News & Politics

Take Your Spectacle for Reality!

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's new reality TV show on ABC, "The Runner," bombs to bits the last barrier between commerce and culture.
In a familiar land not too long ago there once was a distinction between commerce and culture. People from a prelapsarian era called the Sixties debated the difference between "high art" and "low art," between the merits of Michaelangelo's Madonna and Child and Warhol's Marilyn Monroe montage. There was sweat, blood, intellectual spats of high drama and much hand-wringing about the commercialization of human creativity. Anxiety oozed through the bohemian quarters of America; the object of their attention: the dreaded, seemingly unstoppable, effects of mass culture.

But those days are over. Forty years is a long time in the United States and for people of my generation -- known by the apocalyptic consonant X -- such conversations are totally passe, if not unknown. The New Yorker, so long the apostle of good literary taste and high culture, now sends its young writers to Madison Avenue boutiques to give readings amidst thousands of dollars of silky knick-knacks, to people in those same silky knick-knacks, because, according to The New Yorker's director of special projects Rhonda Sherman, writers in their 20s and 30s "are really comfortable in a retail environment." In other words, it's where they know they can most effectively hock their brand.

It all makes me think about poor Guy Debord, that French intellectual who offed himself in '94 because the society of the spectacle, as he dubbed it in 1967, was too much for him. Debord believed the thing he called the spectacle -- the photo shoot, the publicity tour, the television spot, the ad -- "subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway." The spectacle, he moaned, is "at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers."

So what, right? Well, if Debord were still around today he'd probably send one of his minions to off Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the hunky actor team who have upped the ante in commercial culture. Hollywood's boy wonders are proof irrevocable that commerce and culture are now a seamless mix. Their new reality television show, "The Runner," to be aired by ABC in September, introduces a hero for our spectacle times: a fugitive-com-celebrity-in-the-making whose mission is to cross the country undetected, completing a series of tasks in pursuit of a $1 million prize.

But the point here is that the runner will not simply run. He will be a conduit from one product to another, a living embodiment of mass marketing. During his "real" televised journey, the runner will likely be instructed to buy a Big Mac at McDonalds, sip a decaf latte at Starbucks, jabber to his mother on a Nokia cell phone, withdraw a wad of ABC cash from a Citibank ATM. Then: break for a real commercial!

According to The New York Times, advertisers are signing up quickly not only to run their ads around the show but "to be everything from the official car the runner drives in making his escapes to the official pants he wears." "We would absolutely love to hear the advertisers' ideas," said Mike Shaw, president of sales of ABC, who seems to be among the big minds of the show.

And just in case "The Runner" falls on the heals of reality show malaise, its producers have made it new with a nod to the commercial powers of multimedia. Their vision for the show includes the participation of viewers who -- by spotting the runner or calling a network hotline -- can claim whatever money the runner has made to that point. The folks at ABC expect an avalanche of (mis)information on the Internet about the runners' whereabouts. Perhaps there is a future for ad revenue on the Web after all.

At first I wondered why Damon and Affleck, who made their debut with the moralistic "Good Will Hunting" and who each must be worth millions, would abide the terms of such trashy fair, especially when one of their latest endeavors is an HBO mini-series based on Howard Zinn's populist hit, A People's History of the United States.

But then it occurred to me: They either know not the difference or don't care. It's not just that Affleck and Damon are in full sway to the profit potential of their industry (hardly a sin), they don't seem to mind that their reality TV show (or their very persons) are hocked with the end result of publicizing McD's.

So far it is unclear who is responsible for the greatest collusion of advertising and entertainment culture in history. (ABC's Shaw is a likely candidate, but you'd think executive producers Affleck and Damon would have some say in the evolution of their product.) Yet, in the end, it's all relative. Or, given the new rules of the commerce-culture game, it's all creative.

So forget about taking your desires for reality (or for the matter, your beliefs). The time has come at last to take your spectacle for reality -- and quickly brand it.

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