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Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi on 19th Century Celebrity

In the collection Constructing Charisma, editors Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi have brought together a series of essays exploring the growth of the idea of celebrity in 19th century Europe. In this lengthy interview, the editors discuss the roots of their ideas, and how the study of the 19th century is still significant for understanding celebrity today. 


What drew you to the study of celebrity, especially in 19th Century Europe?


1. Both of us had been working on certain celebrated individuals in 19th century Europe. In Ed’s case, it was colonial figures like Henry Morton Stanley; in Eva’s it was the German Kaiser. We each saw that our historical subjects owed a large part of their renown to forms of media new to the 19th century, especially photography and the mass press. The Kaiser would, of course, have been well known in any case, but Eva showed that photography helped make him not just a household name, but a household object, as individuals collected pictures of him. As for Stanley and other “colonial heroes,” they became celebrities because the mass press obsessively promoted them and their exploits. Through our individual works, we both perceived that that celebrity became a hugely important social and cultural phenomenon in the 19th century; to investigate it further, we decided to bring together colleagues from a variety of disciplines with expertise in the key European countries.

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?


2. It’s not exactly that our views of the subject changed as we prepared the book, but rather that our colleagues’ work convinced us all the more of the importance of the phenomena in question. We also realized that we had to consider not just celebrity but also fame and charisma, which had to be understood in relation to–and in tension with–celebrity. In the introduction to the book, we compare celebrity, fame and charisma with one another and try to distinguish each from the others. Celebrity and charisma require that the celebrated or charismatic individual be present, at least in mediated form. Fame, by contrast, can endure indefinitely. Charismatic people wield political power or exercise political authority of some kind. Celebrities don’t, unless, of course, they’re charismatic as well.


To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates within the fields of European history or celebrity studies?  Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars?


3. We’re not sure that “celebrity studies” constitutes an academic field, but in terms of history, literary studies, musicology, and art history, the disciplines included in our book, we hope our book has contributed to discussions begun by Leo Braudy twenty-five years ago. What is the meaning of fame and how does it change over time? What, exactly, is a celebrity and why did celebrity become commonplace in the 19th century, but not before? We hope, as well, that our book will convince scholars who focus on the 20th century that the media-related phenomena they consider aren’t new to the last 100 years.


As for potential controversies, it seems as though the definition of charisma is endlessly contentious. We take a modified Weberian position in the book, and many colleagues, particularly those in cultural studies, don’t think the German sociologist should have the pride of place we give him. They think that Weber’s ideas don’t leave enough room for the cultural figures that merit the term “charismatic.” But if some scholars think our understanding of charisma isn’t expansive enough, others find it far too roomy. In a review of our book, Robert I. Rotberg, for example, maintains that charisma is a phenomenon so rare that it shouldn’t apply to most of the 19th-century figures examined in Constructing Charisma. It’s a commonplace for authors to take comfort in having critics who think they went too far and critics who think they didn’t go far enough. Often the truth doesn’t exist midway between the extremes, but perhaps in this case it does.


How does an understanding of 19th Century European celebrity and fame help us to reconsider our own celebrity-saturated culture?


4. Studies on celebrity often cite Daniel Boorstein’s quip that a celebrity is someone “known for his well-knownness,” with the implication that such celebrities, with no real talent, have undeservedly drawn public admiration onto themselves. This sleight of hand is often considered new to our celebrity-saturated culture, in which the Kardashians rule infotainment shows and celebrity magazines. Nor are they alone, of course. Before Kim, there was Paris Hilton, who, in a reverse of the usual trajectory, tried to manufacture a recording career only after she shot to fame as a vacuous heiress.


But we have to be careful not to overestimate the newness of this kind of celebrity. In fact, some of the first major celebrities, in the eighteenth century, were exactly like Paris Hilton: society ladies, like the Duchess of Devonshire, who were celebrated for their beauty, wealth, and social distinction.


In fact, what is new about Paris is that she felt the need to prove her right to fame by crafting an artistic career after the fact. The necessary link of fame to merit — that being a ‘queen of society’ is no longer enough to deserve admiration – is a product of the nineteenth century and its ideas about social mobility, individualism, and personal willpower, which supplanted older ideas about belonging to unshakeable social estates. The emphasis on merit is what allowed virtuoso artists – like the überfamous Franz Liszt – to claim their status as ‘aristocrats of the spirit,’ on a social par with more traditional notables.


This represents a major shift at the end of the nineteenth century: the destabilization of the boundary between political elites and cultural celebrities. If artists could become equal to traditional social and political elites (like the aristocracy), political leaders now also had to embody the same cultural attractions as artists and other performers. We live with this legacy today: as politics has been drawn into the celebrity system, the glamour of a political candidate increases or decreases according to his or her photogenic possibilities, such as when, in a defining moment, presidential candidate Bill Clinton jumped ahead in the polls by playing the saxophone on TV.


Is there an iconic figure who has featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?


5. As far as theorists go, Max Weber still represents the benchmark for thinking about charisma. Before Weber developed this concept at the turn of the twentieth century, people used terms like ‘prestige’ to refer to a celebrity’s personal magnetism – much as people today often use the term charisma as a general term for the power of attraction. Weber’s innovation was to give charisma a precise political twist. Setting out a distinction between power (Macht), based on physical force, and dominance (Herrschaft), based on influence and hegemony, Weber asked how Herrschaft functioned: what made people voluntarily follow their leaders’ commands without the overt threat of force.


Weber answered this question for three types of leadership. In traditional societies, dominant classes, like the aristocracy, inherit their position, and in modern bureaucratic societies, experts rely on credentials to press their claims to authority. But Weber also pinpointed a third, more curious type of leader: the outsider who has neither birth nor credentials, but who nonetheless inspires others to follow his lead, to break with social norms and conventions, and perhaps even to stage a violent rebellion or revolution. This third type of leadership is what Weber identified as purely ‘charismatic’ authority. (Weber died before the rise of the Nazi party, but Hitler is an obvious case for this ‘charismatic’ type of ruler).


Of course, this does not mean that traditional or bureaucratic rulers couldn’t also have a measure of personal magnetism — Weber acknowledged that public attractiveness was a boon to any leader. What is significant, though, is that while the traditional ruler or bureaucratic politician might benefit from personal charisma, he or she doesn’t need it to justify his or her position. The Earl of Derby might be a complete ninny, but his peasants still feel compelled to respect him as their social superior.


Herein lies the core of Weber’s contribution: pinpointing those leaders who, as political outsiders, have only the strength of their personality and revolutionary vision to persuade others to follow. How is it that their extraordinary leadership seems plausible when it isn’t based on anything concrete? The answer to this question is vital to political culture today, not just to explain the appeal of a demonic figure like Hitler, but also to give hope to those who would rouse the public to stand up against an unjust status quo – as did, quintessentially, Mahatma Gandhi.


But these are two twentieth-century figures. In the nineteenth century, some of the most inspiring charismatics were the women who escaped traditional female roles to break new ground socially and politically. Because women were generally consigned to the domestic sphere, it was harder for them to gain a public following and to effect radical political change. So on structural grounds alone, it was much more difficult for women to be charismatic in Weber’s sense. Those who were able to persuade others of the plausibility of their leadership were truly remarkable — the Pankhursts, for instance, who changed the very foundation of the British political system as they used radical actions, out in the streets, to win the vote for women, or also Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress who bucked gender norms and won great acclaim as she did so, paving a path for other women to step out into public view.


If there is one particular area of interest or question which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future, and which may not necessarily been the focus of much attention, could you share your thoughts with us?


6. We titled our book “Constructing Charisma” because we wanted to draw attention to an understudied aspect of charisma: how fans help to craft and promote the political pulling power of their idols. We were interested not only in how celebrities managed their fame by organizing their audiences – say when Franz Liszt enhanced his reputation by placing certain audience members on the concert stage – but also how audiences shaped the celebrity status of their heroes. Of course, it goes without saying that audiences routinely give and withhold their approval, and that a leader who loses his following also loses his power to effect change. But followers are often much more active in shaping their heroes’ public trajectories than through passive acclamation or rejection. Indeed, fans can be very insisting: they demand their heroes’ attention by writing them letters, arranging meetings, even stalking them when all else fails. By the end of the nineteenth century, not only actors, artists, and imperial adventurers, but even kings and emperors found themselves besieged by subjects who crossed social boundaries to hound them for autographs – and recognition.  In the process, fans gave these ‘great men’ hints on how to conduct themselves to remain great in the eyes of their admirers.


The sociologist John B. Thompson terms such insistent intrusiveness ‘non-reciprocal intimacy at a distance.’ It represents an emotional stance that, when applied to public life and politics as it is today, presents a double-edged sword. Such participatory celebrity gives greater possibilities for engagement with public life, since political figures need to take public opinion seriously. As such, celebrity can buttress democracy, since the public has the power to turn away from political figures it deems too distant. But celebrity can also reduce concrete political change by giving the mere illusion of participation in public life. If fans feel sufficiently engaged in the social world because of their interest in the personal lives of public figures, their desire to make a mark on society is too easily fulfilled, siphoning off energy from the more difficult work of political organization.


Edward Berenson is Professor of History and French Studies and Director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. His numerous publications include The Trial of Madame Caillaux (University of California Press 1992), Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and Europe’s Quest for Africa, (University of California Press 2010) and The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (Yale University Press 2012).


Eva Giloi is Associate Professor in the History Department at Rutgers University, Newark. She is the author of Monarchy, Myth, and Material Culture in Germany 1750-1950 (Cambridge University Press 2011).