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The Making of Status through Performances

The approach I have adopted in this research comes close to the analytical distinction made by Agamben (2011) between oikonomia and theology, between operative administration and ceremonies. Agamben says that hierarchy is an essential activity of government (Agamben 2011, 152-3), originating in the celestial hierarchy of angels which became the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Christian Church, from which it was appropriated by secular governments. This was a case of transforming the mysterium into a ministerium and the ministerium into a mysterium. Agamben thus emphasizes the merger of operative government with the theological, presenting itself in glorious ceremonies. However, these ceremonies do not glorify the hierarchy as such or as a whole, but those who occupy the highest government offices. Monarchs did not only do their share at the top of state administration, but they took part in a variety of performances that were arranged in their honour. All this may sound inconceivable to people today who have become estranged from celestial and ecclesiastical matters, but as I have shown in this book, the legacy of this mysterious has been passed on to the present, albeit in other contexts.

The splendour of ceremonies was needed to make clear who was at the apex of the hierarchical order of government offices. The performances had to be congruent with the hierarchical order. Equivalence therefore was an extremely important aspect of performances, presuming that rulers should be glorified more than the nobility, the other essential part of state administration. And indeed this was what happened in Europe until the nineteenth century. At that time, new social segments emerged and created their own status hierarchies in the same vein as offices in state government were organized into a hierarchical order. The most prominent social segment of this kind were the owners of family firms—or more generally, entrepreneurs. At the top of their hierarchy were entrepreneurial dynasties, who did not hesitate to assume the ancient performances that have glorified those at the top. By emulating the aristocracy’s way of life, opulent entrepreneurial dynasties performed their high standing. They greatly esteemed dynasticity, the very essence of royalty and the nobility, by bequeathing their empires to their eldest sons, assuming that primogeniture would continue in the family in successive generations. Their palaces were just as fine and colossal as those of the aristocracy, and many tycoons behaved like feudal lords and found themselves as heirs of barons. Their names were known to all, and an aura of grandeur followed them everywhere.

Another social segment that experienced social upgrading in the nineteenth century was that of artists, but they profiled their social rise differently from entrepreneurial dynasties. The most prominent artists, those who were upgraded to the apex of the artist status hierarchy, were less excessive in their performances of high standing—not least because they rarely earned very much money from their works of art. More importantly, however, the avant-garde group of artists at least did not give much value to the conventions of the nobility, in contrast to tycoons. Yet they created an aristocracy of their own (Annan 1990, 87), one that was shaped by their way of life. In their acclamation of freedom, avant-garde artists made themselves socially as exclusive as the aristocracy had been when performing their unique status.

In the wake of artists, creative performers began to proliferate in different fields, and they too were organized into a hierarchical order in which a tiny echelon of the highest rank was most distinctive. These performers acted and still act in different domains of the arts and sports—they are actors and film stars, singers and musicians, tennis players and golfers, footballers and ice-hockey and basketball players and Formula 1 drivers. They are worshipped like kings were worshipped before them. They are winners who earn most of the acclamation. As Agamben (2011, 169) remarks, acclamation is accompanied by the gesture of raising hands, which is often ritually repeated. This is something we see in all large concerts and competitions, on TV if we are not in the position to attend them live. In the case of every acclamation, its effect and function are more important than the comprehension of its meaning (Agamben 2011, 192); nor is it important to know that the roots of ritualistic acclamation are in the distant past and originate from entirely different contexts. Agamben (2011, 253-6) emphasizes that even though the essential political function of glory appears to have declined, acclamations are still ubiquitous.

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