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Shadow Elite: Truthiness, Porn and the Real Problem With Reality TV

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What do the makers of reality TV and the makers of pornography have in common with some of America's top power brokers? It may be less of a stretch than it sounds. All three exploit (and have helped usher in) a culture of truthiness, resulting in a polarized citizenry content to sit in their own self-assembled fact "cocoon". This culture has also created a sort of backlash quest among viewers and voters for the scarcest of commodities these days: authenticity. Good luck finding it.

Truthiness was named by Stephen Colbert only five years ago, but the trend he identified was already at least a decade in the making. It is one of the ways in which Western culture has moved away from many of the distinctions it once made. Institutional lines of authority frayed with the Cold War's end. Today, think tanks act as news outlets, news outlets act as entertainment companies and corporations daily stand in for government. In the broader culture, new technology and social networking, along with the collapse of old-school media, fostered an explosion of (cheap) opinionated and confessional content. This meant that the distinctions between politics and entertainment, work and play, truth and fiction have become increasingly amorphous.

The concept of truthiness itself bears some similarity to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's notion of "simulacra." Baudrillard argued that today's society is constructed around "simulacra," which (then) become reality. Simulation, unlike pretense, and like "truthiness," produces real intuitive feelings, emotions, or symptoms in someone, and, therefore, blurs the difference between the "real" and "imaginary." Today, it is the idea of reality that is often being performed and sought by the media, leaving the reality much more elusive. And there are examples across the culture that people are craving displays of certitude and authenticity, emphasis on the word "displays": more often than not, what's billed as true and real is merely the idea of reality or a kind of hyperreality.

The explosion of reality TV, of course, is a blatant case. One would have to be as guileless as, say, Kenneth the Page on NBC's 30 Rock to believe that reality TV is real and yet, does anyone believe that Jersey Shore would reach such a cultural saturation point if it was a fictional program? Its appeal seems to lie in the fact that it's neither real nor fake, but actually exists in a limbo land between the two. "Snooki" is the bastard child of the contrived and the authentic. It's notable too that the desperate TV housewives with the most buzz these days aren't the fictionals ones on ABC, but the supposed "real" housewives on Bravo, who seem more fake than the fake ones.

Janine spoke last spring with reality TV creator Howard Schultz who saw a niche to be filled in an environment where verifiable truth was in very short supply:

Lying [has now been] elevated to an art form... We have many names - like 'little white lies' and 'spin doctoring'. When the truth becomes relative, you lose your compass for traveling in life. I created [a show] that's trying to introduce people back to the thing called truth--which is not your opinion, not what you feel. When opinion or feeling becomes the method of the moment, you lose sight that there is something called the truth. The moment everything becomes relative, there's no way out....Nothing is held to account.

People were held to account on Schultz' show, to be sure - Fox's wince-inducing Moment of Truth program from a few years ago. Contestants were asked increasingly embarrassing and personal questions, and the answers were judged true or false depending on the polygraph the contestants took before the show. The program aims for what most reality shows aim for and exploit: emotional spectacle. And at the heart of the marketing is that these are real people - would the spectacle be a spectacle if it was fictionalized? In a truthiness era, fiction just doesn't hold the appeal and the reality has to be "realer than real."

The commodification of authenticity is even seen in what we think of as the land of artificial desire and silicone dreams, where everything is almost by definition a performance: the porn business. Anthropology professor Hülya Demirdirek who studies cyber porn culture, among other things, argues that these days one of the most compelling selling points in online porn is that what you are seeing is "real", performed by supposed "amateurs", whereas in the past there was little denial that the porn stars were acting. (It's worth noting that non-simulated "real" sex has also been showing up in art house films like Michael Winterbottom's 2004 9 Songs and 2003's Brown Bunny, which is probably best known for featuring real sex acts between director Vincent Gallo and ex-girlfriend, actress Chloe Sevigny.)

Janine in Shadow Elite explores how the most nimble power brokers of our day -- she calls them flexians -- are not supposed to be performing, but in fact are performing in whichever role suits their interest at that moment. Demirdirek's porn stars are supposed to be performing but are going to great to lengths to show that they are not performing and that what they are doing is actually real. She argues that once a culture is saturated with performance, the artificial is no longer the premium product.

So what does it matter that reality TV isn't real (cue the collective "Duh"), or that porn stars are (gasp) faking it? The problem is that this blurring of the real and the fake -- enabled by technology and social networking -- is now hardly confined to popular culture. Those flexians, in Janine's view, many of whom are purportedly working in the public interest, exploit all these vast new gray spaces where once was black and white. Players can easily get away with stage-managing their self-presentations, portraying themselves in ways that baldly contradict their previous presentations and realities. This is why a top power broker with a dismal track record and numerous controversies (like, say, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers) can keep taking on roles of influence. Some argue that the public has gotten so used to constructed narratives with the veneer of truth that when neoconservatives within the Bush administration wanted to take the U.S. to war with Iraq in 2003, they were readily able to peddle, as the New York Times' Frank Rich put it, "the greatest story ever sold."

For some porn stars, though, the pressure to offer the pretense of real can mean a more private tragedy: some Los Angeles production companies recently shut down because a performer tested positive for HIV. In the porn world, unfortunately, "real" sex is often, by all appearances, unprotected sex. No amount of performing or truthiness can rewrite that harsh bit of reality.