Return of the Real

A monthly column by
Phoebe Kaufman


“TONIGHT, on the season finale of Bachelor in Paradise” grunts the faceless voice of a seasoned cringe-master, “three hours of DRAMA, romance, and TEARS!!!” His chalky exuberance continues: “And JUST when you think you’ve seen it all… THINK AGAIN!!!” The camera cuts to a wave splashing over a rock, inciting thoughts of ejaculation.

For all its opening luster, the Season 7 Bachelor in Paradise finale was so lacking that even Bachelor Nation devotee Juliet Litman, host of the podcast Bachelor Party, admitted that it “was the most boring episode of any season of any Bachelor franchise.” I agree.

I was also bored to death by the long-awaited and much-hyped Season 11 Real Housewives of Beverly Hills finale. Although the setting—Beverly Hills’ Shan Social House, a replica of the replica of the Japanese restaurant which inspired the set of Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu’s epic showdown in Kill Bill Volume 1—portended a battle of sorts, there wasn’t even a metaphorical scalping. Erika Jayne refused to speak, which meant no one fought, which meant they all acquiesced to an awkward “cheers” of false friendship. Beverly Hills disappointed its viewers as much as its stage.

Why were these finales so boring? What is a finale? What is an end? Shouldn’t a finale be a grand exit—the act of an end, not simply the last episode? Season 1 of Beverly Hills culminated in the infamous limo fight between sisters Kim and Kyle—“You’re a liar and sick and an alcoholic!” spews Kyle to a cowering Kim. We are finally made to understand the season-long tension between the sisters. Fade to black.

Recent finales fall short. Their promised bigness is anti-climactic, in part by the insistence on words—finale, tear-filled, epic, most dramatic yet—which seem to have forgotten their own meaning. Reality television speaks only in hyperbole, but these action-filled promises rarely pan out. It’s like the accidental end of The Graduate. Mike Nichols calls “cut,” but the cameras keep rolling as Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross let go of each other's hands and stare blankly out the bus windows. Nichols decided to include this moment in the film, so the transition from acting to actor becomes seen as an emotional transition from ecstasy to reality. Life continues unfilmed, and our connection to the story is broken.

The language of reality television is the loosened language of actual reality. “Finale” now means “the defeated promise of climax” instead of “climax.” The meaning of “ending” has also shifted. When Keeping up with the Kardashians “ended,” the only true ending was their contract with E!. Of course, the most significant shift is “reality”—reality television loosened the word “reality,” making it not just a noun, but also an adjective.

“The verse… defines itself only at the point at which it ends,” writes Giorgio Agamben. The end of the poem is necessary—of course all poems must end. But poetry, written in conversation with its own form, has the unique ability to play with the structure of its end. The end of the poem is a dually semiotic and sonorous revelation. Agamben uses the final couplet of a Dante poem as an example, which he argues incurs such profound silence that it “reveals the goal of its proud strategy: to let language finally communicate itself.” The capacity of the end of the poem is expansive. Instead of finality, it communicates with the rest of its middle.

The finale of reality television plays a similar game. Obsessed with the narrative structure of endless continuation, but tied to network-enforced temporal structures of “seasons,” reality television creates a distinct vocabulary of time. As Dante chose silence, Andy Cohen (and Bravo, ABC, and E!) chose to rebrand language to fit inside their televised realm of reality-as-adjective. The finale becomes a faux marker of time, dangling the promise of narrative culmination, but actually serving as a middling marker in the endless void of daily minutiae. The Bachelor in Paradise credits roll, and our announcer takes over: “Starting RIGHT now, a special sneak peek of the AMAZING new season of The Bachelorette….”

October 2021

I’ve committed to too much comfort, and it’s starting to make me anxious.

I’ve been watching a lot of television: Kourtney and Khloe Take the Hamptons, The D’Amelio Show, Barefoot Contessa, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. I don’t watch to see what happens next. I watch because it’s an endless cycle of repeated comfort.

Each show is meticulously organized around specific episodic structures which never break their pattern. They begin with a problem – a disagreement, a bad mental health day, or even uncooked ingredients – that, over the course of the episode, is resolved. This formal repetition calms me, and passively watching these narratives unfold and repeat has become a habit.

Habit itself is the inevitable by-product of repetition – it is the rhythm which individualizes the temporal void of an otherwise amorphous life. Going to the gym everyday, ordering the same coffee, or meeting a friend for dinner every Wednesday structures my time. I am drawn to structure and order, but habit even satisfies those of us who crave chaos or entropy. The form of repeatedly seeking such desires – no matter what the desire – is the structural underpinning of habit.

But what is that ever-so-fine line between the type of repetition you control and the type of repetition that is controlling? Habits like drinking too much, falling again and again for the same type of person, or biting your nails may be momentarily comforting, but are, for the most part, repetitions which have fallen out of your conscious control. Addiction is probably the best word for this line, and perhaps why I sometimes feel as if I’ve gone too far in my obsession with the calming passivity of reality television. It is not that I am addicted to the shows, but more that I am oxymoronically addicted to the habit of watching the habits of others. I’m addicted to the comfort of watching, even when the Kardashian refrain of “keeping up” starts to sound like a taunt.
“Time is a flat circle,” says True Detective’s Rust Cohle. “Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever.” He’s alluding to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the favorite philosophical concept of every stoned college Freshman. For those of you who did not attend an obnoxiously small liberal arts college, the eternal recurrence is the proposition that, when you die, you will be immediately reborn into the exact same life you have just lived with no awareness that you have already infinitely lived this life in the past, and will continue to live an identical life for all eternity.

I’m not drawn towards the concept of the eternal recurrence through a moral or nihilistic lens (does that make me better than the resident stoned Freshman, though? Who knows…). Instead, I’m interested in it as a narrative structure driven by desire. Nietzsche argues that once you become aware of the eternal recurrence, the question, “Do you desire [your life]... innumerable times more?” will suddenly “lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.” Desire, in the overwhelming face of identical infinity, becomes the driving force of choice. The fate of your repeated future lies in your conscious control of the present, marked by such want.

All of a sudden, the structure of reality television becomes evocative of the great drama of eternal recurrence. In essence, this is the closest manifestation we have to Nietszche's cyclical idea of human existence. In it we see the tension between a world that repeats and characters who are seemingly unaware that the choices they make always end up as the essence of such structural repetition. Perhaps this is the answer to the frightening comfort of reality television. I keep watching it, drawn towards a fixed system without realizing that by imbibing I’m entering into the same world. And yet I keep watching, succumbing to the invisible urge of endless repetition. I even hear the Kardashians are returning to the screen. Of course I’m gonna watch.

September 2021

Minutes before sitting down for the 12-hour slog of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Season 7 Reunion, Housewife Lisa Rinna addresses the camera in a behind-the-scenes recording: “I want to make sure that everybody is taking responsibility for their own stuff, as I will take responsibility for mine.”

Season 7, beginning with something called “Pantygate” and Rinna’s whispered comment that “Kim is close to death,” and ending with no resolve to either elite atrocity, is a season full of the demand to take responsibility. During the season, however, “responsibility” takes on the verbiage of “accountability,” commanded via near-constant incantations of, “Own it!”

“I think Dorit should be held accountable for the words that come out her mouth,” Erika remarks in the season finale, re: “Pantygate,” wherein Dorit and her husband, PK, joked about Erika not wearing underwear. “When I make a mistake I make amends for it, and I own it,” Rinna says, taking accountability for saying on national television that “Kim is close to death,” undermining Kim’s sobriety. “Rinna keeps doing something, and then owning it, and saying, ‘I want to move on.’ But it keeps happening over and over,” says Kyle, describing why she does not trust Rinna’s accountability complex.

There is something dually intimate and fiduciary about the phrases, “to hold accountable,” “to take accountability,” and to “own it.” Something that is “held,” “taken,” or even “owned” implies a physical closeness to the human body. At least, a decision to make a thing that was once not yours, yours. The word “accountability” also has obvious economical allusions – who you gonna call when tax day rolls around? Concurrently an intimacy and an exchange, the Housewives’ vocabulary of accountability portends a social currency, similar to owning a diamond ring or Bentley, but also truly loving those objects and desiring their closeness.

Accountability also exists external to the Housewives. Professor Sarah Schulman is a cultural theorist and writer whose work hovers at the intersection of queer theory, lived experience, and activism. Throughout her opus, she explores the concept of accountability, from the intimate to the geopolitical. And though it may seem perverse to relate Schulman’s decades-long work on AIDS activism and anti-Zionism to the Housewives, to understand the production of reality television through the lens of her work takes seriously the production of reality, televised or not.

Professor Schulman was kind enough to understand this, and we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago about the difference between real accountability and what she calls accountability for “entertainment purposes.” Real accountability “emphasiz[es]... the ethics of each individual’s actions, cumulative consequence[s], and the necessity of self-criticism” (Conflict is Not Abuse, 2016), while accountability for “entertainment purposes” is one-dimensional and never extends beyond the self.

Schulman has not ventured into the strange endeavor of the Housewives, but she has been keeping up with The White Lotus. She notes that while The White Lotus excels at documenting the inner lives of rich white people, it never addresses how these wealthy individuals are actually destroying the world. They may be able to apologize and work on their relationships with each other, yet they do not extend such honesty and openness to individuals of lesser socioeconomic classes.
Mike White, the creator of The White Lotus, may not agree that his show falls short of real accountability – he seems to have a more ambiguous understanding of the relationship between Self and Other – but perhaps that is due to the catalyst of the show. As a competitor on both the reality series The Amazing Race and Survivor, he notes, in a recent interview with Kathryn VanArendonk for Vulture, that “these people [from Survivor] were, like, straight out of life. So funny and complex…. There’s humanity here because we’re humans, but there’s something very honest about what goes on on that playing field that, as a dramatist, I find very inspiring.”

Clearly, the types of speech and emotional capacities exhibited on The White Lotus come from the social minutia of reality television. As Naomi Fry writes in The New Yorker, “The White Lotus is the most reality-TV-like scripted series I’ve seen in a long time.”

In other words, reality television, in this instance, is patient zero of accountability for “entertainment purposes. Lisa Rinna and the rest of the Housewives are destroying the world and no, their accountability is not real. Yet, even their’s tells a truth, one whose honesty is derivative of the economic reality of the nation states – such as the United States, Canada, and Israel – that Schulman insists should take accountability for their genocide, anti-queer censoring, and apartheid regimes.

In this way, real accountability is different from the reality of accountability. Real accountability is utopic, mostly enacted, thus far, within the intimate realm. The Housewives, conversely, deploy accountability within the already-enacted world-making device of capitalism, entrenched within the context of American economic and judicial reality. Via their accountability, the Housewives seek to prove to viewers, each other, and themselves that they belong – are counted – within the one-percent. As they take account of their diamonds, estates, alleged wrongdoings, and supposedly unfair social punishments, they enact an honesty of the pride of excess, exacerbated by their contractual hyper surveillance and the police-obsessed capitalist reality in which they thrive.

To take this further, the accountability of the Housewives is a metaphor of exchange, and “owning it” is the only metaphor they know. Money is a metaphor, and capitalism a sly fox. In many ways, “owning it” is the root of all metaphor, as it denotes exchange in the form of anything but the desired object.

Of course, reality television is still television, is still narrative. The faux accountability, familial drama, and multi-million dollar estates of the Housewives are easy entertainment. Like any other television show, The Real Housewives is inevitably formed by the economic logic of line producers, cinematographers, and editors into a digestible structure set in place by millenia of oral storytelling, centuries of written storytelling, and decades of filmed storytelling. Or, instead of “storytelling,” we could simply call these forms of narratives, “accounts.”

August 2021

Luann de Lesseps of The Real Housewives of New York City purchases a circular house to keep the Devil out in Season 11: “It’s very good feng shui to have a round house, ‘cause the Devil can only catch you in a corner,” she says. Meanwhile, Sonja Morgan, also of New York, visits her spiritual leaders who all tell her, “there is a Devil in your inner circle,” who she immediately assumes is Luann.

America is obsessed with the construction of reality, one which is embedded in the production of the present. Similarly, Americanism is a mindset subservient to linear time, all the while stuck in an attempt to make sense of the present by capturing it, editing it, and calling it “reality.” Of course, the medium which most fluidly represents this American mercurial obsession is reality television, ever changing in its attempt to capture the present in the present.

Or, according to Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, it is Satanism which “IS [sic] Americanism in its purest form.” He continues: “Only if man’s most basic instincts are satisfied can a nation receive his best.” He understands “his best” as corresponding to “sacred American traditions [such] as home, family, patriotism, [and] personal pride.” His longtime girlfriend and Magistra Templi Rex of the Church of Satan, Blanche Barton, argues that “Anton… never expected to be the founder of a new religion, but… saw a need for something publicly opposing the stagnation of Christianity.”

The two most historically popular(ized) Satanic sects in the United States are LaVey’s Church of Satan and Lucien Greaves’s The Satanic Temple, both of which are understood under the umbrella term of “atheistic Satanism.” Members of the Church and the Temple do not worship Satan as their God, but understand Satan and Satanism through a more social, political, and inspirational lens. Though Greaves and The Satanic Temple are vehemently opposed to the Church of Satan, they, too, seek to redefine Americanism and question the unabashed merging of Christianity and America. The goal of both the Church and the Temple is, then, to redefine Americanism, even if such redefinition uses the language of the American patriot (like with LaVey) or the language of a good Christian. As the Temple states: “[Our] mission… is… to encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.”

Theistic or not, the merging of Americanism, Satanism, and the production of reality seems to take root in the Garden of Eden. A few years after the Satanic passing of Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, Gilles Deleuze wrote: 

The catechism… has made us familiar with the idea of an image without likeness: man is in the image and likeness of God, but through sin we have lost the likeness while remaining in the image… [sic] simulacra are precisely demonic images, stripped of resemblance.

Human sin generated the demonic, empty form of the simulation. When God booted Adam and Eve from Paradise, this was less of a physical thrust than a metaphysical forced purging of godly association. The devilish uncanniness of simply being alive is a God-given punishment, sure, but man-made simulations of our own humanity (aka, reality television) are even more in the form of the demonic. Man, in this sense, has taken on the persona of God by creating images which ostensibly mirror himself in acts of daily reality and feeling, but, in fact, are mere simulacra of actually lived daily life. Though it is not a sin to take part in such faux or concocted generation, reality tv is, simply put, a formal instance of the demonic.

I mean, LaVey did have a whirlwind romance with aforementioned sex symbol and public personality Jayne Mansfield, known for her Kardashian-esque orchestration of her own public life… And Kim and clan sage every room they enter, equipped with gold crosses strung around their necks, while the camera cuts to their Bible study group text…

… And in Season 3 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the ladies stay at the sprawling Miami bachelor pad of a friend of Kim Zolciak, adorned with stuffed dogs, human-sized devil sculptures, and hallways full of Baphomets…

... And, in the following season, burgeoning funeral home director Phaedra Parks declares, “The Devil’s in the details”...

… And, in New York’s current season, the housewives travel to Salem, MA, where they join in a seance and call themselves “witches,” simultaneously attempting to purge themselves of demons…

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