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Confessions of an H-List Celebrity

HOn my better days, I like to flatter myself with my celebrity status. But at the same time, I’m acutely aware that I have about the lowest grade of celebrity that could be imagined. A good friend and I used to joke that we didn’t want to be rich and famous, we just wanted to be well-off and well-known. In many respects, I feel I have achieved this, although I am quite certain that my family and friends, and the communities around me, are more important than either money or recognition, both of which distort our understanding of what truly matters.

For some time now, I’ve assessed fame with a quantitative measure known as the Lupe, after Lupe Vélez – the silent film star who rather unfortunately is now most famous for having drowned in a toilet. The fame of any person is calculated by estimating the number of people who recognise them as a celebrity, and then taking its base ten logarithm (i.e. counting the number of zeros in the resulting number). So, for instance, if someone was known by everyone on the planet, their fame would be 9.8 Lupes (log 10 of 7 billion). A-list celebrities are known by more than a billion people and thus have fame scores of 9 Lupes or more. Then I rank the other lists at 1 Lupe apart. B-listers known by hundreds of millions of people, C-listers by tens of millions, D’s at a million, E’s at a hundred thousand, F’s at ten thousand, G’s at a thousand. Then come the H’s at a hundred.

Somewhere between five hundred and a hundred is my best estimate of the number of people who think of me as a celebrity, so I have a fame score of about 2.5. This is about as low as you can go and still defend a tenuous claim to celebrity. Of course, I’ve worked on million selling games – but no-one thinks of me as a celebrity for these, or even thinks about my involvement with them at all, so they don’t contribute to my score. My celebrity status, such as it is – clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder of fame – is based entirely upon fans of Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, both of which were critical successes and commercial failures, my how-to books like Game Writing, and my work in game studies and philosophy. While I have built a great rep as a speaker over the years, there’s really very little I can do at this point to raise my fame score. This is about as famous as I’m likely to get.

The trouble with thinking, even for a second, that one is a celebrity is that it goes to your head. And the more pathetic your claim to fame, the more ridiculous this pomposity is, for celebrities are wildly unimportant people except for their celebrity, and so when you think of yourself this way it becomes vital to be celebrated. So you come to depend upon things like national radio spots and keynote addresses to justify your self-worth because you become deluded into thinking that your value lies in your celebrity and not in your personality, which is an insanity so prevalent it could even be called normal.

Keynotes are my Achilles heel. I’ve been getting gigs like this for over a decade now – but with such a miniscule fanbase, there are only so many opportunities. Each event is only going to invite you to keynote once, since that’s the way this concept works, so you’re dealing with a certain degree of diminishing returns. But when you have a year where you get two keynotes, getting none the following year makes you feel washed up – even though you can hardly be ‘washed up’ when your notoriety consists of hanging precariously at the bottom of the ladder of fame. You end up in a psychological oubliette – you can’t get by without the reassuring strokes that remind you that you did some things that people once thought were worthwhile.

Fame, it has been said, is a trap. To be really famous – to be at least halfway up the ladder – is to give up your privacy in return for both money and recognition, and at a certain point your privacy is permanently compromised and can never be restored to you. Later, as interest in you wanes, you trade some of the respect that people have for you into money by endorsing commercial products, a kind of contemporary Faustian bargain that diminishes one’s soul through mortgaging your self-respect to make ends meet. No-one who had understood fame could truly want to have it, although certainly there are those who crave the power that comes with fame. Politics in the United States has become infested with such people, and they can never be good politicians because they cannot possibly relate to their electorate as equals.

Every now and then a guilty reverie whisks me away and I imagine that perhaps my work in philosophy will be famous after my death – after all, what philosopher achieved fame in their own lifetime? But I know this is not the way of things today, and that anyway, the work I am doing is of the wrong kind to have a long-term impact. Let’s be frank: no-one would sanely pursue philosophy for fame, it would be a colossal non-starter. And anyway, the reason I practice philosophy isn’t to gain celebrity – that would be counter-productive. I just do it because it’s what I feel compelled to do; it’s a rare use of my talents that doesn’t feel wasted.

So here I am, an H-list celebrity, grateful that I did not achieve any serious measure of fame – since it would have driven me even more insane than I already am – but still pathetically longing for the recognition of my skills and achievements in an endless ongoing cavalcade of vanity. I can laugh about it. But it still sets off my depression from time to time, which is silly, really, because if I had never possessed any degree of celebrity there would have been nothing to miss; no reason to question inadequacies arising solely from a perception of status that philosophically can only be undeserved.

But let me let you in on a secret… I like it here on the bottom rung. I like being asked to come and give talks and keynotes, I like occasionally getting to talk on the radio, I like that I once got to see an interview with me up on a huge screen in a games industry conference in London. In short, I like having tasted the amuse-bouche of fame, even if the entrée and desert is forever off the menu. I like the fact that I can pretend to be famous without giving up any of my privacy. I like being an H-list celebrity. I just can’t help thinking that I shouldn’t.

The Seduction of Facts

BHJ0XPWho doesn’t love a good fact? There is an entire genre of games dedicated to our ability to recall them, aptly entitled ‘trivia contests’ in English. Setting this form up in a box led to one of the most successful boardgames of all time, Trivial Pursuit, while dramatising the agonising uncertainties in the face of such questions gave rise to one of the most successful TV game shows of all time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly, we love facts. So what could be dangerous about them?

I have previously made the case that understanding facts as knowledge is misleading since all facts are the residue of the practices that produced and justified them, and further that it is better to understand knowledge as a practice, or rather, a collection of practices. Nothing in this arrangement gives us reasons to be suspicious of facts, since all I’ve done is change the context for understanding what a fact is, and cast doubt that someone who can repeat facts (who has ‘general knowledge’) is genuinely in possession of something that could be justifiably termed ‘knowledge’. Yet there is something significantly misleading about our love of facts whenever it emerges in a political context: facts are invoked as a means of ending discussion, and this is toxic to politics.

The problem is so subtle it would be easy to miss it, and rests with the way we have constructed the relationship between politics and the sciences, a topic repeatedly explored by Bruno Latour. Democratic politics, in the sense of the political practices of the ancient Greeks, was about every citizen having a chance to be heard and decisions being made in a manner that renders everyone equal. Contemporary democracy, needless to say, offers neither of these things. We vote for a representative based upon geographical criteria, and every citizen has the opportunity to speak, but only the famous or those accredited as experts have a chance to be heard, since we have largely eliminated public debate and replaced it with the circus of the abnormal we call ‘news’.

What facts offer to contemporary government is a means of circumventing politics, because where ‘the facts are known’ there is no need for discussion – or so the standing policy goes. This is a tremendously convenient state of affairs for politicians, because they do not need to engage in politics at all (at least, not with the electorate) whenever they have a convenient fact at hand to short circuit any discussions. To make matters worse, those in opposition feel compelled to act as if politics were only a matter of establishing the correct facts, and not about discussing the meaning of those facts, let alone taking into account the practices involved in producing facts in the first place.

Facts are seductive because they remove the need to think, or to talk, about anything. The policy conflicts over climate change circumvent any actual political discussion since it has been reduced to a simple ‘battle for the facts’: either human activity has tangibly affected the global climate (fact!) or climate researchers have misrepresented the data (fact!). It’s facts versus facts in the arena of public derision, and nobody seems to be quite aware how the focus on ‘which facts are true’ removes any productive discussion on the topic. We have successfully managed to turn politics into a game show, a sport – and the news, in its commitment to ignoring the familiar and reporting only the unusual, facilitates this narrowing of vision.

As someone who feels very strongly about our worrying relationship to our own world, I’ve spent a decade watching on in horror as ‘climate change’ replaces ‘global warming’ as a means of reinforcing a partisan conflict that is hugely effective at blocking any discussion of the problems of human exploitation of limited resources. To make climate change the issue is to pick out one conflict over the facts and fail to have a discussion about the interrelation of dozens of issues, such as fires in Indonesia that only Al Jazeera paid significant attention to, or the shocking rate of extinctions in our time, which doesn’t even qualify as news any more because it’s all-too-familiar.

I have suggested that part of this problem comes from continuing to think, as Plato did, about a single real world, when the vast range of knowledge-practices might better be understood as a multiverse, as many real worlds that overlap. Facts, in this understanding (the products of objective knowledge-practices), are what can be stabilised between these worlds, whether through the tremendous work of scientists to produce apparatus that resist objections, or though the deductive work of historians, forensic police, and many more practices besides.

Yet the meaning of facts is not objective knowledge, and never can be so. That ‘smoking causes cancer’ is not a reason to stop smoking in itself; you have to start bringing in moral judgements about death, or life expectancy, or perhaps economic judgements about healthcare spending before this fact acquires so specific a meaning. These meanings are not ‘mere opinions’ that the facts can simply brush aside. The vast open spaces of meaning are something we have to negotiate for ourselves, both individually and collectively, and this process is utterly separate from those practices that give rise to the facts. Part of this negotiation of meaning is what is, or should be, called politics.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I am against facts, that they don’t matter to me, or that I want to make all facts entirely relative. But I am actually intensely serious about factual knowledge, for all that I recognise that it is often, as the phrase ‘trivia’ implies, trivial. It annoys me when my son’s picture book mislabels a newt as a lizard, or his book about sea creatures has a picture of a red-eared terrapin, which only lives in fresh water. They got the facts wrong, and that bothers me. But it bothers me far more that we get politics wrong by thinking it is a solely a question of establishing the facts. The facts by themselves aren’t enough: we need to establish the meaning of the facts. And that is something that cannot be done on our behalf; we must do it ourselves.