This week is the final of BBC’s Masterchef. Why am I writing about this on a blog about politics? Well I think the series, which has been consistently getting viewing figures of over 4.5 million, has rather a lot to tell us about culture. Oh how the middle classes scorned all those people for watching Big Brother, for following the lives of the rich and famous-for-no-apparent-reason in the tabloid press, and for wasting their money voting for winners on X factor. And yet now the liberal Islingtonians have their own little slice of the pie, as it were. A Pop Idol for the Guardianistas. I’m not just having a random pop at the middle classes here, mind. I think that the difference in response to these various programmes (as well as their content) says something about markets, about the media, and about how middle class people not only identify themselves, but also how they view the working class.
How many times do I have to watch someone making seared scallops, or serve some fish on a “bed of samphire”, because this seems to be mostly what they do on Masterchef. Am I ever going to get around to making my own tortelloni when Sainsbury’s does it for me? Apart from anything else, this programme, by its very form, is far more ridiculous than any of the other shows listed above. In X Factor I can actually hear the people singing, when I watch Big Brother I can see and hear what people’s personalities are like. But can I taste or smell the food on Masterchef? Of course not. Maybe they do make food that tastes great, but all I have to go on is some food critic-cum-Simon Cowell wannabe telling me about his palette.
There is often a feeling of blame for the lack of quality of objects the market turns out that is landed on the poor, on the working classes, on the everyday consumers rather than the producers. If only they had gained a tad more pretension through watching Masterchef and owned a little bottle of truffle oil all of their happy meals would be deemed acceptable. Maybe people need to be a little more honest that they watch shows like this for exactly the same reasons other people watch Big Brother, X factor, or the others: because of the format of the show, watching people cock up, watching the reactions of harsh judges, and feeling elated when the guy you support gets through. As much as many of the liberal Islingtonians or the yuppies will tell you that it’s to do with a genuine love of food, the reality of this TV is that the food only acts as a justification for them watching a show like this.
I’ve been reading around bits of Walter Benjamin recently, and think that he makes a good point in how he treats cultural products: that is, as products of a system rather than as the consequence of the demands of the consumer. He insists on that system being imbedded in the object, its defining feature throughout its history. We should remove the disdain for “those working class people who only like popular culture and are completely taken in by the market” and replace it with a disdain for a system that produces objects for the sole purpose of those objects being popular. There is nothing particularly working class about the adoration of the cultural products of capitalism, and capitalism isn’t exactly selective about who it dupes. Masterchef shows this to be true, and would suggest the belittling of the poor and the ill-educated is a defensive measure on behalf of the middle class whose identity is so unsure – pulled and pushed between demanding autonomy and still being ruled by commodities. This is why the middle classes are always “upwardly mobile” but never move anywhere.
I feel I’ve somehow come off the point of Masterchef somewhere along the way in this article, but that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing.