Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Last Man Standing Turn Out the Lights

I don’t know if it counts as an instance of the wisdom of crowds, but some trends in popular culture do seem to amount to a general conclusion about our situation, almost as if the fads and crazes amount to an act of perception on the part of the hive mind. What set off this thought is a quick trip through the television listing wherein one finds, for the umpteenth year in a row, a host of televised contests, reality shows, and movies that all have the same general format. Whether they involve survival on an island or cooking or modeling or set design or makeup or dancing or singing or getting married, the format of nearly every show is the same as the plot of the Hunger Games. One by one, the contestants are winnowed down until only one individual or team remains. The contest is far less about winning than about avoiding loss. The lingering camera shots are on the losers. The winner is merely a formal necessity of the grammar of the contest and only appears for a few minutes at the end of the hour or even the season. Sometimes the credits are already rolling over the happy faces as they take their brief bow at the end. Obviously, the winners aren’t as interesting as the losers. The moment of triumph is the anticlimax: the disappointment and degradation of the losers is the substance.

Framing contests in this way is not a given, and television contest shows of older vintage do not.  The contestants on Jeopardy or Iron Chief or even Wheel of Fortune try to win. There are losers on these shows; but the focus is not on them; and they are treated very differently. Of course, cross-culturally, not even an emphasis on victory is a given. David Pace, a historian of anthropology, tells me that in many societies contests are played until the score is tied and wonders why this seems odd to us. Even if it does seem odd to us as heirs to the old Greek imperative that one must strive to out do the others, it remains true that our attitudes about victory are a matter of culture. In any case, the recent framing of competition that we see on the tube, goes a long way beyond a general obsession with competition. I think it reflects a specific and quite recent economic and, one might even say, spiritual situation.

Although the top prizes in the economic game are absurdly great, very few of us are even entered in that lottery. For most of us, the prize pool has shrunk over the last 40 years or, and this is what matters as far as the mood of country is concerned, it is perceived to be shrinking, hence, the compulsion to stage and restage simulacra of what is apparently a nation-wide game of musical chairs. Americans know that they have to make alliances with one another in order to survive; but they also believe, perhaps falsely, in the necessity of eventual treachery in a world without enough for everybody. Complicated debates about health policy aside, much of the opposition to universal health care is based on the simple thought that anything the other guys get will be at my cost. Ergo, get your hands off my Medicare!

There’s a deeper mechanisms at work as well. Winning or at least not losing is a value that survives the bankruptcy of other values. To put things crudely, the contest is a way of changing the subject in the absence of a sense of what your life is for. As a people, we could declare peace, after all, and build a society in which the goal was not a level playing field for an endless protracted conflict but the general health and welfare of the inhabitants of North America. Apparently this outcome is too terrible to contemplate. People not only chose to watch Chopped! They chose to live it.

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