Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Jade and Bourgeois Corruption

The point that lay behind my news piece on Jade Goody's funeral has only just become clear to me. (I had only 1200 words and an hour to write, I was sitting in a pub garden surrounded by screaming brats, the wind kept blowing my papers away and it was for the news pages, all serious obstacles to speculation.) The points lies in my two sentences - 'To say that her life was a tragic absurdity, that she was an artefact of vacuous celebrity culture, is true but it is not the whole truth. The other truth lies in the fierce possessiveness of her people.' Celebrity culture is routinely kicked in conversation and in print - sometimes by me - as the source and symptom of all our contemporary woes. It deserves kicking, it's pretty stupid and very destructive. This kicking has become a great consolation to the chattering middle classes, it seems to give them a handle on the great confusion of their lives. This, at least, they can tell themselves, is plainly horrible and wrong. It can also provide them with the effortless superiority of delivering moral homilies to their social inferiors. They are like nineteenth century temperance campaigners, except that the temperance campaigners probably did some good. Or they do not kick, they indulge. They gossip archly about the celebrity stories of the day, but, if asked about this, we are assured it is all being done in a cool, ironic, postmodern kind of way. One way or another, celebrity culture fills many middle class hours. But this, as it were, emotionally remote contact with the phenomenon is nothing next to the working class engagement that I encountered at both Diana's and Jade's funeral, the ecstatic piety at the Pope's funeral and the tribal defiance at George's Best's. It's easy to say that Jade wasn't worth it, but it's not Jade that's the point, it's that 'it'. She was merely the occasion for a ritual of identity and belonging. In the past such rituals were inspired to imperial pride, patriotism and they are still linked to football. This is not just about big events like funerals, but also about little observances in pubs and in the minds of the people. Celebrities, beneath all the the hype and the irony, are a way of fulfilling the need for story and ritual. Of course, the existence of this need is cynically, cruelly exploited for profit by the media and, of course, there are reptiles out there. But to see only that is to fail to see the truth and purity of the people's passions. And I do mean purity. For the truth is that it is not the working classes who have been corrupted by celebrity culture. It is the middle classes.


  1. I think the simple answer as to what is fueling the celebrity culture is "smaller networks"

    Of course celebrity culture is far from new, the movie "The Duchess" explores that pretty well.

    I live in a house that's over 120 years old, back then family networks were not just desirable but essential, they where your health service, the dole, your police, etc.thus we stuck together through thick and thin , we had too.

    Now its different, even in the small village I live in I do not know everyone, and that's with making an effort.

    We have today larger "virtual networks" of people we communicate with (as now on your blog) but these are loose networks, My guess is that the stronger networks, family and friends, people you physically relay on are much smaller than ages past, even recent history.

    For all the problems the working class have, dealing and living with the underclass being the main one, their stronger networks are bigger. Middle Class people have looser ones as they can at the moment anyway, afford to live like that.

    Last week I went down to deal with a Tenant who I had a noise complaint against, apparently they were arguing till late. They are on a 6 month lease as they move around the country working, both graduates. The problem turned out to be not that they where arguing all the time, but they were watching Eastenders too loud at late hours on the Sky planner.

  2. My partner (an otherwise intelligent person), also happens to spend plenty of time reading 'Grazia'. Apparently this magazine is considered one of the more 'high brow' of the ladies weekly magazines.

  3. This is a good observation. I sometimes use an office at a business centre for my work, and for a while I was taken aback by the lack of knowledge of the many of the secretaries there (it's more likely to be women in my experience) who didn't know who David Cameron is, or how US get presidents get elected (they thought Obama had already won lots of elections by November - they were right of course in thinking this), or what the EU is. However, the likes of Justin Timberlake and Lady GaGa are much more fully formed in their lives.

    Yesterday I heard Marina Hyde of the Guardian inveighing against celebrity culture on Start the Week - she overlooked that when when celebs are brought into politics, often it is by politicians who are desperate to connect with an audience. I read many newsparer columnists whose opinions are as vacuous, inane and predicable as those of Angelina Jolie or Bono (although Bono has publicly praised George Bush - something no-one from the Guardian would dare do).

    Last night I watched Germaine Greer and Will Self behave like bumptious idiots on BBC4's the Book Quiz when a picture of Vernon Kay, presenter of Family Fortunes, was shown as a visual clue to the book title Vernon God Little. 'Who's Vernon Kay?' they repeated querulously, a la John Humphries. It was a big deal to them and reflected far more about their hang-ups and supposed superiority than anything else.

  4. christ, Mr. A, that's like a flippin' sermon! well, I don't know anything about it but it didn't light up my day so I don't know what class has to do with it. it's like saying black people got rhythm, or big penises. maybe some do, and good luck with that.

  5. This is totally incoherent. Why are you so bad at -thinking-?

  6. Re: two words in ian's comment.

    sermon - but it wasn't long-winded and boring, surely. It was truth spoken with passion. Hmm, nice connection.

    christ - greek for messiah of course. But Keegan failed and even with Shearer they'll probably go down.

    On the other hand "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me (anointed = messiah = christ) to preach good news to the poor ..." Again, the connection is profound. Bryan is onto something, as I think you feared.

  7. If by culture of celebrity we mean exposure to the public of an individual for the sole purpose of enhancing the media's bottom line and the individuals concerned are talentless and work shy, other than a street wise craftiness, then Goody was a classic example, a creature of the media, as the monster was a creature of Baron Frankenstein and in the grand order of things, pointless.
    We are told that these people are popular, the ratings show it, how ratings are achieved is anyone's guess. That they become popular is undoubtedly true but so did the sideshow freaks.
    Popular with who, the working class ? define the working class .. people other than the middle class or the rich, the rich you can identify, the middle class ? I doubt it.
    The tribes are sub divided into factions, the factions into splinter groups.
    The term chattering classes is often in the air, I do not recognise these people, they must exist within the confines of the South and North circular.
    Just as many plain folk hold vacuous conversations as do their university educated counter parts.
    Saying that Bermonsey has a strong sense of community and shows it through their feelings for a dead local celebrity, based upon an hour or two spent on the streets, is stretching things somewhat.

    There still exists today the shadows of the old social order and tightly knit local communities, but that is all they are, shadows, the originals blown away by external forces, the death of traditional industries which did create a strong sense of belonging, ridiculous levels of immigration loss of faith and a bureaucracy who's sole purpose in life is its own survival are among the major factors.

    What do the tens of thousands of hard working, talented kids out there think when they see these media creatures daily shoved in their faces, what hope does it give them ?

    In a society where absolutes no longer exist these people are for many the next best thing, we are all the poorer for it.

  8. Richard, my glass, what I'm looking through, is half darkly, full.


  9. I suppose one could argue that celebrity culture is a natural product of the Anglo-Saxon capitalism we've been hearing so much about lately. Successful businessmen become celebrities and celebrities become megabucks businessmen. And in either case, the average joe has about as much chance of joining them as he has of winning the lottery. What matters is maintaining the illusion that this upward mobility is easier than it is even though the disparities between rich and poor have grown a lot in the past two decades.

    Like the lottery, celebrity culture strikes me as a tax on the poor and a way of keep people in their place. It may (or may not) corrupt the middle classes but it is the poor who pay for it. Expectations are impoverished and education and hard work are seen as unnecessary. So the middle classes get to keep all the best jobs and in addition they enjoy the culture's profits by way of salaries and investments from the media combines, professional fees and the like. So for one person celebrity culture represents an injustice and for another it is a potential source of corruption. Is one really worse than the other?

    I suspect the whole thing feeds off our obsession with sentimentality, the idea that the old order was somehow better, more real, more genuine than we are today. It wasn't. No thanks.

  10. Much of what Bryan says here is true, particularly the identification of the middle-class tendency to deliver "moral homilies to their social inferiors."

    However, the axis of polarisation created by Jade (and her manipulators), was perpendicular to the class hierarchy. As Michael Parkinson's comments today, and the previous comments of Noel Gallagher illustrate, working-class people were as likely to be repulsed by Jade, and what she represented, as middle-class people.

  11. Bryan is a celebrity too. More power to ya, Mr. A.

  12. Too easy, Bryan. The newspaper article was perfect but this post doesn't feel right.

    It's now useless to try to fit everything into a tripartite class division. We're in the quantum flux remember.

    Also, if there is a simple middle class of chatterers, which there isn't, then they're my people and I'm getting tired of other chatterers kicking them with their even chattier kicky chat.

  13. I agree with Brit that this is something one feels, one way or the other. I feel Bryan has nailed something immensely important lurking beyond his Sunday article. Of course it's not everything that might legitimately be said.

    A simple way of framing it is that the talk that he (and then Michael, very effectively) describe from the 'chattering middle classes', that we've all heard and perhaps indulged in, is one of hate. The 'fierce possessiveness' of those that Bryan for all his faults actually listened to on Saturday is not without flaws but it does approach or imitate love. You remember the Enlightenment ideal that every person is equal and should be loved accordingly? They did emphasize that, the men of the Enlightenment, didn't they? Well, they did if you include John Wesley in their number, as Gertrude Himmelfarb argues strongly we should.

    It's the faux belief in equality that never listens to but despises the other, in order to find meaning for itself, that needs exposing. I'm with Bryan all the way on that, if I've got his drift right.

  14. Yes Richard, but my worry is there might be an element of coercion here. Folks behave in the way they do and say certain things because they feel it is expected of them, on an occasion like that. I'm not saying they do it deliberately or are necessarily even aware of a gap between sentiment and reality, but the social pressure is there. We are all prone to it, imho. It is easy to go with the flow and the next thing one is espousing something than doesn't really exist based on folks saying things they don't really mean. We're all prone to that one too. So might one say a problem here is faux belief itself before faux belief in anything in particular. So what was said that the event may have seem real and true to a speaker at the time, but the next day?

  15. Mark, there's stuff I know I don't know about it, including how much influence the media money men have in shaping the whole thing. When Piers Morgan tried to rebel, banning Big Brother from the front page of the Mirror, he almost sunk it though. That suggests the tabloids are following something profound in the culture, as is their wont. There's much I don't get. But I appreciate your thoughts a lot.

  16. Presumably, there is within us a deep extra-rational (as opposed to irrational, which implies stupid) desire to engage in acts of collective religious-like worship. Such desires used to be satisfied by the Gods, and then by God (and his saints) but now there's nothing out there except celebrities. The quality of what is worshipped is not important (after all, Hitler was worshipped, as is Kim Il Jong today). What matters is that the worshipping happens.

    Opportunity, then, to provide, or discover, objects of worship more worthy of this apparently inescapable worship than are provided by celebrities.

    It is an intellectual's conceit to imagine, in rationalist fashion, that he has historically outgrown the need for worship; and thereby to look down on the satrry eyed as anachronisms. And yet more subtlety, with less vulgarity perhaps, he yet worships - diclosing to the world, if not himself, that he is more than rational.