Jun 022007

“There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Does this hold? What does it have to do with attention. How does it relate to being an object rather than a subject?

Starting out in life, as an infant, everyone absolutely requires attention, and almost all infants show signs of wanting it. If, later in life, some people prefer to be absolutely ignored, that can usually be taken as a sign of severe mental illness, possibly resulting from trauma such as repeated humiliation, beatings, or other abuse, and so on. Indeed, very few want to be laughed at, insulted, spat upon, bullied, manhandled, imprisoned, enslaved, raped, tortured, murdered, eaten (whether by cannibals or wild animals) or otherwise injured either in self-image or body.

Given a choice, people clearly would want their wants to be fulfilled, which is one main reason to want attention. One wants attention as a thinking, autonomous subject, and not as simply some kind of physical object, to be used or abused by others.

Yet being ignored can often seem worse than being laughed at or derided, or mildly punished. A schoolteacher might be the first punisher, who, by these very acts becomes an oppressor against whom resistance can perhaps be construed by some onlookers or fellow sufferers as heroic. From there, it is only a matter of degree to accepting or even reveling in even worse treatment (say, by the “authorities”) . Being locked up in jail can seem a form of proof of worth that should garner attention and respect. So can many other ways of turning oneself into what some would deride or disdain, whether by joining something like the “Goth” subculture, appearing as a slut or a drug dealer, or even going down in a gun battle with police “in a blaze  of (hoped for) glory. Or maybe just pretending to some of that.

Of course, as in more positive forms of attention seeking, one has to stand out to get any substantial notice. Mass murderers, serial killers and the like, daring daylight bank robbers, daredevils of all sorts have to perform more strikingly than the previous case to get much press   or appear on the nightly news.

An exception is for someone who is already a star. The movie star Lindsay Lohan, just 20, recently was cited for drunk driving, having crashed her Mercedes. Excess drinking  is of course not a very unusual event among her age group, despite the fact that age 20 she is too young to do this legally. As is by now the time-honored custom in Hollywood, she quickly enrolled in some live-in rehabilitation program.

Meanwhile People and similar magazines, websites, and blogs clucked away. Were Lohan unknown, such clucking would get little attention, but given that she does get attention, simply by acting superior to her, the gossips themselves can win attention from anyone who is capable of schadenfreude — the enjoyment of a fall from grace by someone else. Even Lindsay’s fans will want to know all the details, whether they feel protective or like disappointed parents. Most of her fans, I suspect, will think little of it however, and might even enjoy her ability to act like a normal, vulnerable young woman. When she comes out of rehabilitation, she can add, as it were, a small additional starring role —overcoming adversity — just like numerous stars before her. She has revealed her humanity and yet been able to rise again, turned into a momentary object and then once again risen to the status of self-acting subject, once akin in control and thus admirable.

One act of public drunkenness and then redemption, of course, does little, even for a star, though it probably helps more than it hurts. It would also work, perhaps better still, to go through more self-abasement, more drunkenness, multiple degradations and then, some kind of rise. She could the come put with a memoir or confession of that horrible time, so that anyone who feels less than wonderful about themselves will be able to align with this. If one has indeed fallen deep enough and then finds some way to tell the world, that alone might propel one to stardom.

Let me add that in discussing these various instances of bad behavior I am merely trying to understand how they work. I certainly do not endorse them, nor do I think that anyone is better off for such sliding into the depths. But given that attention is intrinsically limited, we must face the fact that inevitably some who feel left out, or who blunder into these things, such as Lohan, presumably, will take what advantage of them they can. Had we a press, along with reporters and bloggers, that did not attempt to gain attention through other people’s bad acts (even terrorism) this would not be a path to attention for the perpetrators either.

  2 Responses to “Is there "Bad" Attention”

  1. I suspect what you are pointing to is that the (meta) physics behind “any attention is good attention” does not hold. The reason it does not hold– especially for ordinary people wanting to advance their careers, but also for ordinary people just wanting to get along with others– is that one of the truly “magical” qualities of attention is that what we put our attention on, grows. So if a star (or the neighbor girl) draws attention to herself through public drunkenness, or whatever, then such attention tends to grow. This is what reporters (and neighbors) will look for, seek out, as opposed to other behaviors. Gerald Ford tripped once or twice in front of reporters. This man who was actually quite graceful and coordinated thereby gained a reputation for clumsiness that lasted for years and years. It’s what the reporters looked for– and thus found.
    Same holds true in our homes. If our kid gets attention– just one time– for beating up the kid down the block, or stealing his bike, and we keep our attention focused here, if too much attention is attached to the incident, then both the kid and the parent will continue to look for tendencies toward violence and thievery. And what we look for, we find.
    So attention for “negative” behavior can in fact spiral out of control. What we put our attention on, grows. So any attention is NOT good attention, right? Because such tightly framed attention (you’re clumsy, you’re a drunk) diminishes the quality of our future currency, yes?

  2. […] has an excellent post in which he asks whether or not there is a such thing as ‘bad attention’. Here are some […]

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