Televisual Control: The Resistance of the Mockumentary – Wendy Davis


This paper argues that television articulates an operation of power that can be usefully conceptualised through the Deleuzian notion of control. Drawing on the writings of Gilles Deleuze and other French philosophers, the paper examines television’s cultural and technological force through the notion of control with specific reference to the television mockumentary. Through a discussion of the Australian mockumentary We Can Be Heroes (Chris Lilley 2005) the paper also outlines the capacity of television to offer opportunities of resistance to its operations of control. Beginning with an acknowledgement of Deleuze’s position on the role of television (cf short essays 1995a; 1995b, 1995c), this paper proposes that televisual control holds the potential for a mode of “inhabited resistance”. Exploring the mockumentary television mode and its theorisation, the paper develops the concept of inhabited resistance to describe a complicit, pragmatic and creative formation of resistance. This type of resistance works from within the televisual operations of control. Generated from control and unable to escape it, the relation of control and inhabited resistance assists in describing the formation and practice of the television mockumentary as an idiosyncratic and particular televisual form.


Written and performed by Australian comedian Chris Lilley, We Can Be Heroes is a six part mockumentary first screening in Australia on the ABC television network in 2005. Following the stories of five characters who have each been nominated for the annual Australian of the Year awards, We Can Be Heroes is a biting, blackly comic satire on contemporary Australian culture and values. Lilley plays each of the characters, and the series never strays from the strictly documentary style and aesthetic, which is a feature of the mockumentary. In this paper We Can Be Heroes is employed as an example illuminating television’s connection to the contemporary operation of power, described by Gilles Deleuze, as one of control (1995a; 1995b; 1995c). The particular resonance of the mockumentary with the quintessential television practices of documentation, observation and surveillance allows us to consider television’s operation of control: for the mockumentary explicitly calls into question television’s capacity to capture and broadcast real events. In this way, television mockumentary can be viewed as reflexively addressing the medium’s technological qualities. Connected to the spread of reality television, and with a common ancestry in documentary practice and technique, the mockumentary tells us much about the state of Western television in the early 21st century. In particular, it is in the mockumentary form that we can observe television’s potential to offer up formations of resistance to the operation of control, what I term here “inhabited resistance”. While the question of resistance in television studies can be seen as somewhat problematic, here I offer the concept of inhabited resistance to describe pragmatic, creative televisual practices and movements of resistance.[1]

The Age of the Mockumentary?

The mockumentary is now a recognisable and popular television style. As such, it invites further consideration both in terms of specific programs like We Can Be Heroes, as well as the way in which the television practice of mockumentary may be theorised. Looking back at the past few years of television production, we can observe an increase in the production of television mockumentaries. In Australia alone we have seen We Can Be Heroes and its later counterpart Summer Heights High (Chris Lilley 2007, ABC TV), as well as Frontline (Working Dog 1994–5, ABC TV; 1997), Kath and Kim (Jane Turner and Gina Riley 2002–4, ABC TV; 2007, Seven Network) and The Librarians (Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope 2007 ABC TV). Similarly, the form is evident overseas with Britain’s The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant 2001–2003, BBC TV), together with Arrested Development (Mitchell Hurwitz 2001–2003, Fox) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David 1999; 2000–-present, HBO) in the United States. These television mockumentaries have precedents in film, with productions such as Rob Reiner’s infamous This is Spinal Tap (1984, Embassy Pictures, USA), as well as the later works of Christopher Guest such as Best in Show (2000, Warner Brothers, USA), Waiting for Guffmann (1997, Sony Pictures, USA) and A Mighty Wind (2003, Warner Brothers, USA).

As its name suggests, the mockumentary is constructed using the documentary style, and it mocks both the characters and scenarios it presents, as well as documentary’s traditional, social, realist functions. These features have been summarised by John Corner as documentary’s ‘project of democratic civics’, its ‘journalistic inquiry’ mode, and ‘documentary as radical interrogation and alternative perspective’ (Corner 2002, 259). What happens when documentary becomes mockumentary is analysed at length by Roscoe and Hight (2001). They note that while the central function of the mockumentary is parody, there is an ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ambiguity’ to this parody, whereby the mockumentary generates both ‘contempt’ and ‘sympathy’ towards the object of its parody (2001, 30). They also observe that ‘parodic texts talk to a knowing viewer’, working as parody ‘only if we are familiar with the codes and conventions of documentary and its serious intent’ (2001, 31). Roscoe and Hight classify three levels of mockumentary. ‘Parody’ focuses on an aspect of popular culture rather than documentary practice (2001, 68). ‘Critique’ includes some critique of documentary practice (2001, 69) and ‘deconstruction’ involves a sustained critique of the documentary (2001, 72). Roscoe and Hight, in effect, are defining a genre, one that reflexively references the documentary through a comic practice. However, as well considering mockumentary in terms of genre, I would argue it is productive to consider it more broadly, as a television practice or style. This allows us to engage with a mockumentary series such as We Can Be Heroes in terms of what it demonstrates about the current field of television, not only in terms of content and genre, but also in terms of plays of force, power and the televisual mobilisation of resistance.

This perspective resonates with John Corner’s identification of a ‘postdocumentary’ culture of television (2002). In his essay, Corner observes that there has been a ‘radical dispersal of documentary energies across the schedules’ (2002, 263). We can understand mockumentaries (as comedies that utilise a documentary style) as connected to the radical dispersal Corner describes. While he does not specifically mention the mockumentary form, what he describes as the most recent transformation in documentary style – the ‘documentary as diversion’ (2002, 255-269) – connects strongly with We Can Be Heroes and other television mockumentaries. So as a fictional comedy, the veracity of We Can Be Heroes, as a truthful account of supposedly everyday Australian heroes, is not the source of its success or appeal. However, We Can Be Heroes also employs the aesthetic style of the documentary that Corner defines as ‘documentary as journalistic enquiry and exposition’ (2002, 259) with the structuring mode of ‘reporting’ where the camera functions as a ‘witness to visual evidence’ (Corner 2002, 259).

We Can Be Heroes is performed outside the traditional three camera sitcom studio, without a live audience or laugh track, instead using location shooting and thus coding its images with the authenticity associated with the documentary function. We Can Be Heroes also employs the unseen narrator typical of documentary, using the authoritative voiceover of well-known Australian journalist Jennifer Byrne to connect the stories of the five protagonists. It is this combination that produces We Can Be Heroes in the style of the mockumentary (rather than a traditional TV sitcom) and is arguably the source of its attraction for television audiences, as well as for television studies.

Corner’s description of the dispersal of documentary energy across the television schedule (2002), visible in the mockumentary form, is particularly relevant with regard to television’s operations of control. That is, what Corner describes as “documentary energy” (2002) can be understood as the disciplinary procedure of observation. As he notes in some earlier writing, ‘[t]he idea of unseen observation’ is ‘central to documentary aesthetics’ (Corner 1996, 85). In documentary’s journalistic, reporting mode the role of the television camera is to “impartially” observe incidents and occurrences, providing a record of them in audiovisual form.

Corner’s characterisation of such procedures as “energy” is particularly suggestive in terms of my present discussion. If, in the contemporary television landscape the documentary impulse to observe now operates as energy, it is potentially able to move and insert itself into various television styles and formats. This allows the observational, surveillance practice of the traditional documentary mode to infuse other genres and television practices. Thus, images and sounds are produced that might perform different functions, with different effects to those of the traditional mode of the documentary. In understanding the mockumentary as an adaptation of the documentary impulse for surveillance and observation, we can use the form as an example for discussing television’s technological operations of control, as well as its potential for offering a mode of inhabited resistance.

Television: A technology of control

The potential connection between television and control invites further investigation. In Deleuze’s discussion in ‘Letter to Serge Daney’ (1995a) he comments on the relationship between television and cinema, highlighting their differences through television’s operations of control. Together with some of Deleuze’s other short writings, this essay enables us to see more clearly the resonances between television and control under consideration here.

Deleuze defines the differences between television and film in this essay in terms of questions of form and function. Cinema is an aesthetic form, while, in comparison, TV is characterised by a social function: a consequence of its operations of control. As Deleuze describes: “TV’s social functions … stifle its potential aesthetic function. TV is, in its present form, the ultimate consensus: it’s direct social engineering, leaving no gap at all between itself and the social sphere, it’s social engineering in its purest form”. (1995a, 74) In his essay, Deleuze sees TV’s social engineering, and its capacity to intervene directly in the social sphere, as significantly endangering cinema’s viability as a cultural and artistic form. Indeed, Deleuze somewhat gloomily notes that ‘it’s from television that there comes the new threat of a death of cinema’ (1995a, 75). Deleuze explains that this is ‘[b]ecause television is the form in which the new powers of “control” become immediate and direct’ (1995a, 75).

To clarify just what Deleuze means when he signals the concept of control we can look to his ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ (1995b, 177-182). Here Deleuze describes the society of control, drawing points of distinction with the operation of disciplinary power. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s powerful analysis of discipline (1977), Deleuze (1995a, 1995b, 1995c) argues that a change in social formations of power can be observed with the contemporary operation of control. We could summarise Foucault’s project in terms of his detailed description of mechanisms of disciplinary power (surveillance, observation), which are visible in various modern institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals), and have the correlative effect of making visible the resistive practices of delinquency (1977).

It is important to realise that the relation between discipline and control is not characterised by opposition, or a linear transition from one form to the other. Rather, there is a connection and overlap between the two forms. As Brian Massumi notes, in the society of control, ‘disciplinary command functions are not dismantled, but rather released. They disseminate and vary, coming to be even more finely distributed throughout the social field’ (1998, 56). Control, then, might be characterised as the intensive dispersal of particular disciplinary operations. Specifically, Deleuze discusses control through its transformed operations of force, its smoothing of boundaries, and as a mode of capitalism and production. More significantly, Deleuze’s comments also act as a starting point for formulating the concept of inhabited resistance which connects strongly with the television form of the mockumentary. In this paper, I consider how television can be understood as a technology of control in terms of these qualities. This grounds my discussion of how control is evident in the television mockumentary, as well as the potential realised in this form for inhabited resistance to televisual control.

Control operates through what Deleuze describes as processes of ‘modulation’ (1995b, 179). He observes how, ‘[c]ontrol is short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded, whereas discipline was long-term, infinite and discontinuous’ (Deleuze 1995b, 181). As Rodowick points out, here we can see a “wave-like” conception of force emerging, ‘[w]here the idea of waves or currents becomes the dominant conception of force’ (2001, 208). Hence, Deleuze’s observation that controls, in contrast to discipline, ‘are a modulation, like a self-transmuting molding continually changing from one moment to the next’ (1995b, 179).

This image of continual modulation is crystallised in Deleuze’s metaphor: [s]urfing has taken over from all the old sports’ (1995b, 180), a description that articulates the undulations and modulations of the operations of force in the control society. Clearly, there is a resonance that can be observed between control’s characteristics of force and television’s operations as a technology. Given television’s constitutive technical processes of scanning and transmission, Deleuze’s association of television with control would seem to be appropriate. Modulation and waves are also apt descriptions of the way the technology transmits a fluctuating stream of images and information. And in this technical description we find a resonance with the technological concept of liveness, as well as TV’s capacity to observe and broadcast “real” events, seemingly as they happen.

There is a strong relation between these technical capacities of television and the practice of documentary. That is, to varying degrees the premise of the documentary is that television observes, captures and broadcasts the “real world”. Television’s predilection for documenting the world, and the connected assumption that this is a worthwhile and interesting practice, is what is reflexively addressed by the mockumentary, with its frequently absurd and banal parodies of everyday life.

Connected to control’s modulating operation of force, Deleuze (1995b) describes a second characteristic of control as the smoothing out of institutional barriers. As Deleuze notes, ‘[w]e’re in the midst of a general breakdown of all sites of confinement – prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family’ (1995b, 178). He describes further how:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything – business, training and military service being coexisting metastable states of a single modulation, a sort of universal transmutation. (Deleuze 1995b, 179)

Thus, in disciplinary societies there was a conceivable separation between institutions and spaces such as those of the family, school and work. With the boundaries between institutions and spaces that produce distinctive behaviours blurring, then individuals can be produced as child-student-worker in the open field of the control society. They modulate between each of these positions depending on the variable intensities of force at particular moments.[2]

These features of control also resonate with the technological operation of television. In its production and flow of images, television also has the capacity to smooth boundaries; between public space and private space (arguably anachronistic concepts), between local events and the saturating worldwide broadcast of them. The technology is mobile, with a reach that extends to all corners of the globe. Television has become an inescapable part of our culture, neatly described by Uricchio as “ubiquitous” (1998). TV transmits everything, from wars, floods and famines, to cats trapped up trees, throughout our social field. This means that all places and events in our contemporary culture are implicitly or explicitly “televisual”. They have the potential to receive a television broadcast and they are potential sites for the generation of new television images. By executing its technological mobility through an intense dispersal in our social and institutional fields, television is indeed a technology of control.

Despite the time that has passed since Deleuze made these comments regarding television and control, his essays remain useful starting points for considering contemporary television practice. We would no doubt question Deleuze’s privileging of cinema over television, and his use of aesthetic criteria to do so, together with his lack of consideration of cinema’s potential operations of control. However, the value of looking to these essays is not only the specific reference to televisual control. Deleuze’s discussions in these essays form part of his oeuvre, and the concepts I refer to here are more fully explored in his other writings, both individually and in collaboration with Felix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus 1987; Foucault 1988). So, although we may have some minor reservations, these essays are valuable for initiating further discussion and as points from which to develop new analytical concepts.[3] For while television has clearly transformed as a cultural technology, in the intervening years I would argue that the technological operations of control have not waned, but rather, intensified.

Considering these characteristics of control, what is particularly incisive about We Can Be Heroes is that it holds up to ridicule the celebration of mediocrity and ordinariness on the very medium and technology that was part of the mobilisation of this strong vein in Australian culture in the first place. The role of television is clearly under the microscope in this, and other mockumentaries. For is it not through TV that audiences have become schooled and accepting of the dramatisation of the everyday life? In the now ubiquitous genres of reality TV, we can clearly observe the collapse of public and private domains which Deleuze notes is characteristic of the society of control. Writing on The Office Tara Brabazon neatly summarises one effect of such contemporary media practices: ‘[w]hen ordinary people are placed in an extra-ordinary situation and granted value and celebrity, cultural and critical literacies are devalued. Mediocrity is celebrated…the consequences of feted ordinariness are revealed’ (2004, 107). Indeed, as with The Office, We Can Be Heroes furthers our understanding of this aspect of contemporary media that Brabazon identifies. We Can Be Heroes satirises our culture’s tendency to place “ordinary” and “everyday” people in the spotlight, shifting the frequently unremarkable details of their daily lives into the public domain. In this way, not only is the public-private boundary irretrievably blurred, but their lives accrue the added value of celebrity, merely by being seen on television. And it is the disjunction between the characters’ growing belief in their own uniqueness, and the audience’s recognition of the absolute ordinariness that provides both the humour, and the pathos, of these programs.

We Can Be Heroes also utilises a flexible camera perspective, discarding the three camera set up traditionally found in studio based sitcoms. This means scenes can follow the characters wherever they go. As is the case with so much television documentary, the boundaries between public and private, inside and outside are fluid and open, meaning that nothing is out of bounds. Technologically, this feature of the documentary, and the mockumentary, connects to the operation of control, where television’s globalising, modulating force means traditional oppositional boundaries can be smoothed out through the technological production of the television image. The mockumentary then, adopts the same technique, but with the addition of its satirical intent it also questions the reality of such images.

Deleuze also describes the new procedures of the control society in terms of a “mutation in capitalism” (1995b, 180) in a way that resonates with television’s operations. Specifically, he comments on the contrasting capitalist modes of production between discipline and control:

[N]ineteenth-century capitalism was concentrative, directed towards production, and proprietorial… But capitalism in its present form is no longer directed toward production … It’s directed toward metaproduction. It no longer buys finished products or assembles them from parts. What it seeks to sell is services, and what it seeks to buy, activities. It’s a capitalism no longer directed toward production but toward products, that is, toward sales or markets. Thus it’s essentially dispersive, with factories giving way to businesses. (Deleuze 1995b, 180-81)

What Deleuze describes here is a widely accepted view of the changes in capitalism that have accompanied the explosion of consumer society since the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, Massumi provides a succinct summary of this transformation in capitalism that supports Deleuze’s description when he states that, “[c]apitalism is now more processual than it is productive, more fundamentally energetic than object oriented” (1992, 134). We need look no further than the proliferation of media and mass communication technologies, including television, for the type of service, market-oriented capitalism that Deleuze identifies as characteristic of control.

Indeed, contemporary culture’s fetishization of fame for its own sake (seen for example in the celebrity figure of Paris Hilton) is placed under the microscope in We Can Be Heroes. For each character (all of them played by Chris Lilley) uses their nomination as a stepping-stone for seeking fame in an unrelated area. Canberra student Ricky Wong has invented a groundbreaking solar panel, but what he really wants is an acting career on the popular Australian television soap opera Home and Away (1988-present Seven Network). Foul-mouthed South Australian teenager Daniel Sims is donating his eardrum to his twin brother, but he wants to be a famous rapper.

Daniel and Nathan Sims ABC 2005

Figure 1: Daniel and Nathan Sims. Source ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

Ex-policeman Phil Olivetti from Brisbane saved some children from a wayward jumping castle. He dreams of becoming a motivational speaker. Snobby Sydney schoolgirl J’aime King sponsors up to 80 children in the third world, but mistakenly believes she is supermodel material.

Jaimes sponsor board ABC 2005

Figure 2: J’aime’s sponsor board. Source ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

While middle-aged housewife Pat Mullins in Western Australia has perfected the little known sport of “rolling”, setting a world record in rolling from Perth to Fremantle and during the course of the series is preparing for her next challenge. In seeking entry into contemporary culture’s (and particularly television’s) machinic production of fame and celebrity, what we see here in the characters Chris Lilley develops and portrays is a microcosm of control’s capitalist metaproduction of activities and services, reproduced thematically in the mockumentary.[4]

By outlining some of control’s central characteristics, including its modulating operations of force, the smoothing of institutional and social boundaries, and new procedures of capitalism, this paper has highlighted connections and resonances between television and control. Moreover, if television has been instrumental in this fusing of public and private into a modulating open space, where the ordinary and everyday become prime fodder for surveillance, observation and display, then television might also have the potential to question and critique such practices of force and power. In We Can Be Heroes this happens with a vengeance, not only thematically, but also formally through the practice of mockumentary.

Not only does Deleuze’s description of the control society provide an instructive perspective on television’s operation as a contemporary technology, the theory of control can also generate a discussion about the potential for forming modes of resistance as part of television’s operation. In order to look at how a television mockumentary like We Can Be Heroes makes an operation of resistance to control visible, we can first consider in more detail the formation of resistance within the televisual operation of control.

Television Mockumentary as Inhabited Resistance

If the operation of control represents a shift in the formation and workings of social power, then it is possible also to consider the political dimension of this transformation. As We Can Be Heroes clearly demonstrates, the mockumentary has a great potential for cultural critique and political comment. This is the kind of process Michael Hardt might be referring to when he notes that ‘[t]he place of modern liberal politics has disappeared’ (1998, 142). Although, rather than simply bemoaning our deficit of political action, we can now (somewhat more optimistically) explore whether the places and spaces of politics may have shifted. Surely in our contemporary digital, media, image-affluent culture, forms and technologies like television offer opportunities for political and culturally resistive constructions.

Implicit in Hardt’s comment is that, with the transformation of the control society, oppositional critical positions are fast becoming both ineffectual and anachronistic. However, a more pertinent question is not whether control constructs an apolitical culture, but rather how the notion of politics and resistance changes with the emergence of the control society. What mockumentaries show us is that, in the televisual field of control, our entire conception of resistance must change, allowing us to see how movements and practices of resistance no longer work from an oppositional, outside position. Rather they “inhabit” the very forms they also resist.

Deleuze is not very optimistic about the possibility of constructing effective modes of resistance in the society of control.[5] His comments in shorter writings in this regard are fairly brief and a little speculative. In ‘Letter to Serge Daney’ Deleuze asks, ‘whether this control might be reversed, harnessed by the supplementary function opposed to power: whether one could develop an art of control that would be a kind of new form of resistance’ (1995a, 75). Deleuze also questions control’s politics of resistance in the conclusion of the ‘Postscript’ essay, asking whether trade unions still have a role to play, ‘or will they give way to new forms of resistance against control societies?’ (1995b, 182). Indeed in these writings he seems rather despondent at times about the consequences of control, somewhat pessimistically noting: “Compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harshest confinement as part of a wonderful, happy past. The quest for “universals of communication” ought to make us shudder”. (Deleuze 1995c, 175) The central difficulty with the control society seems to be that there is no outside position from which resistance might be developed and maintained. With the smoothing out of boundaries and the operation of control no longer specific to particular institutions, there is no escape from control’s operations. Thus, indistinctness and flexibility in terms of critical positions also develop.

This connects to Deleuze’s point of dissatisfaction with television. Deleuze’s description of the technology allows for no “gap” between its operation and the “social sphere”. If that is the case, then it is extremely difficult to resist television’s operations, because, as a technology of control, television does not accommodate locations from which to escape or oppose its operation. However, rather than simply be defeated by the seemingly endless power of televisual control, we can also consider ways in which formations of resistance might be constructed to counter the intense and modulating forces of control.

Massumi describes control in terms of ‘the principle of complicity, or untranscendable control’ (1998, 58): a key point for any consideration of control and resistance. Deleuze hints at the type of complicit behaviours such resistance might encompass in his interview ‘Control and becoming’ (1995c): “It’s true that even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance (two different things) are also appearing. Computer piracy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nineteenth century called ‘sabotage’ (‘clogging’ the machinery)”. (Deleuze, 1995c, 175) These comments by Deleuze suggest that the kind of resistive practice required for the operation of control is one generated from within the system, rather than from outside it.

This is a significant point in terms of control’s politics of resistance, and the suggestion is elaborated on further by Rodowick in his discussion of the resistive strategies appropriate to control, which he conflates with digital culture. He writes:

The question then is how to introduce some friction into “friction-free” capitalism… The ethics and tactics of the “digital underground” are exemplary in this respect: culture jammers, guerrilla media, cyberpunk culture, warez or software pirates, hackers and phone freaks all provide rich material for examining the creative possibilities that already exist for resisting, redesigning, and critiquing digital culture. (Rodowick 2001, 233-34)

Again, the types of resistive behaviours Rodowick describes are practices that inhabit and take advantage of a system, disrupting and resisting from a position within it. Such practices recognise the unavailability of an oppositional, outside critique.

By noting these examples’ complicit mode of operation and their “inside” relation with the system they are disrupting, we can see the potential of certain practices to produce new locations from which to operate in different ways to that which the system proscribes. As Rodowick notes, this is a “tactical” and “creative” response to the operations of control. However, it is important to emphasise here that the endpoint of such a complicit mode of resistance is that ultimately it is reassimilated into the modulating flows of capitalist control.

The practice of producing a mockumentary can be understood in these terms. That is, by infusing the televisual documentary style and practice of observation and surveillance with the comic tendencies of parody and satire, the mockumentary is a peculiarly disjunctive synthesis of comedy and documentary: it is both these things at once and the tension between the comic and documentary mobilises a creative, pragmatic televisual practice that can be conceptualised as an inhabited resistance. This tension between the comic and the documentary resistively inhabits the televisual field to produce a different form, a different televisual practice. That is, We Can Be Heroes is neither simply comedy nor documentary but combines elements of both into an unusual viewing experience. It is funny, dramatic and often uncomfortable viewing.

A good example of this is the comic pathos which emerges throughout the Ricky Wong storyline. There is comedy here in Ricky’s seemingly ludicrous efforts to play the lead indigenous character in the student musical, “Indigeridoo”. This comedy exists somewhat uneasily with the dramatic scenes between Ricky and his father (who is less than enthusiastic about his son following his acting dreams). So while We Can Be Heroes documents the difficult relationship between Ricky and his father without emphasizing any comedy, the other aspect of the Ricky storyline conforms to the comic mocking we would associate with the mockumentary. So we can see how the inclusion of the comic as part of the televisual documentation of Ricky Wong can be conceptualised as inhabited resistance. The comic inhabits the documentary, resisting its more serious impulses and connotations. In doing so, a new television form is created, the mockumentary. In this way we can see how the televisual field is resistively inhabited by the mockumentary, however, ultimately any transformation of television’s operations is only ever fleeting and transitory, in so far as it only lasts until the start of the following program.

As a concept, inhabited resistance resonates with Deleuze’s suggestions on the forms which resistance might take: ‘The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control’ (Deleuze 1995c, 175). Deleuze’s choice of words is significant here. That is, we may momentarily “elude control”, but we cannot escape it. Again, his comments point to a tactical and complicit practice of resistance, rather than an oppositional mode of operation. The need for tactical, complicit responses to control is also evident in Deleuze’s more explicit request for creativity to form part of control’s transformed relations of power and resistance. He declares: ‘Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people’ (Deleuze 1995c, 176).

Massumi also sees that there is potential for resistance in the society of control but specifies that it must take a particular form. He points out that such resistance ‘would define itself less as an oppositional practice than as a pragmatics of intensified ontogenesis’ (1998, 60). Massumi also comments on the particular characteristics of such a pragmatic form of resistance:

Productive interference patterns that fail to resonate with capitalist legitimation, either by excess or by deficiency or with humor, are at least momentarily unassimiliable by the supersystem … Tactical noncommunication might take a ritualistic form, mimicking the ritual legitimation of capitalist power, to very different effect – and affect. For it would not be sadistic but joyful, not exorcistic but invocational, calling forth what are, again from the point of view of the supersystem, vague and alien powers of collective existence whose determinations escape. (Massumi 1998, 61)

Again, we can see a reference to tactics here, as well as the potential of such tactics to encompass excess, humour and joy as ways of operating in a resistive relation to the processes of control. This is a point that it is useful to consider further in developing the concept of inhabited resistance for television, defined by pragmatic, tactical and complicit ways of operating in the control society. Moreover, Massumi’s description hints at the potential Michel de Certeau’s writing on the tactical practice of everyday life has for developing the concept of inhabited resistance for the society of control. The notion of everyday life being a tactical practice is thematically evident throughout most of the characters’ stories of We Can Be Heroes. For example, what the five protagonists have in common is a desire to inhabit their lives in different ways. They are striving to create new identities for themselves: Phil Olivetti as a motivational speaker, Ricky Wong as an actor, Daniel Sims as a rapper, Pat Mullins as a “roller” and J’aime King as a philanthropist turned celebrity. We see them creatively using the “heroic” events of their Australian of the Year nominations for different purposes. That is, they are tactically self-serving in their pursuit of fame.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau explores how everyday life can be understood as a “politics”. Through a consideration of the “tactical ways of operating” available to individuals in contemporary culture, his theory has some extremely productive resonances with Deleuze’s concept of control. De Certeau also points to the possible humour and joy that tactical practices of resistance can mobilise. Like Deleuze, de Certeau observes a transformation of the contemporary social field into a modulating and contingent space, describing both its freedoms and its intense, multiple procedures of control. De Certeau writes: “The system in which they [consumers] move about is too vast to be able to fix them in one place, but too constraining for them ever to be able to escape from it and go into exile elsewhere. There is no longer an elsewhere”. (de Certeau 1984, 40) Distinct from the quasi-criminal practices discussed by Rodowick and Deleuze, de Certeau’s ideas resonate with Massumi’s comments suggesting the political potential of a resistive practice of humour, as well as the overall joy this might produce. De Certeau points out that, ‘such a politics should inquire into the public… image of the microscopic, multiform, and innumerable connections between manipulating and enjoying, the fleeting and massive reality of a social activity at play with the order that contains it’ (de Certeau 1984, xxiv). Here de Certeau invokes a joyful, contingent mode of resistive practice, one that is part of the social field as well as using it to a different purpose. Such a practice is defined by a playful, creative relation, producing an alternative mode of existence.

De Certeau’s writing furthers the concept of an inhabited mode of resistance with some evocative images of tactical practice: ‘It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse’ (de Certeau 1984, 37). Moreover, de Certeau observes a potential connection between this mode of tactical practice and “wit”. By manipulating and enjoying the unexpected opportunities for resistance in the social field through ‘[c]ross-cuts, fragments, cracks and lucky hits in the framework of a system, consumers’ ways of operating are the practical equivalents of wit’ (de Certeau 1984, 38). Again, this theoretical observation is thematically and narratively evident in the journeys of the We Can Be Heroes characters. So often we see characters take advantage of a situation and twist it for their own personal ambition. Daniel Sims’ crude attempts at rapping for the camera during interviews is one example. Similarly, J’aime King’s continual selfish preening for the cameras, overshadowing her sponsoring of third world children is another instance of a manipulation of an individual opportunity for self-advancement. Whether or not they are successful is ultimately beside the point. It is in the attempt to manipulate an opportunity that we can observe a tactical, inhabited mode of resistance.

Phil olivetti ABC 2005

Figure 3: Phil Olivetti and the jumping castle. Source © Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

This engagement with critical theory allows us to now return to We Can Be Heroes with fresh eyes and concepts to better understand its significance in the television landscape, not simply as an increasingly popular television genre, but as a practice that highlights the capacity of television to accommodate tactical and resistive movements within its field of operation. Through the flexible utilisation of techniques of surveillance and observation in combination with the mockumentary’s comic, satirical tendencies, we can understand the mockumentary not only as “mocking” the documentary tradition, but also as one fulfilment of the televisual operation of control. That is, mockumentaries, such as We Can Be Heroes, can be described not only generically, but also as one way in which television reveals to us how the disciplinary impulses of documentary transform. That is, as part of the televisual operations of control, documentary combines its energies with other televisual practices such as humour. While I have noted a number of thematic and narrative examples here so far, we can also understand the mockumentary as a stylistic or aesthetic practice of inhabited resistance. The mockumentary’s comic tendencies infuse and inhabit the documentary practice of television observation that structures the look and feel of the series. It is in this practice that we can locate an operation of inhabited resistance.

Apart from the satire mobilised in the construction of the characters and the narrative, this mockumentary (and others like it) can be understood as “playing” with the forms and field of television production, albeit from a place within it. In other words, to recall de Certeau, the mockumentary is a tactical televisual practice of inhabited resistance. It draws on those quintessential features of television (the capacity to record and broadcast real people and events). Yet, as these practices increase and flow through the television field accompanying TV’s technological intensification of control, they infuse and combine with other forms, such as television comedy, creating new forms like the mockumentary. By seeing the mockumentary as a televisual practice of inhabited resistance, at once complicit with, yet also creatively resisting, television’s well-established practices, we can begin to comprehend the flexibility and potentially resistive characteristics of this form. This is most evident in the moments of awkward discomfort mobilised through the mockumentary’s fusion of comedy and drama. We can think particularly of the resolutions of the various characters’ stories. One of the scenes that is most difficult to watch is when Phil Olivetti’s deception of his family is exposed at the Australian of the Year ceremony in Canberra. Here, the mockumentary demonstrates its capacity to swiftly shift from comedy to drama. To a large degree, the flexibility in the tenor of the program allows allows the mockumentary to resist categorisation simply as comedy. We Can Be Heroes functions as cultural critique, drama, comedy and even sometimes horror. The boundaries between different television forms and the whole notion of genre becomes fluid, arguably in a way that corresponds with the smooth-striated institutional fluidity of the control society. As Brett Mills notes, ‘the conventional sitcom form has been repeatedly challenged in recent years’ (2004, 68). And indeed the television mockumentary represents a clear challenge to the sitcom.

By portraying its characters through the comic techniques of excess and exaggeration, to the point where some of them tip from the realm of the comic to the horrific and tragic, We Can Be Heroes also creatively inhabits audience expectations of the comic to produce a different formation. In this series, the mockumentary has a flexible relation between comedy and drama. We Can Be Heroes swings effortlessly between each of these different tenors. One minute the audience may be laughing, the next minute we can cringe in horror or feel genuine empathy for the characters. Phil Olivetti and J’aime King are both monstrously selfish and self-serving creations at whom we conceivably gape in horrified awe.

pat terry mullins ABC 2005

Figure 4: Pat and Terry Mullins. Source ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

In contrast, the gentler portrayals of Ricky Wong and Pat Mullins arguably evoke such empathy. Indeed, the passing away of Pat in the final episode is a stunning example of the way in which in the mockumentary, “the distinction between the ways in which the comedic and the serious are conventionally signalled have begun to be dismantled”. (Mills 2004, 68) Pat’s death was a particularly affecting moment, as was the earlier conflict between Ricky and his father regarding Ricky’s dream to follow his desire to act.

Ricky ABC 2005

Figure 5: Ricky being dramatic. source ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

In these instances We Can Be Heroes shifts away from the functions of parody, critique and deconstruction that Roscoe and Hight (2001) identify as characteristic of the mockumentary. Arguably then, this is a mockumentary that inhabits the mockumentary form while also resisting its comic tendencies in moments of true drama. Here, we can see the potential that lies in the practice of inhabited resistance for such movements to reflexively turn and twist in even more complicit play.


Arguably, the continuing popularity of mockumentary production tells us much about the television landscape at this time. Programs such as The Office, Curb your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and We Can Be Heroes are as much about the specific characters and narratives they depict, as they are about the cultural and political force of contemporary television. By locating a discussion of the mockumentary within considerations of television’s technological operations of power, we can see certain resonances between content, form and style through the Deleuzian concept of control. If indeed television is a quintessential technology of control, then it is crucial that we consider the potential television holds for offering places and formations of resistance to control. What my discussion in this paper has shown is that even though television is strongly connected to the operation of control, such operations always hold possible complicit, and frequently playful, movements of resistance.

As the mockumentary demonstrates, in the technological operation of control our whole understanding of resistance must change, allowing us to see how resistance actually “inhabits” the very forms it resists. It acts as part of them, rather than from some outside, oppositional position. In a parasitic, pragmatic fashion, the potential for inhabited resistance accompanies all of television’s operations, and is made visible when the televisual field is disrupted and occupied in creative ways, that nonethless remain “inside” the televisual field. By recognising these technological and political capacities, we can see that despite certain claims to the contrary, television remains a peculiarly contemporary and vital technology.


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A Mighty Wind 2003, Christopher Guest, Warner Brothers.

Best in Show 2000, Christopher Guest, Warner Brothers.

This is Spinal Tap 1984, Rob Reiner, Embassy Pictures.

Waiting for Guffman 1997, Christopher Guest, Sony Pictures.


Arrested Development 2003-2006, Fox, USA.

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Frontline 1994-95; 1997, ABC TV, Australia.

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[1] For example Richard Dienst (1994) offers a critical position to the seminal work of John Fiske (1987). In Television Culture (1987), Fiske presents analyses of television concerned with resistive pleasures. However, his perspective on television has not been without its detractors of what is seen as an overly celebratory approach to the technology. Dienst somewhat sarcastically argues that : ‘Fiske… whistles a happy tune of resistance whenever the dark clouds of ideology gather’ (1994, 31). Stephen Heath also criticises the approach to television and popular culture represented by Fiske’s work, characterising its embrace of resistance as ‘patronizing’ (1990, 285).

[2] Deleuze’s comments on institutional breakdowns have had broader consequences and application for other theorists. For instance, Hardt (1998) engages with this aspect of control, pointing out how Deleuze’s comments provoke a new conception of space. In this ‘collapse of the walls that defined the institutions’ (1998, 140), Hardt describes how “[t]here is progressively less distinction, in other words, between inside and outside’ (1998, 140). There are connections here also to A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), where Deleuze collaborates with Felix Guattari. Of particular relevance is their discussion of smooth and striated space, where they note: “smooth space is constantly being translated, transverse into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” (1987, 474). This description resonates with Hardt’s later observation where he observes that in the society of control, “[s]ocial space is smooth, not in the sense that it has been cleared of the disciplinary striation but rather in the sense that those striae have been generalized across society” (1995, 35). These ideas can also be employed in considering other contemporary cultural sites and technologies. For instance, Wise provides an illustration of control’s smoothing of boundaries with the increasing trend toward product placement in the media. As he observes: “[p]roduct placement represents the migration of advertisements from separated, regulated spaces into the spaces of programs, films, and eventually out of the media and into our lives” (2002, 37). This all too familiar cultural practice is an instructive example of the smoothing of boundaries between advertising, entertainment and everyday life. These aspects of media production connect in what Deleuze would describe as a “coexisting metastable state” (1995b, 179) characteristic of the operation of control.

[3] The potential cinematic operation of control is discussed in more detail in my 2006 PhD thesis, Event TV: The Production and Inhabited Resistance of Images of Control.

[4] For a discussion of the relation between television’s “machinic” qualities and its images, see Chapter Two of Dienst’s Still Life in Real Time: Theory after Television (1994).

[5] However, the notion of resistance is not one that is absent from Deleuze’s writing. In both Foucault (1988) and A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) resistance appears as a theme throughout, although it is not always named as such. The conceptual language of A Thousand Plateaus is filled with notions that connect to my terminology of “inhabited resistance”. Examples abound, including “lines of flight”, “becoming” and deterritorialization” (1987). Similarly, their commentary on language and linguistics where they discuss the connection and relation of major and minor languages (1987; 75-110) encapsulates to some degree my notion of inhabited resistance. For instance, Deleuze and Guattari propose that we, “[u]se the minor language to send the major language racing”(1987; 105). By “racing” they would seem to mean language can be inhabited by pragmatic, creative variations and transformations that are at once complicit and resistive. Furthermore, in Foucault (1988) Deleuze explicitly addresses the notion of resistance as he sees it emerging in Foucault’s writings. Here we understand that the potential for resistance is always present: “the final word on power is that resistance comes first” (1988; 89). Moreover, “the diffuse centres of power do not exist without points of resistance that are in some way primary; and that power does not take life as its objective without revealing or giving rise to a life that resists power.”(1988; 95). Such conceptualisations of resistance offer alternatives to more traditional notions of oppositional or dialectical formations power and resistance. In this way, they are more relevant to the complex threads and interminglings of force in the contemporary culture of control.

Author Bio

In 2006 Wendy Davis completed a PhD entitled “Event TV: The Production and Inhabited Resistance of Images of Control” with the School of Humanities at Central Queensland University. She has since published articles in Media International Australia and Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture and is currently employed as a lecturer with CQU’s Division of Teaching and Learning Services.

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