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From Alexander the Great to Kim Kardashian: A Brief History
of Fame and Celebrity
Thursday, March 15 | Max of Eastman Place, 25 Gibbs St, Rochester, NY 14608
Professor David Schmid, UB Department of English
By your research, what would you say is the origin of fame?
There’s a lot of debate about who the first famous person was. Part of the problem is that you have to define what fame means today, then consider whether that’s the same thing as what fame meant back then. To the extent that there’s a consensus about the idea, many people would identify Alexander the Great as the first famous person in the sense that you have someone that was very obviously concerned about his image, about the myth that was Alexander the Great. In other words, this is not just a myth that started after this death, but it was something that he actively propagated during his time here, and it was part of why he was able to be so successful.
The other thing that makes Alexander the Great a turning point in the history of fame is that it’s one of the first times we see his image, or anyone’s image, being widely reproduced. His image appears, for example, on coins used throughout the Empire. That’s the sense in which you know that many people knew, or felt that they knew, Alexander the Great, without ever having to come into contact with him. That’s actually a pretty good benchmark definition of what fame means: if you feel you have some kind of relationship with a person you’ve never met, who you may have absolutely nothing in common with, and yet the machinery of fame, no matter what form it takes, still allows you to form some kind of connection with that person.
Why do you think that we as a culture are so interested in fame?
You can have an argument about whether or not there’s a specific American variant of this, but I think that we find the idea that merit is recognized appealing because, in that promise, we feel that our own efforts to distinguish ourselves in our careers or in any other area of our lives is not going to go unrecognized. You can see the most obvious evidence of this from the talent shows on television and the way that they’ve been around for so long, yet they continue to attract thousands of applicants every single season. We want some of what fame seems to promise to us, which is not just achievement, but also validation and public recognition.
I think that in some ways, especially in contemporary American society, to be famous is the ultimate accolade because what comes with it is not just monetary rewards, but the admiration of others, and I think that most people crave that kind of admiration. Fame seems to be the easiest way of achieving it. I believe we’re so fascinated by fame because it encapsulates for us a lot of the paradoxical qualities of modern life: we know that we should achieve, we feel we’re capable of achieving, but the fact that only a few of us do in a way that’s recognized by others is one of life’s most puzzling features. That is part of what can be damaging about our contemporary ways of thinking about fame. In its worst excesses, fame is a sort of mythology: it represents something that many people spend their lives yearning for, and in the process, miss out on what actually makes life meaningful.
As an immigrant from the UK, do you feel that there is a difference between the obsession with fame in America versus that in England?
Whenever you talk about a subject like that, it can be with regard to fame and celebrity, it can be with regard to the culture’s relationship with violence (which, of course, is something else that I’ve done work on), and so the issue is that at what point does a difference in degree become a difference in kind? By that I mean that yes, we have those same kinds of talent shows in England as we do over here, we have the same kind of machinery of fame, if you will, in England that we do over here, but at a vastly smaller scale. It may, on the surface, just seem like a difference in scale, but I would argue that it’s also a difference in kind. There’s no equivalent to Hollywood, at least in the Western world, in terms of a dream machine that influences our ideas of what it means to be famous. Americans are very fond, for example, of telling ourselves that we live in a classless society, that we live in a non-hierarchical society, where anyone can make anything of themselves if they just work hard enough. It’s part of the reason why this idea of fame as sort of this ultimate democratized opportunity has gained so much traction in this country, but it won’t have that same kind of traction in England. Essentially, fame is a myth; it’s kind of like a convenient story that we tell ourselves that only works as long as we don’t examine it too closely. Once we examine it too closely, that’s when the problems start.
Would you say there is a dramatic difference between fame as it was years ago versus fame as is it is today?
There is this notion that once upon a time, fame was something that was strictly determined by merit: that you had to be good at something to be publicly lauded and recognized. So Alexander was a great military commander, Napoleon was the same. Politicians, the brilliant ones, became famous because of their political acumen. The most pessimistic version of that argument is to say that now we’re in a situation where merit has virtually no influence over who becomes famous at all, and now it’s simply about visibility. Whatever it takes to capture the public’s attention and to hold it for the longest time possible, that’s what it means to become famous.
Now, on one level, it’s a very persuasive story, and it’s one that I seem to sort of buy into with my title, From Alexander the Great to Kim Kardashian, because you wouldn’t think of these two figures as having anything in common. The problem with that I think is that it is more over simplified, and it’s over simplified in at least two directions. The first is that it was never simply merit that made you a famous person: it was also power, influence, the ability to crush your opposition. Often fame, even back in the old days, had just as much to do with image manipulation and just as much to do with getting your message across, as Kim Kardashian does now. Conversely, I would say that there are various areas in which you can still see examples of merit-based fame. One of the very interesting ones, I think, that in some ways is just as prevalent and relevant as the Kim Kardashian model is professional sports. Steph Curry, for example, wouldn’t be famous if he wasn’t a brilliant basketball player, he’s got nothing that distinguishes himself apart from the fact that he’s a brilliant basketball player. If he wasn’t a brilliant basketball player, no one would know who Steph Curry was. So it’s not that the idea of merit-based fame has disappeared completely, but that it’s become much more particularized, it’s become much more confined to a particular field if you will.
About Professor Schmid
David Schmid was born and raised in England, where he completed a BA in English Literature at Oxford University and an MA in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex before moving to California to do his PhD in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of English, where he teaches courses in British and American fiction, cultural studies, and popular culture. He has published on a variety of subjects, including the nonfiction novel, celebrity, film adaptation, Dracula, and crime fiction, but much of his work focuses on violence and popular culture. He is the author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, the co-author of Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics, the editor of Violence in American Popular Culture, and the co-editor of Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction: A World of Crime. Most recently, he recorded a series of video lectures for The Learning Company entitled The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction. He is currently completing a book manuscript with the working title From the Locked Room to the Globe: Space in Crime Fiction.