Self-Despotism: Reality Television and the New Subject of Politics

By Bourdon, Jérôme | Framework, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Self-Despotism: Reality Television and the New Subject of Politics


Bourdon, Jérôme, Framework


Hence, too, democracy's specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place-"bare life"-that marked their subjection.1

Best exemplified worldwide by Big Brother 2 or Survivor,3 reality television has attracted and fascinated all manner of commentators. The initial reaction was a "media panic," to use Kirsten Drotner's apt category:4 Yet, unlike previously known moral panics, there are no folk devils menacing society, rather situations in which the media are seen "both as a source and the medium of public reaction." Broadcasters, media experts, politicians, and psychiatrists, among others, in very different national settings5 have joined the debate, generally to condemn. A few voices, mostly from commercial media professionals, have praised the genre. While academics have been for the most part hostile, some have started producing research that takes stock of the phenomenon in a less axiological manner. Overall, "reality television" may become one of the most thoroughly researched television genres after news and drama; a remarkable feat considering its relatively short life span.

This article offers an interpretation of the global rise of the genre of Big Brother, Survivor, and their offshoots. It does not focus on the genre as highly specific and hence one worthy of radical condemnation or praise. Rather, on the contrary, the claim made is that it represents a wider transformation in the age of late capitalism. Such a triumphant, post-industrial capitalism seems to have defeated or discouraged opponents, critics, and the efforts of the nation-state to harness it to its own interests. Further, it has found a "new spirit,"6 one no longer based on entrepreneurial or organizational ideals, but rather on the ability of individuals to actively engage their personalities in various "projects" in order to serve the specific corporate interests of the moment. Even though television has been a major agent of change, the ideology of the "real" at work through reality television is not specific to television. As a prerequisite, however, we must deal with definition and evaluation, traditional obstacles to the study of the genre.7 This process will lead us directly to the political dimensions of reality television.

Definition

Most articles and books about "reality definition" start with the problem of "defining reality TV."8 Five years before the advent of Big Brother, Richard Kilborn noted that the term had become "something of a catch-all phrase, at least in the British context."9 Indeed, the phrase "reality television" has been used at different times, in different countries, without attempt to integrate them into a coherent definition of all manner of "labeling games." Furthermore, though these authors have had very different aims-to condemn, to support, to defend, to debate, rarely have they sought to define this phenomenon. The industry has been slow to adopt the phrase as a working definition of a new genre. Among academics, reality television is an ideal notion for theorists like Jason Mittell10 who seek to minimize the place of textual structures in discussion of genres and to use them simply as one element of a set of wider "discursive practices" that help to categorize texts. Although textual structure should certainly not be fetishized by the theorist, it still remains central to the analysis that is both general and specific to the case at hand. Furthermore, at a given moment of television history, viewers do make considerable use of textual characteristics to classify and to categorize programs according to genres, both traditional and new. More importantly, in regard to the case at hand, after the advent of Survivor and Big Brother, "reality television" has coalesced into a genre with a high level of textual and social stability. In many countries it has started being used without quotes, as a bona fide social label by the media and the industry.11

The definition proposed here is based on the "Big Brother family. …

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