Monday, November 23, 2009
The Place of the Celebrity in Late Capitalism
Charlie Brooker Speaks to the Nation
It is not hard to write in a disparaging fashion about why the 'popularity' of X-Factor and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here - with their icons such as 'Jedward', 'Jordan' and the unspeakable thing that is called Simon Cowell - are merely cultural reflections of the dehumanizing alienation of 21st-century British capitalist society, but there is still something distinctly satisfying about the manner and style in which Charlie Brooker does it. As he notes, 'one day we'll emerge on the other side of this unprecedented cultural drought and wonder how the hell our imaginations survived'.
The Human-Shaped Commodity Form
What are these human-shaped ciphers called 'celebrities'? Who, or what, for example, is 'Brad Pitt'? 'Brad Pitt', the celebrity, is totally indistinguishable and inseparable from the various media channels and market relationships through which 'Brad Pitt' circulates and within and through which 'Brad Pitt' acquires, or is invested with, a certain reality. The celebrity individual has no reality outside of the system of circulating symbolic forms which create and reproduce the celebrity entity. There is, presumably, a real, material Brad Pitt out there somewhere who bears some passing physical resemblance to the shiny, air-brushed hyper-real 'Brad Pitt' celebrity - but he is not 'Brad Pitt'. Those who meet famous people often say that they are 'smaller in real life'. There is more to this saying than a simple description of comparative size (the living, human celebrity-symbol referent vs the actual celebrity form that circulates electronically or via the publishing industry). It is an expression of a qualitative difference - the living breathing human you might actually encounter physically is, somehow, less real than the celebrity entity with which this familiar looking human being has, apparently, some vague, but necessary connection.
The celebrity is, of course, a commodity. Like any other commodity, the celebrity must have some basis in material reality - a half-obscured physical referent to which the abstract, symbolic exchange value of the commodity (the aspect of the commodity which gives it its commodity form) must be anchored. The abstract exchange value of the commodity is, in a sense, however, more real than the material object to which the commodity abstraction is attached. The use-value of any commodity under capitalism is, in the end, only of minor, secondary importance. What really matters is that the commodity can be exchanged on the market for money-capital which can then be reinvested in the commodity production process - what matters is the accumulation of the abstract social force known as capital. There is an essential meaningless - a circularity of nothingness - at the heart of capitalism. The point of being a capitalist is to accumulate capital so that you can then accumulate more capital and so on and so on. The use-value, the physical reality, of the stuff to which the exchange value of the capital-bearing/representing commodity is linked is of no importance - or, at least, is important only inasfar as it assists or hinders the valorisation, and hence the accumulation, of the capital abstraction. Capital, in fact, almost seems ashamed of, or disgusted by, the mundane physical reality of objects to which it is umbilically bound. It constantly seeks to escape from it, to shed the material vehicles through which it passes and which bear it at certain stages in its circulation, but it can never in the end become pure abstraction.
The point of a celebrity - the function of 'Brad Pitt' - is to act as a vehicle assisting the circulation and accumulation of capital. The point of a celebrity is to sell (or provide a selling point) for magazines, films, cosmetics or any other saleable thing so that the surplus can be reinvested in the selling of further magazines, films or cosmetics (via the celebrity form). The physical reality of Brad Pitt the human is, for 'Brad Pitt', merely a slightly irritating and embarrassing thing that, unfortunately, always seems to tag along like an annoying little brother following its older, teenaged sibling - it would be done away with entirely if it were possible to do so. But capital must always have some basis in the mundane, dreary world of the real.
The celebrity commodity continually seeks to break loose from the material human being to which it is attached. It wants little to do with it. It is embarrassed by it and seeks to obscure it. The celebrity commodity is variously airbrushed, electronically tweaked, stylised and abstracted in an attempt to escape the breathing, sweating, farting being that carries it - the lumbering, oafish thing that transports the celebrity commodity from photo-shoot to film premier. But the problem for the spectral celebrity commodity is that it is necessarily intertwined with the biological being above and around which it hovers - 'Brad Pitt' needs Brad Pitt to survive.
The celebrity commodity has a peculiar physicality. It is the physical human form of the celebrity that provides it with its saleabilty and with market differentiation. To be sure, this is differentiation within a strictly limiting set of boundaries - all celebrity commodities must look roughly similar in order to circulate efficiently within the system of celebrity commodities (it should be easy to swap one 'Angelina Jolie' for one 'Nicole Kidman' on the front cover of Elle or Heat or to substitute one 'Brad Pitt' for one 'Matt Damon' as the leading actor in a film without very much friction and their broadly similar appearances assist in this process) - but they must also be sufficiently different that consumers may, on occasion, choose between them in the market. It is the physical appearance of the celebrity commodity which provides it with a brand recognition factor. This tragic reality - the utter reliance of the celebrity commodity on the fleshy creature it abhors - is transformed into a rage against that animal being. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are starved, injected, pumped, moulded, carved and beaten - the reproduction and improvement of 'Brad Pitt' and 'Angelina Jolie' involves a regime of violence against the material beings that always accompany them. The exaggerated physicality of the celebrity - the image that slavering Heat editors (in their radically cynical, anti-human activity) pore over for evidence of cellulite or acne - is accompanied by the constant reshaping and remaking of that physical form so that its appearance becomes more and more unreal, more and more symbolic and as close to the unreal image of the celebrity commodity that it is possible to get a human body.
The celebrity, then, is a bundle of paradoxes. It has no function other than as an appendage to the process of capital accumulation and no meaning or significance other than as a vehicle for capital at a certain stage in its circulation - and yet, celebrities are also the focus of wish-fulfilment and projection on the part of great swathes of the population. They are invested with all kinds of concentrated, intensified meanings and significances on the part of the voyeuristic-oppressed consumers of the celebrity commodity and yet in order to function properly they must function without meaning other than the circular, sui generis logic of accumulation for accumulation's sake. The celebrity seeks to escape from the human being that bears it but cannot since it is essentially parasitical on a living person without which it cannot survive - and, more than this, is, in a more fundamental sense, deeply reliant on the physicality of the human bearer that provides the celebrity with the basis of the image-shape necessary for market exchange and circulation. Because of this, and because the physical attributes of the human bearer cannot be totally obscured or re-represented (through a process of air-brushing, computerised retouching and reshaping etc) in the various media manifestations of the celebrity commodity, the human bearer must be subjected to a regime of violent, physical punishment and brutal remoulding through botox injections, liposuction, surgery and starvation diets. The physical dismemberment and reconstruction of the physical form of the human bearer is a necessary part of the celebrity commodity's continual attempt to transcend and escape the material being that carries it.