Modern Fame

I will review the novels I’ve been reading this week, but a book I finished yesterday has sort of jumped the queue because I was so interested in its assertions. The book is Fame, written by the philosopher, Mark Rowlands, and it explores the modern phenomenon that we call fame, which bears little relation to the aura of respect for extraordinary individual achievement that used to form its bedrock. Instead, the book opens with Rowlands watching a series of short American films entitled Girls Gone Wild. Why on earth would young women present themselves to the camera in a way that has more to say about their low self-esteem and desperation for attention, he wonders, than about any real, admirable qualities that they may possess? The answer is that they are chasing what Rowlands calls vfame, a rogue variant of good old-fashioned fame, that like any mutant virus is theoretically easy to catch, if you stand exposed for long enough in the right places. What Rowlands does which is so interesting is to go right back in time philosophically, to the tenets that formed the basis of the Western world, to show how their gradual degradation has brought us to this sorry cultural state.

Okay, so the philosophy is relatively complex (although perfectly easy to follow in Rowlands’ exposition) so I’ll present it to you by using myself as an example of an average Western civilian, brought up with an ideology that dates back to the Enlightenment and way back to Plato. No really, this isn’t going to be intellectually scary. Let’s start by applauding one of the basic principles of the Enlightenment which is that I am allowed, even encouraged, to build my life according to the choices I make for myself. I am permitted to be an individual, which is great, because if someone decided my life would be better spent working the fields, rather than reading books, I’d be dead miserable. No, I get to follow my own personal star, on the understanding that my intention is to become the best I can be, and make the most of my individuality.  So my choices have all focused on education, because for me, that’s where the value of life lies. And I say this, having developed values that I think have objective worth, concerning the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to see all sides of a question. Those are my values, but I think they may well be your values also, if I could persuade you to see the worth they have, independent of my own personal validation of them.

Now, there’s a little bit of tension here, between the idea of subjective choice and the idea of objective value. What I think of as objective might not be the same as what you think of as objective – well, that’s okay, so long as we’re prepared to be reasonable and discuss it. But let’s suppose I come across a 6’ 5” Hell’s Angel who weighs in at 20 stone and isn’t keen on discussion. It’s not his forte. He tells me that education is a load of old codswollop and there’s something about his 20 stone that seems persuasive, much as I am longing to foist my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance upon him. Alas, I lack the courage (and the muscle) to point out to him that he has allowed the principle of objective value to degenerate into fundamentalism – the insistence that something is right just because it is, end of story. Nor do I follow it up by pointing out that he has allowed the principle of individual choice to degenerate into relativism – the philosophically illogical idea that all choices have equal value. He has his reasons for wanting me to say that my university-educated, law-abiding life is no better or worse than his drug-taking, rampaging, tax-evading, work-shy life, but in a world where we were being intelligent about these things, that just wouldn’t be true.

So, Rowlands is telling us that we’ve worked hard in the West to maintain two important rulings – that we may cherish individuality and that we may establish objective values, but that if we abandon a certain distinguishing intelligence or give in to what he calls our lazy, grasping natures, they degenerate into fundamentalism and relativism, neither of which is useful to living a good life, not least because neither has any interest in discussing what a good life might be. A good life is what I say it is, okay? Because I say so.

Then, Rowlands brings in two more factors – lightness and weight. Let’s get back to me and my belief in the value of education. If I were to live a light life, I wouldn’t feel particularly bound to my own values. I could cast them off in favour of different ones when necessary, I could change my beliefs and aspirations and not feel that I was compromising who I really was. If, by contrast, I lived a heavy life, those values would anchor me, hold me in place, and confer stability of meaning and purpose. I wouldn’t be able to let them go without altering in a fundamental way my sense of who I am. Now, lightness and heaviness are both necessary in life, Rowlands argues, and the real question is how to maintain a good balance.

If I live my life too heavily, if I decide that education is so essential, I will dedicate my entire life to its cause, I am a few steps away from strapping a set of plastic explosives to my torso and making a messy protest about it. If I live too lightly, then I might find education intriguing at one point, but tomorrow it might be romance that matters, or getting rich, or well who cares as nothing is more valuable than anything else. I might well end up with nothing better to do with my life than give in to the pleasures of the moment, sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, at which point I’d end up like Lindsay Lohan. These are Rowlands extreme examples, by the way, the suicide bomber and Young, Hot Hollywood forming the opposite ends of the spectrum.

And so this is the context in which his variant vfame grows and festers. If we believe that things are good and bad just because we feel it to be so, without reference to objective values, if we insist on relativism, that everything is as good as everything else, then we lose the ability to judge between quality and bullshit. Fame is detached from quality of achievement. Any way of becoming famous is as good as any other, and we confer fame onto people who don’t really merit it. We end up with Rowlands’ test statement: Britney Spears is just as good as Beethoven. There are probably lots of people who believe this, Rowlands suggests. But if we measure both artists in terms of quality, then it doesn’t quite hold true. Rowlands suggests we measure quality by the amount of time it would take to gain skills equal to those possessed by Britney and Beethoven and by their scarcity value, how rare their accomplishments are. Rowlands aimiably proposes that despite the fact he is a hairy man in his 40s, he has more chance of becoming Britney Spears than he does of replicating Beethoven’s achievements. It would be easier. But in a world of vfame, where we are resolutely disinclined to decide what constitutes quality, it’s easier to let economics decide. In today’s market place, Britney is way better than Beethoven because she makes an awful lot more money. When was the last time that Beethoven went on tour and dropped onto the stage from a trapeze wearning black spandex, thus giving the people what they wanted? Well, quite.

But there is a way back from what Rowlands sees as a kind of inevitable collapse of Western philosophy, as it is lived in modern times. And that’s with a little quality attention paid to the concept of the opinion. Now, I know I go on about this, and it’s often a tricky subject, but thanks to Rowlands, I have a philosophical basis for what I’m trying to say. Supposing I love a book, and I want everyone to read it. Now I’m entitled to my opinion, of course, and I could leave it at that and hope that my impassioned awe of it was sufficiently convincing to make you read it. But I could also take a step back and look at my opinion, and give some thought to the values that informed it. I could figure out why it was that it made such an impact on me. In doing so, I might suddenly end up being a lot more interesting about the book, and showing myself to be a person of depth. We all have those depths, the question is only whether we are prepared to look into them or not.

And then I could offer my values up for debate, wanting to see for myself whether they withstood the differences and disagreements of others, whether I still endorsed them or whether I felt they were in need of alteration. And if you were open to this debate, too, then we could really start to talk about what was important to each of us, what we felt would truly make a better world, what really seemed valuable, influential and significant. In this way we could reconnect to the spirit of the Enlightenment, that accepted our lives were in constant tension between our individual beliefs, our need for objective values, our desire for achievement of worth and the respect we need to pay other people in their difference. And that seems to me, and I hope to you, a genuinely worthwhile project. And if you don’t believe me, go and read Mark Rowland’s Fame. It’s tremendously convincing.

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17 thoughts on “Modern Fame

  1. I’ll be the first to admit that the college courses which gave me the most trouble were trigonometry(duh), calculus (double duh) and philosphy. The thing is I hated mathematics of any stripe, but was fascinated by philosophy and tried my best to hang in there. I managed to pass with the highest grade in the class – a very sad C+. And so, I can only speak in a simplistic way about the subject. I’ve tried to live a life according to a set of principles and values – probably handed down to me from my parents and various other well-respected teachers – but which I’ve incorporated as my own. I know what I believe, but I may not always be able to clearly articulate why. I think I might be the sort of person who would benefit from reading this book (but, please tell me I won’t have to go through the mental gymnastics of my third year philosophy course if I do.)

  2. Dear Grad – as a champion lawyer, you need have no fear of philosophy. Certainly not this kind! Some of the logical philosophy, based on mathematics, that you get taught in school is rather brain-grinding, as are people like Wittgenstein. But this isn’t hard at all. Thinking about why you believe what you do isn’t hard per se, just unfamiliar. You have all the resources you need and every capacity required to figure it out. But it’s not usually instantly graspable or intuitive, and it may take a little quiet time with yourself to think about these things. I guess I’m just hugely curious about why I think the things I do, and so I enjoy it. Mind you, I’m right behind you when it comes to trigonometry and calculus – not topics that spark my curiosity at all! :)

  3. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend a little book called “Truth” by David Blackburn … particularly as it relates to absolutism vs. relativism, and the ways in which relativism in its purest sense (which is far closer in spirit to skepticism) has devolved into permissiveness. It’s really interesting … real relativism is a stance of “nothing is valid, because all perception is tainted” (including, inevitably, the perception producing that very statement); whereas modern relativism is a stance of “everything is valid, because that’s my experience.”

  4. What a great post and an interesting book! I’ll have to add it to the TBR list of books to read once I am done with school (which began again already today). I must say though that I had a hard time getting past the spot in your post, picturing Rowlands trying to become Britney Spears. And just when I was able to clear that hilarious image from my head, in dropped a spandex-wearing Beethoven on a trapeze! That one’s going to hang around for awhile :)

  5. I love this Litlove: “And if you were open to this debate, too, then we could really start to talk about what was important to each of us, what we felt would truly make a better world, what really seemed valuable, influential and significant.” Yes, yes, yes.

  6. Dear LL – Not sure I’ll read the book altho’ I might just because philosophy always has me sitting and thinking. And sitting and thinking is good, it IS active and it IS important and it is quickly becoming a luxury, I think. Further, it’s not just a peace-and-love thing. I would embrace wholeheartedly the opportunity, or more opportunities to discuss what’s worthwhile, what works, what makes this a better place because I agree that it would be a “genuinely worthwhile project,” even if it only had a handful of people better on track or more on track as a result.

    OK, yeah, maybe I will read this book.
    let me add here that I think writers should sit down together more often, too, for a whole lot of reasons not the least of which is the pursuit of Art.

  7. ok, but one could argue that beethoven adds no value (he does for me, but perhaps not for some) to daily life, so who cares if he is not replicable? does genius matter if it touches few? if it falls in a forest with none to hear? just thinking out loud here — interested in your response.

  8. I can’t believe how accessible and amusing this distillation of Western philosophy is, Litlove – well done! I majored in Philosophy and English and did a combined Honours degree because I was unwilling to part with either, so I guess it’s fair to say I am a bit of a glutton for this stuff, and I really agree with your assessment here. I am also fascinated by modern fame and its origins… it’s such a disturbing beast. See, you’re in Cambridge, which is the perfect place for a philosophical discussion – in a dilapidated centuries-old pub, fuelled by a tepid pint and an open fire – and it’s one of those times I am genuinely, sorely disappointed this conversation isn’t taking place in person.

  9. I love this post. I’ve just finished studying a jurisprudence subject as part of my law degree and it surprised me how much philosophy could make me understand why I think the way I do. Will have to see if I can find this book in my local bookshop. By the way, I think you were sensible not to take on the Bikie :-)

  10. I am not usually one to run out and buy books on contemporary culture, but this sounds like a thought-provoking read and I’d love to explore the concepts you’ve introduced so wonderfully here.

  11. Great post, as usual. I need to read something other than detective stories and other entertainment, this sounds like an excellent book. I have wondered and wondered and wondered why Lindsey Lohan is famous. Britney I can understand, after all she was a singer with a lot of followers and even when she stopped singing she still had followers. But what merited her continuing fame? Why did she not slip into obscurity?

    When you started talking about the differences between objective value and relativism as well as the differences between individual choice and relativism, I immediately thought about the big argument going on between ProChoice and ProLife factions.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  12. David – that sounds like an excellent book and the perfect follow-up – thank you very much indeed for the recommendation. The distinction that you make in your quotes is a vital one, I think.

    Stefanie – lol! I am partial myself to any supposedly serious book that makes me laugh, and Rowlands is very good at inserting lots of humour. I will claim Beethoven on his trapeze as all my idea, though. ;)

    Lilian – yay! It always warms my heart to think that there are others out there who are willing and ready to actually think. And then discuss what they think. It’s hard and uncomfortable only because it is so sadly unfamiliar these days. Thanks for being on the side of the angels.

    Oh – I love the way you talk yourself round in your comment! And I could not agree with you more – I would love to be part of a proper discussion on art, on what it means, on how and when it works, on my own experiences and feelings as well as on issues of the canon and critical and commercial acclaim. We should do that, one of these days.

    Emily – yes that’s a very intriguing point. I think Rowlands would say that that particular stance, the ‘value is only to be measured by me’ attitude, is the collapse of Platonic ideals of objective values. It’s the idea that worth is only what the individual will pay, as it were. Rowlands’ argument against this is that it makes a mockery of the idea of becoming ‘the best one can be’ which is still a powerful tenet in contemporary society. Best has to have some sort of value beyond the purely subjective for it to mean anything. Art is probably the place where it’s hardest to agree on objective measures of quality, but that doesn’t seem to stop people yet from arguing over them night and day. So much as the person will say, Beethoven means nothing to me, very few are able to leave it there, but will try and convince others that there are reasons (objective reasons) behind individual dislike. Unrecognised genius is probably a slightly different problem. A lot of art isn’t recognised in its own time because it exceeds the boundaries of what we understand to be objective standards of measuring quality. Good art (or at least one strand of it) works to defamiliarise, and whilst that gives us an essential, new perspective on life, it can be hard at first for people steeped in one sort of understanding, to hear and appreciate. But I guess artists are generally driven by the need to express what they have to say, because of its uniqueness, and so they will always be the ones falling foul of preordained categories of quality. Art is particularly interesting in this debate because that notion of objective quality is so hard to hold still.

    Doctordi – Wouldn’t it be nice not to have the virtual world (not to mention half the real world) between us! I can certainly offer you the full Cambridge experience of olde pubs and tepid beer and we could have just the best conversation about life, philosophy, meaning and creation. How interesting to think you did a joint degree in English and Philosophy – I would have loved to do that.

    Apiece – thank you so much! lol! I certainly felt that running away meant fighting another day… I think jurisprudence must be extremely interesting. I’ve seen several students over the course of the year struggling to write essays in the subject, and it’s been intriguing (and brain-grinding) to help them out. The issues raised are fascinating.

    Verbivore – I know you have an interest in philosophy, so you might well be interested in the whole series, which explores all kinds of everyday issues.

    Healingmagichands – it’s always so nice to have you visit. Lindsey Lohan is an enigma, isn’t she? Rowlands is quite funny about the way he can’t keep up with her trips in and out of rehab while he was in the process of writing the book. He also spends a fair amount of time scratching his head over the phenomenon that is Paris Hilton. The argument between Prochoice and Prolife is a huge, huge can of worms, and a very good illustration of the kind of problems this book is interested in. That’s a whole other post, isn’t it!

  13. Do you have Hell’s Angels in England? Just curious. I’m not at all well versed in philosophy–I somehow managed to make it through school without a single class, so I always feel a little like I’m on the outside looking in on these posts, but they always intrigue me. So does the author make any sort of judgement on this type of fame? The thing about living now is not knowing how things will turn out later–what will be genius and what will just be a lot of hot air.

  14. I think the lightness and heaviness ideas are really great — it’s a nice way of thinking about finding a balance between groundedness and flexibility, both of which are valuable things. I wonder, though, how many people would actually say Spears is as good as Beethoven. Is Rowlands just guessing here, and do you think he’s right? And is the amount of time put into learning a skill really a measure of quality? I think I’d find myself quibbling with Rowlands now and then, but I do really like the argument you close with about debating ideas and staying open to other people’s opinions. Perhaps we are participating in this project a little bit through our blogs??

  15. Britney is actually a very good singer! I think history will be a lot kinder to her talents and achievements than the present day is.

    That aside for some reason (perhaps just simple word association), reading this I found myself thinking about the Confucian idea of taking light things heavily and heavy things lightly. It’s not so much an intellectual concept as an emotionally felt truth to me. I’m definitely keen on the Enlightenment and enlightenment values but, in many ways, I’ve found my uninformed dabblings in Eastern philosophies have made more sense to me personally at an emotional level in my questing after the good life.

    Anyway, thanks for another thought provoking post!

  16. Litlove, it was a great degree. And it’s probably why there’s so much philo in my dissertation – I can’t get enough of the stuff. I think France may well be the only country in modern times where it is still possible for someone to call themselves a ‘philosopher’ without being held up to public ridicule. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I don’t know why intellectual rigour is something to sneer at and yet reality TV is not…it makes no sense to me.

    Next time I am heading to Cambridge you will definitely know well in advance. Alas, there’s a whole hemisphere in the way for the foreseeable future!

  17. Pingback: Mark Rowlands and Scribe « Our Piece Of It

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