Book Review of Fame,
by Mark Rowlands
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/9/09
There are some who need no last names. Paris. Lindsay. Britney. Sadly, just read those three words in context and you likely know the individuals I am speaking about. Why do we know about them, or more importantly, why do we care? Philosopher Mark Rowlands provides readers with an insightful look into what fame is, what motivates it, and how it has, in recent years, evolved. Fame is part of a series called The Art of Living put out by Acumen, and in it Rowlands argues that part of the problem is the culture’s “inability to distinguish quality from bullshit,” hence bringing about the rise of people who are merely famous for being famous.
Fame used to be, at one point, something someone achieved from having accomplished something, or possessing some sort of skill. While this still does occur, our culture has since spawned the birth of what Rowlands calls “new variant famous” (or vfame) which is basically being famous simply because one is famous, not because one possesses any sort of skill or talent that makes this fame worthy and deserved. In his chapter titled “Paris Hilton and the end of history” Rowlands points out that:
perspective of vfame, any way of being famous is just as good as any other.
Vfame is the egalitarian version of fame: the new opium of the masses. There are
no clear standards of quality that one must meet in order to be vfamous…There
are no standards one must attain in order to acquire vfame, not even ideal
standards. Vfame is not, in its essence, a matter of quality. Vfame has nothing
to do with value.”
Rowlands does an excellent job of arguing philosophically these points—he mentions relativism, individualism, objectivism, fundamentalism, touches upon the teachings of Plato and the works of the great novelist Milan Kundera all in a way that is accessible yet mentally rewarding. Reading Rowlands will grant you a mental meal, yet I want to stress that the book does not fall victim to the turgid, obfuscated prose one can sometimes find from a philosopher. Instead he does a great job of explaining his points, using both classical examples (like those of the Greek myths) with that of Young Hot Hollywood.
He argues that part of the problem is in the adopted notion that everything is subjective, that there are no objective criteria for deciding whether something is of quality or not. Rowlands refers to this as something contributing to the “Collapse of Enlightenment” or what I like to think of as the dumbing down of culture. By allowing everything to devolve down to one’s “feelings” Rowlands argues, “Ultimately, the most deleterious consequence of the inability to distinguish quality and bullshit is that it leaves us ill equipped to think about our own lives and so make them better.”
Just to give a bit of my own example, in my torturous attempt to land a literary agent for my work, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rejected not for any objective thing, but because that agent did not “fall in love” with what I had written. I’ve even had them complement me, tell me how talented I was, etc. (Granted it was all generic praise and none have shown any indication that they’ve actually read what I’ve sent them). Personally, I find this “fall in love” excuse not only insulting and condescending, but utterly stupid because it only reinforces Rowlands’ point that when one is solely concerned with personal feeling above all else, quality then takes a backseat. So they’re not looking for books of quality but books they “love.” Well, as a writer, I have no control over what someone chooses to “love”—I can only write well and make my arguments the best I can make them. This notion then, of valuing what one “feels” over objective criteria has a helpful (or rather destructive) role in the dumbing down of culture, or as Rowlands puts it, “The Collapse of Enlightenment.”
And all of this certainly does show a pattern in the rise of vfame. When one places feeling over objectivity, one can rationalize that everyone is just as good as everyone else in any specific endeavor because one “feels” a certain way. If this is so, then what separates the mediocrities that reach vfame versus the ones that don’t only comes down to luck. For if we didn’t know of Paris, Lindsay or Britney, certainly there would be others to replace them. And there will be, a few years from now, when the public has grown tired and they’ve all gotten a little older and a little less interesting. Their “fame” is based in ephemera because they represent nothing of lasting substance.
Though the purpose of this book is not to sound elitist or rip against people like Paris Hilton per se, Rowlands reminds readers that the problem lies not with Hilton, but with the culture’s feeding interest in her and people like her. Celebrity magazines would be bankrupt if no one cared about these people, and certainly vfame is just one byproduct of this whole “Collapse of Enlightenment,” for Rowlands also notes that we see it in our Presidential running candidates, specifically when a number of them don’t even believe in evolution. We see it in the Internet and television, where people value not necessarily the quality or content of a given site, but the traffic and popularity these sites and shows receive. Just to give an example, over the summer I attended an Agent and Editors Conference in Austin, Texas and the overall tone of these people in the “biz” is to aspire to become the next James Patterson, not the next James Joyce. Or just look up recent movie releases. The first thing announced is how much money did the film make that opening weekend. Anything less than hundred million it’s considered a flop nowadays—forget any artistic merit. (Sorry Woody Allen).
Fame releases a whirlwind of ideas that would easily spawn discussion (and if not with anyone else then at least with yourself). It is a rewarding, insightful and mind you… entertaining read. Rowlands has a good sense of humor that is impossible not to appreciate, and the book manages to educate and entertain. No quality was compromised in the creating of this book, and that isn’t bullshit.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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