In this era of constant surveillance, when everyone can capture whatever spontaneous atrocity on their smartphones (who needs the NSA?), the chance of some random person becoming famous overnight has rather increased when compared to previous eras when phones were grounded and cameras were large and bulky and had to be loaded with film. Random guy coaching his daughter’s little league game gets beaned in the balls with a line drive, and he’s the next YouTube sensation, generating more viewers the more he grasps his broken manhood and screams in pain (“Looks like he won’t be getting to home base anytime soon” writes commenter AssholeinMaine395).
I am afraid of fame, which can stalk you like a thunderbolt from the gods these days, but it’s not necessarily that sort of instant, meme-variety fame that haunts my nightmares, though that’s enough. It’s simply the prospect of being famous at all. The thought of being so well known to so many strangers terrifies me.
Why? First off, fame crystallizes one particular version of the self. As human beings, we have an array of interests and skills, most of which attracts attention on a very localized scale. The largest number of acquaintances and strangers who know my name probably know it through my work in the field of Arkansas history. If I have a “claim to fame,” that is probably it. However, other people know me as someone passionate about locally produced food, someone who goes to the local farmers’ markets for my week’s grocery shopping. Some people know me as a guy who makes bamboo didgeridoos. Bartender Ronnie knows me as a guy who shows up on payday with a friend and usually has about three beers before disappearing for another two weeks. And my wife knows me in a way that none of these others do. The point is that in interpersonal interaction, we by and large accept that we are not privy to the whole of any one person, that there are versions of that person to which we do not have access by virtue of chronology and the nature of our mutual relationship.
Fame, however, crystallizes, for mass consumption, one version of the individual subject to fame. This is most obvious with actors who experience typecasting. Just take the cast of Star Trek as an example. Try imagining William Shatner as anyone other than Captain Kirk. But did you know that he professionally breeds horses and has a large farm down in Kentucky? Did you know that Leonard Nimoy is a skilled photographer who has done a lot of work with nude women? Maybe you did, but how much does that information really change your view of them. But it’s not just the crew of the Enterprise. Don’t you think that John Cleese really wishes he could make it through one interview without having to relive Monty Python? Salman Rushdie, an internationally praised novelist, will always be the guy who had the Ayatollah lay down a fatwa on him.
Even those people not known for one particular event or production still have their personalities streamlined by the project of fame. I am much more than my work. I have skills and attributes and thoughts not linked to my employment. I work hard not to blend work and the rest of my life, and for the most part I can get away with that. However, our brains are not built to deal with a great deal of complexity—rather, they evolved to deal with a very simple set of categories. This leads to stereotyping, in one manifestation, something Henry Hale discusses at length in The Foundations of Ethnic Politics (2008), how we build caricatures of group identity as a means of simplifying social situations and reducing overwhelming complexity to a minimum (Swedes are cold, the Irish are drunks, Mexicans are lazy). But even outside the realm of ethnic politics, even on the level where we know better, we still reduce folk to a simplified form, because we can only know, truly know, a handful of people in our lives. Around the office, and perhaps even in the wider Arkansas history community, I’m usually classed as the guy who “does violence,” given that I’ve published a bit on racial violence. On a small scale, that’s all it takes to get tagged with some characterization that’s hard to shake. So unfair—my wife can accept me as a tender lover and someone obsessed with racial violence, so why can’t you? But we have to have regular, everyday contact with someone in a variety of social situations in order to apprehend the real complexity of that person. Otherwise, they remain, by and large, cardboard cutouts.
All this is by way of saying that this dynamic of reduction works on a much greater level when one is famous. And the more famous you are, the less chance there is of you actually meeting someone who can move past the figure and get to the person. Not only do most people see you as a cardboard cutout, they actually prefer the cardboard cutout because it is easy to apprehend and does not challenge too many assumptions. Which is why William Shatner sings (well, sort of sings), in his 2004 album, “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m real.”
Without people who know you in a variety of ways, you cannot know who you truly are yourself. Despite how much we advertise self-knowledge as something gained in isolation, perhaps while perched on a mountaintop for a few years with a shaved head and orange robe, real self-knowledge is actually a function of social feedback. Ever had a friend or teacher say to you, “You know, you’re really good at ———” And maybe it surprised you because you never really thought yourself as particularly gifted in that area. We often don’t grasp the reality of ourselves. Just think of anorexics who perceive themselves as still so very fat, no matter how dangerously thin they become. That’s an extreme example, but to some extent we all have slightly warped views of our own nature. A running joke on the BBC series Red Dwarf was Dave Lister’s sincere and wrong-headed belief that he could play the guitar “like the ghost of Hendrix.” The point is that, sometimes, other people are right about us. You’re really quite rude. You’re more beautiful than you think. You really shouldn’t wear that shirt.
However, fame short-circuits the process of feedback in a number of ways. Mikkel Thorup, in his 2010 book An Intellectual History of Terror, relates a story in which he encounters Prime Minister Tony Blair alone at a quickly built memorial for the victims of the 2005 bombings. “Somewhat awed by the presence of ‘the state’, by the personification of the state magic,” he asks for a picture of the prime minister, damning himself later “for not having asked him about the legality or illegality of the Iraq war” (p. xiii). Fame can turn one into an object of awe, and we rarely employ our critical thinking skills when struck with that kind of instant awe.
That’s a case of not getting any real feedback. But sometimes, the object of fame and awe can be overloaded with feedback. Take Bill Clinton, whom Molly Ivins so rightly called our national Rorschach blot. There is a committed group of people to whom Bill Clinton is the veritable antichrist, the author of all that is wrong in our modern era (or at least representative of the forces that would doom our civilization). However, conversely, there is the Sacred Heart of Bill crowd who adores everything that man has said or done. I’ve heard former Arkansas staff members of his wax nostalgic about the times he used to call them up at 3:00 in the morning to cuss them up and down for some particularly trivial fault, and the way they go on about it, such sessions of abuse rank in their memories with the time the high school quarterback asked them out to prom. Fame changes unprofessionalism and harassment into “a story about Bill,” and how lucky they are to have these stories, since he went all presidential and everything. And thus doth the question arise: when you can exhibit the worse temperament possible and still be praised for it, on account of being surrounded by sycophantic lickspittles attached to your aura, or treated with kid gloves by a media enamored of power, how the hell do you not develop a god complex? The normal feedback loop is broken because we are all enculturated to cater to the whims of the famous and powerful—no accident that it’s a child, one who hasn’t yet learned, who points out the emperor’s naked state.
Can you actually fulfill the command of the Oracle and know thyself if you are famous? And bad enough if you are famous for something that is actually an interest of yours—politics, writing, sports. But what about actors who become famous not necessarily for acting but for specific roles? How soon do you start inhabiting that role in the off hours simply because people expect so much to be that person?
For me, though, the lurking horror that inhabits my nightmares of fame like some Lovecraftian beast, the mere exposure to which will turn me into a gibbering idiot who can only shriek monosyllables and spends the day drawing complex symbols on the wall in my own blood and feces, is—biography. When you’re famous, people want to learn your life story, want to understand where you came from and how circumstances made you what you are today. In the way that the Church Fathers typologically mined the Hebrew scriptures for anything they could make into a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ, so, too, do biographers mine their subjects’ lives with an eye toward teleology, looking to expose how the end of fame was embodied in these events which occurred in obscurity. But this is a lie. As noted above, we are psychologically complex creatures with a variety of interests who cannot be reduced down to simple descriptors, but it’s important to note, too, that we are chronologically complex creatures. Our pasts and presents don’t always line up so nicely, in the straight trajectory, as biographers would like us to believe. What I mean is that a great deal of randomness plays its own role in making us what we are today.
But more terrifying than the simple misrepresentation of psychologically complex individuals is the exposure of pasts that are best left dead. In Terry Pratchett’s 2002 novel Night Watch, Samuel Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, gets thrown back in time thirty years, where he has to work alongside a younger version of himself. He finds himself regularly bristling at what the young Sam Vimes says or does, even calling his younger incarnation a “twerp,” and he finds himself wanting some kind of shortcut around all this twerpiness for him even as he knows that being a twerp, and living through it, is simply part of becoming a man..
The past is a foreign country, and its inhabitants are strange, uncivilized heathens. There is perhaps not a past version of me whom I would not throttle given half the chance, and I acknowledge the right of my future selves to do likewise to present-day me, should time travel ever be possible. There are times I didn’t know better. Times I should have known better. Times I did know better but didn’t care. And there is plenty that is not for public consumption.
Of course, it might seem as if I’m engaging in a bit of self-contradiction. On the one hand, I am claiming that fame changes the shape of interpersonal feedback so that one cannot truly understand oneself. On the other hand, though, I’m arguing for one’s right not to be confronted with one’s past, which, it would seem, is precisely the kind of feedback I am claiming that fame destroys. But feedback is only important for the present. The twerp I was in the past has, I hope, been taught his lesson, but the twerp that I am now really needs to hear from you.
Too, it might seem the summit of arrogance to worry about becoming famous, as if to herald myself as one possessing the potential of greatness. But that’s not what this is about. Fame has never been exclusively tilted toward what we like to dub “greatness,” but our modern culture, in which media penetrates every aspect of our lives, has divorced fame and achievement to such an extent as to make the infliction of fame a near-random event. Folks can get caught on camera doing something—or having something done to them—and instantly become YouTube stars, but fame also works in more ideologically driven ways, too. How many professors have become the subjects of national attention because some political group has extracted and distributed a passage from an obscure journal article or blog post and used it to claim the existence of an ideological bias inherent in the system of higher education? One can go from a hum-drum day to, the next morning, having cameras from Faux News staked out at your office and residence, the poster child for somebody’s pet talking point. Or take the case of Judy Buranich, targeted by Christian conservatives after it came out that she wrote erotic novels under a pen name. On her own time, she pursued a second job which she aimed to practice as discretely as possible, but once that broke into the news, people only saw her as a peddler of smut and worried about what she might be teaching the children. (As I said earlier, fame, especially instant fame, crystallizes one particular view of the individual—all her experience as an English teacher was erased to make way for the scribbler of porn she became in believers’ fevered imaginations.)
So it could happen. Fame can happen, now more than ever. And because the internet preserves everything, it’s not just fifteen minutes anymore. Sure, folks will move on, start riding another meme, but the news reports or videos will live forever archived, and the next time some blind date or potential employer begins to scour the web for information about you, it will flare to life once more, and you’ll have to make the case, yet again, for being a more rounded person than is presented there online. And you will fail, because the world will take a soundbite over a story any old time.
When contrasted with the life of fame, to live and die in relative obscurity seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. To have the freedom of self that allows for countless reinventions of who you are. To have a flexible past and future. To be known truly by one amazing woman rather than to be known shallowly by the hordes of mankind. That is what I want for myself. That is what I have and hope to keep.