Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The cult of celebrity: 5 books

Fred Inglis, author of A Short History of Celebrity and other books, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sheffield. Previously Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, he has been a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, and Fellow-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

At FiveBooks, Daisy Banks asked him about his five best books on the cult of celebrity. One title they discussed:
[Banks]: Tell me about your first book, Local Knowledge by Clifford Geertz.

[Inglis]: Clifford Geertz is a much travelled American, who is probably the greatest anthropologist of the last 60 or 70 years. Local Knowledge, as the title tells you, is based on the insistence that life is lived locally and that you find culture in action locally. Attempts to generalise right across the world are going to mislead you. In his book there are two or three essays which I had by me as my working intellectual tool kit when I was writing my book on celebrities. For example, there is one where he is talking about the use of charisma. Of course, when I was writing my book the notion of charisma is much evoked.

What I think Geertz brings out so vividly is that whatever charisma is it attaches itself not just to individuals but to people with a particular social position. In his book he quotes the saying about a duchess never being more than 100 yards from her carriage because you need a carriage in order to qualify as a duchess! He then turns from this to the study of kingship and the ways in which the great monarchs of former history established their rule by being intensely visible in a series of processions and displays.

He is good at distinguishing between the idea of celebrity and that of renown. People in pre-modern societies were renowned partly by virtue of their position – as the monarch was – and partly by virtue of their accomplishments. But celebrity is a different sort of creature when it comes along in the middle of the 18th century. Celebrities are no doubt connected with what they have done. They are also defined by the way in which they are seen and what they are made into by their audiences, and that distinction is one I analysed throughout my book.
Read about another book on Inglis' list.

--Marshal Zeringue