Saturday, February 3, 2018

Narcissism and the Rise of Celebrity Culture

Narcissism is, as the Last Psychiatrist put it, the disease of our age.

But why this age, and not the ones before it? If we ended up in an age of trivia and self-centredness, how exactly did we get here?

A common theme through some of my recent writings is the idea that a lot of social and cultural problems may significantly stem from technological causes. It's not that the underlying human nature and cultural forces aren't important, of course. But technology opens up possibilities that weren't there before, for instance when it comes to immigration, birth rates, or sexual morality. As always, this isn't my theory on the whole story, or even necessarily the biggest part of the story. But it often makes up the part that goes most neglected, the assumption that gets taken for granted even though it's of very modern origin.

If you want to understand a society's values, look at who they venerate. Who do they hold up as examples of a life well-lived, as examples to emulate?

Like many aspects of culture, it is sometimes easier to understand this in past societies than your own. In your own time, the tawdry reality tends to get mixed up with the aspirational. 

Whom do we celebrate? Why, we celebrate geniuses like Nobel Prize winners!

Very well. Name me all the Nobel Prize winners you can, starting with a field that's not your area of professional employment. I'll wait.

Not so easy, is it? As it turns out, we celebrate the abstract idea of Nobel Prizes, but don't give two hoots about any of the winners. Your children are smart enough to tell the difference.

A necessary but insufficient condition of being celebrated is being known, being famous. It's possible to be infamous and hence not celebrated, like Hitler. But it's not possible to be celebrated and venerated, yet unknown.

The tawdry reality of who we actually celebrate is the list of people who appear on the cover of magazines in the supermarket. The aspiration of who we think we ought to celebrate is the people who appear on Google doodles. The overlap is the null set. Though I'll admit, it's possible to imagine some very odd scenario where Martin Luther King somehow manages to single-handedly fill out the middle of the Venn diagram.

Carlyle set up the National Portrait Gallery in London to inspire people with pictures of great men who did great things. I've written about this before, in both England and America. In the 19th century, you get Tennyson, Darwin, Browning, Wellington, Gordon, the whole deal. In the 20th century you get Sir Paul McCartney, Princess Diana and the Rolling Stones.

The most famous people today are entertainers. Actors and musicians, primarily. These are the pinnacle of adulation and interest. The young aspire to whatever is held up to have the highest status. You may scorn Kim Kardashian, but your daughter will be exposed to tales of her life nonetheless. She was the daughter of a lawyer who became famous for helping get a celebrity murderer off the hook, and she became more famous for releasing a celebrity sex tape, an idea that she wasn't even the first to come up with. What a joke, right? Except she ended up marrying one of the most famous rappers in the world. What lesson do you think the ten year old girls draw?

But you will not find any actors, or even many musicians, before the 20th century in the galleries. If you go back to Shakespeare's time, actors were considered a class barely above prostitutes. Disreputable phonies who pretend to be other people in order to get cheap applause from drunken idiots. The theatre was a necessary vice, a circus for the rubes. The people who wrote the plays may be celebrated, but the people who delivered them were considered beneath the dignity of polite society. You certainly wouldn't turn to them for guidance on the political goings of the day, as we absurdly do at the moment. Is it because we expect them to know anything about it? No, of course not. But we expect that the rubes will listen to them and follow, the way they do with high status people throughout history.

So how did actors suddenly change into world-bestriding celebrities?

Simple. Hollywood.

Not Hollywood as a cultural value. Hollywood as a technology to transmit moving pictures of actors to millions of people around the world. 

Before the age of movies and television, being an actor was profoundly unscalable. You could only get seen by however many people could fit into your auditorium. Which, around that time, also had unamplified sound. In other words, maybe a few hundred, tops. 

There is simply no way to create Brad Pitt in that environment. 

So actors were just performing a service. You turn up to see a play being performed by whatever troupe of ruffians happened to be in town at that time.

Of course, the written word back then was scalable, since the printing press. Hence why the authors of plays could become famous - the plays themselves could be printed and widely circulated. 

Something even more revealing is true of musicians. Without the phonograph, you needed to have lots of instruments to be heard by a large audience. An orchestra, in other words. As before, sheet music was scalable and could be sent around. So you got famous composers of orchestral music. Both parts are important. The composer got famous by having their name on the music, and the orchestra was needed to make sure that lots of people in the hall could hear without the possibility of speakers or microphones. Since this required large costs in people and equipment, it was limited to the elite, who were also the taste-makers. You did get folk music being spread around, from person to person, like modern memes. But in this case, the song became famous, and the composer became lost in the mists of time.

When the only scalable technology was the written word, the only way to become widely famous was either to write something, or do something sufficiently memorable that other people would write about it. 

Hence you got novels and poetry as celebrations of the written word. And you got military heroism and political leadership as gripping real-life narratives that could be written about in newspapers.

Of all the essays in Carlyle's excellent "Latter-Day Pamphlets", the one that seemed most alien to the modern world is "Stump-Orator". In it, Carlyle presents as an obvious fact of the age that the highest-praised skill was to be able to write and speak well.
It lies deep in our habits, confirmed by all manner of educational and other arrangements for several centuries back, to consider human talent as best of all evincing itself by the faculty of eloquent speech. Our earliest schoolmasters teach us, as the one gift of culture they have, the art of spelling and pronouncing, the rules of correct speech; rhetorics, logics follow, sublime mysteries of grammar, whereby we may not only speak but write. And onward to the last of our schoolmasters in the highest university, it is still intrinsically grammar, under various figures grammar. To speak in various languages, on various things, but on all of them to speak, and appropriately deliver ourselves by tongue or pen,—this is the sublime goal towards which all manner of beneficent preceptors and learned professors, from the lowest hornbook upwards, are continually urging and guiding us.
Do you, dear reader, look at the world today and think that the most celebrated talent in the modern world is eloquence of speech? It seems almost unbelievable today, but that was once true.

And it bears emphasizing - while it may seem incredible given the degeneracy that was to come, Carlyle was writing this in order to bemoan the fact that celebrating speech in his time was coming at the expense of celebrating action and achievement.

I am glad for his sake that he did not live to see Paris Hilton. 

The first shift towards the Kardashian-isation of our society came with the photograph. Instead of writing well, people were noted for being good-looking. Without photographs, the only way to gain from good looks was from people who could see you personally, or the very expensive and unscalable technology of painted portraits. 

Early photographs were slow to take, which meant that people had to be sitting posed for long periods. Hence photographs could convey beauty, but not story or excitement. You could not, for instance, get disturbing but famous photos like this one, or this one (both redacted, since my sister told me last time she found the latter one distressing when it appeared unannounced on my blog).

But with better photographs, and certainly with movies and video, the returns to being attractive, as opposed to eloquent, skyrocketed. Hence the rise of beautiful actresses and actors. Their entertainment role was able to attract more scalable celebrity, and their beauty became a bigger part of their job description.

Meanwhile, because people are lazy, watching and listening to people talk and act had more mass appeal than reading their words, and preserved more of the drama. Actors drove out authors in the celebrity stakes.

Similarly with music, the spread of records meant that the performer could also be widely known. And the ability to amplify sound meant that you needed far fewer musicians per performance.

Hence the Beatles and James Dean, where once you had Beethoven and Samuel Johnson. Even supposing that Carlyle was right about the degeneracy of the written word, it took a lot more genuine talent than what was to come.

And so we ended up with the cult of entertainer celebrity, rather than famous deeds. The pinnacles of social status are actors and musicians. 

And I suspect, though I can't prove it, that this had a profound psychological effect.

At a certain point, especially in the age of the internet, the process degenerates even further. You don't have to have done anything. You just have to be good looking and have lots of people pay attention to you. 

It becomes enough to just be famous for being famous. Kim Kardashian is just the end point of the logic. In the age of the internet, this is often achieved seemingly at random, as things go viral. It's like the lottery of social attention, further reinforcing the perception that fame does not come from deserved deeds.

And technology has greatly refined the measure of celebrity. The modern National Portrait Gallery is instagram. It isn't required to be a portrait gallery, as opposed to a general photography gallery, since in principle people can post anything. But it ended up that way nonetheless.

A girl's instagram feed is often immensely revealing about her. Presumably a man's is too, but honestly, what kind of man is on instagram? 

The instagram feed reveals what the person loves. 

And the main categories, in ascending order of pathology, seem to be

-Cute animals
-Self-indulgent travel
and most of all

The selfie is the most quintessential marker of the modern era. I am both the subject, the artist, and the consumer. A photo of me, taken by me, repeated endlessly in trivially different settings, which brings me great delight, and which I post to social media in order to get attention. Me, as the literal centre of the photographic universe.

It is the cult of celebrity, but democratised.

The results are exactly as unedifying as you would expect.


  1. "Very well. Name me all the Nobel Prize winners you can, starting with a field that's not your area of professional employment. I'll wait.

    Not so easy, is it? As it turns out, we celebrate the abstract idea of Nobel Prizes, but don't give two hoots about any of the winners. Your children are smart enough to tell the difference."

    Very well put.

    "A common theme through some of my recent writings is the idea that a lot of social and cultural problems may significantly stem from technological causes. "

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the most extreme anti-modern, anti-technology thinker today. You know, the one from Harvard, who knows is a permanent guest of the Federal government in a super-max prison.

    If Moldbug is LSD, this guy is 100x Salvia.

    His most recent book, which Robin Hanson recently reviewed, is shockingly well written and argued. Indeed, the practical "what is to be done" chapter reads like Moldbug's last chapters from Gentle Introduction and Open Letter.

  2. "The most most extreme anti-modern, anti-technology thinker today. You know, the one from Harvard ... His most recent book... is shockingly well written and argued."

    Surely you must be talking about Steven Pinker. :)

    I haven't actually read any of Ted's writing. It's been on my 'to-do' list for a while. This year I was resolved to get through James Burnham and some more Milton Friedman. Your description definitely moves it up the pile.

  3. Thanks for the reply.

    The most recent Anti-Tech Revolution has a lot of points that are highly relevant to Nrx (the critique side of things).

    Essentially, the first two chapters argue (with plenty of references) that long-term, stable rational control over the evolution of society is impossible. By impossible, he means it, so it seems, in all three main senses: 1: Logical (for instance if you had a Super AI that could predict things and make political decisions, could it predict its own behavior? 2: Physical and mathematical (computations needed for central planning is computationally impossible. Chaos and complexity theory means there is an inherent unpredictability in life). 3: Practical (the problems with bureaucracy, leadership succession, uncertainty etc).

    In the third and fourth chapter (have not read the fourth) there are "rules" for green "restoration". Very useful.

    However, the man's own arguments preclude the possibility of any such restoration.

    The shocking thing is that this guy, to change analogies, is like a humorless version of Moldbug writing like an academic.

  4. I see this as the number one reason for the rise of internet intellectuals like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson etc.. None of them have said anything really new per se, but they say it well, at least by today's standards. It's a rare talent these days so they appear as far greater intellectuals than they might otherwise. I'm not questioning their intelligence per se, just saying that there's a tendency for it to appear proportionate to how well someone can articulate thought, especially verbally. For eg. there's no shortage of wonderful writers in the Nrx field, but how many good orators are there? Would people like Milo really be famous if the right had better choices?

    Another complication Carlyle would appreciate were he alive today is the influence of celebrity culture and obsession with the visual even upon academia - even if there were some grand spokesman for everything being discussed in Nrx circles, how well received would they be if ugly? (Peterson and Shapiro are also reasonably handsome)

    1. It's a good question. I suspect that the markets are largely segmented between written, spoken, and watched. I consume a lot of the first, a little of the second when driving (mostly sources I can't get through the first), and almost none of the third. But there's obviously a large fraction of people who probably have the opposite ordering. I don't even think you need them to be more shallow, just that when that's part of the medium you're consuming, it almost *has* to matter more. Nobody wants to look at fuglies.

      I think you're right though. Pseudonymous generic-template blogs are about the most meritocratic field possible. I remember when I'd tell people to read Moldbug back in the day, and they'd say "who is this guy?", to which my answer was always "Don't know. Does it matter? Read it, it's amazing."

      That said, I think the effect is bigger for semi-academic and pop-academic endeavors than mainstream universities. There it still matters, but less.