Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Rise of the Comedians

Comedy might not be new rock 'n' roll (again), but - if this is the right word - it seems more relevant now than it has been for many a year. Or, to be more precise, its professional practitioner: the comedian. We live in times where spats between Frankie Boyle and Nigel Farage make the headlines, where Russell Brand's dalliances with radical politics are the occasion for slots on Newsnight and long think pieces in the London Review of Books. Where sexist "comedian" Dapper Laughs is an object of public concern for all the wrong reasons. In Italy they've gone even further - not only does a comedian lead a political movement with representation in parliament, they've had one serve as prime minister on three occasions! Boom boom.

It used to be musicians who were at the forefront of celebrity politics and protest, now it's the comedians. Why is this?

I'm sure J├╝rgen Habermas won't mind if I pinch and horribly vulgarise some of the ideas from his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. To summarise, Habermas charts the rise of the bourgeois public sphere from the decay of feudalism to its apogee in the bourgeois republic/constitutional monarchy. He argues that as early capitalism knitted together the social fabric of Western Europe through the 16th to the 18th centuries, so property owners tended to congregate to exchange information, trade, and socialise. Clustered in the great European capitals, these men tended to meet in coffee shops and private clubs and these meetings quickly became political. They were venues that allowed the common interests of merchants, capitalists and speculators to be explored, typically against the dead weight of absolutist monarchies that lay bloated across acquiring more profitable opportunities. Eventually this coffee house culture was serviced by a plethora of journals and papers, and a culture of polemic based on an ideal of reasoned argument and evidence emerged. This was the bourgeois public sphere, an interchange of private persons that debated and articulated a brand of politics that were to go on to transform European societies.

As far as Habermas was concerned, this public sphere was the victim of its own success. Where absolutism was done away with, as per England and France through the force of arms, its structure became the mainstay of the civic order and as such was progressively opened out to greater number of citizens as the franchise was extended. However, as capital accumulated and business grew what were considered private interests became increasingly public in their effects. As public authorities - states - were dependent on taxation, so this body had an interest in the economic success of their citizens. As more citizens were enfranchised so the pressure for states to make inroads into private property in terms of regulation and, occasionally, ownership. In short, the economic life on which states depended were too important to be left in private hands without oversight, and that's before you take the pressures of growing electorates into account. Simultaneously, the media that served the old public sphere underwent a transformation. With the end of censorship and growing literacy, the prospect of mass circulation newspapers became a market opportunity to be exploited. However, in seeking investors the press became enmeshed in the webs of commercial interests that were being spun throughout these societies. This was reinforced as the business model rested not on profits made from cover prices, but the selling of advertising space. Two consequences resulted: papers had to capture large audiences, and by the end of the 19th century this was by regular recourse to sensationalism, muck raking and human interest stories. The second was the deadening effect of the interests they were bound up in - their revolutionary, democratic forebears shared little resemblance with the commercialised press.

This had a more serious consequence. The ideal of the bourgeois public sphere, as a domain for the exchange of views and critical scrutiny of power expired, smothered as it was by a welter of piffle and propaganda masquerading as political comment. The audience were not treated as a critical public but as an audience to be manipulated to shift more copy. The advent of early-mid 20th century media technologies - film, radio, TV - redoubled this tendency. The concern of this media too was chasing audiences who would more or less passively consume their product. This infected political organisations and their media too. The electorate were not a potentially self-activating citizenry for whom politics mediates their interests, but an object to be won over to voting particular parties. If this wasn't bad enough, parties and the state itself have to compete for the attention of mass audiences with other products of the culture industries. It's yet another lovely irony, the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the instantiation and institutionalisation of its public sphere and the private interests it rested on has led to its complete opposite. Instead of enhancing democratic debate, the capitalist media has sold its facsimile and inculcated amorphous audiences to be manipulated by institutions through public opinion techniques. As far as Habermas are concerned, the bourgeoisie, the class that was at the forefront of seeing off feudalism and absolutism in Europe have ended up "refeudalising" the public sphere that enabled them to become a class for itself.

Despite being published over 50 years ago, the relationship between the media and political deliberation remains much the same. What Habermas said then of programming especially designed to report and discuss current affairs underlines the hollowing out of the public sphere. Debate, such as it is, is strictly time limited. What is and what isn't said is tightly circumscribed by producers. And only certain figures are nominated spokespersons - they are professional opinion formers that act seemingly independently of a constituency. That was then, has any of that changed today?

Looking at what passes for public life now, the comings and goings of politics are certainly a niche pursuit. It still gets top coverage in the media because it's "important", yet a glance at political reportage or clips from the Commons on YouTube shows pitifully low numbers of views. Meanwhile, as the Daily Mail website and most-read on BBC News attests, entertainment/celebrity/human interest stories gets the traffic in. Depressing for politicos perhaps, but not surprising according to Habermas's analysis. The figure of the celebrity, for instance, is the locus of projection, an object of fantasy or fascination, the simulacrum of a relationship, or, simply, mildly diverting nonsense. They are themselves practitioners and products of publicity, as part of the media machine designed to manipulate audience to, ultimately, sell a product. They too are wrapped in a mesh of sponsorship deals, advertising, endorsements, contracts, etc. All they are, the singers, the actors, the reality TV stars, the presenters, and the famous-for-being-famous are billboards for lifestyles one can buy off the shelf. When they do speak out of turn they tend to be roundly mocked (see Joey Barton and Carol Vorderman on Question Time).

What's this got to do with comedians? Quite a bit. Comedians occupy a certain position in the entertainment division of labour. They can - and do - all of the celebrity guff above, but their function is to make people laugh. And more often than not they do that on the basis of observation. They're people-watchers. Comedians are sociologists of the everyday, except they work their material up into stuff that reaches much further than the obscure professional journal article and seldom-read blog post. They are the one section of celebrity that sell themselves to audiences on the basis of their social acuity. A little bit of politics is fine and dandy if people flock to their stand-up, or watch their TV appearances. Sure, comedy is marketed like any other product, but it plays on the sophisticated understandings people have of relationships, public and private behaviours, social difference and, in some cases, inequalities and problems.

It's not much of a skip and jump from a comedic panel show like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week to something like Question Time and Newsnight. Nor is what is demanded of the comedian. The routine and the sketch entails observation and opinion. The interview or the audience question is much the same. Comedians are the one celebrity type audiences are used to seeing talking about matters social and (sometimes) political, hence why they most frequently make the leap from 'official' entertainment to 'sanctioned' democratic discourse. It may seem incongruous, but since Stephen Fry first appeared on Question Time in 1990, comedians have been the celebrity staple for precisely this reason. They have "transferability". It also helps explain why the idea of someone like Eddie Izzard running as Labour's candidate for London mayor doesn't seem even remotely absurd, or why millions of (mainly young) people at least listen to what Russell Brand has to say about politics. They are widely accepted by audiences as critical voices who cast light on social life. When comedians move sideways from comedy to political engagement, from the problematic of public relations to critical-public discourse, it's no accident huge numbers may be prepared to follow them.

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