The Laboratorium
January 2000

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The New Celebrity Capitalism

Start with the word "entourage." Puffy didn't pull out a piece and start pumping lead, no, it was a "member of his entourage." While the lingo of hotheadded-celebrity-in-trouble news stories has its own disctinctive phraseology, the "weapons charges" and the "incidents," but there is something more at work here, in the way the media has obsessively discussed Puff Daddy's "entourage." It was all over the initial news reports, the dispatches filed over the course of that first week, pretty much any paragraph that had "Sean Combs" or "Jennifer Lopez" in it also had the word "entourage." And in the aftermath, the ironic commentary has started to focus on this idea -- this is where the humorists are making their go at the whole business, sending in their applications to be the money-catcher in Puffy's entourage.

In ordinary circumstances (ordinary for the world of famous people and their guns in public places, that is), I suspect the focus would have been elsewhere. The average celebrity flight-in-terror story usually spins more like that of Andy Dick, with some tongue-clucking and some laughs at the schmoe, and then, later on, some rehabilation, of both the rehab clinic and the talk-show circuit variety. The average celebrity firearms-arrest story usually involves them trying to bring their Colt onto the plane with them and the resulting humiliation, and also drops off the media radar screen almost immediately, sinking like a stone. And the average celebrity rap-star/bullet story usually involves somone getting plugged, and brings up the image/authenticity tension and much speculation about the dangerous world of rap music and its connection to the "street." And yet it's Puffy's posse that's drawn the attention this time around.

Part of the explanation is hermeneutic. "Entourage" is a word slapped onto something I suspect few of the reporters covering the story really understand, a word with a history and associations that are misleading, at best. One thinks of aging grand dame film stars with their publicists, manicurists, dog trainers, and luggage-wheelers checking into the Ritz-Carlton, of the staffers and flackers and Secret Service suits filling Air Force One. And neither of these associations, I guess, doesn't really go very far towards describing the role the members of Puffy's crew and how one of them decided his role was to protect Puffy from insult at the hands of a bill-tossing neer-do-well by shooting off a few rounds. I half-suspect that there are plenty of folks out there in the mainstream (read "white and unhip") media for whom "entourage" serves as a convenient codeword meaning "gang," and that it's received that way by plenty of folks in the mainstream media audience. I don't properly understand the phenomenon myself, what precisely delineates Puffy's entourage from your ordinary groupies or colleagues or friends or your regular downtown crew, but I have the sense that there's a coherent reality to the category, that these folks have a meaningful and accepted role to play, and that while it doesn't usually firearms in quite this way, protecting Puff Daddy's dignity from various ill-defined assaults and disses is central to their raison d'etre. And what happened when the shots rang out in that nightclub is that Puffy's reality, with his, I don't know, his homies and certain rituals of respect and disrespect, and a certain attitude towards living the high life in certain ways, ran headlong into the larger reality of American celebrity culture, image and magazine reporters and certain subtly different codes of behavior and a much more Robin Leach attitude towards success, and Puffy saw this collision and went "Oh, shit."

An entourage isn't really a modern concept. The age of entourages is pretty much past. Kings and noblemen travelled with entourages, burly men who could wear full suits of armor without falling over and whose hands went to their swords at the first sign of trouble. The modern image of celebrity and success and wealth has bascially removed these men, and the rest of the Great Man's travelling companions, from the picture. We don't have footmen any more, the servants have become unobtrusive in a different way. At Versailles, there were no back staircases, so the chamber-pots were carried up and down the same grand staircase the aristocrats trod. The kind of Not Seeing that made such a system work depended on certain distinctions in dress and manner and certain strong beliefs in social differences. The home servants have become either "equals" who are spoken to with requests, not orders, or they have become almost completely invisible, forced into more severely chameleonic behavior. And the big shots now are larger-than-life in a superhero way, it's a personal intensity and power, not just the guy in the fancy clothes with the big crowd of attendants. Executives travel with maybe a personal executive assistant who keeps the calendar and wears a suit too and acts just like anyone else in the room except for not speaking unless spoken to. And movie stars may have their personal trainers and so forth on the set with them, but these folk are paid mostly to wait around, to show up when their services are needed, not to be omnipresent visible reminders of their employer's status in having such an entourage. Wealth expresses itself in different ways these days.

Which brings me around to the other way in which this story is distinctively postmodern, in the way it cuts against the social expectations modernity brings to any situation. The insult, the provocation to the whole affair, was the tossing of a stack of money at Puffy, an act, we are told, of supreme disrespect. There are two distinct shades to this idea, one can think either that Puffy considers himself above money, or that he considers himself above such trifling amounts, but either way, apparently, the dismissive presentation of money counts as a mortal insult. Again, this is an idea that is distinctly premodern, it hasn't been cool to be above filthy lucre and its corrupting touch, well, since the hereditary nobility ran things, and in this country, perhaps never before. So here too, there is another touch of a bizzare return to feudalism in Puff Daddy's recent exploits, this crazy spark of an honorific culture taking the place of an economic one.

But I don't think the story here is really that celebrities are the new titular nobility of our society, or that rap stars are leading a new revolt against capitalism. Rather, I think that we're seeing the signs of some very interesting side-effects of the profoundly capitalistic, increasingly post-industrial, economo-society we live in. In some sense, money itself is unimportant to Puffy's story, money has ceased to have meaning as purchasing power and has become instead the currency in an economy of symbolism. I'm reminded of Jim Lewis's book Liar's Poker, and in it how money becomes an abstraction, one especially important pawn to be pushed around in games of ego and power. Puffy's crew responded to the tossed billfold the same way medieval peasants might have reacted to someone taking a little thatch from their roof to lay a spell on them -- it's an action that implies certain power relationships, and makes an especially dangerous claim, in the context of reality as they would describe it. Puffy's cred, in some sense, perhaps depends on his being perceived as in control and untouchable, immune to the totemic power of a wad of someone else's Benjamins. Money makes people do things, and nobody tells Puff Daddy what to do.

Except, of course, when Puffy returns to the source of his immunity from being told what to do, the American recording industry and its ties to American popular and celebrity culture. A world in which assaulting executives causes problems, rather than resolving them. A world, ultimately, with somewhat less tolerance for gunplay (except in the context of action movies and NRA advocacy), and with bizzare barometers of image and popularity and profitability, and in which people's economic purchasing decisions are swayed by the strangest things. A world strangely fascinated with the other world Puffy moves in, repelled and yet oddly attracted, with profoundly ambivalent attitudes towards the edgy attitudes and emotions that seem to move records so well and have suburban teens slouching and affecting the dress and dialects of upbringings not their own. A world that forms unaccountable snap judgements for unaccountable reasons. A world that, really, makes far less sense than one of entourages and pieces and insults and greenbacks. And when Sean and Jennifer hopped in his Navigator and tore away through eleven red lights, they were running away from that world, but in running at all, they were running towards it, for that is the only sort of motion it understands, and no entourage in the world will keep the news cameras away.

Originally published 27 January, 2000 at

On Possible and Actual Theses by Lessig

In several places in his recent book Code, Larry Lessig develops the idea of a "latent ambiguity." A text which is perfectly clear and unambiguous when it is written can come to become unclear and ambiguous merely through the passage of time and the changing of circumstances around it. Lessig's prime example is the Fourth Amendment, which defends against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the last century, the question has arisen as to whether this Amendment protects physical security -- your right not to have King George's men knocking down your door looking for unflattering portratits of the King -- or privacy -- your right not to have King George's men knowing whether you possess unflattering portraits of the King.

This ambiguity pops up because, given the nature of evidence, police forces, and portraits (as physical objects), the only way King George's men really had of finding crude caricatures was to bust down your door and come in looking. Any abstract intrusion the state could make on your privacy came part-and-parcel with a corresponding physical intrusion. But time and technology have separated these concepts: the birth of the telephone was also the birth of wiretapping, and suddenly the Feds could find out what you were up to without posing any physical hardship on you yourself. The Fourth Amendment had seemed perfectly clear before, but now it became consistent with each of two distinct and opposed interpretations.

Lessig intends his analysis of latent ambiguities to focus our attention on those places where he feels a new clarity is required, he would find those ambiguities which have sprung their traps on us and beat them back with a new set of decisions and distinctions. As much as I agree with him on this point (as, indeed, on almost every point he raises), I think also that there are times when the latent, the ambiguous, should be celebrated, should be stared at in wonder, these old dogs teaching us new tricks. The text which can survive, cut adrift from its original meanings, and live to have not one, but multiple new meanings, the text which can hide modestly within itself and shamefully lead on two suitors so, does this not speak of its powers?

I have a scrap of plasticine paper in my desk which reads "Break At Starline And Tear Away." What does this mean? It's the plot outline of a melodramatic play about ruined Hollywood careers. It's the signoff of a nostalgic astronaut making one more voyage into the cosmos. It's a set of directions to a highly evocative street corner. It's poetry, pure and plain.

It also happens to be the backing label from a sticky nametag, but that was in its old life, before its latent ambiguity revealed itself, back when industrial simplicity was the name of the game. And I like it so much better in its new multiplicity -- it says so much more, it raises up so many more meanings. The ambiguity is what makes it. Prophecy is boring: once you've figured out what that ranting dude was actually talking about, you're like all, well, duh, do you want card tricks with that? But ambiguity? Ambiguity is beautiful, the Starline sails onward and outward, gloriously not quite making sense, leaving puzzles and mystery in its wake, it no longer says enough to be fully meaningful. And every extension one makes from it, every attempt to add some bits and bots of reality to rebuild a complete meaning, every extension could work, yes, but remains still unproven, and all these extensions coexist and jostle, take their places at the Starline and tear away from each other, and it means infinitely more than it did before.

Take an old form and marvel at its new meanings, as time passes and entropy kicks down the door, meanings tend towards disintegration, but before they finally collapse in a chaotic cloud of dust they bifurcate and split again, and in that liminal transitional region there is something lurking, waiting for those brave enough to venture into those shadowy zones, and if you walk though the mists of meaning, you may spin around and there it is, wagging its tails at you and looking at you with soulful eyes into which anything could be read. Animals need to be dead before you can read their entrails, but they can't be sausage, either.

For centuries, if not millennia, the highest mark of erudition and scholarly distinction in China was etymology, tracking down words and ideographs to their roots, tracing the ways in which their meanings shifted with time, finding the original long-forgotten sources for this family name or that character. This alone is not yet wonderful. What is wonderful is that the vast majority of the etymological work carried out generations of scholars, all the way from the original Confucians to the Neo-Confucians, was almost entirely spurious. False trails, tempting coincidences, explanations with too much rhetorical force for their own good, the result is a corpus of possibilities that make everything mean too much, give everyone a third grandfather and a second nose. The humble words couldn't care less what the scholars say about them, they mean more or less what people use them to mean, and so what if their history isn't what people say it was, sure, sure, but isn't it more fun to know that your family's town takes its name from a river in Yenan province, and for a mountain in the east, and also in commemoration of a battle fought against the Hsiung-Nu, and to honor the patron of your great-great-great-grandfather's elder brother?

Sometimes I think this stuff should be taught in schools -- show the kids a boring old fact or two, and ask them to scry a little, to interrogate the cast-off fragments of history for other possibilities. Change the context and you change the function, as a Frenchman once said about a toilet bowl, and in our crazy fast-paced juxtaposition of a modern world, learning how to reassimilate something within radically differing contexts might actually be a useful skill, might make the kiddos ask some probing questions about their WWF action figures, the toy as a toy, the toy as a reminder of a beloved hero, what it means to act the part of a wrestler, the toy sitting in a box on a shelf in the store with hundreds of identical twins, the toy in a television commercial and whether it looks like the one you've got or not, and the toy as an object -- will Stone Cold turn into Hot Plastic in the microwave? Useful, sure, and maybe, just maybe, if they hang onto this habit of looking for latent ambiguities and hidden meanings, if they remember the beauty of seeing fresh possibilities, they'll go out into the world and breathe a little poetry into the things everyone else has given up for lost.