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A Cup of Decaf Reality

By Slavoj Zizek

The Real Cancun (2003), the first ever "reality movie," follows sixteen people will together for eight days in a beachfront Cancun villa for the ultimate Spring Break vacation. The movie which was advertised with "NO SCRIPTS. NO ACTORS. NO RULES. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN ON SPRING BREAK, AND IT DID.", fared rather poorly at the box-office (earning less than 4 million dollars). It is easy to see why, in contrast to the triumph of the TV reality shows, it failed: the attempt to "let life itself write the story" ended up in a mass of material out of which the studio experts tried to concoct a short coherent narrative. However, more important than such particular criticisms is the insight into the ideological background which made such a film possible and acceptable. From the 1950s, social psychology varies endlessly the motif of how, in public life, we are all "wearing masks," adopting idenities which obfuscate our true selves. However, wearing a mask can be a strange thing: sometimes, more often than we tend to believe, there is more truth in the mask that in what we assume to be our "real self." Recall the proverbial impotent shy person who, while playing the cyberspace interactive game, adopts the screen identity of a sadistic murderer and irresistible seducer - it is all too simple to say that this identity is just an imaginary supplement, a temporary escape from his real life impotence. The point is rather that, since he knows that the cyberspace interactive game is "just a game," he can "show his true self," do things he would never have done in real life interactions - in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated.

The negative of this wearing a mask is the strange prohibition which till recently ruled hard-core pornography: although it did show "everything," real sex, the narrative which provided the frame for repeated sexual encounters was as a rule ridiculously non-realistic, stereotypical, stupidly comical, staging a kind of return to the 18th century commedia del'arte in which actors do not play "real" individuals, but one-dimensional types - the Miser, the Cuckold Husband, the Promiscuous Wife. Is not this strange compulsion to make the narrative ridiculous a kind of negative gesture of respect: yes, we do show everything, but precisely for that reason we want to make it clear that it's all a big joke, that the actors are not really engaged?

Today, however, this "No trespass!" is increasingly undermined: recall recent attempts to combine the "serious" narrative cinema with the "hardcore" depiction of sex, i.e., to include in a "serious" film sex scenes which are played for the real (we see the erected penis, fellatio, up to actual penetration); the two most conspicuous examples are Patrice Chereau's Intimacy and Lars von Trier's Idiots. And I am tempted to suggest that the rise of "reality TV" in its different guises, from "docusoaps" to Survival competitor shows, relies on the same underlying trend to obfuscate the line that separates fiction from reality. Which ideological coordinates underlie this trend?

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sightÉ)? Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance - in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. Is this not the attitude of today's hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint - it is no longer the old notion of the "right measure" between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine. The ultimate example of it is arguably a "chocolate laxative," available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!", i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation. And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking...) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today's "biopolitics." Solutions are here desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is "safe sex" - a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying "Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?". The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaf coffee, to invent "opium without opium": no wonder marihuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it - it already IS a kind of "opium without opium".

These coordinates allow us to delineate succinctly what is false in the reality TV shows: the "real life" we get in them is as real as decaf coffee. In short, even if these shows are "for real," people still act in them - they simply "play themselves." The standard disclaimer in a novel ("characters in this text are a fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is purely contingent") holds also for the participants of the reality soaps: what we see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for the real. The best comment on reality TV is thus the ironic version of this disclaimer recently used by a Slovene author: "All characters in the following narrative are fictional, not real - but so are the characters of most of the people I know in real life, so this disclaimer doesn't amount to muchÉ" So, back to "The Real Cancun": "NO SCRIPTS. NO ACTORS. NO RULES." turned out to mean that people played themselves, that they followed the most flat rules of social interaction, and that nothing even minimally unpredictable happened.