“The Fame Machine,” a brief satire included in French author Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s collection of 1883, Cruel Tales, asks in precise, concrete terms just what celebrity is. Fame—or “la gloire” in the original, which means glory and renown, as well as the halo surrounding an image of Christ’s head—is a vague and vaporous notion, a sort of smoke that emanates from truly sublime works and individuals. The narrator of Villiers’ tale offers the steam engine as proof that elusive and vaporous phenomena can be put to work with very palpable effects. Thus even theatrical success can be reduced to its material components—applause, cheers, stamping feet, sighs, gasps, and well-timed devotional bouquets, as well as the barely stifled guffaw sparking the eruption of laughter and the “wow-ow,” the resonating cascade of bravos launched in close succession.
Although the claque, or paid troop of applauders, is an unshakable institution in the nineteenth-century Parisian theater, its work, paid for by the performance, is too unpredictable and piecemeal for an age that demands certainty and uniform efficiency.
The hero of the tale, engineer Bathybius Bottom, is an inventor and true devotee of the arts, willing to transform, for a price, any theater into a fame machine. No longer will the success of a play be left to chance or to the incompetence of a hired stooge who might miss his cues, laughing at a tragic turn or cheering the villain. At the flipping of a switch, artificial hands flutter gratifyingly together; the legs of the seats lift and strike the ground in exact imitation of appreciative canes and walking sticks; the cherubim adorning the loges and the proscenium reveal themselves to be no mere ornament but rather lung-sized bellows calling out their approval of the author and the actors, confirming the artwork’s sanctification. The machine also can be directed to plant favorable reviews in the press, and if for some reason a negative response is demanded, it will hiss, boo, and make catcalls. Controlled by an operator who must be above any personal interest, Dr. Bottom’s invention transforms the entire theater into a machine for producing glory: a material apparatus that brings about spiritual effects.
More than 120 years later, for audiences familiar with the Kardashian sisters and the television laugh track, it’s easy enough to recognize the target of Villiers’ satire and to extend its trajectory forward in time. A great friend of Stéphane Mallarmé and the symbolist poets, Villiers shared Charles Baudelaire’s revulsion for the mediocrity of most nineteenth-century art, the formulaic and mechanical aspect of poetry, music, and painting as well as the predictable and entirely automatic back scratching and puffing that filled artistic and literary reviews. In place of aesthetic judgment, Villiers provides a mechanical and commercial procedure, one that plays upon the individual’s tendency to follow the responses of the crowd. His satire foreshadows the demagogic propaganda and manipulation of the masses soon analyzed by Gustave le Bon in The Psychology of Crowds (1895) and by Sigmund Freud in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Such techniques were subsequently programmed into the publicity campaigns and media events supporting the early twentieth century’s Hollywood star system. Transposed into the realm of politics, they amplified the fascist political movements in Germany and Italy, which carefully controlled radio, cinema, and massive assemblies to turn the entire nation into a chorus of automated cherubim. The well-organized claque, in a theater or a sports stadium, stimulates the audience member to become part of it; the spectacle of others’ admiration persuades the individual to admire.
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