Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cerebrity culture: changing registers of beauty

Public sculpture outside Trinity Shopping Centre
Briggate, Leeds, UK
Image: Rodanthi Tzanelli

What is the trouble with today’s celebrities? There is certainly a perceptible shift in associations between different artistic personalities and their cinematic signification. Of course, Dyer (1982) was aware of such associations when he debated ‘seriations’ or classifications of true lives though fabulist cinematic scenarios. Indeed, real biographies of actors often continue to blend with specific fictional ‘types’ that these actors play into a seamless narrative befit for press and internet dissemination.

During the late 20th century the phenomenon flooded gendered life politics: Rockies, Rambos and Terminators or their Nemeses slowly gave way to Matrix Neos who could think before they acted. One might focus on commercial imperatives guiding such genres and their characters, but even such a discussion would revert to the socio-cultural and political scene of production (Langford 2005: 123-6). Though the change was prefaced by the techno-masculine Michael Knights (or their feminine Bonnie counterpart) and the crafty MacGyvers of the 1980s, it was not before the dawn of the 21st century that global cultural scenes experienced a true revolution in such public narrativities of individualised character. A renewed emphasis on technologized and embodied knowledge and knack was combined with promotions of speed to a universal value. These were embraced by both actors and their cinematic personas. For women, ‘being pretty’ also had to be matched with being agile, with a conscience and involved in cultural commons. And there is more: this new ‘cerebrity culture’ appears to shift public attention from externally manifest mobilities (travel, technology and all sorts of human-artefact movement) to our inner (emotional and cognitive) world. For example, Zeta-Jones’ Entrapment or Jolie’s Tourist roles seem to follow both actresses’ real-life characterisations as bright, resourceful, dynamic and committed to political, family or self-betterment causes dictated by our era’s individuating motifs (Bauman 2001; Beck 2002).

But it may be incorrect to confuse the shift from outer, physical movement, to inner, cognitive and emotional kinesis with a withdrawal from the commons. The ascetic surface of the movement hides a different sort of social engagement, which can be equally calculative with that of older paradigms of action or even activism.  Whereas new ‘cerebrity cultures’ enable celebrities to achieve public recognition by prioritising invisible human virtues over the visible ones they do not break the bond between beautiful surfaces and good depths. The modern interpretive ambivalence of the ancient Greek motto καλός καγαθός (kalós kagathós=good/beautiful and noble in a polemical/chivalrous sense) has acquired new meaning in postmodernist articulations of celebrity without losing its original phenomenological moorings altogether.  For celebrities such as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie or Tim Robbins, the inner-as-outer beauty certainly communicates with an artistic vision that is not devoid of political commitment. This model of celebrity excises exceptional glamorous humans from the antiquated plane of religious devotion while simultaneously encouraging admiration of their secular aura (Rojek 2001). Public scrutiny thus reveals an impeccable endogenous image – even though such images re-assume less scrutinized motions after their technological immortalisation.

References
Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualised Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Beck, U. (2002) Individualization. London: Sage.
Dyer, R. (1982) Stars. London: British Film Institute.
Langford, B. (2005) Film Genre. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion.