I am not sure whether this works at all, and at best it is extremely tentative, but I will post it anyway. I am trying to think about contemporary media celebrity, and how it is different from the kind of celebrity associated with movie stars in the early and middle twentieth century. I am writing this especially with Justin Timberlake and Asia Argento in mind, because they are the celebrities with whom I am most obsessed right now. But it should apply just as well to Brad and Angelina (and Jen), and to Britney and to Madonna.
In order to theorize this, I make use of Graham Harman‘s description of what he calls “allure.” But I should probably say that I am abusing Harman’s concept, rather than using it. I am abusing it, in the first place, because, even if I am getting his idea right (which I am not sure I am), I am trying to apply it in a particular historical context. This is wrong, because metaphysical notions, should be “generic,” as Whitehead puts it, or applicable equally to everything in existence. Harman is always driving home a similar point: for instance, to take seriously Heidegger’s ideas about our relation to Being means to reject the claim, which Heidegger sometimes makes, that Germans (unlike Chinese, Americans, or Brazilians, say) would have an especially privileged relationship with Being. In the second place, it’s wrong because Harman has recently rethought the account of allure that he gives in Guerrilla Metaphysics, and upon which I am drawing here.
Nevertheless, here goes…
Post-cinematic celebrities are perturbing presences. They circulate endlessly among multiple media platforms (film, television talk shows and reality shows, music videos and musical recordings and performances, charity events, advertisements and sponsorships, web- and print-based gossip columns, etc.), so that they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Their ambivalent performances are at once affectively charged and ironically distant. They enact complex emotional dramas, and yet display a basic indifference and impassivity. I feel involved in every aspect of their lives, and yet I know that they are not involved in mine. Familiar as they are, they are always too far away for me to reach. Even the Schadenfreude I feel at the spectacle of, say, Britney’s breakdown or Madonna’s divorce backhandedly testifies to these stars’ inaccessibility. I am enthralled by their all-too-human failures, miseries, and vulnerabilities, precisely because they are fundamentally inhuman and invulnerable. They fascinate me, precisely because it is utterly impossible that they should ever acknowledge, much less reciprocate, my fascination.
In short, post-cinematic pop stars allure me. Graham Harman describes allure as “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partly disintegrates.” For Harman, the basic ontological condition is that objects always withdraw from us, and from one another. We are never able to grasp them more than partially. They always hold their being in reserve, a mystery that we cannot hope to plumb. An object is always more than the particular qualities, or “plurality of notes,” that it displays to me. This situation is universal; but most of the time I do not worry about it. I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, without wondering about the inner recesses of knife-being or grapefruit-being. And most of the time, I interact with other people in the same superficial way. And this is largely a good thing; if I were to obsess over the inner being of each person I encountered, ordinary sociability would become impossible. It is only in rare cases — for instance when I intensely love, or intensely hate, someone — that I make the (ever-unsuccessful) attempt to explore their mysterious depths, to find a real being that goes beyond the particular qualities that they display to me. Intimacy is what we call the situation in which people try to probe each other’s hidden depths.
[Explanatory Note: Three additional things need to be noted here. In the first place, Harman’s discussion does not privilege human subjectivity in any way. His descriptions of how objects exceed one another’s grasp in any encounter applies as much “when a gale hammers a seaside cliff” or “when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper” as it does when human subjects approach an object. When I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, the knife and the grapefruit also encounter one another at a distance, unable to access one another’s innermost being. In the second place, I do not have any privileged access into the depths my own being. My perception of, and interaction with, myself is just as partial and limited as my perception of, and interaction with, any other entity. And finally, none of this implies that a person, or any other entity, actually possesses some deep inner essence. The argument is that all entities have more to them than the particular qualities they show to other entities; it says nothing about the status or organization of this more — or at least, what Harman says on these topics is irrelevant to the way I am using or abusing his ideas here.]
What Harman calls allure, however, is what arises in the rare situation — generally an aesthetic one — when an object does not just display certain particular qualities to me, but also intimates, and forces me to become acutely aware of, its deeper, hidden existence as something other than, and more than, these qualities. This inner, or surplus, existence is something that I cannot reach — and yet that I cannot forget about or ignore, as I ordinarily do in my interactions with objects, and other people, in the world. The alluring object displays the fact that it is separate from, and more than, its qualities — which means that it exceeds everything that I feel of it, and know about it. It draws me beyond anything that I am actually able to experience. And yet this ‘beyond’ is not in any sense otherworldly or transcendent; it is situated in the here and now, in the very flows and encounters of everyday existence.
This is why pop culture figures are so affectively charged. They can only be grasped through a series of paradoxes. When a pop star or celebrity allures me, this means that he or she is someone to whom I respond in the mode of intimacy, even though I am not, and cannot ever be, actually intimate with him or her. What I become obsessively aware of, therefore, is the figure’s distance from me, and the way that it baffles all my efforts to enter into any sort of relation with it. Such a figure is forever unattainable. Pop stars are slippery, exhibiting singular qualities while, at the same time, escaping any final definition. This makes them ideal commodities: they always offer us more than they deliver, enticing us with a “promise of happiness” that is never fulfilled, and therefore never exhausted. In terms of a project of affective and cognitive mapping, pop stars work as anchoring points, or as particularly dense nodes of intensity and interaction. They are figures upon which, or within which, many powerful feelings converge; they conduct multiplicities of affective flows. At the same time, they are always more than the sum of all the forces that they attract and bring into focus; their allure points us elsewhere, and makes them seem strangely absent from themselves. Pop culture figures are icons, which means that they exhibit, or at least aspire to, an idealized stillness, solidity, and perfection of form. Yet at the same time, they are fluid and mobile, always displacing themselves. And this contrast between stillness and motion is a generative principle not just for celebrities themselves, but also for the media flows, financial flows, and modulations of control through which they are displayed, and that permeate the entire social field.