Celebrity Culture   /   Spring 2005   /    Articles

Celebrity Culture

Joseph Epstein

Chandelier reflected in ornate mirror, Louisville, KY (1933). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the best way to begin is briefly to examine the words “celebrity” and “culture,” each on its own first, and then to see if the two slide together and click, making a decent fit.

In The Nature of Culture, his book of 1952, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber offered more than one hundred ways in which the word “culture” was then used. By now, more than fifty years later, the number of its uses has doubtless more than doubled. “The Culture of…,” like “The Death of…” and “The Politics of…,” has become a fairly common prefix for book and article titles, usually ones of extravagant intellectual pretensions, from Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism on down.11xAlfred Kroeber, The Nature of Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952); Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1991).

The word “culture” no longer, I suspect, stands in most people’s minds for that whole congeries of institutions, relations, kinship patterns, linguistic forms, and the rest for which the early anthropologists meant it to stand. Words, unlike good soldiers under the Austro-Hapsburg empire, don’t remain in place and take commands. Instead they insist on being unruly, and slither and slide around, picking up all sorts of slippery and even goofy meanings. An icon, as we shall see, doesn’t stay a small picture of a religious personage but usually turns out nowadays to be someone with spectacular grosses. “The language,” as Flaubert once protested in his attempt to tell his mistress Louise Colet how much he loved her, “is inept.”

Today, when we glibly refer to “the corporate culture,” “the culture of poverty,” “the culture of the intelligence community”—and “community” has, of course, become another of those hopelessly baggy-pants words so that one hears talk even of “the homeless community”—what I think we mean by “culture” is the general emotional atmosphere and institutional ethos surrounding the word to which “culture” is attached. In this newer context, culture also implies that the general atmosphere pervading any discrete aspect of life determines a great deal else. Thus, corporate culture is thought to breed self-protectiveness practiced at the Machiavellian level; the culture of poverty, hopelessness and despair; the culture of the intelligence community, viperishness; the culture of journalism, a short attention span; and so on. Or, to cite an everyday example I recently heard, “the culture of NASA has to be changed.” The comedian Flip Wilson, after saying something outrageous, would use the refrain line, “the devil made me do it.” So today, when spotting dreary or otherwise wretched behavior, people often say, “the culture made them do it.”

As for “celebrity,” the standard definition is no longer the dictionary one but rather closer to the one that Daniel Boorstin gave in his book The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream: “The celebrity,” Boorstin wrote, “is a person who is well-known for his well-knownness,” which is improved in its frequently misquoted form as “a celebrity is someone famous for being famous.”22xDaniel Boorstin, The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1962). (The other well-known quotation on this subject is Andy Warhol’s “in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” which is also frequently misquoted as “everyone will have his fifteen minutes of fame.”)

To be sure, there are people well-known merely for being well-known: What the hell do a couple named Sid and Mercedes Bass do, except appear in bold-face in The New York Times “Sunday Styles” section and other such venues (as we now say) of equally shimmering insignificance, often standing next to Ahmet and Mica Ertegun, also wellknown for being well-known? Many moons ago, journalists used to refer to royalty as “face cards”; today celebrities are perhaps best thought of as bold-faces, for as such do their names often appear in the press.

But to say that a celebrity is someone well-known for being well-known, though clever enough, is not, I think, sufficient. The first semantic problem our fetching subject presents is the need for a distinction between celebrity and fame—a distinction more easily required than produced.

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