Watching me watching them watching you - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Andrew O'Hagan
THE TABLOID PRESS IS ADDICTED TO SUCH LOSSES pretending to be gains. Selfhood is now a form of gladiatorial combat and the prize is not only to survive, but also to survive as someone who looms large in the public eye, as if that in itself counted among the highest forms of human achievement.
The problem becomes clear when you consider the sheer spite of the British media, renowned across the globe, which seek to torture these people as soon as they become sufficiently visible. The tabloids have a habit of exhibiting the very evils they claim they exist to decry: under their veneer of sentiment and caring for "our tots", they exploit children; beneath their vigilance about sex abusers and adulterers they themselves are sleaze merchants and soft pornographers; and within the touchy-feely interest in campaigns and Christmas Appeals to help the disadvantaged they are sadistic in their treatment of the poor and the weak.
The British tabloids constitute the world's creepiest press: papers for people who don't like to like other people, and the tilt of their high moral tone is every day made absurd by the squalid voyeurism carried in their pages. But they have achieved their salient position by paying close attention to the sway of the public's imagination: they understand people's obsession with reassurance and the freedom associated with the self-made life, and they have never failed to give back to the British people the daily slops of their own mawkishness and servility.
LAST YEAR WAS THE INDIAN SUMMER OF DAVID BLAINE, the man who put himself in a clear plastic box to be watched to death. He was less a circus freak than a cultural totem: starving himself for public edification, he was, in his last fortnight in his box, glorified as he had hoped to be and vilified as he had not. Blaine put a dark full point to the business of reality television; up there, looking down on the crowd, he passed through all the stages of metaphor to become the living embodiment of an entertainment ethos gone awry.
Eating nothing but air, he tried himself against the truth of a culture feeding on itself, and the relationship between him and his audience was one of great sickness. Blaine reminded me of those hunger artists who operated in the restaurants of Berlin in the 1920s: trapped inside glass bells in the best restaurants, they grew thin while the patrons became bloated, and the enjoyment of each was only enhanced by the other. On a blackboard beside the artist the number of days he or she had fasted would be chalked up.
At some level, this explains the culture of Weimar, and David Blaine, boggle-eyed, sallow-cheeked, swinging above the Thames, at some level explains ours. Except he went out live on Sky TV. Beyond boredom, beyond ambition, David Blaine sat in his modern box: he was in the right country at the right time, and now, after watching people eat and shit and fuck and cry, the only thing left to our light entertainment culture is to watch a man dying on TV.
I went to see him and smelled the onions. I went several times, and on each visit the atmosphere had become more vicious and desperate, more given to vengeance and confusion. I first went at three days, when Blaine had already experienced the spite of the British mob – throwing eggs, hurting his eyes with laser pens – and he just sat there, watching and being watched, trapped, acting the martyr, a figment in a delirious public dream. Mr Softee was there with ice-creams, along with the hamburger van. Everybody spoke on their mobile phones or took pictures with them to send home. Some drank lager. The ground was covered in cigarette butts and Fanta cans.
When Blaine touched the walls of his box, people shouted, "We love you, David"; he smiled, stroked his face, and gave the thumbs-up. In the days to come, higher fences would be erected to keep out the people who had decided to hate Blaine. I wanted to ask: What is it they are hating? What is making them anxious? "He's being paid eight million quid to do that," said a girl beside me on day nine. "If he dies he doesn't get it."
"He won't do it," said her friend, smiling.
Just then the light came on inside Blaine's box and he stood up and waved to the crowd. Some shouted, some jeered. His eyes were slightly sunken now, and a line of cars crowded Tower Bridge, the drivers slowing down to get a look at this male hologram hanging above the Thames. The tabloids were obsessing about him; they said he wouldn't make it, that the hatred of the British public would bring him down. But people were watching more each day: Blaine was a near-familiar, an American cousin bent on destruction for our viewing pleasure. "He's fucking mad!" said a woman beside me the third time I stood watching.
"No, he's not," her boyfriend said. "He's saner than you and me. He's the sane one. He knows what he's doing."
I fear David Blaine understood only half of the devil's bargain he entered into with the British press, the British public and the cable channels. They wanted him to succeed; they wanted him to be famous, yes. But they also wanted him to fail, they wanted him to suffer more than he expected, because that, too, is part of what celebrity means. A man came along in the night and tried to cut his water supply. That's right. That's what they do. And David Blaine had better know it: he was nothing if not a floating signifier at the end of his wires. He was of the moment more than he knew and he was about to learn that the public's capacity for wonder is deeply in thrall to its love of disaster. Blaine was a self-declared victim of the watching and even he must have known that he was no longer the story: we were.
ALMOST 10 YEARS AGO, LATE ONE NIGHT IN A SOHO SHELTER, I met a girl who had run away from home. Her name was Angel. She was very young and half-demented on drugs; she could remember her father building the TV aerial up on Fortune Green. Angel was sleeping most nights in the streets around Euston and Vauxhall and people had stopped looking for her. I thought before I spoke to her that Angel wanted anything but to be found. She stopped me as I was leaving and I asked her what she wanted to happen. She smiled. "Only one thing," she said. "I want to sing at Wembley Stadium, wearing a gold top and a black skirt. I want to hear thousands and thousands of applause."
The borstal boys at their windows, lost to the world each one of them, were also desperate to be known one day. It seemed to me those boys lived in fear of being rubbed out, and when I looked at the community of their mothers and fathers, as well as my own, I could see that we had all of us lived through the disappearance of a world of work and social carefulness lately spirited away by the monetarist ethos transforming Britain.
When I wrote about missing persons, I think I imagined that missinghood – the rubric of my own experience – might soon be a less prominent detail of our national life, transformed by some newly minted fund of political idealism. I could never have guessed that anomie was about to enter more fully into the public sphere, to become as it is now, a black hole of individualism swirling with banality. It is a new place on the map, where watching becomes a perfectly sufficient mode of being and where a commonality of personal ambition is held by a generation to embody the blessings of the good society.
In the middle of the night, I went downstairs and found the remote control and flicked through the channels until I found him: David Blaine, asleep in his transparent box on the South Bank. It seemed, in the dead of night, a natural thing to do: to watch him sleeping and to consider others watching him, too. Why live when you may live vicariously? Under the television lights Blaine seemed to sleep soundly and that was something. At 7am, Sky TV had begun its morning show and a conversation was taking place between James Hewitt, the former lover of the late Princess of Wales, and Kate Lawler, who beat Alex to become the winner of last year's Big Brother and now presents the breakfast show. They had been joined by James, a young man in a woolly hat who had just been ejected from Fame Academy. They were looking at Blaine waking up.
"I don't think he's in there," James Hewitt said. "I think it's all an illusion."
"If he ever gets out," Kate said, "people will be happy for him, though."
"Yes," Hewitt said. David Blaine woke up and stared into the camera above his head. His face was thin.
"You know," James from Fame Academy said, "it's just so nice to be here this morning." ♦