Naomi Lawson Jacobs: Disability and God’s JusticeNovember 21, 2022
Who invented religion?November 28, 2022
In ancient Greece, a small number of people would meet a very unpleasant end. Once a year, a selection of slaves, foreigners, criminals, and those deemed threatening by their difference, were rounded up. For a while they were very well treated then, on a special festival, they were paraded round the city; the conflicts and difficulties of the community were symbolically placed upon them, and they were killed, their bodies burned and their ashes thrown into the sea or river.
The ceremony took place on the outskirts of the city. This symbolized the fact that conflicts and problems were being taken from within the community and disposed of. Hence the need to use those who were both part of the community but not part of it: those who belonged to the community but, because of their difference, were also set apart. Only such marginal people were in a position to take problems away from the community. The name for this was pharmakos – scapegoating.
The parallels with ‘I’m a Celebrity’ are striking. Of course, in the twenty-first century the ordeal has to be embraced ‘voluntarily’; though the imperative is strong for those in public life and the entertainment industry constantly to renew their personal currency. The competition is held in a jungle – a remote location, cut off from everyday life and normal social interaction. The participants, as celebrities, are both ‘like us’ but ‘set apart from us’.
Their ordeals are multi-faceted. Their first job is to become an unlikely community – a team in adversity. They are invited to bond with one another to form a ‘safe space’ where personal revelations can be shared. We (the viewers/voyeurs) are encouraged to feel ‘welcomed in’ to these intimate exchanges of confidences, thereby apparently gaining access to the various ‘truths’ about things that have hitherto been subjects of gossip and speculation.
At all stages they experience the mix of humiliation and joy that comes with the voting public’s disapproval or approval. Firstly to determine who undertakes the tough and challenging ‘bushtucker trials’ (through which one or two participants win food for the whole group), then later the votes are to determine who stays and who gets ejected from the camp (the ‘losers’ are those who leave!).
The most significant activities (the trials) are various kinds of (physically harmless) sadistic and frightful psychological torture involving close contact with all things loathsome and disgusting. Eating repellent things like animal genitalia, fermented fish-eyes, vomit-fruit, roaches and other insects; drinking pureed mealy worms and other horrors. Celebs retrieve plastic stars hidden in water tanks, caves, and a giant dolls’ house with snakes, flies, rotting food and live birds, whilst enduring avalanches of foul-smelling goo and slime.
All this is culturally instructive. Why the obsession with stomach-churning rebarbativity? In her book, ‘Powers of Horror: An essay on Abjection’, feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the dynamics of loathing. She explains how an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung causes ‘…the spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and muck.’
So we might ask, how is the deployment of this natural human response functioning in this popular TV show?
This year, the most interesting feature of the competition is the introduction of disgraced politician Matt Hancock into the show. He joins once the camp has been established, and people have begun to bond. When he arrives, the others regard one another with looks of (at best) bemusement and shock, and at worst outright hostility to his presence. In many ways, he is himself an abjection:
‘He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others…and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised and we held him of no account.’ (Isaiah 52)
It’s as though he has carried in with him all the sins of the Tory Government: their lying and law-breaking, guideline bending and ineptitude throughout the Covid pandemic and since. He is a repulsive, disruptive presence. Interestingly, Kristeva also points out that ‘It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience…Abjection is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady.’
Matt Hancock’s professed reason for taking part is to prove that he (and other politicians) are ‘human beings like everyone else’. Yet his performance isn’t convincing in that regard, for he excels at everything (apart from emotional intelligence). In his ability to focus on disgusting tasks and to power through them – in pursuit of popularity and his own self-interest (the two are coterminous) – we can see the evolutionary advantage of something primal – a kind of dissociation. Indeed, scheming and shady.
Under questioning from his camp-mates, he declares that he has written a book about the pandemic through which he tells ‘the truth’, and reminds us that there is also an enquiry underway that will get at ‘the truth’. Yet he doesn’t seem in the least bit haunted or mortified by the part he played in the global tragedy. The culmination of this scene sees him, with a hint of a tear in his eye saying, ‘What I am really after is a bit of forgiveness’. It’s hard to believe him (though one female participant offers him compassion). Chris Moyles is our wisdom figure in this moment: ‘I don’t buy it’, he muses to camera, ‘What does he want forgiveness for? Having an affair? Getting caught? Making mistakes?’ All good questions. Hancock believes it’s sufficient simply to declare, ‘I messed up, I ‘fessed up’. Apparently ‘falling in love’ was both the source and explanation for his downfall.
Julia Kristeva recalls Francis of Assisi and how he visited lepers and left only having kissed them on the mouth, having bathed their wounds, sponging pus and sores. She remarks, ‘A source of evil and mingled with sin, abjection becomes the requisite for a reconciliation, in the mind, between flesh and the law. It is at once what produces the disease, and the source of health, it is the poisoned cup in which man drinks death and putrefaction, and at the same time the fount of reconciliation.’
Perhaps this is the key to this year’s ‘I’m a Celebrity’. Matt Hancock is ‘the despised and rejected’, who has emerged from the beleaguered Tory Party to endure ritual discipline and punishment for the whole. He is the scapegoat; the lamb to the slaughter (though far from silent…he never stops talking). It’s a kind of penal substitution, but instead of ending up dead, he will redeem the Tories, restore a place for himself in people’s hearts, and secure healthy sales for his book.
He wants to hoodwink us all into that ‘little bit of forgiveness’, having done nothing to earn it. Dabbling in abjection is simply a disgusting diversionary tactic from the real horror show that is contemporary Britain. And to those who eschew them, I say that reality TV shows teach us more than we think.
General Secretary, Modern Church