Surviving Reality

Venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, lurking crocodiles, oppressive heat — no I’m not talking about the latest production from the Immigration Department designed to discourage illegal aliens, but the reality TV show, Survivor 2, set in the Australian outback. The snakes and the weather are repackaged to encourage a different kind of visitor. For the cashed-up mobile citizens of the world (not the refugee kind), the outback becomes a desirable and exotic tourist destination. Indeed Survivor 2 has been described by John Morse, the Australian tourist commission’s managing director, as the ‘ideal vehicle to help showcase Australia’. The legacy of Crocodile Dundee still haunts us, as the contestants feed on ‘bush tucker’ to a didgeridoo soundtrack. If Survivor is successful as a tourist promotion, this comes (once again) at the expense of the indigenous people. Patrick Barkham reports that the two Aborigines who appear in the show dressed in kangaroo skins and wielding spears were paid under-award wages (but given a small pocket knife with their pay cheque) and the indigenous owners of the land where Survivor is shot were not consulted before filming. This insult is only furthered by the appropriation of kitsch indigenous symbols which populate the show’s ‘tribal council’. (Guardian 5/2/01) Indeed the combination of cheap production costs (‘real people’ don’t belong to actors’ unions), the creation of voyeuristic spectacles, the promotion of tourism at the expense of indigenous people, and the construction of a survival logic that has as much to do with managerialism as it does game shows means that a show like Survivor stands as a perfect symbol of late capitalism.

The genre of reality TV has itself undergone a marked change in recent years. While any relation to reality was always tenuous, the original reality programs like Cops and LAPD at least made a pretence of showing the ‘reality’ of urban life. The new breed of shows are based as far away from the normal settings of life as possible. If Cops edited out, or simply failed to show the social context for human behaviour, Survivor dispenses with this social context completely — the existential setting of the outback, or an island effectively removes the social as well.

There are other changes too. Cops contained a circular narrative revealing a relentless cycle — the chase and capture of the poor and ethnic minorities. Survivor proceeds by a linear narrative towards a goal of last man/woman standing. Cops involved a highly intrusive voyeurism where we watched individuals with little control over their lives being captured at what was probably their lowest point. The contestants in Survivor are free to reinvent themselves as if they were in an internet chat-room. They also differ in that they are middle-class, telegenic, healthy, and completely confident (especially in the new series) about their construction of themselves as media spectacle. Survival in this context tends to be read positively — a diet of bush tucker leads to a set of washboard abs and new ‘knowledge’ about oneself. Thus Survivor connects with the type of thinking embodied in new-age men’s movements, weekend corporate retreats and the popularity of Tom Hanks in Castaway — that you can transcend your material and social baggage and reinvent yourself within a new context.

Was it only three years ago that critics were lauding the Truman Show and its ‘message’ about the dilemmas of living in a media-saturated society shaped by pervasive forms of surveillance and spectacle? Whatever kind of cautionary tale we might have drawn from that film now seems irrelevant. It is as if at the end of that film Truman simply walked back into his old role — after renegotiating his contract for higher pay. The idea of ‘innocence’, the driving force behind the drama in the Truman Show, has now lost all currency. Surely nobody believes the ‘ordinary people’ tag — the Survivor contestants come across as a bunch of aspiring actors — too media savvy, too knowing for us to think otherwise. The fact that Richard Hatch, the winner of the first Survivor, can so easily make guest appearances as himself on TV shows such as Becker, reveals this lack of distance between the ordinary and the ‘acted’. Nobody seems to mind either that the producers of Survivor exhibit total control over their participants — and even manage to govern criticism of their own product. If the rumour that ‘critical websites’ such as are actually managed by the producers of the show are to be believed, then the misgivings in Truman about the dangers of a totally administered spectacle now seem rather pointless — cast off like some pop version of the Frankfurt school.

The insertion of game-show-like narratives, combined with the exotic locations, are what probably accounts for the success of the Survivor-type shows. While more ‘pure’ forms of voyeurism — web-cams and the like — might hold our attention for a while, in the end they are about as interesting as an old Andy Warhol film. Significantly, the game-show narrative differs from older games in that traditional skill, knowledge or physical prowess is not necessarily rewarded. Game-show nasties, as they have been dubbed, work by encouraging forms of deceit and treachery. The best competitors are often excluded by the others who are threatened by their skill. The scenarios are constructed so as to encourage conflict. Shows such as Survivor and (perhaps the nadir of the genre) Temptation Island work more as manufactured morality tales — at what point will you betray your allies, your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend in order to win? While a week was spent mourning the passing of Don Bradman and the values he ‘stood’ for, the reality is that we now prefer to watch individuals ‘win’ by the most devious and unsporting ways possible.

Another reason for the popularity of the new breed of reality-based shows lies in the fact that at some level their ‘nastiness’ resonates with the working lives of so many people. It’s no surprise that the winner of the first Survivor was a management consultant — these shows reflect nothing if not a contemporary management ethos. For anyone working in an institution — such as a university, a bank, a government department or the ABC — watching Survivor, or even The Weakest Link, feels like a grim parody of their working lives. Employees know the atmosphere governed by extremely tacit networked alliances, of perpetual cutbacks — there are always too many employees — where staff are continually forced to reinvent themselves in order to ‘survive’. As in the game-show nasties, even to do one’s job well hardly guarantees success in an environment where someone always has to be retrenched.

If the content of shows such as Survivor end up advocating a logic entirely suited to the more aggressive forms of entrepreneurial capitalism, the techniques of the show work to repackage ‘reality’ as a dramatic spectacle. Game shows and soap operas, the twin genres that define Survivor, have always done this. It is worth considering how the editing of ‘reality’ in such programs — the compression of time into a series of incidents — parallels the way in which our lives are increasingly managed as a set of discreet and intense set of experiences (think of tourism, mass entertainment spectacles, intense but rapidly redundant forms of work such as consulting or IT). The rapid sense of boredom generated by reality TV begs the question of the extent to which we ought to allow our own reality to be re-edited as a commodified spectacle at the expense of other ways of being.

Watching Survivor, I couldn’t help thinking about how media technologies can themselves be used in ways that allow us to reflect more critically upon the voyeuristic processes enabled through mass media. One example is the installation piece HMP Pentonville by UK artist Darren Almond, where a camera films an empty prison cell and where the only form of activity is a clock ticking. We watch the cell — there is no spectacle, no edited highlights — only the sense of time passing. The piece engages with voyeurism, and the prospect of ‘doing time’ in a very different manner to that of Survivor. The thought of that prison cell reminds me of those illegal immigrants who started off this piece, and how a detention centre in Woomera reveals the reality of a much less attractive form of confinement in the Australian outback. That instance of ‘total administration’, of image and movement, is the other side of the apparent freedom to remake oneself.

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.