Talking to Temple Grandin for this week’s podcast felt improbable. There’s a natural filter or membrane between my activities and that of the mainstream—natural and to some degree inevitable. It has to do with what happens when a person makes the transition from being a little-known operator to a widely recognized one. Most of us (or so I imagine) who struggle to make that transition are aware of how we want more attention, either in terms of quantity or quality, of sheer numbers or the intensity and frequency of feedback from whatever “audience” we do have.
I have to take a pause before finishing the above thought. Every time I write about this subject (that of being a creative person struggling to reach an audience), I find myself getting stuck on the terms. It is as if (& more than “as if”) we lack the language to describe the phenomenon, a phenomenon loosely defined as worldly success and/or celebrity. I think it’s because, and why, we have failed to really understand it. We may have come up with terms like “fame,” “audience,” “established,” and so on in an attempt to map this phenomenon, but, as is so frequently the case with language, we stopped exploring the terrain once we had the map, on the mistaken assumption that, what we had named, we had understood. This may relate to a much larger subject of how language is a means to understanding that has long-since become an end to it. But anyway….
Two nights ago, I watched an interesting documentary about the engineering of the British rock band The Who, called Lambert & Stamp. About half an hour in, Pete Townsend talks about how their managers (Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp) had the visionary idea of using the band’s audience as a way to increase its appeal. They went around giving away free tickets to all the best-dressed, most stylish teenagers they could find. As a result, those early Who concerts were filled with audience members who were better-dressed and more stylish than the band was. Chris Stamp expounds:
“We had this idea, which became known as the 100 Faces Club. We would pick one of these kids and make them official members. . . We never quite knew what made them a face. They had to dance well, they had to dress weird or well, in some ways show the rebelliousness, the individuality. We weren’t only trying to identify The Who, as such, but their specific audience through our judgment. We were the guys who were saying ‘This is what we think the Who audience is.’ And we made them a 100 Faces member.”
This created very quickly the sense of a movement—and in fact the Mod movement very much arose from this time period and can be directly linked to the rise of The Who (and their swan song Quadrophenia). Not to get sidetracked into the question of pop cultural social engineering here. Townshend remarks that it wasn’t that they were marketing to the audience: they were marketing the audience:
“You become a mirror to the audience. Kit and Chris watched this happen and started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them, to make them realize how important they actually were. I was really uncomfortable with it, really uncomfortable. . . . They were able to recognize that synergy that was going between the audience. And the only reason that I was into that, spotting that, was again because of art school training, being told by my teachers: ‘Find a patron.’ . . . [The audience is] not just the patrons. They’re the essence. . . . You don’t market to them. You market them.”
The implications of this are multiple. It’s one of those ideas that is psychological & philosophical as well as social, that, to quote my erstwhile colleague Peter Levenda, has “many moving parts.” The one I am zeroing in on here is one I touched on with my piece about, and dialogue with, Jonathan Lethem: that the audience, so-called, is every bit as essential to the creation of “art” as the artists. It is not some faceless mass waiting to receive, at least it is not only that. The case of The Who demonstrates how a creative project, as it moves from margin to mainstream, does so by first assembling the audience (almost literally hand-picking it) that will lift it up to prominence, by including them in that transition from marginality to centrality. There’s much more to explore about this, but I will stop there, because it was actually a digression from my original, unfinished point.
My original unfinished point was that becoming popular, “in demand,” entails not only receiving an increased amount of attention but also having to give it. Being in demand means exactly that: that one’s time, energy, and attention is constantly being solicited by the very people whose attention one has managed to get. So at least I deduce by a simple appliance of logic. You can’t covet or receive attention without being ready to return it. So naturally, the more “established” someone is, the more demands are placed on their attention, the harder it is for those of us on the margins to get it.
Most “famous” (I use quotes so much because, as I say, our language isn’t really adequate for this phenomenon, perhaps because it is so relatively new—what does famous mean, after all? It’s a statement that is so relative that it is effectively meaningless unless we apply it to the extreme ends of the spectrum, i.e., Jesus is famous, your cat is not (though mine is)). Anyway, where was I? Most “famous” people aren’t reachable online; at best they have a Twitter account, but unless you can get them to follow you then the only way to reach out is by tweeting them publically, which in my experience almost always gets ignored (Matthew Modine responds, but even he ignored my suggestion of doing a podcast). So that simplifies things for me. If a person who is relatively famous has a means to reach them online, this signals they are relatively undefended, not buffered by middlemen, and therefore still somewhat human. Cory Doctorow has a contact email at his site and he responded right away to my email invite. Guy Maddin doesn’t have a contact email, but he just exudes marginality so I made an extra effort and eventually he did get my message, wrote back to me, and was very open and warm. With Temple Grandin, because she works in the industry and is a public speaker, she has contact info at her site and I heard back through her assistant (though it seemed to be a message from Grandin) quite promptly.
Although I wasn’t necessarily more nervous speaking to her because she was a “celebrity,” I did feel more pressure because it felt like there was more at stake. Not at stake for me personally in terms of doing a good job and taking a step or two up the social ladder; but in terms of a responsibility to use the potentially increased signal (a larger audience) to address things that might need to be addressed, ways in which Grandin might be influencing people with too broad a brush stroke, for example (such as by advocating ABA treatment, or defending slaughterhouses).
I suppose this in turn relates to how the defendedness of public figures tends to increase in proportion to how high their profile becomes. (Which is why I said that Lethem had more to lose by doing the Liminalist podcast than I did.) With great power comes great responsibility; power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Part of the responsibility of power is to be aware of the corrupting influence of power. The larger part, maybe, is to counteract that influence by using one’s power responsibly, to serve others and not merely one’s own unconscious drives. The problem with this is that, since the drives are unconscious, “serving others” can just as easily be a means to feed those drives as being openly self-serving—as in the cases of power-mad philanthropists or seeming do-gooders and social reformers such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or, for that matter, my grandfather, none of whom I am personally persuaded were serving agendas separate from those of the social engineers (who seem to be driven by philanthropic ideals also).
My experience talking to Temple Grandin was that she was very much herself. While I found some of her arguments and rationales a bit simplistic, they were pleasantly so, and felt genuine and not assumed. As my wife commented after hearing the first podcast, “There’s nothing about her that’s not improbable.” At the risk of using circular logic, the fact she so readily agreed to be on my podcast—even while I’m fairly sure it relates to a desire for publicity—suggests that she is operating within the power-sphere of the dominant culture in an improbably guileless and non-defended fashion. She struck me as a very childlike personality, and that is rare in any sphere. Most people at her level of the game would have been a lot more cautious and guarded about entering into such an unknown forum. They would have asked more questions and wanted to ensure that it was strategically, politically “safe” and advantageous before agreeing. Not so with Temple. For whatever reasons, once she heard I wanted to talk to her, pretty much the next thing I knew, she was on the other end of my line.
I’m not entirely sure where this line of inquiry is going, besides being a commentary to accompany the podcast. Maybe with part two it will reveal itself.
Comments from my as-yet-undefined “audience” are welcome.