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Racism for anti-racism

by Ben Pitcher
7 May 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Celebrity Big Brother [1] | Commons

…people are fascinated, terrified and fascinated by this indifference of the Nothing-to-see, of the Nothing-to-say…

Such was the reckoning of Big Brother propounded in a late lecture by the freshly dead Jean Baudrillard. His words are familiar, his argument quite orthodox. It is unlikely that Davina, Dermot or Russell would have begged to differ.

Baudrillard’s reckoning of the fake sociality, the disappearance of reality, the banal consumption of the spectacle of banality: all this is less a pointed critique and more a basic operating premiss for the tired audiences of reality TV. Long before Endemol had removed the dust-sheets from its sets, the zeitgeist had caught up with and arguably overtaken the ailing septuagenarian. Baudrillard’s ‘silent majorities’ were consciously resigned to carrying out their designated role, patiently waiting to be bored by Leo Sayer, ground down by Jo O’Meara and unmoved by the announcement from H out of Steps that he was, as everybody already knew, attracted to members of his own sex.

And yet, of course, the tedious predictability of Baudrillard’s ‘pure virtual reality’ was disrupted quite spectacularly by the combination of such unpromising ingredients. Like the perfect mixture of chapatti flour, nail polish remover and bleach, the curious conjunction of celebrity, race, class and live streaming blew Baudrillard’s homilies to pieces. Nothing had been turned into something. The virtual had been made real again. It was a matter for immense public excitement.

I write this a few days after Commonweath Day, where the Queen showed her breeding by incorporating Shilpa Shetty into the official fabric of British multiculturalism. Since Shetty’s own coronation, memory of the Big Brother incident has been reprised in countless, smaller echoes. Miss Scotland compares Samantha Mumba to a monkey; Tory frontbencher Patrick Mercer slips up and pays the price. Each time the reaction, to greater or lesser extent, is the same: public outrage, desperate contrition, ruined careers. The fantastic, frenzied dance of disavowed racism is quite a spectacle to behold.

What is particularly interesting about these modern-day morality plays is the particular status of the racist act and the public response it engenders. The former always constitutes a great Freudian slip of ethical propriety: it is, of course, never ‘really meant’. Jade Goody, Patrick Mercer, even the policeman beating the shit out of Toni Comer – all of them are quick to deny they really are racists. They were caught off-guard, unawares, misconstrued. The amplification of their error across media platforms reminds us of Jeremy Beadle’s old-fashioned reality TV: they had, indeed, been framed.

Compare this, then, to the popular response, where racism comes to be identified and named. This theatre of mass disapproval is not, in the main, disingenuous. When Ofcom came to be incorporated into the Big Brother drama as an alternative site for the registration of telephone votes, this was an organic manifestation of the popular politics of reality TV. It was a protest that was – at least in its origins – quite unorchestrated by the newspapers or other peripheral media. The point to make here is not to challenge the sincerity of the reaction, but rather to consider the conditions under which such instances of impeccable anti-racism come to be expressed.

All public discussion of race is today articulated from an anti-racist position. Indeed, it is in fact the only position from which to speak: it is not possible to mention the subject without stressing one’s anti-racist credentials. All this is of course well and good: it should indeed be impossible to beg to differ. Yet it is at the same time still worth noting that this ethical injunction on racist reference makes the anti-racist response an oddly hollow act, for if to speak about race immediately places one in a superior position of judgment, then to do so is to simultaneously remove oneself from the field of racist practice: it excuses one from the possibility of being judged.

We are as a result operating according to a social logic where racism only exists to be condemned: the rapidly censored spillages from the racist unconscious channelled by the ‘misunderstood’ victims of reality TV have a single purpose, and that purpose is to feed our disapprobation. The popular spirit of anti-racism is not interested in much beyond these spectacular slips, for the sustained, longstanding and institutional facts of racist Britain cannot be booed off with a text vote to Ofcom. They are not amenable to the armchair activism that has seen anti-racism transformed into a cause for a twenty-first century green-ink brigade, treated as evidence of a lapse in public morality that might, in pruder times, have ranked alongside the display of nudity or the vocalization of a rude word.

And so, beyond the excitement and public spectacle that appeared to invalidate Baudrillard’s neat pessimism, we are witness to its confirmation in this strangely empty form of virtual reality racism. The racist act or incident is entirely incidental, though it is – as in the case of Big Brother – always better if it takes place in a controlled environment. It is racism reduced to a resource, a material which feeds our popular ethics of anti-racism. The ideal form of virtual racism is a racism that seems to have had an essential property emptied out of it: it is a racism where nobody appears to get hurt. Our popular culture is on constant alert for this precious substance, always on its tantalizing trail. We latch onto incidents upon which it can be hooked, temporarily pinned up for our audience, so that we can hold it before us and admonish it with full vigour.

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Ben Pitcher writes about race, politics and popular culture. He teaches sociology at the University of Westminster, UK.
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