Friday, February 26, 2016

Viral Governmentality and the YouTube Armchair Activist [core post 3]

McCarthy’s arguments about the function of forms of governmentality in the neoliberal mediascape dovetail interestingly with many of Ouelette’s thoughts on audience participation with respect to one aspect of reality TV in particular: redemptive viral talent vids.

I see evidence of the “glocalization” phenomenon mentioned by McCarthy reflected in the titles of many popular talent show search-style reality programs that follow a similar formula to the one popularized by American Idol. Many are notable for an emphasis on regionalism, like the endless “localized” iterations of the [Your Country Here]’s Got Talent series (it really speaks to the confusion of a global media landscape that the national is now unironically marketed as the local). Given the nationalism inherent to this style, looking at appearances made by underprivileged folks on these shows yields illuminating information about the power and role of citizen-viewers within (or rather, outside of) glocal government--a power that is assumed to stem from the principle of virality.

For example, one episode of Korea’s Got Talent features a homeless young person with a gift for singing opera, Sungbong Choi. A short segment takes us through the same economics of suffering aptly described by McCarthy: he was an orphan who ran away from his state-sponsored orphanage at age 5 to escape alleged physical abuse. Not only abandoned by the traditional family unit, but failed even by the state, the judges here become the arbiters of sympathy: authorities able to recognize the value in a person who was abandoned by his society and government (bonus points if they cry). Yet, according to neoliberal logic, the supposed power to redeem Sungbong ultimately lies not with these (or other) authorities, but with the citizens watching the show.

As McCarthy argues of reality TV generally, “[it] might be both about governing the self and, in fact, also about the impossibility of governing the self when it is already governed despotically, by fragments of catastrophic past experience....neoliberal citizenship--for the viewer and the program’s participants--is an ethical-political position based in the acceptance of the irresolvable state” (20). One means of handling this contradiction can be found in viral spectatorship and the power of numbers.

The real “redemption” of Sungbong must occur at the meta-level, in the realm of ratings and hit counts on YouTube. Audience knowledge of the power of virality is crucial to this sort of fantasy of social justice: simply by watching the show or clicking the link, viewers become activists. In collectively popularizing certain media, viewers affect changes on the level of the super-local, the individual, which they can then track on news sites (often popping up as related videos in online platforms). According to neoliberal logic, somehow, by clicking on the link that supports the visibility and publicizes the suffering of particular individuals, ordinary citizens are both consuming the “pleasurable horrors” of their narratives while acting as armchair philanthropists who fight suffering.

This process highlights the fantasy that a particular government’s failures to empower the self-care of individuals and protect them from trauma can be corrected by its citizens directly. The related CNN footage seems to confirm this: the sudden attention brought social services to his doorstep, it seems, and now he has a government-subsidized flat, goes to school, and has “found success”. At least until 2013-ish, when his online footprint disappears.

Clicking is the new voting, and viewers can direct their governments from their living rooms. Because this type of (necessarily glocal) governmentality is viral in nature, there’s no need to examine underlying structures that contributed to the initial injustice, or to call for widespread systemic change. There’s no real need to follow up further to make sure the impact lasts, either--it’s not even possible, for once such stories fall out of viral favor, they necessarily fall off the radar of popular news.

Neoliberalism par excellence!

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