Debord, de trop

ooI’m in England for a few days to see my mother. My visit’s coincided with Naomi Campbell’s recent tantrum at Heathrow’s disaster-struck T5 (luggage to Milan to be sorted…’) and, less excitingly, the return to television of someone called Nigel Marven. Marven’s been popping up on all kinds of programmes, from Jonathan Ross, despite not having very much to say, to a daytime cooking show, despite not eating meat or drinking wine, which rendered him more or less useless, although no one seemed to care. He’s promoting his new series, so presumably all is forgiven.

One of the preview clips we
were shown was of Marven, up to his knees in malodorous swamp, straddling a furiously threshing creature called, I think, a snapper turtle. He was forcing open its large, ungainly mouth to show us a small flickering scrap of flesh built into its tongue and used to attract fish. He touched it to see what the snapper turtle would do, the way you might squeeze an avocado before you buy to make sure it’s ripe enough for that evening.

He’s one of that new school of TV naturalists who’ve sussed that, just as the anthropologist contaminates and becomes integral to the culture under the microscope, so these various heirs of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough – and Marven began as one of Attenborough’s assistants – are no longer invisible observers from camouflaged hides in woods and fields, the kind of thing we used to try to build when I was a child and children were allowed to leave the house without armed guards. These days, they want to be seen. They’re part of the show. To all intents and purposes, they are the show.

Steve Irwin, the Australian whose self-aggrandising antics led to his death, must have been the first – though he certainly won’t be the last – to grasp that what we really want to watch isn’t the animal in its natural state at all. What we now appear to want is to watch the animal being drawn, dragged, biting, kicking, enraged, into our natural state: the state of the spectacle, our Everyman before the lens. We want to see the animal exposed in some way, transformed by its own anger or confusion or fear into the real performer’s stooge. The fact that the creature might damage the performer, even lethally, is part of the pleasure. It ought to be shameful, but it isn’t, or doesn’t seem to be. It seems to be what looking at the world – indeed, caring about the world – involves.

What does this have to do with Naomi Campbell? Well, it strikes me that what Marven and his colleagues most resemble, in their attitude towards their audience and their subjects, are paparazzi. Invasive, judgemental, acting in what they see – or pretend to see – as the public interest, they violate the world they’re supposed to be, in some way, recording. They’re so busily turned back towards us as they run to and then from their prey, teasing, coaxing, disturbing, rendering the otherwise unavailable available, that they don’t see the inauthenticity of it all; or, if they do, don’t care.

Now the last person in the world I’d normally defend is the maid-beating peace-crusading utterly dreadful Naomi Campbell. But when she turns on a photographer, or even a member of the public armed with camera phone, what she most resembles isn’t a celebrity so much as a snapper turtle, or dugong, or cayman, one of the harried beasts in Marven’s smugly relentless grip, held with its jaws forced open so that we can genuinely get the beauty of it hot.

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