Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Voting Democracy Off The Island; Reality TV and The Republican Ethos by Francine Prose

What lends the scene its special poignancy is that Melana knows, as do we, that what has befallen her is not some cruel accident of fate. Rather, she has brought misfortune on herself. In filling out the questionnaire that led her to being selected as the heroine of Average Joe, she indicated that " a good personality" mattered more to her than did appearance. And in doing so, she violated one of the cardinal rules, a basic article of faith, one of the values that this new version of reality pumps out, hour after hour, night after night, into the culture . Had Melana watched more reality-based TV, she would have learned that surface beauty (preferably in concert with a strong manipulative instinct, a cunning ability to play the game , and vast quantities of money) is all that counts. Melana has transgressed...

The most obvious lesson to be drawn from reality TV, the single philosophical pole about which everything else revolves, is that the laws of natural selection are even more brutal, inflexible, and sensible than one might suppose from reading The Origin of the Species. Reality is a Darwinian battlefield on which only the fittest survive, and it is not merely logical but admirable to marshal all our skills and resources to succeed in a struggle that only one person can win.

And in case we lose sight of first principles, the show's (Survivor) motto, which appears in its logo , is "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast."

Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I have eluded- flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that signs of altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty- are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the republican Congress.

But even when the collaboration between the military, the government, and the entertainment industry is not overt, these shows continue to transmit the perpetual , low frequency hum of agitprop. The ethics ( if one can call them that) and the ideals that permeate these programs at once reflect the basest, most mindless and ruthless aspects of the current political zeitgeist

The merciless individualism and bloodthirsty competition turn out to represent the noblest, most heroic aspect of this new reality. The darker more cynical message- the lesson beneath the lesson, so to speak- is that every human being can and will do anything for money.

Pragmatism ( actually the deformed cousin of pragmatism: "the art of the possible') is the main concern, whereas morality is a luxury or worse, an impediment, an albatross. And given the limitlessness of what our fellow human beings will do for cash, considering the folly of acting according to ethical principles, its only logical that everyone lies all the time.

If the truth is a millstone around one's neck, civility is likewise a hobble guaranteed to slow us down. And why should we be polite when rudeness is so amusing, and when we all secretly know that the spectacle of exclusion and humiliation is the highest form of entertainment?

Contestants remind themselves and one another to "follow your heart" to "listen to your heart" as if ( and despite the observable evidence to the contrary) neither the eyes, the brain, nor the genitals deserve to be consulted.

But even if reality TV continues to explore the far frontiers of cruelty and competition, its unecessary for these programs to get much more sadistic or grotesque. They merely need to stay the same, and to last long enough to produce an entire generation that has grown up watching them and may consequently have some trouble distinguishing between reality TV and reality. Because what matters is not what's on television but the ghostly after-image that lingers in our minds and clouds our vision after we turn off the television.

The castaways votes, as we do, but its a democracy that might have been conceived if the spirit of Machiavelli had briefly possessed the mind of Thomas Jefferson ; indeed, the reasons behind the survivors' ballots might puzzle our founding fathers. Because this fun-house version of the electoral process seeks to dismantle civilization rather than improve it ; the goal is neither the common good nor the furthering of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. It's a parody of democracy, robbed of its heart and soul, a democracy in which everyone always votes, for himself.

- Harpers- March, 2004


  1. 'Much like the beauty pageant contestants analyzed so brilliantly in Sarah Banet-Weiser's wonderfully perceptive book "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", the participants in "Pop Stars" faced the dilemma of proving that they were special, different, unique, completely individual by proving their mastery of exactly the same shared social codes that construct each of them as interchangeable parts of a mass market..

    Violent competition and impersonal appetite provide the raison d'etre for low-budget "reality" televison shows like "Pop Stars", "Big Brother", "The Real World", and "American Idol". Arbitrariness and human disability constitute the core of the voyeuristic pleasures offered by "Cops", "America's Most Wanted", "The Jerry Springer Show", and "The Howard Stern Show".

    The transformation of television news into a series of sensational scandals and soap opera-like serial narratives and the linked systems of hyper-commercialism that transforms teenage infatuation and attraction to pop music stars into fully integrated marketing opportunities testify vividly to the character of cultural containerization. Under this system, alienation and dislocation are not obstacles to be overcome but rather opportunities for titillation, transgression, and sado-masochistic cathexis."

    "Footsteps in the Dark; The Hidden Histories of Popular Music" by Geoge Lipsitz; Univ. of Minnisota Press, 2007

  2. The Myth of the Frontier

    Consider the 'most mindless and ruthless aspects of the current political zeitgeist: the flinty individualism, bloodthirsty competition, the exaltation of solitary striving in which altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness and the benefits of mutual cooperation illusory".

    It's the great myth of the American Frontier and the Founding of America, reproduced endlessly in popular entertainment from Humprey Bogard , Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, crime fighters like Dirty Harry and the various Bruce Willis characters, through Star Wars right up to the present "Batman" and other superhero series.

    If that had been the actual approach of the European settlers on the North American continent the whole project would have been a total failure as the earliest settlers of Jamestown learned and those that first arrived at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony well knew before they even started out. Even in the settlement of the trans-appalachian frontier the common goal, mutual cooperation, the banding together in families, clans, towns, churches and all manner of communitarian enterprises ( like 'barn-raisings' and road building) counted for all: the "without which" nothing of any lasting significance or benefit could have been achieved to the least degree.

    Even the grand efforts of the most singular and richly endowed of the great entreprenuers, lacking in the labor and support of their peers in both business and religion, eventually came to naught.

    So, it is important to ask this question of Americans: what are you doing and where do you think you are going today?

  3. The Great Satan & The End of The World

    Great Satan: the oil companies, Republicans, The Moral Majority, Wall Street, Corporate Capitalism

    The End of The World: Peak Oil, Global Warming, Pollution and Cancer

    In many ways the conceptualization here represents, in opposition politics, an overwhelmingly passive response, a deep personalization of current affairs which which mutes and dampens the possibility of effective action.

    The shared zeitgeist of both the Right and the Left- the common modality- trapping us in the endless, stultifying drift of the status quo.

    The opposing views are completely indigestible, one for the other, creating a stasis of fear, a vacuum into which pours and insurrmountable atmosphere of avarice and opportunitism, and the "smart" ('art of the possibile')non-provocations of 'leaders' like Obama, master of the empty gesture.

    Here's an example of the nullities that arise: 'The consensus of scientists",the open refusal to accept the uncertainties of material existence i.e. spiritual bankruptcy.

    Nothing gets done, no contradictions are allowed to develop everything is pushed off for another day. The struggle is never joined. Every trouble and every risk is avoided. . ."Oh beautiful, for spacious skies and amber waves of grain"!

    But, really, an exceedingly dark cloud hangs low to the ground over America.