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The Birth of Celebrity Culture out of the Spirit of Philosophy
Matthew Barnard comprehends and condemns celeb culture in Heideggerian terms.
I am about to argue something that ought to make your head turn: celebrity culture is philosophy. The often bemoaned idolisation of celebrities; the prevalence of talent shows such as X Factor; the popularity of reality TV shows; the phenomenon of ‘being famous for being famous’; the fact that children have begun to choose their heroes not on the basis of their talent but on the mere fact of their fame, etc. etc. – all of this is philosophy.
The idea that something is of value only insofar as it is popular is a well-known logical fallacy, a.k.a. the argument ex consensus gentium. Yet it is a contagious fallacy. Why is it so prevalent? I wish to answer by showing that the origin of the irrational praise of the popular lies in the philosophical tradition, when this tradition is understood in the light of Martin Heidegger’s analysis of our intellectual history.
As I hope you’ve guessed, this analysis will be far from a vindication of celebrity culture. Calling something ‘philosophy’ does not necessarily amount to a compliment, even though philosophy is normally taken to be a good thing. Philosophy still retains a shadow of its former position as ‘the queen of the sciences’, to quote Immanuel Kant – so much so that to refer to a mode of thinking as ‘unphilosophical’ is taken to be an insult. For example, although there are many good reasons for saying that Buddhism is not philosophy but rather a unique mode of thinking in its own right, saying as much often leads to the charge of cultural bias. But if philosophy is seen as not necessarily a good thing, demanding that we treat Buddhism as unphilosophical might instead be saving it from misinterpretation.
The later Heidegger opposes himself to philosophy. He expands on Nietzsche’s belief that European nihilism, the problem of our age, amounts to the devaluation of the values of Platonism, going further than Nietzsche by saying that all philosophy is nihilism. To overcome nihilism, therefore, we need to perform an ‘inventive thinking’ that is not philosophical – hence the title of his essay ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’ (1964).
Many readers of this argument find it absurd: they think that Heidegger is playing with semantics. He may not want to call himself a philosopher anymore, but what he’s doing is clearly philosophy. However, to say this would be to overlook the fact that he has a very specific definition of ‘philosophy’: philosophy is a mode of thinking that emerged in Classical Greece and consists solely in the attempt to think the being of beings in terms of their being.
This sounds rather abstract, but that’s only because it’s a basic claim. A being is something that is. Sociology thinks beings insofar as they are a part of society; physics thinks beings insofar as they are determined by physical laws; and philosophy thinks beings insofar as they are beings as such. Therefore the sociologist will answer the question ‘What is the human being?’ in terms of its role within social relations. The physicist will answer the question either by thinking of it as a body in relative motion through time and space, or as a collection of atoms, waves, quarks, or strings. The philosopher answers the question by aiming at the being or essence of the human being.
So what is the essence of the human being? A classical definition is Aristotle’s zoon logon echon: the human is the animal with language. Whether we agree with it or not, this is an attempt at an essential definition. It defines the human by identifying a something that occurs with every human being and which no human being can occur without. So for Aristotle there are no humans without access to language and meaning. The obvious criticism of Aristotle here is that there are humans who cannot speak, but the present point is not whether or not whether Aristotle was correct to define human beings in this way, but that he tries to do so by identifying something he believes cannot be taken away from a human being and they remain human. Based on this tendency, found throughout the history of philosophy, Heidegger argues that philosophy always understands the being of a being as that which is constantly present alongside a being for as long as it exists.
A modern equivalent of Aristotle’s definition, ‘man is the rational animal’, operates the same way: it amounts to saying that reason is present so long as the human being exists. (It’s not that there is any scientific evidence for this definition – there isn’t – but rather that we have inherited an understanding of human beings as essentially rational.) Or we might say that so long as a human exists, it thinks, and the end of thinking is the end of the human; hence the common understanding that death means the end of consciousness, the end of reason, and the end of the human. As such, human being means constant presence through thought. This is, in fast-forward, something that Heidegger takes many years to write many volumes to argue.
© Eva Rinaldi 2013
He also makes another point: not only does philosophy think being is constant presence, it also always posits a highest being, a ‘most beingly being’. Although we tend to think of existence as a binary variable – something either is, or it isn’t – being as a concept actually admits of degrees.
This is a difficult point, but hopefully an example will illuminate it. Take the statement, ‘Jimi Hendrix is more of a guitarist than Ed Sheeran’. This statement is saying that both Hendrix and Sheeran have the property ‘being a guitarist’ as part of their being; but Hendrix has more ‘being a guitarist’ than Sheeran. The ‘is’ in ‘Hendrix is a guitarist’ carries more weight, more being, than the ‘is’ in ‘Ed Sheeran is a guitarist’. Against this, someone might want to say that ‘is more of a guitarist than’ is a metaphor for ‘is a greater guitarist than’. But even the latter itself means that Hendrix embodies the essence of ‘guitarist’ in a purer, more complete way than does Sheeran. Ultimately, no matter how we phrase the comparison, what we are saying is that there is more guitarist-being in Hendrix than in Sheeran – which can in turn translate as ‘guitaristness’ is more present in Hendrix than in Sheeran.
In this case, then, being admits of degrees. The measure of such degrees is presence. Something has more being if it has more presence, and less being if it has less presence. Further, true being is not just any sort of presence, but the highest possible degree of presence, constant presence. As said above, for Heidegger philosophy posits the highest possible degree of presence, the most present being, as the highest, most beingly being. This is, in brief, what Heidegger calls ‘onto-theology’. Philosophy always thinks of being as constant presence (Greek onto-, pertaining to being) and always comports itself towards a being that takes constant presence to its extreme, an absolutely constantly present entity: the most beingly being. To say that philosophy worships this entity is going a bit too far, but it does always conduct its investigations with reference to it, even if this reference is only to deny its existence. Traditionally, this most present being is God (Greek theos), understood as an eternal entity present for all eternity in all possible worlds. For Heidegger, in modernity after Descartes this title of ‘the most beingly being’ moves from God to the human subject, the human being: it is the human that has the most being, the most presence. For this reason, humanism arises as the secular religion in the shadow of the death of God.
Ancient v. Modern Fame
To take this back to celebrity culture: celebrities are the most beingly beings of our society. Fame is what defines celebrity. To be famous means to be known by a lot of people. To be known by someone is to be present to them. To be famous is therefore to be present to a lot of people; and the measure of fame is how present the celebrity is to people, understood either as the amount of people that know about them or how constantly they are in the news, on TV, or followed on social media. The most famous people are those who are most constantly present to the most people, and as such we echo the philosophical tradition in idolising celebrity. The idea of being famous for being famous is therefore not a degradation of the essence of celebrity, it is its authentic completion. Fame becomes itself in being about being famous for being famous, because fame is simply being present to a large amount of people. It has finally been recognised that one achieves it just by putting oneself in the public eye: the means one uses to put oneself in the public eye are arbitrary. Constant presence is the goal, and it does not matter how it is achieved.
So if something is broken in this clearly nihilistic state of affairs, it isn’t the concept of fame. Rather, it is the concept of the human being. After the death of God, the human desire for eternal life is thenceforth sought not in a comportment towards the constant presence of God in Heaven, but towards a devalued version of constant presence, insofar as this can be achieved in an impermanent world like ours: hence, fame.
On the one hand, this echoes Ancient Greek politics, which was all about doing great deeds and being remembered, thus gaining immortality. In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt maps well how this desire for immortality is, through the birth of philosophy, taken to its extreme in the desire for eternal life. Immortality means to linger in this world forever, whereas eternal life is about transcending this world and entering the next. However, this does not mean that celebrity culture, as the attempt to find constant presence in the material world, is a welcome return to the ‘real world’ after millennia of indoctrination by religious thinking. There is an essential difference between aspiring towards fame in the contemporary sense and achieving immortality through fame. This can be seen by pointing out that the Greeks wanted to be remembered forever, while a modern celebrity aims at being constantly seen forever. To be remembered already acknowledges one’s death. We can only remember what is no longer present. The current desire for fame, in contrast, aspires to remain in presence indefinitely, an object of maintained public perception. So Greek culture aimed at becoming part of its descendants’ past, while celebrity culture aims at enduring in our descendants’ present – constantly present for all eternity. The former affirms the contingency of this world by aiming at entering history, while the latter attempts to escape history by remaining in the present. Thus celebrity culture is nihilistic, philosophical in Heidegger’s pejorative sense, and needs to be overturned.
In short, I really don’t like The X Factor.
© Matthew Barnard 2018
Matthew Barnard is Lecturer in Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the Secretary of the British Society for Phenomenology. He specialises in the thought of Martin Heidegger. You can follow him on Twitter @mattbarnardsays.