…All come together in the band.
Science fiction is a state of mind.
I’ve talked about this before, perhaps with greater perspicacity, but I’ll never be able to talk about it with any greater cogency than now. This is really something. This is a story we’ve all been following without really knowing what it is. How many SF shows and stories have seized on the Reality TV phenomenon since it started becoming something actual instead of notional? Many, many, many, many…and for quite some time now, maybe as much as thirteen, fourteen years? I can’t remember, exactly; each new era obscures the old, deforms time and space around it. When the reality show suddenly at last WAS, after being postulated in SF since at least the Fifties, since it was salvaged from the flood of futures that never were and anyway couldn’t be, since it was weirdly brought to life out of the seed-bank of some other Present’s cultural exaggeration, some other present’s extreme cautionary tale…well, as soon as it made its Athene-like debut, then suddenly this was the new real thing of the moment that SF had to deal with and reflect, exaggerate so as to warn against…and that it had already existed as SF became a negligible fact. Irrelevant, as the old stories and movies acquired a folkloric sheen. There is a story about “Whiskey Jack” among the…is it the Cree? I think it’s the Cree…Native readers please forgive me my dilettante ways…among the Cree (let’s say) folkloric archive, wherein WJ is transported to a strange, hard world full of bright roaring monsters, a land absent of earth and sky and reason: he merely steps across an invisible line and there he is. And he doesn’t know how to get back.
It takes little effort, these days, to see it as the earliest possible draft of 12 Monkeys.
Hauntology, again, perhaps: in the Western imagination the future haunts the past as much as the past haunts the present. Amy knocks it out of the park as naturally as we would assume any Poodle would, who’s been steeped like tea in the samovar of Western culture…Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dr. Manhattan wading up to his knees in the sand of the Bestiary, deserted Atom Cities and empty Ballardian swimming-pools, vine-covered gantries that launch nothing at noplace: the spaceship always arriving at one’s own deserted front door, lights blinking on the message machine under a veil of dust. Bomb light in faraway windows. It really doesn’t take much, when you consider the social function of the shaman in pre-industrial cultures, to see a Western metatextual apocalypse in every visit of Coyote to the Underworld, a prediction every time Arthur’s knights interrogate a fish about the whereabouts of some possibly-unreal Mr. Big. It’s very noir, really; as every mystery implies a problem of philosophy. Every locked-room murder puts Plato in a nutshell. Every problem for every detective is a restating of the problem of the limits of knowledge. So our life isn’t covered by the film of dust, it is the film of dust. And everything is of the surface, and the depths are mysterious and unreachable. The moving finger points, but never in that direction.
But every new era must obscure the old; and so we miss something important of the old Cree tale when we see 12 Monkeys in it. These things are actually not like each other, our god of the sea is not your god of the sea only wearing a different name. The old shamanic duty is not to see our Western hauntings everywhere, as ubiquitous as starlight…but to imagine, precisely to imagine, all that is not an echo of fate rippling across the surface of possibility toward us. Because that’s our hangup, not theirs. Because not every revelation reveals the same thing, you know?
Or maybe you don’t know, because I’m being too damn obscure about it. Okay, fine; I only mean to say the new era obscures the old. Once the American version of Survivor came along (in the almighty Year 2000, wasn’t it? That number that was the master of my youth?) the warnings of Sheckley and Dick, never meant to be considered as anything but satiric exaggeration, those warnings that lost their force in direct proportion to how non-exaggerated they became…receded into the past, utterly. And we just plain watched the Reality TV. And spun up tales based on a Present where they were anything but imaginary or cautionary.
Yet they didn’t have a story. They lacked a narrative. Sheckley and Dick and all the others had their narrative, the only one that really applied, and this beggared the new SF a little, because…well, what was there to say about it all, that was actually new? Reality TV is not a subtle thing, it contains no insights peculiarly appropriate to the 21st century: all the insights pre-date the container by decades. Maybe, maybe there is something to be found about culture in it: the “social experiment” stuff they always paint these things with, it works differently in different places. One can profitably compare Temptation Island UK to Temptation Island Australia. Survivor reveals much about how deep certain national stereotypes can go, I mean I grew up knowing a lot about America and Americans, like h’all Canadien I’m a little bit of an America expert, but I learned stuff from watching Survivor…and if I can, anyone can. There was a show about how blinkered and stupid businesspeople are when it comes to the knowledge of the larger culture, it wasn’t supposed to be about that but it was…though I can’t remember its name either, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for it…and there was that Gay Witch-Hunt show, whatever it was called, that with only a little tweaking could have told more about America than anybody really wanted to hear said out loud. I myself came up with an idea of a reality show in which I would play the main part: “which one of these corn-fed American beauties will have to date…THE LOSER?“ Cue the Neil Young riff. Actually I always wanted to see a “find true love” show where the sooner you get booted off, the more money you get…
First girl out of the hot tub is a millionaire, ladies…!
And the second gets half of that, and the next a quarter, on and on right down the cost of a single sad red rose. But to be honest (as the guys on Temptation Island UK were wont to say), as entertaining as this might have been, it would not actually have told much more that Survivor: Marquesas already had. The Brits buy into the conceit so much that the reward systems become secondary, the Canadians do not buy into it enough for the game to ever be much more than a game, and the Americans exist in a strange dualistic arena between these two. I speak very generally, but only because that’s the point: it is possible to put people into an environment that is so fortuitously arranged that the stereotypes show themselves in whatever true shape they have. And it is not un-illuminating. The Apprentice showed how critically important it is to know how to talk to the boss; the Celebrity Apprentice shows that sometimes it doesn’t matter how you talk to the boss, or even how you perform. Well, we already knew that too, of course…and in the end no show featuring Donald Trump is going to teach us anything any better than Kafka already did. Well…
Maybe one thing. But it’s something we already know: that Donald Trump is an arch-vulgarian and that Marlee Matlin is deaf?
Everything — and I can’t escape the feeling I’ve talked about this before? — that can be extracted from the goddamn Celebrity Apprentice is implicit in those two entwined facts. Trump is outraged that Marlee Matlin seems not to revere Dionne Warwick; Ms. Matlin responds that she is DEAF, YOU KNOW? And you see, then, why she’s really there…and why he is, too. In the UK, mind you, these things are quite a bit easier to see: in the States, the idea of satirizing Reality TV was passe almost as soon as the thing was born. Meanwhile the Ninth Doctor still takes time to blow Big Brother up and call it madness, and Ricky Gervais still tweaks the viewer’s nose with unapologetic happy endings. That actually ended up going past the script: I’ll always treasure the memory of Leslie Stahl going up one side of Ricky and down the other when he dared to suggest on 60 Minutes that he sometimes feels a bit guilty about being paid so well. His defence? “Well, I grew up quite poor, you know…”
See, it is possible to arrange things so fortuitously as to reveal the truth behind stereotypes! As on that day when 60 Minutes became a reality show in which Leslie Stahl played the part of the contestant…
But mostly, merely being observations of a passing kind, these are trivial illuminations. Side-issues; not at all what Reality TV is about. Because we know already what it’s about. Because we’ve been told. But, the problem is…
That’s all in the past, now. The narrative that turned it all around and related it to us as a story is dead, killed by Time, its meaning buried…never to rise again, only to be an empty shell whose soul has been evicted so the rents can be raised. The ancient mythology of the 20th century, as much of the fossilized past as any mythology, no matter how mythological tropes continue to compel our interest by infecting it. The Big Brother house is Purgatory, just like the island on Lost, but nobody bothers to say it because it doesn’t matter if it is or not. Jeff Probst is a sickeningly smarmy colonialist Hades, your King Of The Dead is our King Of The Dead now, see? Trump is an ugly, penny-obsessed Charon, but it’s all static. There’s no life in it except a commercial life, ad space and product-placement. It can’t really teach, because its narrative is the “teaching” part…when Arnie puts one over on Richard Dawson in The Running Man, when Dave dismantles HAL in 2001, when White Zero hits the world’s edge in Kirby’s…well, 2001 again!…and when anything happens to anyone in a Dick story and my God what was ever the name of the Sheckley protagonist I’m thinking of or for that matter the guy in The Shockwave Rider, well that’s where the teaching is supposed to happen, when the story ends that’s when you’re supposed to get your moral, but this Reality TV shit just goes on, and on, and on and on, and on and on and on and on…
…Or does it?
Actually, it doesn’t.
And if you were watching TV last month, then maybe you saw it come to an end. Oh, and don’t make a mistake: this is the end. Even Rome fell, you know? As so too has that Big Idea of Mark Burnett’s, that he had in that hazy crazy year of 2000. Narrative, I honestly never expected to see it either, but lo and behold here it is…because all we really needed was a protagonist, right? And that’s exactly what Reality TV does not want us to have, why it does everything in its power to hobble and frustrate and cage personality. Admittedly it does this in the cleverest way it can, by pretending to care more than anything about personality, but if you’ve ever spent any time at all watching it you’ll know that its goal is to turn judgement into cruelty, its goal is to make punishment and reward the same movement, and keep that movement as purely gestural as possible…because it is the show that’s the true protagonist here, and the show has an avatar but the avatar is still just an avatar…because the nature of the show is that it does not permit you to invest any person with importance. People are adornments to the show, and thus personality is strictly controlled by the editing process. I used to know people who complained that Survivor was fake…I used to reply that I wished to God it was fake, because if I was running it something would bloody well happen in it…! But you see this is just what The Man doesn’t want. To just script it, to manipulate it to that degree…well, human hands being driven by human souls, who could avoid throwing a hero up to the public if they were given the task of scripting it? Watch the edits: they edit away from any genuine personal meanings. Watch the times when they realize they have to introduce an element of “scriptedness”, or people will stop watching: they couldn’t do it in a more half-baked way. You’re told it’s “real”, and its most evil pretension is that it is real…the belief in the “reality” of it afflicts the producers of said shows far more than it does you or I. They need it to be real, they are committed to it being real. If you don’t think Jeff Probst was un-roped hanging on to the side of that helicopter in 2001 as he held the vote-basket in one hand and saluted the Statue Of Liberty with the other…then you don’t know the kind of sheer balls-out Anti-Life commitment that Survivor operates on. It doesn’t matter what anyone sees or thinks, or thinks they see: this is true to the core, this stuff. Has to be true to the core. Because it doesn’t want your love; it wants your allegiance. A schoolyard Big Brother, it doesn’t tell you that you must love it — it doesn’t want you to love it! — but that you must love something else that’s bigger than both of you. A false history, a fake tradition, a sense of nobility and transient character-truth that is total bullshit, but if you both agree to need it then it isn’t! How many times have both Trump and Probst brutally beaten down all that have declared the emperor’s nakedness? “This is not my truth.” Well then we’ve got to shame your ass, missy! Pure enlistment, pure conformity…pure agreement that there’s nothing more you need, that this! is! human! drama! Even if it plainly, almost palpably, isn’t. Because it is meant to sublimate every possible human story to its own eternally-frustrated narrative closure. The death of narrative, the death of closure, the death of what is real about the personality. And it’s gotta be enforced by any means necessary. And it’s what Trump fails at — so dismally! — with Marlee Matlin.
And, if you think about it…
…It’s what Jeff Probst, not to mention the larger Survivor machine, fails at so dismally with that Rob Mariano guy. You may not like him. You may be right to not like him.
But he, finally, is our hero here. Just like it was written in a book. Taking two kicks at the can, he beats the system once (though they do stream that victory into their non-narrative quite effectively at the time, and so perhaps don’t know they’ve been beaten), and then he beats it twice…and even a third time, more forcefully, by stealing its thunder at the big Round-Up they have after every “season”! And then they do get one over on him, but then he shows up again and takes away the only prize they’ve got to offer: not the million dollars, but their artificial dignity. This is a big Machine, this Reality TV stuff: it can afford to part with a million dollars. Heck, it can afford to give a million dollars away, to keep its viewers lulled-slash-stimulated. But it can’t afford any person getting done with it, and leaving its un-story behind. All that coerced investment, and bogus belonging…once it’s been busted out from, how can it continue to go on?
So this is the end. They tried to keep it from having an end, but it got one anyway. Why watch Survivor, eh? Now that somebody’s run the table? In hindsight, wasn’t that always the story: who would run the table? When this shit would sputter out and get thrown down the disposal chute? Whether or not Luke would hit that access port? Is it not the story? Is it not science fiction?
Is it not over, now?
So the new SF, now, is the fiction of what happens after. What if this show kept going, only they asked Mariano to host it instead? If you want to pretend it’s some sort of gladitorial combat or sport, eventually you have to start doing the things that identify it as such. Eventually you either have to make it realer than it has been, or not. Either you accept the final emergence of the narrative you tried to suppress, or you don’t. Ah, but the fun thing about that is…
…Who’s to say the show wouldn’t change itself out of all recognition, if you once allow change through the door?
We used to have these reality shows everywhere. Remember? There were hundreds of them. Once, not too long ago, reality shows filled the skies…
Not unlike the passenger pigeon. We just haven’t noticed that they’re disappearing, and that soon they’ll be extinct. But we’re way more than halfway there, folks! Because here’s the fact: reality shows are all about artificial enclosure. They’re all about control. They may not hold up as genuine psychological experiments, but they mimic the form. Psychodramatic crises, one and all, is what they aimed to be: casually-generated, easily disposed-of, ultra-transient tension-generators. They were built on making a beast without a heart, then defying their contestants to find the heart buried somewhere in the jungle, and climb up and put it back in. “Winning” the game…that was never the real task at hand. Getting your hands on the million was never the true prize, the true achievement. You don’t have to look back a thousand years to see it, to see what that myth looks like and what it’s rising and falling action must inevitably consist of.
You only have to look back to the science fiction of the 20th century.
Which — I am prepared to declare — we are now officially out of.
And thus we’re perhaps ready to welcome a new kind of ghost into our parlours.
And a better one this time, eh?
Well, let’s hope so.