Once again, this year’s Ramadan TV series provoked public conversations about a wide range of social, political and aesthetic issues, including an increased interest in psychodrama and mental health, an overabundance of gated communities, a perpetuation of neoliberal discourses, a questionable invisibility of subaltern populations, and an emergence of a new breed of ethical and concerned, screen-friendly cops. At the core of all these issues lies the dominant, controversial yet under-discussed position of television in popular visual culture and its central role in representing, or better yet constructing, the nation’s reality.
Interrogating the relationship between reality and representation is certainly not new. It has been at the heart of art-making, aesthetics, art history and cultural studies for centuries, and is sometimes disguised in the form of basic rhetorical questions we all find ourselves asking in front of our screens, such as “Where are those places?”, “Who talks like that?” and of course the infamous “Is this Egypt?”
But beyond nationalist pride and aside from the specific scope and characteristics of television as a medium of popular culture, one way of looking at art historically, particularly visual art, is to see it as a succession of attempts to define and challenge its own relationship to reality as we experience it.
For example, what did the invention of perspective in visual art do except perfect the representation of reality, and therefore bring painting closer to it? And what defines neorealism if not its critique of the elitism of non-realistic movements that disregard the reality within which art is produced — and indeed of any realism that does not depict the conditions of the working class? And what lay underneath the surrealists’ condemnation of realism, and their interest in tapping into the imagination and unconscious other than a frustration with the limitations – and futility – of mimicking reality?
In Egypt, as elsewhere, debates around representation have always taken a moral turn centered around the question of whether art should mimic reality or construct a refined version of it, a version delineated by the limits of public decency and therefore acceptable to the conservative spectator. Whenever a minor shock — such as a scene that alludes to a same-sex relationship, yet remains far from condoning it — provokes a wave of criticism from the self-appointed guardians of morality, the director or producer immediately responds that “these are namazeg (types) found in society,” as if the existence of a real source for a representation is the only legitimate grounds for it.
My question here is not the degree to which the representations in TV series correspond to reality, but rather why it matters — or more precisely, what is at stake when we talk about representation? Attempting to answer this involves reconsidering the strict dichotomy of “reality” and “representation” to ask if we can still see them as distinctly separate notions.
The abundant production and consumption of images has already forced us to transcend static definitions of reality and representation, and question both the borders of the real and the possibility of an image-free way of relating to reality. In a world in which we are getting further away from physical experience, as it has been both replaced and mediated by images flowing from films, series, commercials, YouTube, Instagram and so on, can we still think of TV series – or any images for that matter – as representations of reality?
It is not uncommon for us to heavily quote films and series in our everyday conversations. Dramatic images become references for realities we have never experienced. When we see a huge car accident, or go through any remarkably exceptional visual experience, we often say “it was like a movie.” This is why it is perhaps more accurate to think of TV series not as representations but rather as visual realities of their own, or better yet as part of a hyperreality where the notions of “true” and “false” or “real” and “imaginary” are no longer applicable. What we see on television is a form of reality that merges with any other reality that exists beyond it, producing a new site where traditional distinctions no longer apply.
This explains, partially, why visual culture is so important in cultural studies, and why those concerned with gender, queer, postcolonial studies, or other forms of identity politics, are so interested in problematic representations and their deconstruction It also explains the sheer amount of studies dedicated to analyzing television programming in particular, given that the scope of its spectatorship renders it a perfect medium for understanding the structures of power in a society, and accordingly a site of politics par excellence.
This site is further complicated by the changing modes of producing and consuming images. The state is no longer the exclusive player in the production and distribution of TV series, as it was well into the 1990s. Back then, the state used TV as a medium for cultural education, for teaching people “the basics of morality and religious duty,” as Mamdouh al-Leithy, the former director of the Radio and Television Union’s film and serial production department tells Lila Abu-Lughod in her 2004 book Dramas of Nationhood. And if cultural education means shoving nationalism and patriarchy down our throats, Leithy was certainly right.
The role traditionally played by the state has been replaced by a more intricate and complex network of interests, and accordingly powers, that determine what is to be seen and what is not. The owners of these private production companies, advertising agencies and TV stations are mostly loyal allies to the state, but their interests are not necessarily identical to the state’s. What happened, for example, to the nationalist discourse in this year’s Ramadan TV series, given that it was TV that largely spearheaded the nationalist project in the 1980s and 1990s? It has not completely disappeared, but it has been subsumed to a neoliberal discourse that’s obvious in the aesthetic choices, plots and urban realities produced on screen.
But any attempt to illustrate this shift, or analyze representations in TV series in general without taking into consideration the context of their production, as well as evolving modes of spectatorship and consumption, would be reductive and incomplete. We do not watch TV series uninterrupted in a black box with a stereophonic surround system. We eat, chat, talk on the phone and watch commercials while we are watching them. What kind of reality is produced when we think of this image in its totality?
This is why the claim that subaltern populations were completely dismissed from the screen in this year’s series is not quite accurate. They were present, but either as “the help” dressed in clean beautiful uniforms in both houses and hotels, so that the sight of the bourgeois viewer is not disturbed with dirty rags or contemptible locations; or completely ejected to the realm of charity commercials where the same viewer can do something about them.
So is it the commercials that interrupt the TV series, or is it the drama that interrupts the commercials, the actual raison d’être for series in the first place? And what happens when the threshold that separates us as passive spectators from the moving images and sounds is disrupted? Instead of dismissing TV series as fake representations or inaccurate depictions of society altogether, can we think of them as part of a reality produced and consumed within a particular context?