Procedural Voyeurism

Excerpt from "The Art of the Deal as Entertainment," by Walter Kirn, New York Times (July 20, 2010):

LeBron James Mural Comes Down (Cleveland Plain Dealer) In the contemporary entertainment business (and also, increasingly, in sports and in politics), it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice. We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage. Call this outlook “procedural voyeurism” — a redirection of mass attention from the spectacle of the game itself to the circus of the game behind the game, as when LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar, commandeered the TV sets of umpteen thousands of sports bars, not to mention the better part of the Web’s bandwidth, to tell us, months before the season’s first tipoff, that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami to take advantage of the new team’s “cap space,” a slangy term for the ability teams have to add new strings of zeros to coveted players’ salaries.

You might also think back to last winter’s late-night-talk-show feud, its battlefield swarming with lawyers, go-betweens, snitches, seducers and propagandists, that pitted Conan O’Brien against Jay Leno for the desk that the senior comedian nobly ceded to the younger and then, as if by tugging on a lasso encircling the desk’s legs, rudely jerked away. This orgy of Jacobean backstage backstabbing wasn’t televised directly, but rumors about its intrigues captured our imaginations anyhow, stirring extensive discussions of ratings numbers, severance payments, contractual etiquette and viewer demographics...

Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — sometimes correctly, as with the BP oil spill, whose coverage has been rich in process and until recently short on meaningful developments. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act. We might do well to call these decadent versions “LeBron Announcements” or “Conan-Leno Matches”: rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.

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