It's one of my favourites and seems even more relevant today when looking at the evolution of the Internet. I urge you to read it in conjunction with Daney's comments on the evolution of television in the documentary Journey of a cine-son, especially the bit about how Gérard d'Aboville behaved on television after his solitary crossing of the Atlantic.
The market of individuals and the disappearance of experience
The success of reality TV may point to a double phenomenon: the taking over of television by society and the moulding of the compliant individual. The price to pay is high: nothing less than fading out the idea of human experience.
Like any boat that has suddenly realised it can sink, television is becoming interesting, and real questions finally appear on the horizon of our impassioned cathode-ray tube. Some of these questions are massive. For instance, how TV channels, in order to produce tomorrow’s audience (you, me, but in a more docile and less moaning version), are already exploring new forms of social caretaking? What role will television have played in the great theme of ultramodern societies: the setting up of a true market of individuals (which might only be the friendly version of a slave market)?
For if television started by conquering the market, this conquest wasn’t enough to produce the merchandise adapted to the market: the professional individual of today. For a long time now, we’ve witnessed the shaping of this new hero of our time: ever more personalised, tagged, labelled, i.e. reduced to the gaudy folklore of the smallest differences. Of course, no one consciously thought through this process, but it has been possible, for the last few years, to follow its development. And the author of these lines, for example, has often felt alone following it.
Let’s not go back too much over the well-known phases of development: the recasting of Public Relations towards a progressive de-legitimisation of its members (1). The old reasons which granted a certain right to intervene in the public sphere (passion, pedagogy, expertise, talent, beauty, rarity) have given way to the bad manners of no-fuss, friendly but meaningless mercenaries. It has become embarrassing to be a Mr. know-it-all in a medium whose power is founded on the equitable sharing of average ignorance and indifference.
This de-legitimisation has hit hard politicians who, used to watch themselves so beautiful in regular and established TV shows, naively didn’t see that they were fuelling National Lepenism. Hence the fierce debates: democratisation or consensus? Consensus or demagogy? Demagogy or (soft) fascism? This de-legitimisation spared no sectors of social representation, including journalists.
Broadly, the bourgeois society has stopped paying well-wishing bards in order to showcase its own values to itself, preferring the looping images of consensual silence to the old theatre of loud dissension. It can only astonish anyone who lived through the crisis of the idea of representation, theoretically mistreated in the 1960s and eventually slashed in 1968. Did we exaggerate? Who will re-think all this?
Television was where this tipping point recently happened. The capricious and rubbish policies of the French Socialist government helped the good people understand that television was eventually escaping from the authorities, the sharks, the educators and could finally become the people’s thing, meaning comfortably frivolous and destitute. This explains the popular support to Channel 5 in its struggle for commercial survival, having become something between Justine and a Saint, as it was, very humanly, reporting on itself and complaining (with reason) on its troubles and the misfortunes of its virtue.
Television finally handed back to the people? Why not? This is, at least, what the young sharp things at the celebrity media agency Sygma-TV are thinking. But one must not think that such an operation could happen by itself. Television will be handed back to the people only if the people becomes at the same time a TV-people, and that implies, as is always the case, technicians to work toward (and profit from) this mutation. For this is a big piece: the re-shaping of the people, who is now asked to play its own part, but no longer simply as an inanimate mass, an audience rating upholder of justice, as silly game show contenders or applauding cattle, but truly as personalised heroes.
Hence programs like The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives (2) – titles in which one can clearly reads the idea of the emergence from obscurity or the return into the light. For these shows are not just about any form of heroism (there are some controversial ones), but only about small-scale events leading to the unique (and familial) mythology of redemption and second birth. In a new age era, one must accept that such a myth could be, in final analysis, the only horizon of a television which, by the way, has renounced to nearly everything else.
Is it good or is it bad? One thing is sure, the result is, aesthetically, not watchable. So if it has so much success, it’s not because it concerns the gaze (for there is in the gaze the possibility of critical distance, ethical resistance or aesthetic judgement) but clearly because of something else: nothing less than the collective learning of the gestures by which a large mass of outcasts will learn to play its role in personalised scenarios which it is assured are – finally – its own. Why not?
If that’s so, this mutation is certainly threatening the existence of other mythologies, that of the artist of course, but of the actor as well. For what is an actor if not the man or woman with an immemorial passion: the passion to be another, which predisposes some among us to take it upon themselves to re-act the experience of others.
This is obviously the meaning behind Patrick Sébastien’s attacks against The Night of the Heroes. When we are all invited in advance to be one by one the heroes of our own lives (lives that now belong to us and whose copyright we will eventually learn to monetise), how can the actor-impressionist not feel his own existence threatened? He has a horrible suspicion: his particular talent may be of less interest than the non-talent (or even the depressing worthlessness) of these heroes who emerge from the night and, in a Wharolian way, quickly return to it!
Will the passion to be oneself eventually replace the passion to be another? Are we simply witnessing a mere moment – extremely mediocre but transitory – of the great human emancipation which, even jagged, has secularised beliefs and individualised man for centuries? Will it be enough to redraw, every time, the boundaries between the secular market and the desecrated human, meaning the sacred and non-negotiable share (let’s call it the Other) which will always remain at the heart of the human animal? One can think so, but with no joy.
Because, with this market of the individual, of which the American reality-TV shows are but the latest symptom, we can spot what must be lost and the price that must be paid. The idea of human experience is definitely lost. It’s as if television had suddenly sat down a whole people on the couch of a psychoanalyst who would work on an assembly line and who would, instead of listening silently to the too beautiful rants of the legendary Self, applaud the patient at the first session and tell him: you are sublime, everything you have said is exactly what you have lived, re-enact it in our home-TV-style (which is your home by the way) and you will be cured.
Can we so readily throw the baby of human experience with the bathwater (even used) of a few past centuries? This doesn’t seem reasonable. Until a recent date, the person who, by desire or by profession, asked questions to fellow human beings, knew that nothing is less easily communicable than experience. It’s even because of this difficulty that we can recognise experience. “It went very fast, I didn’t feel (see, understand) anything... It’s after that... It’s very difficult to explain… Today still…” are the sentences that millions of tapes and cameras have recorded for ages.
And it’s because experience escapes us – especially when it’s strong –, that we needed mediators (from the saint to the charlatan, from the friend to the traitor) to help find the words to say it, actors to lend their bodies, artists to explore every possible ways, and writers to conclude, sadly, like Virginia Woolf, that “life experiences are incommunicable, and this is the cause of solitude”.
Any experience that can be easily reduced to the show of its reality is not an experience. Or rather, it’s not the experience of the person who said he lived it, but the experience of a group with no ideals which will always prefer the adjusted and repeatable spectacle of the re-enactment to the intimate anti-spectacle of the already-performed. At stake is the very possibility of the social fabric, and one mustn’t believe that Hollywood, in its golden age, was doing anything else (just look at Sirk’s films).
So it’s possible that the great market of the individual, based on disposable heroes and proper scenarios, has decided, in agreement with the interested parties, to move on to the counteroffensive. This is why the idea of subjective truth is skipped everywhere on television or appears as an elitist and definitely unbearable luxury. It is even possible that the cathode-ray tube finally finds a mission matching the political and mythological interests of the France group: the interests of catechism.
Why catechism? Because it’s something serious, not very cynical and that, like advertising, has to do with Good. And, once the evil (communist) empire has evaporated, the future actors of the economic war will really need to believe in some Good to give meaning to their actions. That being said, catechism is neither blind faith nor science of the theologian, it’s a tangible ensemble of silly procedures which transform the flock in puppets willing to accept a belief that they no longer have had to experience - at least not for a long time.
In this sense, the catechism of The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives is the well-wishing and emotionally quivering realisation of what was announced by the 1970s porn cinema. On one hand, X-rated films got stuck on the depiction of the sexual experience (believing stupidly that it only needed to do a live monitoring of the organs and watch for the birdie). But on the other hand, it is true that these films reconstituted for their audience the idealised and reassuring show of continuous sex as a clear fantasy and an imperishable, male and monotonous myth.
In the same vein, American reality TV (and let’s remember that any TV is always American) replaces the patchy and indescribable experience of what has been with the sleek and uninterrupted show of what will have been. What will have been is the aesthetic summary and the humanitarian catechism that any market of the individual will need. This future perfect (which I believe to be the essential tense of audiovisual media) is both a correction of reality and a visualisation of corrected reality.
Our heroes are finally able to see and know what they should have been like when they come on TV to share their biographical bits. And, alas!, we’ve seen it too: they must resemble bad TV, bad cinema, bad theatre. The price seems high: to be on the side of the collective Good (because the group wishes to be in communion with its TV from the comfort of his own home), they must be terribly bad (and terribly humble).
Some will say that catechism is no great mass, requires no fear or trembling, not even a return to religiosity. However catechism wishes that we, clones allegedly dressed up as unique individuals, renounce forever to having our own memories of what we have lived, unless it can be re-lived with the help of Pascale Breugnot (3) holding our hands – meaning in a very bad way, but in front of our grateful and tearful eyes (what wouldn’t we do to be loved?).
Eventually, behind the fairy dust of the myth that television is handed back to the people and the individual comes out of the night, it’s still about – even in France – the village demanding its share.
First published in Libération on 20 January 1992.
(1) The recent misfortunes of Patrick Poivre d’Arvor’s fake interview of Fidel Castro can only rejoice us.
(2) La nuit des héros and Perdue de vue: 1990s French TV shows idealising real rescues by ordinary people and searching for missing people to reunite them with their families [translator’s note].
(3) French TV star presenter of the reality TV shows era [translator’s note].