I have tried all my life to understand my fellow humans but have failed. If I understood them better, perhaps I would share more of their interests.
Take reality TV, for example. Returning to France recently, I discovered by chance that a family called the Gayats had become famous. For what, exactly? Mainly for their number—two parents and nine children. As far as I can tell, they were not in any other way remarkable. A television chain had found them and turned them into stars. One can, if one feels so inclined, follow their daily lives; there are web pages devoted to them that answer such important questions as “Which member of the Gayat family is pregnant?” Hundreds of thousands of people “follow” them.
Even more inexplicable to me is the fact that they are now regarded, and generously paid, as “influencers”; that is to say, when they mention a brand of some commodity—soap or mustard, for example—they receive a payment.
Can such a mention really influence people to copy them? Since the world of commerce is hardheaded and would not part with money unless to some commercial advantage, I have to suppose that there is reliable, or at least plausible, evidence that influencers do really influence.
Let us grant, then, that when the Gayat family (whose income per month as influencers is greater than its income in a year from other sources) is shown using a certain brand of something, the sales of that brand rise. Whether the demand for that something is elastic or inelastic hardly matters. From the point of view of the owners of the brand, what counts is the total sale; whether the increase is at the expense of other brands or the result of increased demand for the brand’s commodity, whatever it might be, is irrelevant.
But what kind of person is influenced to purchase a certain brand of something simply because he has seen on television a member of the Gayat family use or consume that brand? Can shallowness go deeper?
Equally mysterious to me is the attention given to the opinions of celebrities on subjects such as global warming or the situation in Burma. Of course, like everyone else they are entitled to an opinion of their own, but not to anyone’s attention to it. That attention is in fact given to it is dispiriting. What they say consists mainly of cliché, but when, as happens rarely, they step out of line with the party line, the party being that of the reigning orthodox liberals, they are turned upon with a ferocity reminiscent of that of lynchers. This prospect alone is enough to make most celebrities cleave closely to the preordained orthodoxy. Many of them know that their celebrity is founded on shifting sands.
The cult of celebrity, as a quality in itself irrespective of the value of what it attaches to, is likewise mysterious to me. Many are those who seek celebrity detached from anything else of discernible worth. Fame for its own sake is sufficient for them. But what does it mean that people can be famous for being famous?
As the late Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko pointed out, it takes two to be corrupt, and likewise fame that attaches to a person for no reason in particular requires someone—by definition, many people—to confer it upon him.
Celebrities who are famous for being famous must have some slight quality that marks them out from others; so that, for example, it is nowadays very unusual for families to consist of nine children (though when I visited Rwanda in 1986, women had nine children on average, and with the advances in medical care, which to some degree had reached even those parts, most of them survived).
But the quality that marks out such celebrities must not be of a kind that it is completely beyond the range of possibilities for the audience—as, for example, quantum physics is beyond mine. The celebrity must be such that, fundamentally, he is one of us, the great mass of mediocrities.
In fact, a celebrity could have been me if things had been only a little different. Modern celebrity is thus the screen on which mass daydreams are projected.
When did the cult begin?
As with most social or cultural phenomena, it is impossible to give a precise date of origin.
Clearly, celebrity beyond a narrow circle of personal acquaintance requires means of communication at a distance. It also requires a concentration of population. These conditions develop gradually, not all at once, but now they are met as never before in history.
Who was the first celebrity? There is no correct answer to this question, but whenever I ask it of myself, I think of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who always or very often (so it seems to me) preferred notoriety—a form of celebrity—to truth. He was a very talented man, of course; one could not say of him that he was famous just for being famous. He was witty and some of his plays are still worth performing, which cannot be said of the work of many playwrights of his epoch. He was certainly not a mediocrity in the manner of many contemporary celebrities. But he was more than averagely aware of the benefits of self-promotion, in which pursuit he was very thorough. It led him to oppose received opinion because it was received, not because it was wrong.
Where celebrity is both more desired and more prevalent, it will attach to people of less and less accomplishment.
To be completely unknown becomes a wound, a humiliation, a sign of failure; celebrity is the sole guarantor of personal worth. To be known for nothing of any importance is infinitely better than not being known at all.
The economist John Maynard Keynes was once asked what Lloyd George (the British prime minister) thought about when he was on his own. “When Lloyd George is on his own,” he replied, “there is nobody there.”
Since that time, at the end of the First World War, the number of people who cease to exist for themselves in the absence of an audience, and who value themselves by the size of their audience, has increased exponentially.
And they hope, by means of false logic, that by imitating the famous, they will become famous themselves, and thus more real and important.
Header: KMMWW6 Dance, painting by George Tooker, USA 1940s