When The Huffington Post writes that Katy Perry has unfollowed Russell Brand on Twitter — that “the 27-year-old singer clearly doesn’t want to know what Brand is up to, and knows the best way to do that is to completely disconnect from her soon-to-be ex” — who is speaking thus? Is an intrepid reporter, revealing to us the product of an investigation? Is it a crafty editor, pulling eyeballs and hucking ad clicks? Is it a friend and confidant, speaking with intimate knowledge of the singer’s private moments? Is it a contract web writer keeping herself in Pabst with compelling fiction? Is it Ms. Perry’s publicist, outlining a marketing strategy to skew the “Teenage Dream” singer toward older audiences who identify with women leaving the wrong man behind, embarking through heartache and striking out on their own?
Is it Katy Perry herself, drawing on her intensity of emotion to speak truth to her own condition? Is it the social psychology of gender, speaking from a deep rooting in the minds of many? Is it an echo of Paul Simon? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? Russell Brand?
Roland Barthes begins his seminal essay “The Death of the Author” with a similar question related to Balzac*. His answer to his own question seems extendable to the literature of celebrity, from the accounts of their thoughts an actions, to their own statements in the public sphere, to the murmuring curiae across all professional, amateur and social media, to the very names and identities that appear in our lunchtime conversations:
We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”
– Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
That is to say, nobody is really “saying” that Katy Perry unfollowed Russell Brand on Twitter. We are reading it, but once it is down in text (or really, any medium that is subject to interpretation by a reader), it is no longer attributable to an active, talking person capable of will and intent. Because she is not alive in this context, “Katy Perry” is dead, as are any individuals who might claim to speak for her or about her with authority. Their intentionality no longer exists with regards to this story, or in the collected discourse that makes up the myths, tales, gossip and songs around the literature of Katy Perry’s celebrity existence.
(Russell Brand the celebrity is also dead in this same way, but because of social forces and also because he is somewhat less well-liked, more controversial, and more prone to self-destruction, this is somehow less shocking.)
Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor, Not Perez Hilton.
Announcing the deaths of things people like is one of the ways philosophers and theorists socially alienate their involuntary readers — so to step away from Barthes’s postmortem, let’s talk about what it means — in the act of literary interpretation — for identities to shuffle off their mortal coils, for intention lose its claim on meaning, and for the writer to be “dead.” The death of the author is to one degree or another taken for granted in the trendy study of literature these days, and at risk of making the jump from good blogger to bad graduate student, it seems just as clearly so in the interpretation of celebrities.
After all, the interpretation of celebrities and the argument over the meaning of celebrities are a great deal more popular and enthusiastically practiced these days than up-close-and-personal encounters with Balzac*.
But let’s be clear what we’re talking about, because if we don’t, we end up feeling sheepish next to the Wolfenstein 3D enthusiast in the “Neitzsche is dead… God” t-shirt.
We are not saying Katy Perry does not exist as a corporeal being — that she no longer walks, breathes, lives, loves or feels in her brain, a distinct object with its own phenomenology. No, Katy Perry’s physical existence can be experimentally confirmed (though only the very creepiest of logical positivists would make the attempt).
We are not saying Katy Perry deserves no credit for her work, that she is unpraiseworthy, or that she shouldn’t necessarily be paid royalties for “California Gurls,” so long as we live in a society where people possess intellectual property rights — and/or the authority to extend such rights — for which currency is exchanged.
We are not saying that she is irrelevant, or that what she does is meaningless or unimportant.
We are saying that, with regards to the literature that is Katy Perry — and specifically interpreting and attempting to discern the meaning of that literature — Katy Perry herself cannot step forward and claim authority as the author, or as the celebrity. When we are sitting there looking at the Huffington Post article about her unfollowing Russell Brand on Twitter, she cannot point to it and show us where she is in it, or persuasively claim to know what it means, because dammit, she is Katy Perry.
More importantly, since Katy Perry isn’t generally in the business of this anyway, nobody else can step forward and claim to derive that same authority from knowing her intentions.
“I know what this article means, because I am Katy Perry’s number one fan. I know her heart, and I know how she feels about Russell. This is what it really means,” is nonsense.
In saying Katy Perry is dead, we say she isn’t alive and present as a celebrity exerting her intentions through celebrity gossip about her. The many influences on it and the maelstrom of ideas, preconceptions, echoes, references, marketing meetings, Facebook wall posts, and everything else associated with it, once they are literature, aren’t really derived from the willful acts of a celebrity anymore. There are too many intermediaries between the writing and the reading of a text (or, again, any interpretive medium) for the reader to allow for this sort of authorial authority to preside over meaning and interpretation.
The Walking Tall Tale
But what do I mean when I say “the literature that is Katy Perry?” Katy Perry is a person, right? And all this talk we go about doing with regards to her being a person doesn’t make her any less a person, does it? Let’s look back to Barthes:
As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.”
Definitions of literature in literary theory, whether relative or absolute, tend to flock around this general area — literature is information that doesn’t have to correspond to reality, but can have an effect, whether that is beauty, truth, tension, sublimity or any of the other familiar or exotic goals of literary pursuits, without needing to do anything else.
Poetry is a form of literature. Drama is a form of literature. Film is a form of literature. I’m positing, and I can’t reasonably be the first person posit it, but that doesn’t matter, (especially in discussions of the death of the author — because, after all, as you read this, I am not present in or in relation to it as a living being either) that celebrities themselves have these days so far transcended a relationship with reality that they have become a form of literature themselves, supported by the discourse around them across media and platforms.
Why do these people have a show? They’re just famous for being famous.”
– Every curmudgeon who thinks he is clever but is really just having a bad day, including me sometimes, about the Kardashians
By “the literature that is Katy Perry” I mean that Katy Perry as we read and interpret her — the body of information that we encounter that has this name associated with it in which we look for a certain meaning and/or significance — is far less a corresponding description of a person than a literature in itself, endeavoring in these same familiar and exotic literary pursuits.
Dasein In the Membrane (A.K.A. I Don’t Know If This Rhymes, Because Nobody Uses This Word In Actual Conversation)
As I’ve noted in previous articles and podcasts, I find the term Dasein, drawn from Martin Heidegger’s Being And Time, useful in discussions like this, because it doesn’t bog us down in scientific argument over the qualities of a person or of cognition, or of the functionality of the mind, and concerns us primarily with the thing capable of experiencing “stuff.” Dasein refers to an entity which, “in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being.”
People who are alive in the world are Daseins. Philosophical zombies, theoretical beings who are materially indistinguishable from people but who do not possess subjective consciousness (which I find to be a problematic term because it sidetracks us into discussions of emergent properties and information theory), are not Daseins. Trains are not Daseins. Thomas the Tank Engine, were he to be real, would be a Dasein.
Daseins can be authentic or inauthentic. It is generally believed to be a good thing to be authentic as you’re going about the business of being-in-the-world. Celebrities, especially heavily managed and choreographed ones, with teams of publicists, stunt marriages, scripted interviews, meaningless but lucrative endorsements of useless products, and other such Kardashian endeavors, are often seen as inauthentic. They are fake, phoney, and emotionally detached, their pictures are heavily Photoshopped, their bodies are virtually cybernetic — the litany is familiar; they are not being honest.
I would take it one step further and say that when you see something like this:
You’re not looking at an image of an inauthentic Dasein — Hell, you’re not even looking at a person anymore. There is so much interference and cultural interplay in this information that you return to an act of reading as described by Barthes, divorced from the act of writing. You are looking at something “narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself” — you are looking at literature with a dead or absent intentionality.
Why Arguments About Objectification So Rarely Actually Go Anywhere Productive
Now, this of course, brings up a major problem. The idea of the death of the author runs afoul of complaints about objectification.
And as much as it may sidetrack me, I have to mention it here, because after posting that picture people are going to yell at me about it anyway in the comments (except I’m not here! And my intentionality does not exist in this work as you read it, ‘natch!).
The idea behind objectification is that by understanding a representation of a person as less than a fully realized person, we instrumentalize or use that person, which, in a Kantian sense, is a crime against the dignity they ought to be afforded as rational beings, and in a Marxist sense, sets up a dialectic that subjugates and alienates them, most likely for the economic benefit of your own class of people.
However, if you want to look at an image of Katy Perry (or even a darker, sparser corner of the Internet where people actually look at Balzac*) and employ judgement in relation to the “thing-in-itself” through any number of rational formulations, or if you are seeking to lift up Katy Perry from her subaltern place in socioeconomic discourse, you will be sorely disappointed, because you are knocking on the door of an empty house. And, no I’m not saying she’s dumb (I’m sure she’s very smart).
Katy Perry isn’t actually there. That image is a literature of Katy Perry, and if you’re looking at it, the intentioned Katy Perry with whom you are seeking to interact with is already dead.
So, arguments about objectification often run into this problem, as for political reasons people continue to will that literature be capable of producing its causal agent for redressing, redefinition or redemption, when that agent is long absent and even asking for it is an incoherent act.
This of course does not mean objectification is good, or that protesting it is bad — but just that most of the time it is quite difficult to do anything about it, except to try not to allow systematic trends in its use to create deleterious effect on people’s standards of living.
The important thing to remember here is that these problems are intrinsic to the act of interpretation and finding meaning. One of the ways to try to get out of this is to not try to find the meaning in things, but to engage in art in different ways. That in the rest will have to be covered in another article.
Katy Perry Is A Commercial Enterprise
You might have stopped earlier in this article when I said something that was clearly and knowingly incorrect, or at least incomplete:
Katy Perry herself cannot step forward and claim authority as the author, or as the celebrity. When we are sitting there looking at the Huffington Post article about her unfollowing Russell Brand on Twitter, she cannot point to it and show us where she is in it, or persuasively claim to know what it means, because dammit, she is Katy Perry.”
-Me, “Earlier In This Article (We were all so young then. Look at the hair I had! Crazy!)”
If you’re paying attention, you might have stopped here and said of course she can! Dammit, she is Katy Perry!
And indeed you would be right — Katy Perry could indeed step forward and make an authoritative statement about what the article saying she unfollowed Russell Brand on Twitter actually means, and she’d have the power to back it up. She could have her lawyers send a cease and desist. If you did the wrong thing with her celebrity, of which she did not approve, she could sic Chris Dodd on you. I don’t get the sense that Katy Perry is mean-spirited enough to do these things, but people who would lay some claim to her celebrity intentionality would.
Regardless, let’s say she did do it, would she be doing it because she is correct?
Far from a refutation of the death of the author, this power is one of the big reasons why the essay “The Death of the Author” exists — because this sort of act is not an act of interpretation, but an act of intellectual tyrrany — that if you aspire at all to freedom or dignity in the human mind, you should find it abhorrent that in capitalist societies and other similar societies people of wealth, power and influence get to step forward and claim to everybody else what something means just by virtue of them being the “author,” which is of course cognate with the word “authority.”
If celebrities are the modern-day folk heroes — the lenses through which people see their own lives, craft their relationships, and plan their own rituals, it the literature of their day-to-day is in celebrity gossip — what right that derives from truth rather than power does Katy Perry or one of Katy Perry’s lawyers have to come along to a random dude or lady reading People magazine at the checkout line and insist on what it means?
It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author… The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author…”
– Roland Barthes, Ibid.
If celebrity is literature, and I think it is, and the act of interpreting celebrity is confined to the reader of celebrity, which I think it is, and if all the confounding factors make intentionality in the creation of celebrity untransferable, which I think they do, then for an interested party (including the Dasein associated with celebrity of the same name) assert authority over readings of the literature of that celebrity by virtue of authorship or celebrity itself is an act of economic and social power — not interpretive value, reading, or meaning.
It’s bullying. It’s not nice. And I’m gonna tell Roland Barthes**, so nyah.
Let’s finish with something from the end of Roland’s essay, for symmetry:
Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination… Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
– Roland Barthes, Ibid.
**- Roland Barthes is dead. Unfortunately. PBUH
*- Always pun intended. Always.