Conclusion: Pandemic Persona

UNDERSTANDING PUBLIC IDENTITY is complex and certainly not homogeneous across the planet. It shifts in its value and its formation. As we have seen in our study of Stephen Colbert and Cate Blanchett, even relatively stable star personas are subject to strategic repositioning. The seriality of public identity is in constant negotiation and is dependent on past patterns and future desires. This series of excursions into exploring persona that this book has detailed has been structured to see the way in which it is not just a practice of the famous but an identity that all of us are forming and re-forming at some level. Although we imagine that Channing Tatum’s life as a film star and former stripper is differently constituted (which has been oddly reconfigured through two of his films, Magic Mike [2012] and Magic Mike XXL [2015]), our contemporary moment allows us to form a variation of that persona through using glamour photography and all its accoutrements of star pampering and seductive and sexualized image making to temporarily inhabit that celebrated identity space.

The title of this Forerunner, The Celebrity Persona Pandemic, was chosen because it captured the contemporary condition in two significant ways. First of all, using the concept of persona to describe public identity is to emphasize its quality not as a true identity but as a fabricated and strategic presentation of the self (Marshall and Barbour 2015). Persona essentially means the self reconfigured for public display. In its public presentation, persona has to be understood as always in formation, always a type of performance and rendition of the self.

Second, persona is expanding as a practice in the contemporary moment. As detailed in chapter 11 in terms of the “intercommunicative self,” the expansion of online culture has made it an expectation that we produce a persona for a variety of forms of social media. What is interesting about this process is that it is mediatized with its reconfiguration of the self through text, video, images, and a series of forms of exchange and intercourse with others that are at least partially automated (e.g., the simplified systems of “liking” someone else’s posts provided by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). As my own research has explored, we are monitoring our selves for public consumption (Marshall and Barbour 2015) and exchange, and as much as we are looking at others, our culture has become quite specular (Marshall 2010b), in everyone’s efforts at self-preening her own digital identity. In other words, we have entered an era when persona formation is central to the contemporary experience. Moreover, one can see that these pandemic practices of persona formation also necessitate greater and greater discussions of its value for our cultures and its repercussions across our constitution of identities. We need more research into the implications of how persona is changing and reconfiguring our cultures and our lives.

Through case studies and examples, The Celebrity Persona Pandemic has investigated this changed cultural condition, and through those examples, it has attempted to answer the core question of what form of value is emerging through the new and intensified focus on constructing a public self.

Assessing the value of something like persona is a tricky proposition. With the most famous, it is possible to break down the value of the celebrity persona into something economic and provide a monetary and notionally quantitative figure. Certainly the work of Currid-Halkett (2010, 23–45), where she identifies the “celebrity-residual,” attempts to capture the sense that some public individuals possess something that transcends their primary activity and makes their very appearance valuable in and of itself. She makes the point that celebrity-residual is not a value that all well-known people have: for instance, in her reading, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, does not possess this extra “personal” dimension that we want to know more about as we would with someone like the actor Brad Pitt (30–31).

Other writers have also tried to investigate this world of the value of the public individual. Olivier Driessens (2013) uses the idea of “celebrity capital” to capture the way that celebrities’ value via media moves across different fields and therefore presents the possibility of convertible value. Van Krieken (2012) identifies that celebrities are a kind of “attention” capital,” a technique to draw audiences and their eyes. In a more scandalous style, Jo Piazza (2011) describes in detail how celebrities are used—and paid—to create events, sell magazines, and construct our world of entertainment value. The most comprehensive study of celebrity as a value is by Barry Gunter (2014), where in succeeding chapters, he works through how celebrity moves through these other dimensions of society and culture—from politics to consumer culture, from the corporate world to the psychological and health effects of celebrity activity and engagement. Gunter effectively maps why the endorsement by celebrities in all sorts of domains of contemporary life is so powerful and engaging.

The work of these various writers is important to understanding this public persona value, but it doesn’t quite capture the way that persona is enacted more broadly than celebrity culture. To understand this extensive deployment of persona from the most famous to what might be called the everyday individual, it is perhaps useful to translate the nebulous and variable quality of value into something that can be seen as a potential form of power and influence.

The concept of agency comes closest to understanding the way that potential power across our globe in varied cultures is expressed through persona. First of all, our national and transnational celebrity cultures express a totemic caricature of our world and its organization of power: individual celebrities, such as Bono and his consumer/corporate-invested Red campaign, which provides funds to combat AIDS in Africa, or Angelina Jolie, whose concerted efforts at heralding the health value of her recent preemptive mastectomy derived from genetic knowledge, present clear evidence of agency. They are actors and agents in this highly privatized and individualized world who can effect change (see Marshall and Barbour 2015).

This level of agency is certainly not the same for the individual who is building an Instagram following via images of his cats in countless poses, or maybe another individual who is actively invested in a YouTube channel about how she plays her video games or repairs household fixtures. Nonetheless, whether we are looking at the agency of celebrities or the agency of active online individuals, they are working at making themselves visible in this privatized world.

The development, cultivation, distribution, and exhibition of a persona is now a normalized component of everyday life. The origins of its agency are embedded in the now centuries-old consumer culture where meaning and value are at least partially determined by the way that we display ourselves with and through the products we buy. Indeed, the advertising industry has cultivated the idea of agency embedded in every purchase of a shirt, every car we choose to buy, and every pair of shoes we choose to wear. In a manner similar to the way that Dick Hebdige (1979), among others, described spectacular youth subcultures more than thirty-five years ago and the subcultures’ members’ appropriation and revitalization of found consumer materials for their own negotiated, very public presentations of meaning, persona identifies the very public display of the self from the available materials of our now contemporary and increasingly online culture.

Producing and exhibiting a persona is not necessarily agency but at minimum a will-to-agency. It identifies that forms of attention—particularly online attention—are now very significant for both work and leisure. Persona, then, is the agent that produces value in all sorts of ways. First, it is the connecting glue that defines the organization of social media platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and YouTube, by constructing friends and followers. Second, it publicizes our own likes and dislikes, our own patterns of attention, and shares these patterns with others. And third, persona allows for the collection of our information and identifies the real motor of the information economy as our self-generated information becomes the powerful and smart way our new consumer culture operates and thrives.

Given that persona is a construction of the self and a strategic entity for public use and is then recombined and recirculated through the engines and algorithms of the information economy, it may be useful in this conclusion to link its agency to how Bruno Latour has characterized agency. Latour (2007, 9) has developed through Actor Network Theory a different idea of agency: it is relational and associational and most provocatively identifies objects as actors and agents. Persona, in its construction and dissemination, is a characterization of the person, but it is essentially a formation of the self for particular purposes. It becomes the object for new associations in its genuine generation of information that is marked and shared as personal and deployed for all sorts of other activities and movement of data and information. As a new object, or at least a transformed object, in the contemporary world, it now redefines and restructures the way collectives are formed and operate. Persona is perhaps one of the essential ways for us to make sense of our world.

This book has been designed to show us how that this new form of agency is developing, transforming, and shifting the way our various cultures now operate. I hope its range of analyses of the formations of persona from the most celebrated to the most ordinary will at the very least stimulate others to investigate persona further.