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Monday, January 22, 2007
AT SOME point in the future, someone will look at the "developed" world we have today and wonder at its weirdness.
The weirdness of making laws against racism and bullying, and then paying people to do both on television.
The weirdness of calling a genre of programming "reality" TV when it is absolutely unreal from the recruitment of has-beens and toxic nonentities to the unreal tests through which they are put.
The weirdness of allowing the vomitous spewings of a nonentity to be seen — by the media providing the nonentity with a conduit for those spewings — as more important than the statements of intent of a British Deputy Prime Minister.
Cultural critic Neal Gabler, nearly ten years ago, pointed to the passive collaboration of media in the pseudo-events now taking precedence over reality.
"Having invited these performances in the first place," he wrote, "the media justified covering them because they were receiving media attention, which is every bit as convoluted as it sounds.
"The result was to make of modern society one giant Heisenberg Effect, in which the media were not really reporting what people did; they were reporting what people did to get media attention."
The appeal of so-called reality television relies on two key strands.
The first is the re-cycling of has-beens — not, in itself, a negative.
US TV currently carries a series where former stars like Erik Estrada (of CHiPs fame) and Janet Jackson become police officers.
It’s fun to see them going through rigorous training, failing particular skills-tests and going on the road to encounter real wrong-doers who recognise them from their televisual past.
The voyeuristic charge for the audience seems to be balanced by the re-vivification of dormant careers.
The second strand is the selection of nonentities on the basis of their uncontrolled sexuality, volatile personalities and limited but profane vocabularies, setting them up against each other and priming them not to candy-coat their mutual attacks.
Not that they need priming. TV is the greatest trainer ever invented, and those whose main source of information is the Box know from childhood what it wants.
It wants excitement, fights, tears, sex and quotable quotes. Therein lie ratings — and ratings are what it’s all about.
Media professionals helplessly collude in the abolition of their source of livelihood — real news — by referring to this kind of television and the knock-on coverage it generates as "popular culture." It isn’t.
It is formula TV, derived not from reality, but from manipulation of disparate elements which would never be found together in any real context.
Even if the claim that this is "popular culture" were accurate, the assumption that popular culture is intrinsically meritorious is unjustified.
The popular culture in ancient Greece was complaisant about the abuse of children by adult males.
It was considered to be a major contribution to the life of a pre-adolescent boy to be sexually adopted by a lettered elder, who would initiate the youngster into the pleasures of servicing the sexual needs of the older man.
Literature and the other arts recorded and supported this practice, and to this day, paedophile rings point to ancient Greece, with its confluence of ideas, art and enlightenment, as a paradigm justifying, if not actually requiring, repetition of such sexual behaviour in our own time.
Central to the popular culture of many Native American tribes, pre-Columbus, was their casual happy drug abuse.
The Puritans and other early settlers were mystified that young men who could be incredibly aggressive, fit and active would choose to spend the majority of their time quietly mashed out of their minds on peyote buds, cannabis and tobacco.
In the case of the Native Americans, this was not just popular culture, but religious culture into the bargain.
But then, popular culture at any given time tends to reflect the deeply-held beliefs — or, significantly, the non-beliefs — of a society.
Those setting out to oppress or manipulate a people or a section of a populace have always turned the current popular culture against its proponents.
Roman emperors ensured the subservience of the masses by providing them with bread and circuses, knowing that a full belly and the thrill of seeing a Christian torn apart by a starved lion achieved the contemporary equivalent of rave reviews and high ratings.
SOMETIMES, the ruling classes have had the wit to institutionalise the most powerfully-oppressive elements of a popular culture to serve their own needs through the generations.
Hence the use of "fagging" in British public schools where little boys, already traumatised by removal from their homes and families, were subjected to processes (not unlike those employed by the Marines) calculated to break down their individualism and transform them into unquestioning servitors of their seniors.
It’s only when the ruling classes begin to see, in a previously-sanctioned element of popular culture, a developing threat to their own survival that they will take action against it.
Duelling was a valued part of that culture for several centuries.
No public parkland went without the arrival of a group of people who — up to the insult delivered in his cups by one of them — had been bosom buddies, but who were now divided into two sections, the duelists and their back-up men, the latter devoted to ensuring the liturgy and ritual elevating mutual assassination into something noble were fulfilled.
They took their swords or their pistols, those young men, they lined up back-to- back, they measured out the required paces and they turned to mow down their opponent. All in the name of honour.
Irish history is dotted with the stories of men of enormous promise cut off in their prime — or, just as importantly, men of enormous promise not cut down in their prime but responsible for the killing of another in circumstances that would haunt the more sensitive of them for the rest of their lives.
In the 1800s, one of the biggest factors depleting stocks of good officers from the army and navy was dueling.
A letter written to one of the navy publications suggested that it was time this serial killing was seen as what it was: the most florid manifestation of a group overly dependent on alcohol.
Gradually, because dueling no longer met the needs of those governing society, the practice fell into disrepute and illegality.
Excess has always been part of the more dangerous aspects of popular culture.
Excess consumption of food and drink, leading to the vomitorium, was an accepted, even lauded, element of the culture of ancient Rome.
Today, we do the same thing, only with a wider audience.
An American radio station recently ran a competition to find out who could drink the most water in the shortest period of time.
A girl who did particularly well in the contest died a day later of water intoxication.
The payoff was national, if not international, name recognition of a previously unknown station, just as the payoff for the most recent reality-TV bout of bile will be further fame and employability for a talentless nobody.
And until the ruling classes (advertisers, in this case) decide this kind of programming runs counter to their interests, it will continue.
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