Tag Archives: reality TV

Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy.

“The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy on the basis of the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism.” (pp. 25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (pp. 27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Baudrillard says that people either immerse themselves “within the void of the spectacle” and find it exciting or they “get off by feeling less idiotic than the spectacle—and thus never get tired of staring at it.” Many liberals, while reacting on social media about Trump’s antics, “get off” by feeling intellectually superior to him. But it’s hard to outsmart stupid. Political critique enhances rather than demystifies the allure of the Trump spectacle.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large (with tiny hands). Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The society of the selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own (business) interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign (relations) film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Politics

Empire Of Illusion

In 1962 Daniel J. Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. A pseudo-event is a public relations tactic—a carefully crafted, television-ready spectacle that makes news for the sake of making news. Think of the press conference or political debate—in Boorstin’s time and today. Add the celebrity Twitter “feud” and star-studded movie premiere as current examples.

Boorstin wrote eloquently about celebrities, people “known for their well-knowness.” The Kardashians exemplify well-knowness today. Kim Kardashian rose to fame following the leak of a private sex tape. Her first press release was a case of pubic relations. Who’s screwing whom, we ask TMZ. In the end it’s the buying public—emotionally stunted pop culture voyeurs anxious for the money shot.

We are just as disgusted with the Kardashians’ antics as we are mesmerized. Some of us maintain a healthy dose of incredulity, refusing to support the Kardashian Hype Machine. We use irony as a weapon in a post-ironic world in which selfies replace family portraits and depth is measured at face value, that is, the sexual worth men—and women—ascribe to the airbrushed female body.

But beyond our collective eye-roll, the Kardashian Image persists, sharpening its focus while simultaneously extending its field of vision. The Kardashians not only go about their business, but get stronger. Our derision feeds their appetite for attention. They assume the challenge and up the ante.

It’s the same today with athletes, pop stars and politicians. Our feeble attempts to question the billions of dollars pouring into professional sports and the national committees of both major political parties go unnoticed. The rich and famous absorb all discord, trampling plebeians too dumb to see that personal investments matter more than the public good. We pay people “known for their well-knowness” to entertain us, to rid us of the illusion that change is still possible, that there still exists a space for committed political action against a self-serving Consumer Society.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Politics

Might As Well Trump

Two hypotheses regarding Donald Trump’s surge in the polls.

The first: Trump’s plain-speaking approach serves as a political corrective, a rallying cry against tired postmodern identity politics. His campaign is a referendum against evil Progressives and their audacious demands that all persons deserve dignity and a chance to succeed.

The second: Trump’s rise signals the next stage in the natural progression of a morally bankrupt political system that bears no relation to the people it claims to represent.

Ann Coulter but with less testosterone, Trump “gets” nothing and he’ll get nothing done. He’s the political voice of disaffected Americans who sacrifice their economic interests for the promise of making America great again—code for kicking out Mexicans and drug-testing welfare recipients.

Obama became a celebrity president. Trump wants to be celebrity-in-chief—executive producer of a new brand of must-see TV.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

I Must Confess

The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote back in 1976 that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” Foucault was referring to (post)modern man’s desire to humble himself while under the pressure of institutional forces like mental hospitals, prisons and schools. He argued that, like inmates under constant surveillance, the average citizen today has internalized the gaze of invisible prison guards. First to protect ourselves—and then out of habit—we end up self-correcting even if we’ve done nothing wrong.

Imagine if Foucault had lived to see the rise of reality TV and celebrity news channels.

We used to rely on the Church for our confession rituals. By the late nineteenth century, however, people started turning to psychotherapy for the sharing of transgressions. Folks still consult priests and therapists, of course, but over the years new digital outlets have emerged.

Now we have programs like Big Brother to witness on a global scale the trials and tribulations of misbehaving contestants. The Bachelor shares his personal struggles in the hopes of landing an equally troubled “wife.” We have Katie Couric to feel our pain and filter it to her wide-eyed viewers, all in the service of our rehabilitation, which is often court-ordered. Barbara Walters still makes celebrities cry when discussing their unbearable childhoods and subsequent drug, alcohol and sex addictions.

But what are we so guilty about? What impels us both to watch these less-than-intimate confessions and then repeat the process to strangers on blogs, followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook? Everybody does things he or she regrets, but it seems like we’ve made a competition out of who can repent the loudest.

Americans love a good comeback story, or at least the illusion that all of us can achieve spiritual renewal if we try hard enough. Our obsession with guilt is just the first step. The next phase involves giving stars like Charlie Sheen a chance at redemption. Until he—and you and I—screw up tomorrow and feel compelled to confess new sins. As we spin our truths for higher ratings, the world sits back and sets the DVR.

Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy