The Jersey Shore, MTV’s latest pop-cultural sensation which purports to reveal the ways of East Coast “Guidos” and “Guidettes,” also exposes the ways of neoliberal economics.
To anyone living outside the northeastern United States, MTV’s The Jersey Shore, the cable network’s latest reality-television offering, is an encounter with the strange and unfamiliar. In my own experience as someone born in the Rust Belt, reared in the Midwest and educated in the Southwest, seldom did I encounter so-called “Guidos” and “Guidettes.” I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with “Guido” stereotypes; they were just rather remote from my experience — until I moved to New England, that is. Here the landscape crawls with Guidos. One can usually find them on the main drag of my neighborhood, leaning on Katana bikes and menacing popped-collared Ivy Leaguers. Or one can find them at the beach, again leaning against said Katana bikes.
Casually observing Guidos while conducting my own life’s business revealed to me nearly nothing about their folkways. MTV’s The Jersey Shore therefore held for me all the exotic appeal of an ethnographic document. Yet I have to say that after having watched the entire season run the show disappointed rather than satisfied my curiosity. The Guido demimonde does have its peculiarities (the impression I got of it is that of traditional family-centered Italian-American culture to which elements of hip-hop culture have been superadded), but these were relatively minor, and ultimately incidental, compared to the actual premise of the show, which seems to be: find people who like to drink, screw and fight; put them in a position to drink, screw and fight; and then film them drinking, screwing and fighting. This premise certainly holds some amusement value, but only so much. In fact, I found myself forgetting that the reason I was watching the show was to glimpse the unique customs of East Coast Guidos and Guidettes, because the incidents and escapades the show’s subjects found themselves in I found immediately — and depressingly — familiar.
I remain unsure whether The Jersey Shore‘s producers wished to elicit the viewing audience’s contempt for their featured Guido and Guidette subjects. Narcissistic, aggressive, incontinently foul-mouthed, almost sociopathically inconsiderate, they had a hard time winning this viewer’s sympathy. Then again, these qualities of theirs that repulsed me I have encountered in people other than Guidos, people who have likely never set foot on the eastern seaboard. In the Southwest, for instance, I’ve seen people just as deplorable as those of The Jersey Shore, it’s just that their conduct is in a mellower key. Being laid back, westerners’ signal characteristic, can often come off as just a sun-kissed kind of passive aggressiveness.
But what struck me most forcefully about the guys and gals of The Jersey Shore was how joylessly they went about their hedonism. Between Ronnie and Mike “The Situation” — a nickname that indiscriminately applies to a) Mike, b) Mike’s toned abs or c) just about any impending set of circumstances of indeterminate pleasurable promise (a quintessential floating signifier!) — two alpha-male housemates whose testosterone-fueled pas de deux is one of the more interesting things about the show (no doubt later in life Ronnie and Mike will end up lovers — a situation indeed!), talk frequently turns to the subject of “pounding out” women they meet in nightclubs or on the boardwalk.
Getting a woman’s attention represents but one stage in the night’s business of eventual joyless pneumatics — like putting a sedan on the lift and poking its underside.
I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what this activity of “pounding out” involves. Suffice it to say, however, that what most remarkable is not the activity associated with the expression so much as the expression itself. “Pounding out” to me suggests activity one engages in not because one wants to, but because one has to. And this expression is fairly emblematic of the peculiar spirit of The Jersey Shore. The pursuit of pleasure on the show has a strangely workmanlike cast to it. One witnesses this in Ronnie, Mike and their Guido housemates Vinny and Pauly D. (whose name readies him for the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I’m convinced he’s fated to attend). Their approach to an evening’s clubbing closely resembles a contractor’s approach to a construction project or a plumber’s approach to a stopped toilet. The show’s Guidos come off as too detached, too pragmatic, too metacritical to persuade one that they are absorbed in the moment. For them the thrill, at once nerve-wracking and exhilarating, of meeting someone to whom one’s attracted seems beside the point. Getting a woman’s attention represents but one stage in the night’s business of eventual joyless pneumatics — like putting a sedan on the lift and poking its underside. These Guidos seem wholly uninterested in courtship as lived experience. To them it’s a game, or, perhaps more accurately, the expected work of leisure.
It was this air of unsentimental sexual pragmatism that eventually got me hooked on the show. Indeed, I quickly came to forget the original reason why I tuned in: to glimpse the unfamiliar ways and deeds of East Coast Guidos. Whatever sets The Jersey Shore cast apart as a representatives of a particular American subculture I came to consider irrelevant, because, fundamentally, they showed themselves to be more creatures of their historical moment than of their region of habitation. Perhaps accidents of geography did add something to the mix. A strange intensity attends the Guido and Guidettes’ activities, it’s true, and maybe their distinction rests solely on this. Such intensity remains, however, a difference in degree, not in kind. They embodied a certain more or less universal ethic, and simply expressed it their own uptempo way. This ethic I can’t help but think binds the cast of The Jersey Shore to their generation. They are ultimately less Guidos and Guidettes than they are sexual neoliberals.
Now, by “sexual neoliberals” I don’t mean people who have affirmed anew a spirit of broad tolerance for things connubial, but people who have internalized certain principles that, though they first found articulation in another social register, have found wider application through having been transformed into a general disposition. The best definition of neoliberalism I’ve read comes from theorist and economic geographer David Harvey, whose 2005 book A Brief History of Neoliberalism anyone interested in understanding current conditions must read. Harvey writes:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.
If one aspect of human well-being is sexual fulfillment, then the individual seeking sexual fulfillment must be liberated in order to engage in the enterprise of seeking this fulfillment, even if it means liberation from conventions and norms governing sexual behavior. Mike “The Situation,” perhaps the worst offender in this respect, sets about finding partners of the opposite sex in a textbook neoliberal manner. He patrols the boardwalk and nightclubs for willing women. When he finds some, he squires them to the beach house he shares with Ronnie, Vinny, Pauly D., and also the show’s Guidettes — Sammi, JWoww, Snooki and Angelina. Once at the beach house, he plies his fair charges with booze and soaks with them in a hot tub.
Yet Mike, ever vigilant, doesn’t content himself with the ladies he’s just brought to the house. Every so often he sneaks away from his hosting duties to scan the boardwalk from the beach house’s second-story balcony. Whenever he spot prospects more appealing than the ones he currently has in the house he slides downstairs to the street and invites his new discoveries into the house. Often these new discoveries know that Mike has already had women in, having heard them cavorting in the rooftop hot tub. If these new discoveries intimate they are unfazed by this knowledge, Mike offers to kick out the women he’s already invited in. But if these new discoveries demur, Mike oh so subtly rejoins the festivities, acting as if his overtures to the women he spotted on the boardwalk never happened.
Mike employs this stratagem more than a few times during the course of The Jersey Shore’s run. Eventually I came to realize precisely what Mike was up to: He was trying to establish a hedge position. As if concerned that his current assets could possibly underperform, Mike felt the need to diversify. This of course presented some risk, as the change in his position, done too obviously or abruptly, could make his current assets disappear. Thus, if the more appealing investments he spots on the boardwalk prove unpromising, he can always retreat to his original position. Perhaps this is the ultimate meaning of his nickname, “The Situation.”
To me, very little distinguishes Mike’s romantic maneuverings from Goldman Sachs’ behavior in finance markets.
To me, very little distinguishes Mike’s romantic maneuverings from Goldman Sachs’ behavior in finance markets. What difference is there, for instance, between Mike’s surreptitiously approaching women other than the ones he’s entertaining in his beach house and Goldman Sachs’s dealing with the Greece’s bond market, in which the firm gave Greece financial advice while at the same time short selling Greek bonds? Fucking or finance, it’s all the same — just business. I’m reminded of that famous passage in The Communist Manifesto wherein Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declare:
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Of course, The Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” and Goldman Sachs lend these prophetic words a more pessimistic air than their authors likely intended. Constant flux and upheaval do indeed compel people to face the real conditions of their lives. But what are these, exactly? If one is to follow the example of Mike “The Situation” or Goldman Sachs, these real conditions would seem to be those of thoroughgoing reification of human individuals and inexorable instrumental rationality. Money is how one gets rich, women how one gets off. The sad economism of everyday life. Markets in everything.
Truly, then, one may declare ours a consummately neoliberal age. What was once simply a set of economic principles has metastasized into a dominant ideology, a hegemonic worldview that shapes and choreographs even the most seemingly insignificant transactions of its unwitting subjects. This is Mike “The Situation’s” situation — and everyone else’s as well.
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