Reality Television and the Hysterical Sublime

Reality television is perhaps one of the most compelling and controversial products the postmodern world has known. In theory, unscripted television programming, as it is sometimes called, sounds to some extent like an inoffensive Habermasian wet dream, as the term "unscripted" "brings to mind ideas like 'free', 'unfettered', 'unconstrained'" (Athanassoulis 2008). There is a promise of genuine, uncontrolled programming that is driven by its participants rather than the producers, directors, and scriptwriters who work behind the scenes in setting the tone of the program. "Unscripted programming is a vote for freedom then, for … [it] gives access to the creative process to people who could otherwise never get this opportunity, ordinary people like you and me" (Athanassoulis 2008).

But this promise of democratic participation is but a deception. In actuality, what parades itself as reality runs according to a very tight script — participants are placed in clearly defined and controlled situations. Furthermore, these situations test many moral boundaries. Many reality tv set ups, Athanassoulis says, "seem to reproduce experiments from the 1970s" (2008), such as the infamous Stanford prison experiment.

Most often, participants with conflicting personalities are locked in a sensory-deprived environment — they have no access to the outside world, no outlets for their frustration and boredom, and no boundaries of personal space. Starve the participants for a few days and give them massive amounts of alcohol, or subject them to situations that test their limits (with the promise of a hefty cash prize at the end if they succeed), then "stand back and film" (Athanassoulis 2008). What results is television as we know it today — "sadistic" (Athanassoulis 2008) images ranging from "sexually explicit material to psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political defiance" (Jameson 2006).

Sexually-explicit material from Big Brother 9

A news report on the controversial bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother UK

A thoroughly disgusting clip from Fear Factor



Reality television program The Swan forever transforms women (albeit merely superficially) through plastic surgery — a reminder of society's addiction "for a world transformed into sheer images of itself" (Jameson 2006), of a culture whose values are deeply rooted in the simulacrum.

The experience of viewing reality television is thus an experience with the hysterical sublime — the vast collection of images contain a potent mix of terror, disgust, and aversion, yet they are simultaneously so compelling, fascinating, and astonishing that a viewer could not bring himself to take his gaze away from it. We are so drawn into the spectacle of reality television to the extent that, as Neil Postman puts it, "we are amusing ourselves to death" (1985).

The Hysterical Sublime and the Art of Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst's art is perhaps even more evocative of what Jameson describes as the hysterical sublime. His works portray not only a fetishization of the human body, but of various life forms as well.



Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding contains 39 fishes preserved in formaldehyde and melamine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living features an actual shark suspended in a mixture of silicon and formaldehyde.


This photograph of Hirst's works is particularly compelling. A zebra has been reduced to a mere polyester and resin representation, its black stripes peeled off to reveal layers of skin and muscle. The backdrop — a juxtaposition of Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, and a victim from the Vietnam war — is a frightening yet simultaneously seizing representation of how capitalism and US imperialism has taken over the world. It is interesting to note that while the backdrop does contain images from the past, the very concept of time — specifically, history — has been effaced by historicism (Jameson 2006). This piece no longer presents the world as how it was at specific points in the past, but instead pieces together a homogenous world of arbitrary images, framing them from the point of view of the capitalism-dominated present. It clearly demonstrates how, in the postmodern world, time has become empty, and historical contexts have been removed.

Resurrection is also evocative of Jameson's insight on historicism.
The glass panels surround the figure, defining its existence in space, yet its existence in time has been seemingly suspended.

Postmodernist Architecture and the Collapsing of Time

A bold example of the emergence of space above time is the Piazza d'Italia found in New Orleans, Louisiana. Designed by Charles Moore, this space is an exuberant and kitschy take on Classical Italian architecture with its loud color palette, distorted scale and perspective, and spectacular waterworks.


Architecture is particularly important for Jameson, as he believes that "of all the arts [it is] the closet constitutively to the economic" (2006). Architecture and capitalism, he continues, share "a virtually unmediated relationship, [as the] flowering of … new postmodern architecture [is] grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it" (2006). It is no secret that the construction of the Piazza is rooted in the goals of capitalism — it was envisioned to become a major attraction in New Orleans in order to boost its tourism industry.


In the book Chambers for a Memory Palace, Moore (1996) describes the mishmash of allusions he makes to the different architectural orders:

"Tuscan was the simplest - a ring of water to make what was supposed to be an unfluted column, though the closely spaced jets begin to suggest fluting. The Doric got metopes of water jets and stainless steel columns split like an ancient helmet to reveal water running down inside and a stainless steel wall behind the columns with water running down the surface. In the corners above the central arch on the Doric wall I had thought to put huge windshield wipers to push away the falling water, but that suggestion was rejected as tasteless; only to be replaced furtively by my head spouting water. The Ionic order had water flying around in volutes, a liquid egg-and-dart molding. The Corinthian sported capitals of acanthus-shaped jets, and the Composite combined those with volutes of water and jets up between the fluting."

It's an odd commentary; I believe it says virtually nothing about the Piazza. If it achieves anything, it self-consciously addresses the space's meaninglessness, flatness, and depthlessness, that which Jameson describes as "a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense" (489). Now holding no meaning beyond that which is visible, the space is nothing more than a collage of arbitrarily-chosen elements detached from their particular contexts. The Piazza removes classical Italian architecture from its historicity, thus "cannibal[izing] … the architectural [style] of the past" (Jameson 494) and reducing it to a garishly-colored, water fixture-laden hyperspace.


The superficiality of the space reaches even newer heights with Moore's incorporation of his own image into the architecture. Much like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, whom Warhol has "commodified and transformed into their own images" (Jameson, 2006), Moore's sculpture is forever suspended in time as it exists merely in space — a chilling reminder of how images — and consequently, capitalism — has taken over the world as we know it.

The Politics of Nostalgia

With regards to postmodern society's loss of its sense of time and history, Jameson writes of the nostalgia mode, which he understands as "the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past" (2006). This attempt of reconstruction, however, is an approach that is still heavily centered on the "glossy qualities of the image" (Jameson 2006) — on stylized representations of dominant ideologies, fashion, dance moves, and (bad) hair, among others. Aesthetics have now taken over as the sole operators of defining pastness, yet this past that we perceive is merely a "pseudo-historical depth" (Jameson 2006).

Arjun Appadurai, in his work on globalization and culture, agrees — culture has become a "social imaginaire built largely around reruns" (2006). The past, he continues, is no longer a place of memory, but a "synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios, a kind of temporal central casting, to which recourse can be taken as appropriate, depending on the movie to be made, the scene to be enacted, the hostages to be rescued" (2006).

One need not look far to see examples in the media that are saturated with images that have displaced "real" history:

A comedian compresses into a mere six minutes a history of dance spanning more than 50 years.

The Jonas Brothers sell to pre-pubescent fans empty aesthetics of the 1940s.

In yet another music video, the same three boys make references to iconic action films.

British band The Darkness attempt to channel the exuberant glam rock movement.

Faux band PoP (from the film Music and Lyrics) create a pastiche (a parody without a vocation) of the 1980s.

Hollywood producers are in the process of churning out recycled versions of sci-fi classics,
using nostalgic icons such as the Ghostbusters and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.

And finally, the music of the Beatles is repackaged into a video game
for the current generation (and its nostalgic predecessors) to consume.


Athanassoulis, N. (2008). Some Vices of Reality TV Programming. Paper presented in The Ethics of Media: Philosophical Foundations and Practical Imperatives, Cambridge, April 2008.
Jameson, F. (2006). Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In M. Durham & D. Kellner, Eds. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks (pp. 482-519). Wiley-Blackwell.
Appadurai, A. (2006). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. In M. Durham & D. Kellner, Eds. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks (pp. 584-603). Wiley-Blackwell.
Lyndon, D. & Moore, C. W. (1996). Chambers for a Memory Palace. MIT Press.
Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books.

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