Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, February 28, 2005

Panopticon Paradise

Over at Salon, Heather Havrilesky's latest "I Like to Watch" reads out the sentence of death. The prisoner will eat a hearty meal.

Yes, I've been in graduate school a decade, yes, my Committee members are goggle-eyed at the deadlines I fail and fail to meet. Really, truly, if I don't finish this odious manuscript more than half a lifetime's work and a home-mortgage-sized mountain of student loan debt will all crash to the ground annihiliating the terrain for miles around with nothing in all the world to show for it as these things are normally reckoned, no signposts will remain to explain what on earth all of this was for... Disaster is waiting in the wings, peril abounds...

But come what may I will be watching "America's Next Top Model" this Wednesday night. Eric and I will order pizza and munch away basking in the radioactive awfulness of "American Idol," even when it surreally dilates over a succession of evenings with scarcely enough actual content to fill the human interest segment of a local news broadcast.

Heather helps explain what it's all about.

You know, I seem dimly to recall an argument in some coffee-table book or other by Baudrillard, in which he proposed that the presence of Disneyland, and Sea World, and the whole odd archipelago of amusement parks that surround Los Angeles like a bored invading army, are somehow able by radiating their own unreality so palpably to materialize the immateriality that is Los Angeles itself, to buttress that phantasmagoria of endless wanting into a real live place by bravura willpower alone, a special effect of stark contrast. These amusement parks were like veritable reality engines, Baudrillard said, conferring solidity on that dreamscape where the tar pits begin precisely where the rain of funny money ends. Like a Mama's warm "there, there," in the face of no there there.

It's hard not to see the function of the shows helmed by Miss. Misdemeanor, Tyra Banks, Paula Abdul as comparable in a way -- consolidating their own more real stardom in contrast with the humiliations their attendant wannabees slop through like blank-eyed otherwise comely pigs in a trough. Who knows what humiliations paved their own starbound hells like good intentions, they all evaporate in the relentless spectacle of sycophancy and cluelessness against which the stars rather vampirically glory like Olympians.

From the fact that the contestants are always even at their best second-rate copies of celebrities already grown stale in the original (look, another Whitney! another Justin!) we know that these contests are not roads to stardom in the least, that for these starry eyed tired-meat prostitute-types the road is already the destination -- the celebrity, such as it is, will almost certainly not outlast the contest itself. All eyes, no prize.

The prospective talents are scarcely more talented than (after all, sometimes talented) cruise-ship entertainers or show-queens belting out "Happy Anniversary" at Stucky's. And the hairball of pseudo-celebrity coughed up by the PR departments of these shows, a guest-spot on a UPN sitcom or straight-to-DVD crap-movie and then a straight shot to "The Surreal Life" and "Where Are They Now?" is only negligibly distinguishable from the "celebrity" of any random contestant spinning the Big Wheel on "The Price is Right," or for that matter every goddam shopper at Wal-Mart panned and scanned by surveillance cameras or any schmo who gets googled first by a stranger before arriving at a blind date.

The pleasure of these shows is akin I guess to the dark enjoyment the spectacle of the asshole who slips on a banana peal affords the mean lowdown abject id inside. But the deeper reality of the superficial reality signalled by these mediated celebrity-hunts is that privacy and publicity do not mean what once they did.

These dumb sad ferocious often blandly fuckable egomaniacs in these shows are too self-seduced and rampagingly sociopathic to have noticed that the protocols of real celebrity have changed, and that it is not their special genius that they are revealing to the world but something more quintessentially American, the farthest thing from singularity or creativity, but the endless re-conjuration of the audience itself...

The American, the consumer, the mass-audience, lord of the earth... a creature once described by William Gibson as "best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections."

1 comment:

s1m0n said...

I enjoyed reading this, and the salon article too. Panopticality is not something i am embracing with great joy, but its nice to see those two p-words together, and get a fresh take on the entertainment value of all this.

Baudrillard, despite being one of the most misunderstood philosophers on the planet, is probably also one of the best futurologists out there. In my view he goes beyond simple postmodernism and opens up the window into a much more complex, rich and detailed hypermodern future.

In a panoptical world, all the old rules get inverted and then the real "celebrities"- those members of society who are celebrated - end up being those people who have sucessfully secluded themselves from the rest of us. The ones we dont know too much about, who have turned their lives into a "privacy statement". For me this would be the best possible outcome assuming a panoptical society is inevitable, as opposed to all of us being forcibly stripped 100% bare by our new technologies.