Have you ever given thought to the history of celebrity? The world is enchanted by the faces, words, and activities of famous people. But where did it start? Have we always been like this?
The origin of the word celebrity is Latin – celebritatem – which literally means, the condition of being famous. Looking a little deeper, the root definition of fame(ous) is found: fama – Latin for talk, rumor, report; reputation, public opinion; renown, good reputation. This tendency to follow after those who are famous is as old as human society. The Romans coined the word, and we modern people certainly have followed suit.
Modern times have drastically changed how people achieve celebrity. It is no longer necessary for a person to have done something amazing, achieved a great feat, or possess a remarkable skill. With sufficient exposure through the media, anyone can be catapulted to fame based on deliberately manufactured fame.
A Short History of Celebrity by Fred Inglis explores the phenomena and cultural function of celebrity, and the renewed interest due to the powerful impact on fame by the media. Dr Simon Morgan from Leeds Metropolitan University, analyzes Inglis book, and summarizes Inglis’ sociological explanation for our our passion for celebrities.
…the emergence of celebrity accompanied the development of new ideas about self-hood and individuality during the 18th century, and in particular the Romantic commitment to live for the passions, whether love or, as Inglis wryly points out, money. The developments set in train by the Romantics lead us to what he earlier describes as the ‘radical individualisation of modern sensibility’, which, together with the rise of urban democracy and the expansion of media communication, is the sine qua non of the emergence of celebrity. In the process, however, despite the cultural weight attached to the development of individuality, Inglis argues that the bureaucracy and regimentation of modern life have robbed the individual of any opportunity for significant action. In these circumstances media celebrities appear as the only ‘fully realised’ individuals, and become screens onto which the doubts and aspirations of the audience are projected.
Viewed in that light, it becomes clear why there are so many who become passionate, even fanatical, about a celebrity whom they follow. One can even begin to understand the frightening phenomena of stalking.
We all have our favorite actors, politicians, religious leaders, singers, and artists. After reading Dr. Morgan’s synopsis of Inglis’ book, A Short History of Celebrity, the thought occurs that one needs to be alert to what fuels a passion for a certain celebrity. Is it solely appreciation for what they can do, or is it a vicarious life?