Friday, 28 May 2010
“Watching the wheels go round”
So, first, a question: what do these countries have in common? Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK?
Answer: all these nations’ entries in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest are sung in English.
I fetch back a recollection of the first EVSC I ever saw, in 1961, when a UK duo, The Allisons, came second with a bright and harmonious number called Are You Sure. What I remember of the other contestants is a kaleidoscope (if you can have a black-and-white kaleidoscope) of language, costume, dance, performance and minstrelsy which ranged from the picture-postcard quaint through the exotic to the bizarre.
I also remember thinking how, as they watched, viewers in each country must be ranking the performances on a spectrum that rose towards “extraordinary” from a base point of “ordinary” which was settled in their own country’s contribution.
What I didn’t twig was that the Allisons, (who may well, with their finger-clicks, Brylcreamed-hair and dinner suits, have appeared outlandish or barbarian to Latvians or Romanians) were unwittingly helping to build a bridgehead into Europe from America; nor that, in two or three years, that bridgehead would become the causeway for a cultural traffic which caused a social revolution.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” and so on, in the years when the initials IT stood not for Information Technology, but for the International Times.
If the Molotov cocktail of the (45 and 33 rpm) youth revolution was fashioned from vinyl, its howitzer was broadcasting; but it’s sorry end for the process that one of its primary obstetricians – television – should have so flattened European musical diversity into homogenised Anglopap that the originally weird and absorbing phenomenon of the EVSC has been reduced to a spectacle which is more grotesque than exotic, and absolutely ersatz, and which ought now, maybe, to be called Europe’s Got Talent.
But didn’t we, sitting in that revolutionary nerve centre, Goode’s Café in Tavistock, Devon, fingering our espresso cups and unsold piles of the IT, chafe at the difficulty of forging an International out of the confusion of European vernaculars and traditions, let alone the world’s?
(We also fretted about the IT’s execrable prose. Some hard-liners argued, though, that “good” writing was elitist, and it was therefore the duty of the proletarian author to be unreadable.)
Already we knew the truism that, throughout history, changes in the systems of production precipitated fundamental changes in the structure of society. Well, the progress of the EVSC demonstrates in vivid cameo how changes in the systems and channels of communication are equally influential, even though broadcasting, for example, purports only to reflect, and not to direct, the evolutions of society.
Around the time that I saw that early EVSC, my father took me to my first General Election hustings. This was at a time when every candidate, if he or she was to have a prayer, had to attend a public debate with his or her rivals not just in every constituency city or town hall, but in every village hall, or church hall or schoolroom.
Our village meeting was packed. I saw spittle-flecked fury and red-faced indignation, fingers pointed and chairs banged, ideological passion, hungry self-interest, and moral outrage.
Political sensibility was local, quick and collective. Party was embodied in the physically present M.P., not an Olympian and absent P.M.
The last hustings I witnessed, now as a reporter, were in a town square in Launceston in the mid 1970’s. As I recall, vegetables were thrown at the Tory candidate and the arrival of the Liberal, Mr John Pardoe, standing on planks across the back of open-top Land-Rover, was attended by a Cornish version of the messianic ecstasy which Monty Python’s Life of Brian satirised in 1979.
Within another decade, the only way a backbench M.P. could hope even to half-fill a meeting (and then just with party subscribers, and not on an sunny or rainy evening) was to invite along a member from elsewhere who was a “known T.V. face”.
This year that last vestige of the hustings, the morning Press Conference broadcast from Westminster, at which journalists were the electors’ simulacra, vanished from the General Election schedule, to be replaced by televised leaders’ conferences in which the ordinary voters in the audience were injuncted to stay quiet.
Back in the 1960’s, public-spirited individuals still used their cars to scoop up the lame, the elderly and the lonely and take them to church on Sundays. The advent of the televised church service provided a reason to leave the lame, the elderly and the lonely alone in their front rooms with the dubious sacrament of the cathode ray.
Meanwhile thousands of the able-bodied stopped going to church anyway, and stayed home to watch Songs of Praise or Highway, “religious” programmes which began with a gestural stab at “worship”, but eventually did what all TV programmes do, which is, turn their subject matter into TV programmes: in these two cases, a travelogue-cum-interview-cum-music request show.
TV wildlife programmes – never quite Paradise Lost, but almost always Losing Paradise – created a huge and benign shift towards eco-consciousness.
On the other hand TV holiday programmes – never quite Paradise Regained, but almost always Paradise Regainable – spawned (or at least, directed) mass tourism.
Only, when the mass of tourists arrived at their destinations they found, for example, that the display of local colour they were seeking – the festival, the parade, the be-costumed ethnic dancing and singing, now sanitised and repackaged as part of the package tour – was curiously empty of zest and integrity and cultural meaning; that, in fact, the 2-D version on the TV screen appeared more authentic than the 3-D version in the flesh.
These are just a few exemplary social effects, randomly chosen, none planned nor intended by broadcasting organisations which were regulated heavily for decades, and then supervised more lightly as commercial pressures multiplied and new technologies (which were themselves not susceptible to regulation) began to transform electronic communication and weaken the dominance of orthodox media.
This latest transformation is radical and radicalising. Now that it’s bedding down, a new series of unintended consequences is working itself out through society.
When electronic interactivity took off from the campus into the secular world, experts and exponents envisaged it primarily as a top-down and paternalist affair – the doctor remotely treating patients, the teacher remotely teaching students, the government remotely soliciting opinions, issuing permits, collecting information and levying imposts.
Unforeseen were the citizen journalist and the flashmob, the back-chat of Twitter and the egalitarian irreverence and candour of the social media.
Already – to return to the electoral theatre – people-powered satire on the Internet has destroyed the huge and hoarding-hogging political poster as a propaganda tool.
With no authority invigilating it, no movement propelling it, no party organising it, no programme shaping it, the world wide web has forged sudden and unexpected ad-hoc coalitions which flourish, dissolve and regroup, using technical and ideological inspiration to debunk the pompous, unmask the liar, flush out the conspirator and destabilise the tyrant.
At the same time, while the monologue afforded by broadcast was the making of presidential-style government, the Internet’s border-agnostic dialogue has, by supranationalising business, left those governments and their presidents impotent to do little more than spray vast quantities of their taxpayers’ liquidity at the conflagrations ignited by 21st century capitalism’s greed and irresponsibility.
Eleven years ago, in a book called Ghostly Demarcations, the American critic Fredric Jameson wrote presciently about the two contradictory forces – one democratic and unpoliced, one oligarchic and uncontrollable – which the Internet has uncaged. “Globalisation,” he said, “... sets the stage for a new kind of politics, along with a new kind of political intervention.”
Recording his support for the notion that the net might forge “a new International,” he added: “the cybernetic possibilities that enable post-Fordism along with financial speculation, and generate the extraordinary new wealth that constitutes the power of the modern business establishment, are also available to intellectuals today on a world scale.”
There’s a trace there of that old, top-down paternalism. For it seems to me that the subversive power of the web reposes precisely in the fact that the multitudes of new actors on its lower stage are not just (or not only) “intellectuals,” but people whose lives are at once more humdrum and less fastidious, more challenged and more volatile.
(And anyway, most left-wing intellectuals, after the fall of communism, happily retreated behind the academic stockade and espoused the IT theory of writing, churning out wodges of impenetrable jargon to explain to each other – but not to the players – the events that brought down the Wall).
The patrician Lord Reith, first director general of the BBC, described the institution in his care as “a potential social menace of the first magnitude.”
Who knows what he would have made of the Internet?
And who knows what songs they’ll be singing in the Supranational Song Contest of a few years’ time?