Dr Sandra Mayer, Oxford/ Wien
From 19-21 June, over the course of three fully packed days, Royal Holloway, University of London – which very recently experienced its own brush with fame when the college’s picture gallery was chosen as a location for filming the 2013 Christmas Special of Downton Abbey – became the hub of Celebrity Studies. International scholars from fields as widely diverse as communication studies, sociology, media and cultural studies, psychology, film studies, literature, gender studies, and even criminology, gathered to discuss all matters and manifestations of celebrity in close to 150 papers at the second Celebrity Studies Journal conference, organised by James Bennett (Royal Holloway) and Su Holmes (UEA). Delegates could be seen furiously hammering Twitter and Facebook messages into their iPads and quite visibly succumbing to the appeal of academic celebrity in the presence of a doyen of Celebrity Studies such as Richard Dyer, who in his keynote provided a fascinating insight into Fellini’s classic filmic representation and critique of late 1950s celebrity culture, La Dolce Vita.
The conference, which had sparked a fair bit of advance publicity on account of one of the organisers’ subsequently contested claim that teenagers’ interest in celebrity culture might “boost their understanding of politics, morality and the economy” , was also an occasion for stocktaking and celebrating one of the most rapidly growing areas of humanities and social sciences research. It was with no small amount of satisfaction, therefore, that Su Holmes, co-editor of Routledge’s Celebrity Studies journal, in her opening remarks recalled Germaine Greer’s gloomy prognosis for the journal’s survival upon its launch in 2010, predicting its demise after only a couple of issues. Indeed, the days when the word ‘celebrity’ in the title of your thesis would seriously impair your career prospects in academia might be a thing of the past (at least there are some notable examples that suggest that this might be the case). However, as Holmes subsequently noted, the fact that a three-page paper on Pippa Middleton’s rear in a 2011 issue of Celebrity Studies would receive questionable credits as an example of improbable research reflects the ongoing need to defend the academic study of celebrity.
What the conference most strikingly revealed was the immense scope and diversity of scholarship conducted within the framework of Celebrity Studies, covering all social and cultural fields, from politics, film, music, and literature to fashion, social media, advertising, and reality TV. Nevertheless, a roughly estimated 80 per cent of the papers focused on exploring manifestations and phenomena of contemporary celebrity culture, with panels dedicated to “Celebrity and Fandom,” “Celebrity Meltdowns,” “Celebrity and Social Media”, “Celebrity Chefs”, “Gender and Pop Music Celebrity” and even individual pop-cultural icons, such as Miley Cyrus, Will Smith, and David Bowie.
As a literary historian exploring the intersections of literary and political fame in nineteenth-century England, I found myself among a rather isolated minority of conference participants, but no doubt so did the fashion scholar working on a historical study of the Academy Award’s red carpet (Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén from Stockholm University, with an interesting paper on the cultural iconicity of Richard Blackwell’s 10 Worst-Dressed List). Papers with an explicit focus on literary celebrity filled no more than two of the 45 panels and covered an intriguing mix of topics. The range included explorations of the connections between literary and religious celebrity in the Dutch Romantic poet Willem Bilderdijk (Rick Honings), the intersections between text and public reputation in the confessional poetry of John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton (Amy Jordan), celebrity hoaxes as a phenomenon revealing the blurred lines between fact and fiction in celebrity culture (Gaston Franssen), and the continuing obsession with authorial paraphernalia in the contemporary literary marketplace (Siobhan Lyons).
Any scholar approaching the phenomenon of celebrity from a historical perspective is painfully aware of the challenge of appropriating the elaborate theoretical frameworks developed to assess twentieth- and twenty-first-century celebrity and media culture and testing their usefulness in the context of earlier historical periods. For all those struggling to come to grips with the meanings and uses of the term and concept of ‘celebrity,’ Olivier Driessens’ talk “On the Operationalisation of Celebrity” undoubtedly was one of the conference’s highlights, not least because it was one of the few papers that followed the conference theme – “Approaching Celebrity” – by addressing the nitty-gritty issues of methodology. Driessens, who currently is a Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, raised the key question of how celebrity as a theoretical concept can be “operationalised,” i.e. how it can be made measurable or recordable, taking into account the level, reach, area, instability, and historical aspect of celebrity as factors requiring a highly differentiated analysis of the phenomenon. In his understanding, celebrity is based on a combination of the subject/object’s accumulated recognisability through recurrent media representations (“celebrity capital”) and their circulation and subsequent survival in cultural (working) memory, which is a concept that avoids the pitfalls of media-centrism and appears applicable to both historical and contemporary studies of fame/celebrity.
If a conference like this successfully pictures the dynamic growth and sprawling vastness of Celebrity Studies, it also poignantly highlights the extreme and sometimes vexing heterogeneity of the field and the need to venture beyond the confines of our own subjects in search of cross-disciplinary dialogue. “Celebrity Studies makes statements about the here and now, but we need to go to the archives to see what went before,” Su Holmes stated in her paper on the BBC’s early broadcast talent shows. Indeed, adopting a historical perspective that pays attention to the origins and genesis of contemporary celebrity culture might be a way of reducing the gaping disparities within the field.