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.