“A-loan A-gain:”
In the Shadows of Lifestyle Television

“Without doubt the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make this situation precarious as well as the permanent threat of unemployment” (Bourdieu, 1998).

PayDay Loan TV Ad

PayDay Loan TV Ad

In the UK home-ownership is at the centre of national identity. Since the Tory governments of the 1980s allowed council tenants to buy their properties, owning one’s own home has become a crucial badge of much sought-after middle-classness. Much of lifestyle television is given over to both promoting and maintaining this dream. However, home-ownership is a precarious thing, as the recent collapse of the Northern Rock building society has revealed. A more telling indicator of the fragility of middle-class membership is the millions of people who take out loans. The explosion of consumer credit that began in the 1980s grows apace. Recent estimates suggest that “13 million people take out loans to consolidate their existing debts, of whom more than 8 million go on to build up further debts, and more than five million believe they will always be in debt” (Inman, 2007). But we are unlikely to discover this in the prim confines of Lifestyle television. This genre has no time for those whose can ill-afford the latest in curtains, cars or shrubbery. However, there is a form of television perfectly designed for those struggling to keep up with their neighbours. I write, of course, of the myriad advertisements for loan companies that are a staple of daytime television.

Loan ads come in two categories – the mini-soap opera and the crudely symbolic. In the latter we see people moving from red spaces (“debt” – even marked as such on the floor) into black spaces (marked as “debt-free”). This is very simple indeed but done in this fashion to catch the attention of the daytime audience who may have the television on while attending to other chores. More complex scenarios are presented in the mini-soaps which make getting a loan look like child’s play. In one typical playlet, a housewife wanders around the house requesting a mere £25,000 ($50,000) loan while picking up toys and laughing with her kids. Of course this all takes place in a pristine home. The message is clear – nice middle-class people deal with their problems like this, so why shouldn’t you?

One reason might be the psychological cost of personal debt. Research on consumer psychology indicates that the “increase in psychological distress is greatest when outstanding credit is measured at the individual as opposed to the household level” (2005, Brown, S, Taylor, K and Price, S.W). Not a few surveys have concluded that working longer hours and going deeper into debt to satisfy the ever-increasing “needs” people have is deepening the mental health crisis in the UK (James, 1998; Hamilton, 2003).

But never mind all that: the loan ads suggest that transferring all of your debts into one “consolidated” loan is not a measure of desperation but a representation of shrewd financial sense. The individual taking this step is an enterprising one. Here then are subjects active in their own government. Loans are not the responsibility of the state – it is entirely down to the individual to sort out their own situation. Thus scenarios representing phoned-in loans normalize debt. Handsome friendly people are waiting to talk to you right now! Thanks to them and the kindly folks at the bank, all your problems will soon be a faded memory. Alas…

“Debt advisors say that many of the people who fall behind with repayments from a secured debt consolidation loan just didn’t realise that their home was in jeopardy” (Inman, 2007).

It’s telling that these ads are often sandwiched between lifestyle television programmes while on daytime. The principal audiences comprise domestic engineers (home-makers with an intimate understanding of where the money goes), students (with lower real money and greater debts than ever) and the elderly – a cross-section of our culture that has been educated into familiarity with the world of debt. Despite having lower incomes and a more precarious economic situation, keeping a nice stylish home has to be a priority. A counterweight is provided by “threat TV.” In programmes like Cheaters or talk shows like Maury, domestic violence and imminent collapse are only misjudgements away. The loan ads that fill the commercial breaks serve as warnings: take out a loan now or you too could be plunged into the darkness of a life without lifestyle!

A perfect symbiosis has now emerged in the shadows of lifestyle — audiences are being sold anxiety. Trusted TV personalities (who may also be part of the lifestyle schedule) trade on their reputation to sell loans to people who don’t always understand them. Some economists believe that debt behaviour is part of the dynamics of capitalism and that “problem debtors may be created to satisfy the needs of an inherently unstable macro-economic system” (Camra, 2005). And so the insecurity then goes all the way down – from the caller wondering whether to “magic away” their problems out to an economic system built on the individual’s willingness to see themselves as rational cost units maximising their choices.

The home that we are encouraged to love and cherish more than ever has shaky foundations.

Image credit:

1. PayDay Loan TV Ad

References:

Bordieu

Inman, P. (2007) ‘Desperate Debtors Risk All With Secured Loans’ The Observer. 16/09/07

James, O. (1998) Britain on the Couch. London, Arrow

Brown, S, Taylor, K and Price, S.W (2005) ‘Evaluating the Psychological Cost of Credit’ Journal of Economic Psychology. Vol 26, No 5

Hamilton, C. (2003) ‘Over-consumption in Britain: A Culture of Middle-Class Complaint? Sept. tai.org

Cameron, S (1994) ‘Household Debt Problems: Towards a Micro-Macro Linkage’ Review of Political Economy. Vol 6, no 2.

Please feel free to comment.




Talent: No Alarms and No Surprises, Please.

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

At the precise moment democritizing media (such as blogs, YouTube, and cyberliving) are on the rise both, television and music industries are making dramatic investments in “the people” in the form of the talent show. On the surface this looks like the most old-fashioned and wholesome of gestures, rather as if these industries were rediscovering their raison d’etre in serving the public with something “pure” – the people themselves. But beneath this benevolent sheen is a concentrated effort to showcase what big business does best – dazzle – as well as extracting the maximum profit from audiences while they still have a tangible hold on them. Significantly they define talent for our age.

In the notoriously unpredictable world of show-business the televised talent show makes economic sense. Over 10 weeks or so the talent (defined at first as low-cost units who don’t need to be paid) gets a full airing before being dismissed by the viewers. Hours of television are produced at minimal expense by recording and transmitting not just the auditions but also the humble dwellings of the hopeful. This also looks democratic because it illustrates how the multiplication of channels seems to increase opportunities to see (and be seen by) all. By the time of the series finale, a great deal has been invested in the talent who have been transformed from person to commodity by the joint operations of a watching (and paying) public and the wary guard of the industry itself. People such as music mogul Simon Cowell have a direct involvement in several talent shows because they are a sure-fire means for him to become rich. His demeaning remarks win a sneaking regard because he is after all, from the industry. While loud and aggressive complaint with the judges is part of the fun, all agree that the market is king. In UK versions of talent shows the market and the people have become synonymous. Indeed, the market is invoked with the due solemnity of a Calvinist referencing God. Any manner of brutality can be excused in the name of the market/the people. The supreme talent then is one sanctioned by the market.

Simon Cowell showing disapproval

Simon Cowell showing disapproval

Programmes like X-Factor and America’s Got Talent turn us into consumer-viewers now more than ever before. We sustain such television not merely by being delivered to advertisers through ratings, but also by the phone or text vote (10.4 million people called in the UK X-Factor in December 2006) The democritisation of media – “You Decide” – has made it our fault if they fall from grace (or the top of the charts). After all we’re not being manipulated if we chose to put them there in the first place are we? Talent is now a perfect response to a market-driven democracy.

The place of talent shows in the television schedule helps to position the product for the wider market. This helps creates a shape or loose system for those manning the celebrity scaffold – from junior stylists to showbiz editors. Talent is brought into the entertainment machine by these programmes with such regularity that it’s a bit like wearing a sell-by sticker. More than ever this is a business with a product and those involved need to decide whether to make a strategic investment in this bright flickering talent before moving onto the next perm, plug, or podcast. This question of infrastructure should not be overlooked. More than ever we have a roughly synchronous system working to maximise profit from talent however small and puny it might be. The market is now flooded with publications, websites and mini-programmes helping us to discover the foibles of the stars and wannabees of the talent show. When wrinkles can be captured by a lens hundreds of meters away then its important to have your people looking after you. It is this infrastructure that can maintain a career. Thus it follows that talent can also be defined as sustainability in the marketplace.

Judges for America’s Got Talent

Judges for America’s Got Talent

But one factor that seems to make this recent incarnation of the talent show significantly different is that it seems shrouded in fear and hysteria. No where is this fear of change more apparent than in those who sing. The objective behind every choice of song is to select something that will demonstrate the singer’s range but, more importantly, connect with the public/the market. Needless to say this is also a reinvestment in the past, a nostalgic refusal to let go the classics (also owned by the record companies). In this way talent is defined as conformity, supplication, an emptying out of the self to please the public. Those pursuing this career path are not seen as artists but as shrewd players maximising their talent. The warming contours of an old song already half escaping the sighs of an audience is a surer root to profit than the potentially troubling new. The manic reception afforded old songs suggests that we do not want to be reminded of the present. We want nostalgia now. In a risk-laden society we need comfort – no alarms and no surprises. What the song becomes now is something the audience remembers and the singer re-interprets. In this moment the memory of one is treasured and re-projected by the other as valuable, worthy indeed of the golden hour that was Saturday Night when the ideal family grouped around the television. Advertising helped shape this slot which soon became the most important in the schedule. But as the schedule disappears, homes use multiple sets and the nuclear family crumbles the ideological mechanism of Saturday night is lost. In its place are hysterical relatives screaming and waving banners and shouting themselves hoarse for their own families. The triumph of such television is to defuse the threat of talent and make it fit utterly commercial choices which we in turn, are proud of our role in. What’s left to be special is “dazzle” and our “new and improved” role in it.

So what is talent now? A starry rope-ladder to the celebrity scaffold? Or a gift?

You decide..

Image credits:

1. VillageVoice.com

2. TVmedia.com

Please feel free to comment.




Kyle-Time: You Can’t Touch This

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

Britain’s Jeremy Kyle extended his brand last week with Kyle’s Academy, in which five people are given two weeks in a luxury home while being submitted to therapy in order to stabalise their personalities. In the following I will consider the Kyle-brand as an expression of the increasingly desperate tactics of television producers and as the rise of a therapeutic discourse which completely obscures the economic. My aim is to illustrate how this combination of factors exploits and helps fashion emotionally vulnerable subjects amongst the working class.

The Jeremy Kyle show airs on what industry insiders now call “troubled” ITV. The station has four channels, but its main business is ITV1 – a channel that is in gradual year-on-year decline. One solution to this ratings crisis is to invest heavily in those brands that have already proven a success. Thus for the truly, madly, deeply committed viewer, Kyle can be seen on ITV1 for an hour at 9:25 am, then in Kyle’s Academy at 2 pm for another hour. His show appears on “sister” channel ITV2 for an hour at 1 pm and then again at 3 pm. I am reminded of Coke’s apocryphal pledge not to rest until every coffee break was renamed a coke break. Perhaps they call daytime “Kyle-time” in ITV towers.

British readers will already know Kyle as one of the most hated men on television. As even one of his colleagues has noted Kyle, manages to unite the left-leaning liberal Guardian with the right-wing Daily Mail in collective loathing. The reasons for this dislike are not hard to find – Kyle very aggressively taunts, screams and yells at his guests and then makes a show of “caring.” Think Morton Downey Jr. without the grace or wit. Kyle is very much a showman recruited from late night radio shows where very brutal forms of common sense are offered as advice to those calling in the wee hours. Kyle has brought this brutality to his show telling his guests to “Sit up straight,” “Listen to me,” “Look at her” etc. These commands are matched by finger jabbing, shouting and a very aggressive strutting around in that space between audience and guests.

Jeremy Kyle cares

Jeremy Kyle Cares

The programme works in time-honoured fashion. One aggrieved partner comes on and then five minutes later the other comes out fighting/ screaming, crying etc. While reading Laura Grindstaff’s Money Shot, I was fascinated to see the similarities between US and UK talk shows – in particular the tactics used to “wind-up” participants. My own ex-students have watched Kyle’s “research assistants” deliberately aggravate participants with new revelations about their partners’ conduct so the most outrageous performance is guaranteed by the time they are released into the stage. This of course is all done in the name of therapy.

Those who make up the vast majority of Kyle’s show are from the working class – that sector of our culture who have endured the greatest pressures during the rise of neo-liberalism. It is this sector that has borne the highest degrees of unemployment, who have fewer educational opportunities and who are quickly becoming social pariahs. That inelegant phrase —“the underclass” — is increasingly used as a catch-all to describe this group of long-term unemployed/single-mothers/benefit dependent/very low income workers, and it is here where Kyle’s people find their richest pickings. Television represents a last desperate resource for this group. We know this because guests are explicit about what the show represents. Denied access to professional one-to-one care and “on pills” for a variety of complaints, they are unlikely to know of other opportunities for help. So Kyle’s show is specifically named as the ideal venue where family difficulties can be aired and settled.

It is important for Kyle (and perhaps his guiltier viewers) to buy into this premise. How else to endure the sight of people swearing, grappling and crying in television? Perhaps to qualify the violence of his own performance Kyle offers guests some quality time with his “after-care” team as the show ends. This may be the last chance that such guests get to talk to professionals before returning to a world which is made to seem freakish and bizarre to us because it seems to be one of their own making rather than the product of any sort of social and economic factors. Talk shows have become the wrong vehicles for this sort of social or political analysis. And so Kyle’s show offers us bemusement at the behaviour of people at the edges of our society. Their difference is a defect of character – nothing more.

Kyle at Work

Kyle at Work

Who are Kyle’s programmes aimed at? The talk show itself is sponsored by Learn Direct Advice Line, a commercially run operation that “helps” people to change careers and is sold on the promise of self-improvement, the same premise that underpins Kyle’s show. Many of the other advertisements around all four Kyle-shows are for loan companies offering to get viewers out of debt with a magical loan at only 18% APR. Others offer to buy your house at a reduced rate so you can stay there and pay rent for a property you previously owned (this has a particular resonance in Britain’s home-owning democracy where most daytime hours are given over to house and home-related programming)

Thus while the commercial breaks are cheery but firm reminders of the economic factors that still determine everyday life, Kyle’s show focuses on behaviour, something fundamental and beyond the mere economic.

Kyle’s Academy represents an extension of the brand – a bumper extended version of the previously hidden after-care offered by the “mother” show. Here we see five people who have “only two weeks” in which to be freed of phobias, anxieties etc. The participants are put up in a luxuriously appointed large detached house with food and board provided. Thus they are separated not only from the drag of the work-a-day world but also from their families so that their personalities might be more accurately dissected. Each day a fitness guru, a life coach/hypno-therapist and a psychoanalyst lavish care and attention on the guests. Viewers will already be familiar with these trappings of the psy from other lifestyle media. This partly resembles Big Brother but mostly it apes institutions like The Priory where celebrities go to de-tox etc. This, I think, is significant. In a modern, speeded-up culture, real luxury means the time and space to work on the self with the help of the latest expertise. It’s a modern version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Extracted from the trials and tribulations of the home these lucky individuals are to be re-built in the greatest validating space there is – television.

Mental health professionals are only the most qualified of the many who can testify to the depth of the psychological problems facing the UK. For most people suffering from what the medical profession call mental difficulties, pills will be the most quickly and easily adopted solution. In the UK alone it is estimated that 12 million (20% of the nation) are on such treatments. Very few people can afford the sort of therapy offered by Kyle’s Academy. Thus the guests are elevated into the bosom of expertise and will perhaps feel obliged to heal in the two weeks provided.

It’s here that the economic, social and psychological most clearly knit together. Television’s need to maximize emotional performances and responses means that producers invest in those most likely to offer confessional behaviour for public consumption. Those who most need the validations television offers (and the therapy it gestures at) are most likely to come from the working class. Thus inserted into a framework where they are asked to consider their behaviour from a moral and ethical standpoint completely divorced from the economic, they can end up pathologizing themselves as defective. But without the resources to challenge or even escape from such a judgement they remain in limbo – a sort of psychological green room where their difference remains an unending resource for producers to exploit. Is this caring? As Kyle himself might say, “Do me a favour mate.”

Image Credits:

1. Jeremy Kyle cares

2. Kyle at work

Please feel free to comment.




Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.




On Our Best Behaviour

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

Surveillance Camera

Surveillance Camera

In 1969 one of Britain's most influential psychologists, H.J. Eysenck, wrote approvingly of how the state might develop a “technology of consent,” the aim of which was to “fashion a generally applicable method of inculcating suitable habits of socialized conduct into the citizens (and particularly the future citizens) of the country in question – or preferably the whole world” (Eysenck, 1969).

In this paper I'll explore how a convergence of surveillance technologies allied to behavioural psychologies are brought together in television programmes that promote Eysenck's dream as lessons in self-improvement. In particular I focus on those new programmes that interrogate-to-improve the behaviour of the working class. My aim is to inform the debate on class by looking at how surveillance technology is brought into the home as a useful element in reconstructing a productive enterprising subjectivity. This new tactic in self-formation can only be understood by considering the wider context of surveillance in the US and the UK.

The last five years have seen an exponential rise in surveillance technology occasioned by the war on terror. Intrusions into public space are part of the program to help us become responsible citizens carrying the gaze into all potentially dangerous corners. The fact that England and Wales (and soon the US) are the most spied upon countries in the world is now presented as evidence of a care we should share rather than the intrusions of the state. Those who complain are looked upon suspiciously as people with something to hide. The brutal erosion of old-fashioned concerns like “civil liberties” are simply casualties in the war against terror.

This growth of technological surveillance is echoed by other more diffuse forms of surveillance entering the private spaces of the home. Hotlines to report benefit fraud, CCTV on the driveway and constant links between the police and the ISPs are only some of the techniques helping us to live more carefully monitored lives. It follows then that this new structure of feeling has inspired a range of programme formats that celebrate the reach of surveillance into the home in the name of good health. I am thinking here of Honey We're Killing the Kids, Family Forensics, and You Are What You Eat. In each of these formats, willing victims expose their lives for rewards (televised tutoring) they could not achieve in any other way. As a result they are fair game for television's renewed appetite for shame in a changing media ecology.

You Are What You Eat

Gillian McKeith, You Are What You Eat

Revealing, shaming, and then changing the lives of the working class is television's latest weapon in fighting competition from the Internet. Showcasing dramatic emotional moments, using powerful music, dramatic cutting and “reveals” are all designed to grab the distracted viewer. One result of this is to trivialise people, to present them as out of control, accepting they deserve shame, and being deliriously grateful to the programme-makers. These willing victims reveal their responses to the remodelling on camcorders that provide the most compelling moments in the programmes because they seem the most untutored and authentic. But their welcome of the instruments of surveillance at every stage of their transformation legitimates a model of the self that is designed for normalization. In an age where appearance is everything on a medium dedicated to the gaze, those who have “let themselves go” become our most compelling warning about the dangers of excess and the lack of discipline. The very fact that such people are crying out for help is a sign of their deficiency; their inability to be fully self-sufficient is crime enough in a time when we are all to be enterprising individuals managing the project of ourselves with no support from the state. The social, economic, and political circumstances that have informed the circumstances of the working class are considered insignificant and thus barely worthy of mention. It is as if they had chosen working-classness as a kind of curious lifestyling error. Any will or ideas of their own are crushed by the force of normality. In Frank Furendi's words, these are people presented as “vulnerable and powerless…who cannot be expected to cope with life's challenges” (Furendi, 2005:40).

The experts hired to bully, cajole, and then rebuild the subjects represent the tyranny of normality championed by Eysenck. But they are deployed on behalf of an enlightened public service (in the UK) or a caring corporate sponsor (in the US) and because these experts talk the common sense of the state and use the same language, then this tyranny is acceptable. This is television's version of tough love for a people too hopeless to help themselves. This would mean less if there were more representations of the working class on television but there are not and, as a result, as a class they now seem more unusual than ever. The feisty fightbacks applauded by some critics discussing talk-shows as signs of life in the working class have been replaced by a mute acquiescence. As union power fades and other reasons of solidarity diminish in the rush towards a hollow individualism, the working class represent the shadow of an unproductive past. They have to be changed for their own good.

This powerful alliance of instrumental psychology, government statisticians, and lifestyle coaches are drawn together by television in the name of “self-improvement” – the new consensus. All the skills of the medium are brought to bear on the victims and, as a result, we cannot fail to be moved by the narrative. But aside from the handful of those assisted to a new self, who else benefits from such machinations?

Television's engagement with surveillance of all kinds is fashioning a productive shame, reproducing models of ever more restricted “outer-focused” identities. In such a scenario, any identity based on class or any sign of collective effort seems irrelevant. As a result the working class are either disappearing or re-emerging as “suitable cases for treatment.”

“Socialized conduct” is where it's at. It's simple – get with the program(me).

Honey We're Killing the Kids!

Honey We’re Killing the Kids!

Works cited:
Eysenck, H. J (1969) 'The technology of consent' New Scientist. no 42, pp688-90.
Furendi, F. (2005) 'The Age of Unreason' The Spectator. Vol 299, no 9 pp40

Image Credits:
1. Surveillance Camera
2. Gillian McKeith, You Are What You Eat
3. Honey We’re Killing the Kids!

Please feel free to comment.




Awaken the Giant Within — He’s Hungry!:
Anthony Robbins and the Enterprising Self

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

Get the Edge

Get the Edge

Anyone with a television knows Anthony Robbins. His infomercial Get the Edge goes out at 6 am every day on Living channel in the UK. In this enlightening little programme, the modest and self-effacing guru explains to Leeza Gibbons the many ways he can help us all realise our true potential. After twenty minutes and the tearful testimony of the Tony-transformed we are encouraged to invest a couple of hundred pounds in a series of CDs designed to daily change our lives. What I’d like to do here is to make a few connections between Robbins and the model of the enterprising self that has come to dominate life over the last twenty years. I want to suggest that the human potential movement of which Robbins is a prominent representative is perfectly aligned with the project of governmental self-formation to shape our conduct in ways that match those of dominant authorities and agencies. This tendency is now finding expression in burgeoning forms of reality programming that highlight the flexible/mouldable nature of our selves.

Get the Edge is only one expression of the Robbins philosophy. Through CDs, seminars, health resorts and consultancy work the Master Motivator exhorts us all to “be all we can be.” A forceful and charismatic performer – “the MTV equivalent of going to Church” – said to be earning $80 million a year, Robbins insists that he is merely “awakening” what is already within us – a giant of potential that just needs direction.

The tools that Robbins uses are based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a psychological approach that suggests we can change our attitude to life by altering our language and changing our “state.” By reframing experiences we can see defeat as an opportunity and quite literally take charge of our selves. Success comes from modelling one’s self on a successful other like Quincy Jones or, say, George Bush. Space prevents an enquiry into the tactics Robbins uses to get his message across (readers are urged to explore the frightening debate between true believers and the disenchanted on robbins.org), but I think it may be worth exploring the substance of what he is promoting.

As other writers have noted the human potential movement has expanded in tandem with the decline of traditional American industry (Salerno 2005, Kaminer 1993). As the gap between rich and poor increases and union power fades, Robbins and others in the movement exploit the new insecurities. Television is perhaps the premium site for parading (and offering cures for) this therapeutically-inclined mentality. Suitably for NLP it is language where the new mind-set finds its most forceful expression. People are now to re-program themselves as empowered and entrepreneurial selves. A British example of such linguistic dexterity comes to mind: over the last twenty years the “unemployed” have ceased to exist: in their place is the “job-seeker.” This positive re-branding is intended to help the individual feel better about themselves and to look upon the steady erosion of all forms of benefit as the price one has to pay for a chance to thrive in a dynamic enterprise culture.

Anthony Robbins

Anthony Robbins

Just as Robbins suggests the new entrepreneurial self is to be engaged in their own self-government. They should see themselves as human capital to be developed and invested. In turn various legitimating agencies seek to “govern through regulated choices made by discrete and autonomous actors in the context of their particular commitments to families and communities” (Foucault 1980).

As Miller (1993) and McGee (2005) have pointed out, the human potential movement represents a kind of psychological coercion where the pressure is on to auto-invent. It all seems so simple: indeed change is presented as merely common sense. The infomercial presents the tools and people seem transformed – why can’t we do it? As these authors explain this sort of approach “over-emphasizes individual agency at the expense of the necessary reliance on or assistance of a network of others.” Quite simply it may not always be easy to “cure” the nation as the motivators suggest. At a time of rising insecurity, the self-management tools of NLP are technologies of consumption which may end up exacerbating our anxieties. The number of people who return to courses such as Robbins suggests that the tools cannot always do the job. Some critics have even suggested that they are only intended to work so far – to go all the way an individual is encouraged to “invest” another $5,000 in a higher level program. And in the language of the movement this has a high chance of success because making such a purchase (“You have to commit”) will elicit the right state to be receptive to more messages about self-belief.

The human potential movement is perfectly tailored to television as it busily makes ever more expansive efforts to both reveal and change people’s lives. In television you can see the change. (Never mind about the after-effects). What happens on screen is all that matters in a culture that wants quick solutions as it zaps from station to station. In formats ranging from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to Family Forensics, we are now encouraged to look to TV to both record and transform ourselves. Individuals are persuaded to open themselves up to television, to expose the inner workings of their lives so that their selves may be moulded back to the norm. Get the Edge is only the purest expression of this tendency. By focusing on the redemptive power of faith in one very rich man we can learn (by investing time, money and faith) about our own potential, “change state” and then…follow.

Some have speculated that Robbins may soon enter politics. His enterprising message will make him attractive to both Democrats and Republicans. The triumph of enterprise culture legitimates a culture that celebrates a flexible self in place of outmoded collectivities. Now we are all “projects-in-progress,” or the “CEO of me.”

So how is it viewing Get the Edge makes me think of Seinfeld and being “Master of My Domain?”

Anthony Robbins Seminar

Anthony Robbins Seminar

Works Cited
Foucault, M. 1980. In Burchell, G. “Liberal government and techniques of the self,” Economy and Society, Vol 22, No 3. 1993 (p 268).

McGee, M. 2005. Self-Help Inc. Makeover Culture in American Life. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Miller, T. 1993. The Well-Tempered Self. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP.

Kaminer, W. 1993. I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. Vintage.

Salerno, S. 2005. How the Self-Help Movement made America Helpless. New York: Random House.

Image Credits:
1. Get the Edge
2. Anthony Robbins
3. Anthony Robbins Seminar

Please feel free to comment.