Wave of Imitation

Curator's Note

There has always been a certain paradox at the heart of modern media celebrity. That is, in order to become a distinctive media personality one needed to display idiosyncratic mannerisms that in turn, made one easily imitable. In fact, professional mimics helped to ratify, circulate and even construct celebrity status. Celebrity impressionists represented an emergent “comedy of personality” based on the imitation of specific individuals that to some degree replaced an earlier comic tradition of racial and ethnic caricature. Though often held by critics to be a lesser form of acting, doing impressions has been an important gateway into show business and an effective way for amateur entertainers to establish a quick and easy rapport with media-savvy audiences. Online video providers are altering the dynamics of celebrity imitation by allowing amateur recitations of film dialogue and imitations of media personalities to be easily distributed, discussed and assessed by a wide audience. What has tended to be viewed as peripheral practices surrounding a media text are now becoming media texts in their own right. Online impressionist videos often feature young men who perform a dizzying array of imitations in a limited period of time (“100 impressions in under 5 minutes”). Besides a display of male vocal mastery, such videos feel like a purgation of the myriad media personalities that we encounter and whose voices and mannerisms have been carefully constructed to capture our attention and invite imitation. We might note the prevalence of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” in the online repertoire, an indication of how ethnic caricature has continued in the “comedy of personality.” The sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who based his notion of social action on dynamics of imitation, imagined that with “the lessening of distances through more rapid means of locomotion,” the transmission of innovative behaviours through social imitation would be “almost instantaneous, like the propagation of a wave in a perfectly elastic medium.” Writing in the 1890s, Tarde asserted that modern society was “approaching this strange ideal.” How will the Internet – a particularly “elastic” medium of social communication – alter the configuration of celebrity, imitation, and audience?

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