CategoryFame, Narcissism and Art

The Red-Delicious Truth

Here we go. I’m about to get the perfect, baseball-like rock, and throw my best Aroldis-Chapman-like 2-seam fastball right into the nearest glass wall. You ready?

Like a waxy red-delicious apple that falls on the supermarket floor, your ego, Hershal, may not appear bruised, but what does it really matter? It’s dead and flavourless inside – the sad result of the modern myopic pursuit of profit at the expense of true character and virtue.

Boom! Your ego, and my wall, shattered all at once. But now my wall is broken, and I feel cold and sad. Words hurt like 2-seam fastballs.

Let me rephrase my fire. One man’s trite musings are another man’s insight porn. And we, here at NFC, strive to be the very best pornographers we can be. Your first post, Hershal, was way too safe-for-work for my tastes. Of course, a true appreciation of the subtleties of fame requires a Steinbeck-esque tragedy epic set during the depression in the hills of Northern California. But (to continue this metaphor), we can still derive Cliffnote-climaxes from our 500 word posts, without having to set forth on a lifetime of love and true physical intimacy (in the hills of Northern California). What I’m trying to say, Hershal, is that your first post just didn’t ‘do it for me’.

Now on to your second, and definitely much more ‘NSFW’, post. Both of the categories you described: celebrity as ‘pathology’ and celebrity as ‘commodity’, teeter on the edge of tautology and science. I found the NPI questionnaire and completed it with a score of 13/40. I failed! US Celebrities scored a mean of 17.8 according to one study. The mean scores of American undergraduates seems to increase over time (from the 1980s to the mid 2000s), perhaps pointing to the rise of self-promotion on the internet, reality TV shows, and helicopter-parents that treat them as deities. Or does it? Like you alluded to, Academic publications have many flaws, and this particular ‘Inventory’ questionnaire is perhaps a first attempt at measuring ‘Narcissism’ that really just ends up begging-the-question (at least with the relation between narcissism and celebrity). For example, take the following statement pair (you are supposed to choose which of the two you identify with most):

1. I have a natural talent for influencing people.
2. I am not good at influencing people.

If you are a famous artist, you are, by definition, good at influencing people. You have succeeded at influencing some amount of people to watch your show, to listen to you music, or to purchase your merchandise. The same can be said (on a smaller scale) of local ‘celebrities’ who observe 200 likes on their Insta photo, and conclude the same thing. The ‘celebrity as commodity’ category you described is based on this fundamental property. So as a celebrity you either have to delude yourself into believing you’re nothing special, or you’re labeled a narcissist for correctly identifying what other people have already proven (i.e. you are good at influencing people, you like to be the centre of attention, etc.).

Celebrity as way to spur capitalism, while true, definitely also seems to be a part of the definition of being a celebrity. I like Bon Iver’s music. I buy Bon Iver’s merchandise. Justin Vernon does a commercial for, I don’t know, Snickers. I think, hey, Justin Vernon eats Snickers. Then I’m at the Gas station and have a sweet tooth and buy a Snickers because it makes me think of a cabin in Wisconsin.

But why should I care that Justin Vernon likes Snickers? Well, maybe I don’t care that Vernon or any other celebrity likes Snickers any more than you or Rachit like Snickers. But it makes sense for Mars to ask Vernon to endorse Snickers because a lot more people are familiar with him than you or Rachit. Again, not Rocket Science, simply a byproduct of being known by many people.

Perhaps we’re looking for some deeper reason to choose one action over another, and in Nietzsche’s Godless world, we deify celebrities like we used to deify monarchs. Or maybe that’s just a pornographic simplification that hides the banal, trite reality. Celebrities are people who are known by many people, and it is easier than ever to be known by many people and benefit from (or suffer due to) all of the associated side-effects.

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.


Small Scale Fame

After spitting fire into another’s trite musings, one is supposed to drop the mic. So let me pick it up, and abscond both your ideas, and use them to arrive at my own meaningful conclusions. Bitches. In other more affable words, I’m going to loosely summarize your discussion before diving into my own thoughts about the spotlights of our reality. Trying to fuel some sustenance in this three way writing orgy.

Valentin, the evolutionary predisposition to leech onto a celebrity, and feed our social bonds couldn’t be more spot on. The thirst of people and their need to strengthen relationships via gossip is most palatably done through the world of celebrity, avoiding the potentially toxic effects of gossip in local social circles. One addition I’d make to this evolutionary understanding of our relationship to celebrity is it’s purpose in filling our God deficit. Celebrities can become mystical demigods that fill the worship hole for people who need to find meaning as a follower of something grander than their life, as a disciple of the divine.

Hershal, I’m going to narrow in on your thoughts on your own pursuance of fame, and specifically skilled-based fame. Sorry, no demigod worshipping of your girl Kim. I found it interesting in your self reflection on the pursuit of prominent writer status, you mentioned your motivations not being at all pure. I would take with some issue with the “at all” sentiment, but lets leave that to our in person trite musings.

Rachit, what you’ll want to focus on instead, is the nature of pure motivation of a skill, or rather more specifically, an artistic skill. You’re going to be highlighting the initial, small scale stage of fame, and it’s relationship with the different types of skills.

Ok so now that I’ve unclenched my need for order in this orgy, lets get into this discussion by first defining what I mean by artistic versus non artistic skill and it’s relevance to this conversation. An artistic skill is one that has intrinsic value in its expression. Music for the sake of cathartic emotional expression, writing for the creative expression of one’s thoughts, and linguistic choreography of words. I can go on, but ya feel me.

On the other hand, non-artistic skills lack this obvious intrinsic value in it’s expression, without additional romantic spin. Let me dig a bit deeper with some examples. A physicist, or any scientist really, conducting research can have a “purer” stem of motivation, if their research is conducted in the lens of pursuing truth. A little more difficult to find intrinsic value compared to the immediate feedback of an artistic skill, but still plausible. But there are non-artistic skills that are even more difficult to produce romantic spin. The mechanics of being a solid accountant can may be, possibly, if you try really hard spun as “my organization and scrupulous spreadsheet skills keep society honest, and the economy bumpin”, perhaps? Emphasis on perhaps.

And not to say that there aren’t other motivations for why one does what they choose to do, practical survival reasons being the most obvious one. But why do I differentiate these minute differences in skill & motivation in reference to fame? Because even on a small social group level, being famous, or a term that can be conflated with small scale fame, being successful, shares similar characteristics to what fame at large scale gives – a good reputation amongst peers, recognition for your skills, tons of fist bumpin, monetary success, romantic pedalation. It ties into the very nature of purpose, as a human being in the context of his or her role in society. Am I good at what I do and does that mean something to society?

But back to artistic skills for a moment, and pure motivation. Well lets call it a pure motivation spectrum instead, because even in this realm, many hit songs, beautiful pieces of art, have been created with some combination of pure intentions and some less-pure ones: ego inflation, money, women etc. This wouldn’t be NFC if I didn’t go on to say that there is probably some healthy balance of the above variables, understood with some hindsight analysis. But in this world, people, and I mean all people, the ones who suck and don’t suck, have the opportunity to channel in pure motivation, and reap the rewards that it brings. And that reward is in the value of self expression, creative exercise, aesthetic gratification, which are often (where applicable) embraced with notions of ephemerality, as to emphasize the act itself and the fleeting moments of satisfaction they bring. And typically, when you see someone who has “made it” and is regarded as genuine in their intentions with their craft, this intrinsic satisfaction seems apparent. So I would say it’s something to try and tap into and be genuine about, whether or not you’ll be famous, or whether or not you’re even good or bad.

Having said all that, it’s a lot easier said than done in practice. Especially when considering if you’ve decided to make a career of said artistic skill. And I suppose this is an opportunity to play an anti-cliche card, which is slowly coming full circle into normal cliche-hood: “Don’t make your passion your job”. It’s why I think, Hershal, you may be becoming more cynical in your reflection on whether your intentions are at all pure anymore. The idealism of a teenager dissipates when practicality, and surviving becomes part of the equation.

The Parasocial Parasites

Welcome back, Hershal. First thing’s first, the word ‘abscond’. I have to be honest, I couldn’t understand what you meant by ‘absconding meaningful conclusions,’ so I had to look it up. This is what Mr. Webster tells me (the definition I assume is the most pertinent):

\ab-ˈskänd, əb-\
to go away and take something that does not belong to you

Hm, well then. Are you implying you are an essayist hustler, stealing meaningful conclusions from us sucker NFC homies? Are you holding your verbal ‘gat’ to our metaphorical temple, yelling ‘you see this insightful shit? that’s mine, motherfuckers!’? Watch yourself- I’m about to spit fire onto your trite musings.

You’re right to be conflicted about fame. I think our society is conflicted about fame. The famous-yet-talentless artist is so much of cliche nowadays that I sometimes find myself surprised that anybody I have heard of has any real talent at all. It’s all autotune, TMZ, and good looks, right? Try this: go to an indie concert, or to some dive bar in the middle of yet-to-be-gentrified side street, or watch a youtube video of a cover artist with less than 1000 views. If the music sounds good, what does everyone say? ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re not famous?!’

So which is it? Are famous people talentless-egomaniacs, or do we live in a meritocracy that promotes the talented to the top? My b-word-senses are tingling. Obviously fame comes from some concoction of luck, talent and determination. It seems, though, that when people get famous, they stay famous. And that I think is an idea worth talking about. Why do we care about some one-hit-wonder artist from the 90s?

That is where the science of social anthropology is relevant. There are several theories about the evolution of language in humans, and many of them revolve around gossip. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, do not use verbal cues to build one-on-one relationships, but instead engage in ‘social grooming’ where they sit together and literally scratch each other’s back. The language evolution theory hypothesizes that humans developed language by substituting this type of back scratching with verbally communicated gossip about other members of the tribe. The very structure of a sentence nicely follows from a single piece of gossip (the subject, Becky, the adjective clause, with long hair, the verb, stole, the object, my man). Juicy gossip would act as social capital, and those who were in-the-know were powerful members of the group.

A recent study showed that negative gossip about somebody can change the way your brain reacts to seeing their face (surprise, surprise). The reasoning is simple: we evolved to use gossip as a way to tell friend from foe. Information gleaned from gossip is therefore deeply ingrained into the linguistic and visual parts of the brain. We treat gossip about other people as “important,” no matter who they are. It’s just that it’s easier than ever now to communicate gossip across oceans, across racial and ethnic boundaries.

Did you know that the white wedding dress only caught on in the mid 19th century after Queen Victoria wore one? You think the Kardashian’s are good at being famous? Please. The royal family has been trend-setting for millenia.

Even hunter-gatherer societies have celebrities and status hierarchies. We have evolved to continuously obsess over the ‘top’, gossip about them to build relationships, and dream about making it big.

Perhaps the explosion of celebrity-worship in the last 50 years is different. It is easier than ever to substitute in person relationships with just constant second hand information about people you’ve never met. Fans develop ‘parasocial’ relationships with the famous, devouring the minutiae of their life like Remora fish (‘suckerfish’) devour the feces of their host-shark.

It’s gross. But it’s totally natural.

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.