the cult of the individual

According to Auntie Beeb, Gordon Brown recently remarked that people should applaud Jade Goody’s determination to help her family by selling the media rights to her wedding this weekend.

What bothers me about Gordon Brown’s comment is the idol of the individual and the cult of celebrity that it seems to endorse.

The ‘cult of the individual’ is something that I looked at when I was looking at the different scales with which we study the past – the history of history. This was perhaps best evoked by the French Historian Fernand Braudel when he stated that the study of the past involved the history of undercurrents, in other words the history of the longue durée, beneath the superficial flotsam of individuals and events and the stiller waters of social structures, beneath “the surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs”1.

Fernand Braudel was a member of the Annales school, a movement of French Historians who had saught to redress the imbalance of historical study and its emphasis on wars, kings and politics. A key influence on the Annales School was the French economist François Simiand who felt that:

“there were three idols which must be toppled. There was the political idol – the perpetual preoccupation with the political history, political facts, wars etc.…There was the individual idol – in other words, the overemphasis on so-called great men…Finally, there was the chronological idol, that is, the habit of losing oneself in studies of origins.”2

What Simiand was protesting against, in 1903, was society’s focus on the individual, the dangers of being sucked into the minutaie of interpersonal politics and the risk this posed to understanding society, how societies operate and how they change. This passage more than any other shaped my reading of the Neolithic monuments of the Outer Hebrides. “Oi! What’s a bleeding French economist got to do with a bunch of 5000 year old stones and Jade Goody?”, I hear you cry! Hold on, I’m getting there…

Simiand’s idols have never been more apparent as they are today and nowhere in modern society can this be seen more readily than in the cult of celebrity. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been cranked up to eleven as everyone strives for their instant recognition through a transcient appearance on television or one of the many mediums which now afford similar opportunities (says he posting on a blog, the ultimate triumph of the id over the ego). And nowhere is this cult more evident than in the life of Jade Goody.

It is sad the unfortunate direction that Jade Goody’s life has taken. As someone who has experienced the cruel and indiscriminate nature of cancer she has my complete sympathy. But nobody epitomises more the pursuit of the self and the celebration of the individual in contemporary society – qualities of society that Simiand and the Annales School challenged a century ago.

So why bring Gordon Brown into this? Simiand was an economist. He was interested in the way that a society’s economy is shaped by the opinions and perspective of its people and its leaders. We are embarking into what has the potential to be the worst economic crisis in centuries and a large part of this has to be attributed to the pursuit of self.

Indiscriminate lending from banks have manufactured a generation that has never had to count their pennies and live within their means. Thatcher’s dissolution of industry, the subsequent privatisation of Britain’s infrastructure (from a succession of governments) and the championing of social mobility (the American dream) have all fragemented the sense of belonging and kin in our society. The lottery and reality TV have gone on to create a sense of instant win for riches and renown without having to earn it. But whilst we can – and apparently should – pursue instant reward, meteoric decline is always someone elses fault (compensation culture). A complex fabric neatly stitched together by the media and advertising.

So back to Jade Goody and Gordon Brown. It saddens me that politics and celebrity are so inextricably interwoven. It saddens me that the leader of our country, hitherto Chancellor of the Exchequer, applauds someone selling the rights for their wedding to the media – the very mentality that likely brought about our current economic down turn. It’s perhaps saddeset though that when the copies of OK! magazine featuring Jade Goody’s marriage hit the news stand that they will be bought in their thousands.

François Simiand must be laughing in his grave.

1 Fernand Braudel On History 1980, 12

2 Peter Burke The French Historical Revolution 1980, 11