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Über dieses Buch

This book explores, from a sociological perspective, the relationship between acting as symbolic work and the commercialization of popular culture. Particular attention is paid to the social conditions that gave rise to stardom in the theatre and cinema, and how shifts in the marketing of stars have impacted upon contemporary celebrity culture.




In this book I analyse stardom and celebrity, in its Western manifestations, as expressions of the anthropology of capitalism. By this latter term I mean more than the economic aspects of stardom as a system of inequality, but a cultural institution or form of life that justifies high reward. As Marx famously observed, a commodity appears as a natural thing to those living within a capitalist culture. But upon examination it abounds with ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’, promoting the perception, exemplified by the money form, that commodities are intrinsically valuable rather than valuable because they are the products of collective labour (Marx, 1867/1976: 163ff). What stardom and celebrity share is the perception that fame is a result of individual ‘natural’ qualities that come from outside the collective labour of media production. The different ways in which stardom and celebrity promote this perception is also part of the matter to be analysed.

Barry King

1. Unsettling Identities: From Custom to Price

The concept of the self as a kind of performance, managing the relationship between being and seeming, had emerged in courtly circles during the Italian Renaissance. The literature of that time such as Baldasar Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528) and Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo (1558) was widely read and imitated in England — the first targeted at a courtly readership and the second, a guide for general social decorum.1 The popularity of such guides is evidence of a widespread anxiety over self-transparency, particularly intense in authority contexts where the failure to present an agreeable exterior could jeopardize one’s well-being.

Barry King

2. The Formation of Stardom

The first chapter outlined the general social and cultural conditions within which a commercial theatre emerged, particularly as they provided a context for the formation of stardom. The purpose of this chapter is to give more precision to this development at the level of the labour process of acting. My basic argument is that stardom depends on an intimate and organic connection with the merchant form of capitalism.

Barry King

3. Garrick as a Personage

That a prominent actor in a social order that judged individual worth on the basis of noble or ignoble birth should construct himself as a personage of national importance is hardly surprising, nor unusual as an aspiration. It should also be recalled that eighteenth-century Britain was in many senses a ‘servile’ society — with significant numbers finding employment as servants, especially in London (Sherman, 1995; Hecht, 1956). Garrick as an actor, rather than as ‘Shakespeare’s Priest’ and landed gentleman, was also a servant of the public, in a compound sense: as patentee meeting the expectations of Royal and noble court patronage, and as a performer at the service of the market and the conflicting expectations of a socially mixed audience. For my account, the distinctive questions arise less from his social climbing and the social manoeuvres he undertook to be accepted in polite society than from what these meant in terms of the grammar of identity defining his stardom.

Barry King

4. Emergent Modes of Stellar Being

The genealogy of stardom now needs to be placed in the immediate context of broader structural changes in the theatre as mode of production and employment. The star or the celebrity is by definition a special individual.1 But individuality, particularly in the cultural industries, needs to be set against a directly intensive, collaborative labour process. Stardom, however represented as unique, is a pattern within an organizationally constructed space, as the term star system suggests. Drawing back from the tantalizing immediacy of a star’s fame, it is necessary to consider changes in the organization of the theatre and, relatedly, changes in the technological base of performance that lead to self-commodification of the star as a determinate response.2

Barry King

5. Writing the Stars

The embourgeoisement of the early American cinema, its drive to acquire an aura of respectability, amounted to a mimicry of theatre — its conventions in respect of genres, styles of performance, the architecture and design of cinemas and, in the best locations, the provision of liveried ushers and attendants. But there was one aspect of theatre that the cinema strove to avoid — the star system. Stage stars might appear in films, but the idea that actors in films might be stars only gained acceptance slowly, and even then was a competitive device that overwhelmed considerable resistance. The Motion Picture Patents Company ([MPPC]; The Trust), formed as a cartel out of the pooling of (especially Edison) patents, viewed film as a standard commodity to be rented to exhibitors at a standard price per foot. Basically a coalition of ‘old’-immigration interests, the MPPC was opposed by Independent producers and exhibitors, some of whom were from a new-immigrant background and did their main business with new-immigrant communities, or at least chafed at the Trust’s heavy-handed attempts to impose its quantitative monopoly. Some of the early companies within the Trust, notably Biograph and Vitagraph, recognized the importance of quality and sought to brand their films as superior products. But fearing demands for salary increases, this branding did not extend to directors, such as D. W. Griffith, or to leading actors.

Barry King

6. The High Tide of Biography

In general terms, biographic positioning rested on a circular relationship. The stars, as the legal possessors of virtual identities, were grounded in the transpersonal space of Hollywood as the ‘home’ of motion pictures. They, in turn, provided the flesh and blood, the engines of desire and hope through which Hollywood, itself a virtual place, could be manifested as an apparent community. As such, biographic positioning was a sequestered institutional activity (Giddens, 1991).

Barry King

7. The Rise of Autography

Under the Studio system, the unit of persona cultivation was the roster of actors, each actor bound by a long-term contract. The long-term contract represented a mutual obligation: the Studio took responsibility for the care of the stars’ personae, and the stars accepted personal responsibility for their physical and moral ‘well-being’. The number of stars and leading players on contract underwent a sharp decline in the aftermath of the Paramount decree which required the Majors to sell off their theatre chains. By 1947 there were 487 players with term contracts with the major studios; by 1953 this had fallen to 179, and despite fluctuations never went above 250. In 1965 Sandra Dee became the last star to be under an exclusive contract to a major Studio.1

Barry King

8. The End of Seeming

A feature of the contemporary scene of stardom is the mutation of autography into a more intensively reductive form of writing the self. If autography pushes the limits of the relationship of ‘standing for’ to self-presentation, the new mode of writing and performance pushes the presentation of a self below the horizon of selfhood so that being private in public becomes a priority — the self of the star is there, so to speak, but hidden, inspiring a search in others for “authenticity”. In the way it is used here, steganography refers to the hiding of the “authentic” self behind an intertextual assemblage of performed identities.1 This new practice exceeds and ruptures the framework of person, personage, character, persona, in which seeming — the performer’s forte — is reduced to being or a bare nominal presence. Compared to autography, which declares, ‘Here I am’, steganography renders its subject as a trace, ambiguous and underspecified yet sufficient to maintain a media name profile. The fullest extent of this process of hiding in plain sight I identify with intimate fame or celebrity (Redmond, 2006). In such a condition of fame, the star or celebrity is reduced to a nominal presence, fleshed out by selective images and publicity per se, good or bad, becomes of paramount importance.

Barry King


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