Cynicism Has Had Its Day
A General disappointment with Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Roundup
For somebody who highly values Charlie Brooker’s contributions to a post-millennial-television-palette in continual-deterioration (and as somebody who tunes into his television programmes with an unexamined ritualism you’d expect in well-trained church goers) I have slowly had to face the truth that his weekly and yearly Screenwipes have become incredibly uninspiring. It left me thinking that cynicism about absolutely everything is the opposite of what we need or want right now, and I think this is why I found it so difficult to watch. When cynicism is the only response it quickly becomes very unintelligent, becoming no different from the rest of contemporary Television (which is the original reason so many viewers turn to the Screenwipe format for solace).
Maybe in the pre-2008-crash age, cynicism for its own sake had greater appeal. However, it now feels like a very poor joke that’s arrived way too late in the day – the same feeling that the arrival of a new white boy indie-rock band in the midst of ‘Cameron’s Britain’ (to quote Brooker) gives us. But am I guilty of cynicism? Of course I am – in many social environments where openly critical debate about the current state of affairs is implicitly frowned upon, cynicism is the only tool left in the bag.
The cynicism of the Yearly and Weekly Wipes has slowly eclipsed the subversive nature they once offered to the disenchanted media-frazzled subject. Of course, such a subject still tunes in – after all, the still-dominant position the Television Screens that Brooker still promises to wipe for us take in our living spaces means we still resort to them as surrogate guides at points of damaged self-awareness (such as around Christmas). But the feeling of relief that “someone actually sees things like I do” that Brooker’s dissections of television used to give us has vanished, it has for me anyway. I can can stand outside a pub at 11 o’clock with the marginalised smokers if all I want is somebody convincing me that “the world’s fucked, and there’s nothing you can do to change that”.
I thought the part given over to documentary-maker Adam Curtis was genuine food for thought. This section seemed to be on such a different wavelength that it seemed to belong to an entirely different type of program. Curtis speaks of a new form of political control systems emerging across globe with the intention “to undermine people’s perception of the world, so we never really know what is happening… a strategy of power that keeps any opposition confused. A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable” (making George Orwell’s ideas of double-think look both prophetic and weak in comparison) meaning that “we as individuals feel powerless to change anything because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty” Curtis’s conclusion is arguably just a different take on Gilles Deleuze’s conclusion on the emergence of Control Societies or even Sheldon Wolin’s notion of Inverted Totalitarianism, and it is certainly a pessimistic conclusion. But it didn’t just leave the viewer feeling “what’s the fucking point…?”. I’d argue it engaged the viewer in a way that makes them want to question and delve further more into the fabric of contemporary life, but the rest of the show seem to promote the very “oh dearism” that Adam Curtis was gravely warning us is the intended outcome for those subjected to this political control system he describes. In this light Screenwipe just became an example of what Curtis was diagnosing.
There is a growing social pool of discontent that turns to Screenwipe, hoping for populist coherent sense, that isn’t just wanting cynicism. It craves that which was present in his brilliant series How TV Ruined Your Life, and was maybe present in a Screewipe format that corresponded with a only-slightly-less fucked up Blair/Brown era. Thousands of (mainly) 18 – 30 year olds have found themselves, financially and existentially, with no option but to become politicised and both mentally and socially engaged in wrangling over how the world doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be the way it is. The yearly wipes dismiss this by ignoring this hidden-away labouring of collective souls, and instead gives us the fading-of-novelty-acts Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas, who’s comedy-act-stupidity and naivety over current affairs, accidentally-on-purpose stumbles onto the faux-intellectual cynical-apathetic position – Screenwipe’s default position.
For example, the bringing down of Russell Brand with cynical-outlook–posed-as-stupidity opinions seemed utterly pointless, and showed a lack of will to engage with the important issues he at least brings to the limelight. Not everybody likes Russell Brand, but even those who charged him with the most heretical of sins of the opinionated – hypocrisy – cannot deny the energy he puts into his arguments for change in the world. Maybe this shouldn’t be expected, maybe the “everything’s just a mess, lets at least sit back and accept it” logic is the limit of this program. But, despite the possibility of Brooker merely ‘playing it safe’ within the increasingly restrictive and conservative cannon of the BBC, many people have come to expect more from him. This is because he has been genuinely subversive at times, and has also proved himself a brilliant social pulse-finder in certain comedy and drama show’s he’s helped create.
In a recent New Statesmen article, Will Self writes about the prophetic vision of the Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris co-creation, Nathan Barley: a brilliantly done satire on the rise of the hipster in the more fashionable alleyways of postmodern society, brilliantly summarised in the introductory prose ‘The Rise of The Idiots’. Even though Nathan Barley was made ten years ago, any suggestion that he is past it is completely debunked by the frighteningly contemporaneous dystopic comedy-drama Black Mirror. Nothing on television gets as close to visualising the dystopian tendencies of the present than this does. Perhaps this is the problem, Charlie Brooker has proven himself too intelligent and too disconcerted with the current state of affairs to be able to put out shows such as the 2014 editions of Screenwipe without causing mass, and deep-seated disappointment.
But, there again I am not critical of the man himself. I like him, and using the common logic of how things work in the era of Nigel Farage, I’d quite like to have a pint with him. I just that I don’t think the Screenwipe format has any real function anymore in a world saturated by clever cynicism, when what we need in the limelight is, dare I say it, hope, ‘or at least something to galvanise people. For example, I find Charlie Brooker far far funnier than Russell Brand will ever be, but as in the only bit worth watching from the Yearly Wipe – Adam Curtis’s conclusions on the apparatus’s of social control – we cannot deny the “long-night of humanity” that 2015 seems to heading further into, and detached armchair cynicism (which Screenwipe makes look desirable, as long as it’s done with ‘intelligent’ wit) seems utterly without pleasure never mind unhelpful. After-all, armchairs may soon be a ‘luxury’ of the past for many of us in the race-to-the-bottom-reality neoliberal fanaticism is putting us through.
However, I also know that it’s massively misguided to ask too much of an individual, and he (Charlie Brooker) knows this, and there have been times when this knowledge has resulted in brilliant television rather than mere cynicism. For me, the most intelligent summarising of both our current social reality and his own limitations as a mere human caught in the media machine is the Black Mirror episode he wrote called ’15 Million Credits. In a blog I wrote almost exactly a year ago, consisting of a similar foreboding for the then coming 2014, I said how it was “clear that the episode’s protagonist is a cipher for Charlie Brooker himself” – I believe this episode to be a sort of fictional autobiography “In ’15 Million Credits’ After the girl of the protagonist’s dreams has her soul destroyed in front of an X-factor-like-show panel (the crucible of the entire society – where the panellists begin to represent the judges in Stalinist-like show-trials) when they crush her hopes of being a singing and more or less force her into a choice between being a hardcore pornstar or having a miserable end to her days, the protagonist gets himself up in front of an entire population of a eerily-familiar dystopian society, to tell the X-Factor-like judges, and the rest of society, that it is all fucked up, and they are all fucked up, and fuck you all, whilst holding a shard of glass to the main vein in his neck. The judges outcome being: “this is surely the most heartfelt performance I’ve seen on here since Hotshot began! [to which to crowd goes wild]” and the protagonist ends up having a weekly televised slot shouting about how everything is fucked up, whilst living quite comfortably. This is obviously how Charlie Brooker sees himself; that his despair, and abjection, tinted with great wit, over the state of society, is destined to be merely another form of entertainment.”
I then wrote that “The thing is, as much as I enjoy and value Charlie Brooker’s contribution to popular culture, there are a hell of a lot of people who feel exactly the same way about society (hence his popularity), who aren’t sitting as comfortably as him; I.e. he’s one of the few of us fortunate enough to make a decent living for himself out his feelings of hopelessness and despair. This isn’t a criticism of him, by any means, it’s just observing that this escape route isn’t an option for the rest of us, and in 2013 [now 2015] it’s increasingly evident on peoples’ faces that their options are running out full stop.” .
I suppose the problem with Charlie Brooker in relation to the viewer is analogous to the problem of the Screenwipe derision of Russell Brand. The media/or the spectacle performs reality/the truth for us. We, as mere minions, are compelled to crave a voice that represents/and guides us within the high echelons of the media/spectacle. And rightfully so; because I am sure that within the current social reality, ‘going underground’, as in attempting to ignore the omnipotent media/spectacle, is impossible and thus a waste of increasingly valuable time. As theorist Mark Fisher argues in his K-Punk essay ‘Going Overground‘, the essential task is to try to take it back ‘genuine’ popular culture; saying that this platform in such a world cannot be dismissed, and should be treat as a crucial platform for politics (as his convincing arguments in his recent essay-filled book Ghosts of My Life convincingly argue). This is why, whether you like Russell Brand or not, as a person/TV show that has without doubt become a guide for the ‘against the grain’ need most of us have, for Charlie Brooker/Screenwipe to merely mock Russell Brand does nobody any good. Cynicism has had its day.