Since its Netherlands debut in 1999, the television format Big Brother has offered the world three great bequests. First, its “interactive” approach offered a newly ailing industry the means to extract revenue directly from viewers. Second, it gave shelter to pathologically self-absorbed 20-somethings who may otherwise have ended up in a clinical trial for personality disorders. Finally, it breathed new life into media and cultural studies programs. Man, there were a lot of books and papers about Big Brother. They had names like “Staging the Real“, “Audience Intervention and Narrative Activism” and “Discursive Formations and Penis: Foucault’s power-knowledge in the age of the turkey slap”.
One of those may be made up. But the point is, rarely has so little been written by so many to so few. But perhaps after last night’s premiere of the 11th Australian season, there is nothing more to be written. Other, of course, than those words that congratulate hostess Sonia Kruger — pregnant and formidably exquisite like a blonde cross between the Blessed Mother and James Cameron’s alien queen — on her fuchsia gown.
Which, as it happens, matched the colour painted on the sea-anemone lips of Gold Coast housemate Skye exactly.
For at least half a decade, self-consciously low-brow efforts by journalists and academics defended the “text” of Big Brother. Some thinkers read it as the glorious end of top-down media. Others used its controversies, such as the famous “turkey slap” incident, to decry moral panic. Many, of course (OK, my mildly intellectual self included), publicly described it as a response to an age of surveillance and empty representation.
Well. Who could blame us? The program arrived at a time when interest in late French “hyper-reality” thinker Jean Baudrillard was peaking and the gaze of a state preoccupied with security was fixed as never before. As far as “texts” went, this one, which elevated the ordinary and detonated privacy, was fairly legible. In the same year as The Matrix — which had given Baudrillard’s thinking its first Hollywood cameo — Big Brother began to broadcast a fairly user-friendly guide to the era that had produced it. Television had given to a large audience what conceptual artists had been offering up in elite galleries for some time: an open declaration that meaning itself was endangered by mass communications.
Big Brother gave us no meaning, and this was the topic of a good deal of meaningful and popular discussion. Let’s go back in time. Even before Gretel.
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TV had barely sold its first soap powder when Frankfurt School thinkers Adorno and Horkheimer said that its broadcasts were part of “a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part”. This part of what they called the “culture industry”, which served up the delusion of enlightenment and made us feel as though we were seeing new meanings instead of the same ones with mild variations and cosmetic “twists”. It wasn’t so much, as Noam Chomsky would suggest decades later, that a central force was telling television what to broadcast in order to massage our minds into dough. It was more that the logic of mass production naturally tends to serve its own interests: endless reproduction of a sweet pliable zero. Television gives us a homogeneous fascist nothing, while appearing to give us a heterogeneous democratic everything. And it does so not by conscious conspiracy — “They” are not controlling you — but just because that’s what our large, efficient systems of production and consumption create.
Big Brother is not watching you in this reading of mass culture. He doesn’t need to because you are already watching yourself. Watching yourself watching nothing.
To be exactly the kind of wanker I disparaged just minutes ago, another useful way to look at the numb power of television is through Foucault’s panopticon. And look, of course, here’s a paper that does just that. (I’m serious. It’s actually about Foucault, panopticism and Big Brother.)
The panopticon. Stay with me, here. We’ll get back to Skye and her lips, Dion and his threat of clumsy sexism and David, whose bushranger beard is surely a sign that abundant facial hair for men is no longer fashionable.
The panopticon — first proposed in the 18th century by utilitarian and architect Jeremy Bentham as a prison security feature — is a building with a central tower. All inmates are subject to the surveillance of the central tower, which is designed so that a guard could see and not be seen. This “unequal gaze” was adopted in many institutions and forms the basis for Foucault’s idea of power, Orwell’s Big Brother and the show presented by the fuchsia alien queen. Sonia could be looking at you at any time. You wouldn’t know; she might be having the afternoon off. But you behave as though she is watching because she could be, and you then become your own jailer.
No wonder Big Brother was the program that launched a thousand term papers. Not only did it give us an explicit look at the mechanics of Foucault’s panopticon, it uttered Adorno’s despair. Here was a show that openly described a disciplinary system in which we made prisoners of ourselves at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, but it showed us that television was, really, about nothing. Sara-Marie Fedele’s arse showed itself to the panopticon and as it jiggled, it made a mockery of surveillance and the conceit that television could ever provide more meaning than a bum dance. This was what Baudrillard offered to the people, with even more generosity than it had been by Morpheus. Television no longer even pretended to have a meaning. It was just representations of representations.
This was all very thrilling for wankers. It’s not often you get hard popular evidence of the unequal gaze, the diffusion of power and the death of meaning all in one prime time event. Big Brother became a staple of literary studies, and some monumental tossers compared its grand monotony to the cinematic work of Andy Warhol and Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle. (OK, that was me.)
But after watching the show last night, I wonder if it’s even capable any longer of uttering its own stupidity or the stupidity of its age. I have begun, in fact, to worry that we’ve entered a post-stupid era where we are not even capable of taking joyous despair in watching the culture contract to a point where it becomes so much about itself, it is no longer about anything.
Back in the bum dance days, you could feel the pulse of the panopticon. Fedele’s challenge to it was kind of delightful, and Gretel’s marvelous neurosis reminded us that this show was describing some kind of crisis. There were moments of genuine shock, such as Merlin’s protest in 2004, but now, I think there can be no more felt than mild revulsion. Dion will probably say something misogynist and launch a hashtag, and the gay one will probably be subject to intolerance and launch a hashtag, and Priya, who has Indian heritage, will probably be both deified and demonised as a champion for something or other. But the social media class will play these passionate matters out at a haste that says It Matters while we can hear Adorno through the whine of the electronic decades reminding us that this has again become part of a unity.
The show knows it is bloodless. Kruger is a trooper and will do her best to convince us that there are “twists” and that the fact of a shared grand prize or a contestant who must spend a night eating muesli bars is different. But it’s even more of the same now and, frankly, it’s depressing.
“Two contestants will have to spend a night in the fish bowl,” says Kruger as a pair is consigned to the panopticon within the panopticon.
Look. I’m an enormous wanker, but this game of Foucauldian Russian dolls is even too much for me. I give up. And I won’t watch. But it doesn’t really matter. Because the memory of Big Brother is watching me.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review