The following is an interview with Daniel Herwitz, author of The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption:
Q: There’s a Lady Diana book industry out there that keeps the discount catalogues of England and America in business. Marilyn Monroe lives a second life on the covers of oversized coffee-table books. The expanding number of celebrities is matched by the expanding number of books about celebrity. Star books pile up in the corners of used bookstores to be donated to charity or used for recycling. Theories are constructed and dismantled about the how and the why of it. Is there a reason to add to this pile with another book?
Daniel Herwitz: No book has been written that seeks to cut through the gossip, the tabloids, and critical canons of scholarship, the innuendo, adulation, and also the theory to focus on the aesthetic formation of the star icon. Most books either treat her as a melodramatic celebrity (Tina Brown’s recent Diana book for example, which is about love, desperation, celebrity exhaustion, and the lunches she had with Diana), or they effuse rapturously about her beauty, bemoan her miserable life (hunted and haunted by the media, oh poor, poor little rich girl!). Or they begin from a stance of disgust at the system and move quickly to its theorization.
The fact of these many books speaks to ongoing public obsession around this type of star (there are precious few of them), and that is interesting. But she (it is mostly a she) is neither a mere celebrity nor any ordinary kind of star. Celebrity we know how to understand. The star icon we do not. I think of her as a being caught between transcendence and trauma. This is how the public sees her. An effervescent film star living on a distant, exalted planet, she is at the same time a melodrama-soaked soap opera queen whose dismal life she is ever trying to flee or overcome and into the mire of which she constantly sinks—always with the help of the media and before the fascinated, tearful public. She cannot escape its commanding gaze except to drive at two hundred kilometers an hour through the tunnels of Paris to her death. The very public that eggs her on also secretly desires her to fall apart, since it will be the culmination of a whopping good story: there is adoration and blood lust in its relation to her. But she is also a figure of grace.
The cult around her comes from the way she appears in the media, for that is almost entirely where she is encountered. And so a great deal depends on understanding the powers of film and of television. Indeed film and television are so central that the public projects qualities of film star and soap queen onto the star icon even if she neither acted in any films (Lady Diana) nor appeared on television except peripherally (Marilyn Monroe). This was brought home to me while I was watching the Lady Diana funeral live on BBC sitting at my TV in Durban, South Africa where I lived and worked in the 1990s. The Diana funeral was the second most watched television program in South African history. Glued to my set I was struck by how easily the BBC commentators elided Lady Diana and Grace Kelly. It was as if they were two sides of the same coin of the realm—but which realm? Grace Kelly was a film star turned princess of an ersatz kingdom run on fast cars and gambling. Diana was a British royal whose classical beauty was offset by a face and posture that registered every raw nerve ending, expressed every burst of feeling. Both were birds of prey for the media, which also canonized them. Both lived lives of melodrama and died in speeding cars. From this pairing of the two came my idea that in contemporary life aesthetic qualities migrate from their medium of origin to the wider public world, so that around Diana’s head flowed the aura of film, star even though she was no film actor, and from Grace’s film stardom issued royal pedigree.
Of course you have to be constantly in the media eye—a persona—in order for these qualities to transpose themselves onto your head. But, once you are in the media eye (a celebrity of sorts), the public has the ability (or liability) to graft all manner of aesthetic features onto you. The star icon cannot be what she is apart this migration of aesthetic qualities across media and onto her head. The aesthetics of film and television need to be closely studied to figure out how this spreading of qualities from point of origin through public imagination to a persona like Diana happens. She demands a new kind of aesthetic approach. Since I am by training a philosopher who writes widely on and is in love with popular culture, I thought, well, why not try to tell this story?
Q: Say something more about what you mean by the migration of aesthetic qualities from film and television into the wider society?
DH: This migration of aesthetic quality from film and television into the wider social world is central to American politics. The Kennedy Camelot White House was a house adored through the lens of the film musical. (David Lubin has written about this in Shooting Kennedy.) Fox TV and its daily dose of sneering insult played a huge role in structuring the one-liner format of the recent Republican convention, along with the aggressive audience-participatory format of talk shows like the Jerry Springer Show. Sarah Palin fits perfectly into the role of Fox TV commentator cum Springer, hurling insult with all the force her inner springing pit bull can muster at liberals—and with red lipstick too! The relevant segments of the American public love this and love to hate it because it smacks of the television they watch over and over on prime time, which primes them. Through some process of magical thinking, it is believed by such people that Sarah Palin is one of them in virtue of her bad education, strident voice, and pregnant daughter, and yet she has a power they do not: the power of a TV commentator or talk show host to control Washington, as if Washington were a TV show writ large. Moreover, they think because she is one of them her voice will speak their interests, which is true if they are conservative Christians but for no one else. This is a fantasy of how representative democracy works that could only take place because of television. And this transposition could only occur because Palin largely lives through the media.
How the aesthetic features of film and television become grafted onto political process or star icon in our world of consumer/celebrity culture is an essential question for aesthetics today. I think popular culture cannot be understood without the kind of aesthetics that reveals synergies between film, television, tabloid, the star system, celebrity culture, and our consumer society. And this means one must study the aesthetics of film and television in detail.
Q: Isn’t that the kind of synergistic approach to popular culture that one found in earlier critical theories of society from Germany like Theodor Adorno’s?
DH: I am a writer critical of the forms of charisma and magical thinking in our society, and I owe a debt to those earlier generations of critical theorists who explored the diffusion of social forms synergistically—or what Theodor Adorno would have called dialectically. But I am a very different person from Adorno. I am a man in love with popular culture, grown up in Green Acres and on Gilligan’s Island, just down the street from Petticoat Junction. I live in a permanent state of anxiety about whether Tony Soprano will get whacked because I didn’t find out (which was David Chase’s brilliant ending to the series). I write out of adoration and sympathy for Marilyn, with the nostalgia of youth for Jackie. I think having grown up within this culture and remaining deeply part of it is crucial for understanding the star icon. Otherwise you can’t meditate on the public yearning for and consumption of these figures.
Q: How do film, television, star culture, and consumer society synergize to create this being?
DH: Beware any simple answer! What is unique from the point of view of aesthetics is this. The aesthetics of film and of television are largely antagonistic. Except in the case of the star icon where they alchemize. Let me explain. Film luxuriates in distance between audience and character, creating desire and identification while separating viewer from star as the moon is separated from earth. Television is by contrast about up close and personal. It allows characters to live parallel lives to our own, which means we expect to know everything about them, like our friends and neighbors. This works against the distance demanded by aura. There is little place in television for star quality, which is why television is the perfect instrument for celebrity construction. You can take any nobody and make them a somebody by having them recite the weather on nightly news, which was the subject of Woody Allen’s desultory film Celebrity. Television’s best characters (Tony and Carmela, Don Draper from Mad Men, Archie and Ethel Bunker from All in the Family) are always felt to be of this earth, people like us but “more,” perhaps more peculiar and repetitive, but people we could run into in a supermarket (we might not want to). The thought of running into Lisa (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window is so far from our imaginations that, to bring home how safe we feel far away from her (even if we want also to possess her), Hitchcock has her come off screen toward us the first time she kisses Jeff (Jimmy Stewart), and it is uncanny and terrifying.
The star icon lives a daily life in television and/or tabloid. She is hunted and haunted by the media because she makes a whopping good story with the divorces, the suicide attempts, the drugs, eating disorders, whatever. And because her aura is that of someone elusive, impossible to possess; she generates an obsessive drama of possession. The media want to bag her, catch her sunbathing without her bikini on and with a lover, or out of control and trying to hurt herself. The public is obsessed with this and also repulsed. They hate it and can’t get enough of it. And yet her tabloid persona still carries for them the aura of the distant, effervescent star, an aura not of this world but of the silver screen. This makes her tragic life all the more desperate in the public’s mind, because they have vested her with beauty, perfection, grace. The public never forgot how glorious Marilyn Monroe was as Sugar in Some Like It Hot (good for the shareholders, gaga for saxophone players, her every shake of the torso a spontaneous thrill): they never forgot this even while they were reading about her gruesome death, her not making it to the telephone after she swallowed the pills. So they had a simultaneous image of her existing in a state of absolute grace (with which they vested her in virtue of her film stardom) and of her alcoholic, desperate, at the edge and over the edge. This raised their sympathy to the kind felt for saints, mortified them with grief because what was being lost was what she simultaneously always would forever have: the perfection of the goddess. Put another way, people superimpose person and persona, and that makes them convulsively dazzled. People literally have gone wild around the death of the star icon because of this.
It is only because star aura is retained in the TV/tabloid melodrama unfolding around Marilyn day by day that the public can feel this. And so the qualities of film and television/tabloid alchemize around this kind of figure in a way they seldom otherwise do.
The alchemy can at any moment degenerate. Had Diana lived to marry Dodi Fayed, formed a production company with him, and gone off to Monaco to live a life of fast cars and sunbathing with arms dealers, she might have ended up losing this aura. That is, the public might have ended up unable anymore to see her in that shimmering vein. When the public loses the ability to vest aura around the person seen sunbathing in the south of France on TV or in the daily newspaper, that person reduces to another in an endless line of celebrities, another in an endless line of mere consumables. She is Eurotrash.
And so the key is how film and television, usually antagonistic in their aesthetic features, combine with public imagination to produce this unique alchemy, which can cease if and when the public is no longer able or willing to sustain it.
Since this idea of star aura is crucial to the kind of story I think needs to be told about the star icon, it is equally crucial that one explain the concept and also why it is essential, given a lot of scholarship that has argued the opposite. Happily, I will not do this here and now.