Circus of stardom
Akshaya Kumar

  Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture
by Pramod K. Nayar.
Pages 195. Rs 295.

As media multiplies and images proliferate, 15 seconds become the postmodern measure of eternity. Every hour a new star straddles across the screen, relegating the previous one into oblivion. The sheer effervescence of the starry glitz is hard to ignore; it is seductive, if not overwhelming. Nayar, a keen literary critic and a culture-analyst, is tantalised enough to analyse the culture of evanescent stardom. As a critical gazer, the writer delves deep into the shallows of celebrity culture, probing its politics and poetics of production, packaging, circulation and consumption.

Defining celebrity-dom in terms of mass visibility and reconcilability, he ventures to map out its topography. To the known three types of celebrity —"ascribed", "achieved", "attributed"—he adds a fourth one, namely "positional celebrity". The problem with such models are twofold—firstly, they are imported; secondly, they pin down the dynamic field into a reductive frame. The evolutionary dimensions of the culture of celebrity point towards transgression of categories.

Despite a fairly exhaustive explanation of the processes, flows, sites and strategies of celebrity-dom, Nayar stops short of devising a sure-shot formula of attaining stardom. Such a stance redeems the book from the dangers of prescriptivism, yet the virus of structuralism infects the entire discussion. The writer identifies different kinds of identifications that viewers make with different kinds of celebrity. Taking clue from Marshall, he refers to auratic, sympathetic, associative and mimetic forms of identification, which again tends to compartmentalise the field into convenient schema. The celebrities, despite their rather ephemeral span, tend to remain in circulation through two means—one by way of spectacle and performance, and the other through extended "celefiction". The role of reason, charisma and power has been well highlighted, but the role of technology in generating celebrity effect has not been addressed.

Performance is a well-rehearsed drill, and it involves lot of technological input. The chapter Star Stopping extends the argument as it very significantly includes "scandal" as one of the saucy ingredients of the spectacle. The moral undercurrent of the book is held in check, if not in utter abeyance, in this part of the argument. Scandal redeems the transcendentalised celebrity from total deification. Departing from the traditional Marxist perspective, particularly the one espoused by Frankfurt School, Nayar concedes participation to the consuming public. The fans, as they organise themselves into fan clubs, and later on into political outfits, acquire the potential to become celebrities in their own right. But such a concession runs contrary to the tenor of the book which otherwise lends little agency to the audience. The very word "consumption" implies uncritical and perhaps happy acceptance of the packaged product.

The book definitely marks the arrival of cultural studies in the departments of literature in the country. It is time literary critics look beyond canonical literary texts, and deploy their training in critical theory towards the understanding of everyday culture. The valiant take on celebrity culture, despite its surfeit of new coinages, however, does not rise above classroom notes. It tends to be too repetitive, thin and critically monotonous.

There is an excessive thrust on the role of media in the making of "celefiction", but the sociology of such constructions is not amply explored. The star-starved Indian imagination has its economics and history, too. Poverty, feudalism and religious mysticism play much greater role than media alone in the making of Indian stardom. The author misses an opportunity to theorise "Indian stardom" in terms of cultural practices that are specific to it. The sudden proliferation of star gurus and yogis in the great Indian spiritual bazaar should have been probed into with greater details. Western categories of analysis have been used without much critical mediation. Even among the Western media theorists, key theorists like Adorno, McLuhan, Baudrillard and Virilio have not been paid attention to. Celebrity culture has its own theorists as celebrities!