Fifteen Minutes of Capitalist Ideology

A fair number of absurd “sayings” show up on my long list of things that piss me off, since I hate it when people uncritically repeat questionable expressions and phrases. In a TV criticism class I teach, for example, I warn students never to describe Seinfeld as a “show about nothing” in my presence. Total marketing bullshit. People repeat that idiotic phrase about the show as if they’re providing some deep insight. They might as well run about telling people “Coke is it!” and “You’re in good hands with Allstate!” Count me among those who find Larry David immensely talented, but Seinfeld can be described a heck of a lot of ways, and a “show about nothing” would not make any considered list. Indeed, one might propose that to use that phrase ? “slogan” is a better word ? demonstrates a desperate need for some reeducation.

Tops on my “slogans that piss me off,” though, has to be this “15 minutes of fame.” I’d add “nonsense” to the end if the phrase itself were not such a clear product of capitalist ideology. While I’m well aware that plenty of people propose, offer, and debate what it “means,” I’d maintain that what it “means” is largely irrelevant. Use is what matters. And its use works to support some problematic if not disgusting aspects of the world, masking and erasing far more than it describes.

Let’s get this straight, since I think it helps bring to the surface what’s at stake: You ? and everyone else ? would need to live for at least 8600 years to simply “meet” everyone in the U.S. for 15 minutes. That’s without sleeping. I’d probably be grumpy by the 100th person. So if I arranged four people at a clip, it would still take 2150 years. Given that it is unlikely I’ll reach an age of 150, even though, like Woody Allen, I’d simply prefer not to die, I can safely cross meeting everyone in the U.S. off my “to-do.”

“But, Paul, you’re the idiot. The whole 15 minutes does not mean that everyone will actually be known ? famous ? for some period of time. It means that anyone can be known and famous in our hypermedia world.”

While I can’t dispute that I’m an idiot, I will emphasize that the whole notion ? conception ? that “fame” just occurs, that “anyone” can get noticed is indeed the problem itself here. How do people get known or famous? By what form of magic does this all happen? Is it not plainly obvious that it’s certain kinds of people and events that get noticed or famous? Is it really “anyone?”

Over the past few days, Ted Williams, a once-homeless man with a “voice made for broadcasting” has been the latest “feel good” news story and evidence of the brilliant power of our current media ecology. A YouTube video made a panhandler famous and provided the means for a new life. He went from holding a sign on the side of the street to a bevy of eager employers. See?

Wonderful for Ted Williams, but we’re filling ourselves up with a heck of a lot of bullshit here. I’ve long loathed this idea that everyone has some special “talent” because it is capitalist propaganda (“Don’t worry about your state. You just need to find your own god-given talent, dear.”), and this whole story has largely been presented as fame and media productively saving someone with a worthy contribution to society. Thank god for his commercially familiar radio voice! Most of all, we are encouraged to pat ourselves on the back for watching and therefore supporting this guy. Our notice got him famous and you can feel like you’ve performed a civic activity. Isn’t new media sublime? See how this all works? Problems solved.

I’m sure there are people jokingly to seriously suggesting homeless people should get a YouTube account and promote their own talents. And while it is obvious that this kind of story ? sudden rags to riches ? is one the old capitalists love to tell again and again (you might be next!), there is some even deeper ideological work going on here. “15 minutes of fame” isn’t a description of the world as much as it is itself a worldview. Wanting to present the world as a natural given, with magical order, capitalism seeks to promote and align itself with views that ignore the grinding wheels behind the scenes and those people who make it all happen. 15 minutes reproduces this. It presents a world driven by some socially abstract form of “media.” It is also presented as a kind of hip and “smart” piece of “information.” You never have to tell people to “look away” because they’re intently looking in the wrong spot.

Paul Myron Hillier is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Tampa. He can be reached at

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