Out of his box
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on David Blaine's celebrity stunt.
Here is a startling headline, from London’s evening paper last week: ‘Suicide at Blaine bridge.’
It is bad enough that a young man’s death is thus reduced to an appendage of a celebrity stunt (which might, of course, be what the suicide intended when he picked his spot from which to jump). But what made me do a double-take was the casual renaming of the bridge formerly known as Tower – an engineering wonder of the Victorian age, now rebranded as Blaine bridge in honour of a bloke who spent six weeks hanging around in a plastic box.
Why not rename that ancient building nearby the Blaine of London? It is as if nothing really exists today unless it can somehow be connected to celebrity culture.
David Blaine, the American illusionist, was due to emerge last night from his 44-day fast suspended above the Thames. It is estimated that a quarter of a million people have visited the site, and many more have followed the blanket media coverage. Some have talked about the obsessive Blaine-watching as a contemporary shared national experience. To me it was more one of those events that makes you feel that you live on another planet.
I do not care much about David Blaine and his box one way or another. What does interest me, however, is that many others seem to have such strong feelings for or against him.
How could somebody they have never met, a man who was doing nothing at all and could safely be ignored, evoke such powerful ersatz emotions on either side? Blaine himself has naturally been keen to imbue his childish prank with greater importance. The illusionist has sounded more like a delusionist as he describes the starvation stunt as a work of art, a spiritual experience, or whatever. ‘I’ve learnt more in this box than any books,’ he said. Brother, you have been reading the wrong sort of books.
More surprising has been the energy others have expended searching for some deeper meaning in Blaine’s antics, treating him and his box as a metaphor for modern life. Pious bores of every stripe have declared the American guilty of insulting IRA hunger-strikers, Gandhi, the starving of the Third World, and old fashioned English decency.
Meanwhile, Blaine’s supporters, seemingly as light-headed as he must be by now, shout that he is awesome, inspiring, heroic, a martyr to his art and a modern day Primo Levi. I know that it is fashionable to ‘think outside the box’, but this is ridiculous.
What deeper meaning could there be to a self-made hungry man sitting in a Perspex cube? The great Blaine debate has been about nothing; as empty as his box should be today. It is as if the important thing has been to take part in something and show that you really care about things, regardless of what those strong feelings might be. This carnival of emotional incontinence is more bizarre than Blaine’s behaviour.
Everybody has been asking: ‘Why is he doing it?’ The answer is surely in the question. He has done it so that everybody will ask why he is doing it. He has succeeded in being seen and talked about. He has become more famous, not for doing anything, but for being David Blaine.
This is where we have come to with our celebrity culture. Fame is now equated with being seen. It is a strange kind of fame devoid of content, purpose or achievement. When being seen is an end in itself, then to be suspended in a see-through box before crowds of onlookers and 24-hour television cameras can become a high point of human ambition.
Many of those onlookers wanted to be part of the spectacle, to become celebrity spectators with their egg-throwing and banner-waving. They went along not so much to see the Blaine show, but more so that they could tell others that they had seen it. After all, there was nothing much to see.
In celebrity culture there are no heroes, no stars, only celebrities. The once clear moral line between being famous and being infamous has also become blurred.
It does not matter whether we love them or hate them, only so long as we look at them. They can be widely despised, like Blaine or the glamour model Jordan, but they are still feted as celebrities. We now have celebrity cheats, cads and criminals – and even a celebrity starvationist.
The deeper meaning of Blaine mania is that there is none. It signifies nothing except the shallowness of contemporary cultural obsessions. He is not a metaphor, he’s a magic act without the rabbit. The notion that this nonsense matters can only be reaffirmed by all the media coverage and headlines about ‘Blaine bridge’ – and, I suppose, by columns such as this. Let us put it back in its box and say no more about it.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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