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.
“2013 is unfolding real horror-show-like” said the protagonist Alex, as he sat back in a bubble of styles and tastes, mixed, and mashed together from decades gone, too alcoholically inebriated to care that the here and now is almost unidentifiable except for a general distinct lack of faith in everything” (Imagining the protagonist from A Clockwork Orange inhabiting our present social landscape).
The ghosts of every era have frighteningly come fully to life in our times. Full-throttle hyperreality. A world where people are more Victorian than the Victorians were; more 60’s than the 1960’s were, more Madchester than the Madchester scene was. A world full of simulacra. But why?
Surely the anxiousness caused by the inability to visualise/represent our postmodern (or late-capitalist) times need to be fueled by more than just confusion, in order for the past to embalm the present to such an extent that it becomes alive at the expense of the present? A collective sense that, in our blindness to our times, something is running amok, off its leash, slowly unraveling that which holds together civilisation?
In my last blog I described a feeling that 2013 gives me: a feeling of the uncanny. That all that should be dead and gone – inanimate – has now been brought back to life; or in another way of looking at it, we are behaving like ghosts ourselves; that the world we knew is dead, yet we go through the motions. We go through the motions despite there being so much scandal and corruption, in media/political/business establishments, that there is nothing left to trust in. We don’t know what else to do put to repeat our old actions.
A protective veil of simulcra helps us believe we are elsewhere in time. This veil gives way (either due to a descending social gradient or the passing of hours in a day) to the protective bubbles of alcohol/drug intoxication. You happen to pass through a certain part of your local area, at a different time of day, to realise the necessity of illegal drugs in peoples’ lives in order for them to exist (subsist). All avenues to deny the present have become so entrenched that you realise out-right madness is indeed a requirement to survive the strange and unsettling passing of days in 2013.
Amidst, what I would describe as a landscape of chaos, two television dramas (in particular) have settled into this mental environment, like large plants that have grown out of it all. They portray a tangibly close to The Now world, a sort of science fiction; the type of science fiction specific to a time that no longer believes in a future (our time). They are so close for comfort to be Pizza-eating TV-watching fodder, that you have to be in a severe state of disillusion not to notice that we are indeed looking through a Black mirror. Appropriately most of us are in just that state – in order to refrain oneself from running around and screaming. These two dramas being Utopia and Black Mirror, both shown on Channel 4.
As much as the extreme violence in Utopia initially sends jolts of shock through your nervous system, it isn’t what makes the lasting impact: it is that all this violence is perpetrated in order to find certain people and certain items crucial to controlling a global sterilisation project, which is being planned due to the very same issues that we must face in the century above anything else; resource depletion and feeding a growing population, with such a situation possibly leading to hellish ends.
Utopia reflects back to us the humongous issue that, due to its appearance of having no immediate effect, has almost vanished to the social conscious since the financial crash in 2008. We are locked into a cultural infliction that the theorist Mark Fisher diagnoses as ‘Capitalist Realism’. Utopia presents back to us the only solution we would have to save the human race under our ‘Capitalist Realism’ infliction: mass sterilisation. Surely one must retain the hope that a human race outside the dynamics of capitalism may yet find itself with a humane way of dealing with these century-defining problems?
Utopia’s networks of conspiracy get the mind working overtime, but the lasting mark it carves into our minds is the thought that says “hang on? what are we actually going to do to save the human race?” The violence is perhaps a welcome reflection of the levels on inhumanity that unaccountable powers will go to to get their way, but we need not rely on the possibility of acts of secrecy to know that this occurs. One must surely then follow up the first thought by asking whether the continuation of humanity under unaccountable power, which leaves a snail-trail of corruption as it inches towards the cliff face of civilisation, would be worthwhile anyway. But I’d argue that this is when one’s thoughts die via the thought-guillotine of Capitalist Realism, that places thought back into the survivalism of the here and now under extreme austerity.
If I do appear to have a somewhat paranoid feeling that I’m seeing the unraveling of things, so be it, (I hope it is!), I can’t help it, but I don’t think I’m alone in seeing the drama Black Mirror as being a zeitgeist-moment. Black Mirror is written by satirist/presenter Charlie Brooker, a man who is so apt for our cynical times, that it is maybe right that he doesn’t show the true size of his intelligence so often, allowing him to sneak it under peoples’ noses without them knowing.
Black Mirror is Science fiction specific to these cynical times, where we just hold on day in day out; a science fiction for a time when we have forgotten our own times, unaware that they are far more futuristic than we think – which has disastrous consequences. Three different episodes show a future so incredibly close, but it’s like looking a picture you know well yet then suddenly spotting something is incredibly wrong. This is our future, as with the future depicted in the Children of men; one where what is already present now is just made to get more extreme.
Yet Black Mirror operates perfectly in a postmodern society where more pedagogical warnings are told to go fuck off and get back on their high horse; it’s incredibly subtle. For example, the last episode. A cartoon character standing for election becomes more popular than real politicians. Anybody who has read ‘The Hell of It All’ ( a collection of Charlie Brooker’s columns for the Guardian’s G2 section) will know that this is what he more or less summed the then-London-mayor-candidate Boris Johnson up as being. Brooker showed a meek fear of the political consequences of people voting for somebody for their cartoon-character likability. With Waldo (the name of the character), in the last episode, who actually is a character, Brooker subtly leaves the consequences of the rise of such a figure to political power to short intervals between the ending credits, the point when people usually assume the story has ended: the man who did the original voice for Waldo, who quit because he became worried about they way it was all going, finds himself homeless in a fascist-looking state ruled over by Waldo television screens. The last shot shows him being beaten by police in black uniforms.
What does such an ending have in common with our times? Black Mirror’s subtle stabs through the blindness of cynicism, show us what social consequences can arise from a culture of cynicism and lack of trust. Our cynicism has been growing and growing, as the pillars of society have crumbled into total untrustworthiness over the past decade. In 2013, we now find ourselves in a landscape where we have no trust or hope in anything that orders our society, yet we have to carry on because we know no other way. We just Ipod ourselves out, even further so, and drape ourselves in even thicker reflections of a more comforting past. But the cracks in the present are getting harder to step over, and many are already tumbling down into them.
When writing about the atrocities committed under the British Empire that seem to have slipped out of our cultural memory, the writer and activist George Monbiot said that “[w]e British have a peculiar ability to blot out our colonial history” that “…at least they [Holocaust deniers] know what they are denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, they must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain’s colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied” (Dark Hearts, The Guardian, April 2012). I began to wonder whether it is because this nation cannot imagine itself as being anything but a force of good – after all it did used to refer to God as ‘being an Englishman. If the British psyche cannot see itself as being anything but good, how can it store memory of acts of evil done under the Union flag?
The subject of this blog is much removed from these atrocities, but the ability to forget isn’t, because if a human being has a desperate desire to be a good person, it’s likely memories of the darkest things they did will simply fall from their mind, just like a society’s collective memory. Yet, these memories can be awoken. Today a friend posted my way his new art project ‘The Wicth‘ which is a photo-documentation that looks at dilapidated but still occupied houses, arguing that “this dilapidation is not necessarily the product of poverty, or an inability to maintain these homes because of a disability, but is also a sign that perhaps the inhabitants have something more interesting on their minds than keeping up appearance. But fundamentally this makes them a target for “…likely victimisation…at the hands of their community. They are, like back in the days of witch burning, feared and further ostracised due to their (perceived, or actual) inability to conform…This “failure” to conform is often seen as a threat to those conforming as it has the potential to make them notice and question the walls of their protective bubble”. (The project is called ‘Wicth due to Stuart Alexander “as a child growing up in Surrey..” seeing “…one of these houses, and a child (or particularly inept adult) had written (a misspelling of Witch) in chalk below the living room window on the brick work”.
This brought back memories of something I too don’t deny, but just struggle to keep in my memory bank, although it certainly has made a hidden impact, which has likely contributed to my constant urge to apologise to people (it has left an indelible ‘guilty’ mark on my unconscious). When I was 10 years old (1994), growing up in an ex-mining village overspill (that’s only now begining to look this way retroactively as I grow older) I got involved in some rather bad things in the village; I’d just been allowed to go off a bit further by myself, on my bicycle. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I think I was a bit damaged in 1994; my sister had been hospitalised with anorexia, and with my parents visiting her most evenings, I was left at friends’ houses where I played violent computer games such as Mortal Kombat (although its level of violence seems comical compared to modern computer games) and I was getting in fights (what seemed like) everyday at school.
For a brief spell I’m pretty sure I was close to becoming a person who lacked empathy. One of these things was myself and another lad, almost killing a dog by purposefully throwing its stick into a wasps nest on the recreation ground; I, a poor thrower, told my friend to throw it, it was my idea… The other was when I got involved in a gang who found a lady who was living in a dilapidated house in the village and one of the gang members started making rumors that she was a witch. He was a bit of a goofy-looking boy and wanted respect from the more popular boys in the village, and he began by making stories up about unoccupied houses (which there seemed to a lot of back then) being haunted. He was obviously making these stories up, but boredom, coupled with many other things (as in hindsight most of the other boys were probably more psychologically damaged than I was, in one way or another) meant that we could make ourselves believe in them. It was an easy target to pick on a household that didn’t conform in anyway to the norm, being an utterly dilapidated house, which seemed to receive no visitors.
I was part of the external crowd, not so much chanting “witch” like the others, but stood at the back, half intoxicated on the mob mentality, half scared of getting into trouble. “Not being totally involved” is the story I told myself in order to feel exempt from the actions of those shouting and throwing things, but in a sense isn’t it the one’s who make the crowd, make the numbers surrounding a nasty deed that allow it happen and make it even more scary for the victim?
Since I have grown older my fear is of becoming one on the other side of a witch-hunt. Becoming the victim; a prisoner in their own home; as the community projects their fears, often through the actions of children who pick up on their community’s fears. In hindsight I think it’s very probable that this individual had severe depression. Having now suffered from depression myself; a know that fear of feeling like a freak once you can’t hide your illness to the world around you. I have often feared children, maybe a similar age to us at the time (9,10,11 years old) locating MY (potential) dilapidating dwelling and slowly beginning to gather there one by one on an evening. I fear this probably because I’ve seen what it can do; how horrible kids can be. Maybe it would be justice (or maybe read the second part of this blog… which deals with the idea of justice).
To my knowledge the harassment ended when her brother caught up with us on the recreation ground one day, and asked for the names of those of us present on that particular gang ‘outing’, when my parents drove past and noticed me, and my punishment was directed through them, as he escorted me to the car I had been called to. I suppose in a way, I was the only one out of about 15 (in total) who got into trouble with their parents for it. Perhaps I was one of the only ones to receive any sort of (small) retribution for it.
All I can say now is that I hate bullying, it makes me sick to see. In the years that have followed I’ve witnessed much bullying in my home town; a place full of estates left economically and socially neglected by the end of the industry they relied on, which sadly seems to lend itself to intolerance. I suppose in general, saying all this is quite timely as I’m feeling the need to be honest at the moment (although I’m never dishonest) there is certain parts of our life we conveniently forget about, parts that are best spoken about. Many things aren’t spoken about. (see Stuart Alexander’s work here http://www.stuartalexander.net/wp/projects/the-wicth/)
Many subjects aren’t spoken out because they are so taboo….
…So to remain briefly on the subject of witch-hunting (although I’m aware this blog’s getting to an attention-losing length now) I’d like to offer my praise to the subject dealt with in Series 2 episode 2 of the near future satirical drama Black Mirror written by Charlie Brooker, which was recently aired on Channel 4. To begin with Black Mirror has slightly restored my belief that television isn’t dead just yet, but there again the very subject of episode 2 deals in an eerily close-to-actuality depiction of television’s death robe: reality TV. A young woman wakes up in a house with no memory of anything. She goes out into a grim social housing estate only to find people who do not communicate, just document her the phone-cameras. Suddenly she finds herself being chased by apparent psychopaths chase her and another woman with weapons, wishing to cut them up, whilst the other people merely act as spectators recording the spectacle (which turns out to be the truth). A concoction of traumas is rained upon her.
After some time, people, who she believes are either companions and enemies, all turn out to be actors, who clamp her to a swivel chair that turns to face an audience. It turns out her memory has been erased as part of a show. She is the ‘freak’ in a ‘freakshow’. An actor who had previously pretended that he was about to kill her with an electric drill, turns out to be the host of this ‘freakshow’, who swivels this young woman around to have her now-erased life re-told to her. It turns out the woman was complicit in her one-time partner’s kidnap and brutal murder of a child. Because her ex-partner killed himself, it has been decided that justice must be inflicted on her in the most ‘satisfactory’ means possible.
She is then paraded as ‘the monster’ this society deems her to be past aggressive organized-mobs of spectators, where objects are pelted at her, only to be placed back in the house where she woke up, and have her memory erased again. It becomes clear this freakshow is an organised ‘justice’ theme park, where people come to partake in the never-ending ‘nightmare’ made for this ‘monster’. Like the previous episode, what makes Black Mirror so (rightfully) traumatising; a drama the “wipes the human face in its own vomit and then forces is to look in the mirror” (a quote by J G Ballard, sampled by the Manic Street Preachers), is that it is science fiction specific to our times. Old science fiction, of the 20th century, is now almost playful with its giant modern pyramids and flying cars. Charlie Brooker (who, with Black Mirror, has proven he has the intelligence many always thought he had) has written stories that understand where our postmodern society, one that stopped believing in a future and is now socially regressing, is heading. A near future world where everything looks the same, yet is just slightly more severe (slightly more fucked up). Because the driver of change, technology, is no longer visible to us, it is everywhere (in our hands, ears, fingertips) but nowhere because we can’t really see it, and in fact visually we start to look more to the past as the speed of technology further muffles our experience of the present; we descend.
The step forwards into the future (and the step backwards into terms of civilisation) in the second episode of the second series deals with something that society is usually too scared to confront: Black Mirror has subtly commented here on an issue sex criminals/child murderers (the most horrific crimes in a society). That, regardless of the acts, the societal hatred of them is a modern day witch-hunt, something that people wish back the death penalty for.
I’ve always thought that these horrifying acts are buried deep into our the dark heart of our society, which emerge in certain people who have perhaps been more damaged by society’s institutions along the way to adulthood. The witch-hunt is much more a fear of what one dare not confront in themselves rather than of the offender in question; the evils of society that are buried surface deep, but every time they emerge, we just hack off the heads rather than trying to pull up the roots to stop it growing back. These evils are-short-circuited, corrupted within certain individuals into horrifying acts, but destroying that individual won’t stop the act recurring; less tolerance actually stokes the fires of repression that feed social evils.
After the show was aired I saw a Facebook comment about it saying “she got what she deserved; child-mudering bitch” and it just seemed obvious that their comment was a symptom of what was being warned against: the horrors of witch-hunts, no matter what the crime and in what historical period they happen to occur. Although the crime on the episode wasn’t one specifically of pedophilia; it was a crime that synchronises with pedophilia as crimes that society is less and less willing to understand the causations of, and increasingly more likely to make causes for witch-hunts that are far more likely as tolerance retreats as civilization descends. If you haven’t seen it all ready, it is still available on 4OD. It is traumatic viewing, but most certainly essential viewing.