The anthropology of the contemporary world has many questions to take up. One of the things we particularly need to understand is the precise character and operation of our dynamism. As a culture, we are changeable, dynamic, and discontinuous in ways that few cultures have ever been.
Yesterday, I found myself thinking about a special case of this dynamism. I was thinking about what we might it the “cataclysmic loss of credibility that sometimes occurs on the public stage.
Chevy Chase, the comedian who began his career on Saturday Night Live and did a series of successful films (Caddyshack, Fletch, National Lampoons Vacation) did a talk show for Fox in 1993. For more info on Chase, see the Yahoo bio here. Here was a guy with lots of credibility as a comedian. The world was long practiced in “finding him funny. Suddenly, it was over. He wasnt funny any more. At all. His talk show was excruciatingly precisely because it presupposed a humor that Chase could not produce.
Are there politicians to whom this has happened? One moment they are more or less credible representatives of the people, the next they are just “over. Musicians or actors? Examples, please.
The fact that a cataclysmic loss of credibility can take place tells us something about famous people. I think it says that we must “stake them some part of their credibility. To be sure, some they earn by dint of effort and talent. This they can claim to own. But some of their credibility exists in them because it comes from us. We “spot them this credibility and it is, it turns out, ours to take back.
The website and books series called “Jump the Shark specializes in spotting these moments of cataclysmic loss of credibility. The point of the exercise is not just for people to see that they no longer like “The Apprentice, it is to identify the precise moment we withdrew our consent, the moment it ceased to engage. The Jump the Shark players are REPO men (and women). They hunt the neighborhoods of popular culture and exercising the right to repossess anything that no longer “belongs to its possessor.
There are two particular issues that must vex and mystify us:
First, that there is, apparently, a kind of political contract at work here. I had always assumed that we admired our celebrities because, well, in most cases how could you not? They are talented, accomplished, charismatic, beautiful, durable, winning, influential and so on. But the “cataclysmic model looks a lot more like something out of the world of political science. It says that celebrity is a much more cooperative enterprise, that the fan, at least in the mass, actually possesses the rights of authorship. Celebrities do not extract our deference, we give this to them. Celebrities do not fashion their credibility, but persuade us to surrender the stake and more besides.
Second, that, when there is a loss of credibility, it can happen all at once, “before our eyes. My guess would have been that credibility was something that wore away. But no. Sometimes it goes “right then and there. This is vexing. How is it possible that a very large group of people can change their ideas this dramatically and this simultaneously. They are not following one another in a diffusion array. They are all undergoing the same change of heart and mind virtually simultaneously. We are accustomed these days to think of ourselves as a culture with lots of differences and lots of inconsistencies. We sometimes wonder how any consensus, cultural or political, can be made to happen. And here it is, something that looks for all the world like a consensus that is somehow both simultaneous and naturally occurring.
There are many religious and political enterprises that have hoped for this extraordinary moment when the “scales fall from our eyes that we may see where once we were blind. It has been a long and frustrating wait for the Marxists particularly. But here it is, the kind of thing they hoped for and worked so hard to set in train. Here it is happening apparently by itself in our midst all the time!
No doubt, there is a substantial literature on this problem somewhere. Or it may be that I have framed it badly, creating a problem where none exists. Dear reader, do advise.