Mark Wheeler is a Professor of Political Communications at London Metropolitan University. Mark’s research interests include the political economy of the global mass media, the political relations between Hollywood and Washington, and the rise of celebrity politics. This week, Mark Wheeler introduces his new book on Celebrity Politics.
Celebrity politicians and politicized celebrities have had a profound impact upon the practice of politics and the way in which it is now communicated. New forms of political participation have emerged as a result and the political classes have increasingly absorbed the values of celebrity into their own PR strategies. Celebrity activists, endorsers, humanitarians and diplomats also play a part in reconfiguring politics for a more fragmented and image-conscious public arena. Yet, within academic circles, celebrities are invariably viewed as ‘manufactured products’, fabricated by media exposure so that as activists they are no more than ‘bards of the powerful’.
However, in Celebrity Politics it is my intention to provide a more nuanced critique, which contends that both celebrity politicians and politicized stars should be defined by their ‘affective capacity’ to operate within the public sphere. John Street’s arguments that celebrity politics has a given a greater expression to the representation of democratic behaviour are persuasive. He is concerned about the connection celebrities can make with the public through their ability to be ‘in touch’ with popular sentiment. This has been mediated through ‘fandom’ in which an ‘intimacy with distant others’ can be understood as the basis of political representation. Street contends that such a representational relationship is established by the ‘affective capacity’ of the celebrities and modern politicians’ cultural performances.
Consequently, it is this book’s contention that the traditional paradigm of pseudo politics over-simplifies passivity both in terms of celebrity activism and public engagement. It has been noted that celebrities have become more politically conscious in an era of the global mediation of communications. The celebritization of politics has brought about new forms of political engagement which indicate a dialectic transformation of high-politics with a populist approach to cultural citizenship. This does not mean that this analysis unconditionally accepts the validity of celebrity politicians or political celebrities, as their democratic worth remains contested. Rather, it suggests that the cynicism expressed in the popular media and some of the more functionalist accounts which exist in the academy should be replaced with a more intellectually curious critique of celebrity politics. This is necessary as celebrities and image candidates have assumed the authority to promote political agendas, they have become significant actors in election campaigns, policy agendas and grassroots activism.
These concerns segue into a wider debate about the dynamics which are shaping post-democratic societies. Here it is contended that traditional civic duties are being replaced by alternative forms of virtuous participation. Within this new political environment, different types of agency such as celebrity politics have become centrifugal forces for public engagement. In this respect, celebrity politics can be linked to Henrik Bang’s arguments that new forms of political capital are emerging as ‘Everyday Makers’ utilize community based narratives to engage with one another. Similarly, John Keane’s concept of ‘Monitory Democracy’, in which consumer led forms of representation become the measurement of accountability, has considered how changes to the matters of ‘voice’ and ‘output’ have reformed democratic practices.
Yet, this analysis contends that for celebrity politics to have a democratic worth, it must enhance civic virtues through the mechanisms of input and agency as much as providing openings for voice and output. Celebrity politics must not only be seen to have social value, but needs to provide the conditions through which a transformation in democratic behaviour may occur. Therefore, celebrity politicians and politicized celebrities need to demonstrate ideological substance and provide clarity in establishing a fixed range of meanings upon which people may achieve a real sense of connection with political causes. Consequently, such forms of activity should provide the basis upon which citizens may participate in terms of their own political efficacy to define a wider sense of the common good.