The phenomenology of cultural bingeing

What does it mean to be immersed? I’ve been thinking about this question since having an interesting conversation yesterday with Tyler Shores about what constitutes meaningful engagement with cultural items e.g. books, articles, films, tv, graphic novels. This is a surprisingly difficult notion to pin down, once you start examining it:

  1. Is engagement a matter of successfully moving from ‘start’ to ‘finish’?
  2. Is engagement a matter of how quickly one moves from ‘start’ to ‘finish’?
  3. Is engagement a matter of avoiding external interruptions?
  4. Is engagement a matter of avoiding internal interruptions?
  5. Is engagement a matter of caring about the cultural item?
  6. Is engagement a matter of retaining knowledge about the cultural item?
  7. Is engagement a combination of all these factors? Or something else all together?

My inevitable starting point for addressing this question is my own experience of the phenomenology of cultural engagement. My experiences of what feel like ‘higher’ forms of engagement always involve some sense of being gripped by the cultural object. My mind turns to it involuntarily during the day. I project forward to the moment when I can return to the cultural object. I find it hard to back away once I’m immersed in it, even when there are other things I need to or want to do.

In the case of non-fiction or academic writing, it generates a spiralling array of paths for me to follow, prompting a powerful urge to write in order to clarify my thoughts. With fiction or television, it straight forwardly produces an urge to binge. In the case of fiction, I’ve never felt guilty about staying up for hours reading a novel. There are a few occasions when I’ve involuntarily ruined the next day by staying up all night because I simply couldn’t put what I was reading down. But it never felt like a problem. In contrast, binge watching feels like a distraction: a depletion, a retreat, a compulsion. Is this fair? I strongly feel this judgement but I’m increasingly convinced it mischaracterises binge watching.

Binge watching is engagement without external or internal interruptions. Binge watching is sustained immersion. Far from distraction, binge watching involves expansive attention directed at a cultural item, drawing the viewer into the fictional world they have come to care deeply about. I’m arguing that binge watching in this sense is a practical activity, akin to how Margaret Archer characterises spectating in her Being Human. From pg 214:

Spectating is far from being a passive activity, as is evident at football matches, but is equally the case at music concerts, art exhibitions and chess tournaments. It demands its own tacit knowledge (often vocally shared with all and sundry), and its own emotional involvement. Spectating is itself a skilled achievement, involving an appreciation of what the task requires in terms of competence. The spectator reverberates, as does the play, to the emotional commentary on performative success or failure (together with gradations between them). Audiences display bodily tension, alongside players and conductors, as they anticipate crucial movements or moments and express their emotional satisfaction/dissatisfaction in applause and booing. In the same way too, dissatisfaction is related to cessation (either by walking out after the ‘first half’ or by progressively declining attendance) and satisfaction is related to increasing competence (through appreciation classes, buying specialist magazines, private practice with CDs, videos, and the Internet, as well as through increasing attendance itself).

Therefore I want to argue that binge watching is a flow state. It’s entering into a sustained engagement with an object, in a way that leads to the experienced overcoming of the subject/object distinction. In an interesting way, it’s a skilled achievement. We can still sustain distinctions between the relative worth of cultural items because entering into flow with higher items (more complex, more subtle, more opaque) requires more skill than with lower items (more simple, more obvious, more transparent).

Far from cultural bingeing being an engine of distraction, it’s a reflection of our continued capacity to overcome distraction. It follows from this that when we’re talking about engagement, we should treat it as a skilled activity (a relation between an acting subject and a material artefact) that engages with culture at the level of form and content. When we seriously engage, even when we ‘binge’, we are doing something and I fear we often don’t treat it as such.

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