Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture

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Pramod K. Nayar

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    Preface

    This schematic book provides a set of approaches and frames for interpreting Page 3 people (P3P).

    It suffers from the usual flaws of an introduction—it is a collage of analyses of diverse things or basically things that interest me. In any case, since celebrity culture is inherently rhizomatic and draws upon multiple sites and forces, from media representations to public events to material products cast in their name, there cannot be any one route into the phenomenon. This is the precise point to set the reader thinking about scandals and famous bodies, fashion and spectacles involving hyper-visible and ultra-recognisable faces. To this end the sources come from gossip magazines, tabloids, television, talk shows, newspapers and films. (I dearly wanted to do comic book celebrities but I could not persuade anyone that purchasing vast numbers of comics was an academic project.) Shah Rukh Khan and J Lo, Bigg Boss and Beckham, Tendulkar and Indian Idol all find space here.

    The celebrity, you might say, is writ large. A celebrity is a spectacle. This book locates stars as spectacles that consumers view, adore and fantasise about. It treats the celebrity as a congeries, a construct of many elements—what it calls celebrity ecology—and examines some of these in detail. The culture of celebrity is, as the book demonstrates, never unified or unproblematically direct. It is multi-faceted, schismatic, polymorphous and, despite all this or perhaps because of popular. In its approach to celebrity culture, Seeing Stars is located firmly within the realm of Cultural Studies and explores different features of a very common phenomenon in public culture. The book is also as a congeries of sorts, often moving rapidly, mostly weaving through many features and signs of the texts of celebrity culture.

    There are plenty of stars here and, as the chapter titles suggest, the book explores various dimensions of these glamorous, bright, often exploding, distant stars that are part of our everyday lives. Seeing Stars attends solemnly to the media rituals, from contests to talk shows and Reality TV shows, and consumer culture that enables the construction of celebrities (Chapter 2: ‘A Star is Born: Constructing Celebrity’). It stares in awe and cheers at the performances that make celebrities spectacles for the masses and can, on occasion, even make the ordinary into a celebrity (Chapter 3: ‘Star Power: The Celebrity as Spectacle’). It lingers, with vicarious pleasure, at the sites of scandals haunting celebrities that mar the visages of stars (Chapter 4: ‘Star Spotting: Celebrity and Scandal’). Finally, Seeing Stars turns the spotlight away from the stars to see what the audience is doing as it stares, devours and creates its own scripts about the stars—the audience and fan consumption of celebrities (Chapter 5: ‘With Stars in Our Eyes: Consuming Celebrity’).

    While the examples, which in a rapidly changing context such as celebrity culture are necessarily topical but ephemeral, are drawn mainly from Indian contexts, the book is not restricted to them. There is a definite reason for this. In the globalised world of heavily mediated lives in metropolises, celebrities cut across cultural and geographical formations. There is now a vertical, horizontal and multi-directional integration of cultural icons, artifacts and themes. JLo and Tiger Woods have arguably the same degree of visibility as Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) (recall the crowds at Warwick Castle [UK] to greet SRK, June 2007), and Sachin Tendulkar; note the crowds around Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during their 2007 India visit. Indian celebrities wear exclusive foreign brands and are reported in magazines, and metropolitan college students know Eminem's latest song. Celebrity culture, produced, disseminated and consumed through global media is a truly global culture now.

    However, the ephemeral nature of adverts means that by the time this book is in print, some of the examples might be retrievable only through the archives.

    Okay, we are done with the talking, now let's get this show on the road.

    PKN, Hyderabad, 2007–2008

    Acknowledgements

    ‘A slim, smart, retail book on celebrity culture’, said Ashok Chandran at SAGE. ‘An introduction’, I said, worried as to what he meant by a retail book. ‘Sure, and in a graphic format?’ he queried. ‘Not a coffee-table work’, I said, now worrying about both retail and graphic (as an academic given to quibbling over semantics, I was horrified by the suggestion that the second term evoked). ‘No, no, not at all, but lay off the jargon, please’, he said, happy to have found a quiescent academic, but no doubt secretly worrying about my ability to turn off the tap of academic jargon. This book took shape across several such emails and discussions, which sometimes threatened to create at least three different books. My deep gratitude to Ashok for his hyper-enthusiastic receptivity to the idea of this book, his encouragement, constructive comments, and refreshingly quirky take on things. And no, Ashok, I have not used the word ‘interpellated’ even once (except here, I think).

    Then Ashok decided that he had had enough of my writing and set out to do some of his own. Here Elina Majumdar steps in. Skillfully, cheerily, efficiently, Elina guided this book through to its final version. This book's final form owes much to her guiding hand (and the delete key). And the minute it was done, the day I sent off the revised manuscript for refereeing, Elina (who, like me, seems to have an aversion to my getting time off from work) promptly queried me about the next book I could do.

    I am linguistically challenged when it is time to express my gratitude to my colleague and friend, Anna Kurian. Anna, now of a despondent disposition from having read my weak sentences for five—no, six—years now, read the manuscript, offered suggestions, engaged in debates, phoned/texted whenever she found suitable TV shows and, despite being an Indian academic affiliated with an English department, trawled (only) refereed journals for useful essays. To her I owe much of my thinking. I do hope this book is worthy of you, A.

    Narayana Chandran is arguably the academic with the greatest quantum of news about fellow academics, but is also (for me) a free bibliographic search service hosted by the University of Hyderabad. He embeds his astute observations in thrilling gossip, conducted over the noise in rackety buses, which de-celebratises celebrity academics and colleagues. For this I am very grateful because he sets me thinking, even though he might get me to hold mutually contradictory ideas in my head simultaneously. If you are embarrassed by what I have done, Professor KNC, the inadequacies are the effect of what I did with the search service.

    I am grateful to the reviewer of the manuscript for a very close reading, constructive suggestions and encouraging remarks.

    Professor Richard Fox sent me his exciting paper, ‘Jesus as Celebrity’, and set me thinking along various lines: my thanks to him for this generous gesture.

    My five and a half year-old son, Pranav, posed a key question: ‘Why don't you retire NOW—then you won't have to go to the university, teach, attend meetings and get tired, and then you can write more books, nah?’ (conversation of 5.43 P.M.–5.55 P.M., 5 September 2007, Teacher's Day). Yet he politely declined my request to compose a letter to my Vice Chancellor requesting an extended leave of absence for me to write. Sigh. Bustling around with assorted fixoes and Power Rangers, and explaining elaborate stories of their surpassingly tedious lives battling weird, demonic forces to his slow parent—it took me some time to recognise ‘Ben 10’—he finally gritted his teeth, rather as I do with my students when explaining the (absence of?) finer points in William Wordsworth, and provided the necessary distraction. Thank you, young P.

    My parents, now with perpetual anxiety writ on their faces at my excessive work and minimal sociability, offer prayers and support, unstinted and undiluted. To them, my gratitude, as always.

    Ajeeth, himself busier than ever, claims I am more unavailable than he is (an outrageous untruth), but ensures that the friendship endures with his phone calls (that open with ‘kahaan hai re bhai tu?’). I am very grateful for this.

    Niyati, despite her health and because of her loyalty, perused chapters and offered comments (mixing it up with bits from whatever she was reading at the time). Thank you, once again.

    Neeraj and Claire Khadakkar—thank you for converting your home in Boulder, Colorado, into my offshore drop box for books purchased.

    The American Information and Research Centre (Chennai) and its ever-reliable Mr Jagadish Mysore, supplied books and articles with their quiet efficiency. It is a privilege to acknowledge them.

    Colin Harrison, at Liverpool John Moores University, is a regular and uncomplaining supplier of materials and to his encouragement and supplies, I owe so much. Thank you, Colin (and this is a gentle reminder: please don't flag in these acts of generosity!).

    Sri Anil and Smt Nilima Khadakkar, my parents-in-law, uncomplainingly increased their baggage weight, and whose suitcases bulged in unsightly ways as a result while returning from the US of A, carting a dozen heavy books for me. Thank you!

    Finally, Nandini, often felt as a whirring in the vicinity as she flies around the house negotiating her own work schedule more diverse than mine. Ever encouraging, eager to show me one more ad or TV item for analysis, for her quiet affection and what is now her widely celebrated efficiency: much much gratitude.

    Parts of this book were delivered as lectures at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA), June 2008. I am grateful to Atul Tandan, Director, MICA, and Rita Kothari for their gracious invitation and warm hospitality. Thanks also to students of the PGCM-X course, especially Pranay Singh, Bharati Athlekar, Rahul Fernandes, Varun Shourie, Sunder Raj Iyer, Rashmi Krishnamurthy and Anbazhagan Elango, for their enthusiastic interaction, comments and often puzzled queries at the ‘semiotics of celebrity culture’. I would also like to thank Anupam, Payal, Trinankur, Rachna, Gautam and the entire SAGE team for their work on this book.

  • Conclusion: The New Cool of Celebrity Culture

    It is important to see celebrity culture as a complex phenomenon that situates some people, events and places simultaneously distant and intimate from us. SRK is a stranger whose lifestyle, family, food preferences are familiar to us. My thesis is that the celebrity culture is looped back into everyday life when the world of glamour and power, otherwise distant to us, acquires an unusual familiarity. The distant world of film and sports stars is rooted in our everyday lives, a constituent of our visual fields from hoardings to TV. In terms borrowed from social theory, celebrity culture is recursively linked to the material everyday lives of millions of people who move, live, entertain, clothe themselves in the presence, via mediated images, of celebrities.

    Celebrity culture is a very visible, significant and commercially viable component of a society's public culture today. Culture itself is taken to mean both, a way of life and the set of practices, institutions and structures of power that constantly negotiate meanings, where, through processes of inclusion and exclusion, some meanings, groups and ‘texts’ get valorised at the expense of others. Studies of cultural artifacts and processes, such as film, folk, art, television and, in this case, celebrity, involves a political reading of structures of power that influence, and often determine, meaning-production in a culture, focussing on groups that are disempowered and subal-ternised in cultural practices. This means looking at questions of agency, genealogy and, finally, identity and power. Agency signifies the capability of individuals, communities or objects to assert their will and effect changes. Genealogy is the location of a particular technology or cultural artifact within its specific history, discourses and power struggles. Identities are seen as constructs rather than immanent, as negotiated rather than self-evident.

    From such a perspective, celebrities are the effect of multiple negotiations and interactions. They might be unique individuals, but their celebrity-effect is not the consequence of their uniqueness alone. The celebrity is situated at the intersection of numerous discourses—merit, attractiveness, social power and influence and taste, all of which are located within a structure of capitalist production and consumption. This complex intersection that produces celebrity culture is what this book has called celebrity ecology. The notion of celebrity ecology underscores the fact that the celebrity is not the effect of any one predominant element, whether it is material culture, organisations or social discourses, but of all of these. As in an ecological environment or bio-system there is a mutually dependent, symbiotic relationship between the elements within that system. Celebrity ecology looks at the environment of the celebrity as a whole, where the various elements in the environment interact with each other to produce the celebrity effect. Celebrity culture can only be studied through celebrity ecology for the simple reason that celebrities are the result of many forms of interaction between multiple discourses, technologies, flows and sites. Celebrity culture is not one but many. Hence the approach cannot be one but many.

    A celebrity possesses a certain amount of agency by virtue of the very structure of her or his production and consumption. Agency is the celebrity's ability to appropriate and be appropriated by these discourses, to be marketed and consumed as a commodity that generates profits, both economic and social (by which I mean non-quantifiable forms of wealth like influence, prestige and trend-setting).

    Their ability to negotiate with systems of representation—mass media, spectacle and institutions—generates public interest in them. This is the question of agency where the unique individual's ability is harnessed to a system of signification, such as structures that generate meaning through advertisements and images. Celebrities often therefore train themselves in and ready themselves for the art of self-representation through finishing schools, dance and speech training, fashion, among others. Thus their uniqueness and media glamour, what we have described here as agency, is itself the effect of multiple processes.

    These processes are, more often than not, and especially in the case of film or sports stars, driven by commercial interests. Celebrity management is a thriving business enterprise today. Celebrity culture must be therefore located within this capitalist system of selling individuals as unique by generating an interest in their uniqueness. The individual's qualities are marketed, publicised and sold in order to generate profits for the film, the music album, the tournament or the brand being endorsed. It is therefore important to locate celebrity culture and the celebrity's agency within a system of what I termed meritocratic capitalism where the presumed or real merit, a term I use to describe numerous qualities of stars, including looks, intelligence, talent, power, is linked to massive profits. This is of course a materialist reading of celebrity culture, but one, I believe, that necessarily foregrounds the commercial-capitalist dimension of stars. We need to see celebrities as part of processes that enable the construction of particular skills as desirable so that profits are generated.

    However, celebrities are not simply agents of profit-making. Celebrity philanthropists and activists, such as Medha Patkar, and more recently, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, are agents of social change and consciousness-raising. In this case agency is the ability of the celebrity to muster social support, alter the terms of the debate and open up the public sphere. Here celebrity culture is linked to questions of the public sphere, democratisation and power, where the celebrity's agency is instrumental in altering each of these social aspects.

    Instead of treating the celebrity as simply an exceptional individual, we need to locate her or him within those structures, within a culture that generate what can be called the discourse of quality and merit. How are particular talents treated as valuable? Why is, for instance, a talented cricketer paid more, and earns more than a talented hockey player (hockey, incidentally, being our national game)? How does cricket become the key commercialised sport in India and its practitioners, celebrities? This involves looking at questions of institutions (the Board of Cricket Control for India, the International Cricket Council, the global tournaments, the structure of internal tournaments), of state funding, endorsements and recognition and the cult of a Tendulkar. A genealogical perspective looks at the horizontal and vertical structures, like sports, films, that create discourses of talent or quality. Who funds the promos of a film? What agencies and institutions are involved in promoting a tournament? What is the history of a particular sport or film or artifact? Who contributed to its making and remaking? Who made a profit out of the particular valorised skill? What communities, classes or castes take to particular sports?

    A good example of such a genealogical reading that looks at celebrity sports stars is available in Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport (2002). Guha, himself a celebrity historian today, with the patient teasing out of discourses we associate with social history, looks at the celebrated cricketer C.K. Nayudu, often thought of as India's first great cricketer. Guha suggests that Nayudu attained this celebrity status because the social structures of India at that time did not and could not think beyond caste. Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit, was India's first great cricketer, argues Guha, but the social structures ensured that his name would never figure in the honour list. Playing for his team, the Poona Hindus, Palwankar Baloo distinguished himself on the field, but was served his meals at a separate table. What is interesting is to see how social conditions affect a player's celebrity status where the skill becomes less significant than the player's caste. The Dalit player is disempowered, the meanings he generates on the field become marginal when the mainstream history of Indian cricket is written and evoked. Baloo does not figure in celebrity players' lists nor does he trigger a memory even for the connoisseur. Baloo moves away from the visual, historical or visibility field because he is a Dalit. Clearly, celebrity visibility is linked to caste, regional and religious identity. This is genealogical criticism where institutions, social codes and conditions and power struggles are foregrounded when reading a particular artifact or phenomenon.

    The question of agency or capacity and visibility is intimately linked, also, to questions of identity and power. Celebrities command social-symbolic and economic power, as underscored throughout this book. Their identity as celebrities generate income, profits, influence and has social impact. However, this identity, whether of Tendulkar's or JLo's, is not an immanent feature, but the effect of a series of negotiations. Identity is a construct, and multiple discourses, structures and practices contribute to the making of a celebrity identity. To begin with, as noted above, there are the marketing and celebrity management industries. A careful positioning of the individual and her or his skills ensures that particular aspects of the individual are highlighted and others downplayed. Comparative assessments with other individuals are used to show why X or Y is superior or different. Then the individual is promoted as the icon of those qualities that are deemed to be desirable. Identity here is the result of a complex series of manoeuvres and negotiations where a set of qualities—looks, commitment, skill—are promoted as desirable and are then linked to the individual. It is not a simple cause-effect scheme of desirable talent leading to the discovery of a celebrity who possesses that talent or vice versa.

    Celebrity identity can be best described as an effect generated by the system of flows of capital, image and representations, discourses of talents and skills. It involves questions of power where capital plays an important role. How much finance is needed to produce a celebrity brand? What profits does SRK generate for AIRTEL? How does society treat or look up to him or Dhoni and, therefore, what kind of symbolic or cultural capital do they possess?

    Celebrity ecology moves between the figure of the celebrity through the marketing, circulation and consumption mechanisms that make this figure a part of our lives (pin-ups of SRK and Tendulkar, and Ram Guha on the coffee table, and Dhoni hairstyles in hairdressing salons) even as they stay distant from us.

    The marketing agencies, the film industry, the sports industry, including sports goods manufacturers who shell out vast amounts of endorsements fees to Michael Jordan and Tendulkar, the numerous awards and their widely televised ceremonies, which themselves showcase new celebrities and profits, constitute the main structures that frame celebrity culture.

    Once the product is made by the marketing agencies then the film, TV, Internet and other forms of media take over. These circulate particular kinds of images of the celebrity. The content of these representations, which could range from product endorsements to interviews and photo-shoots of film stars' homes, might be generated by the media structures, but their work is very different. They serve up particular images of icons—the reliable Dravid, the flamboyant Beckham and the socially committed Patkar. The content of circulating representations is highly controlled and monitored for this purpose. This is the reason why celebrities do not want to be caught doing things that do not fit in with their image.

    The content is absorbed by an audience, whose nature, demographics and desires cannot always be predicted. Here the impact of the first two components of celebrity ecology, structures and content, is crucial. What kind of image does Dhoni project (youth icon)? What does the famous LIC logo stand for (security, family)? Impact here is the kind of value system being promoted and absorbed by the audience.

    None of these are independent elements, but work in tandem to produce the celebrity effect. There is, with the information technology revolution, increasing web presence and archiving of celebrity news, thereby extending the realm and influence of the celebrity. This constitutes yet another technology of celebrification. The important thing with studies of celebrity culture is to see how celebrities affect our perception of the world, perceptions that include admiration, belief in virtue rewarded, skill, competition, financial success, because of the celebrity's own success and representation of this success. The celebrity is at the intersection of economic and social activities, where celebrity culture is itself a networked environment within which each of the items described above serves as a node through which celebrity flows. It is in the interaction of these multiple nodes and flows that the celebrity is produced. Marketing agencies, profits, value systems (individualism, social commitment and consumerism), fans and audiences, material objects (pin-up posters, music albums, film and fashion), technology are all interconnected in their contribution to the making of the celebrity. These are the elements that put SRK on our TV screen, intrude into our sound world as songs or voice, and entertain you when you take your child for a haircut.

    Celebrity ecology helps us locate the representation, the hero, the fan within an environment where marketing, rhetoric, media technologies intersect and construct the celebrity. It asks that we pay attention to the material, non-material, political and discursive contexts of celebrity culture. Celebrity ecology links the body or face of the celebrity with the cultural industry, the mass media, the technologies of cosmetics, transmission or archiving, the political economy of the celebrity's chosen field such as sport, television, cinema, politics.

    Celebrity culture is everywhere. We live in the midst of it. Everyone is tired of seeing the celebrity around (all newspaper pages now seem to have morphed into P3), but no one seems to quite know how to get rid of it. And yet everyone wants a slice of it. The mechanisms of contemporary cultural production, what I have described as celebrity ecology, ensure that celebrity culture is the new cool of our lives.

    So now: who wants to be a celebrity?

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    About the Author

    Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India. His work in postcolonial studies includes English Writing and India, 1600–1920: Colonizing Aesthetics (2008), Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction (2008), The Great Uprising: India, 1857 (2007), The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar (2007) and The Penguin 1857 Reader (2007).

    His interests in cultural studies include superheroes, consumer culture, ‘cool’, posthumanism and new media cultures, and his work here includes An Introduction to Cultural Studies (2008), Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics (2006), Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology (2004), and a book on literary and cultural theory (Literary Theory Today, 2002), besides numerous essays on cyberculture and, more recently, on human rights narratives. Among forthcoming books are a study of new media and cyberculture, postcolonialism, a history of the Raj and an edited collection on English life in India.

    He can be reached electronically at pramodknayar@gmail.com.


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