[-empyre-] From Reality TV to Mr.Coffee

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Mon Jan 17 12:25:42 EST 2011

My contribution for the week will be broken up a bit.  For the first
part, I'd like to describe the path I took in my research, because I
started my graduate study precisely on the question of panopticism,
but then drifted under the influence of my mentors, which culminated
in a study of home automation, consumer practices, and futurism.
Second, I'll drift into a discussion specifically of smart houses.
And, then, depending on where the conversation goes.... I might post a
third thing.

I'd also like to mention, briefly, how useful the previous week's
discussion has been to my thinking.  Thank you Christina and Marc.  I
especially appreciated the Bourdieu link and the discussion of
neoliberalism, especially in relation to lifestyle.  Similarly,
Cynthia's reference to artistic production and the netopticon is also
relevant, especially if we reflect upon Stiegler's claim in Technics
and Time, Vol 3. that the temporal object is that which is
synchronized with consciousness....  and in our contemporary moment,
that dominant "consciousness" is that of the global exchange market.
In effect, the netopticon sort of "synchs" our minute expression of
agency with a larger cultural system that can anticipate and program
wants.  In other words, the notion of the artist working through an
individual expression negotiated with criticism is not so much a
factor.  Instead, art is increasingly positioned on the pulse of
culture that is marching to a different drummer.  The critical
response is not necessarily a dominant function....  as much as
"currency," "traffic," and "eyeballs" serves to motivate cultural
production (which is not necessarily cultural production).

In any case, thank you for a great month so far!  And, thanks
especially to Simon for organizing this discussion and inviting me to
participate.  I start my contribution this week below the signature.

Early on in my graduate study at Bowling Green State University, I
found myself fascinated by reality television.  In particular, I spent
a lot of time watching “teenage boot camp” shows, puzzled by the idea
that teenagers could be punished before an international audience.
Behind each parent, child, drill sergeant triangle, was a nation of
children struggling to assert their own autonomy, parents suffering
from their own obvious feelings of powerlessness, and a political
sphere offering spectacles of swift “justice” as compensation for its
own disappearance.  In a sense, the troubled teens did not seem to
mind having their bad behavior put up to public derision, their acts
of defiance were being magnified, after all.  Instead of telling their
parents to “stick it” behind closed doors, they could tell everyone
with a certain level of approval implied by the fact that they could
tell their story to a televised audience.  Parents could publicly
demonstrate their commitment to parental authority, hopefully shifting
the blame for their children’s bad behavior squarely onto their
incorrigible children.  And talk show hosts, backed by mean-mugging
drill sergeants, could step in where family, the state, and society
have failed, offering “no-nonsense” services that would restore
parental authority and reform wayward children.  The pinnacle of the
boot camp ordeal was always the spectacle of the bad kid sobbing,
reduced to slobbering tears under the heel of authority.   They would
cry.  The audience would cheer.  But most of all, the adolescents
would return to the show, thankful for the humiliation.
(Here's an example--Jenny Jones, "Bootcamp My Busty Teen":
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnjDLsYPJUE )

As graduate school wore on, I drifted away from fascination with
teenage boot camps.  (After a rash of deaths and abuse allegations,
the teen boot camp industry has waned in popularity, and networks
seem to have backed away from boot camp-related programming).  What remained,
however, was my interest in the way that mass media shapes public
desire.  Many critics have noted that reality TV seems to fit within
the confessional trajectory outlined by Foucault in Discipline and
Punish.  But I was not all that interested in what the parents, teens,
and drill sergeants on TV were getting from their public performance
of disobedience, judgment, punishment, and reform.  What I became
interested in was in the relationship between the audience and the
programming.  While, certainly, scholars like Fiske and Radway had
opened up my thinking to the idea that subjects are not passive
consumers of mass media content, I found myself taking their
conclusions in different directions: What if viewers were actively
producers of a culture that was informed by (rather than resistant to)
these narratives of power?  What if, in a society of diminishing
opportunities, such miserable spectacles offered, in addition to a
cynical bit of amusement, “real” opportunities for audiences to apply
power in social situations.  In other words, I was interested in
thinking about how mass media narratives might be applied at the
popular level.

Then came 9/11.

Before 9/11, the US was undergoing a shift in political ideology.  In
its place, we were encouraged to become competitors rather than
comrades.  The impact of Reagan and Thatcher on culture have been
widely discussed   (For a sustained discussion of cinema during the
Reagan era, read Douglas Kellner’s Media Culture.  For an interesting
take on “Reaganism,” see Mike Dubose’s “Holding Out for a Hero”:
http://faculty.gvsu.edu/kanekot/coursedocs/AnnBibExample.pdf).  The
general gist of this transformation can best be summed up in
Thatcher’s famous distillation of objectivist philosophy, “There is no
society.  There are only individual men and women, and there are

Before 9/11, the United States had suffered through various
flirtations with xenophobia and paranoid fears.  Throughout US
history, there have been rising and falling waves of nativism and
white supremacy, often against the backdrop of dispossession and
declining opportunity (for an overview, read Ron Takaki’s A Different
Mirror).  In fact, the very same drive towards potent individualism
highlighted by the conservative yearning for a more competitive
society was intimately tied to the perception of hostility beyond the
walls of the home.  Scores of studies exist that reaffirm the central
premise of Gerbner and Gross’ “cultivation theory”: the rather common
sense idea that people’s general view of the world is informed by
culture as transmitted via media.  In particular, the “Mean World
Syndrome,” describes the correlation between fear of violence and
mediated representations of violent crime, a notion which was borne
out over the last several decades as the nation has been transfixed by
fears of illegal immigrant drug mules, “superpredator” minority
children, the “ground zero” mosque, “anchor babies,” affirmative
action, kidnapped tourists, and other stories that combine the fear of
crime with the fear of the alien within.

Before 9/11 (and the recent economic “crisis”), the United States had
also been undergoing a radically accelerated redistribution of wealth
from the bottom upward.  The neoliberal turn, described with
remarkable clarity in the works of David Harvey, provides the basic
economic backdrop for the disintegration of civil society through the
carefully managed privatization of everything from knowledge to
municipal utilities, from health to transportation, from public space
to government (For a great synthesis of Harvey’s work and a
provocative call to thought and action, see Brian Holmes’ “Fault Lines
and Subduction Zones”:
http://occupyeverything.com/features/fault-lines-subduction-zones/ ).

What 9/11 accomplished was to harmonize the three tendencies.  Sure,
many people are capable of critical thinking on a case by case basis,
but what I saw after 9/11 was an effectively managed public
consciousness, not through the top down injection of ideas into the
heads of brainwashed zombies, but through the active application of
ideologies of “resistance” to civil society itself, to cultural
pluralism, to liberals, to Muslims, to Mexicans, to gays, to anyone
singing the siren song of unity and cooperation.  I don’t wish to
overstate my concerns, because there are numerous examples of people
engaged in positive, socially-engaged, cultural production.  What
concerns me, however, is that these gratifying modes of being have
become the delivery mechanism for anti-social content.  While the
means of cultural production might be consistent with the act of
“poaching” or “tactics” highlighted in the work of Michel DeCerteau,
such means are not inherently utopian.  As DeCerteau explains in The
Practice of Everyday Life:

"Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping,
cooking, etc.) are tactical in character. And so are, more generally,
many “ways of operating”: victories of the “weak” over the “strong”
(whether strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things
or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away
with things, “hunter’s cunning,” maneuvers, polymorphic simulations,
joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike" (xix).

What concerned me was not that I saw these practices coming to an end.
 The world DeCerteau described was, in many ways, quite distinct from
that of 21st Century America, so in some sense such comparisons are
very challenging (Take, for instance, American cooking.  Home cooking
was briefly considered an oppressively tedious form of drudgery to be
solved by convenience foods and eating out…..  now, home cooking has
become an act of privilege and refinement, while convenience foods are
now generally considered low class.  While DeCerteau’s discussion of
shopping and cooking could be applied to these scenarios, there can be
no simple one-to-one correspondence). What concerned me was that these
practices could be co-opted, that cunning marketers could facilitate
such tactical maneuvers (or what if the “imposed order” was
re-defined).  Resistance can just as easily be deployed to inspire
workers to agitate against their own salaries and benefits, against
the health and education of their children, against the peaceful
coexistence with their neighbors or the preservation of the global
habitat, against affordable transportation and public libraries, etc.

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