I’m sorry, Big Brother is objectively crap

By skepticlawyer

Kim over at LP is engaged in an interesting but – in my view – ultimately fruitless discussion of the relative merits of Big Brother. Unfortunately, this is by the by. Big Brother may be socially illuminating, an interesting commentary on class, a reflection of broader Australian cultural trends, etc. I do not quibble with Kim’s account on those points. The problem is its objective quality as television. Yes, I know bait is live and has hit the water by me making that statement, but although contestable, it needs to be said.

Corey Delaney is interesting because he made A Currant Affair look like the piece of witless limpdickery that it is. This is nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of anything young Corey may or may have not have done (or be). It is purely relational, a function of his being in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time.

The problem with many analyses of popular culture is their failure to appreciate this relational aspect. Of course, popular culture aficionados may well say to me that I am making blind assumptions about quality and merit, and they may be right. However, they are also engaging in what Professor John Gardner calls the philosophical ‘nuclear option’. That’s a denial of both moral objectivity and moral truth, a skepticism that reckons you’re making an argument ‘just because you think so’, not because there’s any possibility of even attaining the truth. This kind of general moral skepticism – about everything from aesthetics to political virtue – is fundamentally self-defeating. By pretending that Big Brother can be ‘good’ independent of its social effects, it also becomes possible to argue that everything is good based on its social effects (or interest), such is the level of blurring between the two. This is clearly not the case, and it’s worth keeping the distinction between Corey Delaney as an independent moral agent, and Corey Delaney as an instance of media incompetence entirely separate.

Big Brother is crap for Bogans. It exists because modern capitalism has given bogans more money than they ever had before (likewise chavs in the UK), and they are now able to express their market preferences. Good for them, I have no quibble. There is no requirement that anyone else needs to take an interest, however. Scholars and intellectuals in the Roman world ignored the gladiatorial shows, unless they were genuine fans in the objective sense – there is little irony in Martial’s enjoyment of ludi. He went and wrote because he liked, not because he was necessarily watching Roman bogans and chavs get their jollies. Poverty – and former poverty – does not make people interesting per se (except, maybe, to economists).

It’s worth keeping in mind.

Note: There’s a selection of my Martial translations available here, for those with strong stomachs.

30 Comments

  1. Posted May 16, 2008 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I would just like to say that I hate Big Brother for no other reason than I find it mind-numbingly dull.

  2. NPOV
    Posted May 16, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Good to hear a libertarian basically allowing that the immediate market is not (always) a good judge of quality.
    Would you accept that the market over a sufficiently long period of time, say, a century, comes close?

  3. pommygranate
    Posted May 16, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    skeptic

    It is mind-numbingly crap but it is also strangely interesting if only to discover what so many of the population find interesting.

  4. Posted May 16, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I agree SL. Big Brother is crap. However I disagree it ain’t objectively crap. Because there is no objective standards for the judgement of taste. You can’t prove that Shakespeare is a good writer. You can’t prove Dan Brown is a bad one. You just know it.

    That said Big Brother is crap 🙂

    Did Roman bogans have fuzzy dice?

  5. Posted May 16, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Because there is no objective standards for the judgment of taste.

    This is the general skepticism that Prof Gardner is talking about; it’s a philosophical nuclear option that pretends the truth is unattainable.

    NPOV: I have no problem with people getting their enjoyment by watching this stuff – in that sense, I’m true market anti-perfectionist, and don’t think the state should be into funding conceptions of the good (like the arts).

    However – like Ken over at Troppo – I think that interest in this kind of stuff on the part of genuine intellectuals is a bit silly, particularly as so many of the analyses are so woolly, confusing ‘sociological phenomenon’ with ‘good’.

    Not really.

  6. Stephen Lloyd
    Posted May 17, 2008 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    It’s only a reflection of society to the extent the Southern Star-employed Psychologists select a balanced sample, which is self-evidently not the case.

    I fail to see how ostensibly intelligent people can try to analyse BB as a society-in-a-bottle experiment. Rubbish.

    The psychologists have a market-driven interest in selecting the most provocative, gratingly opposite and conflicted group of ego-centric and selfish people they can find.

    The producers, by virtue of the reams of reports given to them by the psychologists in the selection process know exactly how the contsestants are most likely to react in any given situation.

    It’s about as far from a microcosm of society as one can get.

  7. Stephen Lloyd
    Posted May 17, 2008 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    and the hero would launch into a giant discursive monologue which went on for pages. To my mind, this is bad writing according to an objective standard

    LOL, you mean like the last 60 (!) or so pages of Atlas Shrugged?

  8. Posted May 17, 2008 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    HA HA HA HA! Yes, I had trouble finishing that.

  9. Posted May 17, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Re the objective judgement of taste.

    I had a conversation about this with a mathematician friend of mine whose also inna kulcha (or at least the women who attend cultural events). I put forward this idea that there’s no objective criteria by which you can, say, demonstrate that Shakespeare is even a good writer.

    He thinks and answers – complexity?

    I say what about Jorge Luis Borges? Brilliant writer. But his stuff is very simple.

    Orwell wrote an interesting essay about this: “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”. Tolstoy thought Shakespeare was crap. Not just over-rated but CRAP. Orwell wondered how he could think this but acknowledged that there was no means by which you could prove him wrong. As with Dan Brown you can say he uses bad phrasing, cliches etc etc. But that’s only if you think that makes for a bad writer. Stephen King’s prose is terrible but he’s massively successful, it doesn’t matter. I remember picking up a Judith Krantz novel and not being able to get past the first sentence which unabashedly and totally sans poetry used the word luxurious three times.

    Still successful. But Emily Dickinson was not.

    There’s no objective criteria. It’s a matter of taste. And the Canon is really a matter of a taste consensus amongst the cerebrally gifted.

    This tends to fly in the face of one of the principle tenats of Cultural Studies which equates Hamlet with the White Pages. Altho’ I’m in favour of leaving behind the prejudice against popular culture that says that, say, David Bowie can’t be regarded as an artist the way Beethoven can I reckon there’s a limit. How you frame that, who and what has the authority to pronounce this or that as legitimate – worthy of critical consideration – in these days of democratic individualism. That’s the rub. You can’t. I guess it’s just a matter of competing wit.

    But Big Brother is crap. The BB house should be a legitimate target for testing rockets.

    Then I’d watch it. 🙂

  10. Posted May 18, 2008 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    SL:
    On Martial and the ludi… ok, but Martial by name… bloodlusting by nature

    I’m surprised you didn’t talk about Ovid’s reason for going to the games.

    (The only time I’m disappointed when I’ve got poor reception of commercial TV stations can be guessed from being born and bred from Geelong and Western Districts. Apart from that, I shun BB and anyone – apart from social researchers chronicling the patent decline of our civilization – who watches it)

  11. Posted May 18, 2008 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear, my post on some plans for invasive databases on citizens (here) got included on a website devoted to Big Brother (here)!

    Oh well, if any BB fans go and read my “KRudd becomes Big Brother” post, they’ll be in for a nasty shock, that is, if they can deal with an unfamiliar vocabulary 😉

  12. Posted May 18, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Just rescued you out of the spam can, Dave. Must have been the links. Ovid, of course, was there to pick up chicks 🙂

    You’re right about the silly spectacle of intellectuals watching Big Brother ostensibly so they can ‘study’ it as a a social effect. At least Martial was honest enough to tell his intellectual mates that he went to the ludi because he liked them, not because he was into watching the reactions of Roman bogans/chavs.

  13. Posted May 19, 2008 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Skepticlawyer: Nice to see you know your Ovid.

    Mind you, the “decent family values politician” of his day (Augustus, in his later years), was much more successful in putting a stop to Ovid’s lewd “broadcasts” than Howard was with turkey slapping!

    Wouldn’t you love to exile BB producers to the edges of empire (Nauru or Macquarie Island)? Actually, while we’re at it, let’s exile the participants and audience as well!

  14. NPOV
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    It mightn’t be possible to judge art etc. “objectively”, but that’s not to say there isn’t some non-individually-subjective way of measuring quality.
    Shakespeare you can read over and over again and get something new out of every time.
    It is still performed 500 years after it was written.
    It contain many many phrases that have entered the language and remain even after all that time.

    None of that will ever be said about Dan Brown, Stephen King or an episode of Big Brother, all of which can be fun to enjoy for about a couple of hours at most.

    Something like “The Simpsons” I think has the potential to still be considered a worthwhile creation in hundreds of years, but of course we will never know.

  15. John Greenfield
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    It has been interesting watching the whole BB thing go tits up. Watching all those Culture/Gender Studies types – such as Catharine Lumby – try and convince anyone who would listen that Sara Maree’s “Bum Dance” and “turkey slapping” justified closing down university Classics departments was nauseating.

    But still, when you read that LP thread, it is obvious there is still a HUGE amount of academic and identity capital invested by the Luvvie Left in this particular Culture War of theirs.

    Not a peep from The Lumby so far this season. There must be a god.

  16. John Greenfield
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    LE

    Oops, spoke too soon. Lumby alert in Fairfax. She’s not flogging turkey-slappers for KFC this season, she’s moved onto watching porn with her kids. 😉

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/sex-education-and-public-edification/2008/05/18/1211049061116.html?page=2

  17. John Greenfield
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    LE

    Have you ever read any of her non-media “work?” I saw her get huffy at somebody in the blogosphere who had the temerity to state her writings were superficial and incoherent. She came back, “you have not read any of my academic work!”

    Well, I have and all I can say is that whoever gave her a Ph.D – I think it was Macquarie Uni’s Culture Studies department for a dissertaion on the media and Monica Lewinsky – should have all government funding withheld immediately.

  18. John Greenfield
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    LE

    Lumby’s latest book is called The Pron Report, which is based on “research.” Miranda Devine joins Clive Hamilton (what a bizzare alliance) in sticking to Lumby in todays SMH. I can’t wait for Lumby’s response! 🙂

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/moral-backlash-over-sexing-up-of-our-children/2008/05/21/1211182891875.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap2

  19. Posted May 22, 2008 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm, interesting! We’ll watch this space for the return of more asinine opinion from the Lumby.

  20. Posted May 22, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Dickens was a very popular novelist who was serialised in newspapers – so obviously some popular works have the depth to survive the test of time. Who can tell which will and which will not survive?

    Likewise Balzac and (I think) Zola. Balzac wasn’t taken seriously by haute urbanity in his lifetime. Very prolific; wrote something like 4 books a year.

    Tom Wolfe has the same trouble getting taken seriously by the beret-poloneck types except of course that they’re usually fuming at his ascerbic dissection of their pretensions.

  21. Posted May 22, 2008 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I saw her get huffy at somebody in the blogosphere who had the temerity to state her writings were superficial and incoherent. She came back, “you have not read any of my academic work!”

    Yes and as we all know ‘academic work’ is always a paragon of crystal depth.

  22. Nanu
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    “paragon of crystal depth” … where do you get these phrases Adrien?

  23. Posted May 23, 2008 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    They’re good, aren’t they? Putting those fine advertising copywriting skillz to good use there, Adrien.

  24. will
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I just watched the opening scene of Hamlet after reading a precis of it. I found myself wondering if it is legitimate to call a piece of theatre ‘art’ when it first needs must be explained to those who consume it. At the very least Shakespeare should be reclassified as Old English literature…the language is not something that a typical English person could or would easily understand. In fact, I doubt that even educated English people who hadn’t been specifically trained to decipher the clunking, over worked, laboured language of Shakespeare, would understand it either.
    It is a historic curiosity which might be interesting to scholars of such things.
    Shakespeare has relevance to today’s world of theatre in the same way that wooden ships have to today’s world of ship building.
    If it is the language per se which I am asked to admire, then I refuse to do so without apology. Shakespeare never fails to take two, convoluted sentences to say what could be said in a single, well chosen word. Even when preparations ensures a listener understands the sentences, it is clear that the actors reciting them rarely do; since their emphasis is usually incongruous at best.
    Of course there are nuggets of gold in Shakesepeare but a person has to wade waist high through lots of shit to find them.

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