One way to approach the contemporary secular imaginary is by way of its relentless reflexivity—from categorical eviscerations of “religion” to the refusal of the religious/secular binary to vernacular insights into media inscription and the fluidity of selves. Such consciousness, in turn, owes as much to the onslaught of reality television as it does to the work of Michel Foucault. The CBS show Big Brother, now in its twelfth iteration, has long been the gold-standard for this particular mixture—a dozen people thrown into a house for a two-month competition in which one player is evicted every week; $500,00 as well as psychic stability in the balance; every move and every word broadcast live via the internet; no contact with the outside world save for televised conversations with the host, Julie Chen (who, of course, is married to Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS); and finally, opportunities for “houseguests” to vent and to reveal their true selves to themselves in the “Diary Room” before the camera and a faceless television audience of millions.
And to raise the biopolitical stakes even higher, the 24/7 surveillance that occurs on Big Brother is also an exercise in security (and not merely discipline), as each contestant is deeply familiar with the format of the show, has studied previous seasons, and has formulated their own strategies in light of an increasingly dense narrative web. And so, too, have the producers of Big Brother, who each season revise and tweak the format and rules under the auspices of the show’s perfectly ironic tag—“Expect the Unexpected.” As a fan of reality television, and Big Brother in particular, I have ever been fascinated by how religion plays out in these spaces of hyper-reflexivity—Mormon youth exposed to libertinage (MTV-style), self-righteous Pentecostals who literally demonize their opponents, Catholics who use the camera to talk to God, free will Baptists who take solace in being broadcast 24/7, and, this season on Big Brother 12, an orthodox Jew attempting to stay kosher and to educate his fellow-housemates about Shabbat and his yarmulke (referred to as a “yom kippur” by one housemate). One could already imagine reading an analysis of how religion is represented and played out on reality television. Needless to say, the discourse of secularism thrives in the trashiest corners of high-definition. But perhaps even more interesting, and worthy of future posts, is the appearance of Ragan Fox on this season’s Big Brother 12. Fox is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at California State, Long Beach, whose dissertation was entitled The Rhetorical Construction of Identity: Gay Lives Performed Online. Fox is also a poet and podcaster whose blog includes an entertaining discussion of the difference between archaeology and genealogy. And to raise the stakes even higher, Fox may also be a plant, the saboteur under contract with Big Brother whose goal is not to win but to undermine and deceive every other player in the game. Is Fox the saboteur? Find out tonight, live on Big Brother 12.
The reflexivity of the secular age has reached a fevered pitch. Foucault is turning in his grave. I await the glimmer of transcendence.