Tuesday 8 April 2014

Peaches Geldof and Celebrity

Like most people, I never knew Peaches Geldof. She was always someone who lurked on the outer edges of my consciousness, bobbing up and down among a pantheon of minor celebrities. I knew her, but paid her little mind. And yet, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, when her death was announced yesterday it threw me a bit. Like millions of others I took to social media to announce it, usurping and filling in for the news media organisations who were tens of seconds behind. But there are a never-ending procession of deaths of young women every single day. Each life ends, potential gone, families and friends bereft. Yet only the very tragic or the properly victim-ised warrant widespread coverage and sympathy. Why is this the case, and what does her death and the weird reaction of hard-as-nails media cynics say about celebrity culture?

We've been here before. In a participatory and heavily mediated culture, we have the collapsing of all kinds of distances and the telescoping of others. As celebrity has become even more ubiquitous, the option is there - and it's readily taken - for people to form simulated relationships with celebrities of their choice. Whether one is a self-described superfan or is moderately interested in the doings/work of a particular star there is a one-way, "inauthentic" relationship. Despite never meeting them, seeing them, or getting a reply on Twitter off them they can become as meaningful to someone as a real, flesh-and-blood friendship can be. Sometimes even more so. Zygmunt Bauman, the diagnostician of what he likes to call 'liquid modernity' nevertheless observes that for all their inauthenticity, relationships of this stripe can reproduce the agonies and ecstasies just as well. The relation one might have with a certain celebrity might be more real than real, more human than human. It's a strange coming together of supplicant and replicant, of a real person "meeting" a simulated person through the intermediaries of multiple media technologies.

The inauthenticity of celebrity can be felt keenly on an individual level. But celebrity is a collective phenomena in its production, execution and reception. The image, the aura is absolutely an effect achieved through marketing a projection. A whole interlinked (some might say indissociable) political economy stands behind them, a veritable culture industry as a couple of Frankfurt profs once put it. Focusing on reception, celebrity addresses itself to individuals but it is always shared too. We may live in a bewildering blurring world where, superficially, each of us are highly individuated without much in common, but celebrity continually bubbles up. It is so in your face that it cannot but force an opinion up your throat. Of the leading lights of the day, they are focal points and battlegrounds from the playground to the workplace to the home to the cafe to the pub. Sport also acts in exactly the same way. Disassociation is incredibly hard to achieve - even to dismiss it and effect uninterest is, nevertheless, a form of engagement with it. Hence what celebrity (and sport) does is contribute to a diffuse, fleeting and constantly remade/rewritten sense of community.

Therefore, as well as a very real trauma for her family, Peaches Geldof's passing is a moment. Those who had some form of personal investment in her, or as someone who grew up watching her occasional forays into television and journalism will have felt it quite keenly. For others who didn't but are nevertheless heavily invested in our culture of screens and networks - and chance is you are by virtue of reading this - it was cause for pause and, in some cases, public lamentation on the social media platform of choice. It simulated the sense of living in a real community (ironically, best typified by another simulation - Coronation Street) and hearing that a neighbour from round the corner or a couple of streets over had died. People like me weren't thrown because we are brainwashed to love celebrities. We were because it was an unanticipated event within the everyday life of mediated folk living mediated, simulated lives. And for those who are more deeply affected by Peaches' death, their pain is no less real.

There is something else that has shown up as well, a convention of more recent providence. The figure of the celebrity may do all these things, but it is a precarious life. The toast of the town one day can be just toast the next. They are built up to be laid low. They fulfil the twin role of aspirational role model and lightning rod of scurrilous gossip and criticism. They are an interpenetrating opposite of reverence and irreverence. Time was when a celebrity died the papers dredged up all kinds of stories, safe in the knowledge that the deceased cannot sue for defamation. Now it seems the terms are reversed. In life Peaches Geldof was vilified as a wannabe, a celebrity aristocrat, a woman famous for being famous - she was a celebrity whose celebrity was a simulacrum of celebrity, much like other famous children of famous people. There was a sense she meant well but was cosseted by her upbringing, and that her brushes with drugs, bad boys and exotic religions were snapshots of a very public pursuit of authenticity. And then, with her sad passing, commentariats who'd have thought nothing of trashing her in their columns and paid-for blogs a few days ago were effusive and gushing with praise. We saw much the same thing with Bob Crow as well. Perhaps it's right and just that this should be the case, that the death of someone in the public eye should be pause for reflection - their lives a cause for appreciation, and perhaps a space for reverence to return.

Maybe so, but then again if we treat our dead better than our living, what does that say about our society?


Speedy said...

Its natural isn't it? We have evolved to worship leaders, even from afar, like kings, for example, who many people have gladly gone to their graves on behalf of.

More even - there is something religious about celebrities. Hence celebrity worship. False (celebrity) idols.

Saints used to be like pop stars - in some place they put their tombs on plinths because the crowds were so large.

We dream of fame as if it is heaven, a secular heaven.

Im with john gray - although the outward symbols might change, Man remains essentially the same.

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that suicides among men are far higher than among women, as are premature deaths generally. I am not saying she committed suicide but was responding to this typical liberal left dog bites man platitude:

"But there are a never-ending procession of deaths of young women every single day."

The thing is when we really analyse the instances of male premature death we find an unsympathetic liberal left.

Phil said...

I think there's something much different about celebrity - it's a secularisation of the personality cults the advent of mass media threw around dictatorial figures. But is more pernicious and more interwoven in everyday life as per this and my other musings on celebrity.

I would avoid essentialising it though. Would a peasant in mediaeval England or a slave in Mesopotamia project their senses of self onto a living idol? No, because they didn't have a sense of self in the modern understanding of the term.

Anonymous said...

to (mis)quote rene char, i wonder if currently celebrity doesn't have something to do with "the nearness of distance." the simultaneity of larger-than-life status and glamor gets packaged together with a kind of pseudo-intimacy, or let's say the fantasy of intimacy, of these powerful figures seemingly wanting to share their lives with us. of course, come to think of it, that phrase by rene char has to do with the presence of death, and even though you don't want any poetry on your blog, there's a line from charles olson that's appropriate here:

as the dead prey upon us
they are the dead in ourselves
awake, my sleeping ones,
I cry out to you
disentangle the nets of being!