New book looks at the sociology of celebrity society

26 October 2012

"Celebrity is about the management of attention capital in a world awash with information and knowledge," suggests Professor Robert van Krieken in his new book 'Celebrity Society'.
"Celebrity is about the management of attention capital in a world awash with information and knowledge," suggests Professor Robert van Krieken in his new book 'Celebrity Society'.

Celebrity culture is vacuous. Right? Actually, no. A new book, Celebrity Society, argues that celebrity is an important aspect of modern society, and has been for a long time.

It's important, says author Professor Robert van Krieken, a sociologist from the University of Sydney, to understand celebrity 'as less of a mysterious neurosis of the media age, and more as a feature of contemporary social life with which we can engage in an active, creative and thoughtful way'.

Far from starting in Hollywood, the book traces this sociological structure to the social relations of the court society of the 16th century, where individual opportunities depending on how well one's 'performance of self' contributed to the accumulation of prestige.

The next important stage was the 18th century and the explosion of communication about the private lives of public characters in the emerging public sphere. People's interaction with actors in the theatre and the emergence of figures like Benjamin Franklin and Jean Jacques Rousseau, both concerned to project their private characters into the public domain, laid the foundations of how we relate to celebrities today.

It's a misconception, says Robert van Krieken, to distinguish artificial and empty celebrity from real achievement. There is no such thing as an 'unsung hero', every achievement requires some kind of public relations effort if it's going to be recognised.

Visibility, attention, and recognition have value for many individuals, from CEOs to sports stars, academics and politicians, and is what makes our society a 'celebrity society'. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is a good example of how central the logic of celebrity is to politics today.

"Visibility beyond one's immediate face-to-face contacts becomes increasingly lucrative with economic rewards being attached to the accumulation of people's attention.

"In our media-saturated world there is a wealth of information, and this means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. And what information consumes is our attention.

"Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it," van Krieken says.

And so beneath the apparently vacuous celebrity culture is a powerful hidden economy based on the struggle for our attention, or 'eyeballs' as it's known in the digital era. Van Krieken calls the currency of this hidden economy, 'attention capital'.

And the accumulation of such attention capital is important because it can be transformed into other kinds of capital, such as reputation and status, wealth, influence or other kinds of power. Attention capital is what both Oprah Winfrey and Kim Kardashian are able to convert into multi-million-dollar businesses.

"Celebrity is about the management of attention capital in a world awash with information and knowledge," suggests van Krieken .

But celebrities do not even have to be real people. Image experts such as public relations, publicity and image management professionals sell "oranges, cigarettes and presidents according to the more or less the same logic." They can also have a virtual existence, like the animated version of Colonel Sanders, and the cartoon figures of Ronald McDonald and Homer Simpson.

Professor van Krieken adds that celebrity also assists social cohesion in a variety of ways through, for example, shared cognition, by being a model or reference point for self-formation, a focal point for that important social glue, gossip.

The spread of Youtube, Facebook and Twitter accentuates all the social dynamics, enabling communication about the public figures attracting our attention to travel even more rapidly, with the technology's sheer speed creating new kinds of celebrity that may last only 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol predicted.

The book ends with Professor van Krieken emphasising that it's important to do more than be dismissive of celebrity culture. It's a good idea, he writes, to reflect on how celebrity society operates and how it turns us into particular kinds of human beings, "just in case we might be, as Neil Postman once put it, amusing ourselves to death."

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