London Through the Magic Eye
By Ramond Ramcharitar
Unnerving about London are the security cameras everywhere. Around Downing St, around Buckingham Palace, on the buses, in the seediest train stations. More unnerving is the apathy to them. The litigious British psyche, it seems, has negotiated a way around, or through, the cameras and their implications of interrupted privacy, sensory invasion, undefined uneasiness.
(Though--and this differentiation's recurrences in examining British/outsider relations, it seems, are infinite--the very unease is foreign: traceable to the American-inspired notions of inalienable rights attached to personal privacy.)
To the outsider--and for once, all outsiders, the American, the Third Worlder, the Easterner, the European--the casual surveillance is a truly alien object, initially invisible to the visitor, eliciting a kind of self-consciousness at first realisation, only later, and then only for some, clarified into a vague discomfiture.
In all likelihood, the others' responses divide at the Atlantic: American outrage at unauthorised surveillance; European resignation; Asian stoicism to statist intrusiveness. But for the Third Worlder, once detached from the phantasmagoria of American television, what remains at the prospect of being watched is a mildly pleasant relief.
Since the end of colonialism, what has defined the countries of the South (in Africa, the Caribbean), you must realise, is the absence of watchers. There remains no sense of ubiquitous authority or order. And of late, there's been an overwhelming sensation of the consequences--fantastic political corruption and thievery; the evil of ordinary men living in a society dissolving the notions that hold it together: whispers of devolution to a primal past. No cameras: nobody watches, nobody cares.
Such uncertainty is unknown here. There is the institutional continuity of the 1000-year history, of course, but something else: a centuries-old sureness which has osmosed into the collective life. England, to an outsider, is a place so sure of its existence, even the threat of invasion, psychic or otherwise--such fear as led America to enshrine rights of the individual--is unimportant.
Even the human, clannish instinct which rebels against threats to its existence has begun to atrophy, leaving an indifference to the smaller moments of history. So what if someone looks? Life continues--and hardly in the wretched state Orwell foretold. Life, in its way, even inverts the intimidation of being watched by unknown eyes. American counter-culture has long ridiculed the ethos of the inalienability, or even the desirability, of the wholly private life.
Surveillance has become, rather than an instrument of invasion, an instrument of perversion. Rupert Murdoch's US- based Fox Network and others have, in the past few years, made surveillance the absinthe of the jaded masses--with shows like Cops, Trauma, America's Most Wanted, Jerry Springer--where the viewer accompanies the law, or the host (the surrogate superego of the underclass), on their sundry invasions of homes, privacy, lives and often the liberty of the invaded.
We can only speculate on the morbid curiosity and stultified existences that fueled the industry, of course, but worse was to come. A few years ago, out of anonymity and without preamble or theoretical precedent, Economics student Jennifer Ringely trained a "homecam" on herself and, transmitting through the Internet, let virtually anyone interested into the minutiae of her life: her menstruation, her sex life, her sleep. The "Jennicam" phenomenon has now become a thousands- strong Internet industry, including sexual liaisons, childbirth, death: From my life into your home: Welcome.
(Paradoxically, it's unlikely that the average Briton [student] would entertain such a thing. Even more curious, though, the schism between what the British see of the real world and what of the world is transmitted to them: No inhibitions at being examined at length, but a certain coolness at examining others' lives in such detail.)
The most effective conveyance of Western civilisation anywhere is American television. Cultural generalisations, ideas, even self-images are formed in relation or opposition to the unreal (and even covert counter-cultural) imprecations planted in phatic situation comedies. An entire generation forms self-images from Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch. And every so often, whatever is left of the feminist movement rails about the impossible and frustrating standards engendered: everybody wanting to fuck Pamela Anderson Lee or Brad Pitt creates a culture of unrealism, detachment from the real.
Perhaps Britons' ideas of their lives are not so easily defined, but their indifference to the way they are seen begs the question: how do they see themselves? British television is a marvel of opposites--of sophistication/unsophistication, the sublime lying alongside the bathetic. It will nonchalantly show male frontal nudity (always riskier than female nudity), while maintaining enough reserve to essay a "serious" examination of the pornography industry (Sex and Shopping). Then in the same breath, show God's Gift (on BBC 1), a dating game for seniors: old geezers croaking out "Unforgettable", to a group of giggling grannies. And as the irony never comes, it strikes you: they're having fun.
The Game Show hosts, far from the slick, scripted badinage cued at their American counterparts, banter with each other like the office wiseass having a go at the company awards function. "And now here is the chairman to present the awards for...what was it again Delilah? Sleeping in the store room....no need, mate, let's just 'and it hover to Edgar...". Then Comedy Nation (BBC 2) features surreally funny segments like the Ducks of Doom, the League Against Tedium, and Buller, a 400 lb yobbo who knocked out a bull once, using his gangsta-midget friend, Mikki, in a matador get-up as a decoy.
Clearly, the dialectics of public communication (which invoke principles like of freedom of expression) elsewhere do not figure in England or figure with a radical difference. Freedom here is an operational concept, not a principle which generates ineluctable moral problematics--like the mythic overarching idea of American "freedom" does, and whose viability they neurotically and futilely attempt to prove. (Thus the existence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam; but to no avail: the insistence on principle is constantly disproved by national humiliations, succumbing to the fears of emotional immaturity like the Clinton impeachment.)
If television transmissions can be used as an indicator, Brits are a stoic bunch, satisfied for the most part with their lot. They see their dissatisfactions as part of their process, view them with resignation, if without bland Northern European lan, then with an interesting Anglo-Saxon roughness.
The argument, though, will hold only so much dialectical weight. Sometimes roughness is just brutality: In America, the governance of the principle of equality, rather than the dynamic of traditionalist hermeneutics, would have exacted a far more just price for the death of Stephen Lawrence than Anglo-Saxon roughness has done.
(Raymond Ramcharitar earns his living as a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. He has been published throughout the Caribbean and the United States. He has written a novel and a collection of poems. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.)