The celebrity as liquid modern character type

Written by Dr Mark Davis

Recognising Bauman’s lucidity- and, undeniably- his continued intrigue for the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of our current age, perhaps we should not be overly surprised as to Bauman’s choice to use Kim Kardashian’s infamous sex tape as an example of celebritydom in the 21st Century. Despite the somewhat surreal nature of hearing an octogenarian intellectual describe in what was, thankfully, not too gruesome a level of detail the rise of Kardashian’s fame in his Liberty Lecture last month, ‘What makes a hero?’, Bauman’s analysis, with some consideration, on the rise of the phenomenon of the celebrity remains ever intriguing on a sociological level.

Bauman’s lecture served, with significant insight, to highlight the nature of the move from the ideal types of the ‘hero’, to the ‘martyr’, to the ‘celebrity’. If we are to offer a concise, if by no means incontestable, understanding of these terms- which remain relatively uncommon themes in his work- Bauman suggests that the hero is that person who may die in the name of a cause, for something greater or more important than their own life, whereas the martyr is that who dies as a witness to a great injustice that must be realised. The hero and the martyr are here unified in their position as historically ‘extraordinary’ people: though working with differing emphases, they both realise a cause beyond their own individual existence, believing in something more important than their own lives in the singular. Yet as these two categories appear to have lost all meaning to our contemporary lives- heroism as devolving into an arbitrary watchword for media spectacle, and martyrdom as a purely incomprehensible notion (Žižek, 2002)- we witness the rise of the celebrity. Compared with the hero or the martyr, is the celebrity not equally ‘extraordinary’? As Bauman details, it is clear that they are not. The nature of the celebrity is that they are famous, recursively, for being famous. The grounds for their position as an ‘extraordinary’ person is so self-evident as to practically become a truism.

Whilst the historical move from a society of the hero and the martyr to a society of the celebrity may well appear innocuous, this move has profound implications for our mode of social existence: as Bauman theorises in Liquid Modernity (2000), we now, contra Foucault, live in the synopticon. Whereas Foucault’s panopticon served to show how power, of the few watching the many, becomes an instrument of self-regulation in modernity, in the synopticon, we come to be regulated by the many watching the few (surely, here, celebrities). It is not enough to say that we, categorically, just ‘do not care’ about celebrities- it is evident that, as a society, some underlying mechanism fosters a fetishising tendency towards the figure of the celebrity, as people who we may well want to model our own life projects upon, as people who are extraordinary for their ordinariness. The celebrity, by Bauman’s analysis, is that individual who cannot ascribe their existence, as the hero and martyr did, to a higher cause: the highest cause of our present age is the construction of the Self. Yet a Self that has no basis and no foundations apart from fleeting glimpses of the maintenance and construction of one’s identity- which is liable to slip, change, occasionally flip on its own axis, is the paramount identity type of our liquid modern age: a Self that forever attempts to grip on to something- anything– certain now that, paraphrasing Marx and Engels (1848), all that is solid has melted into liquid. Meanwhile, the search for meaning, a fulfilling ethical and spiritual life, appears ever more implausible. As Theodor Adorno detailed in Minima Moralia (1974), our current way living appears to disable the possibility of living ‘the good life’: as such, is the celebrity, taken as an ideal type, not the sociological manifestation of a pathological, if not nihilistic, (lack of) ethics?

The questions posed by Bauman’s thought throughout his work clearly go beyond the limits of this piece. Yet, clearly, continuing these reflections, we must be able to draw some tentative- yet in no sense complete- conclusions regarding the nature of the celebrity, the question of how we should live and, perhaps, how we may live. Evidently, our liquid modernity moves at a relentless pace, with trends, habits, understandings- ways of living– ossifying, melting and reforming in dizzying degrees. And returning to our original premise, whilst the emergence of the celebrity sex tape may appear as an arbitrary point of consideration, Bauman’s usage of this example is a metaphor for the times in which we live. Whether explicitly designed as a marketing tool or otherwise, it is clearly a phenomenon that could have only realistically developed with a communication network that could enable multimedia to be distributed to millions of people worldwide at speed unbeknownst merely a few years ago. And the questions that these videos raise- where the ethical boundaries lie between our private and public lives, whether such a boundary is even a relevant concept in a society where one’s identity is increasingly manifested through dematerialised forms- Facebook, Twitter et al- and how we should live with one another (or the Other) in a society which seems intent on achieving fame for fame’s sake. The communication networks that increasingly dominate and structure our day-to-day lives contain the potential to change our way of living, yet we cannot say that this change will be unequivocally for the better. Rather, they contain the potential to make our age of anxiety and uncertainty even more stressful (Bauman, 2012).

In a world in which heroism and martyrdom have become irrelevant concepts, we could all well, instead, become famous for the most pointless of reasons. Yet is this not the very ethical dilemma of liquid modern life itself? Our inability to determine what is good or bad, how we should or should not live, what it means to live in contemporary society, are all problems exemplified by the ideal type of the celebrity and the phenomena of the celebrity sex tape. Our inability to see anything beyond the project of the ever negotiated, ever temporary Selfdom is challenged by Bauman’s sociology, and his continued position that human beings can always live in a better way than they currently do. Whilst these comments, as limited as they are, only touch upon certain aspects of Bauman’s lecture and his work more generally, the metaphor of ‘the celebrity’ as the predominant character type of liquid modernity enables us to consider the challenges facing our current age. Whilst we should be wary of nostalgically mourning the ‘loss’ of the ‘hero’ and the ‘martyr’, we cannot forget our crises of liquidity and the sociological consequences of these developments.

References

ADORNO, T. 1974. Minima Moralia: Reflections from damaged life. London: Verso.

BAUMAN, Z. 2000. Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

BAUMAN, Z. 2012. Do Facebook and Twitter help spread Democracy and Human Rights? [online]. [Accessed 22nd July 2013]. Available from: http://www.social-europe.eu/2012/05/do-facebook-and-twitter-help-spread-democracy-and-human-rights/ [Social Europe Journal].

MARX, K. and F. ENGELS. 1848. The communist manifesto. London: Penguin.

ŽIŽEK, S. 2002. Welcome to the desert of the real. London: Verso.