Nov 21, 2007

Ghosts watching the machine

You use the word “Satan” to describe the structural principle of human existence in which both disorder and order are built upon untruth and violence: disorder created by mimetic conflict and order restored and established by persecution and destruction of scapegoats.
          -- Brian McDonald, in an interview with Rene Girard

Contemporary television drama could be graphed on an axis of outrage. Perhaps usefully.

On one end, we would have the original Law & Order, where the assistant district attorney Jack McCoy keeps up an impossibly heightened and blustery sense of outrage which seems totally oblivious to the normal compromises required by the job. At the same emotional range, we have Jack Bauer, in 24, who takes on terrorism with an emotion so angry that it can only be translated, in the plot, as torture.

On the other end of the scale is House's Dr. House, where what would usually be a quirky secondary character who totally lacks concern (cf: Dr. Cox, in Scrubs) is moved to the center, so the core is total acceptance of the compromises required by the job, and the dissonance that lack of outrage causes with the surrounding world. In that direction, but not to that extreme, attempt to sort of self-couter its own emotion, we have CSI: Las Vegas, where some character (taking his or her turn) is always shocked and appalled, during an episode, and all the other characters repeat that they are bound, by science, to be unshockable.

At both ends, there's an internal tension -- sensed in bad acting & too-easy plot solutions -- between the shows and their material. The shows seem to be imagining radically polarized viewers, in the sense that they endorse a certain sort of viewing by arguing against another sort of viewing, arguing that it's impossible, unthinkable, and unimaginable to view the material that other way. In doing this, they elevate those who disagree to a sort of specialized status,* while denying those viewers exist. Thus, the shows with the strongest emotional content are actually those designed around nonexistent "ghost viewers," who are simultaneously hypothesized and denied.

Cf: Rush Limbaugh's continued references to listeners in "Rio Linda" and "seminar callers," or, in a very different case, the fake, rabid groundswell of aggressive and applauding conservative youth watching The Colbert Report,** or the so-called backlash against Janet Jackson's exposed breast during the half time of a Superbowl game. It's not that the cultural wars are actually faked, but that both sides have to constantly act like the opposition is faked, in order to maintain their own certain rightness, i.e., their emotional content.

This is also the basic method of political argument, in contemporary political entertainment. So that global warming could only be rejected by cave dwellers (who couldn't exist), and opposition to the American detainment camps could only be held by one who wants to be terrorized (which would insane).

Interestingly, maybe, American politics in the late 20th and early 21st century can be construed along the lines of emotional content. The public discourse seems to be such that "liberal" equals "concern," especially "excessive and whiney concern," and "conservative" equals "outrage," especially "loud and paranoid outrage." (Concern, of course, is understood as "motherly," while outrage is thought to be "fatherly," as if we were all raised by thoughtful but over-worried mothers and morally upright but sometimes violent fathers.) For this reason, the good-natured, weight-loss poster boy, Mike Huckabee, and the young, big-eared Hawaiian, Barak Obama, seem starkly out of sorts with the 2008 presidential race.

*There's probably an insightful point to be made here about the way this explains the great social orders, ideologies and massacres of the 20th century.

**Fantastically, the rabidness of Colbert's character is taken to the next logical step when the fake news show host is referred to, in the captioning for the deaf, as "Col. Bert," printing the man's name like he's some sort of rouge military colonel. He's like Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, except that, where Mr. Kurtz was dead, Col. Bert doesn't exist.