. This page outlines some of the academic research on the term.

Celebrity Studies is a vibrant sub-discipline in academia with a growing number of books and journal articles devoted to it and even its own specialist journal (‘Celebrity Studies‘). Academics’ attention to celebrity can attract a fair bit of perplexed comment, and more critical reporting, but it would be much stranger if we were to ignore such a prominent, and curiously pre-occupying, phenomena. Celebrity matters because so many people take it all too seriously and because it crops up everywhere in everyday life.

There is, in fact, a considerable amount written about the topic. This site provides one of the more thorough annotated lists. What follows on this page is seriously abbreviated. I have dwelt on arguments and sources I find significant – it is a personal and very much un-reviewed account.

The study of celebrity is quite old. It has produced some venerable, indeed wonderful, writing.  Perhaps one of the first is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s (both Marxist critics of the Frankfurt School), critique The Culture Industry. Published in 1944, their work takes a dim view of the mass produced needs the entertainment industry creates and satisfies; it invokes a particularly passive audience to support the argument. (Here is a useful summary, and here a lively commentary on that debate). Guy DeBord’s great thesis The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is another distinguished Marxist analysis of the role of images in capitalist society, with considerable implications for the study of celebrity.

One of the first works to dwell on and explore celebrity is Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image. This, ironically, is a famous book about fame in which he coined the phrase that a celebrity is well-known for their well-knownness. It is this book which introduces the idea of ‘pseudo-events’ which are happenings designed principally for media consumption (click here for a review). The Image was published in 1962, and referred to events over the previous three decades. The fact that it still feels fresh and relevant now is both a testimony to the prescience of the author, and the persistence of what appear to us to be new concerns, but which are in fact enduring issues, surrounding celebrity. Other landmark, but more recent, events in the study of celebrity have been Richard Dyer’s work (Stars, 1980 and Heavenly Bodies, 1987), Richard Schickel’s Intimate Strangers (1985) and Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown (1986) which provides a history of fame over several millennia.

The vigour of celebrity studies these days owes much to the work of Joshua Gamson (Claims to Fame, 1994), David Marshall (Celebrity and Power, 1997), Chris Rojek (Celebrity, 2001), Graeme Turner (Understanding Celebrity, 2004) and shared works like Fame Games (Turner, Bonner and Marshall, 2000). These books have analysed the structures and industries producing fame emphasizing, to use Rojek’s words, that the celebretariat are industrial products. Celebrity is promulgated because it helps to sell things; it helps capitalism to grow. This structural explanation, however, needs also to explain why audiences buy the products. Gamson’s work with focus groups and consumers of celebrity demonstrates best the variety and complexities of the ways in which people actually interact with the celebrity products served to them.

Much of this work (although Turner is omitted), and much more, is well reviewed in Kerry Ferris’ article in Sociological Compass in 2007. There are also comprehensive readers available from Marshall and Holmes and Redmond and a recently published Short History of Celebrity from Fred Inglis.

This literature makes clear that the proliferation of fame, which provokes so much comment these days, is an old and enduring phenomenon. I would date the formation of celebrity as we now it to the birth of modern cinema in Hollywood in the 19-teens, for that is when star systems became commercially organized to sell products. But there are many antecedents in the growth of newspapers and photography in the nineteenth century.

And as celebrity itself is old, so also is the fight against it. Many of the more annoyed commentators who complain of the shallowness and artifice of celebrity in the present day are repeating versions of Horkheimer, Adorno’s and Boorstin’s arguments. Celebrity may have spread, but it has been continually resisted.

Old as celebrity is we have also to recognize its spread in recent years. Since the late 1980s we have had the creation of new celebrity magazines (Hello! 1989, OK! 1992) and a host of other glossy magazines in the 1990s; we have had the spread of satellite and cable television around the world we have had the internet. The flood of information assailing us is now quite ridiculous and celebrity has become an ever more important means of selling different products in this crowded market place.

The proliferation and antiquity of celebrity can make analyzing it hard. To what does the word refer? If so many people can become celebrities, of sorts, is not its meaning diluted? Moreover there are so many routes to celebrity, some of which entail personal greatness, talent and suffering, and others which appear less arduous and demanding. Another way of putting this is that celebrity is also clearly quite arbitrary, avoiding all sorts of wonderful, talented and great people.

And then there is the problem of using the term in the right way to talk about fame in different eras. When we talk about Barak Obama’s fame, or celebrity, these days, does it mean the same thing as Margaret Thatcher’s or Ronald Reagan’s in theirs? What about Churchill or Roosevelt’s? Gladstone or Wilberforce’s? What about Mandela, whose fame covers so many decades? How can we write about Dr Barnado’s self-publicising work, and present day public relations firms, in ways which accurately convey the similarities in their goals and methods but also recognizes the profound differences in the audiences, technologies, business models and institutions with which they worked?

I have no answers for these problems yet, just some inclinations. Olivier Dressen’s work on celebrity as a form of capital provides a useful framework for understanding how celebrity in one arena can bleed across into others. Importantly he insists that we have to distinguish celebrity capital from symbolic capital. It is easy to confuse the two, but the latter is about recognition, whereas celebrity is about recognisability.

With respect to the definition, I do not find Turner’s definition of a celebrity as someone whose personal life draws more attention than their professional life convincing. It does not, for me, explain the attention given to people like Usain Bolt relatively little of which is about his personal life and so much of which is about his extraordinary speed. And who is likely to be interested in Michael Buerk’s personal life, or David Attenborough’s, when their professions are interesting enough? Likewise Boorstin’s famous aphorism denies the achievements that can precede, and accompany, fame. I’m moving instead towards a definition that recognizes the role of an associated industry of agents, PR people and managers. This would mean defining celebrity as referring to people in the public eye whose presence / appearance is managed to earn money for other people.

I have no solution yet to the need to come up with more precise categories of celebrity, or those of avoiding writing about celebrity ahistorically or anachronistically. The best I can suggest is that we recognize the great variety and scales of fame, the different arenas in which they operate and the structures and institutions which mediate different public’s awareness of them. The challenge we face in tracing a history of interaction between fame and international development, which spans so much time, and so many social arenas is being able to trace the similarities, continuities and differences across so them.