Archive for March, 2010

Max Weber and The Rationalization of Reality

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

The End of Reality: Part II.

This is what happens in the blogosphere: I vow to post more persistently, then go five months without an update. No more vows — just a futile hope that I can muster the energy and wherewithal to actually record my thoughts for you, my faithful(?) audience.

So where was I?


Yes, even reality shows can jump the shark, because even reality shows can have artistic integrity and grounding assertions. In the case of Project Runway, it had continually cast itself as the high-brow reality show (embracing the implied contradiction), insisting it is meritocratic even within its convoluted constraints.

During its last season, Heidi went so far as to verbalize its internal logic: “three strikes, and you’re out.” But in Christopher’s survival past three egregiously heinous strikes, the foundational arguments of the show were thrown over and the series — or, at least, the season (for each new batch of contestants provides its own potentially-redemptive slate-wiping) — jumped the shark.

Where does this leave us? With the realization that we are nearing, at, or just past a critical inflection point in the genre.


It’s taken for granted these days that “reality shows” no longer represent anything “real.” Shows that, at their launch, trained their cameras on non-camera-trained individuals in unfamiliar settings and constructs (The Real World, The Bachelor, Survivor, American Idol) have become repetitive and clichéd. New reality shows have eschewed the goals of their antecedents entirely, uninterested in gleaning insight about real people in microcosm (The Hills, the entire VH1 reality line-up).

When Court TV distanced itself from trial coverage, moving towards documentary shows about true crime and dangerous jobs, it renamed itself “TruTV” and worked our disenchantment with reality TV right into its motto: “Not Reality. Actuality.” “Reality” as a TV genre has become meaningless, a codeword for nothing more than non-fiction (not necessarily unscripted) starring individuals playing themselves, or versions of themselves (not necessarily non-actors).

But the meaninglessness of “Reality” and the inescapable cliché of contemporary reality shows are merely symptoms of culture — they are not the ding an sich (the thing in itself).

Of what are they symptoms? The Rationalization of Reality.


Father of sociology Max Weber described “rationalization” as the unavoidable progression of systems (both physical systems and systems of thought) from inefficient abstraction to cold logic that occurs as we gain better understanding of means and ends, cause and effect, and adapt accordingly. It’s a bit of a difficult concept to understand, and I’m doing it no favors with my abstruse attempts at definition. Examples are the best way to get at it — metonymically.

Bureaucratization is a great example: From early governments and companies that deal with issues ad hoc, with messy delegating and overlapping domains, we develop bureaucracies, with clearly delineated institutions and internal hierarchies for each carefully differentiated issue. So we get the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA Issues in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Health has also been extremely rationalized over the last few centuries: from a vague understanding of illness tied into conceptions of sin and virtue, we’ve developed keen observations of patterns of sickness and of the world on a microscopic level — we now understand how germs are disseminated, and we’ve developed highly organized systems of treatments for every conceivable array of symptoms.

Even something as simple as our usage of a park can become rationalized. From an open field, we develop well-trod paths where the most people have found the most amenable routes. From free and spontaneous play all around, we designate an area for picnics and an area for baseball. From inconsistent self-policing, we develop rules and guidelines and post them on big green signs forbidding cell phone usage from 11am to 4pm.

While rationalization makes these systems and our lives more efficient, we become constrained by the rigidity of the structures we’ve made for ourselves. We become, as Weber wrote a bit melodramatically, trapped in an “iron cage” and our world devolves into a “polar night of icy darkness.”

But we can see where Weber’s coming from. In a hyper-rationalized landscape of, for instance, mental health, every possible deviation from “normalcy” becomes its own syndrome. As Louis Menand recently wrote in the New Yorker (paraphrasing David Healy in “The Antidepressant Era”), “if a drug (in this case, Paxil) proves to change something in patients (shyness), then that something becomes a disorder to be treated (social anxiety). The discovery of the remedy creates the disease.” As we are constantly hone in on more taut relationships between causes and effects, we can become blinded to the bigger picture.


From a brief survey of reality programming over the last decade, we can clearly see the bigger picture of authenticity being lost as shows become rationalized to milk drama from ultimately inauthentic characters and conventions. But before we can perform that survey, we have to understand the shows and the goals of their subjects and producers.

To generalize, there are two main sub-genres of reality TV: the documentary series (The Real World, The Hills, Jersey Shore) and the game show (Survivor, Project Runway, The Bachelor). Though the lines are blurry — there’s not much fundamental difference between I Love New York and New York Goes to Work — there is an essential distinction. While contestants on game shows are competing for a prize (be it a million dollars or the love of an over-the-hill 80s hip hop artist), with individuals often voted off each week, the subjects of documentary series need only exist within the contrived situations mapped out for them (New York works at a farm! Eight strangers stop being polite and start getting real!).

The goals of the early contestants on game shows was to win. Now, contestants want to win, but they also hope to gain some moderate level of fame and future opportunity through participation. Tabatha Coffey parlayed her appearance on the reality game show Shear Genius into her own reality documentary series, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover; Big Brother’s Jeff and Jordan won $500,000 and $25,000, respectively, and won enough of America’s affection to land them on The Amazing Race; myriad former contestants on American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway have leveraged their fifteen minutes of fame into much longer periods of moderate success in their chosen fields.

The goal of the subjects of reality’s documentary series was, at one point, simply to participate (think the early Real Worlders). Now, it seems their goals are primarily focused toward the attention they can earn by being interesting “characters” on their shows.

In both cases, the goals of the shows’ producers is viewership, achieved by making their programs interesting. Interesting can take many forms — cloyingly romantic (The Bachelor), cringingly pathetic (Celebrity Rehab), explosively charged (The Bad Girls Club) — but, in all cases, producers hope that their programs’ drama will translate into throngs of dedicated viewers.

Understanding the goals of the constituent individuals, we can see how reality TV can become rationalized: participants and producers better understand the means and ends of achieving success however defined (a million dollars, future opportunities, high ratings) and acting accordingly.


Let’s consider game shows first. Like people walking in a well-trod park looking for the best routes, early participants in reality contests found themselves more or less successful depending on different strategies of behavior, leading to the carving out of conventional types. From the complete blank slate of the first season of Survivor — in which Sue Hawk and Rudy Boesch had no touchstone against which to judge Richard Hatch, no model for suggesting they should suspect his scheming and double-dealing — there is now the season of “Heros” and “Villains,” with contestants from past seasons so neatly fitting into the types pioneered by their reality forbears that the subtextual “types” have become the text itself.

Every kind of game show — from talent to matchmaking to social experiment — has gone through enough iterations to develop these same conventions, these same paths through the park, and now contestants cannot help but retread the same steps. Reality game shows now have such clearly articulated narratives of success and failure that contemporary seasons cannot feel like anything more than variations on a theme.

And what about documentary shows? At the beginning, producers plumbed drama from the conflict between individuals from disparate backgrounds in contrived social situations. Untrained and unfamiliar with what patterns of behavior would lead to post-participitory fame — and unfamiliar with the notion that participation could lead to fame at all — the individuals on whom the cameras were focused acted authentically, and to the fascination of viewing audiences. But once producers noticed what moments were most likely to lead to the camera’s and audience’s attention — fights, sex, sloppy drunkenness leading to fights and sex — they began casting participants most likely to slap each other, sleep with each other, and drink to excess. The first season of the Real World becomes every subsequent season, with the frat-boy jock, the Mormon, the gay guy, the alcoholic — characters who were at one time simply compelling real people — cast to foster the contrived drama the producers think will attract audiences and that now-savvy participants think will attract future job opportunities.

In some cases, like The Hills, the producers have gone so far as to hire writers to ensure that each episode has the drama that unscripted reality shows cannot guarantee will arise on a regular schedule. Whole shows like Celebrity Rehab are built around premises designed for maximum pathos with little regard for documenting relatable human experience. Reality documentary shows are so manipulated to foster the drama that authenticity once provided that they have become scripted echoes of their true-to-life ancestors.

The problem with this rationalization is that any value reality TV once had as a genre inhered in its represnetation of authentic human experience. Settings like Survivor’s deserted island or American Idol’s big stage or the Real World apartment were contrived, but there was no behavioral model to follow for the early participants — no conventions of “successful” participation. Their behaviors and conflicts were thus authentic and engaging: Pedro on The Real World, Richard Hatch on Survivor, Jay McCarroll on Project Runway, and Omarosa on The Apprentice were compelling because they had not yet learned they were performing.


But there is hope for the genre; or, there was at least a glimmer of hope during the fall of 2009, when MTV assembled a group of youngsters who wanted no more than to participate in the opportunity provided: a summer at the Jersey Shore.

What made Jersey Shore so compelling to viewers was that it was authentic in a way reality TV hasn’t been in years. Snooki, Sammi, JWow, The Situation, Ronnie, Pauly D, and Vinny were not there to perform — and, indeed, they seemed unaware of the promise of recognition and fame (unaware even of the cameras) until after the show had begun airing. They were there only for a swank house on the Shore and like-minded guidos and guidettes with whom to party. Indeed, Angelina’s early departure is evidence of the fact that her goal was not to be the focus of a reality camera; when she dragged her trash-bag of belongings into the house, one sensed she was there for no more than a good time. When she failed to have that good time, she left.

Though some of the conflicts on the show may have been prompted by the producers (one can’t believe that Vinny really seduced the girlfriend of his boss and landlord unwittingly), the interactions between the characters — and between them and the other people at the shore — was strikingly, unsettlingly realistic.

The phenomenon was fostered by the guido/guidette-framed nature of the grouping. Unlike The Real World, whose social experiment was once premised on people from diverse backgrounds coming into conflict, Jersey Shore had no such pretensions of diversity — a shallowness that in fact bolstered its representational success. When one goes from a community of like-minded people to a setting in which one is a minority (think The Mormon on The Real World), one must be as much a representative of one’s group as a normal version of oneself. Snooki and her kin did not need to be “the guido” in an unsympathetic group — they needed only be themselves.

But the magical moment of Jersey Shore season 1 is not replicable. Copycat shows (the as-yet-unnamed-Brighton-Beach-based spinoff, Jerseylicious) now have an implicit script to follow, characters to cast. Even the cast of Jersey Shore season 1 will be camera-trained and ratings-minded when they shoot season 2 this summer.

Still, there is a lesson here: Rather than manipulating reality shows to wring compelling television out of known-to-be-dramatic characters and conventions, we must find the last batch of people who are not yet characters and the last batch of contrivances that are not yet conventions. Any show with an existing script for success and drama, a script written by the last decade of the genre, will be fated to staleness. Only by a renewed commitment to authenticity can we break out of the “iron cage” of rationalization — only with a jettisoning of characters and conventions can reality TV be real again.