Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-16-33-39Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue’ colloquium at Oxford’s Wolfson college. The event, expertly organised by Victorianist Sandra Mayer, was supported by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), and explored ‘the intersections of celebrity and life-writing across historical periods, disciplines, and media, highlighting possibilities of theorectical and methodological cross-fertilisation.’

After a few opening comments from Sandra Mayer, the day kicked off with a panel on celebrity, biblio-biography, and obituaries, chaired by Celebrity Research Network founder Ruth Scobie and featuring papers by Oxford scholars Emma Smith and Tobias Heinrich. Smith spoke about ‘Shakespeare, Biblio-Biography, and the Life of the Celebrity Book’, tracing the Victorian history of Shakespeare’s First Folio as a celebrity book. Taking about the example of Angela Burdett-Coutts, who kept her copy of the First Folio locked away in a casket, Smith questioned the extent to which objects can be celebrities in their own right, apart from the people they are associated with.

Casket, carved in an Elizabethan style (1866). Image via the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Heinrich’s paper focused on ‘Celebrity, Biography, and the Enlightenment: Friedrich Schlichtegroll’s Nekrolog’. Unlike most biographies of the time, Schlichtegroll’s work involved crowdsourced contributions, and featured typically marginalised subjects like women and the working class—some so provincial they were only given a job title, rather than a surname.

Next came a panel on cultural icons in (bio)fiction and film, chaired by Hannah Yelin and featuring Julia Lajta-Novak and Ginette Vincendeau as speakers. Lajta-Novak explored the trajectory of King Charles II’s Protestant mistress in ‘From Celebrity “Whore” to Romantic Heroine: Images of Nell Gwyn in Restoration Satire and Contemporary Biofiction’. In her own time, Gwyn was depicted in a mostly negative light by the many examples of verse satire that featured her. In contemporary biofiction, however, she has been transformed into a wily and witty feminine ideal. Transitioning to another example of the sexualised feminine ideal, Vincendeau presented on ‘Brigitte Bardot and the French New Wave: Life-writing On and Off Screen’. She showed contrasting constructions of Bardot’s celebrity across a number of texts, including works of popular cinema, French independent cinema, and Bardot’s own 1996 autobiography.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot, French actress and sex symbol.

Following lunch, the colloquium resumed with roundtable discussion on ‘Celebrity and Life-Writing: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives’. The panel was chaired by Mayer, and featured celebrity biographer and Wolfson College President Hermione Lee, Tchaikovsky biographer and scholar Philip Bullock, Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero. Discussion topics ranged from ethical concerns, to sources used in reconstructing a biography, to methods for drawing essential ‘truths’ about a person’s character from parallel stories and experiences. It also included a number of anecdotes from biography research and writing that kept the audiences in stitches, but which I can’t do proper justice to in prose. Fortunately, this roundtable will be soon available as an audio file: keep an eye on the the OCLW podcast page.

Finally, in the closing panel, we were treated to a premiere of the documentary biopic Being Bowie (edited by Rebecca Bryant), which documents Will Brooker‘s unusual approach to his latest academic book Forever Stardust. Brooker spent a year dressing, eating, and and absorbing the same sights and sounds as David Bowie, and his research attracted international media attention. [EDIT: You can now find the full documentary / audiovisual essay at this link. Dir. Rebecca Hughes. Runtime 61 mins.] The premiere the documentary was followed by a Q&A with Brooker, conducted by writer, broadcaster, and popular music scholar Marcus O’Dair. Brooke fielded questions from O’Dair and from the audience on the impossibility (and futility) of trying to get at the ‘real’ Bowie, on his response to Bowie’s unexpected death halfway through the project in January 2016, and on the politics of privilege behind his ability to conduct such a creative approach to the study in the first place. You can read my live tweets of the event at this link.

Will Brooker as David Bowie
Will Brooker as David Bowie

As a relative newcomer to studies of both celebrity and life writing, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet scholars in the field, and even discovered a few familiar faces amongst its ranks. Wolfson College was lovely, and despite a few typically Oxford faux pas (including some dubious comments about the nature and class of people who buy lottery tickets), the atmosphere was warm. A good variety of academic backgrounds were represented at the event, and I was able to compare notes with people in literature, celebrity studies, film, popular music, and the public sector. I will certainly be following future OCLW research with interest – and who knows, I may even make it to a few more of their upcoming events.

You can find a copy of the programme here, and a full list of the abstracts and biographical notes here.

Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?