This interview was originally conducted in 2011 but its publication in an upcoming magazine fell through. David John Ebert is the celebrated author of "The Age of Catastrophe," "Dead Celebrities, Living Icons" and "Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragon. This interview discusses his book “Dead Celebrities, Living Icons.”
(1) Can you quickly describe what the central thesis of the book is, and what the book is generally about?
The thesis of the book is that the modern phenomenon of the multimedia superstar has very specific structural characteristics which are made possible by the advent of electronic technology after World War II. The technologies of these new media—i.e. television, radio, computers, Internet, cable TV, satellite, etc.—function in such a way as to create an electronic Otherworld that parallels our own physical, three-dimensional world. It is a world in which the person who becomes mega-famous actually creates an alternate Self, or avatar, that appears to take on its own independent existence within this electronic Otherworld. In this Otherworld, the celebrity’s self that becomes famous isn’t actually the real celebrity, but rather this electronic image: it is the image that the public falls in love with, but the problem with the image is that it is only a two-dimensional construct. It is a flattening out of only a certain aspect of the real celebrity’s three-dimensional personality, but the public so loves this image avatar that the real celebrity finds him or herself forced to live in accordance with its strictures. This can, and very often does, have a damaging and confusing effect on the celebrity’s own self-image. Issues of identity arise, in which the celebrity may find, as in the case of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, that they have become captive to their own image stereotypes and cannot break free of its strictures. Sometimes, this leads to a fatal outcome, and my book is specifically directed to study the lives of those celebrities who did, in fact, come to a tragic end. It is precisely the tragic ending that causes the celebrity’s image avatar to take on certain cult-like aspects in the popular imagination, and the celebrity, especially figures like James Dean or Elvis Presley, begin to function within the popular culture in a way that is analogous to how the Catholic saints once used to function. That is to say, their lives become parables, like the lives of the saints were parables illustrating the sufferings and struggles of the devoted Christian in a world that was, at least initially, hostile to Christianity. In this case, the life of the celebrity becomes a modern mythology of the disoriented and confused celebrity icon who lives and dies as a victim of electronic media.
(2) Throughout the book you introduce the celebrities as if they are on a stage, what was the thinking behind this?
The thinking behind this is that the book itself is, indeed, a stage in which the author takes on the persona of an MC who introduces to his reading audience, one by one, the shades of dead celebrities and then proceeds to recount the main events of their lives in a way that is exemplary of life under electronic conditions, somewhat along the manner of a modern equivalent of Plutarch’s Lives of the celebrities of antiquity.
(3) What inspiration or reason did you have that wanted you to write this book?
The inspiration for the book came from the fact that I went out looking for an intellectual and philosophical book—a good cultural studies book, in other words—about the phenomenon of celebrity and couldn’t find one, so I realized I had to write it. Taking my cue from J.G. Ballard’s studies of the cult-like aspects of the celebrity in his books The Atrocity Exhibition andCrash, and also from the various references to the phenomenology of celebrity in the books of Camille Paglia, I decided to devote a specific study to what these other authors were merely hinting at but had never actually undertaken, that is to say, the articulation of a philosophy of celebrityhood, as it were. The book is an attempt to found a discipline of Celebrity Studies, a discipline which, to my knowledge, does not exist at this time.
(4) Why do we need myth? Why is it the case that we turn celebrities into electronic saints and gods?
The human psyche cannot live without myth. We’re hardwired for it; it’s in the DNA, as it were. In an age in which the once all encompassing Christian macrosphere—to borrow Peter Sloterdijk’s term—has collapsed, we are living in a post-religious age in which the psyche is expected to conform to a world horizon that has been articulated for it by science. But science as we have come to know and currently understand it does not make room in its purview for the existence of gods and mythic heroes, so the popular imagination simply reprojects these archetypes—which had once been projected upon saints, so long ago—onto their nearest modern equivalents, which turn out to be the mega-famous.
Part of the problem, too, is that we have created a gigantic world dominated by enormous machines, machines that have had the effect of dwarfing the human presence into insignificance. But it happens to be the case that electronic technology reverses the effects of the mechanical world with its phenomena of feedback and resonance, which tend to have an amplificatory effect upon the human being. People are able to obtain fame using electronic technology that has the effect of scaling them out of all human proportion to the level of giants, thereby rendering a human presence in the world that is fit to correct proportions against a mechanical world-horizon. The celebrity scales up the human presence so that it can still be registered inside of a world in which the human presence has inadvertently disappeared.
5) Is the religion of the celebrity one that will continue to preserve, or will it fade like most religions?
The religion of the celebrity will continue to exist as long as society is configured by electronic media. Once this kind of technology disappears, as it inevitably will, so too will disappear the cult of the ultra-famous. This is simply folk religion as it exists under electronic conditions. Change the conditions, and you will change the religion.
(6) In this secular scientific world can you see an "enantiodromia" take place and the full-scale myth brought back into our society? If so, why? If not, why not? Or are there certain conditions that we have to take place, i.e. world war 3 and the eradication of the machines and the industrial age?
Yes, I do see the possibility of an enantiodromia, as you put it, in which full scale ancient mythologies might return. In fact, this is likely. As Oswald Spengler has shown in The Decline of the West, the particular type of phase of civiliation in which we are living is an historically ephemeral one that each of the great civilizations cycles through during its terminal phase. We are living in the terminal phase of Western civilization right now, that is to say, the high art forms have all disintegrated and we have shifted the level of our concerns to that of pragmatic ones, economics and politics, for instance, which currently are the major concerns of the day (as opposed to religious and metaphysical ones). But as happened with ancient Rome when it shifted from the Republic to the Empire, and in the case of ancient Egypt as it transformed from the Middle Kingdom into the period of its New Empire, so in our case, we are currently transforming into what will eventually become a new metaphysical age in which religious concerns will gradually, over the course of the next two or three centuries, return to center stage. We think everything we moderns are doing is new, but it is actually the fact that we are just as embedded in cyclic patterns of recurrence as the ancients were and our civilization, too, will transform, given time. No civilization stays what it is for very long, and myth will one day return in some new and surprising variation that is impossible at this point to predict.
(7) Why is it the case that humanity today needs a religion of the celebrity? Is it due to the death of overt mythic imagination and religion and the rise of the homogeneous society and machines? Is it due to the ever-present structure of the human psyche? Or are there other reasons and factors?
The society only prefers the two-dimensional human avatar because that’s what electronic technology gives them. There’s no other way for the mega-celebrity to exist except in that form. What the popular imagination prefers is stereotyped images, what you get in the case of a cult of a Stalin or a Mao, a cult of personality in earlier phases of our society has now shifted to a cult of fame in which anybody can become famous as long as they play well via electronic means. This means that their image avatars must activate archetypal undercurrents in the human psyche that are then projected onto these individuals, which then become the cause of mass-excitement phenomena. Crowds, whether in human form or as flocks of birds or fish, behave in certain stereotyped ways: if they see the right image, the whole crowd reacts as a single organism. Thus if a school of fish sees a shark, they all run away in the same direction because the image of the shark is buried deep within their collective nervous system. Same thing with the celebrity: the image activates deep plutonian undercurrents in the psyche that trigger stereotyped behavior in large crowds, such as the way teenagers responded to the Beatles, who triggered the Orphic archetype in their psyches.
(8) Throughout the book we continually see that the famous two-dimensional electronic avatar of the celebrity forces the real three-dimensional person to death. Is there any particular reason that the general public and the human psyche prefer two dimensional to three dimensional characters? Or is this just a socially conditioned response
Yes, that is what we are in process of doing right now: the world of physical reality is collapsing and folding up to migrate into hyperreality, as Baudrillard used to say. Books are collapsing and reappearing as Kindles and E-readers; stores are closing and reappearing online as Internet sites; friends are disappearing and turning up on Facebook; just as Cds have disappeared and been replaced by iTunes and iPods; soon, a similar fate will befall DVDs, as well. Creating a two dimensional Fantasia Welt seems to be the current project that we are collectively engaged in as a society. In the Middle Ages, everyone chipped in to bring forth the cathedrals; nowadays, it is this two dimensional fantasy world that we are all playing midwives to.
(9) Continuing this line of thought - can you see the world wide displacement of the three-dimensional world to the electronic two-dimension? That is, will we completely murder reality for the hyperreality globally?
The only reason that we prefer the hyperreal to the real is that it yields instantaneous results and appeals to our innate desire for instant gratification. Nothing can compete with the speed of light; it’s the fastest speed there is, and these new Light Technologies move at the speed of light and consequently everything and everyone is brought right to where you are at, no matter where you are located in physical space. There’s never been anything like it in history before and it seems to be an experiment that we are currently fascinated with. It will run its course until it is played out, like everything else in history.
(10) In the book, you say that just as Osiris and Jesus died and were resurrected to immortality, so too are Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, for example. Whilst the myths of Osiris and Jesus seem to convey important metaphorical truths to the human psyche and individual, can the same be said of Jackson and Presley? If so, what are they?
Yes, the same can be said of Jackson and Presley as of Osiris and Jesus: they do convey important metaphorical truths to the psyche, truths which have important connotations for the circumstances of the age in which these beings find themselves living. We need the patterns and models of exemplary lives in order to fathom the implications of the circumstances we’re living in: Jesus was metaphorical of the death and rebirth of the human psyche, the fish drawn forth out of the waters of spiritual ignorance; Osiris did something similar for Egypt as the great god of the Underworld, just as Christ became Lord of physical matter. In the case of Elvis Presley, we have the archetypal musician, the modern incarnation of Orpheus or Krishna, who tales the democratic tale of the rags to riches story of the American post war middle classes of the suburbs. But that emergence from obscurity to fame brings a shadow side along with it, in this case, a basic confusion about his identity that set in about mid-way through his career and haunted him all along until it finally destroyed him and disintegrated his psyche into a haze of drugs. Same thing with Michael Jackson who repeated this archetype for a later generation. These stories say, be careful if you wish for fame; if you get it, it might make you into something else, another Being entirely, a mythic being that might be too difficult for your human psyche to withstand. Remember that when Semele wanted to see Zeus, she was blasted by his thunderbolt, which killed her.
(11) In a secular world where myths and religion have been eroded by scientific facts and beliefs, which Gods are more true or more important to the human individual and collective? The polytheistic gods of the ancient world, for instance, or the modern electronic gods? While the polytheistic gods of Greece, Rome and Egypt in today's scientific world are seen as either false, untrue, or mere replaceable with scientific knowledge, the electronic saints and demigods have attributes traditionally associated with the Gods: that is, in a sense, they appear omnipresent, broadcasted around the world in an constant and ubiquitous fashion through the electronic medium of TV’s, laptops and cinemas around the world; additionally, they appear relatively omnipotent with their substantial wealth, resources and influence. In essence, with such a large fan base, they are worshipped as idols.
Obviously, today the important gods are the electronic celebrities, since they speak to the circumstances that we currently find ourselves in. The old gods are from other societies from a long time ago, and with the exception of Jesus and the Buddha, they no longer speak to our current situation, which is, namely, that the human soul has been captured by machines. In the Age of Christ and the Buddha, the human soul was thought to have been fallen into and captured by matter; the body was seen as the enemy, and gnosis, or nirvana, were seen as the tools of salvation by means of which the mind was enabled to see itself as a spiritual entity and thus obtain salvation from its fall into Nature. This is the myth of the fall of the Anthropos into Physis. In the case of our current situation, the problem is that the human soul has fallen into technology and is held captive there by a technological Umwelt that it requires redemption from. The lives of these celebrities are not exemplary of salvation, but rather dramatize the fall, sinking and collapse of the Self and its undoing by these technologies. They tend not to provide a salvific metaphor, with the exception that salvation can be achieved through post-mortem fame, since electronic technology freezes and arrests the human image, liberating it from Time and thus gives it an aura of the Eternal about it. In today’s society, it is the electronic Otheworld that people want to escape into, which is why we’re currently seeing a mass exodus into this Otherworld via the Internet, cell phones, video cameras and so forth. This is now the only kind of immortality that many of us believe we’ll ever have, and the stories of the Lives of these Celebrities illustrate that.
David John Ebert is the cofounder of the website http://cinemadiscourse.com/
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