Russell Brand is an interesting character. Whilst I was never particularly keen on his humor in Big Brother’s Big Mouth, though that may have been more the association with Big Brother, the more I see of him the more he appeals, and I have tried not to like him. I have never been interested in traditional trendyness, I have aspirations and associations with the ideals of my lifestyle, but the typical ‘Shoreditch Twat’ style, of which Russell Brand’s charicature of Danny from Withnail and I is, ostensibly, the epitome, has never particularly appealed.
But I find myself growing to respect him when I hear him speak. Whilst not engaged in the same way and perhaps to the same extent as many activists, the accumulation of his various statements and actions demonstrate an engagement that defies his stereotype. I saw him perform live at a charity gig for Campaign Against Arms Trade (or possibly Amnesty I can’t remember), which is not that impressive given that most comedians do charity gigs from time to time. Towards the end of his set he said “hmm so what else do I care about, oh yeah, Free Tibet!” which, again in-and-of-itself is not that much to write home about. Though if you know my history you will know that Tibet is an issue I care a lot about. Then there was his appearance at the G20 in London which was criticized on many fronts, though why it should differ from anyone else being there I am not sure. Russell Brand is an anti-capitalist, probably with a better understanding of what that means than a lot of people on that march (certainly than a lot of anti-capitalists and anarchists I have met). Most recently I saw this interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he speaks very intelligently on the subject of fame and celebrity culture. The whole way through waxing poetic about Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the Situationists, a philosophy that is perhaps more relevant now than it was when Debord wrote it in the late 1960s. It was after watching that interview I was inspired to write this article. And with that I think I have spent enough time talking about what he is or isn’t, time to talk about what he said, because that is much more interesting and I know who Brand is significantly less than he does, which seems not a lot.
He starts by saying that he always wanted to be famous and ends by saying that now he has fame it is “…like ash in my mouth”. What he is referencing is an idea that cuts right to the heart and soul of some of the biggest issues and problems with modern society and consumer culture. Brand says that the initial appeal of fame was “glistening and visceral” in a “desolate and barren culture”. This is the idea that without something to make them so, our lives feel meaningless and that the aspiration of fame and celebrity will make us whole. When he says that fame has become “…like ash in my mouth” what he means is of course that fame does not make you whole, it does not make you feel truly meaningful. This is the root of many of the problems we face. That our ego prevents us from comprehending the meaninglessness of life and that over the eons of human existence many ideas have come up that have exploited this and told us to focus on a ‘higher purpose’. People put the ‘vulgarity and excess’ of modern society down to a lack of religion in life.
But all religion is, is another form of the same exploitation*.
Religion probably first came about as a way to explain why the sun comes up and why the rain falls based on primitive understanding of observations. The ritual associated with religion became a reason, other than pure survival, to do the things we do, to achieve and to progress (though Ben Goldacre’s argument that all of human endeavor is in pursuit of orgasm is another good point). With the Enlightenment leading to the Industrial Revolution, science began to disprove religion and mass communication was able to spread this disproof wider than ever before and so the role of religion in every-day life has inexorably declined but only to be replaced with the result of mass-production; mass consumption.
The decline of religion and the increasing ease of survival since the industrial revolution as meaning and purpose has left us with a great feeling of emptiness, of lack of understanding and more time. So to fill this void, like a Star Trek alien parasite in the body of a dying red-uniformed extra, we latched onto the next thing we were offered: consumerism.
Consumerism plays on the idea of aspirations; that we can be harder, better, faster, stronger, fitter, happier and more productive than we are now. And corporate mass communication sells us the idea that the ultimate achievement, the aspiration to work towards is fame. When those who achieve fame get there, they realise that there is nothing there, that they still have the same empty feeling, as Brand puts it “it’s like being presented with a great bounteous feast and when you take a bite you realise there is no taste”. So the quest then becomes to increase your status as a celebrity that creates the idea of A-list or Z-list celebrities; we judge their worth on how many times we’ve heard their name.
Because celebrity is sold as the ultimate achievement, the thing to strive for, as well as being achievable without any real effort, we end up with two things: the use of celebrities to sell products; perpetuating consumerism and the lack of interest in working to achieve something; you just need to, as Brand puts it, “fit the narrative” to be famous. The path to achieving celebrity is manifested in the cycle of material consumption that is more familiar to most of us. We see Paris Hilton with an iPhone so we go out and buy an iPhone, but then we are not suddenly rich and happy like Paris so it must be something else, it must be the Prada handbag or the diamond necklace or whatever. We are told that the path to happiness lies in that which makes us unhappy, unfortunately the hair of the dog is not the cure.
We are also unhappy because we are isolated. We are an empathic civilisation, hardwired to live in communities and we do not cope well on our own. As our ability to communicate has increased, our communities have grown wider and we have become increasingly selective about who our communities are. We have let celebrity dominate how we identify ourselves and therefore who we identify as our community. By so doing, we have let corporations isolate us, making us more susceptible to the omnipresent message that consumption leads to community and happiness.
The ultimate manifestation of this corporate led isolation is social media. Something like 70% of internet users are on a social network and 50% of those are on Facebook. We are increasingly defining our communities through social networks and adjusting our lives and consumption accordingly – who needed a phone that could check Facebook before Facebook was ubiquitous? Through networks like Facebook and Twitter, we are positioned as mini-celebrities. On Twitter we can issue edicts to our multitude of ‘Followers’ and keep up-to-date with the minutiae of our friends lives and the lives of celebrities we ‘Follow’. This only serves to increase our egos and add more value to the underlying concept that there “must be some reason”.
To a large extent I am resentful of the popularisation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the theory of survival of the fittest (that predates Darwin). It positions nature as a dog-eat-dog world, out to get us and that we must look out for us and our own in order to survive when this is not the case. It makes us selfish creatures when we needn’t be and shouldn’t be. Perhaps we can dominate our selfishness and our fear. Realise that we have too little time to be to spend it wanting to be and as Brand puts it, “acquire something more valuable, more beautiful”.
Just some thoughts for a Saturday afternoon anyway. I was going to write about how crap NGOs are at using the media and social web but this was more enjoyable.
*I am not anti-religion. Many people derive great satisfaction and happiness from the many religions of the world. They have inspired some of the greatest works of art and acts of kindness and compassion along with great acts of barbarity, cruelty, genocide and oppression. And that goes for ALL religions. Lets just try to look at this objectively.
Brilliant piece – especially like the idea of social media recreating ourselves as mini-celebrities, and the bit on Darwin is spot on.
Thanks for writing,