Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Diana: A Celebration": Celebrity as a Status Power Marker in an Age of Mass Democracy

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau recently announced:
Even more than a decade after her untimely death, Princess Diana remains an adored and admired figure. In the fall of 2009, the National Constitution Center hosts Diana: A Celebration, a tribute to the Princess of Wales, remembering her inspirational and magical life that captivated people from every walk of life, everywhere in the world.
Philadelphia Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Philadelphia: The Official Convention and Visitors Site for Philadelphia.

"Diana: A Celebration", hosted in the City that helped mold the first generation of democratic mass politics, provides an ironic window on the great distance separating that first tentative step at the end of the 18th century, and the foundations of democratic social organization in the 21st century. What makes "Diana: A Celebration" most interesting, perhaps, is the remarkable way in which it evidences the swiftness with which the old forms of social hierarchy, based on principally birth and status, are being challenged by the new social hierarchies of celebrity. Celebrity, as a status marker, and as a doorway to social, cultural and political power is more in accord with the times. Mass democracy and mass movements in arts, culture, religion and politics, now demand a new approach to the construction of hierarchy. Celebrity appears to be the emerging sorter of choice.

But that celebrity seeks legitimacy not only on its own terms--grounded in the intense connection between mass mobilization and the object of celebrity--but also through a connection with its predecessor social order. Thus, for example, consider the construction of Diana's childhood:
Diana Frances Spencer was born July 1, 1961 in Sandringham, in Norfolk. She was born at Park House, the home that her parents lived in on the estate of Queen Elizabeth II and where her childhood playmates were the Queen's younger sons: Andrew and Edward. She was the youngest of the three daughters of Edward John Spencer and Frances Ruth Burke Roche. Diana: A Celebration, About.
That connection between old and new hierarchy, between social, political and cultural ownership and status, is made more explicit in the construction of the history of the women of the Spencer family.
For over three-hundred years, the Spencer family has included important women who helped shape the culture of their age. This room is dedicated to those women. This can also be said of Diana, who became a cultural icon of her time. Spencer women were also known for devoting their energies to charity and community work and Diana continued these traditions.Diana: A Celebration, Spencer Women.
Or, the the Philadelphia Convention bureau publicists put it:
Using her royal and celebrity status as a platform, the compassionate Diana worked tirelessly for countless charitable organizations, proving one of the leaders in the fights against HIV and AIDS, leprosy, landmines, and homelessness. To honor and continue the humanitarian legacy of the "People's Princess," Diana: A Celebration encourages visitors to contribute to the causes that Diana dedicated her life to making a difference. And finally, the exhibit remembers the Princess' tragic death and the outpouring of condolences and tears from around the globe.Philadelphia Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Philadelphia: The Official Convention and Visitors Site for Philadelphia.

The power of celebrity is exercised through media and is nurtured through marketing. Its markers are the appropriation of works that are marketed as focusing on the well being of the masses, whose adoration becomes a mark of status that is fed by a constant media attention. And that media attention, of course, is incentivized by the stronger connection between celebrity and the masses, who serve as both source of readership (income) and focus for the media. These contemporary closed end systems are already marked in the commercial world. See, Larry Catá Backer, Economic Globalization and the Rise of Efficient Systems of Global Private Lawmaking: Wal-Mart as Global Legislator, University of Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2007).

Within this new world order, "Diana: A Celebration" serves as a modern from festschrift of the taxonomies and methodologies of the new world ordering.

Even as the Diana: A Celebration construct moves across the Internet and as a traveling show across the world, its "editors" serve to reinforce the new fonts and forms of cultural and social power. That power is grounded on appealing to and producing positive responses among the masses for whose benefit celebrity is both deployed and built. It is built on an intimate connection between a relationship to the media and measurable embracing of "causes" around which the masses may be mobilized. That measurement can range from increasing sales, greater demand for financial products (stock) or influencing popular political sensibilities exercised through elections, and rationally projected through the "sciences". Those connections now substitute for the old ones, which were grounded in a direct control of military power and a connection with the religious priestly caste. Consider, for example, the celebration of non-violence as an effective counter to old basis of formal power

Celebrity serves as the proxy for, the embodiment of, and a template for soft power in a world in which formal authority increasingly becomes more remote from the foundations of power--the masses on which democratic organization, commercial success, and cultural production increasingly rests. Its aristocracy, an aristocracy of celebrity--is as much subject to and in control of that collective force. See, Larry Catá Backer, The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment, Penn State International Law Review Vol. 21(3):509-567 (2003). This is the essence, for example, of those theorizing modern nonviolence as a strategy for the overthrow of governments. See, e.g., Stephen Zunes, Weapons of Mass Democracy, Yes! Magazine, Sept. 22, 2009 (re-posted in CommonDreams.org). Celebrity serves as a basis of soft power through which social mobilization can affect the way in which formal actors in traditional power structures perform.

Diana, is perhaps to be celebrated for casting a strong light on the passing of the old forms of relationships among actors in traditional systems of power-hierarchies. She reminds us, as forcefully as the U.K. royal family was reminded in the aftermath of her death, that the time of the dominance of those traditional structures have passed (in all but form) even as the social foundations for its authority have been abandoned. Mass power, in an age of mass democracy, is now expressed in celebrity as much as it once rested securely on its old forms--legality, status, coercion or contract. Theorizing celebrity and its relation to mass democracy, to marketing as the new politics, and mobilization effected through the mechanics of old forms--from consumption, to investment, to migration, to elections--remains the great academic project of the 21st century.

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