The Postmodern Condition: "Reality" TV, Spectacle, and Authenticity
Exploratio Philosophia ꞮꞮ
Much ink has been spilled on the origins and inner workings of cultural spectacles1, so I won’t focus on this here (although I may devote a blogpost to them in the future). Instead I will be focusing on a case study of “reality” television, specifically America’s Got Talent, and what it implies.
America’s Got What?
Reality TV at its core is built on attempts to standardize and commodify the “Realness” of human experience, for the sake of ratings and and spectacle production2. America’s Got Talent is a perfect example of this, because of how effective their formula is at resulting in stirring emotion and images of authenticity3.
One component of the show is genuine emotion and talent, as the show becomes a stage on which the acts play themselves out. Another component is hype creation, where shots at creating “viral”4 content are taken. A third component is fetishization of the image, up to and including the implicit sexualization of child acts.
The most recent season (#15) brought together a series of reality TV “technologies”, ones designed and implemented to create the simulation of genuine emotion. They cut to the show about 10-15 seconds before the scene starts on set, showing the judges receiving their last makeup touchups, bantering, and prepping for “Action” to be called. Ironically, they are using the show’s production as a way to try to appear authentic, via unveiling behind the scenes content as part of the show itself. There is something sick about how it portrays unfathomably rich celebrities receiving makeup as some kind of authentic human experience.
Simon Cowell is an interesting component of the show, as like Gordan Ramsey, its hard to separate the cultivated persona from the person’s everyday attitude. One can’t say whether Cowell plays up his acerbic harshness or his compassion, but both are present in his image on set.
The authenticity construction reaches its peak with hype-man Terry Crews. Ever charismatic, they position him on the side of the stage, cutting the camera to him in order to catch his exclamations of “WOW!”. However, the simulation goes a layer deeper, as they occasionally bring Crews into the acts. For example, one daredevil act had a guy lay overtop a sword, with a cinderblock on his back. They had Crews run up to him, grab a sledgehammer, and smash the cinderblock, while the man remained unharmed by the sword.
Through imitating authenticity, “Reality” TV partially undermines the very capacity for authentic social interactions. In trying to simulate reality, we lose track of the very reality we are supposed to be "experiencing".
Simulacra and Simulation:
A book by Baudrillard, it is a seminal text in social theory. A simulacrum is a copy of a copy of a copy (potentially repeating ad nauseum), with no necessity of an original existing anymore. A simulation is a reproduction of a system, built to capture change over time. To prevent this post from ballooning in size, I must cut short my analysis of the text itself, however I plan to write more on it later. I will now include some of my more conjecture-based ideas on this subject.
To speculate, I think that hope and utopianism are the bridge between the imaginary and the real, and that both work together to enable social change. Thus I reject the nihilism of Baudrillard, for I think he gets aspects of analysis incorrect. The society of spectacle is indeed masking the lived experience of those suffering under it (those marginalized and harmed by cultural normativity and commodification of all things). But the simulation isn’t emptiness. Aspects of the spectacle are themselves touching upon the real. As Baudrillard’s quote of Littré says5, one who imitates an ill person will take on some symptoms of illness (for example, staying in bed). Thus, I think imitations of reality constitute an engagement with that reality, and thus touch upon aspects of the constructed real which we live in.
On hope, I believe that to change the world one must first believe in change. I don’t think social change can be proven axiomatically in any useful way. But that simply means its not a tautology. Realness can only be encountered, felt, experienced. To try to analyze and rationalize it is like dissecting a frog, you understand it better but the frog dies in the process. Perhaps I am taking a leap of faith here, but beyond it being necessary, I think its justified. Just because we construct our intersubjective and personal realities doesn’t make them fake. A bridge is a construct, and we rely on those to traverse valleys and rivers. They seem real enough to me.
In conclusion, authenticity is challenged by attempts to construct and serialize and sell authenticity. Does the politician shake your hand because she likes you, or because she wants another voter? Some of both? So postmodernity is the unveiling of something that has always been present, that of narrative. Not all stories are equally real, but stories encompass all perspectives (real, imaginary, and constructed).
I plan on writing a post on legibility, politics, and society. In it I plan to discuss how legibility functions within the “Reality” TV marketplace. I understand that I cover a great deal of ground quickly in this post, especially in my speculation section. I plan to unpack ideas such as authenticity, constructivism, utopianism, and commodification in future posts.
Most important is Guy Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle, which I draw from indirectly in this post.
For a brief explanation of Spectacle, consider the flower displays at the exit to nearly every grocery store. Consider the purpose of putting the gift shop at the end of the museum. In short, actual events get replaced by representations and images of those events.
I can’t help but be reminded of the Black Mirror Episode “1 Million Credits”.
This term has a new meaning within the Covid Era.
I erred in the original posting of this piece, and accidently credited Baudrillard with the idea.