Igor Simić, X <3 Y, video, 2017.
The first dating app based on genetic and financial matching. People are algorithms, love is a technical problem.
Reality shows have a purpose which is the exact reverse of Bentham’s reform project, and represent a caricature of Foucault’s libertarian initiative. Today we are all voyeurs and exhibitionists, we all confess and dictate our memoirs to our friends, our so-called friends and the friends of their friends on the Internet. At present, at least a billion people act in this or a very similar way – as if in a confessional. They have understood very well the basic purpose of social networks like Facebook: therapy.
When the population is helpless in the face of an epidemic, and when the public health system is far from being at the desired level, the culture attempts to normalise that condition and performs remedial witchcraft by exorcising and driving out the existing infection. This holds true for the HIV and COVID epidemics in our time, as well as for the plagues of the Middle Ages and the outbreaks of tuberculosis in the 19th century.
The battle against the deadly diseases and devastating epidemics of the 20th century seems to have been won. The average human life expectancy has increased significantly. And, at this point, through the wide circulation in the symbolic field of illness and the ill, the culture has acquired a predominantly therapeutic function.
The power of truths generated in the mass media is increasing progressively. Between the turn from the 20th into the 21st century and now, the new, mediated reality has become more and more suggestive, more persuasive and more powerful. The newly acquired media habits are reaching out to new types of patients. In this respect, reality TV shows and social networks have imposed their own experience of the malaise: a new evaluation, a new way of exchange, a new price tag – and a new blessing.
In our age, illness has been redefined as uninhibited, circulating media capital – and not in the indirect sense, as was the case with artists like Vincent van Gogh or Thomas Bernhard, who had to follow a long and arduous path on their way to sublimation. In the newly acquired conditions, illness acts in an extremely direct and immediate way. Returning to the world of 19th century feral children and circus freaks, illness itself has been redeclared a currency of exchange.
Today, people are ready to appear on social networks or in reality shows exposing their own raw everyday life – their undisguised neuroses, obsessions, vices, perversions or madnesses; their uncensored trauma, handicap, banality or shame. In other words, today, by exposing oneself one attracts the attention of an audience which does not necessarily consist of the sympathetic or the like-minded – it suffices that it consists of the curious or those who simply just scoff.
Igor Simić, The End Times – An episode from an infotainment show, video, 2020.
The Inverted Panopticon as a New Spectacle
The genesis of today’s mass media, all of which share the notion of reduced privacy – ranging from reality shows to social networks – demonstrates that they are a kind of betrayal of the concept of the panopticon. Much has been said about the architecture of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century reformed prison, especially since Michel Foucault saw its resurrection it in 1975 as a model of social surveillance and a kind of terror exercised against the individual, who is nominally guaranteed the freedom of privacy and diversity.
The radical faction of the entertainment industry bases its concept on the principle of inversion – its panopticon does not repress social deviation or its representatives, it does not suppress diversity through a didactic ritual of discipline. On the contrary, deviation is placed in the spotlight and becomes visible in the mass media because it is intended for entertainment. The spectacle of deviation becomes a privilege for the enjoyment of an underprivileged audience.
Television and Internet audiences, in fact, resemble the unpaid guards of Bentham’s prison who monitor deviant people for their own pleasure. For this reason, reality programmes do not suppress or punish deviations; they cultivate and exploit them. Towards the end of the 20th century, a new media concept was conceived on the Internet, starting with projects like JenniCam (1996), and culminating in the Dutch TV invention of Big Brother (1999), with the ensuing flood of ‘reality’ television.
These programmes are a kind of backlash: their purpose is the exact reverse of Bentham’s reform project and they represent a caricature of Foucault’s libertarian initiative. They also require a complementary dose of voyeurism and exhibitionism. But today we are all voyeurs and exhibitionists, we all confess and dictate our memoirs to our friends, our so-called friends and the friends of their friends on the Internet. At present, at least a billion people act in this or a very similar way – as if in a confessional. They have understood very well the basic purpose of social networks like Facebook: therapy.
The Confessional on Social Networks
It all began with the torrent of confessional monologue from the patient Anna O., which was addressed to her psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, and which, as Foucault noted, was modelled after a Christian confessional. It continued with the self-help groups favoured by the schizoanalyst Felix Guattari, where the confessor immaterialises and disperses into several people with similar problems, who unleash their burdens by complaining to each other.
It ended up within social networks like Facebook, where the principle of confession is finally becoming quite generalised. A person releases himself in front of the whole world, that is, in front of a group of virtual friends – a group which has a tendency to grow and consists of many strangers and curious people. But among them there will always be someone kind enough to listen, encourage, comfort, talk, and divert from the apathy. Or, someone angry enough to condemn, insult, argue, label and block forever.
Those intimate diaries intended for the public, are no longer meticulously kept by a Jewish girl awaiting her arrest during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, but by well-fed, pampered and attention-seeking teenagers. They are no longer kept by schizophrenics like Judge Schreber, who wrote down his pathographies in a desperate yearning for a remedy
Facebook is a gigantic scrapbook, where people get the chance to simulate spoiled celebrities. In fact, the process is analogous to that in Big Brother. It is no longer a question of so-called privacy protection – which Facebook suspends as effectively as Big Brother suspends ‘human rights’; on the contrary, the aim is in the reverse direction. Both Facebook and its cousin YouTube originate from our sick obsession with celebrities and the violation of their privacy.
On Facebook and YouTube, people get to impersonate famous people, acting their parts for a short time, on a smaller scale; permanently posing in front of the camera, parading one’s tasteless extravagance, repeating politically correct slogans, posing with eccentric images – and all of this seasoned with endless boasting and vulgar self-love.
Facebook started as a student dating club. There are still traces to be found on it of an infantile questionnaire about the name of the high school completed, favourite music groups and suitable mottos. But today, members of the world’s largest social network do not search for their friends from school and do not choose to socialise according to their musical tastes. Instead, we encourage, listen to and disinhibit one another, offer each other our ‘likes’ and flattery, praise and stimulate each other and ultimately – heal each other. Facebook is a kind of collective self-help. This social network, which is constantly pimping and pandering, has thus crystallised what is above all its confessional, therapeutic function.
Economic factors are evidently disastrous for emotional relationships, so that everyone is crazy, everyone is frustrated, everyone is defeated, and they look for any available straw that will rescue them from the situation they are in. And that straw was found in the therapeutically intoned content of the mass media, primarily on the Internet, where everyone can express themselves, arouse admiration for their successful photographs, and brag about their clothes, about going out and travelling. Anyone can become a DJ or VJ, or call a press conference, or immerse themselves in the process of an endless exchange of utterly irrelevant information.
YouTube is also a site with an infinite capacity to absorb irrelevant content in a world where everyone wants to seize publicity and attention in one way or another. The excuse is less important: from amateur performers to TV junksters, from hobbyist editors to those who spread fake news and superstition – everyone shares their favourite trivia with other citizens of the world (the motto is ‘Thanks for sharing’) and everyone continues ceaselessly accumulating disinformation. Facebook and YouTube are the result of the drop in price of computer memory, the obsession with celebrities, the reversal of the private and public spheres, and that audacious popular saying, Fools take pride in what the wise person is ashamed of.
In this respect, YouTube and the television studio, occasionally open to gifted amateurs – as in the TV programme I’ve Got Talent – proclaim themselves as a contemporary variation of outsider art. It becomes most effective precisely when someone socially unattractive or physically handicapped appears, and proceeds to amaze both the judges and the audience with his/her extraordinary skills. Today John Merrick or Kaspar Hauser would probably not pay attendance at courts and depend on the nobility; they would instead appear on television and win the hearts of millions, just as the unsightly Susan Boyle or the overweight Jonathan Antoine did with their angelic voices.
A Tele-Campaign for Spreading Insanity
However, neither social networks, nor games and entertainment programmes are clearly directed towards healing – although they probably all flow together into a common therapeutic function. They are equally effective for the exchange of mental illnesses. Mental infections spread through social networks – and, like everything else, in a logarithmic progression.
The possibility that such virally conceived and positioned communication channels can be infected by sick individuals is huge – stalkers,bullies, and both fake and real sick persons recognise Facebook as an ideal polygon for active and passive aggression, appropriation of other people’s identities, communication with oneself by opening multiple accounts, taking of fake sick leaves and making of fake death announcements, as well as many other unlisted and undiscovered variations and symptoms in the open or covert exchange of their pathologies.
The eye that has lost its innocence – the innocence of the viewer – and demands nothing more nor less than a morbid spectacle, is more than evident in contemporary mass media. As far as TV stars are concerned, there is an increasingly pronounced gladiatorial urge, where people, thrown into the digital arena, turn against each other over a wide range of venues, from quiz programmes where they compete in mobbing, such as The Weakest Link quiz,to heated family confessions that usually end up in fights, such as The Jerry Springer Show and its derivatives, all the way to Big Brother and The Apprentice,which are the closest to the idea of a war of everyone against everyone.
In all the televised spectacles, there has been a constant effort to make the participants conspire against each other and to further demotivate any idea of cooperation, empathy, understanding or compassion. The idea is to trample one’s opponents and accumulate the greatest possible authority and as much money and points as possible; it is a kind of laissez-faire school in miniature.
Reality shows are made up of a combination of the worst of two worlds: the world of Big Brother from the novel 1984 , where privacy and individual freedom are eradicated, and the virtual world of the new media, where simulation, disinformation, egoism and triviality flourish.
The eye that follows all this day and night cannot be innocent, no matter how infantile the content might be; it is more and more selfish, more and more sadistic, and more and more mercantile. It is more and more distinctively and aggressively conducted as neoliberal, and is less and less empathetic. That cold gaze of the lens descends propitiously on the most dangerous, the most unscrupulous, those who are most ready for anything: the psychopaths.
The German novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, where sensation-seeking media harangue a shy person to the point of driving her into madness and crime, has turned out to be prophetic.It is the very image of today’s yellow press, ready like a loaded gun to roll its heroes in the mud and push them over the edge. Today, everyone who gets into the media spotlight loses their honour, but it does not seem to them like too much to pay for what is the most valuable currency of all: fame.
At the same time, there is no novel that heralds reality shows better than the American They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? written in 1935. This tale about the marathon dance of hungry couples in front of an audience, about the torture and humiliation to the point of madness and crime of people who have signed up for a competition of our hunger and self-loathing, is an unrecognised forewarning of the reality show. What it presents is in every way comparable to Big Brother and its derivatives: in the bitter rivalry between the participants, in the trauma it leaves behind, in the ruthlessness of its rules, in the sadism towards the contestants.
A Tele-Campaign to Suppress Insanity
Moreover, in the 2000s, TV programmes often featured specialised experts who attempted to heal truly problematic viewers, sick enough to seek help in front of the cameras. Their ailments were diverse – not only psychological, but also of an economic or aesthetic nature.
In the TV programme Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (2004–2014), Scottish celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ‘healed’ stumbling restaurateurs suffering from bankruptcy. Another expert created palaces out of neglected or ugly houses, a third freed compulsive hoarders from their beloved trifles, a fourth provided unattractive people with new styling, a fifth trained them in new skills…
And so on and on, until we get to reputed miracle workers and magicians. Everyone is looking for some saviour, everyone needs a general overhaul, everyone is unwell and in quest of healing – the only difference is that today it is done publicly, by way of the new media. All in all, everything is the same as in a paid TV advert: participants formulate their acute life problems, and the product in question provides them with a remedy, with the utmost confidence.
At the same time, another fictional television trend appeared with the TV series Doctor House (2004–2012), which takes place in an elite hospital, where a cynical but charming, competent and sophisticated doctor defeats the rare and complicated diseases of his wealthy patients. The hero is a medical version of Sherlock Holmes. Dozens of other TV series have also had heroes in white coats or forensic experts.
Unfortunately, reality has turned out to reveal a completely different face. Unlike the utopian Doctor House, the global health system experienced a complete collapse in 2020, faced with a pandemic of a mere mutated flu virus, for which there was neither cure nor therapy. . And, unlike with Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which the famous chef successfully rescued one after another small business, the quarantines prescribed during the coronavirus pandemic closed them down en masse. Reality’s response to the all-powerful heroes of televised utopias is the striking impotence of biomedicine, the clumsiness of biopolitics and the incompetence of leaders. During 2020, we were tempted by a radical dystopia.
In 1955, Erich Fromm described the pattern of culture as mass therapy:
For the majority, the culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. Suppose that in our Western culture cinemas, radio, television, sports events and newspapers ceased to function for only four weeks. With these main avenues of escape closed, what would be the consequence for people thrown back upon their own resources? I have no doubt that even in this short time thousands of nervous breakdowns would occur, and many more thousands of people would be thrown into a state of acute anxiety, not different from the picture which is diagnosed clinically as ‘neurosis’. If the opiates against the socially structured defect were withdrawn, the manifest illness would come into view. […] For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work. They are usually those whose individual defect is more severe than that of the average person, so that the culturally offered remedies are not sufficient to prevent the outbreak of manifest illness.
Sixty-five years later, the prophecy just quoted seems to have come true during the coronavirus epidemic. The only thing that nationalist states and nationalist leaders managed to come up with was to ban movement, education, work, travel, culture, sports, business – in short, to bring about a general paralysis of freedom. Restrictions in the form of curfews and home confinements were decided upon for the supposed preservation of life.
Igor Simić, X <3 Y, video, 2017.
What we have recently seen in action was just the general inability to deal with contemporary challenges: not finding an effective solution, but choosing the lesser of two evils, taking out one loan to pay off another. In other words, the abolition of one ideal – personal freedom, for the sake of another – public health. What we really want is to preserve both personal freedom and enjoy an efficient health care system – instead of witnessing a Pyrrhic competition of one with the other.
Interestingly, the neoliberal ideology and the new media also generate false choices between things that should all not only be available but guaranteed. In the domain of literature, from the 1980s onwards, it has been suppressing and betraying the idea of social justice and vertical class mobility, placing in the centre instead, like a cuckoo’s egg, the emancipation of the handicapped and the sick.
In a similar way, in reality programmes, the idea of dignity is completely betrayed and sacrificed to the idea of fame. On social networks, the idea of intimacy is betrayed and sacrificed to the idea of self-promotion. The new media panopticon similarly suppresses the ideal of normality, consciously sacrificing it to the ideal of circus entertainment.
All this seems as if progress or emancipation in one field automatically require regression and enslavement in another. If we want to free ourselves of syphilis, we need to get infected with malaria. If we want to address the public, we have to sacrifice our privacy. The ideology of neoliberalism, which manifests itself in reality shows and on social networks, relies on a kind of ideological tinkering: it is over indebted to sacrifices in the form of people, rights and ideals.
 Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham: Published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring, Adamant Media Corporation, London 2005. Mišel Fuko, Nadzirati i kažnjavati: Nastanak zatvora, Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, Sremski Karlovci/Novi Sad 1997. I sâm sam o tome već pisao. Videti Goran Gocić, „Neotelevizija i pojam kulturne deregulacije“ TFT, broj 7, leto 2010.
2 Žil Delez i Feliks Gatari, Anti-Edip, Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, Sremski Karlovci 1990.
3 Džordž Orvel, 1984, BIGZ, Beograd, 1984.
4 Hajnrih Bel, Izgubljena čast Katarine Blum ili Kako nastaje nasilje i kuda vodi, Matica srpska, Novi Sad 1978.
5 Horas Makoj, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1995.
6 Erih From, Zdravo društvo, Naprijed/Nolit, Zagreb/Beograd 1989. str 21.