Judging the judges

By: Joshua Glenn
June 19, 2009

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Looking back on it all, from the vantage point of a couple months, it’s apparent that the Susan Boyle Phenomenon (SBP) had very little to do with poor Susan Boyle (SB) herself.

Susan Boyle’s judges (supposedly) didn’t think she could sing. Their nonplussed reaction — whether sincere or calculated — to the very sight of SB cued the Britain’s Got Talent audience to chuckle and smirk. Then SB sang some Broadway show tune, and the judges’ blood-stained beaks dropped open; their crocodile eyes glinted with unshed tears. SB received a standing ovation, and within days of her debut, videos of her audition, subsequent interviews, and her 1999 rendition of “Cry Me a River” had been viewed online a combined total of over 100 million times.

Pundits pontificated. The SBP was a modern parable about judging by appearances. Or, more cynically, the SBP was merely evidence demonstrating that YouTube users like to be surprised. Nattering nabobs have interpreted the SBP through a feminist filter, and also a populist filter. But the middlebrow critics of the MSM are, as usual, wrong-headed. So are the people. Sorry, YouTube users who’ve posted comments like “Boyle has the most beautiful voice ive ever heard in my life its just amazing!!!!!!!!!!!” but you’re wrong: NO es increible la voz.

What’s truly amazing and incredible is just how conflicted we westerners are about the now-dominant, Gong Show-pioneered mode of judging talent competitions — a mode in which contestants aren’t just critiqued but also sometimes mocked and humiliated. We all love watching the judges mock; but, as was revealed by the SBP, we particularly love it when the judges’ mockery is silenced. (William Blake speaks for all of us: “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:/Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!/You throw the sand against the wind,/And the wind blows it back again.”) What’s the source of this conflict that so many of us experience so deeply? How is it that these mocking judges push our buttons so effectively?

HiLobrow.com has the answer.

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Emceed by Chuck Barris, one of our great homegrown postmodernists, The Gong Show was a parody of more innocent TV variety shows: Gong Show acts like The Unknown Comic, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and The Popsicle Twins were a bathetic version of comedy, dance, and novelty acts that earlier generations of Americans enjoyed. But even though the sometimes-nice, often-nasty judges on “reality-competition” TV programs like American Idol, America’s Got Talent (and Britain’s Got Talent, on which SB made her debut), Dancing with the Stars, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, Last Comic Standing, and So You Think You Can Dance might be exaggerating their responses for entertainment value, they’re no parodists.

When Simon and Paula, Nigel and Mary, Tyra and Paulina roll their eyes, cringe with pseudo-empathetic shame, and laugh up their sleeves, they’re not criticizing and celebrating (like Gong Show judges like Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, Rip Taylor, and Phyllis Diller were) the seamy underside of showbiz. They’re giving us what we’ve come to demand.

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Thus the SBP. Why did the spectacle in which SB played a catalyzing but minor role turn into a full-fledged P? Boyle is transporting because she shatters the flattering mirror in which we usually find what Lacan calls “the little other.” We usually see conventionally attractive people struggling to let the little other out, rummaging about within themselves to find that pretty pearl. Boyle’s the proverbial sow’s ear purse, out of which the pearls spilled in profusion. The pearls had flaws to be sure — but there were more there than we usually admit to; set off against her awkwardness, that little otherness got to shine.

Let’s back up, from Lacan to Freud. Freud divides our psychic apparatus into three parts — each of which, HiLobrow.com would argue, corresponds to one of the three crucial elements of a reality-competition show. The uncoordinated instinctual trends (i.e., the show’s audience) are the “id”; the organized, realistic part of the psyche is the “ego” (the contestant); and the critical and moralizing function is the “super-ego” (the panel of judges). Until The Gong Show, talent-show judges weren’t particularly denigrating — so the SBP was impossible. The SBP has pulled back the curtain not on showbiz, but on the complex and fraught network-operation of the “I.”

As another British Simon — the philosopher Simon Critchley — argues in his recent book, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (Verso), “There is something at the heart of me, that arguably makes me the ‘me’ that I am, but which is quite opaque to me.” Critchley is here syncretizing Lacan, among other philosophers who argue that we will always necessarily fail to see and grasp our inner otherness, the what of our who. The particular manner in which we fail to do so plays a crucial role in orienting the way we live.

Lacan claims that our inner otherness has two parts, the little and the big. The little other we find in one another — in those whom we resemble, separated from us by a gap that seems bridgeable. Desire consists in wishing to cross that gap, and jouissance plays with the tensing of the crouch and the release of the leap. The unknowableness of that little other takes the form of language; we can put it into words, express it. But there’s the Big Other, too — the law, the governance of desire — within which resides the wild Otherness that’s extralinguistic, really scary. It’s a Lacanian move to bury opposites within each other. Where the aspects of the psyche in Freud are like radically different planets in orbit, in Lacan they seem like computer programs, each with its own embedded virus. Or stories that contradict themselves.

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The SBP is doubly renewing, because the Big Other, the superego, the Law (which grins like death, and looks like an endless howl on the inside — yes, we’re talking about Simon Cowell) sets itself up as the route to finding the little other. It’s the arbiter, the regulator, parceling out jouissance like a chairman of some psychic federal reserve. And yet it’s really got no grip on that little other, which after all is just as infinite and unconquerable. When Susan Boyle took the stage, it was the Big Other that was outed as manqué; its lack, and not that of our mirror image, the contestant, is reflected.

To Slavov Žižek, the haunting otherness is embodied in his beloved Hitchcock’s MacGuffin — that strange attractor at the heart of thrillers whose glamor motivates the action. The satchel, the necklace, the Maltese Falcon — they all contain some unnameable quality we seek, which once secured invariably fails to satisfy. What’s the MacGuffin for shows like Britain’s Got Talent? It’s celebrity. For fame isn’t a prize; it’s a package. Susan Boyle broke it open, and showed us that on the inside it’s only plaster.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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