Tuesday, May 10, 2005

things that really don't matter

in the same way as we find it hard to understand why, twenty years ago, we couldn't see how ridiculous we looked in padded shoulders and mullets (and that was just the boys), or that, in another twenty years time, we'll look back on the way we're dressed and coiffed today and regard that with similar derision, there'll come a time - sooner rather than later, if Allah is, indeed, merciful - when we'll look back on the things that preoccupy us today to the extent that they occlude all but the lower-brain functions with a wry smile and the briefest nod of acknowledgement that, after all, there were more important things - like noticing how fast our children were growing up, or experimenting with altruism, or failing spectacularly at being the person we wrongly imagined we wanted to be.

there are, despite much of what the mediated world pretends, real events populated by real people whose reality actually requires little or no endorsement by anyone other than those people immediately affected by their actions. however, we seem to have come to regard as normal the outlandish - if admittedly entertaining - behaviour of jack ok and jill hello and their ilk whose primary motive to get out of bed is the need to discover how many more people are aware of their existence today than yesterday. by what stagnant backwater of evolutionary accident we arrived at a point when success is measured by media profile is too recent to call, but it's clearly sooo yesterday to be outstandingly successful - as they used to say - 'in one's own field'. it's how you look onscreen whilst you're doing whatever it is that you do that really matters. it's curious how few 'successful' virtuoso violinists are female, fat, and ugly; conversely, it's quite unremarkable - indeed, a weekly occurrence - to go platinum with a wafer-thin blonde who everyone knows sings like a cat in heat but can shake her booty like a biatch.

clearly, the unexceptional narratives of our own lives will benefit from an inspirational acquaintance with someone remarkable. if we're very lucky, it might happen once or twice in a lifetime that we actually meet, touch, hear, and smell such a person, and vice versa. but it's far more likely, things being as they are, that we'll make that acquaintance at a distance mediated by time as much as by space. those who claim an intimate acquaintance with God, for instance, will, unless they happen to be one of the people who He chooses to speak to directly, have negotiated that acqaintance through a long chain of related experiences, mostly written down and transmitted, more or less accurately, in the form of stories either about Him or about other people who'd heard other people's versions of stories that they'd heard about what other people had heard about Him. and so on.

similarly, if less tendentiously, everything we know about anyone truly remarkable as opposed to numinous or merely famous - the late Susan Sontag, let's say, since that's the first name that sprung to mind as I wrote that - will, unless we were fortunate enough to have been included in her circle of acquaintance, either have come from our reading about her, or from seeing her on television, or from reading her books. obviously, the only one of these options which matters is the latter. primary sources - a useful mantra. hard as it was to try not to be mesmerised by that lightning-bolt of white in her hair, she was always fairly opaque in interview, or, rather, overly conscious of and too sceptical about the processes of mediation at work between herself and her audience, whoever that might be, to be able comfortably to occupy the role required of her. she tried, bless her, but she was obviously uncomfortable with it. in this, she was simply representing her type - the mid-European intellectual translated into the American academic/critical environment - as both supreme exemplar and, I fear, ultimate, final flowering. there will never again be her like, because the mediated world has opted for a totally different approach to thinking and doing from the one she exemplified. the mediated world's interpretation of events and ideas requires that bite-sized summaries be delivered at great speed, with frequent repetition and an abundance of sexy CGI and a composed-through electro-acoustic score, to an audience whose discriminatory faculties are assumed to be delegated to the medium. in twenty years time, however, it is more than likely that it will be her way of regarding the world that will be recognised as having been lost, and a revisionist breed of nouveau-intellectual podcaster will be virally reviving Sontagism as a radical alternative to the rolling weekly top hundred of everything.

by the same route as the soap is descended from the Greek tragedies, the celebrity is a devolved version of the mythical hero. both, being objects of patent centrality in the cultural arena, are examples of things that don't matter co-existing with things that do. what matters, within the cosmetic shell of their not-matteringness, is what they say about how we function, and specifically about the pervasive historic continuity of the human habit of organising its spirit through different forms of surrogacy. whatever the reality of their real lives, the role of a celebrity is to occupy the soap opera version of it which is constructed around them (with their complete, if naïve collusion) by the slick operatives of the mediated world - who themselves occupy roles previously performed by priests and shamen.

a common theme of the heroic myth is the chance selection of an ordinary individual to perform extraordinary events on behalf of his or her fellows. so it is with the celebrity. a previous life of startling ordinariness used to be helpful, in that this helped prime the fantasy-pump of identification that irrigates the whole process. the A- to D-list (and counting) categorisation of celebs by ratings-value, however, has necessitated widening the net considerably, and there's now a growing interest in dynastic successions of celebrity that lends further credence to the tragedy-becomes-soap model. the mediated world that is the set of the celebrity soap is experiencing a runaway population explosion caused by the sons and daughters of celebs succeeding to the mantle, a latter-day Malthusian catastrophe in the making were it not for the seemingly infinite capacity of the media to adapt to these geometric progressions of celebrity spawnings with the cold arithmetic progressions of market supply: the more celebs, the more channels for them to fill, the more channels, the more need for celebs to fill them.

the mediated world prefers percentages to numbers: this is how election results are always declared, largely to disguise the relatively small numbers of people who our elected leaders actually get elected by. there are 44 million people on the UK electoral register. in last week's General Election, the number of those who turned out to vote was 61% = 26.8 million. of those who voted, the number who wanted New Labour's Tony Blair back was 36% of that, which is 9.6 million - less than a quarter of the electorate. when Big Brother fires up again this summer, the Endemol team at Channel 4 will be pulling out all the stops to beat last year's achievement, when UK viewers chose a Portuguese male-to-female transsexual called Nadia (wahay!) to win the competition: she won 75% of the vote, which, in real numbers, translates as 3.9 million. which means that Tony Blair is worth just two Nadias in terms of things that really matter to the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. personally, I think that's generous, but that's democracy for you.


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