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The Perversity of (Real)ity TV: A Symptom of Our Times
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Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.2 (2003) 320-329

The Collapse of Reflection: Living on the "Tain of the Mirror"

One cannot help but be bombarded by the plethora of so-called "reality television" that defines the contemporary American television landscape—America's Funniest Home Videos, tabloid news, Hard Copy, A Current Affair, American Journal, America's Most Wanted, The Stories of the HighwayPatrol—as well as stunt videos of every conceivable extreme sport you can name—motorcycling, skiing, skateboarding, bungee jumping, parachuting. Then there are the natural and human disaster specials, and so on. More interesting, for my argument, has been the emergence of the new reality game shows like Big Brother, Survivor, Robinson (Britain),The Mole, Love Cruise, The Amazing Race, Temptation Island, and Boot Camp. All rely on the domestication of video technology that allows camcorder shots, vigilante documentation, shock reportage, "real" voyeurism, and the obsession to present for viewers—"live"—the reality of their own streets, neighborhoods, homes, and the lives of "ordinary" people engaged in sometimes extraordinary events. The private has become public and "probic/phobic," as if social reality has been stood on its head, inverted, its insides pulled out exposing them on the surface like the "guts" of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The success of the low-budget film The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrich and Eduardo Sånchez [II], 1999) would have never been possible if its audience hadn't already become accustomed to accepting the new televised "look" of "reality" based on odd, "in-your-face" camera angles, jittery tracking shots, and "naturally" recorded sounds with no edits. All this so as to radically dramatize and capture the intensity and panic when "something" foreboding and pent up inside a seemingly contained and safe form (e.g., a house) suddenly erupts. Or, something unexpectedly coming from the outside disturbs the tranquility of equilibrium (e.g., a natural disaster), thereby suddenly intruding into personal space, collapsing all distance with its shock value. Capturing the unexpected accident, or hoping that one will happen while recording is what gives reality TV its particular flavor of "presence," of the here and now, of the instant.

If ethnographic documentary film could be considered a forerunner to this genre, in the sense that it also claimed to capture "reality" as it "truly" was, reality TV"s stylistics are its very antithesis. What is missing is any omniscient authorial voice-over to distance the audience, and the sheer evacuation of monotony where, at times, nothing seemed to happen, a characteristic of documentary films which often gave them the reputation of presenting boring didactic messages. With reality TV something is always happening, the voice-over having been literalized, made carnal into the talk or game show host who appears to be acting impartially, simply making sure the rules are being followed. S/he is a conduit for fairness, in effect representing the "dumb" witness of the jury as Everyman so that the full judgment of the Law can be parceled out; the sentencing of the players and/or guests appears just and impartial. The superegoic judgmental Law remains hidden and absent, displaced away from the scene of the crime. I refer here to the producers who set the rules and the stakes, whose backroom dealings are never revealed in the way the rules change to meet ratings and audience participation. Robert Redford's production of The Quiz Show (1994) provides a telling example of just how obscene this Law can be; how it can abject the Other in the name of justice and fair play. It is a superego who seemingly, on a whim and at random, gives generously—for gluttonous consumption—and equally without any explanation or warning, takes the prize away without the least bit of remorse. After all, "its just a game" and audience ratings are a priority. This superegoic structure of the reality game show (e.g., Who Wants to be A Millionaire?) mirrors precisely that of the natural or human disaster. The superego appears to be amoral, for its moral authority has been vacated. After all, "its only an accident." No one is to blame. Life must go...



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