“America’s Got Schadenfreude” – The reality of reality television

The complement to a culture of celebrity has become therefore the unabashed theater of cruelty, the public spaces where we gaze upon the half-speed car wrecks of the lives of others in the throes of failure, Nascar for the politically challenged. In one sense the programming of everyday sadism explicitly aimed at the poor and distressed is so ubiquitous that one need hardly recite the titles: The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil, The Apprentice, Shattered, Unbreakable, Big Brother, Hell’s Kitchen, Survivor, American Idol – it is hardly worth the minor effort that it takes to disparage it. A moment’s reflection reveals it is pervasive in American culture. Unremarkable people, desperate for some sort of acknowledgement and validation, yearning for some promise of escape from the stale and commonplace, offer themselves up on the altar of abject humiliation to an audience of millions; smarmy celebrities berate them to their face; and the spectacles proliferate because they are cheaper for the networks to program than either scripted fiction or news. In many instances, the audience is even encouraged to pay to “vote” for those to ostracize and banish – a clear simulacrum of the neoliberal marketplace.

Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, p. 133.

This sums up, in a few sentences, what has sat unparsed in my mind for the better part of a decade. I recall once in conversation using the title “America’s Got Schadenfreude” as simultaneous shorthand for and dismissal of these types of shows. It saved discussion. The characterisation so satisfied me that I had left things at that, and moved on to other things. I don’t own a television and I don’t watch television on my laptop. These shows are of no relevance to me. Yet what Mirowski writes here is important because it explains why not caring about (or indeed carrying around a psychologically analogical underground coal-seam fire of hatred for) these shows isn’t simply snobbery. That is the usual assumption when the subject comes up. “I don’t watch television” is a sentence that is becoming increasingly difficult for people to interpret in any other way than “I think I am superior to you”. The truth is closer to the polar opposite in that I think we are, all of us, so much better than what is put up on our televisions. Perhaps the part of my brain dedicated to a love of documentaries, PBS, and the (old) BBC is hyperdeveloped, and pressing on that part of the brain concerned with ‘just enjoying’ myself. So be it.

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