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The Invention of Celebrity

Antoine Lilti, Lynn Jeffress (Translated by)
ISBN: 978-1-5095-0874-7
320 pages
July 2017, Polity
The Invention of Celebrity (1509508740) cover image


Frequently perceived as a characteristic of modern culture, the phenomenon of celebrity has much older roots. In this book Antoine Lilti shows that the mechanisms of celebrity were developed in Europe during the Enlightenment, well before films, yellow journalism, and television, and then flourished during the Romantic period on both sides of the Atlantic.  Figures from across the arts like Voltaire, Garrick, and Liszt were all veritable celebrities in their time, arousing curiosity and passionate loyalty from their “fans.” The rise of the press, new advertising techniques, and the marketing of leisure brought a profound transformation in the visibility of celebrities: private lives were now very much on public show.  Nor was politics spared this cultural upheaval:  Marie-Antoinette, George Washington, and Napoleon all experienced a political world transformed by the new demands of celebrity.  And when the people suddenly appeared on the revolutionary scene, it was no longer enough to be legitimate; it was crucial to be popular too.

Lilti retraces the profound social upheaval precipitated by the rise of celebrity and explores the ambivalence felt toward this new phenomenon.  Both sought after and denounced, celebrity evolved as the modern form of personal prestige, assuming the role that glory played in the aristocratic world in a new age of democracy and evolving forms of media. While uncovering the birth of celebrity in the eighteenth century, Lilti's perceptive history at the same time shines light on the continuing importance of this phenomenon in today’s world.

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Table of Contents

Introduction - Celebrity and Modernity

Chapter 1 - Voltaire in Paris
“The Most Famous Man in Europe"
Voltaire and Janot

Chapter 2 - Society of the Spectacle
The Birth of Stars: The Economics of Celebrity
Scandal at the Opera
“Something Idolatrous”
A European Celebrity
The Invention of the Fan(atic)

Chapter 3 - A First Media Revolution
The Visual Culture of Celebrity
Public Figurines
Idols and Marionettes
“Heroes of the Hour”
Private Lives, Public Figures

Chapter 4 - From Glory to Celebrity
Trumpeting Fame
Conceptualizing Celebrity
“Chastisement for Merit”

Chapter 5 - Loneliness of the Celebrity
“The Celebrity of Misfortune”
Friend Jean-Jacques
Eccentricity, Exemplarity, Celebrity
The Burden of Celebrity
Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques
The Disfiguration

Chapter 6 - The Power of Celebrity
A Fashion Victim?
Revolutionary Popularity
The President is a Great Man
Sunset Island

Chapter 7 - Romanticism and Celebrity
Prestige and obligations
Women Seduced and Public Women
Celebrity in America
Democratic Popularity and Popular Sovereignty
“Celebrities of the Hour”
Towards a New Age of Celebrity
Postface to the English edition
Illustration credits
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Author Information

Antoine Lilti is Professor of History at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and former editor-in-chief of the journal Annales

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“Lilti’s achievement is highly impressive. He provides a new perspective on the transformations of Western culture in the age of revolutions, and on the genesis of modern notions of selfhood and personal authenticity. And he reminds us that even as we laugh at contemporary celebrity culture, we need to take it seriously, and not merely as an excrescence or a pathology, but as a constituent element of political and cultural modernity.”
David A. Bell, Princeton University

“With The Invention of Celebrity, Antoine Lilti has established himself as one of the most significant and talented historians of eighteenth-century France…It is an imaginative study, at once audacious and theoretically grounded, that establishes celebrity as an object of historical analysis and lays the groundwork for further studies of the phenomenon.”
Colin Jones, Queen Mary University of London

"Exhaustively researched, with in-depth analysis, this book is not a light read, but is definitely an interesting read for those who have more than a passing curiosity for the history behind the rise of 'celebrity.'"
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Literary Review

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