The Exploding Toilet of the Modern Media

Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher, supposedly said that visiting the cinema was rather like watching a toilet bowl in anticipation of it exploding excrement at the viewer. When I first heard this, I took this as just another provocative statement from him, one of his little ways to shock anyone listening into thinking about the world around them. Furthermore, it is certainly true that there is an enormous amount of material that is worth as much as excreta now playing at our local movie theatres.

However, if we move on in our thinking about what is “excretal” from being merely bad to being degraded, it’s clear that Zizek had a point which extends to today’s newspapers.

A fundamental question that should generally be asked is – “what is the matter?” What’s bothering us? On an empirical level, things are bad. There is no getting away from the facts: inflation, recession and environmental destruction are all rampant. Our politicians appear to be impotent in the face of these challenges: the best that Gordon Brown could do was suggest that people at home stop buying so much food…just before tucking into a 19 course lunch and dinner at a summit in Japan, washed down with fine wine. However, serious stories are not the only ones in evidence today: the newspapers have been rocked by a double barrelled set of divorce stories, one coming from Alex Rodriguez, a player for the New York Yankees, who has been accused of infidelity. The other case involves former “supermodel”, Christie Brinkley.

The particulars of both stories are simultaneously sordid and uninteresting; if one cares to read further, there are plenty of news sources to consult, which is precisely the point. “What is the matter?” is reduced to the personal lives of niche celebrities. What makes both distinctly American cases truly bizarre is that newspapers in Britain felt obliged to comment on them as well; the bowl’s overflow apparently crosses oceans.

First, the Times of London, venerable and ancient, commented on the Rodriguez case, even though most Times readers have only the slightest possible knowledge of baseball, let alone any interest in its personalities. All right, supposedly Madonna is somehow embroiled in this, but her residency in Britain is incidental, not central to the case.

More typically, the Daily Mail, always a strange melange of hard right Islamophobia, celebrity gossip and diet tips, reported on the Brinkley case. Presumably it was in memory of her blissfully silent performance in the video to “Uptown Girl”: they thought it best to report on how Miss Brinkley – as she presumably will shortly be again – had not gone out on a date in two years. Whether she was using the Mail as an extended personals column is unclear; I suggest she was ill advised to use the Mail for that purpose, as its readers tend not to be in her target socio-economic group.

The “exploding toilet” in both instances is obvious: people whose lives are enriched with enough wealth to supposedly correct any blemishes and imperfections in the course of life are found to be vulnerable, needy, greedy, lascivious and deceitful. We needed to know this?

Apparently, we do. Otherwise newspapers of wildly varying reputations would not feel the need to “let the pipes burst”. However, if we accept the Freudian thesis that symptoms are messages sent by the subconscious, we should take heed of what this is saying about our society.

It may be saying that we are obsessed with tearing down our icons. There is certain truth in this: who is happier today, the woman with a bit of cellulite and a run in her stockings who has had the same husband for twenty years, or Ms. Brinkley? It depends of course, but there is a case to be made that the woman with the holier than other stockings is more likely to be settled in her relationship, which is a good context for contentment.

It may be saying that we are intrigued by sex. Of course. Even Neanderthal tabloids drawn on cave walls featured large breasted women from time to time; that aspect has not evolved in thousands of years, albeit now the models have “Phew Wot A Scorcher” appended as a caption. Scandals such as this show that people who appear as impervious as marble statues surrender to the indignities of being human, tender or sordid as they may be.

However, it may also be saying that we simply don’t want to think about something more serious. The aforementioned problems of rising prices, declining economic growth and the earth being steadily poisoned are not disappearing. Paying attention to this sort of ephemera is rather like altering the end of Doctor Strangelove to include Slim Pickens reading a comic book as he rides the atomic bomb to certain death.

To be resolutely fair, there are newspapers which have eschewed triviality. These, however, tend to be minority journals, not mainstream ones. Few can escape the lure of broadcasting excreta, nor perhaps, do they have the necessary desire. A disease that the patient does not wish to be cured, cannot be cured; as such it is untreatable, and unlikely to fade.

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