The inspiration behind Celebrity Society (Routledge 2012), Professor Robert van Krieken’s analysis of society and its relationship with the handful of people it chooses to celebrate, coincides with its justification, and both are summed up perfectly from the very, very beginning with a line from Woody Allen’s film Celebrity: “You can learn a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate.”
And I say thank God Kim Kardashian, Snooki, and all the sex tape stars, Basketball Wives, Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and heirs and heiresses aren’t the only people we celebrate. America still has hope … I think.
As can be seen in the excerpt below, Celebrity Society is a much needed reflection on the prevalence of celebrities, and why so many of us hold them in such high regard (though, unfortunately, not why so many more of us like to disparage them — and why we ultimately like to separate ourselves from the same people we propped up so highly in the first place).
Van Krieken is mostly concerned with four pillars of inquiry: what different celebs have in common with each other, what “celebrity” actually means, how their role in society has changed over time, and finally what the celebrity’s future development may look like. He uses many well-known, contemporary examples, from Venus Williams and Tiger Woods to Paris Hilton and Sarah Palin. He discusses the economics of attention, and how “attention-capital” is the currency with which a celebrity achieves and maintains his or her status as a celebrity regardless of their talents (or lack thereof) and superficial qualities (e.g., physical attractiveness, charisma, wealth, etc.). Celebrity Society is unique in that it’s in many ways an economics book, detailing how attention-capital of a celebrity “can be leveraged into sales and viewers.”
Despite the book’s value, it has several shortcomings — some of which, to be fair, it really isn’t responsible for.
Firstly, because Celebrity Society is a scholarly monograph, a disciplined focus on scientific and economic albeit objective analysis, van Krieken isn’t concerned with any sort of social criticism, which left me yearning for a better book that does include such criticism. Thus, the book is overall a disappointment, even though it may adequately serve its objective, and academic purpose.
Secondly, the book isn’t even easy to own. It’s available in eBook format for $35, and you can order a paperback version from Amazon for about $10 more. But you can find neither a paperback nor hardcover version in stores, and if you order the latter online, prepare to deal with third-party vendors and whopper price tags I won’t even bother to list.
Thirdly, it’s a book intended for academic settings, which is a shame because the people who’d benefit the most from reading such meaningful, relevant, and relatively accessible writing aren’t students or scholars, but rather the very everyday members of society it puts under its microscope — the very people who produce celebrities and make them who they are (whether they choose to be aware of that or not).
Fourthly, speaking of awareness, it adds insult to injury that we live in a culture that is seldom as self-aware as it needs to be (if at all) in order for people to be interested in a book like this.
You could be anyone of the thousands of “journalists” and bloggers who speculate about so-and-so’s sexual orientation all day; advance gossip about engagements, pregnancies, and sex tape rumors; conduct uninteresting interviews with newly famous CW stars; and obsess over who’s wearing what on the red carpet at some unimportant award show.
You could be a middle to upper-middle class, Midwestern mother and daughter voting for their favorite Idol contestant, reading TMZ on their iPads, watching E! and Access Hollywood during dinner, TiVo-ing Hoarders and Say Yes to the Dress, and bouncing to manufactured, auto-tuned pop music in the car on their way to the theater to watch the next pointless, blockbuster reboot or YA novel adaptation. You could even be one of those people who seems to live for designing corny memes and trolling the comment threads with bitter and envious negativity on YouTube, TMZ, and Perez Hilton all day (because a hater loves celebrities almost as much as their lovers do — another societal quirk van Krieken sorely failed to address).
But, when given the choice between reading what’s essentially a textbook and marathoning through every single True Blood season on their smartphones, people aren’t going to choose the former. It simply doesn’t have the bells and whistles.
Which brings me to my last point: the book just isn’t an appealing enough package.
If you look at the boring cover and its overall inaccessibility, it’s not exactly an adequate vessel for the valuable cargo it carries, and this is no surprise to me, having interned at Cambridge University Press. Academic publishers — especially the marketing departments — are so focused on the boring business-as-usual of selling that they don’t even think to make any effort of advancing the few crucial books that laypersons can (and may want to) read beyond the scholarly elite.
Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press are among the few “AcPro” publishers who make strides into the general reading market. So many great and meaningful books like Celebrity Society are wasted in the niche market they’re stuck to, and the uninspired marketing for and dressing of these books reflect that lack of self-love, or self-importance.
Scholarship really needs to have a little more of an ego — it can afford to. Otherwise, no one will take you seriously, and you’re just another smart person with a good, unknown book while all the people who’ve missed out on it remain dumb.
When one goes further, to look at the actual substance of the role that celebrities play in everyday life, more can be said about the role that the theatrical acting-out of imagined situations — in literature, certainly, but more powerfully in films, on radio, and on television — plays in the construction and development of the self in contemporary social life. The mass media expose people to an endless flow of imagined, hypothetical scenarios in everyday life, ranging from the extreme to the mundane, which play the same role as storytelling does in any cultural context — providing models, examples, parables, cautionary tales that embrace viewers and listeners in what Donald Horton and Richard Wohl (1956) called “para-social interaction” and “intimacy at a distance”, or, as I prefer to call it, “long-distance intamcy”. (van Krieken)