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Cultural Brutalism

Pete Smith looks at the growing politics of celebrity.

Life takes some odd turns, from pools wins to redundancy. We often live two lives. One is the real one of drudge and making do; a life which is about getting by and surviving the troubles that we face every day. The other life is the one fuelled by the media. Who wants to be a millionaire? I do. The media has created a set of assumptions that are so tempting. If only it was me I could leave this mundane and boring life behind me and reinvent myself as novelist, film director or super lover. The National Lottery has got a lot to answer for, but people's desire to get out of themselves, the wish to transform their lives is probably as old as humanity and cannot completely be blamed on capitalism or Sky TV.

What has changed, as a result of the media reaching into our very being, is how we conceptualise our wants. The most obvious recent development is the growth of the cult of personality which would put the late and unlamented Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao in the shade. Famous for being famous seems to be the current flavour of the month. How many of us come across articles in the newspapers or features on television which are about people who have nothing going for them apart from the fact that they are well known? The most extreme recent examples are Big Brother and Popstars, where people's celebrity, or should we say notoriety, is utterly and completely manufactured. I recently spent Saturday evening in a restaurant with people very like me, the educated middle class, who started arguing as to who they wanted voted out of the Big Brother house. That particular programme has a significance because it's not simply invented celebrity, but also the new cultural brutalism most clearly illustrated by the Weakest Link, where cruelty and selfishness become traits to be admired rather than criticised.

We can always admire people who have real talents. David Beckham is a genuinely great footballer, not simply a product of media hype. Therefore maybe he deserves his fifteen minutes of fame more than most of us. However, when the media machine really takes over it is very difficult to decide what is overblown public relations and what is what Marshall McLuhan described back in the 1960s as a media event, that is something that would not have happened if the media had not been present.

Politicians court personalities, Gerri Halliwell in Labour's election broadcast being an obvious example. New Labour is infatuated with celebrity, with people who have a high media profile and can guarantee newspaper coverage and television soundbites. As AC Grayling has recently put it "individuals might have all the brains in the world, but if they are not photogenic, they are nothing. They might have talent, but if they lack glibness, they remain anonymous. They might have ideas, but if they have no TV training, they are as if dumb. It follows that, in our society, we do not have leadership, we have political advertising."

The celebritization of the media and politics seems to know no bounds. We are enticed into a world where everything and everybody becomes a potential tabloid front page. As Ziauddin Sardar has said "this urge to acquire celebrity status is the ethic on which everything in our world now depends. Celebrity is the main currency of our economy, the prime value in our news and the main impetus in our charitable works. It is the predominant means of giving and receiving ideas, information and entertainment. Nothing moves in our universe without the imprint of celebrity."

What is it that is so strange about contemporary society that we have to live it through other people's experiences? We do not experience the world at first hand but at second hand. The cable channel E4 has been offering us Big Brother Live from early in the morning, which comes down to TV coverage of people being asleep. I just don't get it. What is that attraction of watching live coverage of people wrapped up in their duvets and snoring? It just isn't very interesting. Has society taken a new tack that makes the Jerry Springer Show look like one of Hegel's lesser known works? It is always tempting to go for the lowest common denominator. Jeremy Bentham, after all, believed that push-pin was as good as poetry. In this, as in so many other of his thoughts, he was wrong. How do we raise the quality of popular culture? How do we say that ordinary ideas need not be trivial and pathetic and not reach out to the lowest common denominator? Can we speak out for a culture which may not be worth its weight in gold but is worth something?

It is so easy to bemuse ourselves with notions of celebrity. We are not important. The only people who are important are those who are able to scoop the pages of Hello or OK, the tabloids or manage to get themselves on to breakfast TV. What is so nasty about all this is not the people themselves. I don't know anything about Geri Halliwell or David Beckham. They may be completely pleasant people but they are being turned into agents of a media culture which is by any interpretation perverse. Surely we don't want this. Surely we don't want a situation where people are only famous for being famous. Who is Tamara Beckwith? Why do people appear on television or in the newspaper only because they appear on television or in the newspapers?

I am a big fan of OK and Hello. I read them avidly when I go to my local hairdresser's, but there is a problem. The world they depict is one where the minor aristocracy, musicians, sports stars, people from soaps and even politicians all merge into a world where nothing matters except who knows you. Surely we should aspire to a world where what really matters is what we know and what we do.

Even during the election campaign politics did not feature that much on the front pages of the tabloid press (unlike in 1997). Even attempts by the Daily Star to enliven the campaign by supporting surgically-enhanced glamour model Jordan in her (unsuccessful) bid to become an independent MP came to nothing. Soaps, pop stars and show business pushed politicians on to the inside pages. When they did appear as front page stories it was in a context which treated them as personalities. Tony Blair featured with his wife, father or daughter as though he had just scooped a rollover; The Mirror showed Hague with the headline "X marks the clot", as if he was just about to be evicted from the Big Brother house, or had been guilty of a "marsupial moment" on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

No wonder turnout was so low. The Sun, backed by Jack Straw and Ann Widdicombe, tried to encourage voters with a battle bus staffed by a trio of blondes, but its heart was not in it. It was not just that readers were more interested in soap stars and footballers, but that soap stars and footballers were genuinely more interesting than politicians. Offered the choice between two versions of the same thing, neo-liberal free market policies, why not read about Michael Barrymore or tune into the Weakest Link instead?

The manufactured world of celebrity becomes more real to most people than that of politicians who in turn have been manufactured by spin doctors and image consultants. Hearsay are just as "real" as the Cabinet and somewhat less plastic.

Does any of this represent a qualitative change in society? The answer, as ever, is yes and no. Show business or sports stars have always been important. Marie Lloyd and Fred Perry, in their days, had as much adulation as any Spice Girl or Manchester United player today. What has changed is the scale of the entertainment industry which has become self-reverential and self-referencing. The doings of a "Corrie" or "Brookie" actor are front pages for the tabloids whilst in Hello they "invite us into their lovely home". This will spill over directly into politics, as in the United States, where sports stars and actors go on to a career in politics because they have celebrity, high profile and access to finance.

Actor Tony Robinson sits on Labours' NEC and former Eastenders star Michael Cashman sits as a Labour MEP. It is rumoured that Labour General Secretary Margaret McDonough even suggested a "celebrity slate" for the NEC made up entirely of showbiz and sports stars. The days of people becoming famous for being politicians are coming to an end. In the future the only way of becoming a politician may be by being famous.


July/August 2001