Contemplation: Even in Death the Celebrity Doesn’t Die

Fact: Michael Jackson died two weeks ago. I’m pretty certain that the only people who have not been made aware of this news at this point are a few random folks who’ve been holed up in bomb shelters since the 1960s in fear of the Soviet bombings.  Everyone else has been made exhaustively aware of the King of Pop’s demise, of the legal battles over his wills, of his huge memorial service earlier this week . . . etc. etc. etc.

My interest here isn’t really about Michael Jackson, his death or his bizarre life (though if you need something to sum up about how I feel about the late musician, might I direct you to Roger Ebert’s enlightened obituary of Mr. Jackson which I think does the best job I’ve encountered at summing up the person).  No, my real interest is all about this bizarre, often obsessive, fascination that we all have with the concept of celebrity, and how even the human penultimate of death is not enough to kill off our embrace of all things celebrity.

The concept of The Celebrity is one which has philosophically fascinated me for several years now.  While I think that I had concepts and ideas about celebrities prior to it, I really think it was the end of my senior year in college where I began solidifying these concepts into a greater analysis of what celebrity means and is.  My major effort at that time was a paper which examined the role of celebrity in the VH1 reality television program “The Surreal Life” which I paired with a number of post-modern critiques, especially those estabilished by Jean Baudrillard in his  Simulacra and Simulation.  Conclusively, the paper detailed how reality TV as a whole is a form of celebrity creation (albeit often more minor than other outlets to celebritydom) and as such actually creates a complete detachment from said “reality.”  I argued that “The Surreal Life” was perhaps one of the best reality TV names (whether so intended or not) because it noted the absolute un-reality of the whole celebrity dynamic and also the un-reality of reality television.  Essentially my stance, which has not changed a whole lot in the past two years, is that The Celebrity is an absolute simulacrum of that which is the human reality.  The Celebrity is not a self free being but is instead a trapped existence in the hyperreality created by the adoring (or loathing) public.

Basically what my opinion and conclusion of celebrity is, is that these people that we call celebrities, whether they be actors, musicians, sports figures, politicians, etc. are not actually free humans but an extension of the will of a society that needs a kind of scapegoat of attention.  We highlight and embrace the good admirable qualities of The Celebrity but scorn and judge the failings, but all of it is done with a loyal, almost addicted, fascination.  When The Celebrity succeeds we think about how great it would be to be a celebrity ourselves, but when they fail we are quick to pull on the cloak of moral superiority and point out how much better we are then them.  It is a strange dual dynamic which we, society, do not seem to be able to get around.  We want these people to represent the best attributes of humanity but at the same time we want them to be the scapegoats for all of human kinds greater failings.  The Celebrity is kind of an uncontrolled sacrificial role for the appeasement of the whims, morals, and desires of the the greater society.  They are at once both our greatest leaders and worst criminals.

And they are never free.

Even in death.

On the wonderful New York Times’ blog “Schott’s Vocab” we are offered the word “obitutainment” to describe the morbid public fascination with celebrity deaths.  I think the reason why we see such fascination is that, The Celebrity, as a kind of societal idol, is not actually dead, only the physical human body, to which The Celebrity was attached, is actually deceased.  The Celebrity will continue to be an entity, and thus alive, for as long as the public maintains an interest with it.  As such we can look at celebrities who have been dead for years and years and still see a recurrent fascination with them.  The death of the body, the living breathing human who was The Celebrity, is merely a slight paradigm shift in the whole simulacra of The Celebrity’s hyperreality.  True celebrity death only comes when The Celebrity is completely forgotten by everybody.

It may be this pseudo-immortality (along with potential riches and fame) that can make us feel a desire to exist as a celebrity ourselves, but in truth I would suggest that this extended life in the interests of the public is in actuality a curse.  It is a curse because The Celebrity has, at best, very little if not any, actual control over the way that they are perceived.  They may strive to perform and appear in certain manners but that will only go so far in influencing the conclusive public opinion.  And once the human body of The Celebrity has died then all that ability to influence is lost and left entirely to the interpretations of those who examine The Celebrity’s life and works.  In many ways The Celebrity is like a book that is no longer in the author’s control.  It is the readers, the audience, who have the ultimate say on the meaning and value of the story, and while the author may state his or her ideas, goals, and/or intentions, those truly mean very little to the reader bent on a particular interpretation.  As such The Celebrity’s real or personal life serves as a kind of author function to the narrative which is the visible, interpretable celebrity life.

I wonder though, as much as The Celebrity is a prisoner to the collective understanding and desire of the viewing public, the vast and relentless audience, if we, that very same public, do not in fact allow ourselves to become prisoners in the reality of The Celebrity.  Our infatuation and insistence to make celebrities into these simulacrums of real humanity seems to cheapen and degrade the value and influence that each and every one of us can play in the collective whole.  The Horde does not need to dote on each individual piece that makes its mass, in the ultimate it just needs a few token beings to play that simulacra role as celebrities.  They will always be created, revered, reviled, interpreted, misunderstood, over examined, under appreciated, and, finally, a being of utter fascination to our collective desire to frame humanity in a sense of idyllic or legendary understanding.

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~ by Nathaniel on July 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Contemplation: Even in Death the Celebrity Doesn’t Die”

  1. I feel like it is worthwhile to offer a link to Schott’s Vocab for the expressions TwitterDead as it seems to relate directly to this contemplation as well as well as this earlier contemplation of mine.

    See everything links together in pursuit of the ultra-truth!

  2. […] is something that has fascinated me for quite a long time  now, and I have written about it several times in the past on this […]

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