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reality tv                                                                            



The nearest genre is also the most distant. The news, current affairs programmes, the documentary (a very different framing of the real).


Formal. Many genres of representation blend together bites of the real and artifice. So-called 'reality tv' offers a new level of mix. This refreshment of form is further augmented by an aleatory  element; we know what will happen but not who will be there (and so what will happen next). In this certain uncertainty lies the key to the holding power or entertainment value of narrative. A mix of the inevitable and the unexpected, of expectation and novelty will keep them watching.


A postmodernism of the popular. Reality tv appears as a citation of the real within a world of artifice (with artifice as the illusion of access to reality). A very postmodern trope: the mixing together of types of representation (genre) one of which is the re-framing of a live transmission as its centre-piece (citation). Reality tv offers us a popular form of the postmodern techniques explored by Cindy Sherman (citation) and David Lynch (genre mixing).  The form of citation employed lies in the citing of a putative reality and not a copy acted out nor the recreation of an original situation (a mimetic reproduction); the mix of embedding context and embedded citation parallels the opposition of frame (including forms of introduction and presentation) to content (the situation deemed 'real', object of the viewer's desire). Genre mixing is therefore manifested on the most fundamental level - that of art and its object. Reality tv is the popular form of putting the real back into representation.


The ambiguities of the relationship of art and its object are further intensified when word or image perform the thing in question, rather than simply represent it (to perform, to show, to tell; the reality effect in descending order).  This sense of being more real - more intense- than reality is an aspect of the performative; by re-knotting together of the separated strands of sign and thing, the rift of representation and reality is healed, a sense of the whole again obtains.  As performance reality tv is truly 'live'; as a performative it 'enacts itself'; it is thus more present than the everyday, more real than the everyday reality of which it pretends to be a part (another name for such a intensified re-framed reality is rituality). Reality tv provides an artificial stage upon which this form of the 'real' can be made to happen, to be invoked, to appear (the formula also offers low production/labour costs; the audience pays for 'phoning in; the price of which transforms it too into a participant).


Reality tv also offers a new variation on 'realism', the tradition of fly-on-the-wall, cinema verité  - including the rough-cut return to 'hand-held' basics as signifying the 'real'. This new realism is opposed to 'Hollywood' realism (high production values and their concomitant illusionism) which is now felt to be artificial. The same cycle turns and returns the wheel of every generation in film-making (see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Blair Witch Project). Such productions are themselves a citation of docu-drama and documentary, of investigative reporting. This formula of the presentation of the apparently unmediated, as seized upon by reality tv is now multiplied by variation and cross-bred with other genres: the desert island 'Survivor' form; music contests; and even applied to everyday skills (hairdressing etc). (A formula not suited to sports contests, as the voting down of people regardless of their athletic capacities would contradict the competitive ethic which runs on physical skill and not on skill in gaining audience sympathy).


But what does it mean? For the audience, it would seem that it is, still,  sex that is the secret (Foucault). Purience has survived the sexual revolution and is live and well, concealed in its hiding place of pornography as well as advertised on prime-time television. 'Real' sex is the key to the search for 'real' people (sex as the secret of identity; witness the negative image of this in the homophobia of today's masculinities in crisis). We all get to take part in a version of the 'people experiment' (put a group in a room, watch what happens) an experiment which leads to 'authentic' knowledge as we witness 'real' reality taking place - a revelation of inner truth. In this creation recognition, truth and voyeurism are intertwined. (Yet others profess that there is more meaning in the spectacle of wallpaper drying.)


Yet it is competition, the pressure in life, that is portrayed in the reality tv show. This pressure to compete - the life-blood of the participants - reflects our fears and stresses; not least the tension caused as our passive aspect is faced with the continual intimidation of greater powers (the inbuilt competition in any efficient system or institution as well as the twin competitions of the everyday, for recognition, and of economics). This continual pressure of everyday life then leads to the desire for revenge by an audience who can, through their participation, become active, finding power and glory in the voting-off of people from the world of the show. This 'seizing hold of reality' is the key to the centre-piece of reality tv, the process of elimination (disguised as competition in talent shows) a process which intensifies the sense of reality, artificially making it yet more 'real' (more charged with affect for both participants and audience). We might note here that 'reality' is defined by intense experience, not objective or indicative description: the converse also holds, the 'real' - that is the open-ended or aleatory element - acts as a means to intense entertainment. There is a gift of identification for the audience; 'they' (people on tv) are like 'us' after all -  and so we belong, after all (this is the 'truth' we have been after). Reality tv shows are but recognition games objectified.


Mise-en-abime. The foregrounded element of competition suggests that reality tv is no different to watching sports; the genre with which it shares the strongest family resemblance (with the important difference that it is 'we' who vote). However, in its purest form, the context of the reality tv show takes place with 'talentless' participants. The middle case is that of Pop Idol, where at least some musical skill is required: the degree zero (or nadir) can be found in Big Brother, an affair playing with the notion of pure interpersonality - apparently a search for the authentic self, but actually representing a cynical and paranoid view of the 'matter' of 'the social'. A privileged and revelatory manifestation of the invisible bonds of society present in their fullness and pregnant with meaning (just as the 'soap' manifests these same relations in the form of the Romance accelerated so as to be more nearly akin to that of a La Ronde). Whereas what is actually manifested and performed are the consumerist relations of the media. We ask for a window on reality: what we get is a mirror within a mirror.


Libidinal economics/identity exchange. It may appear as if the bottom line of the reality tv show is a voyeurism where the pleasure gained has its source in anothers pain (a pain commodified, performed, packaged and presented for the viewing public - a tamer form of the spectacles which sustained the Imperial Roman public). Yet if there is an exchange involved it may be that of a level other than that of the libido (with its voyeuristic and sadistic modes of appropriation). There is also the small matter of the economics of identity to consider. In the latter case the operation of recognition and disavowal functions on a level both individual and collective - with a concomitant modelling of the self upon and against others, and through the negation of others (the power to chose).  Perhaps what is at issue in reality tv actually lies within the ambit of an economics of identity: an identity exchange. Prompting the question: could the success of reality tv be based upon its affinities with ritual?


The formula for public involvement lies in the sacrificial element. The sense of community is to be found alongside a sense of pleasure; the source of affect lies in an investment of the self (the making of the self into a vessel for the communion with others, and so the loss of self, as of time spent in economic production and in the biological and social reproduction of the species). Perhaps the element of sacrifice to be found in all contests (from the point of view of the viewer as well as the competitor) is but a residue of the contest's situation in the midst of festivals, the periodically held public rituals of generalised exchange (things, people or marriage, ideas and identities or religion). This is also the formula for the scapegoat (perhaps in this latest formulation the desire or demand for the scapegoat is made safe - is turned to innocent or harmless ends).


In the victor, the 'best', we find an echo of the crowning of a king for a year. In some cultures such a figure was sacrificed at the end of his 'term'; dethronement (disappearance from the public eye) is the worst fate reality tv has to offer, as the laurels are passed to a new victor. To be at the apex of the pyramid is to be at the nearest point to the heavens; in this universe the the nearest place to eternity - top position on this side of temporality. Lasting longer, in comparison to other competitors, proven to be of above everyday ability, the surviving competitor or contestant is effectively chosen as the equivalent to, if not the manifestation of, the ideal - itself eternal by means of its abstraction and (putative) universalism. Given the length of our social memory even the king for a day (now famous for 15 minutes) retains the echo of this structure in the collective mind of today - encrypted in the networks of the media.


In gathering to watch. A trace of intense ritual is to be found in all pleasurable gatherings; stronger but still like the ghost of the funeral dinner in the modern dinner party, or the Sunday family gathering (not yet obsolete in the West). The same can be said of sporting events as carriers of an intense collective frisson. Whence the importance and continuing popularity of sports (now delivered directly to the home by satellite) generally perceived as a traditional part of masculine identity, but increasingly playing an important role in a feminine identity no longer limited by an inflexible stereo-type. Given the collapse of traditional identity, not least of traditional masculine models, this ritual role of sport has become more important, most particularly among the most challenged or threatened groups (those of the under-class, or among the ex-working class). Identity is reconfirmed by these witnessings; sealed by a sacrifice of time, and so of money, to technology - to the creation (and recreation) of a special -indeed sacred- moment.


Identity also holds the key to the role of everyday temporality in reality tv and its ritual functions. The pleasure of the present refreshes the hold on the past and induces positive expectations for the future. The (ritual) release of the moment cleanses the self of stress, self-doubt, and in this way the illnesses of recognition are allayed, leaving the self free to face the future.  It is important to have a sense of the past as, in all senses, behind one, waiting to be called into use and not knocking on the door of the self with its insistent demands. Distraction, then, is an important function of reality tv, not as escapism, but as a kind of cure for the ills of time, a temporal catharsis, leaving one able to cope with the tidal onrush of the future into the present.


Amid the myriad uses and functions of reality-type tv programmes there can be found two whose persistence in human affairs suggests a more profound significance: the search for the secret which is not one (a structure common to all religion, the rhetorically potent 'absent centre'); together with the muted, co-opted and commodified cry for ritual revenge - with its key element of exchange, the scapegoat. It is this latter structure which still slumbers, tamed for a while, in the glass labyrinth of the technologies of communication, awaiting its turn - the eternal instant of blind rage that constitutes its next time.





                                                            Copyright 2003 Peter Nesteruk