Attention seeking. At the start of an individual’s life, attention seeking is a manifestly qualitative matter: the desperate, instinctual search for the sort of loving care, protection and nurturing that is the difference between life and death. It is not a matter of being looked at, but being looked after. By the time we reach adulthood, this simple evolutionary mechanism has for most people become dormant – we have survived to fend for ourselves (in ordinary circumstances, at least, and there’s Dyno-Rod and Dominos for other occasions) – while the need for succour and validation that never fully leaves us is routinely sated by way of our ordinary social interactions, without any especial pursuit. In a certain category of human, however, attention seeking remains as involuntary and compulsive as it is for babies, albeit now for cultural rather than natural reasons. Hello, Celebrities – from A-list to Z-list and into the pool of wannabes whence crawl the narcissists and exhibitionists and drama queens, the extrovert sulkers and nonchalant fashionistas, all of whose histrionic bleating egos are so many great Ptolemaic suns at the centre of a private universe. Best not get too close.
Anyway, once an individual crosses the threshold of fame and becomes a Public Figure, an artfully manipulated persona (which derives from the Latin for ‘mask’), attention seeking becomes primarily quantitative – a measure of one’s social status. It’s about ratings, units shifted, bums on seats, hits – that is what advertisers want to know. No one particularly cares what type of audience-consumer it was – its qualities – since all of those specifics will be yesterday’s news before tomorrow arrives, bringing its fresh torrents of memory-sluicing of infotainment.
Of course, it is not exclusively the case that (the) celebrity seeks out the love of strangers to stanch some disorder or other. Sometimes – with a cynicism that itself might be considered pathological outside of neocon think-tanks – it is a simple exercise in cultivating fans by furnishing their often transparent, off-the-peg, no-frills fantasies. In any case, we all get along perfectly well – well, not perfectly well, but well enough – with our phobias and manias, our obsessions and occasional paranoia, our superstitions and other low-intensity quirks, be they medicalised or not.
They are even quite socially useful, at least from the standpoint of a protean capitalism – in the first instance, a matter of brute quantity, of course – that stalks every flickering sign of life, unslakable in its thirst for some new untapped well of profit (and boy, is compulsion profitable: gambling, porn, nicotine, guns…), some unkempt, exploratory, vagabond desires all ready to be corralled into the punctual delivery system of our industrialised, sanitised pleasures.
|Darryn Lyons: celebrity celebrity voyeur commissioner; attention seeker|
extraordinaire; apotheosis of modern vacuity. Do we need to have a long hard
look at ourselves in the mirror (or are we doing quite enough of that already)?
Thus interlocking with slebs’ compulsive and/or cynical drive for ubiquity is a whole culture of attention seeking – what else is marketing? – a great white and its pilot fish of brazen liggers and dubious factotums who insinuate themselves between the bill and the board, the thickest spittle in town. A celebrity becomes an economy in itself, and their factitious gifts – their X-Factor – must be continually bestowed upon the populace, spattered across every medium. No event must be allowed to pass by unfructified by their celebrity juice, this ersatz postmodern aristocracy awaiting some new Jacobins to lop off their talking heads.
Anyway, the problem with all this is that the cloying ubiquity of these Nobodies (in French, personne) slowly comes to cloud the judgement of otherwise eminently sensible people – people of influence who ought to know better than to acquiesce in the whole sorry farrago; people who at some uncertain though definite point themselves cross a threshold beyond which they become detached from and oblivious to their initial distaste, sucking away complicitly on the cynicism of this Celebrity cult, a cynicism that is naturalised to the point at which even our cultural commentators can blithely declare “what’s the matter with it? It’s only a bit of fun,” and end up throwing their weight behind the runaway train…
* * *
…And so we arrive, via Bus Replacement Service, at London 2012: a bloody-kneed country, dragged through a hedge(-fund) backwards by the cocksure, coke-fuelled attention-seeking tyros of a deregulated financial sector, aghast (if not surprised) at the fawning accommodations of the government to bankers, appalled (if not surprised) by the MPs expenses scandal and the systemic phone-tapping of Andy-Liar & Murdoch – a country with a chance to redeem itself, to put on its Sunday best and pretend that everything’s OK, like some asphyxiating and neurotic petite bourgeois family traipsing across the country on Boxing Day in aching introspective silence to see the cousins, hovering about them all a tacit entente that no-one shall mention her unwanted pregnancy, his expulsion, that caution for shoplifting, the botched investment, but all will smile their way through denial and back to good health. London 2012: the nation’s shop window, they say (displaying no unauthorised rings, if you please), whereas the previous summer the city’s shop windows were merely the quickest route to the loot. London 2012: Viva Britannia!
Apparently, to do this, to put your face on, as a city, I mean, you need a famous face. Thus Beckham – who else? Danny Dyer, N-Dubz, Simon Cowell, Barbara Windsor and Jack Whitehall might have been in the running were it not a sporting event, while not even Lord Coe, as happy in the 1922 Committee as the 2012, would endorse the ludicrous berk, Boris Johnson. Beckham, meanwhile, is pretty much inoffensive; he was good at his profession (although a galáctico in marketability only); he is handsome (when he isn’t talking); and he is vapid enough to believe the ‘all is hunky-dory with Blighty’ propaganda.
Before we scrutinize that particular face, we should note that what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call the “faciality-machine” [visagéité] has long been an important device for power formations seeking as efficient a means of subduing their populations as possible – from the days of Imperial coinage, when it was expedient to give the newly-subjected peoples a representation of the distant despot to whose divine body they would henceforth owe their life and pay tribute, through the statues and friezes of the modern dictators (Fidel Castro seems an exception to this, perhaps because Che was the face of the Revolution, as a glance at Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior building confirms) all the way to the election-attuned workings, the wall-to-wall posters of political PR machine within ‘late’ capitalism’s imagosphere. Images are perfect for efficient and swift subjugation. In a species who are highly-skilled face-readers before they can stand up, the image provides an instantaneous mobilisation of affect and is preferable to the somewhat passé and laborious narrative means of emitting signs to rouse people.
The face irradiates these wordless signs just as it embodies the People. It personalises the impersonal workings of power, be that the despotic apparatus over the horizon in the capital (deriving from the Latin for head, ‘caput’) or the abstract machine of private capital accumulation with which us ‘advanced’ and ‘civilized’ folk busy ourselves (or is it vice-versa?). The flash of an apparently beneficent smile that’s too bright to look at for long occludes tens of thousands of concrete, specific decisions about how social wealth is spent. (The question of Olympic ‘legacy’ – beyond the brief, vicarious afterglow enjoyed as others from this sea-battered hunk of rock win medals – is one for another time, but suffice to say Athens, eight years on, doesn’t look in the greatest of shape.)
Ordinarily a tabula rasa onto which the public, in its yen for uplift, projects its hopes and dreams, the faciality-machine is occasionally tasked with something more complex. When it is compelled to speak – an inherently risky undertaking from the point of view of the regime or institution (as much an immaterial rhizome of desires, beliefs, decisions and commands as a material entity) for which it provides anthropomorphised substantiality – there behind it will invariably lurk some on-message eminence grise adept both at smoothing out the pointy bits of language on which one is apt to choke as well as fashioning gaudy sentimental flourishes. So, while the ventriloquist spoonfeeds this platitudinous mulch of mots justes for the mouthpiece to regurgitate, for its part, the ‘logophagous’ face-machine must learn only to listen and talk at more or less the same time (an illusion of spontaneity amidst the near-simultaneity), a task in which even George W Bush managed to convince most of the time.
|Faciality-machine: Juan Domingo Perón returns after 18 years in exile|
(his image is flanked by Evita, left, and Isabel)
* * *
And so, Londoners, it is Becks: Reprazent. An East End boy made good, one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, a sporting beacon and clearly much more useful being wheeled between banks of flashbulbs and TV cameras as the face of the Olympics than he would be labouring in Team GB’s midfield. This is not a sneering pop at Becks per se, just an enquiry as to whether he’s, yerknarr, the man for the job, whether he ought to be the Face of the Games. David London. You want smouldering? Fine; call Becks. Pouting, you say? I have the very man. Viciously whipped-in free-kicks and corners you’re after? Why, there’s only one man for the job: David Beck– …er, Ryan Giggs. You know what I mean.
Charged with rallying the good will of a public drenched in the Establishment’s piss and shit, Beckham must be our Nelson Mandela, our Pelé, our Gandhi, our Eva Perón (for whose emaciated, cancer-ravaged body was fabricated, in June 1952, a wire and plaster support which was then wrapped in fur coat so that, weeks before her death, she could stand in the back of a car and wave at the masses attending her husband’s second inauguration, “a sacred icon carried aloft on a pole, a thing of inert sanctity”: the face of the regime). Whether Becks has an earpiece in or has been scripted is hard to determine. But speak he must.
Prompted by Sky Sports News earlier this week to transmute the Tour de France triumph of Bradley Wiggins into a harbinger of Team GB glory, our bunraku looked out over the Olympic Park and drawled:
My message to Bradley is: ‘Congratulations, you’ve made everyone proud. I’m sure you’ve made yourself and your family proud. But the whole country is behind you – was behind you – and, aah, incredibly, aah, y’know, incredibly proud of everything that you’ve achieved’. For any athlete to perform at their highest level, aaahm, is amazing. For someone like Bradley to perform the way he’s performed and, aaahm, to make people proud like he’s done, aaahm, y’know, makes the whole country proud and it kinda sets us up for an amazing occasion that’s coming up.When the fireworks have gone and the Olympians themselves have encased their medals on mantelpieces, when they eyes of the world (at least, those not in sweat shops, civil wars, concentration camps, subsistence farming, or otherwise engaged) have turned away, the city will rumble on as before, providing opportunities, imposing opportunism. Should there be any perturbation of this rigorous stratification of the city’s human material and the fatigue-clad State-protectors (and G4S deputies) will jump quick-smart to the defence of an elite whose relationship to them – whose gratitude for their blind loyalty – extends principally to the diary-disturbing possibility of having to be (seen) at their funeral.
Olympics? Fine, you enjoy them. We all have our opiates. But don’t tell me all is well here just because some cyclist from the Isle of Man finishes a race before someone from across the water – some other water. I am no longer prepared to put on a ‘brave’ face about it all.
* This text was first published before Danny Boyle's magnificent, universally hailed opening ceremony, which, while containing enough of the familiar to placate the traditionalists and their view of what Britain is, or stands for (image), was also irrepressibly optimistic, forward-looking and young at heart, from the music to the choice of seven young athletes to light the stunning cauldron. Nevertheless, this does not vitiate the basic proposition of this piece: that the merits of Beckham as a face of the games, much less a spokesperson or ambassador, are simply a quantitative matter, concerning how widely recognizable he is rather than any particular qualities he brings to this role. As such, he is the acceptable face of vacuity.