Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reality Television and its relation to the vulgus and multitude in the work of Spinoza

     Etienne Balibar, Antonio Negri, amongst others, have noted a significant linguistic shift from his work in the Theological-Political Treatise to the Ethics, a shift from the derogatory vulgus to the more neutral multitude to describe the masses.  That shift is linked to a transformation in Spinoza's views of the poor and uneducated masses that made up the majority of the Dutch state.  The transformation in Spinoza's argument surprisingly occurred after murder of his friends the de Witt brothers by an mob arranged by a Orangist conspiracy.  This action also contributed to the collapse of the Dutch republic and the restoration of the monarchy.  For Spinoza, as a committed republican, this series of events constituted not only a personal tragedy, but the collapse of a political project that he was intimately involved in as an intellectual and as an adviser.  Rather than collapsing into a series of understandable diatribes against the uneducated 'mob', Spinoza intensified his commitment to a radical and democratic politic, arguing that all political potential is dependent on engaging with the sort of forces that murdered his friends.  That process ended with a critique of the earlier republic contained his unfinished Political Treatise
     He argued, "But if anyone retorts, that the dominion of the Dutch has not long endured without a count or one to fill his place, let him have this reply, that the Dutch thought, that to maintain their liberty it was enough to abandon their count, and to behead this body of their dominion, but never thought of remoulding it, and left its limbs, just as they had been first constituted, so that the county of Holland has remained without a count, like a headless body, and the actual dominion has lasted on without the name.  And so it is no wonder that most of its subjects have not known, with whom the authority of the dominion lay.  And even had this been otherwise, yet those who actually held dominion were to far to few to govern the multitude and suppress their powerful adversaries.  Whence it came to pass, that the latter has often been able to plot against them with impunity, and at last overthrow them.  And so the sudden overthrow of the said republic has not arisen from a useless waste in time in debates, but from the misinformed state of the said dominion and the fewness of its rulers." (Spinoza, 376)
       Obviously, it would be a lengthy operation to unpack this dense paragraph, but the main thread that I want to draw from Spinoza's critique is his recognition that the republic failed because of its inability to reshape the day to day structures of everyday life of the republic and its governance.  The liberal forces of Holland were able to remove the head of the count, but they did not think to create republican institutions to replace the structural and libidinal functions tied to that figure and that mode of governance.  Spinoza recognized that the republic would fail without a substantial political and pedagogical engagement with the broad masses that formed the body of the nation.  That shift must be read in relationship to the shift in Spinoza's imagined audience.  In the Theological- Political Treatise, Spinoza referred to the broad masses as the vulgus, requesting that they refrain from reading his text, given their propensity to ignorance and superstition.  By the time of the Ethics, he framed his argument differently, arguing that the forms of reason in his text were accessible to all.  That shift was additionally marked by the shift to the neutral term, multitude.
       The question one might have at this point is what does this large philosophical prologue have to do with the nature of reality television.  My argument is that reality television at its heart is a return to an unconscious conceptualization of the broad masses of our society as the vulgus.  Within that framework, their is an additional rejection of the possibility of a genuinely democratic politics, and perhaps a rejection of forms of collective political engagement altogether.  The pleasure of reality television is derived from the forms of bickering and conflicts that occur between the various actors on the screen, whether they take the form of contestants, housemates, or some other naive form of engagement, although these issues are more notable in the non-competitive forms of the genre.  The closely shaped and choreographed narratives of the reality television show are meant to reflect the inability for people to create long-lasting and sustained forms of solidarity.  This is supposed to be reflected in the 'spontaneous' conflicts and struggles that form the narrative arc of the show.  Just as significantly, the conflict of the shows are stupid and petty, marking its participants within that terrain of stupidity, ignorance, and vulgarity. 
        I am notably not calling for a new form of media that is dedicated to social uplift, a fairly dubious notion in itself.  Art shouldn't ignore the forms of stupidity, ignorance, and vulgarity that exist in the world.  Films such as Come and See or the television work of The Wire are valuable precisely through their confrontation with the ugliness of the world, whether in the form of the violence of war or the small violences of everyday life.  But those genres don't mystify their subject by implicitly placing its cause on some form of trans-historical form of degraded human nature.  Instead, they offer a critical engagement with the social and institutional structures that produce those effects.  To return to the material on Spinoza, they operate within the economy of the multitude, rather than the vulgus.  This form of aesthetic work may not be terribly optimistic, and neither of my examples are, but their often aporitic structures engage with the tangled web of forms of domination and legitimization that produce the tapestry of the historical system of late capitalism, with its roots in the conquest of colonialism, racialization, and exploitation.  Furthermore, I don't have a problem with light entertainment, nor vulgarity, but one can be entertained without engaging in the forms of legitimization of the privatization of everyday life contained in reality television.
      As a last note, it's worth mentioning that one of the earliest forms of the current crop of reality television was the show, Cops.  Without getting into the fairly extensive scholarship on the show, Cops ostensibly existed to show the day to day reality of police work in the United States.  It was meant to offer a 'spontaneous' portrayal of this without the mediation of fiction.  But, in reality, it produced a pathological discourse of urban life, feeding off and reproducing the racism of the society as well as the strongly interrelated fears of the urban poor and homeless.  The show reproduced the colonialist logic of the 'urban jungle,' a space that could only operate in a logic of a  dominance without hegemony.  This work drew from the cinema of the backlash produced in the 1970's, taking the form of Eastwood's Dirty Harry and related forms of cinema.  These narratives rejected the anti-racist framework of the civil rights and black power movements and returned to the narrative of the pathological criminal.  The irredeemable city could only be responded to with authoritarian violence, rejecting the forms of mutual aid arising out of the New Left.  (We should never forget that those forms were always tentative and contradictory, never escaping the modes of domination and exploitation existing in the dominant society.) 

1 comment:

  1. In the typology of subjects in "Logics of Worlds," Badiou gives instances of the obscure subject (who rejects the event and tries to destroy it) in a fantastic litany that includes "illiterate, muscle-bound youth." Sadly enough, that always makes me think of Jersey Shore...

    Other examples of obscure subjects include "veterans of failed wars" and "bachelor informants." Not sure what the last is supposed to reference...