In The Frenzy of Renown you take a broad historical look at fame, suggesting that it is not something new—“...fame has a past as well as a present. We did not invent fame.”—but that it changes over time. What has changed in the nature of fame since you wrote your book? how would you revise, update, or expand on your history of fame in light of what has taken place in our culture over the last twenty years?
The most obvious change in the nature of fame over the last twenty or so years has been the increasing self-consciousness among the audience, the media, and the famous about the process, and the desire to stage that self-consciousness as part of the general staging of fame itself. Whereas in the past these processes were generally invisible or seemingly transparent, now they have become part of the story. Fame still has something of the magical quality of seeming to radiate from the famous person, but the knowing audience is also aware of and specifically made alert to the presence of publicists, spin doctors, paparazzi, and all the rest of the backstage and off-camera entourage that facilitates the creation of modern celebrity. Comments on both how the new sports star and movie phenomenon of the moment are handling their newfound fame and how public and/or media adulation has burdened their private lives have become obligatory parts of the story—ways to demonstrate their own self-awareness by both buying into fame culture and ostentatiously disdaining it. Brandishing this same self-consciousness has also led the media to assume that their stories have depth. Newspapers and magazines that never would have printed celebrity gossip in the past now feature it prominently because through irony or distance they believe they can present it as something more than mere gossip. This is the dark downside of cultural studies: anything is significant because anything can be interpreted.
You suggest that “the history of fame is also the history of the shifting definition of achievement in the social world” and the history of how a society understands what an individual is and could be. What does the recent history of fame suggest about our social definitions of achievement and about what it means to be an individual?
The omnipresence of the visual media in our daily lives, the incessant spray of images from movies, television, magazines, and newspapers has indissolubly welded fame and visibility together. The saintly desire to be unknown to the metropolitan world, or the romantic artist’s plea that his works will live only if he be forgotten, has been swept decisively away. Few contemporary flowers blush unseen and waste their fragrance on the desert air. In this climate, the idea that someone might be famous but her face be unfamiliar seems terminally paradoxical. Visibility is fame; being on television validates one’s existence as a movie star, politician, thinker, or swallower of semitropical worms.