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September 24, 2004

The Democratization of Celebrity

This afternoon I had one of those happy accidents when my research on one project triangulated with research on another, seemingly unrelated project. While doing some last-minute research for my conference paper on weblogs in the composition classroom, I came across Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd's article, "Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog," from the Into the Blogosphere collection, in which they discuss the genre of blogging in terms of the blurring of the boundary between public and private.

In the article, Miller and Shepherd describe Bill Clinton's presidency in terms of Clinton's removal of "barriers between himself and the voting public," as illustrated by his appearance on MTV where he answered the "boxers or briefs" question, but also by the exposure of his private life to the public eye through the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. At the same time, Miller and Shepherd point to other examples of the weakening of the boundary between public and private such as webcams and reality TV, a trend they describe as "the democratization of celebrity." Miller and Shepherd proceed to discuss this "democratization" in terms of what Clay Calvert refers to as "mediated voyeurism" (I actually find this concept problematic in that I'm not sure if voyeurism can be "unmedaited"), arguing that "although often associated with sexual gratification, voyeurism more generally strikes us as an unseemly interest in others as curiosities, not as moral equals." Miller and Shepherd then discuss how this phenomenon of "mediated voyeurism" plays out in weblogs, many of which offer fairly explicit accounts of people's private lives for public consumption. In this context, I'd guess that the Washingtonienne story broke after they published the article, but it's perhaps the best illustration possible of this dynamic at work, especially when we take into account the rather stark denunciations of Cutler's actions (or, more precisely, the amount of attention Jessica Cutler has received for her actions).

At the same time, they make a connection between voyeurism and our desire for truth or authenticity. Blogs became so poular so quickly in part because of a general skepticism, from both the right and the left, towards mainstream media, and many bloggers seem to offer an authenticity missing from commercial media. The best example here would probably be the popularity of Salam Pax, Riverbend, and other Iraqi bloggers who offer (or offered) a much more personal, and therefore more compelling, narrative of the war in Iraq. Of course, it's important to note that their stories provide only the illusion of immediacy and are clearly mediated by the weblog genre.

I introduce their argument at length (and to be honest I haven't yet finished reading their essay) because it brings into focus one of the central questions I want to address in my essay on Andrew Jarecki's documentary film, Capturing the Friedmans. I think it's pretty clear that Jarecki's film participates in this "mediated voyeurism," presenting the Friedmans as objects of curiosity, whether or not he tried to avoid this representation of the Friedman family. This "mediated voyeurism" is most obviously visible in the scenes that use home movies captured by the Friedman family, especially in the scenes in which David Friedman videotapes his family as they devolve into bitter arguments and divisions between family members.

One of Miller and Shepherd's most important points, in this context, is their observation that this voyeurism isn't really possible without willing objects, thus offering "media exhibitionism" as a complementary concept. Here they discuss the motivations for this exhibitionism, and in terms of Capturing the Friedmans, there's certainly a lot to discuss here, especially given the degree to which most members of the Friedman family are conscious of themselves as performers, not only in terms of their carefully scripted family videos but also in terms of David's career choice as a party clown. Of course, the Friedman family is also motivated by their desire to help Jesse in the fight to clear his name (at several points, even as a young adult, he discusses the possibility of going public with the case and trying it in the media).

For now, I'm hoping that I'll be able to use this entry as a launching point for thining about the conference paper, but it also seems relevant that my research on blogs and my research on documentary film seem to be meeting at this intersection between the public and the private, as well as the intersection between truth and fiction. Meeting my parents for dinner in a few minutes, so I don't have much more time to work on this entry, but again, I'm hoping to use this entry to frame some of the questions that I'll be asking, especially in my Capturing the Friedmans paper.

Posted by chuck at September 24, 2004 5:04 PM

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I find it exceptionally amusing that in an entry pertaining at least in part to voyeurism and the public/private boundary, the excerpt ends, "While doing some last-minute research for my conference paper on weblogs in the composition classroom, I came..."

Heheheheheh. I really feel like Beavis at the moment.


Posted by: Cassie at September 24, 2004 10:51 PM

Hey, Chuck, if you get a chance and it's not too much trouble, would you mind trackbacking that? Here's the trackback URL for the article: https://blog.lib.umn.edu/cgi-bin/blogosphere/mt-tb.cgi/3

It would be nice for readers of the collection to see your response... :-)

Posted by: Clancy at September 25, 2004 12:10 AM

Clancy, for some reason, I keep getting an error when I try to trackback. I'll keep trying, though. There could be something wrong with my computer (again).

Posted by: chuck at September 25, 2004 1:39 AM

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