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Celebrity Culture

Every Saturday evening, and often on other evenings too, my daughters sit goggling at the TV talent show X Factor. Am I witnessing the long tentacles of the dreaded ‘celebrity culture’ we are said to inhabit reaching into my living room? I think not. I confess I find the show
tedious, but as part of a ‘mixed cultural diet’ it seems to me pretty harmless.

But doesn’t it encourage viewers to think that fame is a great good – perhaps the highest good? The view that fame is desirable is a very old one. Indeed it seems to me doubtful that our culture is any more celebrity-obsessed than many others. Reputation or renown (kleos) is a core value for Homeric heroes, for example. Of course, what one is famous for also matters. Had Hector stayed at home and not gone out to face Achilles, he’d have won a global reputation for cowardice and that’s just what he didn’t want.

But the X Factor is no different. The contestants want to be recognized as world-class entertainers. And since such entertainment has standards of excellence analogous to those in many other areas of human activity, and gives pleasure to many people, that aim in itself seems respectable enough.

But isn’t it what one is that matters? As Aristotle says, ‘honour appears to depend more on those who honour than on the
person honoured, whereas we surmise the good to be something of one’s own that cannot easily be taken away’ (Nicomachean
, 1.5).

Doubtless there are some people with enough faith in themselves genuinely not to care about whether their talents or achievements are recognized by others. They just get on with whatever they’re good at. But the vast majority of us want recognition, partly perhaps because we believe we deserve it, and because that recognition provides evidence of the genuineness of those talents and achievements. But another main motivator must surely be that people want to matter, to be important, and often enjoy that sense of importance. Fame can, then, make you happy.

But of course it often appears to make people unhappy, to be a ‘Dead Sea apple,mere dust and ashes in the eating’, as Sidgwick puts it (Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., p. 110), largely because of the pressures and restrictions our society imposes on celebrities, and the constant anxious struggle to remain in the limelight. Potential X Factor contestants might be well advised to consider Philip Larkin’s suggestion in ‘Born Yesterday’ that there’s a lot to be said for being ordinary, or even dull,

‘If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called’.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks Roger.
    A study carried out ( concluded fame to be the number one priority among young people. I think the problem with celebrity culture is not so much the ambition to be famous but the ambition to be famous for no particular achievement or skill. The inaneness of the X factor majority surely has nothing to do with talent or musical ambition but rather the fast track it offers to newspaper headlines and fortune, or desperation to be on TV. Fame, it would seem, does make everything a little easier and being famous seems to be job in itself. Maybe the problem is that the public eye are too easily impressed by the Daily Mail's demi-gods, why go to all the trouble of being a doctor when you can win Britain's Got Talent? It seems, however, that the best outcome we can hope for may be that the professional famous people at least endorse some good causes during their spell.

  2. I believe that ‘celebrity culture’ is a big problem which only seems to be growing.
    One can argue the merits of being a celebrity or the aspiration of becoming a celebrity (growing number of kids in school now states that they want to be a celebrity as a future profession).
    However, in my view the biggest issue here is the throngs of people who follow up the gossip papers and web-sites, shows and other sources of information, spending many hours a day on it.
    I believe that they displace their own meaning and aspirations for those ‘who made it’ and by that basically ‘dumbing’ themselves.
    On top of it there is the (small) chance that I can make it too (ref X-Factor) which reinforce the possibility for shortcut.

  3. Who empowers them to seek fame? isn't it I and you? wouldn't it be practical to detach ourselves from the objects that enhances their 'slavery?' The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was critical of Epicurus' indulgence in 'extreme pleasure;' he once wrote to him "chastise your passions, that they may not chastise you." So rather than examining the 'misery' of those who seek fame, we need to become aware of our own enslavement first. Once we are free, they will also be liberated. They are essentially the victims of our own passions.

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    Let me stress again the difference between a desire to be famous, and a desire to be famous for something generally thought worth while. I think the X Factor participants want the latter. Of course, there's a deep philosophical question about whether even successfully entertaining other people is worth while. My own view, for what it's worth, is that even if it isn't, what really matters for your own well-being is whether you enjoy what you are doing or not. So Wittgenstein *might* have had a life that was better *for him* if he'd spent a good deal more time watching westerns and reading detective stories, even if he'd produced less great philosophy and thus led a less worthwhile life.

    1. Hello Roger,
      Let us distinguish fame from recognition.
      I'm sure you're right in thinking that the vast majority of us want recognition, partly perhaps because we believe we deserve it, and partly because  recognition provides evidence of the genuineness of our talents and achievements. 
      But isn't it , essentially, an acknowledgement of of our own humanity? Being unrecognised, by anybody, seems to me to be a sure precursor of suicide. But this is not the same as fame. 
      In this light, don't programmes like the x-factor present a danger of substituting for real human affectivity? And isn't their "fame" a spurious substitute for real human relationships? And doesn't this present risks to society?
      I must read some more Philip Larkin : thanks for the quote !

      1. Thanks, Anthony. Yes, that's a helpful distinction. But I'm inclined to think it supports my general case, since the kind of fame I had in mind is really a form of recognition. People vary in their self-confidence. Some can plough on with some life-project which only they believe to be worth while. But they are indeed the exception. I'd certainly recommend Larkin. If you can get past his occasional small-mindedness, there is some good philosophy in there!

      2. Hello Anthony,

        I believe that recognition gives people validation that what they do and what they are matter.
        In this sense recognition is context specific. i.e if I'm a biologist the relevant recognition would be form the biologists community.

        Fame is a broader concept and in recent years has become non-context specific as well as context specific.
        Additionally, fame might be understood (wrongly in my opinion) as value upon itself, i.e. fame=importance.

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