I miss Kurt Vonnegut. His way of poking sharp pins into social illusions produced such satisfying deflationary hisses. Now we are all puffed up, and who will let the hot air out?
The other day I was standing in the checkout line at the drugstore. Suddenly, the woman in front of me began speaking loudly, admonishing someone. “No!” she exclaimed. “It’s too soon! Don’t do it!” Her face was dead serious, her distress palpable.
Since she appeared to be all alone, I assumed it was one of those cellphone moments. I snuck a glance, but I couldn’t see any sign of a phone. Then I realized the “friend” she addressed was super-celebrity Britney Spears, whose face was plastered across the cover of a gossip rag, just above a headline alluding to her little sister’s pregnancy. The woman who cried out feared the stress would be too much for Britney, already suffering from too many meltdowns.
It scared me a little, this passionate address to a tabloid photo. I looked around, hoping to make the kind of eye contact that said “That was a little odd, wasn’t it?” But none of my fellows in the queue seemed to find it disturbing. Why did I?
For his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut invented a religion—Bokonism—with some core concepts that entered the cultural vocabulary. One of these was karass: “We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon.”
In contrast, a false karass is a granfalloon—an affinity group that is “meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.” (Vonnegut cites Hoosiers, “the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electic Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere.”)
When people’s relationship with Britney Spears takes on the appearance of urgent reality, complete with heartfelt warnings to a two-dimensional simulacrum of the pop singer, we are deep in granfalloon territory, and I start looking for the escape hatch.
We hear a lot of alarm about America’s celebrity-transfixed culture, but what is the danger? For the type of social manipulation it represents, here’s actually a name taken from Vonnegut: the granfalloon technique, described (if not named) by social psychologist Henri Tajfel:
The granfalloon technique is a method of persuasion in which individuals are encouraged to identify with a particular granfalloon or social group. The pressure to identify with a group is meant as a method of securing the individual’s loyalty and commitment through adoption of the groups symbols, rituals, and beliefs. In social psychology the concept stems from research by the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel. Tajfel’s findings have come to be known as the minimum group paradigm. In his research Tajfel found that strangers would form groups on the basis of completely inconsequential criteria. In one study Tajfel subjects were asked to watch a coin toss. They were then designated to a particular group based on the whether the coin landed on heads or tails. The subjects placed in groups based on such meaningless associations between them have consistently been found to “act as if those sharing the meaningless labels were kin or close friends.”
Much of Tajfel’s work focused on prejudice (he was born in Poland, lost his family in the Holocaust, emigrated to England and taught at Bristol University for the rest of his life), and that is the underlying problem here: the hunger for connection makes people pliant and susceptible to false loyalties. In extreme situations, they fall into the granfalloon of skinheads or gay-bashers. That is easy to see, and easy to fear. But in the virtual granfalloon of Friends of Britney, the identification and association are imaginary. I think that makes it even more creepy, as the feeling of belonging runs all one way, projected from the woman in the checkout line to the unseeing object of her affections.
In a society so shaped by markets as ours, the resulting prejudice is more subtle: permanent longing, internalizing the idea that one’s life has meaning only in the reflected light of celebrity. Human desire for connection is channeled into identification with, in essence, a marketable product. It’s not just Spears’ music that draws dollars, but the countless publications, the new beauty products and articles of clothing, the jewels and cunning little dogs, and all the items advertised between segments of tabloid TV shows devoted to her cult.
Tis the season for overreaction to commercialism, so I’m probably letting my response run away with me. Since Britney’s granfalloon is so massive, I think it suggests I’ve been a bit sheltered. But honestly, it gave me the chills.