INTIMATE STRANGERS: The Culture of Celebrity by Richard Schickel

INTIMATE STRANGERS: The Culture of Celebrity

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We are dealing here with something unprecedented prior to recent years, the most appalling working out, acting out, of the habit of false intimacy with well-known people into which so many of us have fallen of late."" So begins this ambitious series of essays on ""the culture of celebrity""--which, like George W.S. Trow's 1981 Within the Context of No Context (a sort of holy text for Schickel), expands a promising, limited notion into strained analogies, unsupported generalizations, sneering tirades, and pompous lamentations. Adopting John W. Hinckley's star-struck assassination attempt as a highly dubious ""paradigm"" (always beware of essayists who use psychopaths as paradigms), Schickel sees US society--an amorphous entity usually referred to as ""We""--as celebrity-crazed, taken in by media imagery, living in a world of ""false intimacy"" with TV stars and magazine covers, desperately grasping at the ""cult of personality"" because all ""sense of organization, purpose, and stability in our society"" has vanished. (For just one documentation of the vast exaggeration going on here, see Michael Schudson's 1984 Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion.) An inadequate history of celebrity/media impact in the Western world follows: Schickel gives no attention whatsoever to religion--which filled a similar need for earlier generations; he downplays the role of fame, gossip, and tabloid-style news in the 19th century so as to beef up his apocalyptic scenario. (""Our public context began to lose touch with our private context some sixty years ago."") He then moves through the Forties--""We might have been bemused by celebrity, but we were not yet obsessed by it""--to the Fifties, when ""paradigms"" Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe supposedly ushered in cult-of-personality. (""When Brando buggers Schneider's chic, saucy, cultured little bourgeois ass, he is buggering all and everything that has bugged him."") Next, drawing on Jacques Ellul's The Political Illusion, Schickel offers a confused overview of a solid topic covered better elsewhere: the media-ization of the Presidency. And weakest of all is Schickel's application of these ideas to the art-world--which had its share of cult-personalities and hyped trends long before Pop Art and Mark Rothko (""the paradigm's paradigm""). Throughout, in fact, Schickel's sweeping harangues suffer from a lack of historical context, from the failure to distinguish between longstanding social tendencies (in new guises) and genuine cultural deteriorations. Likewise, his increasingly irritating ""We"" lumps together soap-opera addicts, modern-art critics, and everybody in between--except for a ""worthwhile elite"" that apparently includes Schickel, Trow, and a few select others. (""We cannot redeem the world. But we can, we unhappy few, redeem ourselves."") Marred, too, by Schickel's glib, sarcastic, journalese style: hardworking but ineffectual cultural criticism, identifying lots of all-too-real problems but going astray whenever it attempts to understand or explain them.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Doubleday