Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Daniel Herwitz

Daniel Herwitz is the author of The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption.

From a Q & A at the publisher's website:

Q: There’s a Lady Diana book industry out there that keeps the discount catalogues of England and America in business. Marilyn Monroe lives a second life on the covers of oversized coffee-table books. The expanding number of celebrities is matched by the expanding number of books about celebrity. Star books pile up in the corners of used bookstores to be donated to charity or used for recycling. Theories are constructed and dismantled about the how and the why of it. Is there a reason to add to this pile with another book?

Daniel Herwitz: No book has been written that seeks to cut through the gossip, the tabloids, and critical canons of scholarship, the innuendo, adulation, and also the theory to focus on the aesthetic formation of the star icon. Most books either treat her as a melodramatic celebrity (Tina Brown’s recent Diana book for example, which is about love, desperation, celebrity exhaustion, and the lunches she had with Diana), or they effuse rapturously about her beauty, bemoan her miserable life (hunted and haunted by the media, oh poor, poor little rich girl!). Or they begin from a stance of disgust at the system and move quickly to its theorization.

The fact of these many books speaks to ongoing public obsession around this type of star (there are precious few of them), and that is interesting. But she (it is mostly a she) is neither a mere celebrity nor any ordinary kind of star. Celebrity we know how to understand. The star icon we do not. I think of her as a being caught between transcendence and trauma. This is how the public sees her. An effervescent film star living on a distant, exalted planet, she is at the same time a melodrama-soaked soap opera queen whose dismal life she is ever trying to flee or overcome and into the mire of which she constantly sinks—always with the help of the media and before the fascinated, tearful public. She cannot escape its commanding gaze except to drive at two hundred kilometers an hour through the tunnels of Paris to her death. The very public that eggs her on also secretly desires her to fall apart, since it will be the culmination of a whopping good story: there is adoration and blood lust in its relation to her. But she is also a figure of grace.

The cult around her comes from the way she appears in the media, for that is almost entirely where she is encountered. And so a great deal depends on understanding the powers of film and of television. Indeed film and television are so central that the public projects qualities of film star and soap queen onto the star icon even if she neither acted in any films (Lady Diana) nor appeared on television except peripherally (Marilyn Monroe). This was brought home to me while I was watching the Lady Diana funeral live on BBC sitting at my TV in Durban, South Africa where I lived and worked in the 1990s. The Diana funeral was the second most watched television program in South African history. Glued to my set I was struck by how easily the BBC commentators elided Lady Diana and Grace Kelly. It was as if they were two sides of the same coin of the realm—but which realm? Grace Kelly was a film star turned princess of an ersatz kingdom run on fast cars and gambling. Diana was a British royal whose classical beauty was offset by a face and posture that registered every raw nerve ending, expressed every burst of feeling. Both were birds of prey for the media, which also canonized them. Both lived lives of melodrama and died in speeding cars. From this pairing of the two came my idea that in contemporary life aesthetic qualities migrate from their medium of origin to the wider public world, so that around Diana’s head flowed the aura of film, star even though she was no film actor, and from Grace’s film stardom issued royal pedigree. Of course you have to be constantly in the media eye—a persona—in order for these qualities to transpose themselves onto your head. But, once you are in the media eye (a celebrity of sorts), the public has the ability (or liability) to graft all manner of aesthetic features onto you. The star icon cannot be what she is apart this migration of aesthetic qualities across media and onto her head. The aesthetics of film and television need to be closely studied to figure out how this spreading of qualities from point of origin through public imagination to a persona like Diana happens. She demands a new kind of aesthetic approach. Since I am by training a philosopher who writes widely on and is in love with popular culture, I thought, well, why not try to tell this story?
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue