Maddy: TV torture for the ADD generation
'This is awful. I can't stop watching'
Column Following the first Gulf War of 1991, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard made the famous statement that "the Gulf War did not take place". It was seized on by academics, journalists, and pub intellectuals in the English-speaking world as a prime example of the absurdity and irresponsibility of French philosophy. When he died earlier this year, it was this bizarre comment of his that the obituary-writers fixated on. What did Baudrillard mean by it?
The point Baudrillard was trying to convey was that the broadcasted images of the war had become a separate, autonomous entity, bearing no relation to what might or might not have been happening in a desert thousands of miles away. Media content had taken on a life of its own. What we were shown via CNN was like a stage play.
In the same spirit, we might now say that "Madeleine McCann's disappearance did not take place". The media has been the principal actor in the drama right from the outset.
The press conferences, the videos broadcast at sporting events, Gerry McCann's weblog, and - above all - the drama and speculation whipped up by the tabloid press, all amount to a festival of inter-linking content. Add to this the fact that there is a murder mystery at the centre of it (or is there?) and the whole question of what has really taken place becomes fundamentally unanswerable.
There are a number of things to notice about this. Firstly, the frenzied interest in the Madeleine story is fuelled by the lack of hard reality, rather than quelled by it. Once again, "the medium has become the message", but this in itself is not necessarily a new thing. One might say the same thing about the Gospels - where the leading character has grown in reputation, thanks to the shortage of hard empirical evidence about him. But the unfolding of the McCann story also tells us something much more contemporary about our media consumption, which flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about the digital, on-demand age.
We, the media?
We are familiar with the notion that consumers are now active participants in the media. The "people formerly known as the audience" produce their own content, decide when and how to watch television, and entertain themselves by spying on acquaintances via social networking sites.
We are also familiar with the idea of reality television. Big Brother allows us to watch real people doing real things, while prime time television in the UK is now dedicated mainly to factual programming - at least inasmuch as it is a "fact" that the relevant couple were captured on camera painting their own kitchen.
What is so irresistible about the McCann drama is that it gives us neither of these things. We are not viewing something that has been produced or manipulated for our entertainment or convenience. The story is (still) happening in real time.
Consider the pace at which the story unfolds. Nobody is in control of it, which means it occasionally gets quite dull. We can't fast forward or time-switch. We're not invited to phone in and vote for which suspect we would like to see arrested. Key scenes and pieces of information are kept from us in a way that would defeat the point of a show like Big Brother. But we find this all the more compelling.
The one nod to conventional broadcasting principles is that the ratings have mattered right from the beginning. When there was a risk that they might slump, David Beckham was drafted in to speak on the matter, thus giving the story a new boost.
Most grippingly of all, we have no idea what genre of story we are watching, so have no idea how or when it might end. To an extent, the same was true of the hit American drama Lost. But reality TV from the news department is always a one-off - there will be no sequel.
In view of this, newspapers desperately seek to juggle several potential plots at once. There is one in which the parents are villains, another in which the police are incompetent, and another in which Madeleine is still alive. If and when the story ends, it will make a lousy film, because by then the suspense of wondering what sort of story it is will have been lost.
What this amounts to is a form of S&M for the me-driven media generation. Stories that I consume when I like, or I participate in on my terms, or I create using my camera leave us feeling listless and empty after a while.
As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno observed of Hollywood in the 1940s, the entertainment industries deliver exactly what we expect them to, and thereby deliver us nothing at all. True culture, in Adorno's estimation, has to disappoint or frustrate us.
What the McCann drama demonstrates is a bizarre longing for stories that aren't easily consumable and are indifferent to what we expect of them. For sure, the characters are good looking - our desire for media S&M hasn't yet reached the heights of wanting to look at ugly people - but most of the time there is nothing going on at all.
Could this be a trend for the digital age? The assumption that the user is acquiring ever greater power over content production and consumption may well be true, but the question is whether we necessarily want all that power.
Some people find wildlife programmes therapeutic, precisely because they feel so irrelevant. Others revel in the glorious monotony of five day cricket matches.
Once the McCann frenzy dies down, many will find an empty space in their lives. At that point, a canny TV company should go looking for a news story, whose nature is unclear, and whose rhythm and conclusion are blissfully insulated from the demands of ego-driven consumers. ®
William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.