Mark Lynn Anderson

 

On his book Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Cover Interview of August 15, 2011

In a nutshell

Twilight of the Idols is ultimately a book about the central importance of deviance to the formation of American mass culture during the 1920s.

Given our current media obsessions with unusual crimes, bizarre occurrences, and public scandals, such an assertion is perhaps not all that surprising.  Yet, what has changed with our contemporary media, and what has been one of its most determining characteristics for the last ninety years, is the ability to maintain a strong distinction between representations of deviance as news and information (crime reportage, political scandal, biographies of the famous and the infamous) and representations of deviance as entertainment (fictional movies, video games, popular music).

Of course, some media forms exist at the boundaries of such a distinction—reality television, for instance, or the celebrity tabloids.  Yet, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Consider, for example, how often we pursue the tabloids in the supermarket line as a temporary amusement.  Part of the fun of tabloids comes from their sheer outrageousness, from their unconvincing masquerade as serious news.  Significantly, this fun also rests upon the joke that is on some imagined audience who might, in fact, take the tabloids seriously, an audience who might just mistake these sensational stories for real news.

In other words, we assist the dominant media in upholding the distinction between social discourse and entertainment by continually postulating a pathological audience incapable of adequate cultural discrimination.  A portion of our pleasure in the consumption of deviance comes from the very properness of our appreciation of those media forms that deliver it to us.  Appreciating the difference between news and amusement is an important means of being normal in our society today.

Twilight of the Idols is about a moment just prior to this particular epistemological separation of consumers of mass culture from the worlds that are depicted there.  This separation had to be achieved, in part, so as to maintain a set of divisions upon which modern social authority rests—divisions between public and private, work and leisure, self and other.

Twilight of the Idols looks at the historical possibilities that early Hollywood celebrity culture posed for overcoming such divisions, as well as the way those possibilities, those dynamic new ways of experiencing and knowing the world, were attenuated by evolving film industrial practices, by the multiple regulatory responses to the many star scandals that filled the nation’s headlines from 1921 to 1926, and by the consolidation of the human sciences of psychology, sociology, sexology, and ethnography.

While liberal left critics in America today typically view celebrity culture as a burdensome popular distraction taking citizens away from the real political issues facing our world, I have written an elegy for a lost moment when mass cultural reception, particularly the reception of Hollywood stars, was a principal site of social involvement.