Monday, November 23, 2009

D'uhccuse...!

He's just saying there's nothing wrong with that.

Well, they look like a white crowd to me. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but it is pretty monochromatic up here. No surprise in terms of the ethnic nature of the people showing up. Nothing wrong with that. But it is a fact. I think there's a tribal aspect to this thing, in other words, whites versus other people. I think [Sarah Palin]'s very smart about this.
--Chris Matthews, television journalist

Chris Matthews' self-awareness is notoriously suspect. His analyses of the national psyche, to the extent they are coherent, typically reveal more about him than to him, and often. His random digressions branch off one after another, shedding the pungent, overripe fruit of his personal Tree of Knowledge. Around him his fellows navigate with care, watching where they step, casting nervous glances upward at the slightest sound.

Perhaps they feel some embarrassment at one of their own speaking too freely in front of the help; what's revealed is not just one man's coarse intellect, but the prejudices and delusions of an entire class. Chris Matthews can't maintain the ruse because he doesn't know it's a ruse. Still, he perpetuates it. Chris Matthews has managed to dupe himself, if no one else. Chris Matthews lacks situational awareness.

Not long ago, his undisciplined emotionalism would have been discouraged as a feminine preference for impulse over reserve; it would have been deemed unmanly. In that light Matthews' notorious masculinity fetish is neither homoerotic nor misogynist, but an honest fascination with a foreign point of view. His sexual boorishness is a failed interpretation of masculinity, lapsing into caricature. His visceral reaction to Hillary Clinton, catty.

But no one deliberately sets out to make himself a fool--unless he does it on television. Of these there are two kinds, the actor who plays the fool for our amusement and the fool who is lured before the camera, for our amusement. The most common form of the latter is the reality show participant.
Reality television democratized, ergo de-mythologized, celebrity. Distinctions are blurred in the ensuing chaos. In the post-revolutionary order professionals have ceded some local narrative control to the audience. Indeed, the spontaneous narrative that Reality television, and now "viral" Internet material, attempts is not a foreign product introduced to the people, but is generated from within them, performed by them and consumed by them. The author is the hive. Production is superfluous.

The viewer has grown used to (if not the reality, the conceit of) providing his own narrative. He is increasingly adept and accustomed to this. This is one tough crowd.
Thus the industry of television is confronted with a transfer of expertise to the audience, a sort of purchasing power; "media personalities" have less control over their media personalities. Television journalists used to be the gatekeepers of the information flow, now they are deluged along with everyone else in the flood. They have lost their monopoly on reality.

Its individuals must adapt to the new evolutionary environment; "redefine" themselves, in euphemism. The desperate scramble produces new, grotesque hybrids; shape shifters alternating between, and sometimes straddling, traditional and Reality television. No one yet understands what is happening. Reality TV aspires to surveillance of the individual by the mass; multiple raw feeds strategically located. It's a medium-specific tyranny of the majority. Professionals, once mystical creatures, have lost their former privilege. Everyone is fair game.

Matthews, like Tyra Banks or any other regular on The Soup, is a media personality less sophisticated than his audience and less aware of the nature of his performance. Chris Matthews is reality television.

The audience is no longer helpless and docile. It rebels against kitsch and manipulation. Anything introduced into the veg-o-matic of popular culture is now broken down, sampled and pilfered, recombined. The artist loses control over his work once it's released into this wild. Television's non-fictional performers are subject to this as well. The audience crafts additional or alternative narratives; unearths unintended subtexts; improvises parody of inferior work. These are defensive strategies. If we're not to be rid of them we are obliged by a sense of decency to ridicule a Tyra Banks or a Chris Matthews. One must marvel. One must not take some people seriously.

But he must consider them seriously, as symptoms of the human condition. After all, the joke is ultimately on us.
Reality television is the gallows humor of a culture self-slated for execution. The greater part of its appeal is not, as first glance suggests, the sugar-rush ridicule of one's inferiors; it's the bitter acknowledgement they are, after all, our fellows, countrymen, kin even. They are us.

You complain: Reality television shows a perversely select group. Yes; but it does not necessarily follow they're a meaner lot than the whole. After all, some are too wretched even to make it past first cut at For the Love of Ray J. How great is their number?

We may yet know. Commerce ensures new contrivances for luring their basest natures into the electronic square are even now being worked up by some of our sharpest young minds. Decent kids every one, no doubt.

Reality television has only begun charting the depths of human greed. By "greed" I mean also greed for love, status, attention. Like it or not, reality television is a valuable artifact of the present. But the ever-shifting lineup of "reality's" global community theater all manage to delude themselves in the end into thinking they are stars.

Reality TV is a living document of our decadent end. It was, after all, the poet-cum-charlatan-cum-"satanist" Aleister Crowley who declared

Every man and woman is a star

and began his "Book of the Law" with

Do what thou wilt will be the whole of the law
(commerce, I presume, necessitated a book-length addendum to this perfectly concise, all-encompassing statement of principle).

Reality television has never been more succinctly defined. You're the star; do what you will. Here it is prefigured before television. It just as neatly sums up current popular convention. "Reality", a long time latent, has been released into the atmosphere we all share. Its intrusive nature interrogates high and low. Its endless iterations are unforeseeable. The confused persona we know as "Chris Matthews" is one measure of its progress.

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