Here’s Big Brother Singing and Dancing

“Here’s Big Brother singing and dancing so I don’t start thinking too much for my own good.”[1] Alan Harper (John Cryer) to his son: “Oh, are you starting that book report already?” Jake Harper (Angus T. Jones): “Just making notes.”Alan: “Good for you! What do you have so far?”Jake: “Lord of the Flies is kind of like Survivor but with kids.”Alan: “That’s an interesting analogy. What’s your favourite part?” Jake (obviously hasn’t read the book): “Erm….when the first kid gets voted of the Island?”[2]How can one define reality tv? Apparently, the common denominator of reality tv shows is transparency. As the term “reality tv” already suggests, what the tv audience gets is the “real thing”, nothing is hidden. Whether it be the fickle romantic entanglements and domestic habits of the inhabitants of the “big brother” barracks or the primeval “hunter and gatherer skills” of some MTV-rejects stranded on an island idyll, the message that is burnt into the subconscious of the audience is: this is life, as it is, unfiltered, unaltered, ultimately real.

While it is needless to point out that the countless hours taped by the CCTV-style cameras are of course edited by the producers, the audience can nevertheless enjoy the illicit pleasure of the voyeur, eavesdropping on those unwitting prisoners of a public spectacle. The audience believe to find themselves in the position of “big brother” himself, that elusive, totalitarian and omnipresent figure from George Orwell’s 1984.

But what if we, the audience, who think that we are in the god position, are the actual prisoners? Wouldn’t this mean that the inhabitants of the various reality tv shelters are the actual big brothers watching us? Are they even our gods?

According to mimetic theory that is exactly the case. Let me explain. In Girard’s conception of the “archaic sacred” its function is to protect society from its own violence. The mimetic conflicts within society are transferred onto a victim which is scapegoated and resurrected as the archaic divinity, whose reign is absolute. The resulting rigid societal order is reinforced through the spectacle of ritual and sacrifice, to ensure the internal peace of society. This blindness to the transference of one’s own violence, is of course Girard’s definition of myth. Since the revelation of the innocence of the victim in the Gospels, this kind of society is no longer possible and we gradually arrive in our modern situation, where, as Girard has described in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the Gods have come down to earth.

There is a downward path leading from the myths, concerned with the heroic but capricious acts of gods, over Homer, recounting the adventures of godlike men, the novel genre, still concerned with the nobility of human beings, to the vulgar banality of reality tv. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting Homer on a par with Big Brother, or the great novelists with reality tv – God forbid – what I’m saying is that all the examples fulfil the same function with respect to the mediation of desire. The move is from external, godlike, mediator, to internal, human mediator. Whereas the archaic gods of myths seem eternal, thus being guarantors of the stable, crystalline world of archaic societies, our reality tv idols are ephemeral as mayflies (or literally ephemera, the Greek word for flies). Reality tv is the prophetic fulfilment of Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

Maybe not every 15 minutes, but still, weekly one of those idols is voted off an island, kicked out of the big-brother cardboard-refuge, or has to leave whatever other god-forsaken non-place the whims of a pop-culture graduate have devised. Girardians will of course classify this ritual as a weekly mini-sacrificial crisis that is resolved through the expulsion of a scapegoat in a farce of democratic voting. But since these mediators are internal, their position can be reached. The implication is that everyone can be the focus of the desires of millions of tv viewers. Remove the obstacle, the mediator of your desire, by voting him off and join the echelons of the nobodies whose lives are followed by millions. Forget talent. Never has it been easier to be on tv. No skills required. Just be the boring “yourself” you’ve always been and people will love you (that is: you have to imitate the template of meaninglessness of our current culture, the antics of the person you just voted off and you’re in). But remember: only for 15 minutes.

Thus reality tv is the focus for the desires of the masses. Like the lottery, a small number will become rich, but the crucial point is that anyone could potentially be the winner. Like the lottery winner or the victim of scapegoating, the choice of the reality tv participant is arbitrary. There are no criteria (except as mentioned in an earlier parenthesis the arbitrary criteria of the banal fad of the day) you could be the god of the island. But again my kill-joy memento mori is: you too will be voted off the island.

The desire to be on a reality tv show is of course mediated. In a sense we are all shocked by the fact that the mundane, uninteresting lives we see on tv – are interesting to so many. I remember that I was still in high school when Big Brother was first broadcasted in Switzerland. Absolutely everyone watched it. Of course in imitation I too watched it, so I could belong to the circle of the informed. It is being that we desire and reality tv promises us being, even if it is only being watched.

To return to Chuck Pahlaniuk’s initial quote: so here are all those big brothers and islanders singing and dancing (although not very well), holding us captive in front of our tv screens either through utter boredom or fascination at the spectacle of the mundane. The “sacred” reality tv holds us together at our tv screen, it preserves the societal order, isolates us from our mimetic conflicts and allows us to vent our violent potentials on a victim “by voting someone off”. The only difference really to archaic societies is that we scapegoat our gods weekly, whereas they turned their scapegoats into gods for eternity.

But what about those of us who don’t belong to the lucky few who get a chance to ascend to the reality tv olymp? How do we bear the disappointment? Luckily enough, reality tv shows are peppered with advertisements. The hollow gods of reality tv are financed by the products that we buy. Our egos that aspire for the heaven of the reality tv shelters are soothed by the fact that we think we can buy “being” through consuming goods. We too, at least according to the advertisements, can still become godlike through purchasing iPods, cars, watches etc. As the British author J.G. Ballard has put it in Kingdom Come(2006), his last novel before his death: “The consumer society is a kind of soft police state. We think we have a choice, but everything is compulsory. We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens. […] Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people.”[3]

Consuming controls our urge to storm the reality tv shelters. Just imagine what would happen, if there were no inhibitors to this urge to occupy the god space? If everyone would storm the big brother barracks, or the survivor island? The latter would become a second Atlantis and the former a cardboard Carthage. It would lead, as conflictive imitation unchecked by a ritual always does, to violence without end.

As long as we consume, we not only ensure the financing of reality tv but we can continue to perceive it as harmless, if boring singing and dancing. So we happily vote off our Island and Big Brother gods and forget that behind all this singing and dancing is the conflictive logic of mimetic rivalry. In the initial quote from the US-series Two and a Half Men, Jake Harper is so accustomed to this harmless logic that he cannot but perceive William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a reminder of the conflictiveness of human desire, in these harmless terms. We don’t even want to start to think what would happen if consumerism should fail us; although the current financial crisis offers us a glimpse – but that is another issue for another essay.

Let’s return to reality tv. Of course, every sacrificial system wears out eventually. In Britain, for example, Big Brother has become obsolete. According to BBC News Online[4], Channel 4 has decided to discontinue the broadcast. But apparently this is not due to the falling ratings (from eight million to two million viewers over the whole running time of the broadcast) but in order to “prompt the most fundamental creative overhaul.” Yeah, right – as if this ever had anything to do with creativity – except maybe with the creativity to keep mimetic desire in check. And maybe this is what Channel 4 director Julian Bellamy means by creativity. We shall see by what new gods TV will bore or fascinate us in the future.

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[1] Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby (London, 2003), p. 158.
[2] Two and a Half Men, Season 2, Episode 10.
[3] see Ballard (2006), pp. 105,145.
[4] “Big Brother to bow out next year”, BBC News Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8221995.stm, 26 August 2009.