The collapse of the distinction between work and play is one of the hallmark symptoms of contemporary modes of existence under financial capitalism and their attendant labor-forms, mutating especially the relation of cultural production to classically defined forms of wage labor, not the least of which is the freighted status of the “culture industry” in an era in which turning to the Frankfurt School almost feels naively dialectical.
If underperformance continues its ascendancy as the aesthetic genre of the contemporary, entailing ever flatter registers of meandering through the everyday, reality television still works somewhat contrapuntally to its hegemony through a kind of foregrounded overperformance, not only in the emotional styles of its characters, but through the now banal camera style that structures it through rapid shots and the replacement of narrative with a set of atmospheric sound effects meant to cue the audience into whether something good or bad is happening (which, of course, could change melodramatically at any moment). Food reality shows, through their structural mimesis of the high-strung market of cooking in the chic restaurants of today’s global metropolises, offer an almost perfect confluence of passion, competition and monetization emblematic of high-octane, affective capitalism. Gordon Ramsay’s brand of angry realpolitik offers the chance at moving from obscurity to the top in a single season of television, but the price is nothing other than acquiescence to his signature orthopedics, a rigorous disciplinary apparatus with its characteristic yelling sprees in the kitchen.
In Master Chef Junior the apotheosis of the genre may have been reached. The show pits a group of 9-12 year old children against one another without substantially modifying the competition apparatus originally designed for adults. The sense of awe at the skill of these mostly prepubescent chefs is a ritual script for Ramsay and his two co-chefs, who seem to have nothing else to whilst the children are busy cooking other than expressing their surprise that child-chefs can handle the incredibly tasks they have been handed (the show overall effects an at least partially unintentional inversion of the normal adult-child hierarchy, with the seasoned chefs coming off as infantilized consumers). All this as if, of course, the adults were unaware that they are part of the mantle of the show that specifically designed the challenges.
The children, for their part, are the evidence that reality television has succeeded in a generational entrainment in affective genres of the performance of labor: 11 year olds are perfectly comfortable in their talking head interviews, interlacing retrospective commentary on their feelings and, above all, replicating the competitive narrative in which tensions between contestants must be endlessly analyzed and digested. Although the praise heaped upon the child-chefs’ dishes reaches nauseating registers in its work as an emotional prophylactic, seemingly most of the children cry at some point in every episode, something that is not downplayed despite seeming pornographically cruel. Which, of course, is the point.
Yet, something else is happening in Master Chef Junior. The preparation of children for the flexible labor market is organized–to increasing bipolar magnitudes in the restructuring of wealth distribution since the financial collapse of 2008–around both the affective labor of achieving excellence from a very young age (the youngest contestant, Sara, boasts in one episode that she’s been cooking “for 6 years”) and the latent threat of an endlessly transitive career in the service industry. The most recent episode puts the child-chefs through one of the signature challenges renowned for its brutal nature on the adult version of the show: a “restaurant takeover” of a posh downtown LA establishment in which the kids have to cook lunch service on their own, following the executive chef’s menu for a full house. The series does an outstanding job at defusing the obviousness of the children’s labor in general, but this episode particularly skillfully displaces the uncomfortable question about the child labor of kids 12 and under working in a professional restaurant during the lunch rush–for “fun,” moreover. There is no better training for future paid labor, we are seemingly told, than unpaid labor. Unpaid labor on television, too, which converts the labor into simulation until the point where nothing real is left underneath all the appearances.
Interns for a day, we might say, and under the watch of the culinary superego Ramsey, the two teams of child-chefs turn out a dramatically successful lunch service. The money shot comes when the diners in the front of the house, unaware that their expensive meals were prepared by youngsters, break out into applause and tears as the exhausted, but smiling children run out of the kitchen at the end of lunch.
The utterly convincing performance of competitive post-Fordist workplace drama by 9-12 year olds is captured in the rivalries of Sara, the youngest, whose spontaneous screaming and juvenile mania are rather uncomfortably balanced by her precise skill and abstract command of the competition. Sara has less trouble offering withering critiques of her male competitors, whom she is quite happy to try to strategically undermine when given the chance, than she does reaching the countertop in the kitchen. Yet, Sara ends up as one of the two child-chefs going home at the end of day after a particularly brutal rivalry with her two team members during lunch–one trying to micromanage her and the other, the team leader, failing to intervene. (At one point Sara complains in her talking-head interview that Gavin, in charge of their group, didn’t understand how to lead a team, while Neil, her rival, didn’t understand the difference between teamwork and individualism).
The child-chefs prove, week after week, not just that they can execute the labor of adult chefs, but that they can so expertly inhabit the affective registers of the managerial and office-culture of the contemporary cultural precariat that the end of modern, white, burgeois childhood, if only in its distinction from adulthood, is another effect of the contemporary era of capitalism and its mode of labor production.
To the extent that the full saturation of the everyday by cultural simulations of networked society constitutes its aesthetic, Master Chef Junior resists the temptation of so much Cultural Studies today to follow up critical attunement of the object to contemporary modes of existence with the somehow resistive or subversive element that would undo its structuration by the hegemonic. The child-chefs don’t “ultimately” resist the logic of flexible, unpaid labor to which they have submitted themselves as contestants. In this case, their hyperadherence and success do nothing other than generate surplus value–excessive performance or parody is not subversive of anything.
There is no refuge in the performance of childishness or childhood, either; the once sheltered period of American burgeois childhood is fully assimilated into the precariat that increasingly defines it, even in its privileged realms–think only of standardized testing in increasingly privatized public schools.