The Fame Machine


John Tresch considers the technologies of fame from Gilgamesh to Facebook @ Lapham's Quarterly. "The Fame Machine,” a brief satire included in French author Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s collection of 1883, Cruel Tales, asks in precise, concrete terms just what celebrity is. Fame—or “la gloire” in the original, which means glory and renown, as well as the halo surrounding an image of Christ’s head—is a vague and vaporous notion, a sort of smoke that emanates from truly sublime works and individuals. The narrator of Villiers’ tale offers the steam engine as proof that elusive and vaporous phenomena can be put to work with very palpable effects. Thus even theatrical success can be reduced to its material components—applause, cheers, stamping feet, sighs, gasps, and well-timed devotional bouquets, as well as the barely stifled guffaw sparking the eruption of laughter and the “wow-ow,” the resonating cascade of bravos launched in close succession.

Although the claque, or paid troop of applauders, is an unshakable institution in the nineteenth-century Parisian theater, its work, paid for by the performance, is too unpredictable and piecemeal for an age that demands certainty and uniform efficiency.

The hero of the tale, engineer Bathybius Bottom, is an inventor and true devotee of the arts, willing to transform, for a price, any theater into a fame machine. No longer will the success of a play be left to chance or to the incompetence of a hired stooge who might miss his cues, laughing at a tragic turn or cheering the villain. At the flipping of a switch, artificial hands flutter gratifyingly together; the legs of the seats lift and strike the ground in exact imitation of appreciative canes and walking sticks; the cherubim adorning the loges and the proscenium reveal themselves to be no mere ornament but rather lung-sized bellows calling out their approval of the author and the actors, confirming the artwork’s sanctification. The machine also can be directed to plant favorable reviews in the press, and if for some reason a negative response is demanded, it will hiss, boo, and make catcalls. Controlled by an operator who must be above any personal interest, Dr. Bottom’s invention transforms the entire theater into a machine for producing glory: a material apparatus that brings about spiritual effects.

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