Guy Rundle is without doubt the one of the finest political and cultural commentator/journalists working today. His coverage of the US elections for the Australian electronic magazine Crikey is worth the price of subscription alone. A couple of things he’s written about television recently have grabbed my attention as they capture something that has some resonances with the scholary world of screen studies where I spend a lot of my time. Here’s an example:
American TV has a dual character, thanks to the provision of public access TV channels in the basic cable packages that practically everybody has. Flick through the list and it’s a roll-call of lumpy people in cheap clothes sitting in a classroom somewhere and talking about school board issues in a perfectly reasonable way. Flick further through to the news networks and it’s like the Nazis won the war. Shiny, shiny people with hard edges and ultraviolet teeth, swapping fifteen-second soundbites in a parody of debate. (Crikey, 21 April 2008)
Clearly in his mind here is Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning which Rundle reviewed a few days later for the Spiked Review of Books. In that review he again points to aspects of television that seem fascistic:
The hardbody culture of the gym, its combination of narcissism and power worship, the ritualised collective celebration of scorn and contempt in shows like Pop Idol, the Brown government’s engineering of a sense of ‘Britishness’ combined with its ever-extended attempt to reshape social desires, the unpeopling of the obese and smokers – who doesn’t have the odd moment of wondering whether the Nazis in fact won the war?
Rundle does not in fact endorse Goldberg’s sense of the ubiquity of fascism, indeed he likens the analysis to 1970s post-structuralist criticism of Foucault and Deleuze where ‘reality itself and the unified subject [was] essentially fascistic’. This reminded me of the ways in which such theories strongly informed the reading of Hollywood cinema as illusionistic and therefore fascistic, with several accounts noting that because most Nazi films have a fictional narrative like most Hollywood films we can therefore assume that the latter are fascistic. It might seem strange now that such drivel, dressed up in prose that was indigestible, held a generation of (some not all) screen studies scholars in thrall to its exotic insight. However, it is clear from Rundle’s merely descriptive and brief glance at American television that something is missing from contemporary screen studies (or cultural studies or television studies or media studies – however you wish to slice it) which has missed what for him and the rest of us is in plain view. Most – I’m tempted to say all, but can’t claim to have read all – of the studies of reality television, for example, ignore the ways in which these shows recruit nurture and pattern regimes of contempt, mockery and derision both internally among contestants and studio audience and among their viewers. What are we to make of the exortations to health, self-control and financial discipline that the BBC and other public service broadcasters regularly schill in their schedules and on their websites? Or the aestheticisation of rebelliousness and resistance that is a feature both of television studies scholarship and the genres it watches?
I don’t believe television is fascistic. However, the aspects that Rundle – in a piece of journalism – identifies seem to be important ones that point to the growing intensification of mysticism, aestheticism and narcissism as key components of our screens.