Monday, June 11, 2007

Paris Hilton In Jail: A Greek Tragedy

Podcast - downloadable mp3 file

Paris Hilton - the drama unfolds as she goes to jail. The drama is less about individual celebrity and more about the nature of popular culture, and our need for archetypal narratives that explain our society, ourselves, and our relationship to others.

If you go to any celebrity blog or website, you'll see what seem to be amazingly cruel comments about a person whom very few readers can be presumed to know. And yet, despite never having met her, the anonymous posters have an opinion. The celebrity-driven public seems to be filled with schadenfreude (malicious glee) at her discomfort. They love seeing Paris Hilton punished. In fact, they'd love to see her toppled from her "society princess" position.

Video Discussion of Paris Hilton Incarcerated

Media representations are probably unfair, but they satisfy the public's need for archetypal narratives to make sense of our world; to make order from chaos.

Paris has been portrayed as arrogant, shallow, self-absorbed. What is she being punished for?

The answer is rather simple: Paris is being punished for hubris, elitism, and pride. One might say that the desire to punish her is more acute in a democracy, where hints of aristocracy, privilege and class difference go against notions of what it means to be American, and the idea of infinite and untrammeled upward mobility. However, the notion of hubris leading to a steep fall extends back to the ancient Greeks, and was enacted in the theater. In Greek tragedy, hubris, or exaggerated self-pride, resulted in the invocation of "nemesis" or destruction. The consequences of hubris often involved death as well.

In certain ways, Paris is a proxy for untouchable rich and powerful figures who seem to operate with impunity in our world today. Self-pride manifests itself in our corporate, political, and cultural leaders, and again, we see that it leads to nemesis -- complete destruction. However, the destruction is not always of the hubris-afflicted person, but of society at large. How many people have lost their lives or their life savings due to corruption, greed, megalomania? Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, and North Korea come to mind.

Not surprisingly, the public would like to see all the hubris-afflicted, pride-filled global leaders punished. However, stripping public officials and the powerful of arrogance and hubris is not possible, so the public has to be satisfied with seeing a politically insignificant and harmless celebrity such as Paris Hilton brought low.

The highly public punishment of Paris amounts to an enactment of punishment, but punishment writ large. Are the enactments of punishments cautionary? Are they examples of Foucault's depiction of Bentham's "panopticon" -- a method of sending a message to the powerful that if they transgress, they will be punished? This seems a bit unlikely. After all, what is really being sold is sensation, and the ephemeral and voyeuristic satisfaction of witnessing someone else being publicly humiliated.

Here's another possibility. Are the enactments a fulfillment of the wish to punish members of society whose actions materially affect us in a negative way? If so, the catharsis that is achieved by seeing such an act is utterly ineffectual. It's not a real catharsis, but is catharsis in an age of mechanical reproduction (to borrow Walter Benjamin's concept.)

When the media creates a "society princess" out of Paris Hilton, she becomes an object, an icon, and pure representation of something other than what she really is. She is further dehumanized when she becomes the embodiment of hubris and self-pride. Media depictions of punishment do not satisfy the public, however, and simply feed the hunger for more.

The media spectacle of Paris Hilton being punished is more sensational than cathartic; it is addictive than transformative.

This is all good -- the paparazzi will have a source of income as the blogs, tabloids, television celebrity shows, and exposes try to meet the ever-intensifying (yet fickle) hunger of the public for celebrity scandal.