The necessity of bending reality to essentially commercial ends is widely evident throughout the media. The exploitation of virtuality in video games, the obsession with the supernatural and fantastic in popular cinema and fiction, whatever they may say about our taste for violence and pornography, at least have the merit of being reasonably clear about where they stand (i.e. inside rather than outside).
There is however, an altogether more subtle and disorientating fusion of fact and fiction, reality and make-believe which has in recent years increasingly infected the medium through which it might be hoped that we have readiest access to accurate distal information television.
Real figures (minor government ministers, celebrities) make appearances as themselves in fictional dramas; public figures (e.g. the prime minister) offer private revelations in chat show appearances. Nothing more than publicity-seeking perhaps. But beyond this are the endless fly-on-the wall docu-soaps which present a kind of dramatised banality of everyday life in which viewers may enter doctored worlds made exciting, presumably, only by the restrictiveness and impoverishment of their own reality. Reality thus becomes an object of fascination for those denied a life in public. Where necessary, furthermore, reality must be deliberately distorted to conform with the truth that the programme makers have decided to present. Actors are hired to play out the lucrative fantasies of investigative journalists in documentaries screened as in deadly earnest (as opposed to the consciously spiced 'drama-docs'), or to pass themselves off as members of the public in revelatory talk shows.
Outside is the real world in which we are embodied and live our lives with others. Inside is the psychologically manipulable world of imagination where we can be made to believe, but where also, it is important to note, we host personal powers and resources which (though originating from without) can be seen as in a sense our individual property. Thus, on the one hand, the potentialities of imagination may be recruited to mask the realities of our existence, while, on the other, those personal powers and resources which we might potentially be able to develop to our advantage and (in the broadest sense) enrichment must be extracted from us and sold back to us as commodities.
In this way, the world is turned outside-in such that, among other things, real exploitation and deprivation are represented and experienced as essentially psychological failures. Correspondingly, people are turned inside-out such that, among other things, any real (embodied) powers or abilities they may have acquired are externalized, commodified and marketed.
Psychology is the principal tool which has been used to privatize the public world in which actions really count. Almost by definition, the focus of psychology is on what goes on, supposedly, inside the isolated individual. The private world of beliefs, desires, disembodied thoughts and cognitions becomes the arena in which we believe we have to operate in order to change our lives. This is indistinguishable from belief in magic, for it places us in an immaterial, interior world whose main contacts with external reality are wishful rather than actual. It is absolutely no accident that there has in recent years been a resurgence in frankly magical and religious systems of belief and that these have become increasingly interwoven (as in alternative medicine) with popular conceptions of science. What we fail to recognize is that, certainly in the psychological sphere, what we take to be scientific is for the most part magic.
The prevention of individual citizens participation in public space is the central strategy of a program of systematic disempowerment which leaves the resources of the material world exposed unresistingly to corporate plunder. Politics is virtually eradicated the third way announces an end to conflict of interest, and in a sense this is all too true: the only interests left are those of big business, which rules largely undisturbed by the opposition of those (the vast majority) whom it damages. As I shall elaborate when I come to consider the concept of responsibility, the social havoc that is wreaked by unfettered economic greed comes to be interiorized as the personal weakness and irresponsibility of those principally affected.
The struggle of ordinary people to retain the commons lost over centuries of land enclosure has now shifted onto psychological grounds. The individual is driven out of public space in countless, almost imperceptible steps, many of which are mystified as somehow person-friendly. Note, for example, the disappearing use of surnames in British culture. This is part of a process of impersonalization in which that element that gives to anyone a public role is eradicated. The telephone sales man or woman, the functionary who fields your enquiry or complaint has no identity beyond the anonymous first name that goes with the parroted how may I help? not only is there no space in which they can be located and held accountable, there is nowhere for them to signify, to be agents in public space. This is just about the purest obliteration of the distinction between inside and outside, for just as one is robbed of public dignity, so also the bestowal of intimacy which use of the first name gives is tipped out into a world of universal indifference. To have a surname and title is now no longer accorded as of right to all, but has become a prerogative of the relatively powerful, that is those who can lay some claim to be influential in public space. The rest of us will be known only by our first names, very much as plantation slaves used to be: not as an indication of the private affection in which we are held, but as a sign of contempt for our insignificance.
By happy coincidence, the very day after I write this, a scheme is announced on BBC Television News wherein a range of female celebrities, including the Prime Minister's wife, have donated cast-off clothing which may be borrowed by penurious job applicants to increase their chances of success at interview.
Rather like earthworms having slid into a cobra's skin, these poor women will presumably be thought to have had bestowed upon them for a moment a kind of hyperreal identity that will fortify them in their venture into public space.
For most of us, real life is experienced as a kind
of frustrating barrier to admission to the 'hyperreality' held before
us by the media, the heaven-on-earth where the rich and famous, the
celebrities and the lottery-rich enjoy the rewards of their virtue,
their talent and their luck. Where formerly people were pacified with
a prospect of paradise, the modern mass consumer is mesmerized by the
outside chance of admission to the real Olympus where the modern incarnations
of the old gods dwell and disport themselves, sometimes indeed crossing
its fortified barriers to allow us to touch or be touched by them.
Apart from the small but undying hope that good fortune may gain us entry, the most the rest of us can hope for is to live vicariously on the controlled visits allowed us by the celebs into their world. We may, for example, stand on the outside looking in, like the crowds at the crush barriers of a film premiere, and we will be drip-fed a certain degree of manufactured intimacy with them as the beautiful people confess their secrets on the talk-shows and invoke (or fall victim to) the public relations machinery that surrounds them.
We are not readily invited to go behind the scenes of this theatre in order to observe how and by whom its world is created and populated, its players cast, their masks selected. Still less are we allowed a glimpse into the real halls of power where the big deals are struck and the big money made, nor into the haunts and homes of those who make it. For the glamorous world of celebrity is the principal vehicle of an ideology of interiority which would become rapidly called into question if the general populace got too clear a view of how things really work.
Although, of course, the ephemerality of fashion cannot be disguised, we still believe that the celebrity, the famous 'personality', somehow deserves his or her elevation by virtue of individual qualities (even if only physical beauty) which are somehow to his or her personal credit. Celebrity, in other words, is presented as personal achievement, thus making the rest of us look like - if not failures - people who have not got what it takes to make it past the boundaries of ordinary life.
However, what looks like personal 'charisma', 'star quality', etc., is on the whole the capricious gift of a publicity machine that runs on energy supplied by a far more sordid world. Though, of course, some occupants of hyperreality have been constructed on the basis of a degree of embodied talent (e.g. sporting stars), this quickly becomes inflated and exploited far beyond any reasonable assessment of its original significance or true social worth. For the most part, celebrity is the creation of a media industry built to uphold an ideology, and it is the ideology that matters, not its creatures. 'Charisma' is but the visible aspect of a power which does not originate within the individual celebrity, but is accorded him or her by the puppeteers of the media world; and it can, of course, be instantly withdrawn, the star eclipsed. (Media people know well enough their strength, as anyone who has encountered the arrogant, blasé exercise of their dominion will be able to affirm.)
I am not, of course, saying anything here which is not already well known and widely discussed. What I think we do not see so clearly, however, is the degree to which this faked world that lies beyond our actual lives really does pollute our existence. Despite its shoddiness and insubstantiality it really is a vast constituent of our environment, and inevitably flows through us such that we come to accept the premises on which it is built even if we react against some of the crudity of its expression. Not only does it serve to blunt our critical faculties, to 'dumb us down' and divert our energy inward to the satisfaction of artificially created needs, not only does it reinforce a mythology of personal worth based on the individual exercise of interior powers, but it places us within an inescapably and unremittingly painful situation where the actuality of our lives is constantly undermined. We are, that is to say, thrown into a state of pervasive uncertainty and insecurity over how far we are from coming up to scratch, from breaking out of the grey limbo that is our existence into the bright world the other side of the television screen.
There are other ways too in which we are induced to host as our personal failings the iniquities of the outside world.
In his masterly analysis of the effects of French colonial rule in North Africa, Frantz Fanon demonstrated how the impress of distal power can end up as hatred and strife among the oppressed groups themselves, thus apparently legitimizing conceptions of the ruled by the rulers as, for example, genetically tainted, psychologically inferior or 'mentally ill'1. A similar process is in my view involved in some aspects of what has come to be known as 'political correctness', the typically Orwellian irony of which is that they are neither political nor correct.
There is of course no disputing that in modern Western society whites often oppress blacks and men often oppress women. This is bound to be the case in a social context in which people are forced to compete for scarce resources and to differentiate themselves from each other in any way which will accord them greater power, however illusory that power may be (nothing, after all, could be more pathetic than the belief that 'whiteness' confers personal superiority or that men are in some way to be valued more highly than women).
However, it is a conceptual mistake of the first magnitude to attribute the causes of such oppression to internal characteristics or traits of those involved. So long as sexism and racism are seen as personal attitudes which the individual sinner must, so to speak, identify in and root out of his or her soul, we are distracted from locating the causes of interpersonal strife in the material operation of power at more distal levels2. Furthermore, solidarity against oppressive distal power is effectively prevented from developing within the oppressed groups, who, successfully divided, are left by their rulers to squabble amongst themselves, exactly as Fanon detailed in the case of Algerians impoverished and embittered by their French colonial masters.
It is not that racist or sexist attitudes do not exist - they may indeed be features of the commentary of those who exercise or seek to exercise oppressive, possibly brutal proximal power. But that commentary is not the cause of the process that results in such proximal oppression and it is as futile to tackle the problem at that level as it is to try to cure 'neurosis' by tinkering with so-called 'cognitions' or 'unconscious motivation'.
This, I think, explains the otherwise puzzling success of 'political correctness' at a time when corporate power extended its influence over global society on an unprecedented scale. For this success was in fact no triumph of liberal thought or ethics, but rather the 'interiorizing', the turning outside-in of forms of domination which are real enough. The best-intentioned among us become absorbed in a kind of interior witch-hunt in which we try to track down non-existent demons within our 'inner worlds', while in the world outside the exploitation of the poor by the rich (correlating, of course, very much with black and white respectively) and the morale-sapping strife between men and women rage unabated.
Once again, we are stuck with the immaterial processes of 'psychology', unable to think beyond those aspects of commentary we take to indicate, for example, 'attitudes' or 'intentions'. The history of the twentieth century should have taught us that anyone will be racist in the appropriate set of circumstances. What is important for our understanding is an analysis of those circumstances, not an orgy of righteous accusation and agonised soul-searching.
1. See in particular Chapter 5 in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books, 1967.
2. A persuasive statement of a very similar view is to be found in Paul Farmer, On suffering and structural violence, In A. Kleinman, V. Das & M. Lock (eds), 1997, Social Suffering, Univ. California Press.
The structure of social space
The experience of self
The technology of profit
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