The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 16, No 1 (2012)

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Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

Demons and Demos: Voldemort, Democracy and Celebrity Culture

Saradindu Bhattacharya

Saradindu Bhattacharya is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India. He is working towards a doctoral thesis on contemporary representations of the Holocaust across various genres and media. He has recently published an essay on 9/11 memorial websites in the Journal of Creative Communications. His research interests are new media, trauma studies, popular culture and children's literature.

What could be more appropriate fodder for a piece on the culture of celebrity than the world of Harry Potter? In our first issue of 2012, Saradindu Bhattacharya tackles celebrity culture as embodied in the person of one, who, ironically, must-not-be-named: Voldemort. Moving deep into the layers of celebrity cultures in the academy, the world, and the world of the novels, Bhattacharya takes an intriguing, timely, and surprising position: it is less an inherently evil nature of the individual and more the inherently social — perhaps panoptic — nature of the world into which Voldemort enters that result in the wizard’s criminal notoriety.
Caroline Jones, editor
- Alice's Academy


This essay examines the magical world presented in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books through the interpretive lens of contemporary celebrity culture studies. While the Harry Potter series, like its literary antecedents in the domain of fantasy fiction for young adults, employs a morality play of Good vs. Evil as its central theme, it departs from tradition in that the alternative world of magic it depicts mimics the hierarchical power structures on which modern “Muggle” societies are founded. I argue that the culture of celebrity, as represented in the series, is both a symptom and an index of the tensions caused by the socio-cultural inequalities that characterize the wizarding world of the books as much as they do modern democracies in “real” life. Theorists of celebrity culture like David Marshall and Chris Rojek trace the birth and evolution of the category of “celebrity” to the emergence of the system of capitalist democracy in the modern Western world. Both capitalism and democracy, in theory, place a premium on every individual's right to upward social mobility; in practice, however, both function by exalting only a few individuals (through principles of surplus and leadership respectively) and leveling the rest. In his study of contemporary cultures of fame, Marshall identifies the source of the celebrity's power in its “capacity to house conceptions of individuality and simultaneously to embody or help embody “collective configurations” of the social world” (xi-xii). He further points out: “The distinctive discursive quality of the celebrity is derived from its emergence from the twinned discourses of modernity: democracy and capitalism .... The term celebrity has come to embody the ambiguity of the public forms of subjectivity under [democratic] capitalism” (4). Rojek reiterates this “ambiguous” aspect of the modern celebrity when he observes, “The democratic ideal of being recognized as extraordinary, special or unique collides with the bureaucratic tendency to standardize and routinize existence” (149). The figure of the celebrity thus emerges in modern societies from differential social relations that cause certain individuals to accrue significantly greater material and cultural value/power than others. The celebrity figure becomes an object of public attention because s/he is perceived to embody possibilities of individual achievement; conversely, s/he also represents deviation from social norm insofar as their “achievements” are exceptional. The magical world of the Harry Potter books presents precisely such a “modern” social context in which certain “exceptional” characters emerge as celebrities and serve as popular loci for discourses and ideologies of the individual's place in democratic society.

It is useful to note here that Rowling deals with the issue of celebrity-hood directly in the books as part of her larger thematic concern with truth and appearance, most prominently through the character of Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. While Lockhart's characterization is meant to be a satiric take on the media frenzy and public adulation surrounding celebrities unworthy of their fame, Rowling does indicate, albeit through comic effect in the climax of the book, the potentially dangerous consequences of confusing a celebrity's public persona with their actual merit. In fact, from the outset, the series thematically deals with modern society's investment of cultural meaning and power in celebrity figures as a means of examining and critiquing the individual's position within the highly stratified class structure of the magical world. Not surprisingly, Harry assumes his name and fame as “The Boy Who Lived” by surviving and supplanting Voldemort's power, as it is conceived in the collective imagination of the wizarding community, irrespective of the (little known) fact that he had practically no role to play in the event. Even later, when he enters the magical world, Harry's fame precedes him wherever he goes and his actions are constantly interpreted within the light of his celebrity status, causing him embarrassment, confusion and even a sense of alienation as he progresses towards finally achieving the “heroic” feat that has always already been ascribed to him through popular discourse. Rowling explores the pitfalls of celebrity culture through the series by representing the increasingly critical manner in which Harry becomes a subject of public scrutiny and speculation. What begins in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as a somewhat amusing series of “stories” about Harry and his friends manufactured by Rita Skeeter takes on the serious shape of a vilification campaign against Harry and Dumbledore as the series progresses and Voldemort comes to wield administrative power over the official press, namely The Daily Prophet. An underground counter-campaign carried on by Harry's supporters through banned media outlets like The Quibbler and Potterwatch plays out the moral battle by attempting to integrate the forces of Good under the name of the heroic protagonist and offers what Nicholas Sheltrown identifies as a demonstration of “the role of media in the economy of ideas” (63). As Marshall points out, the celebrity functions as a cultural “sign” that “sheds its own subjectivity and individuality and becomes an organizational structure for conventionalized meaning” (56). Both Harry and Voldemort emerge as such celebrity “signs” because they are perceived to embody and symbolize, as prominent public figures, oppositional notions and values of individuality – the “heroic” versus the “villainous” – within the magical community. The world of the Harry Potter books is one in which the recognizably modern structures of social organization that lead to the emergence of celebrities and the mechanisms of media that enable celebrity reportage – what Rojek terms “cultural intermediaries” (10) – are already in place.

Current scholarship on the Harry Potter series has granted some attention to the issues of race and class by way of examining the discursive means, and the ideological implications thereof, through which power is distributed unevenly within the wizarding community. Critics like Elaine Ostry have detected a fundamental ideological contradiction in Rowling's worldview in the books and observed that she “wants to have her cake and eat it, too: to have Harry the fairy-tale hero born to greatness, and yet promote a social vision in which only merit counts” (93); similarly Farah Mendlesohn argues: “The structure of J.K. Rowling's books is predicated upon a status quo and a formal understanding of authority in which hierarchical structures are a given. What is at stake, and potentially vulnerable, is never the hierarchy itself, but only he who occupies its upper reaches” (181).  Such criticism essentially frames interpretation of the series in terms of its relative conservatism or radicalism. A few other critics have gone further ahead to explore the nature of the institutions of power that seek to define the limits of permissible individual agency within the books. Thus, Noel Chevalier observes that the moral battle between Harry and Voldemort is “set within a social and political context that repeatedly reveals the limitations of the very structures – education, law, government, and science – that enable the wizard world to function” (400); others like Karin Westman point out that “ideologies of difference, marked through the body, run beneath the democratic appearances of both the Muggle and wizarding worlds, forging a material bond between the two realms that extends beyond mere economic materialism and class prejudice” (312). Such critiques provide useful insights into the dynamics of class and ethnic hierarchies and relations within the Harry Potter books and illustrate the moral ambiguities inherent in the social structure of the magical world. However, an analysis of the culture of celebrity that permeates the fictional world of Harry Potter – an aspect of the series that has not yet received adequate critical attention – can lead us to a clearer understanding of the strategies and mechanisms of containing the tensions and contradictions that underlie any society based on differential relations of power. Not only is fame a useful index for measuring and judging a character, but the social structures and processes through which fame accrues to him/her also reveal the fundamentally paradoxical power of magic within the social context of the Harry Potter world. The issues of individual agency and social responsibility in the Harry Potter books can be fruitfully studied, beyond the paradigm of morality, as integrally related to the modern culture of celebrity insofar as it is a manifestation of the ways in which discourses of class and privilege are negotiated and reinforced in the series.

In this essay I demonstrate how the world of the Harry Potter books is structured and organized around certain prominent individual figures who emerge as celebrities and embody negotiations between popular discourses of the magical self and the normative limits to its expression within a social context. I focus specifically on the character of Voldemort because he stands as a limit case in terms of the implications of his (notorious) achievements for the wizarding community. Moreover, while the eponymous protagonist of the series has been the subject of much critical debate, the unnameable antagonist has barely received commentary. I argue that Voldemort's criminality and the consequent notoriety he attains are not so much a manifestation of inherent evil but a function of the social relations which provide the context for the interpretation of his actions. While popular reports about Voldemort frame and label his magical achievements explicitly in terms of discourses of transgression, the real threat that he poses to the wizarding community is at the level of the implicit ideology that seeks to restrict certain kinds of highly empowering magical practices. The popular branding of Voldemort's magic as “dark” or “evil” is an outward, discursive effect of the underlying anxiety about the potentially limitless power that magic can give an individual over his surroundings and thereby pose a threat to the existing structures of social organization. Voldemort's status as a villainous celebrity is, I contend, as much a manifestation of the magical community's need to set limits to individual achievement as it is a result of his own desire to realize in actual terms what magic theoretically promises. I demonstrate how celebrity culture operates within the series both as a function and a determinant of individual agency and social power, as well as reveals the tensions and paradoxes inherent in a social structure based on restricted and unequal access to the potentially infinite power of magic. In the following sections I discuss how Voldemort's celebrity persona functions as (1) a discursively constructed and circulated sign that purports to contain his transgressive evil but simultaneously also reveals its permeation across the magical community, and (2) an ideological counterpoint to Harry Potter's heroism and selflessness that exposes the contradictions built into the moral scheme on which the fictional world of the narrative is based. Reading Voldemort as a sign not only throws light on how he functions as a villainous celebrity personifying evil but also leads us to a discussion of how such a persona is constructed, circulated and appropriated, by himself and others within the series, to signify and realize varying, often contradictory, meanings of what it is to be magical. 


Towards the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry that Voldemort will try and find ways of returning to the magical world. However, as a matter of fact, Voldemort is always already present in this world, just as Harry is always already known to be the one who will bring about the final downfall of the "Dark Lord". Yet, Voldemort is introduced to Harry (as well as to readers) as a name rather than a character. "He Who Must Not Be Named" and "You Know Who" are pronominal expressions that not only serve as points of reference in the common parlance of the magical community but also denote a dreaded "persona" created mostly through rumour and speculation. Voldemort is characterized “almost entirely out of metonymy and memory” through most of the series (Chevalier 400). As the Dark Lord, he is always removed from the community that fears as well as obsesses about his power, and thereby fulfills the precondition of social distance that Rojek identifies as necessary for both celebrity and notoriety (12). No character in the series actually knows anything substantial about Voldemort, yet everybody in the magical world is familiar with the pseudonyms that are ascribed to him and shares a common cultural knowledge of what they signify. In this context, it is interesting to note that Paul Kooistra, in his study of American “Robin Hood” criminals, states that his “concern is not much with what the criminal actually did but with what people believed about him and how they asserted those beliefs to others” (11). Though Voldemort is not quite the Robin Hood figure that is the subject of Kooistra's study, the important point is that the construction of an (in)famous public persona in and through popular discourse is integral to the process of “celebritization”. Building on Kooistra's work, Ruth Penfold-Mounce explains the public fascination for criminal celebrities in terms of resonance, which is an “emotional response to an image without substance” (65) that can range from pleasurable consumption of the celebrity/criminality to fear and revulsion towards it. She argues that it is the criminal celebrity's ability to connect with the public as “a cipher, a pool of refracted symbols and images” (65) that evokes popular responses to him. The strong emotional response that Voldemort evokes from all members of the magical community (including his followers, who, with the possible exception of Bellatrix Lestrange, seem to dread his mysterious “dark” powers as much as anyone else) is indicative of the significance his image as a villain/criminal has to them in spite of his long absence from the wizarding world in an actual physical form and regardless of the non-availability of any verifiable information about him. Voldemort is thus a celebrity whose persona is constructed in the popular imagination of the magical community not through a recognition of his true identity but by means of a shared grammar of identification of his reputation as the darkest wizard in the magical world. Contrary to the usual way in which an information glut about a person reinforces their celebrity status, it is the scarcity of information about Voldemort that renders him mysterious, almost charismatic, and makes him a subject of constant reference and discussion. His heresy, which is his chief claim to (negative) fame, is based on hearsay; his status as a celebrity (from Latin celere, meaning "swift" and therefore suggesting currency) is a consequence of the constant circulation of his name in popular discourse. The generation and perpetuation of popular interest in a person(ality) is the precondition for celebrity; thus, the obscurity that surrounds Voldemort’s life makes it easy for the magical people to construct his image, through endless conjectures about his whereabouts and actions, in simplistic moral terms. Such popular appropriation of his name turns Voldemort into a sign that encompasses a set of negative values and confers upon him the status of a villainous celebrity.    

The linguistic strategy of distancing Voldemort through circumlocution gives the magical community a sense of immunity against his evil. So long as the labels “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who” can be appropriated as signs that contain Voldemort’s evil by keeping it at abeyance and yet in common currency, such a strategy works well. But the slightest disturbance caused to this carefully crafted conspiracy of speech leads to general hysteria. The shocked reactions Harry gets every time he utters the name “Voldemort” are instances of the effect of such a linguistic breach. We might also recall that Voldemort’s rise to power is followed by an all-pervasive feeling of mutual distrust within the magical community, both before the actual action of the books (as Harry is informed) and in the latter half of the series. It is fear of contamination from the evil Voldemort represents that makes his proximity to the magical community a source of such terror (GF 627). In fact, his followers, the Death Eaters, deliberately play upon this fear by displaying the “Dark Mark” at the Quidditch World Cup, substituting the commonly used euphemism with a dreaded sign and causing pandemonium (GF 107-29). Later, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Voldemort himself actively fuels this common fear of his name by making it magically “Taboo” (316). Evidently, we have here a celebrity who is perfectly aware of the ways in which his unique public image is constructed in popular discourse and is clever enough to manipulate this fearsome image to gain power over the collective imagination of a terrified populace. Though Voldemort is physically present on very rare occasions throughout the series, he is perpetually present as a sign, a name, a persona that exercises tremendous influence on the collective psyche of the magical community. His celebrity status is the effect of his discursive existence – both in the sense of being a part of popular discourse and of being dispersed and circulated incessantly as a sign within the field of cultural signification.

Voldemort's dark magic is of an unprecedented, unknown and unknowable nature; therefore, he is considered to stand, to use Dumbledore’s expression, beyond “usual evil” (HBP 469). His appeal to the popular imagination is independent of the question of moral approval of his actions. For instance, Mr Ollivander, the respectable wand-maker says, “He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great” (PS 65). For both his supporters and his opponents, then, Voldemort is accessible or knowable only as a persona or an image and not as a flesh-and-blood person, a condition that renders him suitable for becoming a celebrity, since he serves as a figure upon whom the general populace can inscribe the meanings they wish to, a sign that they can employ and circulate to signify what they most fear or admire. The circumlocution that most characters resort to in referring to Voldemort heightens, as Dumbledore rightly points out, their fear of him, but it also serves as a linguistic strategy to perpetuate the common belief that Voldemort’s evil is beyond the bounds of the “ordinary” or the “normal”, and is therefore unique. After all, Voldemort is preceded by other infamous dark wizards like Salazar Slytherin and Grindelwald, but it is the perceived uniqueness of his magic that puts him ahead of them and bestows upon him a villainous celebrity status that none can match. By ascribing to him a position of supremacy at the extreme end of a line of celebrity criminals, the magical community seeks to distance itself from the evil he supposedly embodies.

It is significant that while Harry is only an accidental celebrity insofar as his fame as "The Boy Who Lived" is concerned (his survival is, after all, more miraculous than magical), Voldemort actively seeks celebrity status within the magical community. While Harry, the heroic celebrity, retains his boy-next-door image till the very end in spite of his extraordinary destiny, Voldemort shuns every marker of ordinariness from the very beginning of his entry into the magical world in his pursuit of greatness. Raised in rather oppressive circumstances in a Muggle orphanage, Voldemort is acutely conscious, even as a child, of the special powers he possesses, of the fact that he is “different” from the rest of the kids on whom he uses his magic, and most significantly, that he can use this difference to wield violent power over others. As Rojek observes in his discussion of villainous celebrities, “The Use of violence may be interpreted as an act of revenge on society for not recognizing the extraordinary qualities of the individual” (146).  Though he is aware of the fact that “normal” people like the caretaker of the orphanage, Mrs Cole think that he is “funny”, he boldly suggests to Dumbledore that it is she who needs to be sent to an asylum (HBP 253-54). Perfectly capable of critiquing and even ridiculing ordinary definitions of normalcy, Voldemort appears to be impatient with all things mundane, including his own extremely common name “Tom”. His early and unusual interest in the darkest form of magic (involved in the creation of Horcruxes) indicates that even within the wizarding world, Voldemort is eager to push the limits of what an individual can achieve. Interpreted by Dumbledore and Harry as early symptoms of his ruthless ambition, these qualities can also be read as resulting from Voldemort's refusal to submit to the norms that govern ordinary creatures within the magical community and mark him out as a would-be celebrity.

Being unaware of his own parentage till late in his boyhood, Voldemort seeks to achieve greatness where he cannot inherit it. His obsession with acquiring traditional symbols of greatness – Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, Ravenclaw’s diadem, the Elder Wand – may be seen as his attempt to partake of the glamour and the prestige that a supposedly democratic society still associates with these vestiges of an older system of “ascribed” celebrity (Rojek 17). Caught in this social contradiction, Voldemort tries to create for himself an impeccably smooth graph of greatness by killing his own Muggle father, renaming himself and venturing farther than anybody else into the Dark Arts. Though Voldemort actively seeks to transgress the limitations that define him as “human” (the greatest of these being mortality) in his quest for extra-ordinariness, his inclinations are not unique within the magical world. In fact, Voldemort attains his notoriety precisely because he carries to an extreme end the everyday magical practices that are the norm within the wizarding community. His transgressions, insofar as they represent a deviation from norm, are inherent in his quest for greatness; as Rojek postulates, transgression is “intrinsic to celebrity, since to be a celebrity is to live outside conventional, ordinary life” (148). The seeds of these transgressions of ordinary laws of human existence are already present in this world: magicians “apparate”, “disapparate” and sometimes even “splinch”, disembodied spirits and even portraits move about in Hogwarts and communicate with teachers and students, magical hats talk and letters scream, bodies take different shapes under the influence of magical potions or the moon, and alien bodies walk into others’ mindscapes. Magical literature even admits the possibility, at least in theory, of overstepping the limitations of the human soul in the form of Horcruxes [1]. Perhaps most closely resembling Voldemort’s quest for immortality is the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone by Dumbledore and his friend Nicholas Flamel. Thus, Voldemort's actions and ambitions do not represent a break from the ways of life of the magical community; rather they are his own radical interpretation of the customs and practices of that world. In fact, even his persecution of Muggles and Mudbloods occurs only within a pre-existent social context of debates about the "purity" of blood and the necessity to safeguard the secrets of the magical world from non-magical people [2].

In an individualistic reworking of the Christian genesis and resurrection myths, Voldemort renames himself, mutilates his soul and reconstructs a composite body for himself. His quest for immortality is his refusal to be bound by the ordinary laws that govern human life, a good many of which are anyway broken by just about everybody in the magical world on an everyday basis. Voldemort’s most radical (and “inhuman”) experiment – the act of disintegrating his own soul – can be interpreted in this context as a logical culmination of the possibilities that magic holds [3]. His evil is perceived to be unique not because it is impossible in terms of magic but because it is wrong in terms of morality. It is therefore not the nature but the extent of his transgression that defines Voldemort’s extraordinary evil. He becomes a villainous celebrity only because he locates himself at the extreme end of a continuum of magic that no one dares to acknowledge. His evil, then, must be situated in his interpretation and practice of magic, which the magical community finds morally unacceptable but also awe-inspiring. It is at the intersection of public fear and fascination that Voldemort's celebrity is located. Therefore, Voldemort, the villainous celebrity circulates as a sign that draws its significance from ordinary practices of magic while simultaneously also testing the limits that define and distinguish "evil". Thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Voldemort's celebrity sign functions with relation to particular forms and practices of “knowledge” within the magical community. In the next section, I shall discuss how Voldemort's celebrity sign works in opposition to Harry's and explore the ideological issues such a conflict raises.


Voldemort's celebrity sign derives its narrative force from its opposition to another celebrity sign, Harry Potter, "The Boy Who Lived". In order to set Voldemort up as a perfect antithesis to Harry and the goodness he is meant to represent, Rowling characterizes the former as a criminal whose psyche must be understood by the heroic investigator, who is the latter. In a manner similar to the one commonly employed by psycho-pathologists, Dumbledore and Harry seek to reconstruct Voldemort’s identity by putting together bits and pieces of what are essentially only memories in Half-Blood Prince. (The Pensieve serves brilliantly here as an instance of magical technology put to the use of crime detection.) It is essential to look at this process of character re-construction, as it is brings to the fore the narrative strategy through which the reader's perspective on Voldemort's evil is created throughout the series and reveals the ideological stance implicit in sharing such a point of view. An examination of this narrative strategy alerts us to the fact that the very act of investigating Voldemort's past in order to comprehend his genesis into a villain/criminal is framed within the structure of celebrity culture as it operates in the series. Voldemort's public image, like Harry's, precedes and preconditions any interpretation of his actions; the narrative re-construction of his character is, therefore, implicated in the discursive processes through which he functions as a villainous celebrity within the magical world. In other words, the workings of celebrity culture in the wizarding world provide the interpretive context for even a preliminary understanding of notions of evil or criminality as perceived to be embodied by Voldemort. Dumbledore and Harry look remarkably like detectives who revisit scenes of past crimes and try to make sense of the motives of the criminal. Voldemort easily fits into the stereotype of the stranger at the site of crime from murder mysteries, and this makes it convenient for Harry and Dumbledore to interpret Voldemort as a criminal. Thus, the very form of the character reconstruction of Voldemort starts with the assumption that he is an aberrational case. Whatever evidence Dumbledore and Harry manage to gather about Voldemort’s past is second-hand, inadequate and inconclusive, as we see him at several removes: through Dumbledore and Harry’s eyes, who are looking into others’ minds, who in their turn are recollecting their perceptions of Voldemort. There is no way of arriving at an unmediated identity of Voldemort. Yet, it becomes important for Dumbledore and Harry (and for the reader as well) to discover the “true” self underlying Voldemort’s image. This is because such a process of “discovery”, based as it is on debatable assumptions, is directed towards translating the subject of investigation “into the category of a freak or aberration that is metaphysically divorced from the rules of the world at large” (Rojek 144). The pathologization of the criminal's behaviour distances it from the ordinary, external circumstances of his life and instead locates it in some inner source of evil. Thus, Dumbledore and Harry's re-construction of Voldemort's past is not merely a plot device for unearthing clues to a final resolution but also a strategic performance of an ideology that suggests a highly personal, psychic origin for social deviance. The discovery of the “veridical” self concealed beneath the “public” self that Rojek identifies as crucial to the construction and sustenance of interest in the celebrity (11) finds its ultimate realization in the criminal, whose intensely personal, psychic self is actively conflated with his spectacular public self. Criminals, of the kind Voldemort is characterized as, are what David Schmid calls "the exemplary modern celebrity", public personae in whom "action and identity are fused" (302). By the sixth book, when this character-reconstruction takes place, readers are so deeply embedded in the moral scheme of Rowling’s world that they do not mind the limitations of Dumbledore and Harry’s sight, so long as they are convinced that their insight cannot be wrong. Dumbledore and Harry act as a frame though which readers are purportedly shown the “real” self of Voldemort, however mediated such a spectacle might actually be. The “true” meaning of Voldemort's villainous sign is thus decoded by the “heroic” investigators, Harry and Dumbledore, whose interpretation derives its authority and legitimacy from the status they enjoy as signs representing moral goodness within the narrative.

Evidently, Voldemort and Harry align themselves along the two ideological bases of democracy – the potentially infinite possibility of individual achievement and the ethic of equality for all. Democratic societies are based on the promise of universal choice and equality which are never realized in practice (Rojek 182). Celebrities function as symbolic figures whose achievements and success are held up as representative instances (however unrepresentative they might actually be) of exemplary individual achievement. Yet, “[t]he democratic ideal of being recognized as extraordinary, special or unique collides with the bureaucratic tendency to standardize and routinize existence” (Rojek 149). Voldemort’s quest for immortality through the use of magic is also his desire to be infinitely more superior, more powerful than anybody else in the magical community, to be completely “different” from his fellow human beings. In seeking to be celebrated for attaining such absolute difference, Voldemort transgresses the egalitarian ethic of democracy, and is therefore identified as evil within the moral scheme of the books. It would be reductive to dismiss Voldemort’s transgression of the approved norms of magic as aberrational. The desire to achieve greatness always involves, to some degree, a transcendence of social convention. Even as a criminal par excellence, then, Voldemort represents the stimulus that the seemingly democratic social set-up of his world provides to an individual to achieve fame and glory. Magic is the absolute prerequisite for entry into this world, as well as the exclusive means of achieving greatness and fame in it. Voldemort's criminality consists in deliberately and ruthlessly seeking power through a relentless pursuit of the limits of magic.

In contrast, Harry is represented as a figure whose impulse is necessarily more integrative and inclusive, as someone who deserves to enjoy popular support because of his instinctive sympathy for the disempowered. In this context, it is useful to refer to Max Weber's conceptualization of “charisma” as a transcendent, divine “gift” and its significance to our understanding of how the modern celebrity functions. Though Weber locates the source of charisma in the exceptional individual, he also talks about the process of the “depersonalization of charisma”, wherein the internal gift is externalized and made “transferable, personally acquirable and attachable to the incumbent of an office or an institutional structure regardless of the persons involved” (1135). Harry, as “The Chosen One”, is perceived to possess charisma because of his predestined role as Voldemort's nemesis and is therefore able to function as a heroic celebrity who can bring together various sections of the magical community in his restorative act of defeating Voldemort. On the other hand, Voldemort's charisma as a villainous celebrity cannot be easily depersonalized to integrate the magical community into a desirable order; consequently, the community seeks to expel him. Thus, while Harry’s personal heroism is easily appropriated by the purportedly democratic magical community to feed into the construction of a “heroic” celebrity, Voldemort’s autocratic interpretation of democracy’s promise of individual excellence is constructed as transgressive and villainous. The ideal of democracy, based as it is on a fundamental contradiction, requires that the individual’s achievement be perceived not to be at odds with the socially permissible limits of excellence. If this is so, as is the case with Voldemort, the individual’s achievement is seen as being “excessive” rather than “excellent” (the two words are, of course, etymologically related, which suggests a continuity rather than an opposition between them) [4]. Thus, while Harry’s celebrity status as a "hero" is predicated upon his comfortingly identifiable mediocrity and conformity to social norm, Voldemort’s radical, defiant testing of the limits of the Dark Arts to attain personal fame and glory gains him an evil reputation as a villainous celebrity. In actively seeking to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of democracy, in transgressing norms of magical experimentation to realize the promise of greatness that his society holds, Voldemort emerges as a celebrity whose “extra-ordinariness” is popularly defined as “deviance”.  As David Marshall points out, “Our relation to celebrities . . . is a dynamic system of interpellation in which we see certain kinds of individuality as normatively centered and reject others” (64-65). Thus, Harry's celebrity status, supported by notions of selfless "heroism", becomes socially acceptable and desirable, whereas Voldemort's highly individualistic construction of a powerful self earns him negative fame. The celebrity status of Voldemort is coded in terms of its moral implications, just as Harry’s fame embodies the parameters within which the individual is expected to function in the magical world. 

As a villainous celebrity, Voldemort gives evil a necessary, recognizable, magical shape (literally in the form of the Horcruxes) that the morally good protagonist, Harry must destroy. He functions, like all celebrities, as “an embodiment of a discursive battleground on the norms of individuality and personality within a culture” (Marshall 65). Celebrities function as common points of reference in public debates about issues of morality and legality, and since a criminal’s actions are conspicuous instances of transgression of moral and legal rules, they become especially useful in defining (negatively) the limits of acceptable individual conduct in society. As Walter Benjamin argues in his essay “Critique of Violence”, the violence of criminals inheres not necessarily or exclusively in their actions but in the attack implied in such deeds on the very principle of law itself (as paraphrased in Schmid 307-08). Voldemort’s status as a villainous celebrity is therefore inextricably related to the question of what it is to be a human being in a social context where magic renders traditional bounds of individual behaviour and agency rather feeble. Voldemort’s criminality can therefore only be understood with reference to the moral implications of his actions for the entire magical community [5].     

In fact, as the series progresses, Voldemort realizes that in order to translate his celebrity status into actual social power, he must display to the magical community the superiority of his skills over Harry’s. Thus, in the final book, what concerns him most is not whether his magic is “good” or “evil”, whether it is “pure-bloods” he is killing or “mudbloods”, whether Snape is on his side or Dumbledore’s – what matters to him is replacing Harry’s image as “The Boy Who Lived” with his own image as the greatest wizard ever. The climax of the last book is veritably a spectacular celebrity performance. Voldemort, the criminal celebrity, acts like a showman as he exhorts his followers as well as his opponents to bear witness to his “act” of killing Harry Potter (DH 582-84). A private graveyard duel of the kind at the end of Goblet of Fire will not do for Voldemort here, as he intends to demonstrate to the magical community his supremacy as the greatest wizard ever. In spite of his own conviction that Harry’s magical talent is no match to his own, Voldemort must show and prove this to the world – a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the greatness a celebrity supposedly possesses must be ratified by a colluding audience (Rojek 19). The suspense and anticipation that leads to the final combat between Harry and Voldemort demands that a public spectacle be made out of it. The ultimate resolution of the conflict between Voldemort and Harry is justified not in terms of magical skill but of moral superiority. Voldemort's defeat leaves unresolved the paradox at the heart of the moral scheme of the world of the books: the infinite potential for achieving fame and power through magic is delimited by moral norms that ensure that no individual surpasses a communally regulated degree of excellence.


Voldemort embodies as well as symbolizes the contradictions inherent in the moral principle on which the magical world of Harry Potter is based. As a villainous celebrity, Voldemort functions as a popular, but ultimately non-containable sign that derives its currency from within the discursive and ideological field of magic but simultaneously also threatens to breach its boundaries by “supplementing” it with an “excessive” realization of its meanings. The Harry Potter books, by resorting to a traditional, predictable denouement to the tale, seek to fit into the existing myth of the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. More importantly, the defeat of Voldemort is coded as the defeat not only of evil but of an evil that is not structural but personal. This implies that the series avoids addressing questions of social order – good communities versus bad communities – when it ultimately treats the central moral battle in the mode of the traditional revenge tale as a clash of personalities and individual ambitions. The books' celebrity politics seems to suggest that only as long as a celebrity fits into social expectations of “greater good” can their individualism be tolerated. That is, Voldemort as a villainous celebrity is destroyed not because of his strong individualism alone, but also because he does not use his extensive powers to serve the social order. Harry, on the other hand, equally celebrated, seeks to restore – or at least maintain – the social order and is therefore vindicated at the end.  Thus, the books fail to eradicate the anxieties and contradictions inherent in a highly stratified social set-up that they are thematically concerned with. Using theories of contemporary celebrity culture enables us to address questions of individual agency in the books, beyond the usual moral paradigm of Good vs. Evil, in terms of modern social and cultural practices of defining the permissible limits of selfhood.



1. In fact, Voldemort's first exposure to the idea of achieving immortality through the creation of Horcruxes occurs at Hogwarts, where he comes across a mention of this form of magic in a book at the school library and subsequently also gathers more information about the same from Professor Slughorn. The possibility of transgression of ordinary/acceptable limits of magic is thus liminally present within the institution officially dedicated to imparting the “right” kind of magical training.

2. A very high degree of social stratification and hierarchization marks the magical world, which is inhabited by all manner of creatures: witches and wizards, goblins, giants, house-elves, centaurs, werewolves, and so on. The Ministry of Magic, which seems to be the sovereign legislative and executive governmental body in the magical world, is clearly out of bounds for “non-human” magical creatures, who are merely “subjects” to its various laws. A racialized legal system of this nature has obvious correspondences with Nazi Germany in our own “Muggle” past; yet, like Hitler, Voldemort's actions must be contextualized within a long history of the persecution of a particular race.

3.  Significantly, practically nobody in the magical world knows about the existence of the Horcruxes till the final book of the series– Voldemort's greatest magical “achievement” is, in a sense, also his most private, fiercely guarded secret – yet the fear of Voldemort's return to power is a dreaded certainty for most. Here is a classic instance of how Voldemort's celebrity “sign” functions in the domain of the collective imagination of the magical community: his name, which is only the “signifier”, is circulated endlessly in popular discourse in spite of the absence of any “knowledge” about the “real” form of his existence/identity (the Horcruxes), which is the “signified”.

4.  In fact, Voldemort's achievement becomes literally excessive when he inadvertently transfers part of his own soul to Harry and turns him into an extra Horcrux. On the other hand, Harry, bearing the “traces” left in him by both Voldemort and Lily Potter, literally embodies the conflict between Good and Evil and functions as a “sign” of moral goodness by willingly submitting to the former even at the expense of his own life.

5. In this, his public image bears a striking resemblance to that of Sirius Black and Barty Crouch. If Voldemort and Black achieve celebrity status by their fabled transgression of moral limits (the exact details of these transgressions are, in both cases, unknown to most), Barty Crouch becomes a celebrity through his extreme adherence to rules of law and justice (he banishes his own son to Azkaban on the charge of being a Death Eater [GF 517]). None of them is a celebrity strictly because he performs extraordinary magic; rather, at either end of the moral axis, these characters are perceived to represent qualities that in some ways challenge the notion of the “human”, qualities that are in some senses “extraordinary” or “deviant”. While Voldemort and Black seem to be “inhuman” in their capacity for violence and cruelty, Crouch inspires awe because of his ability to suppress his “natural” paternal instinct to answer the call of duty. They become celebrities not because they transgress the limits which their society sets on magic (they do not) but because their actions represent a challenge to what is defined as recognizably “human”. Their celebrity status is a function of their marked deviance from the expected or acceptable norms of behaviour.


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Saradindu Bhattacharya

Volume 16, Issue 1, The Looking Glass ,January/February 2012

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