Speaking to the Associated Press, John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society, recently lamented, “Someone once said that war is God’s way of teaching geography, but today, apparently war or even the threat of war cannot adequately teach geography… More American young people can tell you where an island that the ‘Survivor’ TV series came from is located than can identify Afghanistan or Iraq. Ironically a TV show seems more real or at least more meaningful, interesting or relevant than reality.”
What Fahey failed to realize, however, is that the real war is not far away, but in our heads as we battle for a place in reality that is increasingly being supplanted by a technological dream world. Turns out that the CBS show Survivor really is the territory when it comes to locating ourselves in an increasingly mediated world where surveillance and life on camera is more tangible then the media sanitized war in Iraq. Survivor challenges us to examine whether reality and media can coexist—or more frighteningly, whether we are on our way to a complete melding of the two.
Through conventions of documentary—interviews, real people/non actors, cinema verité—reality television game shows lay claim to the real but contain self-consciously artificial spaces. In the case of Survivor, beyond the contrived parameters of the game, so-called castaways are performers in a metanarrative for issues concerning our location in the mediated technodrome. Survivor’s set, a mythical island or generic exotic local in an indeterminate location outside the realm of the symbolic order becomes a heterotopic space where the real and imaginary commingle in a struggle for definition. A heterotopia, as Foucault describes it, is a kind of in-between space; it is cyberspace, the space of a phone conversation, the simultaneous fragmented wormhole of television, a “free trade zone,” or Ground Zero where the World Trade Center once stood. These are places that coexist physically and in the mind.
During the opening segment of last season’s Survivor All-Stars, eighteen castaways led by their tribal chief and show’s host, Jeff Probst, were escorted to a remote island by Panamanian navy boats and helicopters. These eighteen everyday people from across the United States who straddle multiple demographics were then tossed overboard, subsequently to fend for themselves and compete in the latest television programming invention, the gamedoc, a hybrid game show-slash-documentary. For thirty-nine days the cast of castaways would “outwit, outplay and outlast” the competition, as the show’s producers promise, until one final victor would bag one million dollars.
Conceptually, the castaways are framed within a tribal setting, conjuring images of the global village. Every season, whether based in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia or Latin America, remnants of the locale are incorporated into the show’s motifs, but they are references in name and icon only, and rarely do you ever see a true engagement of local culture. Occasionally local tribesmen “perform” and visual references are made to tribal art, but these are made to seem “primitive” in contrast to “civilization” and are pure background, a faded past that eerily exists as simulacra.
We have to keep in mind that though the castaways are “average” folk, they are certainly archetypes from the symbolic order. Careful casting assures that a diverse demographic incorporates different ages, races, sexual orientation and body types. Already in six seasons we have seen requisite queers, hotties, elders and minorities. In addition, we have also seen character types: the manipulator, joker, drama queen, pretty boy, chronic liar, cool dude, machista, etc. Some characters even play up to these roles, as Johnny Fairplay did when he was determined to become the most notorious “villain” in Survivor history. Presumably, this adds a narrative structure to the unpredictability built into the show’s construction.
An important assumption of Survivor is that these contestants are castaways, but from what? In one sense they are people who are “cast aside,” those who have not been accepted into the ritualistic realm of media. More importantly, they are castaways from the wreckage of civilization. The game space is outside the realm of news, war and the technological sphere. Yet contestants are placed firmly within it, because they are under constant media surveillance, mirroring contemporary society. In New York City prior to 9/11, the average person was caught on tape at least seventy times a day; the number of times now is certainly much higher.
An important aspect of televisual space is that it represents a catastrophic flow of events, a stream of continued crisis (from which our castaways have been shipwrecked from) that requires some greater plotline from history in which we have good and bad guys. The Game, as the contestants refer to the larger, conceptual framework of their heterotopia, conjures the terminology the Russians use to describe the geopolitical strategy and scenario of conflict engaged by world powers. Ultimately there is a winner and many losers (which satisfies our need for resolution); but sometimes you play for alliance, which involves negotiating, coalition building, deception and in the end, human relations.
Survivor exists as a heightened state of reality making social taboos permissible. Hence players constantly justify lying and deception. One of the more interesting rituals of Survivor is the season’s reunion show and final jury when contestants confront the finalists about their behavior during the show. While some contestants make a clear distinction between the game and social norms, others get trapped in the middle of the two realities and are unable to reconcile how one is treated within the game. What is evident is that survival skills are not dependent on wilderness aptitude such as starting a fire or catching fish, but social and personal cleverness, the kinds of things one must master in corporate America in order to compete and survive.
Probst is able to maintain control of the contestants through his own privileged information (he has access to all the tapes prior to tribal council) and sustain the overarching symbolic order. He is a combination father figure (maintaining a patriarchal tribe/family structure) and arbitrator of game’s producers, or more precisely, on a larger scale, the culture producers. Probst also comes to represent a magical figurehead of civilization’s technological wonders. Within the game’s structure, he is a kind of capitalist shaman who can materialize civilization’s rewards (such as a helicopter ride, a day-long cruise, a night at a resort) and gifts (a car or truck). He arbitrates contestants and has the power to control who comes and goes. He is the mediator, the device of television manifest as “character” in the Survivor heterotopia. He is the conduit of information from inside and outside the game; he is the bridge between the real and imaginary world of the game’s metanarrative structure. And hence is often shown in positions of power and in control of technology, whether he guides in the helicopter from Panama to New York City (the “real” world) or rides a water jet (via the magic of editing) from South America into Hudson Bay.
Survivor maintains the symbolic order reflected in the power structure, especially when technology and commercialism intercedes, such as when products interlope onto the set like a Coors Light or Chevy. When such goods make their way into the narrative, they disrupt our sense of the natural world that exists in the background. Yet it’s a stark reminder that the game’s impact on the surroundings is never part of the dialog. One gets the sense that human waste is just left behind into the realm of the Other, as the local environment embodies, and the dominion of product is more real and true. Here, television is the environment.
Similar to sporting events, gamedocs reveal certain innate truths concerning the power structure. Although writing specifically about televised sporting events, critic Samuel Weber is on the mark concerning gamedocs when he writes that in sports “the technological dream of planning and control is rendered visible.” Being immersed in the ambivalence of television’s heterotopia, Survivor’s definitive outcome satisfies our need for finality. The gamedoc is in a sense a more perfect sporting spectacle, because as viewers we can identify more directly with amateur contestants.
Perhaps Survivor is popular because the people who inhabit the island heterotopia are us, playing a game of survival in a mediated world. Here TV organizes chaos, the ruin of civilization is manageable. We are survivors of the catastrophe. With a narrative imposition on the mundane, boring day-to-day life we inhabit, TV constructs a magical place and counters the end of the historical plot—the grand narrative that is consistently debunked by postmodernism. Survivor orders the world, situating the war in our heads, making peace with geography, eschewing the true mess of our lives far off in the Middle East.