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Tyranny of criteria

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Friday, Sep 9, 2005

It may be that we want a class of people who are famous for absolutely no reason—the Paris Hilton phenomenon. If a person is famous for some specific accomplishment, then to appreciate that person requires some understanding of the criteria. You need cultural capital. You have to understand something about music, or at least pretend to, to be interested in the doings of a person famous for making music. But to be interested in someone famous for no reason requires comprehending no criteria, no prior knowledge or understanding—instead it requires a suspension of such things, a willingness to put aside questions of merit to be fascinated for no good rational reason at all. So the Paris Hiltons of the world offer an escape from technocratic reason, rationality and calculation perhaps? Not for those who profit by them, but perhaps for those who are just inexplicably fascinated.


The ability to do something for no reason at all is extremely attractive in our society, the ultimate luxury, which naturally attaches to the extremely wealthy—Paris Hilton—who simply manifest that capacity, the ability to exist beyond criteria, beyond evaluation, to simply exist at the level of pure impulse. Meaningless activity, as commentators all the way back to Mandeville have pointed out, is the ultimate positional good, the surest proof of one’s class status. If our work and leisure time are subject to equally rationalized calculation, it’s only natural that our dreams would be haunted by these visions of unwarranted, uncalculable celebrity; if we are oppressed by merit and injustice, we would naturally seek escape in things with no merit, before which the logic of justice withers.
In a society over saturated with manipulative symbols, it must come as a relief to become preoccupied with one that seems filled to bursting with its own emptiness, with its own magnificient insignificance.


Pure celebrity, celebrity for no reason, allows for pure fascination, fascination with no criteria and no limits and no expectations or explanations. This is pure freedom, pure the way a page is blank.

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