Imagine this historical scene, if you will. It is 1892, and you are up in the gallery at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, taking in an English burlesque. The people around you have just found out that Alice Leamar will not be performing her famed turn in Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay tonight, a high-kicking Can-Canesque number, very much the dance du jour. Your fellow audience members are none too pleased about this – they are shouting, and stamping the heels of their boots so loudly the whole theatre resounds with the noise. Most people in the expensive seats below look up in the direction of the gallery with a familiar blend of fear and loathing. The rough ‘gods’ up there are nearly always restless, more this time than usual. The uproar fulfils its purpose, though, because tomorrow night, Leamar’s act will be reinstated: the ‘gods’ will have their way (Bulletin, 1 October 1892).
Another scene now, this time at the Newtown Bridge Theatre in Sydney, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. A comedian is trying a new routine for the crowd, but no one seems much impressed so far. A few discontented rumbles begin at first – ‘I want to go home’, says one wag, and then another – and soon these gain momentum, so that almost everyone is caught up in an ecstasy of roisterous abuse. A burly ‘chucker out’ appears, trying to eject some of the loudest hecklers, and a fully-fledged punch-up ensues (Djubal 19, 23; Cheshire 86). Eventually, one or two men are made to leave – but so too is the hapless comedian, evicted by derisive howls from the stage.
The scenes I have just described show that audience interaction was a key feature in late-nineteenth century popular theatre, and in some cases even persisted into the following century. Obviously, there was no formal voting mechanism used during these performances à la contemporary shows like Idol. But rowdy practises amounted to a kind of audience ‘vote’ nonetheless, through which people decided those entertainers they wanted to see and those they emphatically did not. In this paper, I intend to use these bald parallels between Victorian audience practices and new-millennium viewer-voting to investigate claims about the links between democracy and plebiscitary entertainment.
The rise of voting for pleasure in televised contests and online polls is widely attended by debate about democracy (e.g. Andrejevic; Coleman; Hartley, “Reality”). The most hyped commentary on this count evokes a teleological assumption – that western history is inexorably moving towards direct democracy. This view becomes hard to sustain when we consider the extent to which the direct expression of audience views was a feature of Victorian popular entertainment, and that these participatory practices were largely suppressed by the turn of the twentieth century. Old audience practices also allow us to question some of the uses of the term ‘direct democracy’ in new media commentary. Descriptions of voting for pleasure as part of a growth towards direct democracy are often made to celebrate rather than investigate plebiscitary forms. They elide the fact that direct democracy is a vexed political ideal. And they limit our discussion of voting for leisure and fun. Ultimately, arguing back and forth about whether viewer-voting is democratic stops us from more interesting explorations of this emerging cultural phenomenon.
‘To a degree that would be unimaginable to theatregoers today’, says historian Robert Allen, ‘early nineteenth-century audiences controlled what went on at the theatre’. The so-called ‘shirt-sleeve’ crowd in the cheapest seats of theatrical venues were habitually given to hissing, shouting, and even throwing objects in order to evict performers during the course of a show. The control exerted by the peanut-chomping gallery was certainly apparent in the mid-century burlesques Allen writes about (55). It was also apparent in minstrel, variety and music hall productions until around the turn of the century. Audience members in the galleries of variety theatres and music halls regularly engaged in the pleasure of voicing their aesthetic preferences. Sometimes comic interjectors from among them even drew more laughs than the performers on stage. ‘We went there not as spectators but as performers’, as an English music-hall habitué put it (Bailey 154). In more downmarket venues such as Sydney’s Newtown Bridge Theatre, these participatory practices continued into the early 1900s.
Boisterous audience practices came under sustained attack in the late-Victorian era. A series of measures were taken by authorities, theatre managers and social commentators to wrest the control of popular performances from those in theatre pits and galleries. These included restricting the sale of alcohol in theatre venues, employing brawn in the form of ‘chuckers out’, and darkening auditoriums, so that only the stage was illuminated and the audience thus de-emphasised (Allen 51–61; Bailey 157–68; Waterhouse 127, 138–43). They also included a relentless public critique of those engaging in heckling behaviours, thus displaying their ‘littleness of mind’ (Age, 6 Sep. 1876).
The intensity of attacks on rowdy audience participation suggests that symbolic factors were at play in late-Victorian attempts to enforce decorous conduct at the theatre. The last half of the century was, after all, an era of intense debate about the qualities necessary for democratic citizenship. The suffrage was being dramatically expanded during this time, so that it encompassed the vast majority of white men – and by the early twentieth century, many white women as well. In Australia, the prelude to federation also involved debate about the type of democracy to be adopted. Should it be republican? Should it enfranchise all men and women; all people, or only white ones? At stake in these debates were the characteristics and subjectivities one needed to possess before being deemed capable of enfranchisement.
To be worthy of the vote, as of other democratic privileges, one needed to be what Toby Miller has called a ‘well-tempered’ subject at the turn of the twentieth century (Miller; Joyce 4). One needed to be carefully deliberative and self-watching, to avoid being ‘savage’, ‘uncivilised’, emotive – all qualities which riotous audience members (like black people and women) were thought not to possess (Lake). This is why the growing respectability of popular theatre is so often considered a key feature of the modernisation of popular culture. Civil and respectful audience behaviours went hand in hand with liberal-democratic concepts of the well-tempered citizen.
Working-class culture in late nineteenth-century England has famously (and notoriously) been described as a ‘culture of consolation’: an escapist desire for fun based on a fatalistic acceptance of under-privilege and social discrimination (Jones). This idea does not do justice to the range of hopes and efforts to create a better society among workingpeople at the time. But it still captures the motivation behind most unruly audience behaviours: a gleeful kind of resistance or ‘culture jamming’ which viewed disruption and uproar as ends in themselves, without the hope that they would be productive of improved social conditions.
Whether or not theatrical rowdiness served a solely consolatory purpose for the shirt-sleeve crowd, it certainly evoked a sharp fear of disorderly exuberance in mainstream society. Anxieties about violent working-class uprisings leading to the institution of mob rule were a characteristic of the late-nineteenth century, often making their way into fiction (Brantlinger). Roisterous behaviours in popular theatres resonated with the concerns expressed in works such as Caesar’s Column (Donnelly), feeding on a long association between the theatre and misrule. These fears obviously stand in stark contrast to the ebullient commentary surrounding interactive entertainment today. Over-oxygenated rhetoric about the democratic potential of cyberspace was of course a feature of new media commentary at the beginning of the 1990s (for a critique of such rhetoric see Meikle 33–42; Grossman). Current helium-giddy claims about digital technologies as ‘democratising’ reprise this cyberhype (Andrejevic 12–15, 23–8; Jenkins and Thornburn).
One recent example of upbeat talk about plebiscitary formats as direct democracy is John Hartley’s contribution to the edited collection, Politicotainment (Hartley, “Reality”). There are now a range of TV shows and online formats, he says, which offer audiences the opportunity to directly express their views. The development of these entertainment forms are part of a movement towards a ‘direct open network’ in global media culture (3). They are also part of a macro historical shift: a movement ‘down the value chain of meaning’ which has taken place over the past few centuries (Hartley, “Value Chain”).
Hartley’s notion of a ‘value chain of meaning’ is an application of business analysis to media and cultural studies. In business, a value chain is what links the producer/originator, via commodity/distribution, to the consumer. In the same way, Hartley says, one might speak of a symbolic value chain moving from an author/producer, via the text, to the audience/consumer. Much of western history may indeed be understood as a movement along this chain. In pre-modern times, meaning resided in the author. The Divine Author, God, was regarded as the source of all meaning. In the modern period, ‘after Milton and Johnson’, meaning was located in texts. Experts observed the properties of a text or other object, and by this means discovered its meaning. In ‘the contemporary period’, however – the period roughly following the Second World War – meaning has overwhelming come to be located with audiences or consumers (Hartley, “Value Chain” 131–35). It is in this context, Hartley tells us, that the plebiscite is coming to the fore. As a means of allowing audiences to directly represent their own choices, the plebiscite is part of a new paradigm taking shape, as global culture moves away from the modern epoch and its text-dominated paradigm (Hartley, “Reality” 1–3).
Talk of a symbolic value chain is a self-conscious example of the logic of business/cultural partnership currently circulating in neo-liberal discourse. It is also an example of a teleological understanding of history, through which the past few centuries are presented as part of a linear progression towards direct democracy. This teleology works well with the up-tempo talk of television as ‘democratainment’ in Hartley’s earlier work (Hartley, Uses of Television). Western history is essentially a triumphant progression, he implies, from the Dark Ages, to representative democracy, to the enlightened and direct ‘consumer democracy’ unfolding around us today (Hartley, “Reality” 47).
Teleological assumptions are always suspect from an historical point of view. For a start, casting the modern period as one in which meaning resided overwhelmingly in the text fails to consider the culture of popular performance flourishing before the twentieth century. Popular theatrical forms were far more significant to ordinary people of the nineteenth century than the notions of empirical or textual analysis cultivated in elite circles. Burlesques, minstrel-shows, music hall and variety productions all took a playful approach to their texts, altering their tone and content in line with audience expectations (Chevalier 40). Before the commercialisation of popular theatre in the late-nineteenth century, many theatricals also worked in a relatively open-ended way. At concert saloons or ‘free-and-easies’ (pubs where musical performances were offered), amateur singers volunteered their services, stepping out from the audience to perform an act or two and then disappearing into it again (Joyce 206). As a precursor to TV talent contests and ‘open mic’ comedy sessions today, many theatrical managers held amateur nights in which would-be professionals tried their luck before a restless crowd, with a contract awarded to performers drawing the loudest applause (Watson 5). Each of these considerations challenge the view that open participatory networks are the expression of an historical process through which meaning has only recently come to reside with audiences and consumers.
Another reason for suspecting teleological notions about democracy is that it proceeds as if Foucauldian analysis did not exist. Characterising history as a process of democratisation tends to equate democracy with openness and freedom in an uncritical way. It glosses over the fact that representative democracy involved the repression of directly participatory practices and unruly social groups. More pertinently, it ignores critiques of direct democracy. Even if there are positive aspects to the re-emergence of participatory practices among audiences today, there are still real problems with direct democracy as a political ideal.
It would be fairly easy to make the case that rowdy Victorian audiences engaged in ‘direct democratic’ practices during the course of a variety show or burlesque. The ‘gods’ in Victorian galleries exulted in expressing their preferences: evicting lack-lustre comics and demanding more of other performers. It would also be easy to valorise these practices as examples of the kind of culture-jamming I referred to earlier – as forms of resistance to the tyranny of well-tempered citizenship gaining sway at the time. Given the often hysterical attacks directed at unruly audiences, there is an obvious satisfaction to be had from observing the reinstatement of Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay at Her Majesty’s Theatre, or in the pleasure that working-class audiences derived from ‘calling the tune’.
The same kind of satisfaction is not to be had, however, when observing direct democracy in action on YouTube, or during a season of Dancing with the Stars, or some other kind of plebiscitary TV. The expression of audience preferences in this context hardly carries the subversive connotations of informal evictions during a late-Victorian music-hall show. Viewer-voting today is indeed dominated by a rhetoric of partnership which centres on audience participation, rather than a notion of opposition between producers and audiences (Jenkins). The terrain of plebiscitary entertainment is very different now from the terrain of popular culture described by Stuart Hall in the 1980s – let alone as it stood in the 1890s, during Alice Leamar’s tour. Most commentary on plebiscitary TV avoids talk of ‘cultural struggle’ (Hall 235) and instead adopts a language of collaboration and of people ‘having a ball’ (Neville; Hartley, “Reality” 3).
The extent to which contemporary plebiscites are managed by what Hartley calls the ‘plebiscitary industries’ evokes one of the most powerful criticisms made against direct democracy. That is, it evokes the view that direct democracy allows commercial interests to set the terms of public participation in decision-making, and thus to influence its outcomes (Barber 36; Moore 55–56). There is obviously big money to be made from plebiscitary TV. The advertising blitz which takes place during viewer-voting programs, and the vote-rigging scandals so often surrounding them make this clear. These considerations highlight the fact that public involvement in a plebiscitary process is not something to make a song and dance about unless broad involvement first takes place in deciding the issues open for determination by plebiscite, and the way in which these issues are framed. In the absence of this kind of broad participation, engagement in plebiscitary forms serves a solely consolatory function, offering the pleasures of viewer-voting as a substitute for substantive involvement in cultural creation and political change.
Another critique sometimes made against direct democracy is that it makes an easy vehicle for prejudice (Barber 36–7). This was certainly the case in Victorian theatres, where it was common for Anglo gallery-members to heckle female and non-white performers in an intimidatory way. A group of American vaudeville performers called the Cherry Sisters certainly experienced this phenomenon in the early 1900s. The Cherry Sisters were defiantly unglamorous middle-aged women in a period when female performers were increasingly expected to display scantily-clad youthful figures on stage. As a consequence, they were embroiled in a number of near-riots in which male audience members hurled abuse and heavy objects from the galleries, and in some cases chased them into the street to physically assault them there (Pittinger 76–77). Such incidents give us a glimpse of the dark face of direct democracy. In some cases, the direct expression of popular views becomes an attack on diversity, leading to the kind of violent mêlée experienced either by the Cherry Sisters or the Middle Eastern people attacked on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach at the end of 2005.
‘Democracy’ is always an obviously politically loaded term when used in debates about new media. It is frequently used to imply that particular cultural or technological forms are inherently liberatory and inclusive. As Graeme Turner points out, reality TV has been celebrated as ‘democratic’ in this way. Only rarely, however, is there an attempt to argue why this is the case – to show how viewer-voting formats actually serve a democratic agenda. It was for this reason that Turner argued that the inclusion of ordinary people on reality TV should be understood as demotic rather than democratic (Turner, Understanding Celebrity 82–5; Turner, “Mass Production”). Ultimately, however, it is immaterial whether one uses the term ‘demotic’ or ‘direct democratic’ to describe the growth of plebiscitary entertainment. What is important is that we avoid making inflated claims about the direct expression of audience views, using the term ‘democratic’ to give an unduly celebratory spin to the political complexities involved.
People may indeed be having a ball as they take part in online polls or choose what they want to watch on YouTube or shout at the TV during an episode of Idol. The ‘participatory enthusiasm’ that fans feel watching a show like Big Brother may also have lessons for those interested in making parliamentary process more responsive to people’s interests and needs (Coleman 458). But the development of plebiscitary forms is not inherently democratic in the sense that Turner suggests the term should be used – that is, it does not of itself serve a liberatory or socially inclusive agenda. Nor does it lead to substantive participation in cultural and political processes.
In the end, it seems to me that we need to move beyond the discussion of plebiscitary entertainment in terms of democracy. The whole concept of democracy as the yardstick against which new media should be measured is highly problematic. Not only is direct democracy a vexed political ideal to start off with – it also leads commentators to take predictable positions when debating its relationship to new technologies and cultural forms. Some turn to hype, others to critique, and the result often appears as a mere restatement of the commentators’ political inclinations rather than a useful investigation of the developments at hand.
Some of the most intriguing aspects of plebiscitary entertainments are left unexplored if we remain preoccupied with democracy. One might well investigate the re-introduction of studio audiences and participatory audience practices, for example, as a nostalgia for the interactivity experienced in live theatres such as the Newtown Bridge in the early twentieth century. It certainly seems to me that a retro impulse informs some of the developments in televised stand-up comedy in recent years. This was obviously the case for Paul McDermott’s The Side Show on Australian television in 2007, with its nod to the late-Victorian or early twentieth-century fairground and its live-theatrical vibe. More relevantly here, it also seems to be the case for American viewer-voting programs such as Last Comic Standing and the Comedy Channel’s Open Mic Fight. Further, reviews of programs such as Idol sometimes emphasise the emotional engagement arising out of their combination of viewer-voting and live performance as a harking-back to the good old days when entertainment was about being real (Neville). One misses this nostalgia associated with plebiscitary entertainments if bound to a teleological assumption that they form part of an ineluctable progression towards the New and the Free. Perhaps, then, it is time to pay more attention to the historical roots of viewer-voting formats, to think about the way that new media is sometimes about a re-invention of the old, trying to escape the recurrent back-and-forthing of debate about their relationship to progress and democracy.