I don’t really know how else to explain the title or this post other than to say I have a thing for connecting the philosophy of the so-called master of modern philosophy with the seemingly mundane elements of real life now. Having completed a PhD thesis on a Hegelian analysis of waste and recycling, an article by Bertie Brandes in The Observer, showed me a possible connection between Hegel and celebrity obsession (in the broad sense of the word).
Brandes was commenting on some new research by anthropologist Jamie Tehrani, who found that our fascination with celebrity gossip is ‘simply a transferral of admiration from the community role model of time past to somebody with superior skills…’. In my mind, there is a certain logic to this conclusion; like Brandes, I must confess to a certain interest in Britney Spears and I do think her ability is sorely underrated, even if she has displayed a tendency for poor judgement. I say that without judging her because I too have shown a capacity for poor judgment from time to time. But this is precisely why Brandes argued in a her capacity as a journalist, as opposed to an anthropologist, that our celebrity obsession is not necessarily about superior skills (though that may be in the mix somewhere) but a form of ‘ego voyeurism’:
Clearly I’m no anthropologist, and I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that Tehrani is wrong, but I think there’s another element to our celebrity obsession that lies a little closer to home than the influential members of communities past. A lot closer, because as much as I’d like to believe we’ve all subconsciously clocked really admirable and superior skills in the endless American reality stars, mediocre singers and call centre employees (how did that show get commissioned, BBC? It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever seen), I can’t quite believe it.
Actually I think we’re just watching ourselves reflected in their faces. We see ourselves in the people being made over by record labels, in the people sobbing over the wrong kind of crisps in Big Brother, or just people who are incredibly, incredibly bored.”
According to Brandes, we love to read celebrity gossip because it is vicariously ‘happening to us’; it is not necessarily that we hate these people but we hate, or are at least bored with, our own lives. I have to say, Brandes’ thesis does make sense and it seems a lot more generalisable than Tehrani’s. It perhaps helps to explain why we follow the work of people with superior skills to varying degrees of intensity, whether writers, politicians, academics and so on. Yes, we do admire their superior skills but we also want to be like them and so we project ourselves onto them. In that sense, Brandes and Tehrani are actually saying the same thing. Or maybe, as Brandes argued, we project ourselves onto our object of admiration because it helps us to understand them and recognise aspects about them. In this regard, Brandes echoes Hegel.
In The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel argued that the self-consciousness cannot exist unless it is acknowledged and recognised by another self-consciousness whom it recognises. In other words, we want other people to acknowledge or recognise us. As long as we focus solely on ourselves, anyone else does not exist for us; they become like waste that is thrown away and sent to a landfill. Therefore, to recognise that someone else exists, we not only have to stop thinking about ourselves but also mentally “create” the other person so that they do exist for us. From our point of view, at that point, the behaviour of the other is contextualised through us. An example of this is when we make assumptions from what someone has said and done about what they might think and feel. In reality, we simply recognising what we think and feel. In that respect, media judgment on a celebrity’s actions is the mediation of the readers’ values. According to Hegel, the only way that we can truly know the other, whether it is someone in our own lives or someone we place on a pedestal, is to deny or forget about our assumptions, to recognise that our assumptions are unfounded and we do not know about the person, and then to ask them. It could be argued that the role of the media is to find out about famous people on our behalf – because it IS what we want – but also to recognise what the objects of our fascination want too. The media are just that, a dialectic between people. Of course, that assumes the people who work in the media are selflessly thinking about their readers want and ignoring their own desire for recognition. I do not think they are completely self-absorbed but I suspect that half of what is published or broadcast may not necessarily be what the readers’ want per se but what the editors or the executives want.