It is five years since the first seminars which considered updating Raymond Williams Keywords. Now the project becomes real as we meet with the Staff at the Hillman Library and hold an afternoon of discussion with Pittsburgh Faculty. Alan Durant and Stephen Heath have arrived from England, Kellie Robertson from Wisconsin and Jonathan Arac and I are the home team. I re-read the Long revolution again for my talk and am struck, for the umpteenth time, by its incredible intelligence. Looking back 50 years one is also struck by its optimism – the intellectual high water mark of the post-war settlement and one of the last works of the print era before television dominated politics. We have chosen 50 words that have emerged since Keywords was written. “Celebrity” is one of them and this is my draft entry:
Celebrity comes into the language at the beginning of the seventeenth century directly from the Latin celebritatem famous, thronged although there is a cognate French word. Celebrity’s apparently dominant meaning for two centuries is not directly related to the etymological root of ‘fame ‘ but rather the notion of gathering large numbers of people together. The OED gives two meanings “ Due observance of rites and ceremonies; pomp, solemnity” and “A solemn rite or ceremony, a celebration” both of which are now obsolete. It should be noted that both of these meanings have strong religious connotations. It seems legitimate to ask whether these meanings contributed to our current usage of “celebrity” as marking a desperate seeking for the sacred in the profane. While there seem no traces of these archaic meanings in current usage, one might argue that those connotations that prompted the initial choice of this word to mark what is a recognizable phenomenon.
From 1600 we have a meaning that leans on the other side of the Latin root “ The condition of being much extolled or talked about” but this meaning already has the ambivalence that is to mark our major uses of the term for the OED concludes this definition by offering a pair of terms “ famousness, notoriety” with very different meanings. The examples used also stress the way in which celebrity is a double edged term giving with one hand (well known) and taking away with the other (for specious reasons). The irony is there mildly in Johnson “ I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity” (1751) and with a full and exemplary force in Arnold’s comment “ They [Spinoza’s successors) had celebrity. Spinoza has fame” (1863).
Our current usage of “ a celebrity”, as to use the OED’s terms “a celebrated person, a public character”, has its first usage recorded in 1849. Aptly enough this first usage captures celebrity’s constant ambiguity “ Did you see any of these ‘celebrities” as you call them” where the quotation calls attention presumably both to the novelty of the term and that it confers a status which some think no status at all. The OED has very few examples of this now dominant meaning and all from the 19th century. Although there are some draft additions from 2002 they are all around the specific term ‘celebrity Novel’ and ‘celebrity novelist’. This means that there may well be developments in the meaning, particularly in the last 50 years, which need to be further investigated.
However, one can sketch out ‘celebrity’’s rise to fame. First and foremost it denotes a new form of social status that is dependent neither on rank or institutional achievement. This social status is dependent on the development of a public sphere largely initially through a popular press. Webster’s, unlike the OED, finds celere swift in celebrity’s etymology and there certainly seems to be an inbuilt notion of change and transformation. Today’s celebrity is tomorrow’s nobody. Today’s nobody is tomorrow’s celebrity. This notion of change seems fundamentally democratic; celebrity is a fame that everybody can enjoy. Warhol expressed this element of celebrity best with his most famous dictum that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
This world fame has a definite necessary condition that is the development of the photographic image. It is not simply the fact that the modern newspaper creates a discursive realm that challenges status embodied in birth or traditional achievement. It is also that one can meet these celebrities face to face. Indeed it might be possible to argue that celebrity in our modern sense is not a feature of the nineteenth but of the twentieth century for the most famous celebrities are Hollywood’s film stars. It is worth recalling that in the early history of the movies, studios tried to limit the development of stars because of the economic power that stardom delivered to an actor but that audiences who were able to see these actors close- up decided that they liked some more than others, and delivered that economic power accordingly. The most influential academic analysis of this phenomenon has undoubtedly been Horkheimer and Adorno’s but for them celebrity and the star system are simply “ a cult of personality” in which the star stands in for the potential of the masses in a way that is completely deceiving and disabling. The trouble with this Frankfurt school analysis is that it completely ignores the very active role that audiences play in the creation of celebrities and for which Hollywood still functions as the most complex example. Hollywood is also the place where entertainment and information first mixed in modern terms. By the 1930s Hollywood was the third largest news source in the country with some 300 correspondents. It is revealing to consider why ‘stars’ are not called ‘film celebrities”. Star has none of that crucial ambiguity of celebrity.
This ambiguity has intensified over the past decade with the phenomenal success of ‘reality television”. Now the commerce between celebrity and anonymity has become even more explicit as nobodies become instant celebrities on Big Brother while on Celebrity Big Brother the reverse journey is undertaken.