AuthorHershal Pandya

Understanding Fame Through the Lens of a Social Scientist

First things first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address Valentin’s dismissive categorization of the content of my post. Trite musings, you say?! If you’d intended to disparage me with these words, it may be mildly irritating to know that you unequivocally failed. Not only did my ego remain unbruised, but you also gave me an idea for the title of my future memoir: “Trite Musings: The Life and Times of Hershal Pandya.”

Speaking more generally, I’d argue that in tackling a subject as broad and expansive as fame, anything short of a 15,000 word dissertation could correctly be classified as “trite.” Even the evolutionary analysis you provided, while offering a good framework, tells us very little about how fame is interpreted and reproduced in the modern era. Any nuanced exploration of the subject would invariably require one to delve further into the milieu of relevant sociological and psychological research to understand exactly why fame manifests itself and the various forms it can take. To harken it back to an evolutionary holdover isn’t wrong, but it’s a bit like trying to explain the act of murder by saying “it goes back to survival of the fittest.” It’s certainly part of the explanation, but it doesn’t offer much real insight into specific acts of terror or genocide. Valentin, in your attempt to spit fire onto my trite musings, all you really did was pull the pin on the fire extinguisher, unleashing even more trite musings into the NFC ether. Just as the man who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones, the man who lives in a house built of trite musings, shouldn’t, er, call the kettle black? Fuck it, I’m bailing on this metaphor.

On a serious note, Valentin’s post actually inspired me to do a bit of research to figure out what the good ol’ social scientists have to say about the topic-at-hand. Surprisingly, it appears to be a relatively underexplored territory within the discipline of sociology. I say “surprisingly” because, when it comes to social science research, I generally assume that every single area of every single discipline has been covered repeatedly as part of a mass-conspiracy perpetrated by academic journals to perpetuate their existence in otherwise economically impractical research disciplines. I’m still working out the specifics of this conspiracy theory, but as proof I can offer my anecdotal evidence of googling the phrase “sociology journals,” and, within 30 seconds, finding an article entitled “Reflections on the Use of Visual Methods in a Qualitative Study of Domestic Kitchen Practices.” What the fuck is a “kitchen practice?” Does this just mean cooking?

In the limited research that exists, the prevailing analysis seems to group fame or “celebrity” (the word that is more commonly used in the research) into two main categories: (1) celebrity as pathology and (2) celebrity as commodity.

In the former category, researchers have generally proceeded under the assumption that there are some shared mental traits possessed by celebrities (and those who aspire towards celebrity) that can help us understand their behaviour. Researchers have theorized that these same mental traits also have a tendency to make fame an inherently negative or corruptible force. Of course, it’s difficult to quantifiably prove any of this, and much of the research points to one particular study from a 2009 book written by, of all people, Dr. Drew. The study, which involved administering the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to a sample of 200 celebrities, was actually fairly groundbreaking, as gaining access to celebrities for academic research had traditionally proved to be very problematic. Unsurprisingly, the study found that celebrities ranked higher on the NPI index than the average American, ultimately lending credence to the researchers’ hypothesis that “narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities.” As an interesting aside: reality stars had the highest NPI scores, followed closely by comedians, actors, and then musicians.

In the latter category, researchers have examined the concept of fame/celebrity as it exists strictly for the purpose of spurring capitalism. The research argues that celebrities are created and trotted out by the media for the explicit purpose of driving consumption. The research would argue that even the purest of celebrities—those we’d consider to have attained fame purely based on skill or artistic merit—are essentially just content creators to be exploited by media outlets. I’d argue that the media’s role in creating celebrities is much less prominent than it used to be at present, but even those who emerge organically as a result of public approval are quickly coopted into the traditional media framework. Take, for example, the surprise star of the last Presidential debate, Ken Bone. Within 24 hours of becoming an online sensation, Ken Bone had been trotted out all over the traditional media, from local news affiliates to Jimmy Kimmel Live. We’re now almost a full week removed from the debate and publications are still getting mileage from scouring through his reddit history and posting sensationalist headlines using his name. Meanwhile, Ken Bone is trying to derive any economic benefit he can from the situation, shilling for uber, and selling official t-shirts via his twitter account. Just today, I saw that some costume companies have put together sexy Ken Bone Halloween costumes that people can purchase online. In less than a week, an entire economy has popped up around Ken Bone.  I’ve heard that there are a lot of barriers that prevent economic development in Third World nations, but I wonder if the path to growth is to just create more Ken Bones.

The question still remains, however: even if I subscribe to the notion that all celebrities are either diseased narcissists or explicit agents of capitalism (which I’m not entirely sure I do), what is it about celebrities that makes them so compelling to us? Why do we buy the clothes they endorse? Why do we click on the headline about their scandals? Aside from the evolutionary analysis—which certainly has its merits—I saw some research that reinforced Rachit’s idea about how celebrities help us fill our insatiable need for a deity to worship, and other research that simply said that we aspire towards their rung on the social hierarchy. Intuitively, both of these explanations seem apt enough, and I really have no further analysis to contribute here. This post is essentially just a meta-analysis of other research that is out there in the social science zeitgeist. Meta-reviews are great because you can just regurgitate other people’s conclusions without adding anything new of your own. Meta-reviews are like the Desiigner of academic journal articles.


Fame, Kim Kardashian, and the Crowdsourcing of Self-Esteem

Never from Concentrate heads! It’s your boy, Hershal! The trusted stewards of your NFC content experience, the homies Rachit and Valentin, are letting me guest-post on this illustrious forum once again, to spit game, wax poetic, and hopefully not abscond meaningful conclusions about a topic that I often find myself feeling very conflicted by: fame.

There’s a common strain of thought amongst society’s cultural elitists, those who turn their nose up at reality stars like Kim Kardashian, where they question what skill it is these people possess that keeps them in the public eye.

“Why are we still talking about Kim Kardashian?! She doesn’t do anything!” they might say with manufactured vitriol, seemingly unaware of the palpable irony that questioning why we’re still talking about Kim Kardashian still undoubtedly constitutes talking about Kim Kardashian. It’s always struck me as somewhat of an obtuse question. What skill does she possess? It seems like such an outdated mode of thinking. Kim Kardashian’s skill is being famous. Kim Kardashian is better at being famous than most people are at doing whatever it is they’re best at doing. Consider, for example, a wood-worker who has spent 30 years painstakingly mastering his/her craft. Kim Kardashian is better at being famous than this person is at making oak cabinets. It’s not the most comfortable truth to acknowledge, but it’s undeniable.

Jokes aside, it’s not difficult to understand why these hypothetical pedants might be reluctant to accept the fact that fame and skill can now exist mutually exclusively. If we entangle fame with skill—be it art, punditry, commerce, athleticism, etc.—we can delude ourselves into thinking that the importance we assign to the rich and famous is based in something pure; perhaps a reverence of profound ability or an admiration of singular talent. Once this assumption is relaxed, however, we’re forced to reckon with the notion that maybe our relationship with celebrity is based in something much more toxic. Rolling Stone once tried to make an ill-conceived statement about this by putting a picture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston-Marathon terrorist, on its cover. Whatever proclamation it was trying to make was inevitably drowned out in a sea of outraged cries of, “Ooooooh. Way to be edgy, Rolling Stone. People are dead.”

I think we can learn a lot about society’s complicated relationship with fame by studying the way we interact with it on an individual level.  As someone who harbours vague aspirations of achieving marginal recognition as a writer, I’m not exactly the fame-hungry megalomaniac who would be most qualified to comment on this issue, but I think I might be able to offer some insight regardless. A couple of years into this Godless pursuit, I’ve all but disabused myself of the notion that my motivations for doing so are pure. I don’t particularly enjoy the craft of writing (I’d go so far as to say that sometimes placing my head in a blender seems preferable), I don’t think I have vital ideas that need to be shared, and I don’t possess any sort of generational skill with the pen. What I do have is an incessant need to derive my self-worth from external validation. Sadly, I’ve digested just enough armchair-psychology throughout my life to understand that this is almost certainly a misguided approach. Trying to fill the well of imagined inadequacy through outside approval is a bit like trying to fill an actual well using a colander. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable motivational speaker, it is important to recognize that sustainable self-worth can only truly be derived from within.

Going back to the idea of fame, if you were to amplify whatever emotional maladjustment it is that possesses me to write (and then subtract some of the self-awareness that keeps me grounded) you’d probably be left with someone who aspires towards celebrity. I mean, what could possibly satiate one’s vacuous need for external recognition more effectively than literally being recognized every time they leave their house? It’s this same nagging feeling of inadequacy, I’d imagine, that explains why we put celebrities on such a pedestal. Celebrities are the closest thing to living proof that it is indeed possible to crowdsource one’s self-esteem.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are some celebrities for whom fame is just an inevitable byproduct of profound success in their field of choice—Elon Musk comes to mind—but I can’t help but be skeptical when people tell me that fame doesn’t factor into their decision to pursue an otherwise impractical artistic endeavor at all. Call me a cynic, but I find it much harder to believe that the tens of thousands of aspiring singer/songwriters on soundcloud truly believe that the world needs more acoustic ballads about love. It’s why I’ve grown to develop a strange admiration for the Kim Kardashians of the world. Sure, Kim may seem vapid and shallow when deliberating on how best to curate her brand, but at the very least she’s being intellectually honest.


The Elements of Procrastination

Before I delve into the topic of productivity, I want to say that it is an honour to be the first ever Never From Concentrate guest contributor. Shoutout to Rachit and Valentin for providing me with a platform to pontificate on profound subjects and for implicitly endorsing my pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Reading through the archives, it’s admirable to see how the two of you attempt to arrive at clear conclusions about ambiguous issues, particularly when it’s so easy to be a non-committal fence sitter and thereby seek validation from people on both sides of an argument (author’s note: sometimes my self-awareness is exhausting). I hope to be able to hold myself to the same standards as the two of you and use this opportunity to flesh out some concrete opinions. Here we go:

Considering the name of this blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin by sharing an anecdote about a Google Chrome extension I used to use called “Concentrate.” The conceit of the tool was relatively simple; I would enter the URLs of various websites that typically hindered my productivity, specify the length of time that I wanted these websites to be inaccessible for, and then try my hardest to be productive. Whenever I opened a new browser tab and my Pavlovian response kicked in—typically, this meant checking Twitter—my browser would redirect me to a screen that showed me a picture of an orange and said “Concentrate.” If I’m being nitpicky, I’d prefer if it showed me some sort of inspirational quote rather than just a picture of an Orange, but like, what is this, TechCrunch?

I don’t have any data to reinforce this, but my best guess is that procrastination is composed of two main elements: (1) an inability to delay instant gratification, and (2) a general lack of interest in a given task. In my case, the “Concentrate” extension helped me combat the former. It gave me an opportunity to regain my perspective and think, “It doesn’t matter if Andy Richter tweeted something funny about a topical internet subject, my exam is in eight hours and that’s objectively more important right now.” Eventually, I bought a smart phone and I once again succumbed to my utter lack of self-discipline.

I read an article a little while ago that suggested that some of this might be out of my control. The author compared an individual’s excessive need to check their phones with a study conducted on rats. The study examined two groups of rats: a primary group who were fed at the same time every day and a secondary group who were fed at random intervals. The first group of rats began to sense a pattern and eventually began checking for food only at the designated time; whereas the second group of rats, unsure of when the food was going to come, began checking obsessively. This sounds a lot like humans, checking our phones obsessively because we are never quite sure when the next ‘ping’ is going to come. In the modern technological age, procrastination is now a subconscious impulse.

Unfortunately, even before purchasing my smartphone, the “Concentrate” app did nothing to combat the latter element of procrastination. It would seem that when I’m disinterested in a subject, I will purposefully go searching for distractions because literally anything else will seem more interesting in the moment. I’m pretty confident in my assertion that I’d rather watch five conspiracy theory documentaries than update my LinkedIn Profile.

I think this supports your point, Rachit, about why people tend to be more creative during periods of procrastination. In a perfect world, nobody would be forced to work towards tasks that they’re unmotivated to accomplish because it is a complete waste of human capital. Economic theory tells us that society is collectively more productive when we’re all allowed to focus on our comparative advantage. For many people, this is the thing that inspires them—the place their brain wanders when they’re doing mindless data entry. I’m not naïve enough to think that this is feasible at all times, but I think it’s worth noting that the person with the potential to solve climate change could very well be too busy analyzing lab samples to ever  get to that point.