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Sunday, November 27, 2005


More 'comedy'

Channel 4 will soon enter a new competitor into the ‘reality’ TV arena. Space Cadets. What can I say? Only that, given that the ‘candidates’ for the show were systematically selected for their gullibility and lack of knowledge and then exposed to a training course that deliberately filled the gaps in these people’s knowledge with lies, the claim that this show will be a tremendous hoax is pretty weak. Indeed, it is not a hoax at all. A hoax fools people who ought to know better – such as people in authority for whom there is a duty to know better – or whole, undifferentiated populations. Space Cadets is not a hoax, rather, it shares more in common with a deception, a con. It is the television equivalent of the people who convince, against any responsible judgement, old ladies that they need to pay thousands of pounds to update their burglar alarms or fuse-boxes. Masters of capitalism, I call these people, with their highly effective exploitation of a niche market, but our law calls them con-men. Why, given the MO of the programme, did the programme makers not select a group of mentally disabled people and play practical jokes on them? Or even give up of the idea of fooling the intellectually weak and simple go for slapstick involving the physically weak? Let us push over old people and obstacles in the path of the blind. Why would the makers of Space Cadets not make these programmes? Because those would be immoral, they might claim. But the truth, given their lack of scruples in exploiting the weak, is that they do not make these programmes because the television audience retains enough sense of decency to reject these. For now. I hope. But we ought to reject Space Cadets, or at least hope that it ends the careers of all the ‘professionals’ involved.

Exploitation entertainment; from X-Factor, a programme that has built its success on exposing and ridiculing the tragic ambitions of people who lack any sense of personal affirmation without celebrity (ensuring its own survival by feeding this pathology) to Space Cadets. From the standard theme of modern porn (no longer hiding the exploitation of women behind plot and glamour, but celebrating it) to Bum Fight, a successful American programme in which the destitute are paid measly amounts of money in exchange for them engaging in their own mutilation for the entertainment of people higher up the economic order.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that capitalism leaves as the only “nexus between man and man… [that of] naked self-interest… callous ‘cash payment’”. Everything is swept aside leaving only “egotistical calculation”. “[P]ersonal worth [is transformed] into exchange value” and freedoms are replaced by Free Trade. Veiled exploitation is substituted by “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”. They predicted (and hoped) that this process would lead to an awakening of revolutionary consciousness. Rather, we buy naked exploitation as entertainment with as easy a conscience as we purchase our sweat-shopped clothes.

While I agree that humiliation is a poor basis for comedy and I join in with your lament about the likes of Little Britain and a certain breed of reality TV, I’m not sure I agree about The X Factor. Although I can see your point regarding the first stages of the competition when they show the truly deluded making spectacles of themselves and being ridiculed harshly by some of the judges, I think the latter stages are just like the talent shows that have graced our screens for decades (and people do have a choice whether to go or not, I’m not saying it isn’t sometimes cruel, but come on, one can’t treat people like idiots, they must have some idea about what can happen on a show like that). I’m really enjoying it this year, there are some really talented people on it.
Well, given that X-Factor trumps all other talent shows on TV, and given that it plays much more strongly on the humilation aspect of the early stages to secure its audience than other talent shows, I'd say that it fits into the trend - being at the mild end, Bum Fights at the other - of exploitation as entertainment.

More, just because someone makes a decision to participate, it does not mean that they are not being exploited. Even if we were to say that it did, are you seriously telling me that some of the very strange people shown on some of the early X-Factor programmes have any greater grasp of the world than old ladies conned into paying thousands for useless burglar alarms?
just because someone makes a decision to participate, it does not mean that they are not being exploited.

Sure, but just because they are being exploited doesn't make the decision to participate a wrong one for them.
I agree with that.
I wouldn’t disagree with you that there is a trend toward humiliation on TV at the moment and that the X Factor is guilty of this in some of the ways that it represents people in its early stages. As for exploitation, I’m not so sure. While I agree with you to some extent that power of representation resides with the producers of the show, I think we have to be careful about throwing around strong words like exploitation, as it tends to be without any sense of graduation (and this is correct I would suggest). Take bullying for example. If we say all aggressive behaviour between people is bullying and that everyone has been bullied (as the children’s commissioner wrongly stated last week) then we lose our ability to talk sensibly and effectively about bullying.

I regret the trend toward humiliation in broadcasting, but I would resist the notion of exploitation in these circumstances, reserving it for other situations. Power certainly resides in the relationship between participants and producers, but to talk of exploitation is, I think, to risk dulling an important political term.

I also think Jarndyce has a point. And I would add, just off the top of my head, what about those Japanese game shows that thrive on this sort of thing?
Thesisville: I disagree there. Call a spade a spade: it's exploitation. What's needed is a bit of sophistication to split cases of 1. voluntary and/or mutually agreeable exploitation, from 2. those that involve greater amounts of coercion, and therefore can't accurately be labelled the result of free decisions.

I see what you're aiming at re: bullying (where I agree with you). But I'm not sure the analogy quite works, unless your definition of bullying is so wide as to be useless.
My point is that exploitation is an important term that will lose meaning if we use it to talk about more subtle and complex processes. Therefore, no, I think it’s wrong to say that what’s going on is exploitation: it’s not a spade I’m afraid. I think the idea of a sliding scale of exploitation is deeply problematic.

The point with bullying is clear. The children’s commissioner sets out to define all negative or aggressive behaviour as bullying and by doing so does what you suggest and makes the ‘definition so wide as to be useless’. Similarly, I suggest this is the case with exploitation. If we are talking about, say, personal advantage gained from an exchange relationship with others, then what couldn’t be called exploitation? It seems to me that one could set up a sociological model where everyone is in relationships of ‘voluntary and/or mutually agreeable exploitation’ (Max Weber’s work is perhaps a little related to this position). I think such a theory would be pretty poor. It would run the risk of altering the effectiveness of vital arguments for social justice that absolutely demand a strong notion of exploitation.

But what really bothers me is the unethical nature of presenting humiliation as proper human conduct. I actually think that talk about exploitation in this case is missing the point.
Well, for me, exploitation is any situation where your surplus is knowingly and systematically being extracted for profit — i.e. work, business and related fields. Mowing your auntie's lawn for a free Mars bar doesn't qualify. So, no I don't think calling this exploitative is wrong or just some mushy all-encompassing label. I also don't agree that we have any need for a "loaded" notion of exploitation to seek social justice. The born-disabled might never go through life being exploited, but social justice demands they be cared for. A murdering, exploitative dictator still ought to be treated humanely on his deathbed. In fact, I'd go as far as saying exploitation was just a bare fact, not something of moral interest at all outside the individual relationship. Certainly not something that needs to be kept sacred for leftist sloganeering. Justice isn't retribution or redress of exploitation — it's simply justice.

Third, I don't agree that these shows are presenting humiliation as proper human conduct, just presenting it as normal human conduct, which it is, however unethical you or I think it is.
Jarndyce, under your definition the mowing the lawn vignette does seem to qualify, at least it does while you don’t factor in a large number of other issues that you seem to take for granted. What I’m saying about exploitation has nothing to do with ‘loading’ it as a concept. What you’re undertaking is a sly rhetorical trick: I’m suggesting a definition just as you are. Your point about the born-disabled is out of place – yes, they deserve social justice, but I never said social justice was just about exploitation. Likewise the dying dictator example.

It also seems that your ontological position is just what I said would make a poor theory, if you do indeed understand exploitation as a ‘bare fact’. It goes without saying that this is a position we differ on entirely. As for your cheap shot about ‘leftist sloganeering’, I fail to see how you’re making any point at all, other than slagging me off, which is fine (I’ll happily take it), but not much of an argument.

Your last comments about human nature are quite interesting. Are we to take it that you believe in some kind of ‘natural’ or as you suggest, simple justice, which is somehow beyond moral systems? Can you explain how such a thing would work? Regarding the notion that ‘normal’ human conduct includes humiliation, you make a very loaded argument. Are we to take it that you believe in nature red-in-tooth-and-claw? Thinking that normal human conduct includes humiliation is not some factual understanding but is itself an ethical statement, one that is often clouded by a notion of scientific objectivity.
Are we to take it that you believe in nature red-in-tooth-and-claw?

Absolutely not.

As for the rest, I'm not slagging you off in fact. Not sure where you get that idea from. I agree with most of your first para. Second, leaving aside notions of scientific objectivity and the like (after all, if you take that all the way to Hume, we don't know anything, which seems rather pointless), I do see exploitation as a bare fact. In the pure Marxist sense of "extracting surplus". The mowing the lawn example doesn't work because there's a relationship there that goes beyond the employment relationship. I'm also not sure you can deny humiliation isn't part of human nature: surely you've witnessed it hundreds of times? It'll take a mighty theory to deny something that happens every day isn't part of natural human behaviour.

I doesn't mean I condone either, by the way, just that I'd start any theory of how the world ought to be from the starting point that both exist. And take notions of justice and what it means from there.
Blimey, a proper old fashioned Marxist! It’s kind of reassuring to know you lot are still around. I have to say that I prefer the early Marx myself, before he got bogged down in capital. At least I know we’re singing from vaguely similar hymn sheets now. Personally I think Foucault and Bourdieu had much better understandings of power than Marx, although Marx is still essential to both of them.

In terms of human nature, I’ve seen hundreds of things done hundreds of times and I’d never say they were natural human nature. (It’s like that game where you try to explain something obviously cultural in terms of an evolved adaptation: fun, but ultimately very silly.) As for mighty theories that deny these are natural behaviour, well, there are plenty in philosophy, history, sociology and psychology. It all depends whether you mean ‘natural’ as in genetic or evolved, or as in embedded in culture. Or perhaps you mean it’s in our ‘species being’ to use a phrase from Marx?

Given your foundational understanding I can see why you’d start a map of how you might like the world to be by accepting that both humiliation and exploitation exist. Of course, I’m sure Marx would disagree with you, as he’d most probably see them as historically situated in the capitalist mode of production rather than essential.

And I myself wouldn’t be quite so negative. I think there’s plenty of evidence contrary to your position, showing that people are on the whole, jolly decent. Why not start with such aspects as these to found an idea of human nature if you feel you must have one?
Blimey, a proper old fashioned Marxist!

Well, in some respects, i.e. how I might analyse certain things, yes, but I'm probably better described as a liberal. In the sense of Rawls, that is, rather than Charles Kennedy.

And I myself wouldn’t be quite so negative.

I don't think it's negative. More this: most people are capable of being altruistic some of the time. Some people are capable of being altruistic most of the time. But designing a system around most people needing to be altruistic most of the time is a recipe for disaster. Of course, designing a system that relies on people being venal most of the time is no good either. Hence redistribution in a Rawlsian sense - i.e. not paternalism, "looking after" unfortunates, but giving people their due. Obviously, that's very simplistic but I've only got five mins...

On human nature: well, yes, I know there are theories to explain a whole host of stuff, including Marx's contention that it derives from the dominant mode of production. Personally, I'd rather open my eyes on this. Humans can be good, very good, but they can be nasty bastards too.
Ah yes I see. Interesting perspective. I don’t have much more than a passing familiarity with Rawls, but when I’ve got some more time (!) I’ll be meaning to catch up with some of that stuff. I’m still to be convinced (by anyone) that a foundational notion of human nature is necessary for understanding society. I tend to look on them with a great deal of scepticism, most probably because I’m a sociologist with an interest in knowledge, culture and domination, and a fondness for post-structuralism.

A balanced view of goodness and bastardry would certainly seem more suitable if one wants to put together a model of human essentialness, but one problem with this is that one side can often get subsumed into the other, just as with altruism is in crude models of selfish genes. I’m not sure what you mean exactly by opening your eyes though, but as you say, time is short…
I’m not sure what you mean exactly by opening your eyes

Just taking an empirical approach, basically, rather than relying on theories that aim to describe ideas/behaviour as solely or even mainly the product of X, whether that be the economic system or a reaction to structures of power or whatever.

Good luck with the post-structuralism, by the way. You must be way cleverer than I if you understand all that stuff...
Yeah I figured it was something about empiricism. As a researcher I tend to struggle with this balancing act on a daily basis, often moving in a circular motion. The trick with post-structuralist texts is this: choose wisely, trim thoroughly.
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