Reality Bites: Jennicam, Truman, Live Birth
Dressed in blue scrubs and pious of voice, the host of the show is addressing an anesthesiologist who has just numbed a woman about to give birth.
"Have you ever had a million-and-a-half people watch you [do that]?" asks Dr. Walt Larimore, host of "Ask the Family Doctor" on America's Health Network.
"No," says the anesthetist, sheepish at the braggery over a routine medical procedure. "So this will be the first," the doctor-host presses his embarrassed colleague before millions of cable TV and Internet voyeurs.
"Congratulations. Excellent job!" gushes Dr. Larimore as he pumps the other doctor's hand.
Yes, on June 16, a mother of three did it for the fourth time - live in front of her whole family and a chunk of the world "without commercial break and without interruption," as Larimore boasted.
America's Health Network had packaged the real, down to its most banal details, and made it entertainment. So sated are we with sex, special effects, and the rest of our gross and violent fictional stimulants that we've begun to colonize and commodify reality itself in the search for ever-newer ways of exciting ourselves.
The birth of "Baby Sean," alone, wasn't good enough for Larimore. He wanted it all, 5 hours, 22 minutes, and 29.7 seconds of labor and its minor props of vials, monitors, flowers, sheets, mirrors...
Correction: We wanted it all. So many of us peered at the pictures on the Live Birth Web site that we were constantly getting the infuriating message: "Net Congestion Rebuffering."
This new Reality Show is efflorescing. We now have "jennicam.org" featuring a 21-year-old Washington woman who sleeps, pets her cat, and shows off her dirty feet in front of a camera in her apartment that broadcasts 24 hours a day to her Web site. We have seven twentysomethings who live in a house together so MTV can film their bickering in weekly installments of "The Real World." And there's the Philadelphia TV anchor - Renee Chenault of WCAU - who will be reporting everything you don't want to know about her artificial insemination and ongoing pregnancy.
And there's more and more coming. The audience for it all is so big - 100 million hits a week for "jennicam," at $15 per membership - that this doesn't seem to be some passing craze.
Nothing has better dramatized the phenomenon than this summer's movie "The Truman Show," the plot of which everyone outside of Afghanistan can recite by now: A baby, legally adopted by a corporation, is born live on television. (Remind you of anything?)
Truman Burbank's entire life thereafter is broadcast live to the world "without commercial break and without interruption" (as perhaps Baby Sean's will be, for Larimore concludes the "Live Birth" program by telling us: "We look forward to watching him grow on 'Ask the Family Doctor.'")
Five thousand cameras record Truman's life without his having a clue that wife, boss, friends, and strangers are actors.
Here's how they talk to him: "You ought to throw out that mower. Get one of those new rotaries," a "friend" says. Not a word is uttered to him that isn't TV ad language.
Here's how he reunites with his dad (we're watching in a control room, from the director's viewpoint):
"My son!" says the father.
"Roll up music," says Christof, the director.
"Yes!" says a producer.
Sure, his whole life is being directed as a soap. But "soap" is too mild for what's going on here.
Look at what Truman sees: not a sunset that isn't gorgeous; not a moon that isn't made for spooning; scarcely a color that isn't a primary, nor a light not bright. Why? In order to wipe out tonal difference, in order to draw the objects of Truman's gaze onto a single picture plane. Why? Because that's how a TV screen looks, flat and primary-colored, and Truman sees everything as on a screen. Like the rest of us.
The world we inhabit has become one of simulations: virtual stores, themed environments, special effects theaters, spinmeister spokesmen.
"Nothing you see here on this show is fake," Truman's "best friend" Marlon explains. "It's just controlled." Marlon's right. To simulate isn't to con you or hide something. It's to substitute one thing for another.
Truman's "mother" shows him pictures from childhood at Mt. Rushmore. "It looks so small," he says. Quickly, she turns the page. He's not to study what he already saw: that it's a simulation, not the real. Lesson: When something gets substituted, you are to forget there was an original. That's what Christof, director of Truman's life, tells us: "We accept the reality of the world we're presented."
In our world, like Truman's, you no longer take a position, you have a marketing position. Another substitution.
The whole realm of what we used to call discourse, the realm of reasons, assertions, the machinery of rhetoric, has all been replaced by images. Argument has been replaced by arguing. Substitution.
Truman lives in a giant biosphere. And we live inside a semiosphere, a dense, suffocating atmosphere of superficial signs triumphantly permeating all social, political, and imaginative life. For us as for Truman, ever so much of life has been superficialized. That is the source of our happy indifference. That's the happy, cool, easy world we're born into.
It's not I, a semiotician, telling you this. It's the film, an anthology of simulations. When all the simulations crash in deliriously, we reach conceptual grandeur.
"I have given Truman a chance to lead a normal life," Christof (of Christ) says of the grand simulation. "If he was determined to discover the truth, there is no way we could prevent him. Truman prefers his cell. It's the world that's sick."
No, Truman doesn't prefer his cell. But the brave new world he's entering, ours, is becoming just like his cell, only more so.
* Marshall Blonsky is a professor of semiotics - the philosophical theory of signs and symbols - at New York University, in New York City. He is the author of 'American Mythologies' (Oxford University Press, 1992).