Are Celebrities a Thing of the Past?

Re:Search Magazine, University of Bristol
Issue 9 (April 2005) – View as HTML   Download PDF

The University is committed to making the results of its research as widely available as possible. As an incentive to encourage more articles, we devised a writing competition with cash prizes. This article by Dr Tom Mole shared third place.

I was in Boston last week for a cultural studies conference, and one of the papers caught my eye. The event had been bursting at the seams with odd poststructuralist analyses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but this paper was surely the oddest of the lot. It was called ‘Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Persona as an Aging Celebrity’. I was in Boston to talk about celebrity myself. I’ve spent the last five years investigating the history of celebrity culture – especially the poet Lord Byron – and I was there to tell people what I’ve discovered, but I wanted to take the long view. While Zsa Zsa’s certainly not getting any younger, celebrity culture is even older than her. Two hundred years older, in fact.

Celebrities are everywhere now, but hardly anyone thinks to ask difficult questions about how celebrity culture works, and where it came from. The few who do ask have tended to fix on film, tracing celebrity culture back to the rise of cinema in the early 20th century. I think they’re right to link celebrity to a new technology, but they’ve got the wrong one. As a literary scholar, I can see that the crucial technology was printing, and that the enabling advances took place a century earlier.

Printing and publishing became a full-blown industry at the end of the 18th century. That led to a massive growth in the number of books published and fuelled the rise of newspapers, magazines and advertising. At the same time the audience for those texts expanded as the population grew and more of them learnt to read. In the early days of industrial capitalism, this produced a rich and fascinating print culture. But it also created two new problems.

Celebrity culture overcame the feeling of alienation by creating a sense of intimacy

Firstly, people started to suffer from information overload. Isaac D’Israeli was already swamped by 1795. Since “every literary journal consists of 50 or 60 publications,” he wrote, “when I take the pen and attempt to calculate … the number of volumes which the next century must infallibly produce, … I lose myself among billions, trillions, and quartillions”. At the same time, the percentage of books published anonymously dropped drastically. As more and more named authors jostled for public notice, a personality overload set in. Readers couldn’t possibly keep up. They needed ways to select which texts to read and which to ignore. Secondly, readers and writers started to feel alienated. In the new mass market for books, they could no longer know each other. The audience became a faceless crowd, while the author risked being a distant and impersonal figure. Writers and readers started to feel like estranged producers and consumers in the marketplace.

Celebrity culture emerged to solve – or at least to mitigate – both those problems. In response to the personality overload, it turned the celebrity’s proper name into a brand  name. When the European Magazine received a “new volume of poetry, bearing the noble name of Byron as its passport to celebrity” it knew that the noble name guaranteed certain marketable qualities and connotations. Byron cut a figure as an adventurer, lover and aristocrat gifted with roguish charm. His publisher, his reviewers and his engraved portraits all supported that persona and sold tens of thousands of books. As a result, all eyes were on Byron.

Celebrity culture looks increasingly worrying, as it colonises politics, business, and even academia.

Celebrity culture overcame the feeling of alienation by creating a sense of intimacy. The trick was not to let the poems seem like industrial productions competing for attention in a crowded market. Instead, Byron fostered the impression that his poems could only be understood fully by referring to their author’s personality, and that reading them was entering a kind of intimate relationship with him. “They are not felt … as declarations published to the world,” wrote one reviewer, “but almost as secrets whispered to chosen ears.”

It’s been hard for us to see the history of these celebrity strategies because, to a large extent, we live in a culture that’s still shaped by them. But celebrity culture looks increasingly worrying, as it colonises politics, business, and even academia. We won’t understand what fascinates and troubles us about celebrity culture until we understand that it has a history even longer that Zsa Zsa Gabor’s. Uncovering that history has taken me from Byron to Buffy and beyond. It adds to our understanding of the past, but it can also enable us to engage more critically with the present.

Tom’s £100 prize money will contribute to the cost of including illustrations when this work is published as a book. This work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr Tom Mole/Department of English