Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Synopsis

Twilight of the Idols revisits some of the sensational scandals of early Hollywood to evaluate their importance for our contemporary understanding of human deviance. By analyzing changes in the star system and by exploring the careers of individual stars--Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand among them--Mark Lynn Anderson shows how the era's celebrity culture shaped public ideas about personality and human conduct and played a pivotal role in the emergent human sciences of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Anderson looks at motion picture stars who embodied various forms of deviance--narcotic addiction, criminality, sexual perversion, and racial indeterminacy. He considers how the studios profited from popularizing ideas about deviance, and how the debates generated by the early Hollywood scandals continue to affect our notions of personality, sexuality, and public morals.

Excerpt

Inarguably one of the most important and influential essays written about mass culture during the last century, Walter Benjamins “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” is itself one of the most reproduced, translated, and widely circulated works of cultural criticism ever published. Twilight of the Idols, like so many other books, is an implicit engagement with several of the insights in Benjamins essay, an engagement, in this case, that takes seriously his claims that mass culture was making possible new types of cultural authority and new forms of knowledge that could only be understood as particular instances of reception. Such instances could no longer be the prerogative of the traditional critic or connoisseur, but were now controlled by the masses whose spontaneous yet coordinated responses to cultural works constituted radically new forms of diversified expertise. As is well known, Benjamin considered the technological basis of the motion picture as well as the industrial basis of the cinematic institution to be the most progressive manifestations of this social transformation. “It is in the technology of film, as of sports, that everyone who witnesses these performances does so as a quasi-expert.” However, Benjamins view of the Hollywood film industry was similar to those held by many European intellectuals, seeing America’s dominance in the world film market as the exploitation of these new conditions for increasing the profits and furthering the power of an elite capitalist class. Despite the progressive potential of a few Hollywood motion pictures—the films of Charles Chaplin, for example—Benjamin saw Hollywood as more or less concomitant with fascism in its mystification of a few exceptional individuals as personalities worthy of popular devotion. In other words, the Hollywood star system was, for Benjamin, little more than a cult of personalities.

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