On Cultural Neuroses, Primal Screams, and the Psychology of Celebrity: An Interview with Carl Raschke
In our fractured cultural world, celebrities have emerged as something of a common language for us to speak. The latest exploits of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, or the stellar performance (or downfall) of a given athlete, become our methods for connection at office water coolers and dinner parties. And publications like US Weekly or In Touch, and the numerous television shows devoted to celebrity, reinforce this notion that somehow the private, mundane exploits of the rich and famous are worth our attention. At best, these are helpful diversions from our own lives, whereas at worst, they promote a sense of false intimacy with these celebrities, all under the guise that they are just like us and care about us as much as we care about them. In this interview, Carl Raschke discusses our need to create celebrities, the fantasies they fulfill, and what we can learn from our obsessions with them.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You’ve said previously that celebrity is a reflection of our cultural neuroses. And we’re definitely not the first culture to obsess over “celebrity.” What are those neuroses our celebrities fulfill for us? What do we project onto them?
Carl Raschke (CR): It’s what I would call the Magic Man or the Magic Woman Syndrome. We can’t stand the ambiguities of life, the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any obvious solution to our problems, so we tend to create a fantastic figuration or Being in our head—the Celebrity becomes everything we want to be. The celebrity is more than just a beautiful person because at a very simplistic level, the celebrity solves every desire we have to live in heaven. The psychology of heaven and the psychology of celebrities aren’t that different. Karl Marx talked about that over a century ago: it’s an inverted world and everything that’s missing here, we project out into the “out there.”  But what makes celebrity different is that these are real people upon whom we have projected these fantastic expectations or valuations. And so, in the cult of celebrity that’s been noticed by collective psychologists, we have this demand that the celebrity play misty for us, that the celebrity perform according to these fantastic expectations. That’s why the life of celebrity, more often than not, ends in ruin, because celebrities can’t live up to this impossible idealization that we’ve projected upon them. The celebrity can’t be human. The celebrity has to play an impossible role.
At the same time, we realize the inadequacy, the utter humanity of the celebrity, and so, as soon as we’ve built celebrities up, we want to tear them down. We want to look for the scandals, we want to look for the flaws, and we want to magnify the flaws just like we magnified our own inadequacies by creating this fantastic being of the celebrity in the first place. And so we ruin people in the process. We do this with our political figures. If they don’t meet our expectation, all we can do is find fault. And the media, which is always looking for the new angle, is doing this for us half the time. We see these media cycles where somebody can do no wrong, and then soon after, they can do no right.
TOJ: Celebrities often aren’t immune to this, however. There’s an entire industry of reality shows, game shows, and YouTube sensations of people lusting after this spotlight. What does it mean that we have folks enthusiastically welcoming this kind of scrutiny?
CR: I think a lot of people are thrust into the light of celebrity without realizing it. Every child has this fantasy of becoming a celebrity, becoming famous, becoming well known. It’s part of the innate human desire for recognition in some way. And usually people that have this drive to celebrity are those that didn’t get enough recognition or good strokes, as you would say, in childhood. They are trying to please a parent who could never be pleased or appeased or so forth. And so they do this with the collective audience. There are a lot of movies made about the life of celebrities; it may be a kind of religious quest, trying to live up to an ideal of perfection. What one lives up to is a kind of life of the perfection of the opposite—the story of Johnny Cash, as we saw in the movie Walk the Line, is a good example of that. The thing is, we have to realize that there’s this codependent aspect of celebrity life. In other words, the celebrity can’t be the celebrity without the illusions of the audience. And the audience can’t live without the illusions they create in the persona of the celebrity.
TOJ: It also seems that in addition to being the fulfillment of our neuroses, celebrities live the very narratives that we can’t live ourselves. Or perhaps narratives we don’t really want to live out but think we should.
CR: And they live the narratives that we actually wouldn’t want to live ourselves. In some ways it’s a displaced narrative. Take the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. We always make gangster movies, and we make heroes out of them. In real life, these people were pathetic—they were very good at being pathetic. But we kind of glorify them because they’ve dared to do something that we want to do but know that we can’t do because we wouldn’t want to suffer the consequences. That’s the way you become a celebrity today: you commit some horrendous crime or you have something horrible done to you, and then you write a book about it. Nobody buys books about people with wonderful, holistic childhoods. Nobody would buy a book about someone who had wonderful parents and then married a wonderful man and lived happily ever after. It’s about struggle and torment. It’s about living the kind of life that nobody would really want to live, yet the kind of life that we realize could happen to us.
TOJ: Sometimes celebrities serve to advance and promote our cultural trends, serving as artistic forebearers. Madonna was an example of this nearly twenty years ago, and I wonder what you think of Lady Gaga’s emergence as this type of character. Is she a hollow pop-idol who exhibits shock for the sake of shock or is she someone with a deeper cultural message?
CR: I don’t think that Lady Gaga is shock for the sake of shock. I think she is a kind of perfection of a sense of incongruity or to use Slavoj Žižek’s term, a monstrosity. We’re fascinated by freaks and monsters, and if we can make monstrosity beautiful, we have an idea of celebrity. I don’t know much about her personal life, but she’s obviously somebody who somehow didn’t fit in and she’s learned, in a sense, to create this idealization of her own lack of self-worth, her own sense of not belonging, her own sense of the dysfunction of things not fitting together in the world. And people relate to that.
Let’s bring in Žižek here, who uses Jacques Lacan. Žižek talks about the “object petit a,” a fantastic signifier of something that is not real because it’s a kind of caricature. That’s what a fetish is: it’s a caricature of the real desire. But it’s the only thing that will really satisfy, even though it doesn’t really satisfy because we recognize the impossibility of satisfaction. In fact, we can’t really deal with the horror of our inability to be satisfied by what we really want, so we create something that is strange, weird, out of place, out of sorts; something in which the pieces just don’t coagulate whatsoever. Žižek calls this a kind of monstrous satisfaction. And that’s what we do with a celebrity like Lady Gaga. I think Lady Gaga’s popularity means that somehow, at a certain unconscious if not a conscious level, we realize the futility of the life of celebrity. In some ways this is what Friedrich Nietzsche would call a decadent form of art. But decadence itself performs a function. It shows, in a sense, that we can no longer believe anything that is truly real or valuable or high or engaging. In other words, we don’t know what we want, and so we create a celebrity to somehow signify that tormented lack of satisfaction in a figure like Lady Gaga.
TOJ: I’d like to flip this discussion around and look at celebrity from a different angle. Do you find anything worthwhile in our obsession with celebrity? In other words, do we benefit as a culture from having individuals in whom we can unconsciously project our isolated and collective neuroses?
CR: It plays a positive role in the same way that primal scream therapy does, so to speak. You get to the point where the only way you can really deal with what’s going on inside yourself is to let it out in a scream of rage and frustration. A shriek of impossibility. And so, yes, celebrities play that role. We have to have celebrities, just like we have to have the process of transference in psychoanalysis. Celebrity is just a collective form of transference.
TOJ: So my reading of the gossip magazines or the many hours of SportsCenter I consume are simply ways of working out my internal processes?
CR: Do you watch ESPN because you are entertained by the sports or do you watch it because you’re trying to work out a neurosis? I’m not sure ESPN is a good example.
TOJ: I enjoy the sports. But there’s a lot of gossip around sports, too, isn’t there?
CR: Well, sure, look at Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is the fallen idol. He was made into somebody unreal and so, realizing that he couldn’t live up to that expectation as this role model for kids, he started to become the bad boy and then he fell. And we take satisfaction in that, saying, “Well, he wasn’t really like we thought he was.” And now we take a sort of dark satisfaction in having destroyed him, with our gossip and our scandal seeking and so forth.
Tiger Woods was a good golfer. I don’t think Tiger Woods pursued the game of golf to be a celebrity. He was made a celebrity. First of all, he was a person of color. Second of all, he was very good at what he did. He broke into a sport that had been dominated by white men. And he fulfilled an idiosyncrasy we want, like “We’re not really a homogenous society—we let people who have been marginalized rise to the top.” And he just happened to be very good at golf. It’s the same thing that happened to, say, a figure like Willie Mays in the 1950s. Jackie Robinson broke the color line, but Willie Mays was the first really super athlete who was also African American.
TOJ: Given everything we’ve discussed, there’s still something attractive about the celebrity life of wealth and fame, isn’t there? There’s something about it that keeps us pursuing success on American Idol and America’s Got Talent. And of course we know that those things don’t always equal happiness. What does it take to reorient ourselves to a more thoughtful, fulfilling narrative that we can aspire to?
CR: It sounds like you’re wanting me to provide a prescription that can fix everything, which is exactly my point. That, too, is an American-type response: “Let’s identify the problem—now, what’s the solution?” The thing is that there is only one real solution, and that’s God and time.
Cultures don’t change overnight. The strength of a culture can also be its downfall—we’re experiencing that part of the cycle now. The strength of America is its optimism, its can-doism, its collective narcissism that says, “We are special. We are different. We can achieve everything.” When it came to military prowess, we believed that until Vietnam because, technically, we’d never lost a war. And then it turned the other way around, and people said, “Oh, well, we can’t do anything.” And then in the Bush era, people forgot Vietnam and the same kind of obsession started all over again. And now we’re probably going through the post-Vietnam response of believing we are failures who can’t accomplish anything. But people do learn. Nations do learn over time. It was Aeschylus who wrote that time is the ultimate arbiter of justice. And like Oedipus at Colonus in Sophocles’s play, there is this kind of recognition and understanding after the tragedy, after the trauma. That sense of awakening we have. I think we’re doing that economically right now. We realized, to use pop-terminology, that consumerism is unsustainable, so we’re saving more. We’re being more careful about what we buy. We’re not going on binges the way we used to. We’re not just buying because it pleases us. We realize there is an indefinite future out there. We realize that economy means that—economy—not just an endless cornucopia. We’re getting wiser. Sadder, but wiser.
Now, in a way, I think that I was talking just now about Christian Realism. Up until my generation, Christianity was pretty much about consolation. There was a belief that this world is a place of frustration and so forth but that we could take comfort in the fact that we are already in relationship to God and we are reconciled to God, that there is some future where it may not be pie in the sky, by and by, but that we can take a certain joy in the moment of where we are. As a culture, we have lost that sense of joy in the moment. Even if we criticize the instant gratification psychology of consumer culture, we still have that mentality of instant gratification, because we find ourselves saying, “OK, well, the problem is consumerism and capitalism, and it’s us, and now what we need to do is just change our lives entirely.” As if that’ll do it. As if we really can just change our life entirely.
I’ve been somewhat overweight all my life. I’m still pretty healthy, and I’ve tried everything to throw off this weight. And I can’t do it. I’m reconciled to the fact that I could be a little less indulgent, that I could get some of this belly fat away from me. I’ve also realized that while I’m not obese, I’m never going to be slim. I’m not going to meet the ideal. I just get along with what I can do. In other words, it takes generations, sometimes, to overcome what we are. And sometimes we don’t even do that. Nations just disappear from the scene because they couldn’t be anything other than what they were, and what they were was finally obsolete to history.
We need to relax, to be a little bit more thoughtful, more reflective. We need to take the question of limits seriously. We don’t recognize that. What we do is we identify problems, and then we get angry and we condemn. And we believe in messiahs that are going to come along and fix everything for us, and of course they can’t. Every Christian church that’s started wants to be a megachurch or expects to be a megachurch within five years, because, after all, it’s about bringing in the kingdom and that means bringing in as many people to Christ as we can. But what Jesus preached was the gospel to all nations. He preached that we should make the truth of salvation available to everyone, which they have the freedom then to accept or reject. It wasn’t about changing everything. It wasn’t that we’ve somehow failed if we don’t change everything. Although there will be failure. Even in the cosmic sense, there are losers. That’s part of the divine economy. I think the Calvinists, with their idea of double predestination, kind of overdid it, but at least they had a certain point: there are going to be outcomes of every process that we don’t like. And we have to recognize that.
America is the country where everybody believes they have a redemptive plan for everybody else, including Christians. And somehow Christians feel like they have let the world down, have let God down, if they don’t meet their vision for the redemption of reality—whether it’s in politics or in relationships. For example, why is it that that segment of evangelical Christianity which puts the highest value and premium, the most effort and investment, into preserving family and marriage has the most dysfunctional families and the most divorces? Is it because they don’t put enough effort into it? Is it because they’re hypocrites? Or is it because they overidealize it? We overidealize everything. I think we need a little less idealism in this country because idealism very often leads to narcissism. And we have a real problem with narcissism the last two generations. The current generation, which is supposed to be the most idealistic generation since the sixties—the boomers were very idealistic—is, I think, one of the most narcissistic generations. It doesn’t have any sense of reality; it doesn’t have any sense of proportion. Neither did my generation; we just had a lot of bumps and hard knocks, and we finally learned, and we kind of went the other way. We need to learn balance. We need to learn how to respond appropriately in the situation in which we find ourselves.
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1. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Religion (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993).
2. See Slavoj Žižek, The Monstrosity of Christ (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. He specializes in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. Raschke is an internationally known writer and academic who has published numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His latest book, The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion.” Raschke is also a permanent adjunct faculty at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and has been a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Vienna.
Tom Ryan is a stay-at-home dad and an editor for The Other Journal.