Edgar Morin and the Magical Origins of Stardom

Participation Mystique and Projective Identification

No one who frequents the dark auditoriums is really an atheist…Whenever there is a white screen in a black room a new religion has been established…We enter into the darkness of an artificial grotto. A luminous dust is projected and dances on a screen. We cross time and space, until some solemn music dissolves the shadows on the screen that has once again become white.

— Edgar Morin, The Stars

Why Cartesians are not Allowed at the Movies

Epistemologically, one of the major characteristics of the western world, at least as far back as the 16th century, is Descartes’ separation between the subject and the object. The objective world is thought to be outside of psychology and is the world of nature and society. To be objective was to be detached and good science means you never let your imagination, emotions or revelries get in the way of your reports. Conversely, the subjective world is what is private, personal and idiosyncratic. This is the world of poets, artists and psychologists. Most everyone in the western world today accepts (if unconsciously) this subject-object separation in everyday life. They would also unconsciously drag it into the movies. But when we go to the movies the subject-object separation becomes blurred. If the outer world was only bio-physical and social – out there – and the inner world was your private life – in here, this epistemology would not explain:

  • How fans get could get caught up in a story that it can become like a flashbulb memory. Remember the Marlon Brando scene in the car with his brother during On the Waterfront?
  • How fans idolize the stars, begging for autographs, copying their clothing and hairdos, subscribing to movie magazines, and showing up at press conferences.
  • How stars get so lost in their roles that they have difficulty being convincing in new roles.
  • How stars over-identify with their roles and blur the boundaries between their work as a star and their private life.

The claim of this article is that neither fans nor actors nor actresses act like Cartesians dualists when they participate in a movie production. Rather they enter a world which is pre-subjective and pre-objective.They enter temporarily into a world LévyBruhl called participation mystique.

LévyBruhl and Participation Mystique

Lucien LévyBruhl was a philosophical anthropologist who pointed out that primitives do not see the objective world the way westerners do. He proposed that in their rituals, primitive societies become the animals they are about to hunt or the corn they are attempting to grow. They merge with the objective world. This is what is called “participation”. Experiencing the world temporarily as being one with animals or plants in a magical ritual, included no separation between themselves and their shadows, the living and the dead, self and others. He demonstrated this in three books. I have read: Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, Soul of the Primitive and How Natives Think. In these books LévyBruhl discussed the coexistence of the practical mind and the magical mind, though he emphasized the later.

Magical and Practical Realms in Tribal Societies

For archaic peoples, subjective phenomena are alienated into the objects they are crafting and these become carriers of soul. Archaic hunters practice shooting with extreme precision, but they also cast the image of an animal in preparation for a magical spell. They practice mimetic propitiatory rites to the animal.  There is a combination of practical (practice shooting) and the imaginary (casting a spell). The presence of  archaic language, conduct, masks and ornaments show us that humans, while knowing themselves to be human, still feel caught in the grips of, or even possessed by altered states. This happens in their union with animal, plant, ancestors or by cosmic forces. Participation has always been able to give life and soul to statuettes, marionettes and puppets so why not the movies?

Edgar Morin and Participation Mystique

Here is what Morin thinks is going on in the movies with the fans. The participant  movie goer grows to feel himself embedded in a world that Morin calls “cosmomorphism”. He is embedded in the story and the roles of the stars.

At the other extreme the material world becomes more psychological and animated by passions, desires and human feelings. So participation means the human mind gets lost in the world, losing his subjective boundaries. In the movies it means acquiring the characteristics of the characters as well as to the story of the movie. It becomes the story of the movie-goer’s life. This animation of objects takes us back to the universe of archaic vision. Going to the movies is a modern recreation of participation mystique for actors, actresses and fans as well as for the producers, directors, lighting technicians and all other mediators.

The Magical Basis of Film

Our attachment to movie stars is lot more than simply a vestige of childish or even adolescent preoccupation from which adults are spared. What Edgar Morin means by the initial quote in this article is not that there is a secret theology of monotheism embedded in the imagination of atheists which comes out when watching a movie. It is not monotheistic faith or prayer that is invoked. It is the immediate magic of rites and spells. Magical participation corresponds not only to the pre-objective vision of the world, but also to a pre-subjective stage of humanity. Like LévyBruhl, Morin says subjectivity and objectivity are like twin sisters before becoming dualistic opposites. It is on the tension of their opposition and their continuity – their dialectic – that we must follow them in the cinema.

When people enter the theatre even atheists develop magical participatory states of consciousness as we get lost in the story. Through an act of mimicry, we identify with the various roles of the actors and actresses. Just as in a tribal magical state of consciousness, a good ritual leaves the participants agitated, inspired or drained. Whatever their state of consciousness they were in then, it will not be the same as when they went in. The association between film and archaic magical state of consciousness is no poetic metaphor. Morin points out for educational purposes that people in tribal societies respond much better to film because it has the motion of a ritual rather the static quality of a  photograph or written page. Morin has long been preoccupied by the mythology and magic that lives both underground and next to the reason of everyday life and the rationality of the sciences.

Participation Mystique Identifies Emotions with Weather Conditions

Morin says that the camera is at once a microscope and a magic mirror. The face has become a landscape: it expresses storms at sea, the earth, the town and the factory, revolution, war. Landscapes are states of soul and states of soul landscapes. Often the weather, the ambience and the scenery are in the image of the feelings that animate the characters. We see alternately, then shots of nature and shots of humans, as if an affective symbiosis necessarily connects humanity to prehuman nature. Filmmakers entrust to landscapes the task of expressing states of the soul: rain evokes melancholy; storm evokes torment.

Against Marxist Reductionism

Unlike what Morin might called Marxist reductionism, myth and the imaginary are not just illusionary superstructures, vapors having no real substance and which mystify humanity. Human reality is itself partly imaginary. Morin knew that considering cinema as a mass medium and a sociological phenomenon was necessary, but how to do this without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? He predicted that sociologists would be oblivious to the real aesthetic situation of the experienced participation of the star and the film spectator. Morin claimed that both film critic and spectator live in the cinema and in a state of double consciousness, participating and skeptical. Morin was devoted to analyzing the relationship between stars and movie participants without disenchanting either.

Modern World Disenchants by Splitting the Subjective and the Objective

It is we moderns who split the worlds of the practical and magical worlds. Historical evolution has worked to disassociate the two orders, to circumscribe the dream and the hallucination as nothing more than subjective illusions to be cleaned up by practical perception. But our whole practical world is surrounded with rites and superstition. The cinema affects a kind of resurrection of the archaic. However, the very strong analogies between the cinema and the archaic vision of the world cannot be pursued to the point of identification. Film perception occurs within a consciousness that knows the image is not practical life.

Aesthetics are the Halfway House Between Participation Mystique and Material Reality

The aesthetic vision of the art critic is that of divided consciousness after the split between the objective and subjective worlds has taken place historically. The art critic participates in watching films at a distance, as a skeptic. The aesthetic vision dereifies the magic of the cinema and at the same time differentiates the cinema from archaic vision. But this magic is only in a nascent state and often only in a state of decline. For it is enveloped, broken up and stopped short in its place by a focused consciousness of the critic. It is internalized as sentiment. Ancient magic is ceaselessly reduced to sentiment of the aesthetic.

A Healthy Moviegoer Tames Participation Mystique

Applied to the movies, when movie fans are living a full life, they go to the movies get lost in the plot line and characters but resume their lives afterword. They enjoy the plot line and characters but the plot line and characters do not have them. They are not possessed. Like shaman, stars have charisma. They sooth our body and soul as they move us to soar beyond everyday life and its structures, at least for a couple of hours. Those of us in the audience mentally integrate ourselves with the characters and the plot, suspending judgment and getting lost in another world but coming out the other side.

Neurosis and Projective Identification

When fans are living lives that are not satisfying, they lose themselves long-term in the movies – the storyline and the characters. They are possessed by their own emotional reaction to both the characters and the story. Projective identification is a psychological term for a process whereby:

  • A person, say Anthony, disowns feelings he does not want to experience, say jealousy, and projects them outwards.
  • It lands in the psychology of the other person, let us say Sandy. Sandy can either reject or accept those disowned feelings.
  • If Sandy accepts the feelings, she begins acting like Anthony feels (jealous).
  • Anthony is now in a position to accuse Sandy of the jealousy he feels.

In terms of projective identification, the fan throws out their own creativity, charisma and skills and attaches them to the movie character. Since the characters cannot give them direct feedback, all the fans have to go on is the heroism and bravery the character demonstrates in the movie. The fan treats the star as possessing the strength and good qualities that the fan has alienated himself from. Projective identification can bring about identification even with those held in lowly regard, ignored, despised or hated in everyday life. Here the fan throws out their stubbornness, crabbiness and hatred of life on to one of the characters (probably a villain). The character acts in a way that resembles the vices of the fan. The fan then imagines that the villain who oppresses them is making him feel bad.

Projective Identification on the Industry of the Star

In falling in love with a movie star, we project ourselves onto the person and we identify them with ourselves. The corporeal and yet elusive specters on the screen. These shadow personalities the film presents seem to the fan more real more human, more intensely themselves than stars of flesh and blood behind the footlights. Here lies the danger of reification where the star and plot take on a life of its own, where the audience gets lost in the movies and never really comes back to reality. However, we identify not just the psychological side of the personality of the star, but projective identification is built out and dramatized by music, lighting effects, movements and positions of the camera. The stars also have their objective extensions of themselves: photos, trinkets, handkerchiefs, and their houses. Thus projective identification spreads from beings to things. This can lead to fetishization and even cults.

Marxian Projective Identification

Applying projective identification to Marxism is tricky. For Marxists, projective identification does not start with people’s individual or social psychology. It begins with the economic working conditions of workers on the job. Using Bertell Ollman’s definition of alienation, workers are alienated from: a) the products of labor; b) the process of labor; c) other people on the job; d) the power setting in which decisions about work are made; e) alienation from the natural world; and e) alienation from self.

These are the conditions under which workers enter the theatre (and middle class to a lesser extent). The worker enters the theatre with the intension of minimizing the conditions of alienation.

  • Workers need a sense of hope that conditions can be better.
  • Other people are not such as source of stress for them.
  • They may achieve a degree of personal peace.

Now the members of the audience may both project their alienated feelings of fear and hopelessness onto the villains of the movie. The audience member will also project his feeling of hope and lovability onto the stars in the movie. This star-actor then gives the audience back some of what they projected which keeps fans coming back.

The Genesis and Metamorphosis of the Stars

According to Morin, the star concept was born around 1910 out of the fierce competition between the first film companies in the US. The star developed simultaneously with the concentration of capital at the heart of the film industry.  The star, like all capitalist commodities, has a price and this price regularly follows the fluctuations of supply by box office appeal and monitored by the fan mail. The 20th century made the stars into royalty. In direct proportion to their denial of the traditional actor, the movies have created the star. Stars are born when the actor imposes their personality on the script and these heroes in turn impose their personality on the actor. From this composite a star is born. This star actor then gives the audience back some of what they projected. This is what keep fans coming back.

History of Stars Repeats the History of the Gods

Morin claims that the history of the stars repeats in its own proportions the history of the gods. Before the gods (before the stars) the mythical universe (the screen) was peopled with specters or phantoms endowed with the glamour and magic of the double (animism). Several of these presences have progressively assumed body, substance, have taken form, amplified and flowered into gods and goddesses. Morin says the two major types of gods many be distinguished:

  • father gods who are so remote and grandiose that they are projections of human terrors and ambitions. They are too scary for fans to identify themselves with
  • son-gods (heroes, or demigods) who are closer to the earth and not so unlike the fan that they can’t be identified with. These are the stars.

At the extreme level of the divine star, involvement is not implying mimetics, either because the star keeps herself at an unvarying distance or the believer feels too humble to reach up. Morin suggests that the actress Mary Pickford was like this kind of goddess. Closer to the earth, the stars become hero-gods. Finally, the star goddesses touch the ground and humanize themselves. The kings were the first to situate themselves on the level with the gods. Then gradually more classes got included and before you knew it everyone was entitled to an afterlife just as everyone was entitled to identify with stars. Stars are mediators between gods and humans, between divine and mortal. They aspire to the conditions of gods and goddesses and attempt to deliver mortals from their infinite misery. The hero is a human being in the process of becoming divine.

Flying too Close to the Ground

The humanizing tendency sometimes reduces the star to the human scale by brushing too closely to everyday life.  For example, stars fly too close to the ground when they perform cheap tricks for commercials and/or play in television game shows like Hollywood Squares.  An internal mechanism must reestablish distance if they are not to lose their star status. A new movie might exalt the star and she recovers altitude. Yet every excess in this direction provokes a recall to realism. As Morin quips, the star system hedgehops between the divide, the heroic and humanity rather than soaring smoothly above our daily life of humans.

Stars are in Danger of Reifying Themselves

Like gods who have gone wrong, stars can also turn into idols in which their identity is frozen in a particular character they play that they do so well they cannot get other parts because the director or producer will not believe them in their new character. Furthermore, the star system extends beyond the screen and the awards. It invades the everyday life of the stars. Hundreds and now perhaps thousands of correspondents are assigned to Hollywood to feed the world news and gossip about the stars and their personal lives. Stars never have a real personal life. They are always on. It’s no accident that Marlon Brando wound up living on his own island.

The Place of the Double

Among primitive humanity, the first self-consciousness is exterior to the self. It is only later that self-consciousness is internalized. The “I” at first is a double revealed and localized in shadows, in reflections, in mirrors and in dreams when the body sleeps. It becomes a spirit when the body dies. Today Morin insists it exists for both the stars, the fans and for everyone else in the roles we play. The star watches this double attach and detach itself from her. She must keep abreast of her double (the star and their personal life), for this is their livelihood.

The image possesses a magic quality of the double, but it is interiorized, nascent and subjectivized. The double possesses the psychological, affective quality of the image, but is alienated and magical. Between these two poles lies a syncretistic, fluid zone that we call the domain of sentiment, of the soul or the heart.

Stars Have Their Own Rites

Stars are not just a mediation between as between a shaman and their participants. Morin says stars also take part in their own rites, such as the Cannes Festival and the Academy Awards when they leave the screen and show themselves publicly. These festivals and awards are a magical site of identification of the magical and the real. They show tangible proof of their incarnation through autographs. These festivals are imagined to be a life of play, a carnival life – disguised, licentious, lavishing photographs, gossip and rumors attaining its fullness and mythic peak at the festivals. Morin says the star system has devoured the international film contests and turned them into international star contests.

For example, the first question put to anyone returning from the Cannes Festivals is not “did you see the directors or producers”, but “which stars did you see?”. “Is she as pretty in real life as she is on the screen?”. The real problem is the confrontation of myth and reality, appearance and essence. Cannes is the mystic site of this identification between the imaginary and the real. Photographers crowd around the square, each carrying on their shoulder the eyes of millions of voyeurs. Morin waxes poetically that the ceremony is an equivalent of the Roman triumph and ascension of the virgin.

Fanatics’ Reification of Stars

At worst, fans have allowed the stars to guide their manners, gestures, poses, attitudes, ecstasies and sighs. A star is capable of undermining existing fads and creating new ones without even trying. The imaginary identification with stars can become so satisfying that real life itself is held in contempt. For example, Morin quotes the regret of a female fan: “Tony, my poor boyfriend, had patiently waited until my aberration to be over”. Star worshippers constitute the idolatry mass of the fans.

Fans Sustain the Star Industry

The star system maintains itself through specialized publications we all know: movie magazines and the stars’ mail. Morin tells us that in the 1940s letters addressed to Hollywood stars was estimated to be several million a year. Morin says that in 1939 one major studio received between fifteen thousand to forty five thousand letters or cards a month. Magazines, photographs, correspondence, clubs, pilgrimages, ceremonies, festivals maintain the cult of stars. Photographs and autographs are the two key fetishes to which are added collections of clippings. According to Morin  photographs are the universal presence-fetishes of the first half of the 20th century. It is clubs, magazines, correspondence and presents that are processes of divination in action beneath these secular forms. They have replaced the temple, the  bible, litanies and offerings.

Psychology of Fandom

According to Morin, love for the stars is a love without jealousy and without envy. The star and the king are flesh-and-blood creatures infected by their roles. We admire them without envying them; we are not jealous of kings or stars. The fans accept themselves, says Morin, purely and simply as earthworms.

This is not so with stars closer to the ground. Fans are no longer interested in dating their own kind. “I did my hair as much like hers as I could. I wondered what the star would do in any aggregating situation that I was in. When a star died it seemed that a vital part of my imagination died too and my world of dreams was bare. I plan films for him and think up ideas for his radio show. I plan my days as much as possible not to interfere with my listening”. Offerings to the stars include flowers, trinkets, lucky pieces, statuettes, sweaters, animals and dolls. Presents are destined for the star’s body, such as sweaters.  Fetishistic presents (petals, dolls) suggest the bits of natural substances and symbolic offerings that are mingled at the foot of the altars, while the incense of praise smokes on high. One can even discern vestiges of human sacrifice as in the case of a 16-year-old girl who offered Norma Shearer pieces of skin clipped from her own body. Stars become analogous to the tutelary saints or to the guardian angels. “Joan Crawford is my lucky star, I feel she is near me, like a goddess”.

At worst, the fan always desires to consume their god, as in supposed cannibal pasts in which the ancestor was eaten and the totemic feasts in which the sacred animal was devoured. The faithful want to know everything, possess, manipulate and mentally digest the total image of their idol through gossip, rumors, indiscretions and rejections. The journalists of the cinema get caught up in the fanfare or become more interested in the stars than in the films.  Beauty secrets, cosmetics, dietary or aesthetic preferences, travels, expenses, furniture, pets – all are intimate details that become material for the columns. A fan follows the star’s dietary and bodily practice and adopts her makeup, and imitates her clothes. One gal confesses to “curling my boyfriend’s hair in my fingers or stroking his face exactly as I’ve seen my screen favorites do”.

At the same time, just as primitive man confronted with a spirit who has not answered his pleas, fans overwhelm the stars with reproaches when they fail in their duties to respond, advise and console. Lastly the cult of the stars reveals its profoundest meaning at certain moments of collective hysteria such as those provoked by the death of Valentino or James Dean. The star system is fragile and subject to disintegration. There comes a moment when the star grows old and dies or a moment when the fan grows old.


I began the article by suggesting that both movie stars and fans must break with a Cartesian dualistic concept of the objective world on the one hand and the subjective world on the other in order to pull off a successful film. I argued that something like LévyBruhl’s participation mystique must be operating in order for fans and stars to get lost in the movie, do their jobs come away inspired. Healthy fans and actors are able to get lost in the movies, but still emerge from it and go about their lives. More alienated fans and stars are subject to what Morin describes as projective identification. As a Marxist Morin knew that projective identification by itself was too psychological, so I’ve added a sociological dimension to projective identification.

Morin argues that the history of stars repeats the history of the gods and goddesses in mythology in which stars are like heroes mediating between the divine and the human. I discuss two pathologies that stars may experience. When:

  • They fly too close to the ground that they cheapen themselves.
  • They become drunk with their star identity and consequently have no personal life.

I also discuss fan pathology in which they reify the stars and attribute to them their own alienated creativity, skills, charisma and intelligence. This results in living a vicarious life.

What interested Morin was the contradiction between the modernity of the 20th century and the archaism of our minds. Attending the cinema was the site where this contradiction played out. He sensed a profound link between the world of cinema and the participation mystique in magical tribal societies. For him, as for many others, the cinema resuscitated the archaic universe of doubles. The cinema is the greatest apostle of animism. From inanimate objects of the specters flickering, now you have a soul in the fluid universe of the cinema.

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.