The class politics of celebrity culture

Submitted by Matthew on 1 June, 2011 - 11:09

There were a few years in my life in which I was vaguely interested in the private lives of rock and movie stars. Broadly speaking, I had grown out of that kind of stuff by the time I made it to college.

Sometimes I hear tell that friends of mine participate in clandestine relationships with people other than the cohab, or get word of spectacularly inappropriate one night stands between workmates. I will admit to taking brief, prurient interest in such tales, but only because they involve people I know personally.

But my indifference to the fact that Manchester United star Ryan Giggs “romped” with “busty Big Brother babe” Imogen Thomas is almost absolute. I have never met either of them. But they were consenting adults. What they did was in private. End of chat.

Giggs’ ill-fated attempt to make a superinjunction on the topic stick has been something of a national obsession over the last week. Extensive attempts have been made to dress this saga up as an issue of principle, centred on the assertion that gagging orders are deleterious to a free press. The sanctimony at play here is almost palpable.

Of course the claim is sometimes true. Superinjunctions are used by companies to cover up their alleged wrong-doings, with Trafigura providing the standard example. I am absolutely in favour of the right of hacks to cover stories of this kind, and it is invidious that corporations are effectively granted the opportunity to buy silence.

Yet somehow I suspect that even if all legal restrictions were set aside, the death of a few Africans resulting from the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan would not have dominated the front pages of the red tops.

In reality, the media is demanding the untrammelled power to go large on shag-and-tell headlines. I have no fundamental objection to them having that power, but let us not glorify this prosaic truth by the spurious argument that the best efforts of teams of hard-bitten investigative journalists are being frustrated by the dastardly machinations of Mr Justice Eady.

What we are being faced with is another manifestation of the dominance of celebrity culture in contemporary society.

This is a relatively recent invention, created in the twentieth century by the movie, television and popular music industries. It now constitutes an organised system, which remains in place even as individual stars come and go. All of this is distinctly capitalist; I suppose you could accurately describe all this as the commodification of personality.

The wider public feels that it has some form of parasocial interaction or even personal friendship at one remove with figures such as top footballers, soap actors and even the better-known porno stars.

Not only does this phenomenon sell newspapers, but generally it works to the advantage of the ruling class. It promotes individualism and the idea that “anyone can do it”. If fame and consequent wealth can be handed out arbitrarily by the producers of reality television programmes, it could be you.

Psychologists have drawn attention to the fact that the rise of celebrity culture in the west mirrors the decline of religious faith. At least for those chosen by the system, it even offers the prospect of symbolic immortality. For those not so chosen, at least they can get in on the act vicariously.

To paraphrase a philosopher by whom I am influenced, the abolition of celebrity as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

There’s no point in wishing reality away. But so long as people are preoccupied with Giggsy getting into Ms Thomas’s knickers, the chances of a rebirth of progressive politics in this country remain slim.

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