Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Paul Robeson

Becoming Extra-Textual

It seems hard to argue that modern celebrity has coexisted with a sense of public interest—indeed, the very definition of celebrity, and its associated notions of fame, can be understood in terms of the willingness of strangers to engage with a particular entity. In our examination of celebrity, we have explored the public/private dichotomy and how audiences attempt to align a star’s “real” life with his or her persona (Bragman, 2008). Supporting this sentiment, Richard deCordova argues that the basis of our interest in celebrities could in fact result from our limited access to stars’ private lives (Spohrer, 2007; deCordova, 1990). Although the early movie studio system (arguably the birthplace of the first modern celebrities) strove to integrate the public and private representations of their stars, Joshua Gamson notes a pushback from audiences who began to question the authenticity of performers (1994).

And, as Spohrer argues through an invocation of Paul Robeson, the lack of perceived authenticity can lead to scandal but also the quality of extra-textuality, wherein a performer becomes more than the composite of his performances (2007). John Fiske adds to this discussion, also drawing upon Baudrillard’s notions of simulacra and the real, in his examination of the confluence of Murphy Brown (a fictional character), Candice Bergen (the actress portraying Brown), and Diane English (the creator of the character)—a quality denoted as hyperreal (Fiske, 1994). While this juxtaposition serves to create an entirely new entity, one way to dissect it is to understand it is in terms of foreground/background distinction:  we can selectively choose to mentally focus on one aspect of the construct at a time, looking at each manifestation in isolation and then as part of a larger picture. For example, Fiske brings up the notion of the agency afforded to an individual body (in this case Rodney King and Anita Hill) in order to demonstrate that while an individual body can possess varying amounts of agency, it also figures in a larger societal context that also informs our understanding of the body’s importance in an ongoing story (1994).

Fiske’s work raises the important notion that cultural scholars need to understand the significance of the site of contestation when attempting to explore societal issues:  realizing whether we are fighting over a physical body, an image, or a hyperreal figure provides much insight into the nature of the arguments in question. Supporting this concept, we see Spohrer discuss the implications of Paul Robeson’s movement from singer to singer/actor to singer/activist (2007); as Robeson participated in increasingly expanded spheres of influence, his increasing extra-textuality afforded us a greater number of lenses through which to examine his impact.