The Insatiability of Indulging: Binging in a New Age
In a society where we are constantly in a process of understanding the plethora of entertainment and information out there, the purpose of art and what it takes to satisfy is becoming almost impossible. With the growth of streaming services like Netflix, audio-book stores like Audible, and other devices like the Amazon Kindle, everyone is endlessly looking for something new to become obsessed with. On the other hand, there is never a point in time where we are not being persuaded or otherwise directed to starting to engage with another text, whether it be from the suggestions of friends or advertisements becoming part of our every-day subconscious. While the normal consumer may not be aware, they are being provided with a service; a service of obsession, especially with services like Netflix, which release an entire season at once, essentially requiring a casual watcher to sit down for at least 10 hours.
However, in addition to a text’s format of distribution, entertainment has become more than a way to relax and forget about life for a while, but something which we actively seek. While this may be understood as a natural search for more and more enjoyment, similar to the release of dopamine during enjoyable activities, it is more like an addiction to drugs (e.g. alcohol, caffeine, sugar), in that the more we seek to enjoy texts, the less we will be satisfied both during and after the engagement with said text. Therefore, in order to understand why this is happening, one needs to look at both the services providing these texts, but also how the every-day consumer receives them. Is it an inevitable progression which art needs to take to remain current? Or is it possible to ameliorate the situation so that people can enjoy art without worrying about what they are going to become obsessed with next?
Whether it is a conscious goal (such as one watching a comedy movie to laugh and be distracted from the hardships of one’s life) or a subconscious one (one watching a movie about racism because they have been the victim of racism), one always takes on the time and effort of engaging with a text, with something that they want to get out of it. The initial thought is, first and foremost, one will engage with a text because of an expectation that they will enjoy it (mostly informed because of other texts, otherwise known as a paratext, e.g. because you enjoyed another film by the same director or because one of your favourite reviewers recommended it). However, while we are aware that we are going to take some enjoyment out of a text, we also choose to engage with it because we are constantly looking to be satisfied. Like the use of the aforementioned drugs, while we feel satisfied during the primary stages, we soon grow to be dependent on what the viewer sees as enjoyment at first, but now only see it as a necessary fulfilment of a space which they can not define as something tangible.
There is always a point in our engagement with a text, where the viewer/reader stops subconsciously enjoying a text and becomes consciously obsessed with constantly engaging with this text and finally, consumed with the desire to finish their engagement with the text as soon as possible. Therefore, the engagement with the text changes from a casual and passive one to an active and intentional one, and then to an ambivalent one, where the mind is comprehending the least amount of information as possible. This could manifest itself with “binging” (i.e. watching two or more episodes or even complete seasons or reading a whole book in a single sitting), prolonged times discussing the text on sites like Reddit, as well as absorbing as many paratexts as possible. This point, which is not defined by time, but rather by the more time is spent engaging with a text could be referred to as the ‘enjoyment threshold’. While prolonged and condensed engagement with a text is not, in and of itself, harmful, it can affect both how a text is understood and how one feels when one is participating in it.
The Dangerous Nature of Enjoyment
Satan: So, you got dopamine, right? That’s the chemical that gets released in your brain whenever you do something pleasurable, like eating, sex, and that’s just nature, right? […] But because humans have progressed and now have access to all the shit they want whenever they want it, it’s easy for them to overdo and have dopamine problems […]
Stan: So there’s nothing spiritually wrong with me? […] So what does that mean? I can get addicted to everything so I can’t enjoy anything?
Satan: Yeah, that’s pretty much what it means.
Enjoyment, in the sense of experiencing pleasure from doing something, is perhaps, the perfect representation of the idiom ‘having too much of a good thing’. However, enjoyment can also be defined by the profit (not necessarily in a financial sense) that one receives from doing something. Therefore, it is difficult to see enjoyment as intrinsically good (good in and of itself) without taking into account what caused it. While one used to be able to pinpoint specific artistic techniques in film, television or literature, in recent times, art has been reduced to using certain techniques to elicit emotion, all which eventually leads to the viewer enjoying experiencing that emotion. For instance, television shows, e.g. Game of Thrones (2011-), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), often use techniques of sudden and unexpected events to elicit surprise and/or shock from its audience. Essentially, what the viewers of new art want out of a text is the aforementioned “meme-ability”, namely the ability for it to be consumed in a condensed amount of time and then, passed on to their friends. However, while it is easy to indulge in engaging with a text, it is less easy to prove that the resulting enjoyment from indulging in obsession and addiction is intrinsically good.
Is Obsession a Natural Part of Life?
The very nature of pleasure means that it is natural to indulge in excess and thus, obsess about experiencing it. Therefore, it seems only logical to elaborate as such: enjoyment is something you experience when taking pleasure in something, pleasure is something which is, by its very definition, good. Therefore, everyone should try and experience the most pleasure as they can. While the arguments can be assumed as true, they do not logically lead to the conclusion. To illustrate, by using the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K Rowling, say you were recommended to read the books by a friend. You were initially reluctant, because you thought they were more tailored for teenagers, but enjoyed some of the film adaptations that you had seen. Regardless, you start to read them, and are pleasantly surprised at the detail and thought that has gone into the universe and the characters. You finish the first book within a day, unconcerned that you did so in one sitting. The next day, you read the second and third book in two whole sessions. You are enjoying yourself immensely, but begin to realise that you are reading too fast and barely interpreting what you are reading and just receiving the bare bones of the plot. However, you can not slow down and know that all you want is for it to be over, so that you can watch the movies and read all of the fan theories. It is this initial stages of adoration and surprise with a text which we are constantly seeking, i.e. the feeling of enjoyment, rather than any specific and explicable feature of the text.
Think of your experience of texts as a empty garden, full of potential beauty and prosperity. You are most likely introduced to texts which only aim to hold your attention for short periods of time, e.g. short picture books or shows like Sesame Street (1969-). Then, you are inevitably passed on to episodic texts which do not demand intense narrative knowledge (e.g. The Simpsons (1989-) or the Series of Unfortunate Events novels). Texts which involve the immersion in a universe, such as the Star Wars films and its many associated texts or episodic texts which are focused on emotional attachment and some narrative interconnections like Friends (1994-2004) or Doctor Who (2005-) will come next. However, these are all only texts which affect us superficially in that we can engage in them without a physical urge to continue. It is at this point where you are introduced to a text which introduces you to the narrative connections, emotional influence and a potential for philosophical or social insight and commentary. Exemplified by television shows like Lost (2005-2010) or Six Feet Under (2001-2005), the Middle-Earth books, these can be the most detrimental. You begin to feel like you have to continue these at an ever-increasing rate, until you do not have the room, nor the desire, to plant any more. Essentially, your mind is exhausted by itself.
All in all, while enjoyment and indulging are innately of value, obsession, infatuation or excessive pleasure, by their very nature, negate the pleasure you thought you were experiencing in the first place. In order to simplify this, let pleasure, enjoyment or satisfaction and similar terms all represent any feeling, whether it be physical, emotional, mental or otherwise, which you perceive as good. Therefore, it is a natural physical and mental reaction to seek more of these so-called ‘good feelings’, whether they be physically gratifying (e.g. eating enough so that the pain of hunger subsides) or mentally and emotionally fulfilling (e.g. a love for someone being reciprocated). However, while these reactions can be explained by logic and nature, it is the reactions which are often unequal to their causes which have been unnatural. The progress of mankind has allowed it to understand enjoyment and the ways in which to get it in the easiest way possible, with no end to choice or amount. This has inevitably led to the creation of fast-food outlets which would not restrict you from eating to the point where you could not physically eat any more. Similarly, the growth in accessibility to sex via the internet or the simulation of love mean that people are destroying their lives, in both a financial and emotional sense. While the self-abuse inflicted by obsession to the engagement with art is not as harmful as these examples, it represents a way in which enjoyment is a two-edged sword. Not only does the everyday consumer experience the desire to consume to a point beyond reason, but such a decision is built in to the ways in which you can view and engage with any text.
The Service Cycle of Enjoyment and Obsession
It is of no doubt, among a world where you have to sit through 30 minutes of advertising before a film at the cinemas and constantly told about new movies over the news, that art has become a service of providing a product to the widest amount of people in the smallest amount of time. However, not only are those that distribute and create art (e.g. Netflix, HBO, Warner Bros.) selling a product, but are also selling a distinct emotional response. Regardless of what this emotional response is, the intention is to direct the consumer into a cycle of obsession, rapid exhaustion of this enjoyment, the necessary conclusion of the engagement of a text and, as soon as possible, directing you to the next text.
A necessary theory to understand is that of the ‘mere exposure’ effect (changingminds.org), a theory which posits that one will always choose something which one has seen before or something with which one has a familiarity. For example, say that you have a desire to see a movie, and looking at those showing, you choose to go see Dumb and Dumber To (2014), simply because you have seen the first movie and have an idea of what to expect. With the growth of forum sites such as Reddit to include not only those with comprehensive knowledge to say what they think of a certain film or television show, it means that everyone is scrutinising everything which is coming out. On account of the overwhelming amount of places to watch and receive entertainment, it is hard to differentiate between texts, and usually, it is easier to just choose something which is familiar. Therefore, those who produce the texts need to create this obsession within the viewer, essentially forcing you to be affected by ‘mere exposure’ and to keep it going for as long as possible.
However, there will always be a point where the viewer hits the “enjoyment threshold”, a point where the intended effect, i.e. to enjoy the text, is noticed as blatant. If it is continually repeated, eventually the natural response will be to hate what you are supposed to enjoy. For example, think back to when popular culture was over-run with the Twilight saga. Both the book and film series support this idea of ‘mere exposure effect’, and, eventually, even those that were infatuated with it will begin to see, after repeating viewings or readings, will tire of its silliness and melodrama. However, when the viewer gets to this point in a text, the creators or the producers of a text must either reinvigorate the viewer’s interest, either by forcing a drastic plot change (e.g. ‘killing off’ a pivotal or well-loved character) or re-defining the text entirely. While it is necessary to see texts as made to be similar to other texts, the entertainment cycle also aims to create the image that what they are creating is the most original product on the market. One needs to only look at the slogan for HBO (“It’s HBO. So Original.”) to see that it is not the text as a distinct object which will differentiate itself from the rest, but the fact that it is created by HBO or Netflix. Therefore, the obsession with watching all creations of a certain premium cable channel is not only something originating and explained by psychological and physiological phenomena, but also an integral part of the entertainment industry and the cycle of obsession and over-enjoyment which can be detrimental to how one interprets a text.
The Effects of Obsession and Binging on the Interpretation of Art
Not only does allowing oneself to become obsessed affect one’s psychological response to other texts, it negates the very purpose of the text in the first place. Obsession is changing how society absorbs culture. Nothing is restricted from the public and they can watch anything at the click of a button. Because of this infinite access to anything and everything, it is a natural response to want to have it all now. However, this reduces art forms to nothing more than a commodity or just information and nothing else. In essence, the human brain is being simplified to nothing more than a ‘Turing machine’, i.e. by all appearances acting with the same responses as a human brain would, but only taking in information and responding according to what the information tells it to. Televisual, literary and filmic texts are created to be viewed and interpreted over a certain length of time and to “binge” on these texts makes their interpretation simply a passive absorption of plot, while ignoring the power of the visual, aural and lingual.
Pieces of long-form art are separated so as to allow for several technical and psychological processes to take place. Literature often consists of chapters or at least places where it is obvious that the author is recommending that one stops. Television shows are defined by the fact that they have episodes (broadcasted weekly) and seasons (broadcasted every year), with seasons commonly lasting 10-30 episodes. Films used to be divided in half by an intermission. A film franchise (e.g. the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series) is usually divided by a year between each film’s release. Therefore, every text is intended to be viewed or interpreted over a long period of time. However, with the growth in popularity of streaming services like Netflix, the availability of thousands of box sets of films and television shows and the Amazon Kindle, there is nothing to stop the new fan of a text to “enjoy” to their heart’s content. This kind of “enjoyment” represents a neglect of the medium of the text itself. While it is easier to remember exact details of plot, as well as develop an intimate knowledge of the characters, if one watches an entire series of television over a couple of days, the exact details often blur into each other, so that the viewer’s grasp on chronology and the motivations of each character becomes vague and confused. In addition, the importance and weight of storytelling devices such as ‘cliffhangers’ are barely recognisable when devouring a text in one sitting. All of the magic of not knowing what is going on or what is going to happen is lost.
For instance, take the often divisive television show Lost (2004-10). Regardless of whether one thinks that watching and theorising about the plethora of the show’s mysteries is worth it, it has many elements which makes it easily “bingeable”. However, to watch it in a couple of months means that all of the speculation is gone, as you can just watch the next episode. While fans that watched the show over the entire six-year run felt that each character was like a loved one or a friend, those who become obsessed with the show create only a partially formed image of who that character is. The characters and plots are not something that people actively understand, but just a constantly repeating stereotype which they understand superficially. If the masses of consumers continue to become obsessed with texts, they will become just another passive recipient of something that they think they want, but without knowing why.
According to a report published by the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, 22 minutes of how long one can expect to live is lost for every hour that that person watches television (Veerman, Healy, Cobiac: 2012). However, it has become an institution of family life and even social life, with people getting together to watch the newest episode of their favourite show and is, thus, an unavoidable part of the lifestyle of a normal consumer. This does not mean that passivity and art simplified to sensory entertainment is unstoppable. The crux is changing what we accept as true, normal or necessary as, at the very least, questionable.
How Can One Purely Enjoy Something without Becoming Obsessed?
Obsession is not inherently of no value, but it is, like everything better if practised in moderation. However, the very system of entertainment, where there is no in-built limit to stop or even slow the consumer has corrupted it and exploits the viewer. Still, the viewer is still not completely powerless over what he/she watches or reads. However, by looking at the many Reddit posts asking what one should watch next to recommendations on Netflix constantly being made, it is evident that the entertainment and art world is becoming more of a one-way street. While the recipients can demand for more of a certain type of film or television show, this removes the meaning of art to just fulfilling (or seeming to fulfil) a certain emotion. Comedies intend to make people laugh and feel happy, with no intention to make them think or even remember much about the movie. Action movies evoke excitement, and so on. This is not to conclude that enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake is a bad thing, but just that if it is constantly sought and constantly supplied, then it will become a subconscious habit. It will not be enjoyment any more, but just some reflexive sensory response. Art should bring to the conscious mind a sense of wonder and excitement, not a perception of wonder and exception to an unconscious one. So, is there a way to enjoy things without becoming “addicted”?
Similar to an addiction to specific substances, the first step is to admit that you (or indeed the consumer society) have a problem. Then, it is just a conscious choice of moderating your habits. Break up each episode or couple of chapters or films by at least a day. If that is too difficult, watch episodes of different shows over the course of a day, instead of just a whole season of television in one sitting. Think consciously about what happened during that episode or film and even discuss it with your friends or with others on the Internet. Regardless of what you do, art should be something to develop a two-way relationship with, not to sit in front of like a “zombie”. You should be the only one who decides what you want to put time and emotion into. It is something to enjoy because it is helping you learn who you are, rather than defining who you are.
Changing Minds. “Mere Exposure Theory.” http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/mere_exposure.htm. Web.
Cobiac, L., Healy, G., Veerman, J. “Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis.” National Centre for Biotechnology Information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23007179. Web.
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