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A Revealing Obsession

By Frank Provenzano

Exterior of the U-M Institute for the Humanities.

That Americans’ obsessions with celebrities shape national discourse and serves as an ongoing distraction and voyeuristic pleasure is hardly breakthrough news. Think: O.J. trial, American Idol, whoever is Jennifer Aniston’s prospective paramour, and the latest torrid details of Tiger Woods’ personal life. That serious-minded philosophers should read newspapers, blogs and watch television with the same critical incisiveness as delving into the works of Plato, Hegel, Kant or Heidegger, however, presents a provocative prescription for philosophical investigations of what lies behind the icons of the Internet age.

In his latest book, “The Star As Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption” (Columbia University Press), Daniel Herwitz boldly asserts that contemporary philosophers simply cannot extricate themselves from the times and popular culture in which they live. Considering the obsession with celebrities, electronic gadgetry, cell phones and consumerism, that’s the proverbial slippery slope for academic philosophers, searching for enduring truths in a culture defined by consumer trends and the strangest, most compelling “news of the moment.”

Everyday realities

While a fair share of philosophers of past generations exhorted awareness to the times in which we live, these times we share appear long on style and short on substance, especially when considering the ever-shortening American attention span. In his book, Herwitz takes aim on everyday realities as a way to take the temperature of the modern mindset of what interests and ails us. Taken together, that’s nothing less than holding up a mirror and casting a reflection of what may be the most the defining contemporary aesthetics and values, a place that could be called “pop culture are us.”

“I’m a child of television; it’s in my unconsciousness,” said Herwitz, director of the Institute for the Humanities and Mary Fair Croushore Professor for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. “I’m part of pop culture, not an outsider. I’m thinking and writing about things we are all a part of.”

With unflinching honesty and wit, Herwitz peels away the layers of popular fixation with personalities transformed beyond the glowing realm of celebrity and into the glittering iconic stratosphere, simultaneously inflated and deflated by an impulsive, insatiable public wanting to be distracted and live vicariously through their idols. “In the Star as Icon,” Herwitz escorts readers through the disposable celluloid and cultural detritus and describes lucidly the “celebrity icon” obsessed culture, which looks and acts quite similarly to religious devotion without the prescribed acts of kindness.

“The star icon is invested with grace while the public is fixated at how elusive they are,” said Hertwitz, who explores in his book the iconic status of Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onasis, Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe. “The public finds in these celebrities a convulsion of spirit, a connection with these celebrities on the level of a religion.”

Other examples aren’t difficult to find: Think: Elvis, The Beatles, and most recently, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Brittney Spears; and, to a lesser extent, sports figures Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Apparently, the measure of icon status is the impact of influence. The longer the shadow, the greater the impact.

Commercial commodity system

In a culture becoming increasingly secularized, the business of celebrities are flourishing in music, film and sports, from the latest rap star, to movie star to emerging “sports legend.” In popular culture, the notion of the news media as “storymaker” as well as “star maker” is best embodied in Orsen Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” which dramatizes the way newspapers spin stories to create hype, and fuel reader demand for more stories. For his purposes, Herwitz points to Daniel Boorstin’s oft-cited definition: “The celebrity is a person who is well-known for his well-knowness.”

“Celebrity flattens people,” said Herwitz. “There’s a deep way in which the star icon has been collapsed into a commercial commodity system that says a great deal about us.” He points to the millions who watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1998, and wept as if they had lost a close family member. “People such a deep connection that it was as if part of them had died.”

A distinctive feature of indelible icons is a “doubleness,” which was quite apparent in the last twenty years of Michael Jackson’s life, said Herwitz.

“’Star icons’ are bigger than life, and the public has a lust to know more about them, whether it’s corrupt or a happy ending,” he said. “Michael Jackson was a ‘star icon’ who people want to crush and save at the same time. He was a transcendent genius who people thought would live forever. Thinking that he would go on forever.”

For more information on Daniel Herwitz, and the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, please visit

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