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From the Jersey Shore, Plausible Catastrophe

by Jake Bohrod

I'd like to start with an example from Mark Williams' “History in a Flash,” an article which I'll be speaking through and coming back to often throughout this analysis. In it, he documents New York Times reporter William Laurence's reflections on the questions that come to mind in the shadow of the atomic blast: 'Am I seeing things, am I dreaming?' he says, 'Is this real, is this possible?' (307) As viewers we are constantly recycling these questions in our head as we grapple with televisual reality – Does this belong to the world in which I live? To this we answer with hesitation and fear: this is not real enough to have really happened, but it is real enough to be imminently plausible (if not possible). In Williams' words, memory and history fail as we transform TV's depiction of the real or the really happened into the fantastic yet plausible. “Plausibly live” becomes the “plausibly real” and, then, plausibly terrifying (309). Williams envisions the detonation of the bomb – since its first televisual representation in 1952 – as an evocation of 'instantaneous' disaster. In this analysis, I will contend that television's instantaneous characteristic is a constant evocation of catastrophic annihilation. Reality TV, as I will discuss it through the program The Jersey Shore, is the cultural equivalent of an instantaneous disruption to the really real, its implication being that life – and therefore life's trials and tribulations – can interrupt us at any second. I choose The Jersey Shore as it represents, for me, the pinnacle of the contemporarily located, pop culture-driven, reality-based programs in both form and content. Putting Williams and Anna McCarthy in dialogue, I will contend that Reality TV, as a “sociocultural concoction that [has] started to smell” (McCarthy 20) and with The Jersey Shore at its core, does not only emit the fumes of a neoliberal configuration of citizenship, but of imminent catastrophe itself, which in turn helps form the discourses of the really real in post-9/11 America. In both “History in a Flash” and “Rewiring Media History,” Williams examines the influence of the telecast of the attempted rescue of Kathy Fiscus, who fell down a well in 1949. This event “functioned...not to 'solve' television's paradoxes of discontinuities, but to help establish them and their allure” (297-98). It shows how the “drama” of life becomes more confused under the lens of a TV camera, acting now as a “show” or “display” of such discontinuities in ways that they wouldn't be regarded without the intervention of the apparatus. The Jersey Shore, and programs like it, is a result of this recalibration of the drama – and trauma – of the everyday. If Williams theorizes coverage such as the Fiscus event as a 'rupture' to the everyday, then I would maintain that programs such as The Jersey Shore make rupture the everyday. More than 60 years after the Fiscus telecast, our TV is the source of catastrophic plausibility. What Williams describes as Doane and Mellencamp's 'crisis' and 'catastrophe' modes of temporality – such as the countdown used before the detonation of the atomic bomb – are translated to the form and pacing of reality programming (301). In The Jersey Shore, a normal episode consists of a daily buildup – when the show sets up the action that's to be played out later – followed by a nightly catastrophe. In this case the contrived drama of the “live,” happening A-bomb test or Fiscus tragedy sets the stage for a contrived notion of formatted drama in the “real,” happened arena of the Jersey shore. The intimate yet distancing position of the camera also lend to this catastrophic plausibility and becomes a metaphor for televisual viewership on the whole. Using the case of the A-bomb test, Williams concludes that the camera is “close enough for viewers to appreciate [the bomb's] threatening splendor, yet far enough away to both preclude any real danger and maintain prolonged visual contact” (307). In other words, the camera translates both the impossible distance between real event and viewer, but also the event's plausible position within the real. We are able to live at a distance from catastrophe, yet catastrophe's plausibility is made ever-connected to our living condition. Now in the 21st century, our constant state of 'rupture' can be culturally located within reality programming. The camera keeps a knowing distance as it witnesses the destruction of Reality TV stars that itself helped to conceive. What we should take away from this clip is not the threat of Ronnie's “one shot,” but the threat of an always intervening medium that makes catastrophe (think: “breaking news” a la 9/11) always plausible within the realm of Reality programming, as well in actuality. In the world of Reality TV, the individual experience is rendered as the theoretical model for the whole. McCarthy would center this reasoning in explicit political terms, perhaps seeing it as the “shrinking” of the public sphere (18). Through The Jersey Shore, I would rename it an “implosion,” wherein a cast of unchecked individuals become a metaphor for modern life itself, culminating, on a daily basis, in catastrophe. Using McCarthy's application of Hegel to create a metaphor for television, I maintain here that TV is a 'heaven...of generality [defined] against the earthy existence of its actuality' (20). Actuality, in this case, butts up against the 'heaven' of TV, where our inner battles play out in realistic fashion. (I should say here, that Ronnie does get arrested shortly after the scuffle, but he returns home to the Jersey shore in short order.) Instead of viewing “citizenship as a medium of preservation” (McCarthy 20), this presentation aims to position TV as a medium of preservation. TV has trained the viewer to recognize the distinction between it and the real while acknowledging their current state of interdependence at the same time. In other words, we know it's not real yet we recognize its plausibility. Herein lies McCarthy's conception of televisual “self-annihilation” (21). We turn to the TV to be told of our own destruction. If reality TV's neoliberal theater of suffering tells us of “actually existing citizenship” – its “...irresolvable pain...helplessness and abjection” (37) – then The Jersey Shore tells us the same thing of actually existing, period. -McCarthy, Anna. “Reality Television: a Neoliberal Theater of Suffering.” Social Text 25: 93. Fall 2007. -Williams, Mark. “History in a Flash: Notes on the Myth of TV 'Liveness'.” Collecting Visible Evidence. Gaines, Jane and Michael Renov, eds. Visible Evidence Series, 6: 1999. 292-312. – “Re-wiring Media History: Inter-medial Borders.” Convergence Media History. Hake, Sabine and Janet Staiger, eds. 2009. 46-56.

Other media by this contributor

From The Jersey Shore, Plausible Catastrophe

This is a clip from The Jersey Shore, Season 1, episode "One Shot".

from The Jersey Shore (2010)
Creator: SallyAnn Salsano
Distributor: MTV
Posted by Jake Bohrod