3. Reality television:
an economy of pre-emption

Historically, Jones’ suicide broadcast comes at the juncture of two periods in television reporting. An earlier period deployed advanced visual technologies (for example, extending real-time remote coverage to freeway pursuit, or offering immersive camera set-ups for sporting events, giving producers or consumers a choice of framing angle) and established new conditions for the reporting of reality, apparently bringing “the real” ever closer to the grasp of mediation. Our own later period, on the other hand, claims the video footage of the stricken and falling World Trade Towers, available because of now ubiquitous video capture of the everyday, as a temporal icon for a bruised national psyche whose anxiety of the real exceeds what can be securely mediated through the “embedding” of journalists in warfare or the staging of a “heroic landing” by a president on an air craft carrier. The difference here is in televisual orientation towards capturing what is real. An earlier emphasis on renewed possibilities for technological capture gives way to a more recent emphasis on somehow recouping, re-framing, or restoring the symbolic import all the more important because of the amount of material available. This process today extends beyond what Williams understood as mobile privatization. Reality on television is a valiant fiasco when it comes to presenting what it promises—the reconciliation of the local and the remote—because the documentation of public events for mass audiences is no longer necessarily a specialized, professional segment of production.

Any such reconciliation of the dynamics of displacement is necessarily related to a demand to articulate social being. Together, these processes entail a form of symbolic work perhaps more successfully, if less spectacularly, accomplished over the Internet. This symbolic work can be understood as the work of identity—a drive for speech as social being. So “reality television” of the sort seen in Jones’ suicide is more than a fast-buck genre for television’s industrial producers.

It is also an assertion of television’s primacy in narrating crisis

  • within a media environment comprised of such competing and convergent forms as television, radio, film, the Internet, or telephony;
  • within the context that contemporary social being requires the speaking of identity as an increasingly media-intensive production of self.

In these terms, televisual media events (whether delivered through analog, or digital broadcast or interactively over the Internet) emphasize a specific vector of social being and speech. Televisual media events articulate a now that is being contested. They articulate this moment as organizations or institutions speaking to, and in the name of, but without the direct force of, mass publics. And they articulate this “mass moment” across both disparate geographical areas as well as economic and cultural divisions.

In moments when transformation is sudden, as social being drives the television event in order to speak a living but already historical moment, identity is recast. The meanings of social being and of speech, of person and nation, of history and life, are transformed. Events distant in time and space and significant only in these much broader terms are often, in the process, paradoxically “localized” for distributed audiences. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, apparently long planned and involving global coordination, are localized as “New York, Ground Zero.” Evaluation of these emergencies by producers and audiences alike as to their importance works to modulate the state and status of the national profile. However, as distant events become paradoxically localized through their distribution in the media, the mediated version of the event, because of its importance to the national, may tend to exclude either the local bodies originally affected by it, or understanding of the broader complexities—history, cause, responsibility—in which social and national itself is embroiled. Televisual media events may mask and divide as much as they may inform or reconcile.

Reality television, more than simply a flawed assertion, is a conundrum in the narrative articulation of identities local and remote. These events—spontaneous, scripted, staged, or simply captured—rely on a particular economy of exception. They must always be somehow exceptional in order to be important enough to pertain to a local, regional, or national profile, which may then be seen to transform in response to historical events. This sense of an identity gained in the throes of change underlies the compelling visibility of the media event. But in order for the event to be exceptional, any such crisis articulated in televisual time must also seem to resound in its own right. It must be identifiable as an event in its own right, and so it must speak of otherness even as it speaks of its own extreme relevance. The economy of mediation within which televisual events take shape and are received is one of pre-emption, and of excess.

What might such media events pre-empt? Media events (in this case, Jones’ suicide) can only pre-empt two other kinds of events. First, they may momentarily pre-empt other media events granted visibility for their own apparent singularity (routine television programming, or historical events such as Kennedy’s or Rabin’s assassination). Second, media events necessarily pre-empt routine history whose complexity goes largely unapprehended in the media. For example, the everydayness of care or need experienced in relation to HIV/AIDS might conceivably be programmed as a nightly primetime feature until the pandemic is stopped—instead, HIV/AIDS tends to be a “special report” or an “update” spoken by media, political, or medical authorities, not survivors.

The perversity of this conundrum lies in the fact that while the televisuality of the news asserts its ability to report all that is of consequence, only events that have developed through a neglect that is itself excessive can sufficiently provide the surprise necessary to re-orient the regulatory economy which weighs the programming of one media event against another. All that is not spectacularized in this televisual economy may be taken for the undifferentiated conditions of the everyday, and therefore becomes unremarkable even when urgent. At the same time, as the momentous appearance of an already historical event, the media event presupposes its own outdating within the looming everyday beyond television’s interest, or beyond its capacity to show. This perverse economy of “reality television” materializes, finally, in relation to the ways that the speaking of social being is differentiated as production, distribution, and reception in media sectors. What a producer won’t share with its viewers, file-sharers on the Internet might share with one another.

Media producers, in pronouncing events worthy of receivers’ attention, make a performative claim to capture or articulate reality that is novel to, exclusive of, opposed to, ignorant of, or otherwise incommensurate to the experience of life held by the interpreter, in spite of the fact that it is precisely this interpreter to whom the event is supposed to matter. The operative distinction — producer/receiver, narrator/interpreter — historically has been seen to be structural and dynamic. But television’s rhetoric of mediatic eventuality revolves around one element above all others. That distinction between narrator and interpreter, between representation and social experience, is framed most powerfully as televisual violence. For these reasons, an understanding of Jones’ freeway suicide matters not only in relation to the historicity of the media event, but also in relation to mediations of identity and social being — technology-intensive processes of living speech.

Section 4, full text:
Performativities of the media and medial agency

Section 4, abstract

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