Practices of Looking

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The difference between a hero and a celebrity

1) Who are they?

A hero is authentic, whereas a celebrity represents derived values. A hero has achieved something; a celebrity is merely well known. A celebrity portrays an image, rather than her true self, with all its flaws and inconsistencies. Celebrities, like Madonna, continually re-invent themselves to stay in the public eye. What becomes important is not who Madonna really is, but what image she is projecting this year. What we see is not a true person, but the product of a brilliant marketing strategy.

Author Daniel J. Boorstin says, "The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name." (1)

A hero is enduring, reflecting what she had done. On the other hand, celebrity status takes on a "flavor of the month" quality. As the media makes a celebrity, a celebrity can be unmade. When they fall, all gloves are off as the media tears their reputation to shreds, like the Bacchic women destroyed King Pentheus. After the celebrity has been destroyed, they are banished to the never-regions of "has-been" town. This contrasts with heroes, who join with the gods.

2) Who do they serve?

Joseph Campbell has pointed out that a celebrity serves only himself, whereas a hero serves to redeem society. As a result of serving themselves only, celebrities reap huge financial rewards, well beyond the value of their contributions to society.

The hero is a reflection of ourselves; we could become the hero. Heroes are accessible; celebrities are not. Celebrity status is only for the chosen few. They stand apart from the masses and we yearn for intimacy with them. In many cases, we believe that we do know them well. We do not want to become celebrities as much as we want to become friends with them. For example, many women would like to be Oprah's best friend, Gayle, rather than Oprah.

3) What have they sacrificed?

The notion of sacrifice is innately entwined with the fate of a hero, and this sacrifice serves to redeem or save others. A celebrity does sacrifice something, and that is privacy. However, the sacrifice of their privacy is of little benefit to society. Basically, celebrities are loved just for being who they are, not for what they do or have done for us.

Unlike a celebrity, a hero often remains nameless, such as the New York City firefighters who sacrificed their own lives on 9/11 to save others. Another example is Dave Sanders. Do you recognize his name as the teacher at Columbine High School who lost his life saving students on April 20, 1999? Or Tom Burnett, the hero of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11? These are examples of true modern heroes, who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives to protect others.

This tendency to remain nameless supports the idea that a hero can be any person, and any person can rise to be a hero. A celebrity rises and falls with his name in lights. Often, the celebrity's name is not his actual name, but a stage name, another example of an inauthentic existence.

So, why are celebrities so popular? Celebrities may be manufactured, but they do meet a psychological need. They represent various archetypes, and as such, hold a fascination for us. Celebrity archetypes are replacing the hero archetype, described by Dr. Carl Jung as a person who fights evil, often in the form of monsters, to deliver his people from destruction.

The danger with the cult of celebrity is that the power of personality conquers substance. Inspired by celebrities, fans make decisions based on illusion, rather than reality. They tend to be focused on appearances and what others may think about appearances, rather than finding their own true selves and realizing their true natures.

Celebrity worship has been identified as an actual syndrome, and in a small percentage of cases, it has harmful effects. Researchers report that about one third of people suffer from Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS). CWS can have a positive influence, but in 10% of the cases, it can become obsessional, replacing conventional relationships. In 1% of cases, it can be pathological. CWS can deepen at times of crisis or when someone needs direction, such as teens.

As Joseph Campbell conceptualized the hero's journey, it is the journey of every person to undergo the series of challenges that life presents, find her own truth and return with it. It is a meeting with the divine. When a person overly identifies with a celebrity, he subverts his own hero's journey.

We confuse celebrity worship with hero worship. Hero worship urges us to become better people, that is, more authentic people. We are encouraged to make sacrifices for the good of all. Celebrity worship is about valuing the superficial and illusory qualities of the celebrities whom we view as successful. As celebrities rise and fall, these qualities change - hardly a firm basis for making life decisions.

In times of social upheaval, people search for a hero. If what we find, instead, is celebrity, we forfeit authenticity, substituting the rock of truth for the fleeting flame of fame. As Bono said, "When celebrities open their mouths about political causes, I get nervous - and I am one."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Virtual Avatars

Further to my somewhat disjointed post on advertising and the purchase of products. I began to think about the purchase of video games, as it is possible to lose yourself in an entirely different reality.

Like forums and chatrooms, where anonymity exists to a point where one can create a personality for onesself, an increasing amount video games allow this to be done visually through the creation of an avatar. Although there generally are some limiting factors, such as the type of player your are e.g. Golfer, Soldier, Goblin, but you can specify your own height, weight, body shape, hair colour etc. Therefore, a virtual avatar could be an extension of our personality which provides some degree of emotional resonance.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Steretotypes and Self Image - My views

Here are some of my own notes to go with the concept map that I posted the other day. These arent justified in any way, just what I think..

Stereotypes are often incurred by peer groups, which are often seen as an entry point for those who want to be in that group. e.g. To be known as a chav you need to be seen wearing the correct clothes, hairstyle and attitude for that stereotype.

This is the same way that I feel advertisers market their products, "You will look younger if you buy X product" or "you too could have a girl like the one in the advert if you purchase Y product" This is in an effort to persuade the consumer that they need this product, and when a consumer buys the advertised item they feel better about themselves for various reasons, "this will make me healthier" "This dress makes me look nicer" etc.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Self Image Concept Map

Again, rather preliminary thoughts about self image and methods in which society tends to build it up and knock it down. After all, your self image is, in the most part, not about what you think of yourself, but how other people react and percieve you.

The self image gives a sense of personal identity, and is constituted of self-boundaries; not just spatial boundaries, but all the boundaries that determine the range of the individual's experience, perception, and actions. For example, if someone has a self-image of being weak, they will tend not to do things that they believe require any sort of physical or mental strength.

Factors such as advertising, peer groups and stereotypes have always been the binding factors of self image, and is generally what an individual will look to in order to build or change their own image. In fact, it could be argued that ALL advertising of the purchasing of products is structured to make the individual feel better about him or herself. A pair of jeans that look fantastic on a slim figured model is suggesting that you too can look 'this good' if you buy a pair.

Admittedly not all people buy into this kind of celebrity aspiration an such a public way. I think that it boils down to aspiration, those people who are your role models. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but I sometimes wonder who imitates those lowest common denominator celebrities. Someone must..

Another way that people choose to change their self image is by immersing themselves in alternative realities created over the internet. One of the current gaming trends of this type is MMORPG's (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), these types of game allow the user to connect to a world that is populated (in the majority) with real players from around the world, with whom you can interact, co-operate, battle or socialise as a completely different persona. Your avatar (the self created character image you play in the game) is the only visible component of your personality available to anyone else that you interact with in the game, therefore it is possible to live a completely different life online.

In order to experiment with this idea I have signed up to play one of the leading European MMORPG's, World of Warcraft, where my Night Elf avatar "soothing" will be roaming the realm of Nordrassil.

I was never the Dungeons & Dragons type, but I'll have a go at this. More updates soon.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Visual Culture - Concept Map

This is my initial response into the exploration of visual culture. I have seperated the words 'Visual' and 'Culture' and also tried to explore them as a whole.

Visual mediums include text and images or a fusion of the two. Both of these are interpretted by the individual and become a part of their conciousness based on their experiences and social group. This is one way that people define their own self image.

Culture can be broken down into high and low culture: Examples of high culture being poetry, classical music and theatre. Low culture examples include glossy magazines, popular music and works of fiction.

However, it can be argued that the boundaries between what has classicaly been associated with high and low culture are blurring. Producing subcultures as described by the likes of Susan Sontag, in her 1964 work "Notes On 'Camp'"

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Practices of Looking Images, Power, and Politics

"To see is a process of observing and recognizing the world around us. To look is to actively make meaning of that world."

Seeing is an ability that most of us are born with, we are able to observe the world, however, by looking it takes us as humans many years to make even the vaguest sense of it. Looking is an experiential cognition, and must be practiced as it involves the interpretation of the things that you see. These interpretations can cause a myriad of emotional reactions and responses as diverse as pleasure, curiosity, confusion or disgust.

Looking, or rather the choice to look, brings about relationships of power. To look at an image is a voluntary, however you can be persuaded to look, and in doing so you are relinquishing to the power of the image that you look at. You might try to get others not to look at you by the way you act or dress, or by the same methods you may want to stand out and be looked at. Both of these are exercises of power, and such power can also be exercised by images created by others.

The interpretation of seeing something is fairly unique to the individual, although a defined collective emotional response can be brought about using imagery. A single image may take on many different meanings to different people.

In the image saturated world that we live in, the realms of 'old' and 'new' media rely on each other for the meanings to their images. For example, many of the most popular traditional paintings have been technologically reproduced, thus making the image itself a print of another images. Does the image therefore lose its original meaning?

We use both language and images to refer to the world around us, this is known as representation. Languages are sounds (or words) based upon a set of rules governing how they should be understood, which allows us to quantify, express and interpret meaning. Similar rules apply to images, which have conventions about how they are organised and expressed. It should be considered that we as humans can only make meaning of the world through representation, which humans themselves create, impact upon and interpret. Therefore we ourselves are continually constructing meaning of the material world, unlike some who may argue that we are merely mirroring the world as it is though the forms of representation. However, sometimes the distinction between these two views can be difficult to make. Although it can be easy to argue that a still life painting or a portrait is mimicking real world objects it is easy to miss the hidden connotations that an image may have, which the creator wished to express in this fashion. Thus we are making complex meaning from images as simple as a vase of flowers or food at a table. Such complexities are illustrated in Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe 1928-29


photography was developed in Europe in the early 19th century, where the concepts of positivist science were prevalent. Positivism declared that human subjectivity could taint any process, be it a scientific experiment or capturing an image. Hence the photograph, being 'recorded' by a mechanical device, was seen to be free of subjectivity. A method of 'registering reality' through scientific methods, which was thought to be rather more accurate than a drawing.

However, it could be argued that the operator of any camera is a 'subjective' human being, and although the image might be a recording of an exact place and time, it is still subject to the wishes of the person capturing the image. Also, the image itself is always open to interpretation by the people who view it, similarly to artwork. Although the medium of communication is different, the meanings interpreted by looking at an image may be the same.

The argument over the validity of photographs to accurately interpret real world events has resurfaced with the advent of digital photography. A photographic image is often seen as an exact copy of a scene; but without other evidence to corroborate the photo it is easy to interpret. Yet an interpretation of events is given more truth value by a photograph, even if the interpretation is false. This is very much the case in courtrooms, where debates over the validity of photographic evidence are most prevalent.

Still, photographs are held in regard as truthful records of objects or events, and this is what gives them power. Even in the present climate, where most people know that photographs can be convincingly manipulated with the help of computer software.

The levels of meaning

Theorist Roland Barthes wrote about images having two distinct levels of meaning. These were described as DENOTATIVE and CONNOTATIVE:

Denotive meanings are those apparent truths present in an image, providing documentary evidence and literal, descriptive meaning.

Connotative meanings are those which are formulated from the context of the image both culturally and historically, and the viewers knowledge of that culture of history. Basically, the way that the viewer feels both personally and socially.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Practices of Looking Introduction Responses

The Practices of Looking should be an interesting book to study, it is trying to analyse Visual Culture, which is defined as the influence of visual media in shaping our values and beliefs.

I agree that culture is cited as one of the most complex words in the English language. It is incredibly difficult to quantify and is always open to subjective opinion. I also agree with Stuart Hall that a culture can be a set of processes or practices through which individuals and groups come to make sense of various types of media. For example, it is commonplace for members of a subculture to better appreciate the work of an artist from that subculture, as they are influenced not only by the piece itself, but also by its creator. Similarly, someone involved in a different subculture may not interpret the same piece in the same way. This can be for a number of reasons, such as naiveté, lack of understanding, or precepts derived from their own subculture. However, there are cases when visual media can cross or fuse cultural boundaries. E.g. the acceptance of black rap music into ‘middle’ America and white youth culture. This is still opposed by some as it is seen as one of the mediums of low culture, the sometimes-derogatory term to describe the opposite to high culture. Such visual artefacts as fictional novels, popular music and television can be described as low culture. I think that one of the traits of both high and low culture is that they both differentiate themselves from each other where possible, therefore does that make each a subculture?

This book is defining culture as “the shared practices of a group, community, or society, through which meaning is made out of the visual, aural and textual world of representations.” Which means that the classical definitions of both High and Low cultures given in the book are open to interpretation. Does current ‘popular music’ become a different part of culture when it ceases to be popular? Or is the fact that certain types of music are never likely to be popular that makes them high culture? If so then why is thrash metal classed as low culture? My opinion is that much of the supposed ‘high’ culture is descended from historical ‘blinkered’ perceptions of greatness. High culture used to define high class and low culture - low class. I think it is true to say that culture and social grouping are inextricably linked.