THE CULTURAL CRITIC is often called upon to provide some type of summary of the contemporary moment. With all the disparateness of politics, artistic practice, changes in the flows of media, new media and forms of consumption, and the myriad transformations that have arisen from both science and technology, it is a difficult task—perhaps nearly impossible.
This collection is an attempt to distill at least one dominant trope that defines the contemporary cultural condition. The series of essays pieced together here is an exposé that explores the increasing fetishization of the construction of a public persona. The idea of fetish is useful in describing persona because it is important to see that persona is an accoutrement or mask added on to the self in order to achieve some sort of completion and satisfaction in the public world. Persona construction is not about the real “self,” but it will have indices that link the individual to the persona. Persona is about a strategic form of public identity; but, more than any other moment, this persona construction—its fetish quality—has become pandemic in the contemporary moment.
If my distillation of the contemporary is accurate—that we have a pandemic obsession with constructing personas—it is important to see why this has arisen. What constellation of events, technologies, cultures, and industries has produced what could be called the constant preening of the presentation of the self? What are the critical changes that have allowed for this to emerge?
Some elements of the persona obsession come from longer historical cultural arcs. For instance, there are elements of consumer culture that have increasingly focused on the individualized production of the self, which at least identifies elements of the obsession that have grown and intensified for more than a century. We are invited to piece together a sartorial style each day that has some intersection with existing social, professional, and cultural categories and fields, but this style is also part of the organization of the contemporary that we must make this meaning real for us individually and personally for every day and for our movement through public (and private) and privatized spaces. Also, accompanying this personalization in consumer culture and the making of the public self has been an elaborate and intersecting media and entertainment system of communication that also celebrates forms of individuality. For more than two centuries, a celebrity system has developed that constructed a representative field of personalities that not only shaped our conceptions of significance but also were part of a newly permeable public sphere (Inglis 2016). Celebrities operated as a system of transferring value in a culture—they were entities that have been allowed to move into the highest echelons of the political, economic, and cultural elite. Their movement ultimately served as an ideological legitimation source that helped define the contemporary as open and accessible and, in some cases, democratic and meritocratic.
Thus the personalization of value via consumer culture and the recalibration of reputation and impact through the value of celebrity culture have laid the groundwork for what is the critical technological—and cultural—change that has shifted the contemporary moment to an obsessive focus on the public persona. Online culture has progressively led to an increasingly greater focus on the production of the self. From the early days of the World Wide Web, when people had “personal” websites, what had been emerging was a parallel world of mediatization of the self. The graphic quality of the Web meant that in progressive stages, the individual could produce a version of her own activities that resembled a newspaper, a magazine, and, by the time of YouTube in 2004, a television channel. Indeed, combinations of these forms advanced over the last twenty years of what I wrote about in the 1990s as the initial “graphic internet stage” (Marshall 1997) and blended into what became known as weblogs, or blogs, and videologs, or vlogs, in the early part of the twenty-first century.
Augmenting this mediatization of the self and the naturalization of this construction and production of a public self was the development of applications that made the process of the production of an online public self simpler and of more value. Although MySpace was one of the earliest of these types of online applications, Facebook gradually became one of the largest players in this space of production of the self. The personal value in this production was related to the networking structure of these applications. Whatever you posted became available to the “friends” that you had self-identified or had linked with you in some way. Public settings of information determined your wider mediatized self, while various privacy settings determined the inner micropublics that any individual Facebook user cultivated. Along with links to other elements of interests and likes that structured the meaning of the public individual through an array of social and cultural markers, Facebook and other social media sites have places and locations for the posting of photos, videos, comments, and interpersonal forms of exchange. In other words, whether through Facebook, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Tumblr, literally billions of people worldwide are producing public versions of themselves and monitoring those productions of the self daily.
As this system of the production of the public self has become normalized and naturalized over the last decade, it has led to a spectrum of the production of a public persona that in the past would have been an activity only engaged in by a quite limited celebrity and public personality culture. Thus there are now continuities in the production of public identities that move from the most celebrated to the teenager attracting followers and friends through his flamboyant posts (boyd 2014; Marshall 2014a).
The Justin Bieber persona captures much of this movement. In the opening sequence of the 2016 comedy movie Zoolander 2 and its lampooning of fashion, Justin Bieber is being chased by assassins through the parkours-friendly backstreets of Rome. Ultimately, the assassins are successful, pummeling Bieber with hundreds of bullets. Left for dead, Bieber’s last act is to post an image of his death pose on Instagram; as he is dying, he is choosing the best look along with the best shading as he keeps selecting and reselecting which image to post. Bieber in the movie is playing himself, and thus the role is a study of a celebrity still trying to manage his online image and persona personally until his last gasp. It portrays effectively in conveying that his “death” in the film would be welcome by many who consider Bieber’s publicly visible activities in his real life of the last few years at minimum cringe-worthy.
In a larger sense of how social media are depicted in this film through Bieber, we can see how the constant and staged negotiation of identity is as much part of the most famed regular and everyday practices as it is for each of us.
Personas, thus, were once a form of mediatized construction produced for display and production in television, radio, film, and print media; in the contemporary moment, variations of this production are occurring across the social spectrum. The implications of pandemic persona culture are immense and in many ways still to be determined, but the production of a public version of the self is already transforming our work culture, some professions, and, definitively, our leisure and recreational lives.
Death scene of Justin Bieber in Zoolander 2 (2016).
This volume represents an analysis of the beginning stages of what I call a “presentational cultural regime,” as opposed to the “representational cultural regime” that was privileged by our highly mediatized culture of traditional media. To capture this persona moment, the following essays identify the production of the self in different environments. Some of these analyses reveal the celebrity in action, but viewed with a lens of how it informs this production of a mask of identity. Celebrities often represent the best way to understand the highly constructed nature of a persona. Taking apart Stephen Colbert’s fabricated identity or working out the posturing of an actress such as Cate Blanchett actually helps us makes sense of the pandemic construction of public identity and reveal its strategic nature. Investigating the bizarre world of celebrity fakes, where the blend of digital identity is possible, also reveals the risks of public personas more widely. Several of the essays describe the pedagogic connection of the celebrity world with the everyday construction of a mediatized identity. Glamour photography is explored as an engine of experimentation in mediatized identity for the suburban individual. Serial dramas offer a way to see how the consistency of public identity establishes a coherence that is at play in the most mundane social media presentation of the self. And it is always useful to look at the different ways that public identity is constituted in different regions, cultures, and nations—this is developed in the essay on comparative persona. I have ended this series of analyses with a conceptual piece on the persona emerging through the online industries—what I call the intercommunicative persona.
The contemporary moment is now filled with a new form of work: we are constantly laboring on the presentation of ourselves for public consumption. Visibility, reputation, impression management, and impact are at play as we work and labor on the production of our online and public personas. The value generated from this work—a kind of work that recent scholarship is labeling as self-branding—is quite difficult to calibrate for the individual but nonetheless is seen as a necessary self-production as one’s sartorial style for moving through public spaces. The contemporary moment is a specular moment of the self where individual by individual, and ultimately, collectively, we are making and remaking our public personas. The sad truth of this persona production is that our labor is a massive information source that feeds the new structure of consumer culture, the new formation of advertising, and the new focused efforts to connect industries to help us construct smart public versions of ourselves.