Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Five books on the cult of celebrity

Fred Inglis, author of A Short History of Celebrity and other books, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sheffield. Previously Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, he has been a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, and Fellow-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

At FiveBooks, Daisy Banks asked him about his five best books on the cult of celebrity. One title they discussed:
[Banks]: Your next choice is Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor.

[Inglis]: What is so powerful and marvellous about Taylor’s book is what the title announces – this deep question of where do we get our ideas of ourselves from? And the answer is history. We tend to suppose that our selfhood is something tremendously precious and all our own. And one of the things that I am at pains to emphasise in my book is that we are wholly made out of our history, including our most intense and personal feelings.

At one point I sketch out a short history of feelings to indicate how different frames of feelings emerge from this period across 200 or 300 years. Those frames of feelings co-existed, and this is something Taylor brings out with beautiful force. For example, he shows how the Romantic Movement brought in a new place for passionate feeling as itself the vindication of who one is.

I have tried to analyse this through Verdi’s Traviata. There, supremely, we find dramatised this idea that our strongest feelings belong to the truest version of ourselves. But at the same time that is at odds with another frame of feeling, which is dictated by class. There we find the practice of the alternation of deference on the one side and condescension on the other. So the powerful condescend in the old-fashioned sense of the word, ie, to indicate their proper sense of social position, which then needed gratifying by the people with whom one did social business.

This whole concept was knocked sideways by the Romantic Movement’s idea that I am as good as the next person and equality is more important than due respect for persons. Taylor’s great book traces those sources. The celebrity in all this becomes someone who will have identified for us what feelings we ought to be having.

Where do you think that leaves us today?

My history picks up a new kind of inspection of the feelings which begins to come over us during the 20th century, which can be traced in the famous novelists between about 1880 and 1920: I mean writers such as Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and particularly Henry James, in whose work people aren’t sure what they feel, and study their feelings minutely in order to find out what they are and then what to do about it.

The intense study of one’s feelings in a spirit of truthfulness to oneself becomes a characterising moment as the 20th century advances. And of course you then get the trade of feeling therapy and psychoanalysis just because we are no longer sure of our true feelings. And as time goes by many people find they don’t feel anything and they have to bully themselves in order to have some feelings. Celebrity in all this business is, you might say, the public dramatisation of our best and worst feelings, and endlessly discussed as such.
Read about the other books on Inglis' list.

--Marshal Zeringue