The BBC have sacked Jeremy Clarkson and are now looking for a replacement. How are we to interpret this move? Does the immense, slightly baffling, popularity of the show rest upon Jeremy Clarkson or does the format go more toward explaining its success?
Removing the show from airing is often calling axing but after reading Ben Pitcher’s ‘The cultural politics of being a knob’ (2013) it seems all the more natural a development that the show not be ‘axed’ but rather dilute down further. The reason for this is that axing is a rather too direct move. Clarkson’s masculine prowess does not, according to Pitcher, arise from the male phallus. Top Gear is not a show where male desire, power and prowess are transferred onto the motor car. Rather his and Top Gear’s masculine power is diluted down and modified into a ‘knob’: the three are cocks, dicks and knobs, not signifiers of phallic power out-right. Instead this phallic power is directed not towards certain authority but their power comes from being disingenuous, the claims make toward any and every minority group is directed toward being wrong. The racism, homophobia, sexism and political backwardness expressed in Top Gear is a form of humour which pokes fun at the ‘serious person’ who believes in ‘all that PC nonsense’. As Pitcher (2013:61-62) points out, Clarkson is
“…not interested in being right, rather he’s simply interested in being a dick. Why? Because by being a dick you can be wrong and still get away with it.
This, surely, is one of the reasons why Top Gear has such a broad popular appeal. Cockish behaviour provides a way of refusing to act responsibly or to be held to account for one’s actions or opinions, despite the widespread recognition that they are wrong. Our culture does not permit the serious expression of racism, sexism or homophobia, and neither does Top Gear. The show’s comical opposition to ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness’ seeks to undermine rather than express authority. And yet in being penile rather than patrician, dickish rather than dominating, Top Gear’s anti-authoritarian ribbing is invested with a considerable degree of power. It gives its audience a means of identifying with illicit opinions and illiberal behaviours not by asserting them as rights (for rights can be challenged head-on), but as wrongs. Wrongs cannot be challenged because they do not ask to be taken seriously in the first place.”
The power of Top Gear resides then not in one knob per se, Clarkson, but rather what this ‘symbolic knob’ represents: the fantasy space for certain unspeakable desires to be articulated. While this is not to excuse Top Gear it does point out a poetic truth of irony: when all are ‘not being serious’ then any reproach draws out the indignity of the person reproaching. If you were to take Clarkson et. al. literally, to burst their fantasy bubble is akin to interrupting a Santa’s Grotto and shouting ‘he’s not real!’ – the parents, children and Santas helpers know the whole thing is ‘make believe’, so anyone pointing this out is the deviant who breaks the shared public secret. The joke becomes ‘on them’.
To read the sacking of Clarkson as symbolic castration, however, is too far. This is not the axing of Top Gear, it is the removal of an already diluted fantasy space. You cannot symbolically castrate that which is already symbolically castrated: Top Gear already is a nostalgic 1970s space which, instead of directly giving rise to these desires, packages them up into hour-long, bitesize chunks. To use Clarkson speak, Top Gear pretends to be the best male space ‘In the World’ but is not actualised ‘in this world’. So what the BBC’s move of sacking and replacing Clarkson should be read as is symbolic ‘symbolic castration’, the replacing of one knob with another. The ludicrous stories appearing around the BBC, such as death threats to Director General Tony Hall leading to ex-Special Forces protection and the barrage of abuse to producer Oisin Tymon on Twitter, tell us something about how invested people are in these fantasies. In many ways they could be read as a sort of collective form of mourning, a loss of an object petite a for the knob.
Pitcher, B. (2013) ‘The cultural politics of being a knob’, in P. Bennett and J. Mcdougall (eds.) Barthes’ Mythologies Today: Readings in Contemporary Culture. London: Routledge.