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What Price Hollywood?
Posted on Feb 9, 2009
By Chris Hedges
Soldiers and Marines speak of entering combat as if they are entering a movie, although if they try to engage in movie-style heroics they often are killed. The difference between the celebrity-inspired heroics and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is jolting. Wounded Marines booed and hissed John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital in World War II. They had uncovered the manipulation and self-delusion of celebrity culture. They understood that mass culture is a form of social control, a way to influence behavior that is self-destructive.
Neal Gabler writes in “Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality” that the power of celebrity culture means we often seek to enact the movies that play inside our heads. We become celebrities, at least privately, to ourselves. Celebrity culture is so ubiquitous that it has established perverse interior personal scripts and modes of speech through which our relationship with the world is often constructed. Gabler argues that celebrity culture is not a convergence between consumer culture and religion but instead is a hostile takeover of religion by celebrity culture. Commodities and celebrity culture alone define what it means to belong to American society, how we recognize our place in society and how we determine our spiritual life. Celebrity culture is about the denial of death. It is about the illusion of immortality. The portal to Valhalla is through the celebrity.
Celebrity worship is dressed up in the language of the Christian right, the frenzy around political messiahs like Barack Obama or the devotional following of Oprah by millions of women. If Jesus and “The Purpose Driven Life” won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk on stage and be admired and envied.
Personal style has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. Our choice of brands becomes our pathetic expression of individuality. Celebrity is the vehicle used by a corporate society to sell us these branded commodities, most of which we do not need. Celebrities humanize commercial commodities. They are the familiar and comforting faces of the corporate state. Advertisers use celebrities to promise us that through the purchase of a product we can attain celebrity power. Wear Nikes and become, in some way, Michael Jordan.
Celebrity culture plunges us into a moral void. The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained. These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory. They are hollow. They are hallucinations. They leave us chasing vapors. They encourage a perverted form of narcissism. They urge us toward a life of self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good.
The most moving memorial in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is held in a small glass case containing the cremated remains of the actor David White and his son Jonathan White. David White played Larry Tate, the Machiavellian advertising executive, on the television show “Bewitched” and also had a long stage career. He was married to the actress Mary Welch, who died during a second childbirth in 1958. David was left to raise Jonathan. Next to the urns are pictures of the father and young boy. There is one of Jonathan in a graduation gown, the father’s eyes directed upward toward his son’s face. Jonathan died at 33, a victim of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. His father was devastated. He entered into a long period of mourning and seclusion. He died of a heart attack shortly before the two-year anniversary of his son’s death. The modest memorial is simple and poignant veneration of the powerful bond between a father and a child. It defies the celebrity culture around it. It speaks to other values, to loss, to grief, to mortality and to the awful fragility of life. It is a reminder in a sea of kitsch of the beauty of love.
Celebrity culture encourages us to turn our love inward, to think of ourselves as potential celebrities who possess unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is the culture of narcissism. It is about the hyperinflation of the ordinary. The banal chatter of anyone, no matter how insipid, has in celebrity culture cosmic significance. This chatter fills the airwaves. Reality, however, exposes something very different. And the juxtaposition of the impossible illusions inspired by celebrity culture and our insignificant individual achievements leads to frustration, anger, insecurity and a fear of invalidation. It leads to an accelerated flight toward the celebrity culture, what Chris Rojek in his book “Celebrity” calls “the cult of distraction that valorizes the superficial, the gaudy, the domination of commodity culture.”
This cult of distraction, as Rojek points out, masks the real disintegration of culture. It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives. It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, and costly imperial wars as well as economic and political corruption. Shamanism is not only the currency of celebrity culture; it is the currency of totalitarian culture. And as we sink into an economic and political morass, we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back, even, apparently, in death.
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