Friday, December 11, 2009

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.... Tiger Woods and the contemporary celebrity juggernaut

I remember when I was a bit younger I was absolutely fascinated with the innards of a golf ball. What I do recall is that just inside the outer coating was a mesh of rubber fibre - a stringy material and thread-like. The pleasure in the destruction was the unravelling of this netted mess to reveal the "inner golf ball". But it seemed to be continuous layers of slightly different types of synthesized rubber material. What was also wonderful was that the ball seemed to become a "super-ball": when its encasement was removed it seemed to bounce very high.

What is interesting about Tiger Woods right now - like the golf ball - is that he is being unravelled in an almost unrivalled way by what I would call the normal and natural trope of celebrity discourse. His encasement - again like the golf ball - the mask of professionalism, the steely determination, the brilliance, the focus covers up the messy networks that were the patterns of Tiger's life.

And Tiger has now entered the juggernaut of the newly defined dimensions of public and private life, where the private has become more and more acceptable as a public discourse - the media focus has intensified on these new dimensions of what defines Tiger as a public persona. His former incarnation was what can be called the "producerly" version of Tiger - one that made sense for his sponsors and for the organisation of the sports hero. He was the individual as cultural commodity that is deployed to broker other relationships between audiences and products. It is a controlled and managed personality - and perhaps in the contemporary moment just too hard to control the boundaries of this public identity completely.

The blending of the public and private is perhaps the most mundane feature of contemporary life: most public personalities try to successfully engage in an interplay across these formerly more tightly constructed boundaries. Part of the reason for this investment in revealing some aspects by famous people in disclosing their private moments in the public is that the culture of revelation has become much more regular from the most celebrated and even on to the way in which many of us work on constructing a personalised persona via facebook or in thought balloons through Twitter. Our expectations are that the private, the familial, and the loose construction of friends and followers has become a general cultural experience well beyond the celebrities' past loose relationship with their fans. And Tiger's hyper-controlled presentation of the self was at odds with the more open negotiation that may define contempoary culture most accurately.

It is not that Tiger's sordid liaisons and adulterous pursuits have not had precursors that produced similar media frenzies. There is no question that the Monica Lewinsky - Bill Clinton scandal of the 1990s provided a pre-social media benchmark of revelation of the sexual in public discourse. What has developed in the intervening 12 years is the expansion of the reportage of the sexual and the intimate via all forms of media. These boundaries of propriety have been broken in traditional media; moreover, the relentless moves by the competing sources of news and information from tabloids and television news to the many Internet sites such as Perez Hilton ensure that patrolling those boundaries is now an essential activity of commercial media.

As the maelstrom continues and we hear of other infidelities and perhaps other faux-relationships as some individuals clamour for notoriety where the incredible around sexual liaisons with Tiger are now somehow seen as credible if not probable, we see the breakdown of the organised "hero" persona that Tiger along with his sponsors had constructed so carefully in a mythic way for the last 15 years. We also see the transformation of "value" of Tiger. According to USAToday/Gallup and Washington Post and reporting articles, Tiger has fallen from 88% favourable rating to 33% by the December 11 weekend.(The Australian (online), Dec. 16, 2009). Sponsors, including Gatorade and toy companies, have dropped Tiger; others such as Gillette are holding using Tiger in their ads during this heightened period. And a very large group, including the watch maker Tag Heuer, are reassessing their association.

There will be many stories circulating about Tiger; but one that may be overlooked is the readiness of online and media to work intensively through the private and the intimate without restraints. Once again,the key underlying shift in contemporary culture is the overt and active interplay of the public and private now articulated through the social network sites of the online world. And it is interesting now that what is developing are new types of personas produced by these various sites. Tiger Woods, for instance, has not faced the scrum of photographers, video cameras, and microphones since the scandal has broken late in November; but he has used his official web site to respond to the progressive unravelling of his public persona. The official web site then becomes the parasocial self - which identifies and acknowledges that the personal and the intimate is known by others, but chooses to not directly interact with the flows of the interpersonal and mass-mediated conversations that are circulating about him.

In contrast, we see the emergence of a new generation of persona privacy information providers and circulators. Radar Online now appears to be the one most identified with Tiger Woods' revelations. Through their exclusives they are transforming the online flows of information as interpersonal news on the notorious shapes the patterns of internet usage amongst millions.

Adding an intriguing dimension to these developments are the new methods of proof of connection to Tiger. The mobile phone proves itself to be as much an element of a connected culture as it is an element of a surveillance society that inverts Guy De Bord's Society of the Spectacle (2002) into something where people are increasingly conscious of their visibility and produce for that public visibility: the culture of surveillance needs even more analysis and future posts and comments...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah retiring the talk show

Last Friday, I was asked to comment on the Australian national ABC radio program PM on the recent announcement that Oprah Winfrey is going to end her talk show after 25 years. It was an interesting non-event in terms of timing. Oprah does not plan to retire the show until September 2011, but it was big enough news to dominate the twitterverse and fill radio and newspaper space and time.

Given that I have written a few things on Oprah ( one chapter of Celebrity and Power and an entry in the Encyclopedia of Television), it was useful to think through what her contribution was to television, political and popular culture - and pass these vignettes on to the radio program. And because they only used a few seconds of these thoughts, I thought I would expand on them here:

  • Oprah played with how television can make the personal public. Her talk show was an interesting blend of personal exposure for more public causes. And she worked her persona into a form of connected representation of her audience. So, instead of the personal being exposed and revealed by others such as gossip magazines, Oprah predated those efforts by exposing and revealing her own weaknesses. Early on, her program dealt with her own issues of incest, child abuse, beauty and weight gain/loss. The program then provided permutations of how the personal becomes an object of talk and discussion. It was an incredible form of public therapy

  • Oprah articulated an audience into her persona. She worked very hard at making the display of an audience on a talk show a sign of a wider connection to the mass television audience. Along with Phil Donahue and then many others, Oprah moved with microphone into the audience to field questions and commentaries in a ritualitistic performance of connection and empathy.

The interesting development is that this kind of public therapy which predates the exposures and revelations that continuously occur via online social network sites, has lost its mass cathartic value. Its connection to the private and the personal was indeed extraordinary and in some ways has provided a kind of pedagogy of public exposure for people using social network sites.

Different connections are emerging between public personalities and their audiences and this decision by Oprah Winfrey underlines the shifting landscape of cultural forms and commodities. Oprah is planning on launching her own television network in 2011 and this will no doubt allow the proliferation of Oprah in a manner that allows it to permeate more fluidly into the way that ideas now move through the culture in online and offline patterns of interconnection and intercommunication.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power and the Passion - Peter Garrett, National Press Club, and the breakdown in representational media

Part of attending the Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canberra (CHASS) was the lunch at the National Press Club where Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment and the Arts was set to speak. Apart from the pop star status of Peter Garrett, this kind of talk is a normal occurrence in Canberra.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience in seeing the decline of the representational regime which Canberra as well as other democratic political regimes are structurally wedded. ABC Television was there to make the event part of their program and this meant that the structure of address was towards the television camerai. It also led to other restrictions on how long Peter Garrett spoke and who and how many questions were asked. All of these elements were fit into the structure of its delivery to television.

What was truly bizarre about the event was the lack of engagement with the Council for Humanities and Social Sciences. All the questions asked at the end of the talk were monitored and delivered by journalists who consistently asked questions about the environment and very little about the talk on cultural policy and the arts. As an audience member I felt quite used. We were the crowd that made the process legitimate and fullsome in its connection to an audience. In actual fact, we were legitimizers of a representational system which structures politicians and journalists in a co-feeding model of mutual though apparently combative support.

But as an audience you are drawn into the aura of the political celebrity or the pop music icon who has become a politician.. And of course when I had a chance I took a picture and it is of dubious quality, but nonetheless a record of a moment in the decline of representational culture despite the allure of celebrity....

Friday, November 6, 2009

Proto-avatars: advertising characters of the 20th century

I was wondering through the Olde Lolly Shop in Margaret River, Western Australia a couple of weeks ago and I stumbled on some interesting and nicely framed commercial images. On their own, they were lovely collectibles if you are into that sort of thing; but for me a picture of some of them was enough. What it made me think about was a pattern of identification that one can see in the development of twentieth century advertising. The relationship to an iconic image implies a more "representative" structure and relationship in a kind of triangulation between the product, the character that somehow embodies the spirit of the product, and the consumer or viewer. So, in the late 19th/ early 20th century, you can see the effort to produce some romanticised iconic scene with the Nestle image. It is idealized, perhaps overly cute which may intersect with the contemporary Japanese aesthetic; but there is no attempt to focus the attention on how the scene could be replicated – even simplified – into a consistent character of identification.

But if you look at this image, also retrieved from the same Olde Lolly Shoppe in Margaret River, one begins to see by the mid- 1940s stronger efforts at establishing associations and efforts to make the character embody the product and its spirit.

By association, the character, in this case Popeye, is designed to produce a representative relationship to the consumer: Tops is individualised through the avatar of Popeye = I Yam what I Yam and I Yam Tops.

But then I saw this third and very sophisticated advertisement related to World War 2 I would imagine. And here you can see the movement from ambient mood (Nestle) to deployment of a character that iconically embodies an affirming relationship to their consumer choices( Tops via Popeye), to something individualised:

The soldier is in every way quite beautiful, but he is significant in his personality and it is a personal but celebratory relationship to his product of choice. There is the iconic embodiment where the soldier represents a relationship to the will of a nation in this case.

All of this points to the development of the avatar in contemporary culture and perhaps how it intersects with its integration into gaming and online worlds. It is a long trajectory of public identification and the personalisation of consumption that allows for the organization of entertainment and pleasure in personal models. The transformation also articulates the post-Fordist relationship to everyday life that one can see in commercial art. The avatar has a longer history and these images made me think of the periods of the different kinds of avatars that have operated over more than a century of trying to engage a public. So, perhaps these are proto-avatars, where the avatar describes a further level of affective investment in the image and representation of the self....