Why the X Factor is enlightened…

Surprisingly, the concept behind the X-Factor, a show rarely acknowledged for its enlightening qualities, is not too different from the idea behind the Enlightenment. How can that be, you ask?

Well, let’s start with the Enlightenment: a name frequently used to refer to the time period between 1650 and 1800. This epoch is particularly famous for thinkers such as Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Voltaire, and Kant, as well as for inventions such as the mercury thermometer and the battery. The Enlightenment presented a potent concoction of knowledge and innovation, which propelled human understanding in new directions.

During the Enlightenment there was an obsession with empirical measurement, and concepts ranging from religion to health became subject to question and quantification. Any notions that did not withstand rigorous scientific analyses were discarded as false. Thus, for the first time, humans had the large-scale conceptual and technical tools to measure the world (primarily nature and human nature) and ultimately, to attempt to predict and control it.

But there exists another interpretation of all of this. Critical theorists Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous essay, ‘The Concept of the Enlightenment’ (from their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment) criticizes the movement for sacrificing thought for form and therefore, for falling short of its own realization to demystify our existence. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that with the help of the written word it became possible to distance oneself from the ‘object’ under study and to reduce it to a mere classification (for example, ‘x’). Hence, our ‘scientific’ approach toward the unknown became limiting on its own accord and constrained our imaginations to that, which could be measured.

And now to the “X Factor.” This televised competition show emerged in the U.S. in 2011 and is the younger brother of the British “X Factor,” and not-so-distant cousin of the UK’s “Pop Idol.” The basic ideology behind this show is that talent can be uncovered, measured and controlled through specific, strictly regulated circumstances. In theory, everybody can submit themselves to the “X Factor’s” empirical measurements and they can be evaluated by its unscrupulous criteria. Talent is spotted and conformed into a formulaic structure while outliers are quickly noted and just as hurriedly and mockingly discarded.

Thanks to globalization’s seemingly limitless potential for international connections, the “X-Factor” format has now invaded dozens of countries throughout the world. In this regard, one of the frequent criticisms toward the Enlightenment, its homogenizing effect, can be easily applied to the “X Factor,” too. Since the human capacity of reason is thought to be a universal feature, the enlightened mode of thinking presumes that all reason must be arrived at by the same empirical means – with little to no regard for cultural differences. As “X Factor” aptitude is uncovered by the same means in every country, the show may be said to have a homogenizing effect on our concept of talent.

It is possible to look beyond the X-Factor(y) to say that this show becomes a metaphor for the modern entertainment industry. The program is, to a large extent, a product of the fruitful partnership between the enlightened mode of thinking and our capitalist society. The outcome of this partnership can be seen as an insipid mode of production, in which the unknown (be it nature in the case of the Enlightenment or talent in the case of the “X-Factor”) is actually predetermined and just waiting to be fit into the larger scheme of things.

The “X Factor” (or, today’s cultural industry at large) and the enlightenment converge in their zero-tolerance policy for outliers: the former deals with outliers through the use of talent scouts or ostracization while the latter deals with them by reductionism or outright denial. Thus, the economically-driven ideology of the cultural industry and the empirical ideology behind the enlightenment emerge as valuing form and procedure over content. Why, you ask? Because unlike content (nature or talent), form can be controlled… This begs the question, were some aspects of our world better off in the dark?

Katerina Girginova

Katerina holds a BA in Communication Studies from The George Washington University, in Washington D.C. Upon graduation she immersed herself into the world of work at the National Geographic Channel and is a former MA in the CCT program at Georgetown University. Katerina's academic interests include innovation, intercultural communication, rhetoric and media - she enjoys good ideas and great people.

  • Maryz

    Creative blog.Very topicat.Great writing.

  • Xfactor Fan

    This blog makes an interesting parallel between two very similar cultural movements (although very different in scale) concerned with shaping knowledge, taste and popular culture. The verdict is spot on – any productive force – whether tangible or intangible (e.g., talent) has to be commodified and exploited. The twist, obviously in the case of the X Factor, is the ‘democratization’ of the process by allowing the viewing audience to ‘decide’ (by paying for this of course) who really has the talent and deserves the $5,000 000 contract.