Campbell McGrath and the Spectacle Society

Article excerpt

Of arms and the man the spectacle does not sing, but rather of passions and the commodity.

-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

One of the most distinctive features of the past fifty years has been the proliferation of celebrities in all aspects of North American life. Celebrities, to be sure, have fascinated Americans since at least the middle of the nineteenth century when people throughout the country-among them Walt Whitman-- gathered to see such notables as the singer Marietta Alboni and the actor Edwin Booth. The significance of fame increased dramatically from Whitman's time to the so-called golden age of Hollywood in the decades bordering World War II. With the advent of television in the 1950s, however, celebrities became not only ubiquitous in the American cultural landscape but intimately connected to civic life. Fifty years later, celebrities have evolved into the figures through which we as a culture think about ourselves, and indeed their lives and performances routinely shape our conversations, our memories, our politics, and our sense of individual and communal identity. Celebrities provide ironic points of cohesion to an amorphous, shifting society; they serve as momentary vehicles through which power is negotiated, exchanged, and conferred. Whether in sports, entertainment, politics, or literature, they relentlessly chart the parameters of social discourse and experience.

The culture's domination by media constructions of fame has resulted in the emergence of two distinct classes, celebrities and spectators, which more and more organize what we commonly regard as the public world. In this heavily mediated environment, the spectator has formed the basis of a peculiar system of citizenship, one that instills a sense of belonging while at the same time underscoring a critical lack of agency. To participate in the spectacle of celebrity, one needs only to observe and consume, acts that simply compound the spectator's fundamental passivity. But this lack of agency is even more pernicious, for the very hallmark of celebrity culture is its hegemonic power. In pervading all aspects of American life, it makes even the most resistant critic an unwilling spectator of the celebrity class. You may not like Barbra Streisand, but you know who she is and that knowledge draws you into larger communities. Celebrities, in this respect, have emerged as our postmodern representatives, individuals seemingly elected into prominence by the sheer numbers of people regarding their lives. They are icons of public attention, which has almost wholly replaced public opinion as a source of cultural power.

Since the publication of Capitalism in 1990, Campbell McGrath has unabashedly explored the peculiarly American aspects of celebrity. In his four books of poems, McGrath vigorously attends to the ways in which our lives have been marked, shaped, and made intelligible by our knowledge of the renowned. Whether he is writing about his friends, wife, children, or travels, popular culture steadily presses upon the poet's consciousness, mediating his individual experience and, through that mediation, making it common and accessible. McGrath becomes, in fact, a type of representative spectator, his mind restlessly connecting personal experience to the culture at large. In one poem, for instance, the poet travels to Florida's Cabbage Key and carefully compares his own experience to that of Jimmy Buffet's as described in a hit song. Another poem considers Charlton Heston's role in The Omega Man in the course of thinking about eschatology and nuclear war. An early piece recounts the poet's pilgrimage to Memphis, confessing that without a guitar-shaped pool or solid-- gold Cadillac, Graceland seemed somehow small and disappointing.

What makes McGrath a particularly compelling voice is that his interest in celebrity goes to the very heart of his vision for poetry's place in our heavily mediated environment. …