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Vacuity and Celebrity

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Oceana’s grand project is to replace English with Newspeak, a language so carefully constructed that it is completely incapable of articulating critical thought. Far-fetched perhaps, but between the hours of 21:00 and 23:50 last night Channel 5 screened a close approximation of it – the 50 Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of 2015. Of course, we don’t live in the dystopic world of Winston Smith and Big Brother. I wasn’t forced to watch, but I do so every year. Is there a part of me that likes it?

If my blog exists to promote one thing, that is the sociological imagination. This is the idea that there is such a thing as society, that it cannot simply be reduced to an aggregate of individuals going about their behaviour. To get a grasp on how human communities work, to develop a politics that is about deep and thoroughgoing social change you have to understand how social action gives rise to persistent inequalities, semi-permanent differentials of power, how these structures appear “natural” and, in turn, always conditions our social being and our consciousness of it. That’s my business. It’s what I do.

Celebrity culture, as catalogued by Most Shocking, is the very antithesis of this. As one “shockingly” behaved celebrities parade by a random (and no doubt, inexpensive) clutch of talking heads drawn from the z-list and celeb churnalism, it’s one tale of personal troubles followed by another. Simon Cowell’s going to be a dad. Someone off Celebrity Big Brother peed the bed. Madonna sparks plastic surgery rumours. And, horrifyingly, Jennifer Aniston ‘fessed up to having a Maccy D’s.

The discourse of celebrity this show typifies is almost bleached clean of critical resources. Well, that’s not totally true. Alec Baldwin, the X-Factor’s James Anthony, and ex-Corrie Chris Fountain were just slammed for homophobia and, in the latter’s case, rapping about rape. These were transgressions of the commonly accepted moral code. Apart from that, there were shocks and gasps at photos, dancing and, yes, twerking. Criticism was locked down and limited to diva-esque behaviour and shenanigans. Though at most it was gently chiding – no taking of the scalpel to the increasingly ludicrous Kanye West. It was pure “so-and-so did this, isn’t it awful/exciting/unexpected/desperate?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising Most Shocking for failing to undertake a critique of the political economy of celebrity and placing it in the context of generalised commodity production. That’s what the likes of me are for. But, perhaps with the possible exception of sports culture, celebrity might be unique in that its obsessive concern with surface appearance provides no internal resource for critiquing it. This doesn’t mean folk who follow E! or the Sidebar of Shame with gusto are “brainwashed”. They know it’s bullshit. So do the journalists. Whisper it, some of the celebrities are in on it too. Celebrity discourse is cynical and “post-ideological“. It’s diverting, raises a smile, lubricates the wheels of everyday gossip. It is knowingly cheeky, vacuous and tissue-thin. Its depthlessness, its absence of complexity, its easy (some might say sought-after) co-option by advertising, its inauthenticitydoesn’t wrap an appearance around an essence. It’s up to you whether you want to emulate celebs. It’s up to you if you buy the products they endorse. It’s up to you if you want to clutter your mind with harmless trivia. Celebrity discourse assumesyou’re a particular subject – a consumer – and addresses you as such (that the “preferred” subject tends to be heterosexual women and gay men is something for another time). You’re hailed as a buyer-of-lifestyles and celebrity offers a readymade how-to (and how not to).

And that, at best, is all. Were celebrity ripped away tomorrow, deeply critical and politically-motivated human beings wouldn’t follow in short order. It’s a few gaudy baubles hanging from the top of a system. It might dazzle a few but ultimately the reason why capitalism successfully reproduces itself, even in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, lies elsewhere.


  1. treborc says:

    Get out a bit see the world then you will not need to watch crap so much, even if you cannot get out the controls are on the table switch the TV over, I have never ever watched the X factor or Big brother, so maybe taking a walk when it’s on you will grow out of it.

  2. swatantra says:

    Most Celebs are not really like wot they are portrayed in the Media. Its all manufactured; like most comedians they are pretty troubled souls.
    They don that mask for public consumption, but in private, they are pretty withdrawn chracters. Rather like politicians. So Big Brother is a good social experiment, and the mask falls revealing their true nature.

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