Reaching for the Stars

Graham Cray

We live in a celebrity culture - a fact borne out in magazine sales alone. Seventy-five million copies of celebrity-gossip publications such as OK!, Hello and Now were sold in this country last year - an increase of 14 per cent on 1998. Posh and Becks are simply the lead characters in a perpetual ‘real life’ soap opera spun out by our fascination with the ‘private’ lives of anyone who we have heard of or who appears in the entertainment media. Visibility is the prime requirement of celebrity: to be seen is to be famous. The cultural historian Christopher Lasch writes that ‘success in our society has to be ratified by publicity.’1

Like consumerism, celebrity is central to the controlling worldview of our time. In one sense, its trivial nature means that there are no true celebrities - just as it is said that ‘nobody is a teenager any more, because everyone is.’ Perhaps nobody is a celebrity now because most would like to be, and everybody can be. There are exceptions, of course: towering figures such as Nelson Mandela and the late Mother Teresa. But these are not celebrities as such, but the globalised world's saints, its few remaining heroes. They are to be admired and wondered at, not aped, while everyone else craves their 15 minutes of fame.

Celebrity is not an isolated phenomenon. It is an integral part of our postmodern society, and the cultural consequence of a number of its other features. Humans are created to be relational beings. We need to be noticed and affirmed, and we need to admire, respect and affirm others. We are also created to be worshippers. The question is not whether we will worship but what we will worship. The culture of celebrity is, in part, what we are left with when other significant elements of our cultural ecology are lost, trivialised or simply worn thin, in an age of mass and global electronic media.

Jean Baudrillard once wrote a book of reflections about a visit to the United States, in which he noted that ‘you are delivered from all depth there.’ 2 A number of writers have used the idea of depthlessness - none seem willing to say ‘shallowness’ - to describe the postmodern condition (which is not, of course, confined to the US alone). A depthless society aspires to its 15 minutes of fame and hopes for a more lasting place in the nostalgia industry, or for rediscovery in a culture with a short memory. Depthlessness is the result of the loss of a number of the characteristics of modernity, or of even earlier societies.

Postmodern society is rootless. It shares modernity's ‘rejection of the past as a source of inspiration or example’3 but, unlike modernity, it cannibalises the past and uses it as raw material for now. Those who were once considered to be heroes, Jesus included, have now become the temporary fashion accessories of the present.

Yet postmodernity has also lost modernity's ideological certainty about the future. In a society that believes in progress, any leader, statesman or artist who secured a breakthrough or who solved an intractable political or scientific problem could expect to be lionised. In a culture such as our own, in which there is profound uncertainty about the future, such figures are more likely to be treated with suspicion. Without heroes, the resulting void is subsequently filled with celebrities, for culture hates a vacuum.

In the absence of either an authoritative past or a certain and better future, postmodernity has no alternative but to overemphasise the present. Your moment of fame, whether you are the fifth person to be ejected from Big Brother's house or the Bell's football manager of the month, will still mean something to you if you believe in the Western or the Marxist dream, or the kingdom of God; but it will seem far more precious if tomorrow is really all you feel sure of.

Lasch suggests that ‘to live for the moment is the prevailing passion - to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.’4 If we cannot be sure that anything will last, and since we live in a world filled with short-lived, disposable goods, why should we expect long-lasting heroes? A further consequence of this is to make our ordinary, day-to-day lives appear unnecessarily trivial, for lack of a longer perspective. ‘What we are observing is an unexpected and frivolous revaluation of everyday life itself ... a new was of understanding life and living in society nested in the vacuum left by the absence of a plan.’5

The glamour of a celebrity lifestyle looks so much more appealing in these circumstances. ‘In conditions where daily relationships are widely seen as unreal, screen relationships attain a magnetic hold on consciousness ... It is because celebrities are placed beyond ordinary experience that they mesmerise us.’6 Postmodernity has been characterised as ‘a perpetual present, without depth, definition or secure identity.’7 In such an environment, the cult of celebrity not only makes sense, it positively thrives.

But the loss of our roots and our hope is not the complete story of our times. Our lack of depth is not even primarily a matter of failing to acknowledge the past or the future, but of looking for no meaning beyond the superficial. A favourite postmodern cliche implores us to ‘enjoy the surface’. Postmodern theorists claim that signs (that is, anything that apparently conveys meaning) can only point to other signs. Human culture is therefore trapped in a perpetual language game or, as Richard Kearney puts it, a ‘labyrinth of inter-reflecting mirrors from which there is no escape’8. If nothing means anything beyond its surface impression, it is little wonder we look for the gloss of celebrity rather than any depth of character.

Moreover, we have replaced heroes with celebrities as a result of major changes in the way we understand personhood and community.

The great book that spells this out is Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.9 MacIntyre stresses that ‘virtue’ - what we might call ‘character’- is formed in a community with a shared tradition over generations. The loss of the past clearly cripples such development. It leaves each of us as an ‘emotivist self’ which ‘can have no rational history in its transitions from one state of moral commitment to another ... It is a self with no given continuities, save those of the body which is its bearer and of the memory which to the best of its ability gathers in its past.’

For Maclntyre, the vital issue in terms of ethics is not how we decide what is right and wrong but how we become the sort of people who do right. In effect, he is saying that we now live in a society that has lost the vital ingredient that forms people of character, gives them the desire for character and creates characterful role models who we want to emulate. In other words, it means we have no more heroes any more, only celebrities.

The sociologist David Riesman provides a complementary insight. In his book The Lonely Crowd 10 he traces three successive ways by which people have found their place in society. In the premodern world, we were ‘tradition-directed types’. Our place in the social order told us who we were, what we ought to aspire to and how we should behave. The Enlightenment turned us inwards. We became ‘Inner-directed types’, shaped by individualism and the need to be true to our real selves - whether the real self was described in terms of rationalism ('I think, therefore I am') or Romanticism (the creative soul).

But as long ago as 1950, Reisman says, we became ‘other-directed types’: that is, people for whom the approval of others is the chief source of direction and the prime area of sensitivity. This may seem to have little to do with the issue of celebrity, but it has: for if the approval of others is the key social sensitivity of our day, it is no surprise if people are rushing to become minor celebrities. Channel 4 will have no trouble recruiting inmates for a second series of Big Brother, for confession and therapy by television will never lack volunteers. To be visible is to be famous: ‘I am seen, therefore I am.’

There is a close connection between the thirst for public approval and its counter side, which is that we have become a society of victims. Damon Albarn, of the rock band Blur, once remarked that "[one] of the great impulses of the Nineties has been the urge to see yourself as a victim." This way of thinking is continuing into the new millennium. Our society may have lost its moral coherence but everybody is looking for someone to blame. Political correctness covers a sense of self-righteous victimhood. If we aspire to be recognised and also believe that we are victims, it is hardly surprising that we seek vicarious pleasure through the cult of celebrity.

Ours is the culture of the voyeur. Celebrities provide a range of emotional experiences that people can enjoy without cost. Building on Reisman's work, Stjepan Mestrovic has described these as 'post-emotional types' who ‘know that they can experience the full range of emotions in any field, domestic or international, and never be called upon to demonstrate the authenticity of their emotions in commitment to appropriate action.’11 We live off the buzz that celebrity culture supplies without being involved with any form of moral commitment. Celebrity is about appearance and spin: it cannot form character.

An age of global media has multiplied the material available to our imagination and fantasy. We are told that we can be whatever we want to be, and given an overwhelming number of images to feed our ‘imagining’ of possible futures. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck suggests, ‘imagination gains a special kind of power in people's everyday lives ... More people in more parts of the world dream of and consider a greater range of "possible" lives than they have ever done before. A central source of this [is] the mass media, which offer a wide and constantly changing supply of such "possible lives".12

These ‘possible lives’ often take the form of celebrity lives. Too often we aspire to be seen to have ‘made it’, rather than to he valued for the quality of what we have achieved. Lasch suggests that accordingly we wish ‘to be envied rather than respected’. He also believes that our earlier ‘sins’ of capitalism, pride and acquisitiveness, ‘have given way to vanity’.13

As we have seen, the transition from modernity to postmodernity has created a vacuum that is filled, in part, by celebrity culture. One final dimension is this: postmodernity has involved the breaking down of many Enlightenment categories and distinctions, which scholars call ‘differentiation’. ‘Within the cultural sphere these consisted of a number of distinctions between culture and life, between high and low culture, between scholarly art and popular pleasures, and between elite and mass forms of consumption. Postmodernism involves de-differentiation’.14

The distinctions have been broken down - often rightly - but this has not been accompanied by any agreed standards of excellence that could be applied to all art. Thus, we have no effective corporate way of assessing celebrity. One Muslim scholar makes the point very clearly: ‘Postmodern seekers have no moral discernment because there are no criteria for judging good from evil. In postmodern times, belief in everything from aliens, witches, dead and alive pop stars, charismatic leaders to the ideology of the X Files is mushrooming.’15

The problem with much celebrity is that it rarely lasts. Lasch comments that it ‘is evanescent, like news itself, which loses its interest when it loses its novelty.’16 One of the sadder aspects of the whole thing is the enjoyment we get when celebrities fall from grace. It seems that anything that happens to a ‘famous’ person is fodder for our consumption. At the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a significant number of young women spoke of how they had identified with her because of her bulimia, her marriage difficulties and her depression.

There is a fine line between identifying with such a public figure on the basis of some genuine common experience and seeking a flawed, even self-destructive role-model because we have little hope. A leader in the Times suggested that ‘the young seek role models not among the contented but among those before whom the world has dangled every pleasure and yet snatched it away: the much-married actress, the self-abusing rock star, the Duchess of York and the queen of them all, Diana, Princess of Wales. People seem to take comfort in watching the famous find life as hard as they do themselves. Diana was news when happy. She was bigger news when unhappy.’

More tragic still, the most enduring celebrity is the dead celebrity. Think of Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. As the sociologist Chris Rojek put it, ‘death holds no dominion over the social presence of the star.’17

Mercifully, human beings, created in God's image, still possess the critical faculties to recognise the phoney: the Fall may have distorted them, but they have not been totally erased. Many people recognise the superficiality of celebrity culture and seek some sort of alternative. The Face (itself at one level a style magazine dedicated to ‘surface experience’) summed up the last decade in this way: ‘The Nineties’ quest for life and some sort of authenticity, coupled with a gradual loss of faith in the capacity of big ideals to save our souls, has led us to make up our own truths, build our own small worlds as best we can. These days, people try to create their own disparate, genuine societies within the larger uniform fake one on offer, and they're doing it in innumerable, almost unquantifiable ways.’

A Christian response to the cult of celebrity must hold together several things. First, we have to acknowledge that there is a certain inevitability about it. It is a direct consequence of deep changes in our culture, and we will achieve nothing if we simply rage against it. Second, there is a fairly widespread awareness of its superficiality, which means that celebrity is usually consumed with a measure of postmodern irony. Third, it will be much more important to grow some heroes of our own than to rail against the B-list stars put up for our consumption.

We must try to understand culture so that we can offer an alternative, instead of complaining about it. We must pray that God will raise up Christians who will be authentic and Christlike, despite their imperfections, to be role models locally, nationally and globally. The biblical precedent (of men and women such as Joseph, Esther and Nehemiah) suggests that such people will be God's surprises, not those who have climbed to the top of the tree the usual way.

Above all, Jesus continues to fascinate and captivate people, even if his Church does not. Clearly, his name and image can be turned into celebrity fodder, as when Madonna famously sported a crucifix as a fashion object. However, we should not take it upon ourselves to defend him - as if we really could, and as if he needed it. The reality of Jesus has the capacity to break through all trivial uses of his name or image.18 Regardless of how he is treated by our culture, it will become clear that he is the Hero. Neither death nor postmodernity have dominion over him.

1 The Culture of Narcissism (W W Norton, 1991), p60

2 America (Verso, 1988), p124

3 Krishan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Postmodern Society (Blackwell, 1995), p81

4 Op cit, p5

5 Michael Maffelosi in `The Return of Dionysus' in Constructing the New Consumer Society, ed Pekka Sulkenen et al. (Macmillan, 1997)

6 Chris Rojek in Decentring Leisure (Sage, 1995), p160

7 Frederic Jameson in 'Postmodernism and Consumer Society' in Postmodern Culture, ed Hal Foster (Pluto, 1985), pp 119 & 125

8 The Wake of Imagination (Century Hutchinson, 1988), p31

9 Published by Duckworth in 1985

10 Published by Yale in 1950

11 Postemotional Society (Sage, 1997), p56

12 What is Globalisation? (Polity Press, 2000), p53 13 Op cit, p59

14 John Urry in The Tourist Gaze (Sage, 1990), p84

15 Ziauddin Sardar in Postmodernism and the Other (Pluto, 1998), pp2S6f

16 Op cit, p60

17 Op cit

18 For an interesting example, see Rhidian Brook's Jesus and the Adman (Flamingo, 1998).