‘Assess Eric Rothenbuhler’s claim that celebrity culture is an essential part of the church of the cult of the individual’, 4000 word essay

‘Assess Eric Rothenbuhler’s claim that celebrity culture is an essential part of the church of the cult of the individual’


Introduction – Celebrity Culture


  1. David Marshall argues that, “celebrity represents an intensifying and proliferating discourse over the course of the twentieth century, one that not only populates entertainment magazines, but is also an essential component of the production of newspapers, news-magazines, web based news sites and blogs, television news and entertainment channels…[and] is very much a component of contemporary politics” (Marshall 2006: 4). As his quote suggests, the discourse of celebrity is ubiquitous across contemporary culture. Such ubiquity can also be seen in the attitudes of people living in this society, “Most pre-school children want to be a celebrity when they are older according to a survey out today…almost a third [of parents] said their sons and daughters wanted to be a famous performer” (Times Educational Supplement 2nd Nov, 2006) Celebrity is simultaneously something glamorous and distant and something normalised as a desirable career choice, “I never felt ‘normal’ until I became a celebrity” (Angelyne, cited in Gamson 1994: 1). Marshall goes on to suggest that the reason for such proliferation of celebrity discourse is the relation it bears to the production and maintenance of fictions of the self as individual, “the audience continues to interpret the meaning of celebrity in a grand narrative on the dimensions of individuality and identity in contemporary culture where comparisons between the self and the celebrity are constantly made, and cultural norms are supported, altered or dismantled” (Marshall 2006: 3-4).


This can be seen in many contemporary examples of representation of celebrity. Britney Spears for example provides an interesting case. Britney’s early image successfully combined two important encodings. She was both object of sexual desire for an older mostly male audience, and object of aspirational identification for a younger mainly female audience. Both elements still co-exist in contemporary representations of Britney:


LOS ANGELES (AP) — It seems almost everybody wants a piece of Britney Spears, and at least six pieces are officially for sale.

Spears’ wardrobe from her guest-starring stint on CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” will be sold at an online auction to benefit the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization.

The weeklong auction begins Monday night, just after the episode featuring the pop star is set to air. Spears plays a flirty receptionist who falls for show’s main character.

A half-dozen Spears-worn items will be available, including a navy print Juicy Couture dress, a yellow Nannette Lepore dress and a cream Nannette Lepore cardigan with blue flower details.

CBS and 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the show, are sponsoring the auction. (Associated Press, 24th March 2008)


Britney’s sexuality – playing the ‘flirty receptionist’, is emphasized, along with her nice designer clothes – Nannette Lepore dress and cardigan, allowing for this double identification. However while ‘it seems almost everybody wants a piece of Britney Spears’ can refer to both of these markets, and to the material objects for sale, it also refers to the media’s more recent dismantling of Britney into a raving drug-fuelled lunatic, losing all power of will and control:


It’s been a hectic few months for Britney Spears since filing for divorce. Forgetting to wear knickers on numerous nights out, swapping clothes and partying with strippers, drinking in the street, smoking too much, driving with a baby on her lap – we’ve  all seen the pictures. But after all the gloating and mocking in the media, the once virginal pop star has crossed the line of what will be tolerated – she shaved her head at the weekend. (BBC News Magazine, 20th Feb 2007)


As Graeme Turner has pointed out, “Celebrity has considerable explanatory power in a time of great complexity and contradiction” (G. Turner et al 2000: 166). In her relatively short celebrity career, Britney has acted as an image of cultural norms of feminine identity, masculine desire, and now as warning of the dangers that befall those who don’t toe the lines of cultural norms. To challenge those norms, is to be demonized and pathologised as ‘mad’, serving to reinforce those norms by producing excesses outside of their reach.  This shows the relation of celebrity to producing and policing boundaries of the self, “our [media] machinery only multiplies and enlarges the shadows of ourselves . . . We mark the boundaries of our world with a wall of mirrors” (D. Boorstin, 1961: 84, 256). The first extract also shows the importance of having supposed access to the ‘real’ celebrity. We see the allure of not only her on-stage persona but also of real objects that have touched her real body. As Marshall argues, the media provide a “reality-effect” which is “alluring, if not intoxicating for an audience” (Marshall 2006: 3).


Rothenbuhler and the Church of the Cult of the Individual


For Rothenbuhler perhaps such an auction would be equated with tourist pilgrims clambering over the Turin shroud, and the shaving of her head with Joan of Arc’s martyrdom. The starting point for his argument is Durkheim’s claim that modernity, while seeming to be organized along secular lines, is actually deeply embedded with religious codes and structures, “Modernity has its religious element even as it swears it does not” (Rothenbuhler 2005: 98). Rothenbuhler’s aim is to take this insight and develop it further into a more formal theory of the religious structures that underpin modern life. Rather than interpreting religion as a separate autonomous institutional sphere, removed from everyday modern life, Rothenbuhler follows Durkheim in emphasizing the importance of religious ritual and myth in lived relations of politics, media and communication. He adopts this framework in order to attempt to explain what he calls the ‘mysteries’ of celebrity culture. Masses of time, media coverage and leisure are devoted (to use an appropriate metaphor) to the production, consumption and circulation of discourses of celebrity, and Rothenbuhler’s essay is an attempt not only to analyze this phenomenon but also to try and explain why it happens.


His essay combines Durkheimian sociology with an analysis of consumer culture. He draws on Gadamer to discuss ‘self-cultivation’: how the right choices of leisure are presented as self-improving and the wrong choices as self-wasting. Contemporary examples to back this up are easy to find. The current edition of Reveal shows how Natalie Cassidy “looks sensational on the beach after dropping four dress sizes…with her personal trainer Dee Thresher who she took on the trip!” (Reveal, 22nd-28th March, p.18). She is presented as an image of self-improvement through personal choice, contrasting with the image of Coleen McLoughlin as self-wasting in the same edition, “she danced wildly on chairs, fell over and drunkenly rowed with a bouncer on a booze-fuelled night out” (13). Consumer choices are serious self-defining communicative activities of the cult of the individual:


It is the religion that dare not speak its name; nevertheless our communicative practices; our cultural choices; our industries of entertainment, information, and consumption; our politics; our educational institutions; and increasingly, our churches; are built around the construction, display, critique and improvement of selves. (Rothebuhler 2005: 99)


Production and improvement of the self become the primary activities of the cult of the individual, and the communication industries become its site of communion:


The self is the holy object of the society carried by the medium of the individual. It can only exist in communicative interaction, and therefore its churches must be communicative structures (99).


Rothenbuhler draws on Goffman on the cult of the individual in media representation. Much of media content functions a form of hyperritualisation, where normal rules of presentation are exaggerated and reduced to iconographic types, which have greater presence and authority and become examples of how to conduct oneself in the world. He argues that reputation is a key currency in the cult of the individual, and one that has not been properly theorized as a system of symbolic expression for larger social currents, “celebrity dynamics are more than just tools and products of the economy, they are fundamentally important expressions of the value system of the society” (95). In the examples above, self-denial leading to thinness is valorized in the context of hard-work and overcoming obstacles, “dropping four dress sizes…It looked like hard work…It is hard work!” (Reveal, 18), as well as moderation and ‘naturalness’, “I’ve finished the diet, now I’ll go back to how I used to eat” (18). On the other hand in the Colleen example, excess, and by reference to “the Croxteth estate where she grew up” (14), being working-class, are demonised.


Rothenbuhler goes on to produce modalities of different types of celebrity. He argues for example that film stars offer the most useful analogue of tensions experienced in everyday life, as we see them in and out of role, in different roles, on-stage or back-stage, examining how they handle situations well, or are punished and apologise. He contrasts this kind of celebrity with musicians, artists and politicians, who perform ‘authenticity, genuineness and fealty’, “a social system based on individualism could not work without emphasis on such reliability producing values” (Rothenbuhler 2005: 96). The distinction he makes however seems almost impossible to maintain in contemporary celebrity culture. With the expansion of cross-media marketing strategy, the ubiquity of visual media, and rise of those famous purely for being famous, Rothenbuhler’s analysis of film stars could now be seen as having a far broader reach.  Most of the big ‘stars’ now for example are seen not purely as film stars, but in adverts, in various everyday activities, whether managed and promotional, or supposedly authentic and captured, “the day-to-day activities that would produce dull activities if you or I were doing them become fascinating if performed by a celebrity: you simply don’t expect . . . Jennifer Love Hewitt to pick up her own dry cleaning’ (Brittain Stone, US Weekly editor, cited in Howe 2004: 131). Musicians, artists and politicians are equally seen across a range of roles in constant media glare, making it hard to sustain Rothenbuhler’s distinction. While on one hand, there is the constant desire for the ‘reality’ of the celebrity, on the other hand, there is the rise of the ‘real person’ as celebrity, or what Rojek classes the ‘celetoid’, “Celetoids are the accessories of cultures organized around mass communications and staged authenticity. Examples include lottery winners, one-hit wonders, stalkers, whistle-blowers, sports’ arena streakers, have-a-go-heroes, mistresses of public figures and the various other social types who command media attention one day and are forgotten the next.” (Rojek, cited in ‘The Demotic Turn’, 2008). It is this collapse of fixed definitions of the ‘celebrity’ into confusion that undermines Rothenbuhler’s attempts at such categorisation.


If stars change, according to Rothenbuhler, there are rituals of expulsion (see Britney example at the start), or on the other hand if they successfully change, then they can be proclaimed as genii (take Madonna or Kylie Minogue’s constant self re-inventions for example) According to his argument, genii are necessary for society but becoming one must be presented as a dangerous and difficult path to follow, loaded with self-indulgence and potential failure. He goes on to give examples of how celebrities can become saints or ghosts after their death. They have a role when living, but after death, the spirit celebrity is freed to get to work in a different way.


Rothenbuhler concludes: “Politics becomes (is) marketing. All of the institutional spheres differentiated in the evolution of modernity become more like communication industries. No-one is in favour of it, and yet all participate.  How else to explain it except as the due to the inexorable, arational pull of religious faith. We must be our self and our self must be served. Attention to the self spreads contagious and attractive as a religious ecstasy” (99). In other words, the hidden religious structure underpinning modern secular society is an explanation for the irrational lure of the discourses of the self vital to celebrity culture.


Criticisms of Rothenbuhler


One important assumption that Rothenbuhler’s argument is based on comes from Durkheim:


Like all religions in Durkeim’s analysis, the new religion would express the unity of the individual, society, and sacred principles and would engage in periodic gatherings and other ritual forms for the expression, promulgation, and reinforcement of its principles (92)


This assumption however is deeply problematic. Firstly, it shows Durkheim’s casual universalism in claiming to provide an analysis for ‘all religions’. This universalism carries through into Rothenbuhler’s argument, where specifics of individual practices are often overlooked in the face of an attempt to provide an overarching explanatory framework for what is actually a deeply contradictory set of phenomena. Secondly, it focuses entirely on the function of ritual as a ‘reinforcement’ of sacred principles. This allows for no possibility of ritual bringing into question, unsettling, subverting or completely undermining the principles it ostensibly sets out to perform. Rothenbuhler follows Durkheim in positing religion (and the individual) as a monolithic power structure, imposed from above, with no space for negotiation of its values. It shows both an oversimplification of ideology as a direct transferal of dominant values to a receptive population, and an oversimplified causal theory, whereby power flows one-way, granting no agency to those in its sway.


In opposition to this, there may be more complex identifications, as for example Richard Dyer has discussed:


Certain stars, far from managing contradictions, either expose them or embody an alternative or oppositional ideological position to dominant ideology (often contradictory itself). The ‘subversiveness’ of these stars can be seen in terms of ‘radical intervention’ (not necessarily conscious) on the part of themselves or others who have used the potential meaning of their image. (Dyer 2006: 153)


Take ‘camp’, for example, as an exaggerated performance of gender roles, “the cross dressing and play on sexual roles can be seen as a way of heightening the way that the sex roles are only roles and not innate or instinctual personal features” (175). The effect of camp,  Dyer argues, is not to reinforce gender roles, but by drawing attention to them, to be critical of them as provisional and performed, neither natural nor universal. This requires a reading (not necessarily conscious) of media rituals, which goes beyond mere reinforcement of dominant principles. As Jack Babuscio has pointed out, “finding stars camp is not to mock them…It is more a way of poking fun at the whole cosmology of restrictive sex roles and sexual identification which our society uses to oppress its women and repress its men” (cited in Dyer 2006: 175).


Rothenbuhler also fails to account for why individualism is important in a capitalist context. While it may be read as religious lure, individualism is also produced for specific reasons necessary for consumerist society and the production of citizen subjects of democracy. “Stars represent typical ways of behaving, feeling and thinking in contemporary society, ways that have been socially, culturally and historically constructed.” (Dyer 1986: 150). It is the broader social pressures contributing to these discourses that his argument doesn’t account for. As Marshall has pointed out, “Celebrities articulate individuality and identity. Individuality marks one of the key components in the structure of consumer culture as well as the aspirational qualities of democratic culture. Celebrities are hyper versions that express the potentials and possibilities of the individual under the rubrics of capitalist democracy” (Marshall 2006: 4). Marshall’s analysis could be read in relation to my Colleen Mcloughlin example above. The WAG lifestyle is presented as something positive, encoding aspirations of conspicuous wealth, strict gender divisions (working man / shopping woman), and defining the self through consumption of appropriate labels. This can be seen as part of a broader social shift, where economic imbalances such as footballer’s salaries have led to the rise of a new monied working class, and shifts in definition of what it means to be ‘posh’ (i.e. wearing designer labels rather than being born into land). This economic shift leads to an increased media visibility of ‘ordinary’ (working-class) people leading ‘posh’ (monied) lives, and celebrity becomes a key point of reference in aspirational desires, which are driven more by the illusion of class mobility than by any religious lure. Mobility is illusory because, as the article emphasizes by focusing on her drunken exploits, Colleen can never ‘really’ be posh. ‘Poshness’ is here presented as a self-aware performance to be played out, put on and taken off, used and abused but available to anyone (who has the money). This ideology is also emphasized through persistent emphasis on the reality effect in celebrity discourse. Glancing at the first couple of pages of Reveal reveals that Nicky Hilton has nobbly knees, Tyra Banks has been photographed looking not particularly pretty, Cameron Diaz can’t get a boyfriend and Amy Winehouse’s flat is dirty (Reveal, 22nd-28th March 2008). While such stories do of course function to police the boundaries of acceptable discourses of the self, they also fit neatly into ideologies of performing celebritariness – If Amy Winehouse really just has a dirty flat (like you) and she can still lead a posh lifestyle, then so can you (if you make the right consumer choices). Winehouse here is represented simultaneously as abjected self (don’t be like this) and realistic self (she’s like you), part of a general blurring of discourses which are subject to economic and ideological factors Rothenbuhler fails to account for.


Another interesting example of this is Chantelle winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. Here, as the only non-celebrity in a house of celebrities, she managed to win the game:


Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle Houghton has revealed she plans to spend her £25,000 prize money on a holiday – and orange lipstick. The “fake” celebrity beat entertainer Michael Barrymore into second place in the live final on Friday night. The 22-year-old was allowed to stay in the Channel 4 show after fooling fellow housemates she was a famous singer. Chantelle took 56.4% of viewers’ votes, with entertainer Michael Barrymore polling 43.6% to come second. Former Baywatch actress Traci Bingham and singers Pete Burns, Preston and Maggot were also finalists. Chantelle, a model from Essex, said she believed the public had voted for her because she was “down to earth”. (BBC News 24, 28th Jan, 2006)


This suggests that the public, perhaps surprisingly, value a self-conscious playing out of strategies and roles of celebritariness over the supposed authenticity of ‘actually’ being famous for some reason or another. This performative aspect of celebrity is something Rothenbuhler overlooks.  Chantelle has to perform a completely contradictory role, both ‘celebrity’ and ‘down to earth’, both ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’, but as it is in inverted commas, perhaps she is only fakely fake. This increase in irony, self-awareness and reflexivity has become vital in cotemporary celebrity discourse, and is not really accounted for by Rothenbuhler. After Big Brother, Chantelle went on to get married to fellow ‘celebrity’ Preston, then later revealed that the whole relationship was a fake, staged purely for financial gain. According to Rothenbuhler’s argument, as such an obvious example of failed self-regulation, she would be quickly demonized and ex-communicated from the church, yet, in the contemporary climate, Chantelle becomes a peculiar kind of icon, the ultimate ironic, fakely fake, nouveaux-riche, self-aware, real, absurd, down-to-earth pinnacle of celebrity culture.


Another point of criticism comes in the economy of Rothenbuhler’s writing itself. His use of Christian metaphors is remarkable in its over exaggeration, as if the excessive zeal of celebrity worship he describes has infected his own writing style. Take this for example, “the liturgy, sermons, hymns and hymnology, bible and commentary, evangelism, denominationalism and ecumenism of the cult of the individual” (92). His listing style recalls the emphatic repetition of a preacher becoming overawed by his own faith. This recalls Marshall’s observation that “at the heart of celebrity culture is the anxiety that there is nothing of value” (Marshall 2006: 314). Perhaps one reason for the persistence of the religious metaphor is an attempt to provide weight to celebrity discourse itself by forcing it into the traditions and exalted language of the church. A different but connected point is that, in his use of it as a language and metaphor, Rothenbuhler shows a lack of understanding of the complexities of religion itself. There is no real discussion of how religious contagion actually works.




Rothenbuhler’s conclusion is interesting, “This chapter is admittedly speculative, even playful, and the proposal that the media function as a church of the cult of the individual must remain a hypothesis” (98). This raises the question not only of what proof would be required for such a hypothesis, but also how much use it is as a speculative hypothesis anyway. He talks for example of how celebrity media discourses present individuality in positive or negative terms by showing “what happens to people who perform their individuality in good and bad ways” (94). This is a fair point and one that been discussed elsewhere (see Marshall 2006 for example). However, beyond a neat extension of metaphor, nothing is really added to the argument by framing it in religious terms (as saints and heroes). His analysis is descriptive. It suggests a reading of how contemporary media discourses of celebrity operate in an analogous way with religion, but offers no prescriptive value. What strategies or tactics may be adopted in this context, for example, are not even alluded to.


Chris Rojek notes that there are unavoidable parallels between religion and celebrity. On one hand, it may be seen as idolatry, the devil’s work, superficial; or on the other hand, as a non-reciprocal emotional dependence, where the fan’s attachment to celebrities compensates for inadequacies in the rest of his/her life, “the tension has inescapable parallels with religious worship” (Rojek 2006: 390). Celebrities are attributed with God-like qualities or the spirit of the shaman, and as Rothenbuhler’s analysis shows, away from organized religious belief, the sacred becomes attached to the mass media. Certain elements of his analogy do seem valid. His argument makes sense when put into the sociological context of folk beliefs and magic, myth systems and spiritualism repressed but remaining in industrial society. As Rojek argues, religion addresses fundamental questions of being in the world. When religions go, the questions remain and, “post-God celebrity is one of the mainstays of organizing recognition and belonging in a secular society” (393). Rojek gives other examples from celebrity culture. The Britney auction in my initial example could be read as a celebrity reliquary, a way of breaking down distance between the follower and the sacred object.  He also proposes analogies of the ritual of Communion, such as the scattering of ashes into public space. As Bill Shankly’s body becomes part of the Anfield ground for example, his myth continues to haunt it. There are other examples too, swooning at pop concerts could be read in terms of the ecstatic ‘collective effervescence’ proposed by Durkheim. Something else touched upon but not developed by Rothenbuhler is how as celebrities become the modern religion, modern religion becomes a ritual of celebrity. Example of this are not only the televangelist preacher stars of US cable TV but pilgrim tourists flocking to Seville’s Holy Week for photos of the Madonna (to file perhaps alongside their photos of Madonna).


As Rojek shows, “there appears to have been a substantial convergence between religion and consumer culture…The decisive question is the degree of convergence” (Rojek 2006: 393). Rojek’s answer, it seems, is that there has been a partial convergence. Rothenbuhler, on the other hand, proposes a complete convergence between religion and celebrity. This is a more reductive theory, which proposes religion as a universalising mode of explanation for the allure of celebrity.  His argument can’t account for important elements of celebrity culture such as complex active identifications of camp, or social and economic pressures on productions of individuality. It also fails to account for the importance of irony and reflexivity in contemporary celebrity culture, and becomes absorbed in its own religious zeal and metaphors. While providing a fruitful and polemic starting point for discussion, Rothenbuhler’s claim is ultimately outweighed by its limitations.





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