Something out of nothing (cultural alchemy in a celebrity culture)

We can imagine the moment of creation.  (And I am only imagining it.)   Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel are out for a stroll one Sunday afternoon.  They drop into the Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica boulevard. 

Pack wanders past a stack of remaindered titles.  All of them, he notices, are celebrity autobiographies.  Now on sale for a couple of bucks. He picks one up and reads

“my gift is simply this: to be here with you as fully as the gods will allow, and just let you love me.” 

“Wow!” he thinks, “Funny!  Who wrote this?”  He turns the book over.  Kenny Loggins. 

Pack and Reyfel start digging through the stack.  It gets better and better. Here Suzanne Somers reads her poetry. Here Loni Anderson and Burt Reynolds declare their love for one another.  Celebrities wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  So childlike and trusting, so naïve, so spectacularly vain. 

Once they stop chuckling, Pack and Reyfel think, “Hm, there’s something here.”  It takes awhile but eventually they develop a stage show called Celebrity Autobiography and eventually a Bravo TV special.  Coverage and awards pour in.  Pack and Reyfel are covered by NPR and Sunday Morning.  Relatively speaking, they have made themselves famous and wealthy.

Mark you.  The show consists only in this: passages from books from a remainder table. That’s it.  Not a word is invented.  Nothing is added.

There is one additional piece of cunning.  Pack and Reyfel conscript other stars to do the reading.  They have Florence Henderson read Pamela Anderson.  Brook Shields reads Elizabeth Taylor.  Ryan Reynolds reads Burt Reynolds. 

Sure, there are cultural questions here.  What makes this interesting?  Why are we prepared to ridicule stars we once revered.  (Perhaps this show acts like a forest fire removing some celebrities that others may flourish.)  Isn’t there something contradictory about using one star to make fun of another?  Surely, Brook Shields or Ryan Reynolds has done an interview that sounds very nearly as bad as “my gift is simply this…” 

Personally, I think we should resist the temptation to roll out a postmodernist cliché and insist that this is merely another case of a culture in which signs have been emptied of meaning and now pursue one another in endless circulation.  Baudrilliard’s argument, that is to say. In fact, there is something culturally rich, complicated and mechanically rich going on here.  These signs are not empty and they are not in flight.  If you don’t believe me, try reading just anything from popular culture on a Broadway stage, and see how much coverage you get from NPR or Sunday morning.Likewise, this is something more interesting than mere pastiche, intertextuality, or bricolage. (Thus did postmodernism beggar the social sciences, by rolling everything that happens in our culture into one simple minded notion.)  

But I am more interested in the economic question.  Pack and Reyfel found a way to invent culture out of culture, to extract value rich from value poor.  With no investment beyond their own ingenuity, they have augmented their place in the world. Forget all the cant about popular culture (talk about empty signs circulating constantly), this is astonishing: a material difference that issues from the most immaterial of differences.  Wow. Funny.  


The quote from Kenny Loggins appears in Rocca, Mo.  2010.  Celebrities in their own words, others’ voices.  A transcript of CBS Sunday Morning Show, May 16th on the CBS Sunday Morning Show website here.