Celebrity: What Kylie and Universities Have in Common?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported on Anglia Ruskin University's decision to grant an honorary doctorate to the singer Kylie Minogue, in recognition for her raising of cancer awareness. The trouble is...she did not actually do anything.

The logic of the ARU, located in Essex in England, seemed to go something like this: 

1) Kylie suffered from breast cancer;

2) Kylie is a celebrity;

3) Her celebrity status combined with her suffering from cancer caused the general public to be more aware of cancer and get cancer screening therefore;

4) Kylie raised breast cancer awareness.

The oddity of the granting of the honorary doctorate was not lost on Kylie herself, who was quoted in the report as saying that the award was "...an awkward one because it is being praised for something that I didn't intentionally do". Nonetheless, the singer bravely surged through the adversity of awkwardness, accepted the award, and provided an oddly incisive insight into the nature of University's actions by declaring the award a "gorgeous honour".

An interesting topic of discussion can emerge from a discussion thread on Facebook in response to the report, where those who questioned the wisdom of the decision by ARU were accused of a callous insensitivity to those who suffer breast cancer. A more interesting point that emerges from this, however, is the observation that the University has now changed from a shaper of culture to merely an extension of popular culture. 

As universities see dwindling public funding and becoming more dependent on private sources of finance, they start to take on the logic of the consumer market. More specifically, as more and more economic players start to regard the cult of celebrity as a cultural good, institutions of higher learning also begin to sense a "need" to increase their public profile not by advertising their programs, but by associating themselves with celebrity.

The Christian engaged in intellectual work must take note of stories like this, for if the contemporary university is recognised to be deeply immersed in and an extension of culture, then a new "university culture" has to be developed around the formal institutions of the university itself. To paraphrase James KA Smith's observation in Desiring the Kingdom, one cannot be solely reliant on the head-knowledge transmitted in the classroom as a way to change the institutions powerful and crassly consumerist cultural surroundings.

A new cultural imaginary, one that Smith identifies to be fundamentally liturgical, needs to be formed, since it is liturgy and not merely ideas that shape visions of another world, another alternative to the status quo, alternatives that reach for the body and heart as well as the head. These imaginaries, in leaving their mark on our bodies and hearts, form the sociological backdrop that in turn chart the course our heads will take.

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