A Short History of Celebrity

By Fred Inglis

That celebrity is an inescapable part of our culture is as obvious as the magazine display at your local supermarket checkout. Nevertheless, it can be a slippery subject to deal with. What do politicians, artists, movie stars, sports heroes, television personalities, serial killers, and women on welfare who give birth to octuplets have in common, aside from a fame that in some cases lasts fifteen minutes and in others long survives death? What is celebrity?

Fred Inglis, a professor of cultural studies, is not big on nailing down precise definitions. Indeed his general approach is so cautious and vague that in this new book the “loose and baggy” concept of celebrity never comes in to clear focus. This is a major drawback – one should never send an academic to do a gossip columnist’s job – but nevertheless there is still much here worth taking note of.

Inglis’s short history begins with the birth of celebrity, which he sees as having arrived around 1750 in England. From there the book takes the form of a series of snapshots of historical celebrities (from Byron to Marilyn Monroe to David Beckham) and of distinct stages in the growth of the celebrity “industry” – going from, in Inglis’ maddeningly obscure prose, “eighteenth-century reciprocities, to Romantic passion, to the early modern intensity of reflectiveness, to the contemporary practices of feeling-postponement and the carceral solitude of life-puzzlement.”

Sorting this out, Inglis primarily sees celebrities – who, by and large, he admires – as teaching us the value of our own lives and showing us how to feel; as public dramatizations of consumption, capital, and power; and finally as creatures that partake of the sacred – knowable, yet unapproachably distant and removed.

Unfortunately, the second major drawback the book has is that its analysis doesn’t address Celebrity v.2.0. Despite supposedly bringing the story of celebrity up to the present day there isn’t a single mention of the Internet. When Inglis talks about the transforming power of the “screen” and its dominance over our lives it takes a moment to register that he’s still talking about television. Some very fertile ground is ignored here, especially with regard to what he calls the “psychosis of envy” in the “ambivalent designation” of celebrity.

What he means is that celebrities are gods we both love and despise, worship and bitterly resent. But in the radically democratised, post-mass media, narcissistic environment that is the Web the iconoclasts have the upper hand. “If there were gods,” Zarathustra muses, “how could I bear not to be one?” It is a question that bloggers, wannabe porn stars, and even not-so-humble trolls have increasingly taken to asking themselves. Online there are no gods, only eyeballs. The short history of celebrity is over.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 7, 2010.

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