The show is not the show,
But they that go.
Menagerie to me
My neighbor be.
Both went to see.
Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:
Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)
In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.
Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.
House Hunters television promo (2010)
House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.
If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.
I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.
For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!
Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.
Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize: although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.
Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”
When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.
In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.