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Persona Studies is a new, open-access, online academic journal being run out of Deakin University. Its remit is the concept of persona, and how that concept may frame contemporary culture. The journal’s very first issue is now online. Click here to go to it.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of the difficult process of getting this journal started, and I’ve also indirectly helped out with some review work. I’m happy to see it get off the ground.
The Call for Papers for the next issue is already out. The intended theme is “work(ing) personas”. More detail on the CFP is available here.
Last Friday I was at the first seminar to be held by Deakin University’s new Emerging Research Group of which I am a student member: Persona Celebrity Publics. As it says on the website blurb, this is a research group that’ll be looking at….well, persona, celebrity and publics for the most part. Celebrity in particular is going to be treated as an essential phenomenon for gaining better understanding of how individual lives are publicly lived in a massively mediated culture. To that end, the first seminar was presented by Graeme Turner, author of the book “Understanding Celebrity”. Graeme’s putting out a second, updated edition of the book (first published in 2004) in the very near future.
His presentation focused on what has changed since the publication of the first edition, both in terms of the operation of celebrity itself and in terms of how celebrity studies had established itself as a credible discipline. The latter strikes me as an important thing to justify, given the tendency of celebrity to be written off as something vapid, ephemeral and unimportant, and therefore unworthy of dignifying with academic study. Taking celebrity seriously, for Graeme, means understanding celebrity in terms of its relationship to the political economy of the media. Celebrity isn’t just a representational froth on the top of deeper, more “important” media processes. Celebrity is a commodity, one that structures, and is structured by, relations of production and consumption in the media industry. The study of the contemporary media industry therefore must be, at least to some extent, the study of celebrity.
The actual extent, and the nature of the relationship between celebrity and media, is obviously a fruitful area of ongoing investigation. However, it seems fairly clear to me that this is complicated by the fact that ideas about what is meant by both “celebrity” and “media” are moving targets. In terms of media, Graeme at one point suggested that recent changes to the media industry have been so profound that they now outstrip the ability of established theories of media analysis to explain them. Part of the reason for studying celebrity, for Graeme, is because he claims that the impact of celebrity is itself one of the things behind that transformation.
That was one of Graeme’s more memorable claims: Graeme is currently of the opinion that the transformed importance of celebrity has effects on the media industry that are equivalent in importance to the diffusion and adoption of new media such as social media. The two most prominent aspects of media transformation that Graeme directly relates to celebrity are the phenomenon of “mediatisation”, or the tendency of media to become the central axis for the understanding and experience of social life, and the transformation of the media industry from being oriented towards the propagation of both information to entertainment to being oriented towards propagating pure entertainment alone. Both are products of the importance of celebrity to the continuing operation of the contemporary media industry.
Has celebrity similarly changed as a concept? Graeme seemed more equivocal about this. In terms of updating examples in his book, much of what he apparently did was simply provide examples of more contemporary celebrities to illustrate the same phenomenon: replacing Britney Spears with Kim Kardashian, for instance. Graeme also claimed that the rise of social media (something that didn’t exist when his book was first published in 2004) isn’t all that distinctive, with the types of “structures” found in the new social media forms pre-existing their instantiation there.
That said, Graeme did pick up quite a few issues with celebrity that were specifically raised by social media interaction. The new concept of “micro-celebrity” on Twitter, as prominently described by boyd & Marwick, has raised new issues about how celebrity as a concept might change with scale, which have not fully been explored. A well-established concept in mass media studies has been that of para-social interaction, or the way in which audience members experience an intimate social connection with someone on TV, who never interacts back. On social media of course, such public figures can – and do – talk back to their fans. Where this leaves the idea of para-social interaction is not at all clear.
I think social media is one area that Graeme might still be working through. As such, his suggestion that the changes he described above might be understood as a change in celebrity practice from “production for public” to “production for network” might be taken as a guide to further elaboration and inquiry rather than as a fixed set of established explanatory ideas. To me it suggests that it might be just as fruitful to examine how transformation in media forms and the media industry might affect the nature of celebrity, not just the other way around. My impression of Graeme’s talk was that he was much more focused on the latter, possibly at the expense of the former.
Although to be honest, there are quite a number of threads regarding celebrity and media that warrant investigation. I’ve barely touched upon the many other recent publications around celebrity that Graeme mentioned in his talk. The overall focus, though, seems to be one of examining the “dynamics” of how celebrity – whether as commodity, phenomenon, or even possibly “pathology” (though Graeme strenuously disagreed with that last one) – is implicated in an “intervention into the social”, as one set of researchers described the effect of reality TV programs on social life.
As a student fairly new to the field of celebrity studies, my main interest is in the demarcations of areas of relevance and relative importance that, to my eye, are still being made in this field. Questions from seminar members seemed to me to confirm that this demarcating process is still ongoing. How, for instance, does celebrity relate to contemporary political life? Graeme described a process of “spectacularisation” that has occurred in contemporary politics, where celebrity practice now acts as a model for political practice: Obama’s political campaign cultivated a political base in much the same way that celebrities cultivate a fanbase, for instance. The operations of news-gathering around celebrities – reliance on publicists over investigative journalism, and interest in the private life of a person above everything else – may also have spread to the news industry generally, to the detriment of effective public policy debate.
Another ongoing debate is what separates “celebrity” from “fame” (or from “spectacularisation”, for that matter). Graeme’s identifying characteristic of a person who is a celebrity has been an interest in a person’s private life, above and beyond what is generally publicly accessible. I’m not sure if this distinction explains everything that is distinctive about celebrity, even if it is important. How, for instance, does it relate to the iconography that surrounds many celebrities (e.g. Marilyn Munroe’s windswept dress), or that attaches itself to political figures, possibly contributing to the process of their celebritisation (e.g. the Obama “Hope” poster)?
And how does the commoditisation of celebrity relate to the available media types available in the society? Graeme seemed to focus on “the media industry” as a whole, but I think the materiality of media technology – the visual spectacle available through film once it achieved prominence in the 1930s, the concept of “celebrity news” as it was instantiated in print, what Marshall McLuhan might call the increasing “hotness” of television as a medium as high-definition TV becomes the norm – these seem to me to be important issues to examine if one wishes to focus on specific areas of media at a lower level of abstraction, as I do, and if one suspects that the quality of celebrity is in part constituted through what kind of media are available, as I do.
All told, I found the seminar quite a useful way of getting an “in” into the world of celebrity studies, and provided me with an appreciation of how celebrity can be useful as a heuristic concept when studying the relationship between media and social life – including areas where celebrity might not seem to have much relevance given the supposed “vapidness” of the phenomenon. I would be interested in seeing how the political economic concept of the celebrity-commodity might fair should one descend from the high position of analysing a singular “media industry” in terms of celebrity-commodity as a structural determinant.