The age of consent

“Interactive” TV has made our culture more conservative than ever

Boredom has come disguised in bright new colours this decade. The past ten years have been marked by the creeping triumph of a cultural conservatism that has insinuated itself so thoroughly into mass media that it now goes unperceived. In his book Cool Capitalism, the cultural theorist Jim McGuigan recalls the old analogy of a frog being killed by water that gradually but imperceptibly heats up - it does not realise it is being boiled to death until it is too late.

No longer dressed in staid grey, the new cultural conservatism that enjoys full-spectrum dominance blitzes us with hypnotic hype - the whole neuronic assault and battery of multimedia marketing and interactivity that seems designed to ensure that nothing will ever happen again. It aims to wipe our memories clean and to make us forget that there was ever any alternative to this New Fifties.

McGuigan's book describes a dual process in which, on the one hand, disaffection is incorporated into the mainstream while, on the other, banal business presents itself as cool and cutting-edge. Nothing sums this up more than the rise of television business shows such as The Apprentice and Dragon's Den, in which dreary and charmless opportunists get posited as charismatic cultural figures.

Cool Capitalism is also about class struggle, of a sort - although the struggle that McGuigan focuses on is not the familiar one, between owners and workers; it is in a sense internal to the bourgeoisie. It is the old struggle between the refuseniks of bohemia and the agents of business. The story of this decade has been about the defeat of bohemia by business. Now business wants not only to control culture, but to be culture, too. On the other hand, culture prostrates itself before business, like a cowed kid sucking up to a swaggering bully.

Take Bono's Red initiative, for instance. "Philanthropy is like hippie music, holding hands," Bono declaimed. "Red is more like punk rock, hip-hop; this should feel like hard commerce." What is this if not a statement of the triumph of cool capitalism? Punk and hip-hop are subsumed into hard commerce, as if not only now, but also in the past, it was only ever about the Benjamins. Don't resist, synergise.

The Apprentice and Dragon's Den are themselves synergies of a sort, between business and the dominant new mode of entertainment this decade, reality television. Reality TV is flat with the anti-cultural imperatives of business: cheap to make, it does ideological work even when it is not giving guru status to dull business people. It fits in with capitalism's anti-mythic myth: the idea that we have liberated ourselves from the dangerous illusions allegedly propagated by art and politics.

In an age falsely presented as post-political, abstractions are eliminated, and the personal, the biographical and the emotional come to the fore. "Tell us how you feel" becomes the ubiquitous demand, as calculating business and a hugely amplified sentimental interiority become the only two faces of "reality", the cynicism of the one using the alleged authenticity of the other as its alibi.

Much of reality TV has been like the worst nightmares of Theodor Adorno and Jean Baudrillard come true, its seductive allure turning us into gossips in the global village. Long ago, Baudrillard presciently recognised the significance of the "fly-on-the-wall" documentary format and anticipated the way in which entertainment culture would no longer require passive subordination to a spectacle, but would feed on participation. Phone or text in your vote. You decide.

But the other side of this supposed democratisation of entertainment culture is the strange rise of the business "judge". Who would have suspected a decade ago that the most important cultural figure of the decade would be an insouciant entrepreneur such as Simon Cowell? What is interesting about Cowell - the smiling personification of late capitalism's "interactive" apparatus - is his brazen presentation of himself as a businessman rather than a man of culture. His decisions are taken purely on the basis of commercial imperatives, just as his stature is based not on his cultural achievements (this is a man, after all, whose most convincing claim to credibility would be working with Leona Lewis), but his quantitative success.

Cowell's ambiguous popularity is testament to the audience's need, even in the midst of this supposed market egalitarianism, for a pantomime paternalistic figure who can tell them what to think - even if they end up rebelling against those judgements. Recently, he has bizarrely caused controversy on The X Factor - the kind of "controversy", of course, that he cultivates - by not exercising judgement: in other words, by letting the voting viewers have the final say, something that those selfsame viewers protested against.

The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, Cowell's other vehicle, could be dismissed as irrelevant fluff, but the sad truth is that, with the end of Top of the Pops and the rise of multichannel TV and niche narrowcasting, they are now the closest thing we have to a public space in entertainment. Yet it is a space where it feels as if punk never happened, and indeed, neither did rock'n'roll. It is the return of Tin Pan Alley, with eager young hopefuls dutifully performing songs written before they were born and being required to show deference to banal corporate megastars on the make. It is a world that is, oddly, both entropic and changeless, where the audience is never challenged, and people are always given what the marketing machine anticipates they want.

At a stroke, the 2008 bank crisis robbed the business class of much of its credibility. So much of popular culture - all those property and home improvement shows, as well as the reality/entertainment matrix - now looks like the relics of a bygone era: glossy ruins that are still standing only because there is nothing yet to bulldoze them away. But if bohemia can rouse itself from defeat and depression, the cultural terrain seems open for contest in a way that it has not been for a long time. Perhaps soon we will be able to look back on the Noughties with a shudder and think: how did things ever get that bad?

Mark Fisher is the author of "Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?" (Zero Books, £7.99)
He blogs at k-punk.abstractdynamics.org

 

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