A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of launching Robert van Krieken’s Celebrity Society, at Sydney's great bookshop, Gleebooks. It’s a terrific piece of sociology, throwing light on important issues, covering an amazing amount of ground, clearly and crisply written.
Van Krieken argues that it isn’t enough to contrast shallow celebrity with real achievement, and groan about Paris Hilton. There’s much more going on here. There is a pattern of politics and business, a pedagogical process in which selves are shaped, and a kind of economic system based on a struggle for the scarce commodity, attention. (In academic life too.) That’s why van Krieken speaks of “celebrity society” rather than just “celebrity culture”.
These patterns aren't entirely new. In fact, van Krieken traces many features back to the hot-house “court society” of the ancien regime in Europe – top celebrity, Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. Court society also had a cut-throat struggle for status and an obsession with image; courtiers had to work hard at self-presentation. Modern celebrity society is, in a sense, court society democratised and industrialized. Working-class people too can get famous (witness Elvis Presley) and images and information are spread on a mass scale through newspapers, photographs, radio, TV and the Net.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter on business and management. The rise of celebrity managers in the grey shark-pool of big business is fascinating, and it’s connected with the staggering growth of top managers’ “packages” – we can’t call them salaries any more, they have got into the tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. There’s a compelling argument that this is linked to the growth of institutional ownership of company shares, to the nature of media reporting about business, and perhaps also to the legitimacy problems of modern capitalism.
But Celebrity Society also has an interesting analysis of celebrity as seen from below – about the investment made by fans and followers. If there is an economy of attention, there has to be an audience by whom the attention is given. One of the great puzzles about celebrity is what do the audiences get out of it? I won’t give the plot away, but as a teaser I’ll mention that a key piece of evidence is provided by one fan of a mercifully forgotten band, the Bay City Rollers.
I’m hoping for Celebrity Society II, revealing dramatic evidence from fans of an even worse band, the Monkees.
[Celebrity Society, London and New York, Routledge, 2012. Robert van Krieken is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sydney.]