That contemporary America is captivated by the phenomenon of celebrity is hardly a contestable observation. Even those of us who try to limit the impact of celebrity on our life find that its tenacity is hard to overcome. Some try to overcome the impact of celebrity by willing its insignificance. But that some energy is required to will its insignificance should be an indication that, despite our best efforts, as contemporary Americans we are beholden to it. Celebrity has become the lingua franca of our society.

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As I survey the relationship between celebrity and the two disciplines of theology and visual art, it may be worth stating my modest aims bluntly: by drawing attention to the phenomenon of celebrity, I hope to investigate a nagging suspicion of mine that something fundamental is missing in present enthusiasms surrounding the role of art and artists in the contemporary church. And that something entails a thicker theological account of materiality and Christian identity, an ontology and anthropology that goes beyond the typical imago dei apologetics. What follows are some preliminary sketches of these matters, and as any artist knows, preliminary sketches are just that—preliminary.

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In surveying celebrity as a phenomenon, it is best not to attempt any fixed definition. One reason for this, as I shall demonstrate, is that the very nature of celebrity resists such attempts. As such, it may be more fruitful to describe the phenomenon by observing its operative function within contemporary American society, and to this end, I see three primary characteristics: celebrity is (1) generative, (2) mimetic, and (3) economic. Moreover, each of these partially constitutes the others, and it is this co-constitution that produces the phenomenon itself. The separate characteristics, therefore, must be understood as interacting with and contributing to the perpetuation of the others.

First, by generative I simply mean that the phenomenon of celebrity is productive. This productivity is both internal and external to the phenomenon. The internal productivity relates primarily to the second characteristic, the mimetic nature of celebrity, whereas the external productivity relates primarily to the third characteristic, the economic nature of celebrity.

Internally, celebrity produces entities that we know as celebrities. There is very little (maybe even no) consistent criteria that serve as preconditions for how the entity is made. A non-celebrity can become a celebrity for any number of reasons and for any duration of time. Moreover, the movement of one becoming the other entails a transition but not a transformation; indeed, transformation is not a marker of this phenomenon. The emphasis here is on transience, meaning that the content of the phenomenon is always in flux. Thus, the transient content, in addition to the lack of consistent criteria, results in a phenomenon that lacks any enduring concrete particularity. The transience of the phenomenon is a crucial feature because it is indicative and expressive of celebrity’s economic function, which is principally one of momentary exchange.

The primary external generative function of celebrity is its production of human desire. The nature of these desires is related to celebrity’s economic function. That is to say, the economic function determines the type of generation which compels the phenomenon. And in this case, the type of generation is fabrication. To say that the desires produced by the phenomenon of celebrity are fabricated desires is an important theological observation and one that I will revisit more fully in the context of describing a phenomenon that competes with celebrity. I mention it here while describing the external generative function as a way of highlighting that this process of fabrication is correlative to the economic characteristic, which again, operates according to momentary exchange—the more exchange, the more desire is fabricated.

The other product of the external generative function of celebrity is witness. To participate in the practices of exchange, to speak of a celebrity’s antics, for example, is to bear witness to the meaningfulness of those practices, for example, the practice of speaking of celebrities. To not be a witness is to not be a member of this society. Celebrity is a social phenomenon; it is social because it is economic. That is to say that economies operate upon exchanges between bodies, both individual bodies and collective bodies, and when bodies interact some form of socialization occurs. The linguistic exchange of speaking about a celebrity both socializes the speaker and makes the speaker a witness to the economy that finds meaning in the linguistic exchange.

Second, by mimesis I refer to a very old concept that continues to be critiqued, revised, and newly appropriated. Here I do not want to get distracted by the debates surrounding the term and its use. Instead, I limit myself to two basic qualities of celebrity; celebrity is mimetic in that it (1) is representative and (2) is something separate from that which it represents.

As I stated previously, the mimetic function of celebrity corresponds most closely to the phenomenon’s internal generative characteristic, that is, its transience. Celebrity produces celebrities by transference: people become entities that represent the phenomenon’s transience. The entities remain separate from the phenomenon because they are only momentarily contingent to it. The entities are themselves fabrications. But as long as they remain celebrities they merely represent the phenomenon that makes them mimetic entities. Their momentary status, however, remains intelligible precisely because of the phenomenon’s economic character, which itself operates on momentary exchange. Thus, the mimetic function remains operative (in spite of the phenomenon’s internal incoherence, i.e., lack of criteria) as long as social structures absorb the phenomenon’s external production of desire and participate in the economic exchange which gives meaning to the fabrication.

These observations about the mimetic character of celebrity describe how the phenomenon of celebrity is one of representation, but they say very little about what the phenomenon itself represents. Because the discussion of what celebrity represents entails a theological assertion, I will continue my characterization of celebrity before addressing this point.

And third, in light of my previous observations, we might say that celebrity’s economic function is the preconditioning of the phenomenon’s generative function. The economic function predisposes members of the economy to practices that aid the phenomenon’s intelligibility within the economy and thereby determine the phenomenon’s rate of absorption, that is, the extent to which the phenomenon is absorbed into the preexisting practices of the economy and/or reforms of those same practices. I will briefly expound on this in two directions. First, note that there is no singular form of absorption. The economic character of celebrity is necessarily multiple by nature because of the multiplicity of social structures that make up any society and therefore any individual. How the phenomenon functions within any particular social structure (e.g., family, school, church, nation) will be determined by the extent to which the social structure absorbs the phenomenon and participates in its practices of exchange. That said, there is a second broader economic function that affects this first observation.

In my earlier description of the external generative function, I observed that the phenomenon produces its own witnesses such that to not be a witness is to not be a member of this society. At first this may seem a rather radical and exclusivist claim. But it’s simply an acknowledgement that particular economies require particular practices. To become a member of this society is to participate in these economic exchanges. And these exchanges in turn determine the meaningfulness of the production by this economy. Without this synergy between practices and desires, the whole phenomenon would cease to exist—celebrity exists because it is desired, and this desire is expressed in economic exchanges. Included in the desires fabricated by the phenomenon is the desire that the phenomenon itself exist. If this desire were extinguished, it would not be the end of human desire; it would simply be the end of this fabrication. The extent to which the phenomenon’s economic function shapes contemporary American life might be illumined by asking, who is not a witness?

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Iconicity: Image and Likeness

What I gather from the previous sketch is that the phenomenon of celebrity reveals something significant about what we call identity. The predominant category we have inherited from modernity for thinking about matters of identity is subjectivity. In looking at how the phenomenon of celebrity functions, we are confronted by the recognition that modernist notions of subjectivity do not follow, as they do not allow for an account of the conformist nature of individuals and economies that is expressed by the phenomenon’s very existence. For many of us this is not a new realization. That is, many scholars have contested subjectivity in so far as it relies on faulty notions of autonomy, notions of autonomy that have led modern individuals to think their identity consists of the individual choices they make to believe we are self-made. But while scholars have criticized this notion of subjectivity for some time now, it persists and remains pervasive, shaping how we live together.

The degree to which this notion of subjectivity continues to operate within the church, I believe, is partly because Christians have not seen a viable alternative. But such an alternative exists and has existed for quite some time—visibly—in the tradition of holy images, that is, ecclesial iconography. The tradition of Christian ecclesial iconography involves a logic that runs counter to modernist accounts of materiality and spirituality, and therefore, both in practice and presence, the tradition of holy icons expresses a wholly different account of Christian identity, one that is according to Christological ontology.

Iconicity, in the most basic sense, is an acknowledgement that the human creature was made not only in God’s image (imago dei) but also according to God’s likeness. Christian identity understood as iconicity, that is, as image and likeness, allows for a proper orientation of the individual, as it entails both a given and an afforded givenness that is essential to the realization of personhood. That we are made in God’s image is a given; it is pure gift. However, that we conform to God’s likeness is not a given in the same sense. That is to say, likeness is also a gift in that it is offered in the gracious act of God’s prior self-giving, but receiving the gift of likeness requires our submission; it requires a process of conformity. Moreover, it is God, not us, who determined the particular form our conformity must take and to which we must submit. That form is Jesus Christ, the Icon, (ref. John 14:9). Put succinctly, image is the gift of being made by the Word, whereas likeness is the gift of being conformed to the Word, of being made righteous while remaining creatures. Image describes the creatureliness of humans, whereas likeness describes the end for which we were made. In the phenomenon of celebrity, I see a subtle yet powerfully subversive antithesis to the formation of Christian identity. Indeed, celebrity simultaneously underwrites and undermines this ontological vision of Christian identity, that is, what I am calling iconicity.

My assertion that celebrity underwrites a notion of iconicity is another way of saying that celebrity displays the conformist nature of creatures, the ways in which individuals seek meaning by responding to desires generated in the particular economies to which they belong. The generative, mimetic, and economic functions of the phenomenon depend on this. By observing the ways individuals become members of this society, thereby becoming witnesses to this phenomenon, we can see that the characteristic functions constitutive of the phenomenon belie a modernist account of subjectivity that insists on the autonomy of individuals. However, this is not a reductionist account of Christian identity, as though there is a “therefore” separating celebrity and identity. Celebrity simply shows us something about ourselves, but in doing so, it expresses our iconicity.

By asserting that the phenomenon of celebrity undermines iconicity, I am suggesting that it co-opts our iconicity and uses it to substantiate its own (material) mediation of likeness. When we fail to recognize likeness as equally constitutive of personhood, that is, as equal to image in its being necessary for the full realization of our personhood, we fail to recognize the ways in which we are conforming to something other than the likeness for which we have been made. The question is not whether we will conform, but to what are we conforming? Asking the right question determines our ability to see the numerous ways likeness is mediated through the production and exchanges of our economies. This is a question that concerns our location, where we stand in relation to others and the world. In other words, celebrity is a phenomenon that competes for our realization.

But what is it competing against? The same characteristics that constitute celebrity make up another phenomenon that corresponds to our iconicity. I will call it the phenomenon of sanctity. Like the phenomenon of celebrity, the phenomenon of sanctity is also (1) generative, (2) mimetic, and (3) economic.

First, sanctity is productive, or generative, in that it internally produces saints and externally produces desires that are not fabricated but are etymological. The production of saints occurs according to unchanging criteria, which constitutes the internal coherence of the phenomenon. And in contrast to the phenomenon of celebrity, transformation—not transience—is the predominant marker of the phenomenon of sanctity. This follows logically from the external criterion, the Word, who determines the internal production of saints and the external production of etymological desire. The type of desire is etymological in that the desires that are produced externally correspond to the economic function whereby momentary exchanges are eternal exchanges; the exchanges are eternal, and transformative, because they proceed from (are generated by) the eternal Word, the criterion. To participate in these practices of exchange is to express the meaningfulness of these desires and bear witness to this economy.

Second, sanctity is mimetic in that the saints represent the phenomenon but are not constitutive of it; holiness properly belongs to God alone. However, God has graciously willed our capacity to conform to his likeness and thus, by submitting to this conformity we are made representative of his sanctity. In this sense, the phenomenon’s mimetic function remains coherent because its criteria is external to itself and is eternal in Christ, in whom and from whom the saints’ iconicity is fully realized. Two things follow: (1) the separateness expressed in the mimetic function is not the result of transience, as is the case with celebrity, but rather it is the joyful expression of creaturely contingency. To acknowledge our separateness is to acknowledge conformity as gift. And (2) the representation presented in sanctity should not be taken to be mere representation, as though the saint did not actually enjoy the fruits of sanctity. Rather, because the desires of this phenomenon are etymological and not fabricated, the mimetic (representative) function is a transformative function. The saint is transformed (from glory to glory); she is not merely a representative of transformation.

Third, sanctity is economic in that it entails particular forms of exchange which determine the individuals who belong to this economy. Again, the economic function of the phenomenon is necessarily social and, therefore, multiple. How the phenomenon of sanctity functions within any particular social structure (e.g., family, church, nation) will depend on the extent to which the structure participates in this economy’s practices of exchange. There is a significant difference between the economy of celebrity and the economy of sanctity, and this difference is best understood by contrasting the type of desire produced by each. The primary distinction between celebrity’s fabricated desire and sanctity’s etymological desire is that the former has a telos of dissipation (momentary) whereas the latter has a telos of realization (eternal). Each economy produces witnesses, but the kind of witnesses produced corresponds to the telos of the economy. The witness of the saint is realized not by the saint herself but by the eschatological fulfillment of her witness. Even witness is a gift.

This exercise of comparing the structural similarity of the two phenomena may seem futile, especially to those who think it too bourgeois to care about whether celebrity has implications worth considering. But it seems to me there is something to be learned from these sketches.

By comparing the two phenomena, I’ve attempted to show how the realization of Christian identity is not a given, and indeed, Christian identity is being co-opted by other forces at work in contemporary America. This co-opting, moreover, is all the more powerful because much of contemporary Christianity has absorbed an alien metaphysic (i.e., the separation of image and likeness) that has led to an impoverished theology of materiality, a theology that overlooks, or completely denies, the significant role of materiality in realizing iconicity. The result is that Christians conform to economies that utilize materiality for ends other than sanctity, but they do so without recognizing that there is any tension between these practices and the practices of the holy economy. That Angelina Jolie, whose presence is mediated via images, is more real to contemporary Christians than Saint Elizabeth, whose presence is also mediated via (holy) images, should be an indication that the religious imagination has been given over to fabrications.

The church’s response cannot simply be to acknowledge materiality’s importance and then produce more images. The bifurcated metaphysic, that is, the separation of image and likeness, which many enthusiasts for a recovery of the arts in the church seem to be reacting against (albeit perhaps unknowingly), is not going to be sutured solely by artists producing art, even “Christian” art. One reason for this is that “art” is not immune to subjectivist claims. In fact, art is heavily saturated with such claims, especially when it is understood as “self-expression.” Therefore, how art is conceived and executed and used within our communities is highly susceptible to modernist narrations of the autonomous individual, narrations that run counter to iconicity. Artistic practice, including how we talk about artistic practice, must also be re-formed before it can participate in the exchange of the holy economy. And this re-formation involves its conformity to the other exchanges of the economy, for example, confession, forgiveness, and holy kisses, exchanges that generate etymological desire.

Finally, I have not drawn attention to the tradition of ecclesial icons to simply illustrate a point. In so far as the presence of holy images reveals to us the logic of a holy economy and, therefore, affords us a proper orientation toward God and others, the presence of holy icons is the point. For the icon makes a wholly philosophical and theological claim about who God is, who we are, and how we come to know these realities in the midst of Christian worship; and it does so through its materiality. The logic of any economy will be expressed and mediated through material means, but the logic of this holy economy necessitates particular exchanges and mediations that will unavoidably call other exchanges and mediations into question.

When we contemporary Christians in America, or elsewhere, absorb uncritically the exchanges foreign to this holy economy’s logic, confusion skews our vision and withholds from us the truth of our iconicity. We should not hope that images created in the midst of such confusion will draw us deeper into sanctity—the holy icon is not among such images. Rather, the holy icon relocates Christians in the holy economy where we belong and thereby claims us as witness. Only from this place, from within this economy, can Christians learn to see clearly and discern between exchanges and mediations. And only from this place can Christians produce work that will, God permitting, lead others along the same path of realization.