It’s such an honor and a privilege to be invited to talk at the Union here, tonight—a society that has heard speak some of my greatest heroes, people like the Dalai Lama, Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, and Peter Andre. Indeed, upon receiving the very humbling invitation from your president to address this very handsome crowd I see before me, it was the prestige of his Union and its past speakers that quickly replaced my sense of joy and pride with one of slight worry and anxiety. What the hell would I talk about? I wondered. I haven’t tried to foster a universal compassion across the globe, or fought oppression in America, or even explored the mysteries of the universe, be them hidden in some theory of quantum mechanics or just a particularly mysterious girl. All I’ve done is act in a TV show and pretend to be mean for money, essentially. If worse comes to worst, I thought to myself, I could at least bring along my trust crossbow and kind of sexually threaten some unsuspecting students with impalement. I thought…But we discussed that, and that didn’t fly with the board.
But from your invitation, it returned my thoughts to a kind of all too similar [00:02:00] event I participated in a few weeks previous, during which 20 minutes into an hour-long Q & A session, both Q’s and A’s respectively dried up very quickly. So, with 40 minutes left of the event and apparently all value sucked from it like a tropical mini Capri Sun, my blood froze as I gazed out at the sea of awkwardly shifting faces.
The silence was finally broken by a strange question about what I’d consumed for breakfast that morning.
It was at that point I realized that after a mere 21 years of a relatively uneventful life, one simply can not expect to talk about oneself for an hour, especially without either sliding into the irrelevant or the babbling. I literally just don’t have enough to talk about for an hour. So, in a bid to avoid the inevitable kind of drought of questions tonight, before we come to the forthcoming Q & A, I thought I would try to waste as much time as possible talking about something that kind of hopefully won’t preemptively answer any questions, because every answer is golden in terms of time, but will perhaps hopefully be kind of interesting and it’ll relevant to my life and kind of Game of Thrones. So, basically since the kind of show has aired, and apologies for the length and boring nature of this. I did it all last night and it’s very rambling and please feel free to switch off at any point during it, but I’m just going to try to read it in an interesting way, because it’s not interesting.
Since the show has aired, I feel I’ve been given an insider look into an ever-pervasive and yet often mysterious [00:04:00] aspect of society, namely, our culture of celebrity. Strangers on the street now call me ‘Jack’ and my public image is democratized by fans and institutions alike on the internet. I’m also given opportunities like this one tonight, which I see as truly once in a lifetime. So, feeling somewhat within but also very much (abstracted/obstructed?) from modern celebrity culture if you want to call it that, that kind of feeling has provoked a lot of reflection within me about the thing, about my position within the thing, so I kind of wanted to take this opportunity perhaps to talk about those reflections. But I do appreciate the irony of talking about celebrity in this context. But I hope that the irony is taken with a pinch of salt. I feel that some of these reflections perhaps are somewhat unique in the sense that I’m in a unique position, kind of straddling the cigarettes and books of a student simultaneously with the cocaine and prostitutes of a celebrity.
Ever since my mother sent me to Saturday morning drama classes when I was 7, I wanted to become a famous actor. I loved the idea of captivating an audience, and moving them truly through performance, but more importantly being recognized and heavily lauded for that talent. Early on, I just performed in some small plays and short films and the like, most notably giving my Joseph in a school nativity at age 8. Critics hailed my Joseph as being raw and entrancing, and having a profound insight into the character that will never be matched by anybody ever again. [0:06:00] It was thrilling. Indeed, I drew a great deal upon my Joseph when I played Little Boy in Batman Begins in 2005. Little Boy had the same passion and drive I had seen in Joseph, the same resilience, but most importantly the same love for his pregnant wife, Mary.
However, despite only being a minute role, my appearance in Batman Begins presented me with my first encounter with celebrity. After the film came out, I was always and forever then ‘the kid from Batman’ amongst my peers, my now-defining feature being brought up as an ice breaker or vaguely memorable tidbit at certain social occasions. The labeling didn’t bother me, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. However, little did I know that a far more concentrated form of that slight societal abstraction was going to be placed in my lap 5 years later, when I would, as a bright-eyed ad bushy-tailed 17-year-old step into an audition (dramatic pause) for some HBO show (dramatic pause) called Game of Thrones. (With ominous intrigue.) Chapter two!
If I’m being honest, upon hearing the joyous news that I received the role of Joffrey, I really did not expect all of the subsidiary things that come with being—oh, are there people up there as well? It just noticed—with being an actor on a successful television program. I had no predictions or expectations of all the attention, invitation to events, and of course all the cocaine and prostitutes that awaited me around every corner. I was just literally just excited to act in a cool show. Perhaps that was naivety, or perhaps [00:08:00] like everyone else involved in the show, I just simply didn’t anticipate the success of it. In any case, whatever the reason was, what it led to was a sharp shock when I realized that I had, unbeknownst to me, signed an invisible contract which required me to enter into a strange new echelon of society. People suddenly wanted to take pictures of me on the street, journalists were interested in what kind of socks I preferred, and among certain groups of my peers my jokes seemed to become a lot funnier—which perhaps was all the comedy books I was reading at the time, or perhaps it was synchophancy. I don’t know. It was an atmosphere from which I instantly wanted to retreat. I detested the superficial elevation and commodification of it all, juxtaposed with the grotesque self-involvement it would sometimes draw out in me.
Being a faceless member of a mob, I soon realized, was far more comforting than teetering on a brittle pedestal one inch off the ground. The exclusion and subtle differentiation that comes with even a rather diluted form of celebrity that I had, embarrasses me. But what shook me as most odd, however, about the whole thing was how odd I indeed found it all. Celebrity seemed by a huge amount of people and certainly by myself for a while, as the pinnacle of society, of success. It is revered almost religiously, both the institution and its quickly-growing member base. Indeed, these days, the apotheosis of celebrity is not just confined to the worship of movie idols, pop stars, sports heroes, or even reality TV stars. We have bloody celebrity chefs, authors, comedians, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, businesspeople, cheese-mongers, milliners maybe…hat-makers, for those of you who didn’t get that…who constantly [00:10:00] stick out their faces at us on advertisements and talk shows, and magazine covers—but this reverence and invasion is often welcomed and indeed fostered by a great percentage of the public. I started to wonder why that was, and whether there was any harm in that reverence. They’re just people, after all.
So, whilst one can trace the origins of celebrity, or whatever you want to call it, back to the Romantic period, and people like Samuel Johnson or even before Beckett, it was truly in the 20th century’s proliferation of photography, radio, television, and finally mass-media that a kind of a fecund ground could be laid for in particular sports stars, movie stars, and singers to be massified as recognizable, influential public figures. This kind of fostered a culture dominated by what Baudrillard called simulacra, which are images that contain no reference to the real world, for, upon being able to for the first time see as well as hear the well-known figures of the time, people like Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, the public began to kind of perhaps unconsciously reduce them down the image alone, leading to perhaps irreparable commodification of these protogenic celebrities. However, this, as Amy Henderson points out, this commodification was clearly less a process of this increasing breadth and influence of media, but rather, of the West’s transition from a producing society to a consuming one. This is so boring. America’s capitalism bore out a commodity-based society in which the actions of the individual [00:12:00] could be equated with acts of consumption. Tabloids, talk shows, and subsequently reality television all became obsessed with the commodification of the celebrity image, making it consumable and then, ultimately, disposable. What’s ironic is that you see celebrities endorsing things like musical tampons and appearing in advertisements for lavender-scented teeth-whitener, you know, wielding goods whose sell-by dates ironically probably outlast theirs.
Whist this form of cannibalistic consumerism doesn’t appear inherently damaging to the consumers themselves, the effect is has on the fodder can sometimes be profound. I myself shy away from interviews and the public eye sometimes for this very reason. Having one’s image and effectively life democratized, dehumanizes and sometimes objectifies it into an entertainment product. What sort of valuation of the ego would one have once you’ve let it be preyed upon in the public eye for years and years? Perhaps it becomes truly just skin and bones.
Jamie Tiranne, from the University of Durham, has an alternative and rather crazy theory of where our fascination of celebrity culture comes from, and believes the answer to lie in evolutionary psychology which does sound a bit crazy, but run with it—it has a bit of value in it.
His theory centers around the anthropological notion of prestige defined in terms of a high social status like admiration or respect that is bestowed upon an individual who possesses a certain adaptive skill, like a superior hunting technique, etcetera.
The prestige is bestowed upon the individual so that the community can then learn the skill from them through imitation, by being put into the public eye so that they can learn the skill; however, in imitating the prestigious individual, [00:14:00] one can also mistakenly imitate some of the non-adaptive skills the person may have. The example Tiranne uses is that men might observe a successful hunter perform some kind of incantation or whatever at the time as he retouches his arrow heads in a skilled way, and the men who observe this adopt both the ritual as well as the arrow-retouching technique when they prepare their tools.
So, basically, Tiranne believes, in our society, because of their fame, celebrities possess prestige and as a result, we have this evolutionary and psychological instinct to imitate them. This tendency, he concludes, explains our interest in what sports stars and singers wear, what car they drive, and all that. Celebrities have become our moral and social role models in some ways, simply due to an evolutionary quirk. However, what if this instinct to imitate leads us to, let’s say, slightly more immoral values of our current modern prestigious individuals? Are we going to find ourselves in a position where we start to imitate the town drunk perhaps simply because he possesses prestige, his original success having faded away long ago? For it is under Tiranne theory that something rather frightening takes place, namely, a self-fulfilling fame that’s kind of come up only in the past decade or so that does not need to base itself in an adaptive skill—or any skill, really, for that matter. Because all it needs is the fuel of more celebrity, and thus more prestige, and thus more celebrity, and so on ad infinatum.
So, I think that’s a good theory of where it comes from, but I think that the most compelling cause of our contemporary celebrity culture, or our fascination with our contemporary celebrity culture, lies with Max Faber. [00:16:00] He, too, bases his theory in one of role models and imitation, but replacing the position taken by Tiranne’s notion of prestige with his notion of charisma. So, Faber believed that for any form of authority, the attribution of legitimacy is fundamental and necessary, making it what he calls “a legitimate domination,” which sounds pretty sexy.
That must pre-suppose some degree of willing acceptance. Furthermore, he regarded the authority of the prophets and magicians and diviners as different from others, since their authority depends on a certain devotion the exceptional character of the individual, a special kind of authority which he termed “charisma.” Basically, people with charisma exist outside, sort of, society, and that’s important to it. He remarks that the truest form of charisma is one that receives these powers as a gift by virtue of a natural endowment so it’s very easy to see how our modern celebrities are perfect manifestations of this Faberian charismatic authority. They may not possess the heroic qualities of a prophet, but as highly visible role models, they have become the object of imitation. Their publicized personality and individual qualities work as a form of “quasi-charisma” as a few academics put it, that gains people’s attention while setting them apart on a different echelon.
So, like classical charismatic figures, celebrities are individuals who provide people with a focus for identification, essential, but unlike the classical charismatics, the celebrity lacks the mysterious transcendent leadership qualities of a leader-prophet, but they are role models. So, [00:18:00] what celebrities also so clearly possess is that kind of willing domination that Faber describes. The other forms of authority that people encounter every day, like the police, or politicians, lecturers and the like—they’re challenged by the public, as often they perhaps sometimes feel oppressive. Conversely, the authority celebrities have over us is accepted and in fact sometimes welcomed because it’s not seen as being self-serving or malevolent. This is why Faber also describes the adoption or the importance of the adoption of charisma by other authorities. Politicians, for instance, sometimes almost seem to require either celebrity endorsement or some kind of celebrity status themselves in order to feel legitimated in the eyes of the public. It’s what Faber calls “gentle charisma” when the political authority combines with the charismatic authority. You can see it everywhere with Obama getting Will I Am and stuff to sing about him. It’s ridiculous! I voted for him.
The danger hidden within Faber’s charismatic celebrity is the same one within Tiranne’s prestigious individual. Having the predisposition to imitate any one individual must always have its negative impact, especially when the role model does not feel a duty or responsibility to substantiate, shall we say, suitable values to adopt.
This bleeds into the kind of fascination that comes with this charisma, which is Celebrity Worship Syndrome. This is actually a real thing that people in the University of Leicester found 36% of a sample of 600 adults were afflicted to some degree by this Celebrity Worship Syndrome and the most extreme sufferers believed that the object of their ardor [00:20:00] knew them and declared themselves ready to die for their hero. It’s not just a kind of a weird societal quirk, I think this is kind of indicative of a kind of complete dissolution of the self in favor of another, which can be seen as almost like a direct translation from a perhaps religious hysteria—I see it as—whether it’s a mob mentality or desire to be controlled by something higher than you, these cases are indicative of how charisma can replace the ego. Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karazimov, “So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship.”
Conversely, to try to find a kind of positive boon for celebritisation, a guy called Chris Rotia, professor of sociology at Sydney University, has defended the benefits of this communal imitation. He says that celebrities are informal life coaches. By watching them, people learn how to groom their hair, learn what to say, learn what opinions are sexy, learn what’s right on and not what right on—he’s a pretty cool dude. They’re simulating all sorts of life skills, and he says it’s a social adhesive which is positive.
I don’t believe that, I just put that in for a balanced argument.
Up until now, I’ve discussed three theories—economic, psychological, and sociological—that attempt to explain our reverence [00:22:00] for celebrities. But now I’ll talk very briefly about the desire itself to become a celebrity. Obviously, there’s the immediate desire for wealth, desire, and adoration. But is there more than that? And if so, what’s the catch? What are the disadvantages? So, there’s one way to look at this desire to be a celebrity in the form of the perspective of our personality centric culture, one that has strayed inward away from the external character-based one of the 19th and early 20th century. So, personality has become a means to distinguish ourselves from the masses, and as a result celebrity has become the new measure of success. I came across a great article by Georg Simmel, who discusses this phenomenon in his The Metropolis and the Mental Life in which he sheds light on this very modern angst of being unknown that I think affects a lot of people. So, perhaps in a hypotropic Berkleyism, to be is to be perceived, the validation of our existence has become relative to how anonymous or rather unanonymous we are. Truly, it is the clawing for some kind of individual self and self-orientation amidst the clamour and growing competition of the 21st century that attracts people to becoming celebrities. The golden ticket, immortality, is on sale.
Is it not shouted from the rooftops of a New York conservatory, “Fame! I want to live forever!” Sorry I did that.
Secondly, another point on the reasons of wanting to become a celebrity, [00:24:00] what could be more alluring about being a celebrity than having a captive audience kind of willing to trust what you trust and care about what you care about? In many ways, you could see it terms of a kind of manifestation of a master-slave dialectic with immense mobilisation and communicative power. So, what are the dangers, then, involved in being a celebrity? In some ways, there’s the true loss of the self by virtue of being over-democratized, over-saturated, over-loved, perhaps. Without an internally directed compass, an ego can drown in its own fascination, rendering the bearer unable to posit or hang anything actual onto themselves. This, again, is essentially the argument from commodification which prescribes a kind of ravenous ecstatic feast upon a soul, until it becomes defined purely in terms of its external ability to in fact be consumed.
For instance, those who—here’s another weird kind of psychological study—there are those who actually achieve fame are supposedly vulnerable to conditions like Acquired Situational Narcissism, which says this affliction can cause a celebrity to get so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at his perceivers. This may lead to kind of grandiose fantasies and self-aggrandisement, rage, and loss of empathy and all those bad things that we see every day in celebrity meltdowns, you know, if that’s not kind of a crude way to put it.
This bleeds into another point again previously alluded to, basically one of exclusion. Celebrities become excluded from everyday life, kind of an exile in an echelon that’s deemed better anyway, life of a celebrity, all the fame and glamour—however, no matter much we can lust after this exile, wanting to be a celebrity, [00:26:00] it is a manifestation of a dehumanization, essentially.
One becomes easier to fictionalize when removed from any self-likeness of the perceiver and thus easier to judge and also consume. And, lastly, of course, there’s the issue of privacy that comes up a lot. We’ve seen from my points about Tiranne and Faber, why we become fascinated with the banal mundanity of celebrity life, what kind of bananas they like and stuff. They are the prescribed role models of our time, representing some form of ideal in apparently every aspect of life, be it in their professional success, cheese preference, or even drug preference. Perhaps the desire to simultaneously position celebrities on both planes, the ordinary and the abstracted, is a bid to retrieve some of the immortality we have given them. By empathising with them and humanising them to an extent, we for a brief moment share in the ‘glory’ of celebrity life or perhaps at least remind ourselves that if they can do it, I can do it.
In conclusion, it appears celebrities have become vessels of either as I said, an economic, evolutionary, or sociological instinct to consume and imitate certain extraordinary members of society. We see how this reverence can have profound effects on both parties, oftentimes more negative than positive. I believe that communal admiration of individuals is healthy for society. It facilitates a debate about universal standards, morals, but also publicly espouses the virtue of certain practices that are inherently good in some kind of ideas about what the good is. However, this kind of celebritisation is only a positive one if the individual represents values that should be imitated by a reasonable, moral person. [00:28:00] We need to be choosier with our celebrities, or else we may find ourselves again in that situation where we just find ourselves acting out the role of the town drunk constantly. And we also need to temper the concentration with which we love to celebritise, primarily for the sake of the celebrity themselves and their self-evaluation, but also for ourselves.
Just as the object of our attention can become rendered hollow and externally directed with too much worship, so too I feel can the worshippers sacrifice their own individual self and autonomy in favor of giving it up to a higher power.
We need to fight against our human instinct to deify our role models but also fight against the instinct to subjugate our own individuality in the process.
Stargazing is one of the most profoundly human things one can do. But perhaps we must more frequently tear ourselves away from the mystery and beauty of the starry heavens above and rather respect, admire, and foster the moral law within. That’s it.