Chris Rojek
London: Reaktion Books, 2001.
£12.95, 210 pages, ISBN 1861891040.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

In the noteworthy series called Focus on Contemporary issues (FOCI), Reaktion Books have already published appealing books like Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain & David Robins or Chromophobia by David Batchelor. The series is meant to cover a variety of subjects drawn from the arts, sciences and humanities. Nothing to write home about, you might say. But what differentiates the series from others of the same ilk is that its authors do not make the slightest attempt at objectivity. They take sides, they are happily subjective, sometimes to the point of being passionate, which is refreshing.

Chris Rojek’s Celebrity is no exception. In some respects it is conventional, inasmuch as it draws on “classical” sources—considering its subject—like Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Edgar Morin, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, etc., even the inevitable Pierre Bourdieu. Of course, how could you possibly address celebrity without mentioning these names, in passing at least, just to make sure that your readers know you’ve read them? In other respects Celebrity is a pleasantly personal book. It is cleverly divided into five chapters, Celebrity and Celetoids, Celebrity and Religion, Celebrity and Aestheticization, Celebrity and Transgression, Celebrity and Celebrification, which show that Rojek is unafraid of neologisms. He frequently coins words, or at least phrases, like “celeactor” or “veridical self” (as opposed to star persona or something of the sort). I myself tend to favour my own “realitatis femina”, which I coined in my research on Madonna, as opposed to “dramatis persona” of course, but then again, Rojek does not need to come up with a word for female stars and one for male stars. Actually, he does not clearly establish nuances between celebrities and stars, which is regrettable. Also when he tackles the “split between a private self and a public self” he should perhaps go a bit further at once, and examine three levels: private self, public persona, and personae acted out on stage or on screen… But he does distinguish interestingly between celebrities, say those of the show-business world, and “celetoids”, of the overnight criminal sensation or political / sex scandal variety.

Chapter I begins as it should with the derivation of the word “celebrity”, and quickly turns to glamour, which is highly welcome. I was surprised, however, to find Gisele Bundchen as the first example of glamour. However postmodern he might wish to appear, surely it could not have done him any harm to mention some Hollywood or MTV diva, rather than a Brazilian supermodel—no xenophobia intended. And Rojek often sounds practically anti-postmodern anyway. Some of his pronouncements are striking and quick to the mark, like: “The emergence of celebrity as a public preoccupation is the result of three major interrelated historical processes. First, the democratisation of society; second, the decline of organized religion; third, the commodification of everyday life” (a convincing demonstration follows). Sometimes, though, he is too much of a pedagogue and overdoes it: “Celebrities are commodities in the sense that consumers desire to possess them.” Duh. Chris Rojek, incidentally, is Professor of Sociology and Culture at Nottingham Trent University.

There are splendid pages on celebrity and religion, notably on shamanism and on reliquaries (taking in Charlie Chaplin, the Kennedys, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana). Thus I learnt with a mixture of amused pleasure and dismay that the number of yearly visitors to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Tennessee is “750,000, a figure that comfortably eclipses the visitor total for the White House”. At times I thought that Rojek did not go far enough: to his sentence “death provides no obstacle to the commodification of the celebrity”, I am tempted to add “au contraire”. Other very enjoyable passages include the Cult of Distraction sub-chapter: “The cult of distraction, then, is both a means of concealing the meaninglessness of modern life and of reinforcing the power of commodity culture.” Rojek is equally at ease when he analyses Celebrity Placement and Endorsement: “Commodity placement operates on the principle that the public recognition of the celebrity as an admirable or desirable cultural presence can be transferred onto the commodity in a commercial or ad.” I agree with him wholeheartedly when he deals with Lara Croft, Ali G., or Monica Lewinsky, or when he looks at TV celebrities, stalkers, and draws hilarious lists of has-beens. I also like his paragraphs on O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, or on sects and serial killers, as well as his historical forays in general, going back to the sixteenth century and observing theatrical celebrities throughout the ages.

But I do not like his take on kitsch—a matter of definition I suppose—nor his use of Saint Thomas. Besides, he has read Richard Dyer, but it seems he has attempted to de-queer him, as it were, keeping only the less threatening elements of his books; as a result, Oz’s Dorothy and Judy Garland are “straight-washed” (as in “white-washed”), as is Rudolph Valentino:

For females, Valentino was an object of desire precisely because his body and behaviour refused to comply with ethnocentric masculine stereotypes. For males, he was condemned as an indolent foreigner whose public face concealed the genetic inferiority attributed to all such immigrants.

So for Rojek the world is divided into two categories, heterosexual females and heterosexual males? And Valentino was not an object of desire for males? Yet, page 86, in a section entitled Descent and Falling (!), he draws a list of closeted celebrities (Montgomery Clift, Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward, J. Edgar Hoover, John Gielgud, James Dean), followed by a list of AIDS casualties (Michel Foucault, Ian Charleston, Anthony Perkins, Robert Fraser, Rudolph Nureyev, Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe, Derek Jarman, Oscar Moore, Kenny Everett, Magic Johnson, Holly Johnson, Harold Brodsky). Then he moves on to David Bowie, and his ground-breaking persona Ziggy Stardust. It begins auspiciously, with a few lines about Bowie being a major influence, a chameleon, that sort of thing; but then he writes:

The traditional rock idol of the 1960s was a sexually coherent figure of rebellion: Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison. The appeal of Ziggy Stardust lay partly in the incoherence of the public face. By mixing style, femininity, masculinity and camp in one character, Bowie created a face that did not urge public emulation, but enabled the public to escape from the humdrum of their sexual, work and family commitments.

I suppose the word “partly” in there will lead some readers to be indulgent, but no Bowie fan will ever forgive this. This passage makes you feel that Rojek has not understood Jagger, Hendrix nor Morrison, that he certainly does not know what “style” and “camp” mean, that he is abominably essentialist when it comes to gender, and that he has not got a clue who Bowie is and what Ziggy Stardust was all about! Few “characters” urged public emulation more than Ziggy Stardust; Rojek can’t have attended Bowie’s last Ziggy concerts in 1973 or he would know better. What he means by “coherent” and “incoherent” will presumably remain a mystery, since it might be better to move on, suspecting that it is too politically incorrect for words. Fortunately, the book then addresses “Achievement Famine”, anti-heroes and losers in an engaging manner. There is a poem, reproduced in full, by Eric Harris (one of the teenage authors of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton) that is quite fascinating. I also love the conclusion:

As long as democracy and capitalism prevail there will always be an Olympus, inhabited not by Zeus and his court, but by celebrities, elevated from the mass, who embody the restless, fecund and frequently disturbing form of the mass in the public face they assemble.

Two more things. Pity there is no index. I am told Autrement will soon publish a translation of the book in France.