David Shields, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (1996)
Lucas Mann, Captive Audience (2018)
David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1990) and “This Is Water” (2005)
Kate Durbin, E! Entertainment (2014)
In late 2009, I kept hearing weird things about this Lady Gaga person. At the time I was insulated from pop culture pretty effectively by training to be a yoga teacher and running through two or three Netflix DVDs a week; I had little interest in television and less in commercial pop music. But Gaga seemed to be everywhere, so I opened up YouTube and watched the video for “Poker Face.” For weeks, I could not shake my confoundedness.
Now that we are all living in Gaga’s world, the video doesn’t look odd—and perhaps it wouldn’t have looked odd to someone who hadn’t been meditating a lot, taking life slowly, drifting ever farther from the most dominant aspects of late aughties culture. But at the time, I was stunned by the quality of unmitigated display in the video. Gaga posed, elaborately, for the video’s entire running time, never making a single unstaged move. The textures of her skin, hair, and clothes all seemed Photoshopped into uncanny perfection. The loci of power were confusing; she presented herself relentlessly as an object of the male gaze, as if all she wanted was to be consumed by it, but she seemed to position herself as empowered over some of the male figures.
I’m not talking to Watkiss but to Watkiss in terms of the camera and the way the camera reads him as a perfect and unreal absence and me as a flawed and real presence. I finally say, “I’m not going to do this anymore; turn off the camera.”
Ten seconds after they relent, I’m instantaneously and immensely glib about the power of the camera to distort and judge and serve as a kind of actor in a triangulated drama.
Nothing about the video was attractive or interesting to me. It might as well have come from Jupiter, or from some point in the future when the genuine textures of human life have totally succumbed to the digital. I found the music uninspired, too, but the music hardly seemed the point.
Now, Gaga has proliferated and become, herself, a locus of power. I’ve paid a lot of attention to her, and have come to comprehend how the music is a vehicle for the posing, the persona, when in 2009 that felt backwards, unfamiliar. I still remember the way “Poker Face” short-circuited me, though, how thoroughly out of touch it made me feel with whatever was happening in pop culture in America. How that made me worried about myself, fearful that I was aging too quickly, anxious that my desire to be a cultural critic would never be satisfied if I couldn’t make sense of the broadest commercial pop being produced in music studios at the time.
As I often do when a roomful of smart people seems to agree, I began to feel that they were all against me. I began to see myself in the perspective they scorned.
That was nine years ago. Last month, I read Captive Audience, by Lucas Mann, a book about reality television and Mann’s relationship with his wife. I felt similarly flummoxed, sans the anxiety that I was out of touch. I couldn’t care less about being out of touch with the cultural spaces Mann very earnestly defends. Whatever world Lucas Mann is living in, whatever version of 2018 he is inhabiting inside his human suit, I do not recognize it, and I never want to be a part of it.
I don’t watch reality television. I watched part of an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians once, years ago, curious, alone in the house, during the period when we had cable TV so my husband could watch the Food Network and I could watch CSI reruns. My skin crawled. These people were horrible. They were so petulant and backbiting, so shallow and helpless. After less than ten minutes, I turned it off, repulsed. I have learned since that day that plenty of people hate-watch the Kardashians, rather than genuinely enjoying them; what a waste of time that seems to be. Something I actively despise is happening in front of me and I sit there, absorbing it?
I had watched a show built on a narrative foundation of cruelty and dishonesty, sex, and the enormous, destructive power of the things seen as conventionally attractive. I had watched it for those reasons, I think…
The rhythm of the show bothered me, too, in a way I can’t define or defend. Even when I try to watch cooking shows that are modeled after reality TV (the private interviews, the casual angles and shakycam, the generic music stings, the sloppy zooms), I get itchy and have to do something else. I think it’s that all these stylistic moves are now so standardized that they could belong to any reality show at all; no meaningful visual language distinguishes the show I’m watching from some other show. I believe for some viewers this is comforting, but for me, the sense that I’m wasting my time builds like a wave until it overwhelms.
Part of me wants to say that I don’t care what the differences [between different reality shows] are, that what matters is the constancy and the reliable volume of it all, but that kind of sidetracks me from the notion that these shows can be good or bad, transcendent or unworthy, and instead suggests a mountain of indistinguishable shit; literally: human waste.
Once, my father told me, about the TV show Monk, that he didn’t like it much at first, but he got used to it after watching the first season and thereafter enjoyed it. I said nothing, but my mind shouted that’s not entertainment, that’s Stockholm Syndrome. Why “get used to” a show? If you don’t enjoy it, why not walk away? Life is limited.
Anyway, the researchers wanted to know why a person watches, and the primary response was disappointing: the most salient motives for watching reality TV were habitual time pass.
A friend told me about watching this year’s Bachelor finale, and how he and his wife were cringing so hard they were curled up on the couch, moaning, watching through their fingers. “Why on earth did you keep watching?” I asked.
“Because it makes me feel something,” he said.
…as long as you spend your energy seeing the pageantry of their life, you don’t have to see yourself.
This is not a cheerful thought…But I am thinking it often in those moments, so really I am seeing myself. […]
Look at the idol, see yourself in the idol, and maybe at a certain point seeing someone be that way becomes feeling that way, and feeling that way means we don’t have to think about what it feels like to be ourselves, spin-cycling through ordinariness. […]
The argument goes that the more reality television there is, the more saturated we become with hysterical realness, the less enamored we can be by the small, sincere moments that make up a common life…
Movies are the synthetic injection of [large, dramatic] feelings: the whole world comes into focus and seems alluring and dangerous; our lives, which aren’t lived on the grand scale, are lived on the grand scale. Give me the heated-up myth, each of us practically prays to the screen: make life seem coherent and big and free of my qualifying consciousness.
My perspective about this is biased, but grounded in curiosity: I want to know what’s wrong with a life that so stultifies the man living it that he must turn to hysterical realness. I want to know how a man’s relationship with his wife can possibly depend as heavily on habitual time pass as this book indicates. I want to understand how a person can write an entire book about a life only valuable when it is being seen, being observed, and not find something troubling within those values.
Being seen is not the only way to live. It may not even be the best way.
“Are you saying you think your work is dismissed?” Weber asks me. “Is that the issue here?”
I say no, but probably yes. That’s part of it. I’m worried that I see my every exploit or perceived hurt or even the hurt I perpetrated, as important, for the mere reason that it has happened to me. It all feels so monumental—I tell it and I tell it and I tell it. I’m indignant that such an artistic gesture can be seen as lesser. I want to believe that the domestic or day-to-day can have value simply for being shown scrolling by, performed well, intensely. And I want to think that’s a moral stance, a democratic one. But I’m not sure. It’s just my part in the scramble for whose story is allowed to hold weight and whose life is seen as frivolous, filler.
It’s not paranoid or hysterical to acknowledge that television in enormous doses affects people’s values and self-perceptions in deep ways. Nor that televisual conditioning influences the whole psychology of one’s relation to himself, his mirror, his loved ones, and a world of real people and real gazes.
But I want to tell you how bad I want it. Whatever it is that’s required to be seen, I want that. Above all, maybe.
A book like Captive Audience makes me feel that I don’t understand American life at all. My values are about learning, improving, and kindness. I see nothing in Mann’s values that relates to mine. It doesn’t seem like he wants to be a better person than he is in any way other than the observable ones,
I was certain, for the first time, of the value in the ever-reach for self-improvement, punishment given an aspirational name.
and that makes me wonder if my drive to continue being better, kinder, smarter than I was yesterday is pointless. Habitual time pass.
Kindness matters to me greatly.
(Side note: If somebody could find a way to market this so that it didn’t seem morally reprehensible, the Alzheimer’s wing of a nursing home might provide the greatest set for a reality television program ever.)
It’s another aspect of why I can’t stand to watch reality TV. From what I can tell, no one on those shows is kind to each other. They are all competing for something (this is a formative reason for spectacle, for audiences to sit around and cheer and compare experiences: the gladiator in the Coliseum, the Kardashian in the mansion), some important resource that appears to be limited, and mostly, I don’t understand what it is or why it’s valuable. It can’t be the audience’s good opinion. Maybe it’s money? Most likely, I realize in reading Captive Audience, it’s nothing more or less than attention. Which is what elementary school bullies value most highly, according to every consoling parent ever.
I’m talking about the willingness to see each ugly memory, each questionable action, each pattern of worst behavior, each bit of chum fed into the gnashing teeth of a small and self-interested life, as something to exhibit because at least the exhibition might make you feel as though you’ve done something. […]
I ask producers if anyone says no, when approached about being used by or turned into a show. Almost never. Even if they’re hesitant or distrustful or scornful at first, if you make a person feel like someone wants to look at them, listen to them, eventually they come around.
It’s not just the entire worldview of Mann’s that I disagree with as I read. It’s also the assertions he makes that bolster his general endorsement of reality TV consumption.
Now that he no longer watches such petty, public, personal pain, it means that it no longer implicates him, which I think is a common motivation among those who don’t engage with reality shows—if you ignore it, then no part of you can be reflected in it.
This is not why I am motivated to stay away from reality TV. I don’t want to watch people performing bad behavior for immature reasons. Maybe I do that (perform bad behavior for immature reasons), and don’t face up to it, but I can examine that behavior (or not) without watching reality TV.
It’s also easy to equate feeling with understanding, and that leads to satisfaction, and what feels better than satisfaction?
Many things. Questioning intellectually. Loving authentically. Living without the anxiety of performance.
But the working definition of what intimacy can be has evolved, and intimacy can be a world of people spreading your rumors and staring at your face and saying your name.
In fact, intimacy has a meaning that appears in the dictionary, and it’s the opposite of what’s posited here. I comprehend that Mann is trying to make a broader cultural-studies point, that the definition of intimacy has changed dramatically since fans had to write letters to the studio to ask for more information about Florence Lawrence and the studio figured out that publicizing an actress can make her movies sell more tickets. We have the internet now. Facebook equalizes everyone’s friendships, no matter the time zone or salary. Fine. But this kind of intimacy is precisely as false and hollow as reality TV itself. True intimacy is necessarily small-scale; that is the goddamn definition of the word. Knowing someone intimately is not following their Instagram for three years, and it’s not watching them have a meltdown through a heavily edited, for-profit medium due to a sadistic producer’s coaxing. It’s presence when words don’t suffice. It’s not flinching as the placenta is delivered. It’s laughter for no reason until there’s snot on your face. It’s caring for someone as they die. Intimacy through the medium of television is bullshit; life is lived between people.
This is, after all, what TV does: it discerns, decocts, and re-presents what it thinks U.S. culture wants to see and hear about itself.
I argue, plead, wheedle for authenticity at every possible turn: when teaching, when talking, when writing, when drunk. Here I am doing it again. Every time I find myself in this well-worn little spot on the carpet I turn to “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace’s speech at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005. All I need is to murmur you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you to myself and I feel better about my wheedling.
Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.
When a performance is an extended act of being, the way mine so often feels, willingly showing up to repeat the gig of recognizable self, then the performer loses everything if they truly transform. The only narrative completion is death. Or, worse maybe, the narrative ends when people stop paying attention…
[Education teaches h]ow to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.
Who wants to grieve without in some way getting something out of it? Without making sure that they’re turned out to the camera or the equivalent of the camera in the room where they’re grieving? Without reminding themselves that whatever they’re feeling, they’re feeling it well?
[The feeling that everyone else in the world is simply in my way is] the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations.
What I don’t vocalize is the desperation to believe that if we’ve lived something it deserves to be worth something. And I worry that desperation turns into assumption, which begins to strangle any other possibility, stunt any chance for transformation.
Whatever this book is, Captive Audience, I find it thoroughly unconvincing in its attempt to have/continue/elevate a cultural conversation about reality television. I find it slightly more convincing that Mann truly loves and appreciates the wife to which this book is written, in the tradition of The Fire Next Time, I think
All I remember feeling at the time was the particular petulance that straight white men feel when anyone suggests that any small corner of the human experience is off-limits to us.
(fucked-up as that comparison feels), or as some kind of informal epistolary. Context demonstrates that the fights and misunderstandings depicted in the book are meant for drama’s sake, not to illustrate a rocky relationship. (Similar to fights and misunderstandings on reality TV. Is Mann’s marriage a show?) Within me I suspect that Mann’s wife might have written an entirely different book; I can’t tell if his statements about what she is thinking and feeling are based on conferences between them or on his assumptions—his all-consuming perspective. He appears to ignore the male gaze and its implications entirely, in both subtext and text. What he and his wife are watching together, they must be watching in the same way.
The glory of watching a movie with someone else is the illusion that the same experience is being simultaneously imprinted upon both participants’ brains. It’s very romantic, like simultaneous orgasm or double suicide. You (who are so different from me and who just saw what I just saw) thought and felt what I thought and felt, didn’t you? The crime you saw (your understanding of the crime you saw) didn’t differ from the crime I saw (my understanding of the crime I saw), did it?
Can I isolate some particular beauty in what I see, or am I just used to the medium, or is what I love the fact that we watch together so watching can become interaction, which can become autobiographical?
Lady Gaga’s performance in “Poker Face” left me cold. Probably because it was directed toward people more acculturated to pop life in 2009. Yet I’ve come to respect her for what her work has made clear in the decade since she emerged. Gaga has mutated the performative into the useful. She has made herself one of the most visible stars of the century, and that stardom has become a commentary on itself. Of course, she also uses her fame to benefit a variety of voiceless people.
It’s validating to be involved in the potentially useful, even if your only involvement is watching, which isn’t really involvement at all.
Not one bit of this is true for Lucas Mann and his watching and his hunger to be watched. His apologia is not useful. The only truth for him is onscreen. Reality makes his reality.
The last time I tangled with reality television in book form was in reading Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment. (Durbin has gathered a variety of scholarship on Lady Gaga in Gaga Stigmata.) Before I read it, I had no respect for reality TV at all. Afterward, I became more thoughtful. Durbin makes the point (and Mann makes it too, to give credit where credit is due) that because these shows generally prioritize women’s lives, the reasons they are not taken seriously are the same reasons soap operas, melodramas, and generally art that depicts a home environment are not taken seriously. The form and content are both feminized, and thereby an object of ridicule instead of study. Woolf’s battlefield vs. drawing-room argument, 89 years old and no less valid. That is not why I dislike reality TV, but it’s an important point in the genre’s favor.
What bothered me in reading Durbin’s book is the emptiness of these women’s lives. All the things they do are superficial. Mann talks of Kim Kardashian appearing “comically blank” and “inert” without supplying the Occam’s razor: she’s bored. The Real Housewives pick fights with each other because they’re bored, existentially so, and bored people get hostile easily.
Life is so much fuller and bigger than brand names and alcohol. There are, in fact, better things than satisfaction. But on those shows, no one can have them. There’s no entertainment factor in existential fulfillment.
The last scene in Durbin’s opening piece, “Wives Shows,” is taken from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
“You have achieved nothing in life,” says the Medium, looking around the table at the Wives. She sucks her e-cig, blows vapor. “You’re nothing. You’ve done nothing. You’ve done nothing. You’ve done nothing.” She makes a hand gesture of jacking a cock off. “I can tell you when you will die, and what will happen to your family – I love that about the Medium. You’re every cheerleader at a high school that made some girl kill herself. You’re that chick. You’re that chick. You’re mean, morally corrupt, and profoundly bankrupt. You’re just angry bitches. You’re unhappy with your life and always will be. Your husbands love their nannies, but I can’t fault them. You’re a bunch of icy bitches.” The Medium holds the e-cig upright. “I want to shove this up your fucking asses, just to prove a point. Except, I think you’d need a bigger one than this to even feel it. Oh yeah, I went there. Bitch is a one-syllable word for a reason. It’s all you will ever understand.”
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, LARB, the Rumpus, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.