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Box Of Changes
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“Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing,” Ovid

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My wife and I recently found ourselves between homes, and staying for a month in a friend’s room while they visited family in Australia. This saw us, for the first time in ten years, in proxy-possession of a television, and we discovered that, in the intermediary decade, two veins of programming appeared to have especially asserted themselves.

One of these, and the more banal of the two (so we won’t linger on it for long), were those shows which celebrate/exploit/promote the more Fascistic tendencies in our (if you will) Apocalyptic Neoliberalism, as exemplified by the UK version of Cops, a programme apparently specifically designed to thrill the authoritarian and terrify everyone else.

Exhibit A: An unarmed black guy is repeatedly tasered by a pair of police while he screams for mercy. Cut to: a series of talking heads (all police), including the two sadists just seen in action, all of them cruel-looking mediocrities carved from the lamest Saxon meat, answering the jaw-dropping question: “When you were a kid playing cowboys and Indians, which one would you be?” All six police (five geezers and a scary lesbian), answered “cowboy,” not once forgetting to lick their lips for a stray spot of brown blood.

(It is quite possible, of course, that Cops happens to be stitched together by satirical wizards, but the prevailing message remains – this is how the modern police act with cameras pointing at them.)

Moving on – circuitously – to the other vein of programming…

While I may not have had a telly for a while, I haven’t been living on the moon, or even a foreign country, and so have obviously registered the successive crazes for ‘reality’ shows that seem to have almost ceaselessly swept up the GBP. I was slightly less, prepared, however, for the sheer extent of food programming available to the modern viewer.

I started out with mixed feelings here. On the one hand, cooking has always struck me as a sort of fallen or failed art, especially when it came its crude and comically ephemeral aesthetic payola: taste. On the other hand, taste is the very thing denied – surreally, bewilderingly denied – to the viewer of food programming, making way for a celebration of colour, texture, nature and artistry seen nowhere else in popular culture.

Masterchef, meanwhile, which I’d barely heard mention of before but obviously combined the national gastronomic obsession with the ‘reality’ format, captivated me.

Not to worry – I have no intention of using this space merely to extol the virtues of such a popular show, but rather to share a miniature revelation I enjoyed while watching its uniformly gifted contestants develop their abilities, while the ingredients they handled were transformed in turn.

In the tacit analogy between the two processes, and correspondingly between ‘food’ and ‘reality’ programming, I realised that television, in my protracted absence, had discovered its appropriate domain: metamorphosis.

Great sources of wisdom, from the I-Ching to Herodotus, Ovid to Nietzsche, have long considered flux to be both the definitive aspect of existence. From the macro to micro, ‘everything changes’ – form follows form in a way that is both chartable yet irreducible. (Cooking, with its infinite versatility and internal logic, is a perfect example, should you require one.)

Television’s special capacity to register and render metamorphosis was embryonically apparent, I would suggest, in those clichéd shots of budding flowers, growing trees, and other such spectacles the naked eye could never perceive. Since then, however, the manufacturers of our programmes have cottoned on to the wider phenomenon – such as its occurrence in the lives of individuals, whether in the grip of some kind of cure (psychological and/or physical), or some kind of cultivation of the spirit: the cycles of struggle and success undergone by anyone that’s ever seriously set themselves a goal, for example, and the narrative effects that unfailingly manifest themselves in the course of any great effort.

Incrementally, television has not only identified these mysterious and profound spiritual processes, but has also learnt how to exacerbate, accelerate and even outright incarnate them within its rectangular microscope. Those shows that, before our very eyes, turn mortals (normal people) into immortals (celebrities) being the most dangerous, powerful and morally ambivalent of these invoked metamorphoses – but all the other shows I caught in which this essence was replicated (from Obese, A year to Save my Life to The Hardest Place to Be A…) were carefully benevolent. These condensed illustrations of the tacit benevolence of our universe rarely left my wife and I with dry eyes.

It was good to move though.

As another bard puts it,

Meantime life goes on outside all around you.

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