Inspired by the ROM’s current celebrity theme, the fourth annual Eva Holtby Lecture provided a springboard for provocative analysis. In “Celebrity in Contemporary Culture,” Lewis Lapham, the celebrated American thinker, writer, and editor extraordinaire, offered a witty academic spin on the decidedly superficial phenomenon.

The popular October 28 event filled the Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre to capacity. Eager viewers streamed into the overflow rooms to watch the event on CCTV.

Lapham’s Quarterly, a pastiche of essays, literature, and historical texts, expounds the theory that everything happening now has happened before. He launched his speech with that idea in mind, likening celebrities to Greek gods; they enter into Faustian agreements in return for publicity and our ready consumption.

“We are not talking about human beings,” he said, “but golden masks.”

He counterbalanced evocations from antiquity with examples ripped from political and pop culture headlines, running the gamut from Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson to Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.

Lapham drew on sage insights from Marshall McLuhan. In the electronic age, “names take precedence over things. It is the subject transformed into object. It is the actor, not the act.”

The panel discussion featured Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson, actor Don McKellar, and Ryerson film professor Murray Pomerance. Few of their topics engaged Lapham.

An attendee hoping to brownnose his way into Lapham’s favour declared that he would not pay to see Britney Spears, but would have happily done so for Lapham. He asked Lapham about his own celebrity.

Lapham shirks away from his status. “You have a great deal of freedom when you’re anonymous,” he replied. “When you become something of a commodity, you can’t change your mind as much as I do.”

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