Celebrity destruction: American public eats it up

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By Matthew Engleman

By Matthew Engleman

merican waiting in a grocer’s line: the photo of the current debutante capturing the public’s eye in the midst of some absurdly common errand.

What is even more absurd is the gratuitous expenditure of energy on the part of the paparazzi to capture these moments, which are so ridiculously ordinary as to become surreal in the hands of the media.

As the proliferation of media technology reaches the point of saturation with cameras imbedded into cell phones capable of instant download onto the World Wide Web.

Our society must recognize the clear and present danger facing the private identity.

Our laws attempt to preserve spaces wherein the individual might physically find a safe haven from the infamously unscrupulous tactics of the frenzied photographers, defined by a “reasonable expectation to privacy.”

Such rules and limitations, while necessary, do little to preserve the identity of the target of the paparazzi.

As Frank Herbert wrote in his famous novel “Dune,” about a man who takes on the role of a messiah and, for all the political power this gives him, cannot control the jihad he inspires.

“Greatness is a transitory experience” Herbert said. But it could also have been phrased: “Identity is a transitory experience.”

For instance, the entire romantic appeal of the American West was based on the notion that one can simply relocate to new surroundings and new faces to begin anew.

Today, when dealing with the rapidly changing medium of the internet, the consumer faces the possibility of ‘identity theft.’

One needs look no further for confirmation of this phenomenon than Britney Spears, of whom Rolling Stone magazine writes: “Britney epitomizes the crucible of fame for the famous: loving it, hating it and never being able to stop it from destroying you.”

The last point is worth repeating, for no matter how willingly or prepared one is when stepping in front of the lens, our society communicates at light speed and everyone is a commentator.

In these circumstances the definitions of news events or of cultural icons, once generated, develop an inertia that is unstoppable.

When radio and television were the predominate forms of media, such definitions moved between the networks and while still moving at light speed, had at least a general consistency due to the relatively small number of individuals – termed the “gatekeepers” by communication theorists – broadcasting and writing the stories.

These “cultural messages” served the same historical functions in our society as folktales and mythologies of the past.

But with the advent of Youtube, bloggers, and other open forums, there is also the trend of decentralization and autonomy of the cultural messages; for someone like Spears, that means that the torrent of words and ideas spinning around her challenges any hopes she might still have of “image control.”

The Rolling Stone article goes on to say that Britney is “the perfect celebrity for America in decline.”

Succinctly, a nation composed of a variety of individuals can all find some aspect of Spears in which to identify, and when the “multi-billion dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders,” such a figure is going to have to fill a lot of airtime and a lot of magazine page space with a great diversity of content.

This last point leads to the conclusion that, in a society where media consumption has become the number one pastime activity, for the vast majority of people it is the interaction with the technology that is important while the content is more or less irrelevant.

It may be accurately stated that Spears is the perfect target of the paparazzi attention: we love looking at media and she loves being looked at by us.

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