Understanding our culture of DIY fame

Let us now praise the famous men, and our fathers who begot us… (Ecclesiasticus 44:1)

“Are you a distinguished person? I ask my friend in a text. “Very,” he replies, quicker than usual. “How did you become distinguished?” I ask, without abandoning my research. “I made a request,” he said.

My question for him was not a joke. This followed a discussion I had just had at home. My husband, an academic, was looking for an appropriate title for the conferences he wanted to organize in his department. I had offered my suggestions, some of which had been taken, but there was one word that I kept protesting against. “Distinguished” – “Distinguished Lecture Series”.

“Why do you need to call something or someone distinguished?” I asked.

His response was simple: “Otherwise people wouldn’t know it was.”

“Let people decide if it’s distinguished or not…” I gave up after a while.

“Distinguished” is just one of many words that belong to the genre of image building in the world of arts and letters. For many of us that might seem like putting the cart before the horse, because a word like that is meant to compel obedience – we’ve been told it’s distinguished and there’s no room for disagreement. This is how consensus is built, but, more importantly, this is how fake news is created. The whispering network has the butterfly effect, but the whispering starts from one person. Very often, especially in our time, the whisper of greatness begins with the person whose greatness is about to be proclaimed.

The mode of operation is similar to that of a Ponzi scheme (I am also thinking of the set-up that the entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes managed to do for years). Like the non-existent company to which investors entrust their money, adjectives are invoked to create reputations. It is, of course, a scam. But we are his voluntary collaborators. Just look at the biographies of writers and scholars to see how it works. People who call themselves “prominent” in their biography are a sad commentary on the culture of self-publicity necessary for survival, or “eminence.”

“Prestigious” is a word used for forums, but now, as a transferred epithet, also for people. Since it’s hard to call yourself a prestigious person, especially because the sophisticated society I’m talking about would never get caught saying “Pata hai mera baap kaun hai?” », we qualify our endorsers as prestigious. It is our way of approving those who approve of us, so that their approval is amplified.

“Famous”, “great”, “well known”, “prominent”, “excellence”, “esteemed”, “legendary”, “masterful”, “well traveled”, “award winning” – these are some of the stocks ; there are others that are more common: brilliant, unique, original and, increasingly, “a classic”. This is the moment when, despite my discomfort with such sayings, I think of the phrase of the MFA instructor: “Arrey baba, show, don’t tell”. King, Emperor, Raja, Sultan, Ustad, Pandit, Gurudev – these were once the words for special status. In our new economy, notoriety markers have moved from nouns to adjectives. In the past, you could only be a name: “Professor”. This is no longer enough. Adjectives are to be worn as an army man wears their decorations.

There is an economy of intimidation in these adjectives, and the sound of the siren announcing the arrival of red-light automobiles, not unlike Bond’s use of the proper name: the name is Bond, James Bond . Self-advertisement and self-satisfaction have been forced upon us. A few weeks ago, when I was looking for a book online, I found the biography of an anthologist which made me think to check if I had read correctly: they had been called “the anthologist the most respected in the country. There must have been a competition between anthologists, the news of which had not reached me.

There is a tragicomedy happening in our culture. We praise ourselves because no one else praises us. This is just part of the DIY culture that is essential for survival now. We frantically arrange adjectives like whoever assembles an IKEA piece of furniture – the result must be as functional. This is the status of fame in our culture – its necessary functionality translating into an axiom, like the United States of America calling itself “the greatest country in the world”. First self-confidence, in these words, only then the world outside of us will believe us.

When I wrote about what we call “literary” as being Brahmanical (“Reading, without the sacred thread”, IE, December 19, 2020), there was a feeling of anger among a certain group of people. Needless to say, they had benefited from the operation of the “system”. Like the surname which indicates our caste, the words which announce or follow our names are like our surnames – perhaps this explains why the Indians, when using the English language, have often confused “title” with ” Last name”. Some of these new surnames are surnames and first names of other people, often deceased: Nobel, Fulbright, Charles Wallace, Windham-Campbell; or Booker and Chevening; or Oxford, Harvard, Rome; or New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, etc. As if all this were not enough, we also have those who claim the status of Adam: “was the first to receive the (an award or scholarship)…” and places that present themselves as “one of the most great institutions of India”.

You have to find fame somehow, and the easiest way to do that seems to be through contagion: getting touched by celebrities, their versions of gurukul, their gharana, their endorsements, getting one pedigree as people used to by virtue of birth and the wealth of connections that brought. As I see the toolbox of fame in operation everywhere, I sometimes think of Marc Antony’s words in Julius Caesar, and how he could have replaced ‘honourable’ with famous today: ‘And…is a famous man’.

This column first appeared in the January 14, 2022 print edition as “The DIY Fame Toolkit”. Roy is a poet and author

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