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In defence of the box set binge

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness…

Go on … Idhren

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness in their own excrement, blabbering like babies.

As I tore through the entire season of Netflix’s incredible House of Cards this year, I recalled The Entertainment as the film in Wallace’s book is called, and felt pangs of guilt. Yet I am an avid defender of popular culture. I renounce the Harold Blooms (he hates Wallace) who elevate some privileged canon above the rest of our culture. I regard it as a terrible mistake to disdain or elevate some part of our current culture above another. There are gems at nearly every level, and sure, there’s lots of dregs.

But of course I worry, queueing up the fourth episode in a row of Game of Thrones, that perhaps we are sliding into some sort of dystopia such as Wallace envisioned, consumed by our own entertainment, stifled, pacified, and ultimately useless. So how can we approach this brave new world of readily available, downloadable, easily consumable multi-season packs of our favorite shows without guilt, without falling prey to The Entertainment? Can we become responsible consumers of popular culture, acknowledge its value, and benefit from this emerging new form of entertainment consumption: the binge? I believe we can.

Accidents of history

It is accidents of history alone that cause us to elevate some culture above others. Is Chaucer high or low culture? Surely he is part of Bloom’s “western canon", but The Canterbury Tales abounds with fart jokes and low humour reminiscent of any episode of South Park. I agree with philosopher John Searle, who argues:

In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Chaucer, or Tom Jones (not the curly-headed singer, but the novel by Fielding – though maybe the singer too), and even Shakespeare mix culture both “high” and “low”, appealing to audiences at various levels of appreciation. It is likely, as in every age, that the vast majority of our popular culture, much of which now comes to us in our living rooms through television, will be forgotten. It will not become part of any canon for serious study in the future, nor will it affect broader culture in any lasting way. But there are surely exceptions. Some will. Some have.

Star Trek was conceived as “Wagon Train” in space, an interstellar western that would serve as a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future and his commentary on then-current events. It endures to this day, slightly darkened by J.J. Abrams, a current master of pop-cultural entertainment.

But Star Trek is now part of the canon. Spock and Kirk are as familiar, or more so, as many historical heroes. Everyone everywhere now understands what you mean when you say “beam me up” or suggest moving at warp speed. And this is the most hopeful point. The pop-cultural canon is no longer “western”. Spock and Kirk are known in Asia, and Godzilla and Pokemon are known in Kirk’s home state of Iowa. Popular culture now moves effortlessly across borders, suffusing us with icons and vocabularies that are now common everywhere. This is a great thing. It is a New Canon.

I live and work in a multi-cultural milieu, teaching and living part of the year in The Netherlands, at an international university, surrounded by people from nearly every corner of the world – mostly students. I live the rest of the year in Mexico. Yet everywhere I travel and teach, I can slip in a “they killed Kenny!” reference, or allude to Walter White or Dexter in my discussions of ethics, and everyone (nearly) gets the point - they catch the reference. It is mainly through the popular culture that people of every class and background are able to form some common frame of reference, a vocabulary that can overcome local knowledge and prejudice, and allow ideas to be conveyed more meaningfully and successfully.

Of course, much popular culture still comes from the US, but this is so far mainly because that’s where much of the wealth and tools of production (and intellectual property protection) are. This won’t always be the case. Media production is being democratised by new tools, cheaper HD cameras, and readily available editing suites on PCs. These new technologies are making it possible to enter the popular culture with lower overhead.

In Japan, China, and India, this is already becoming the case and we are already seeing some of these sources of entertainment entering a broader market. The rest of the world will follow. We are all quite addicted to media, everywhere, and the internet now both satisfies and increases demand. This will lead us back to binging, and close up the loop in my argument for responsibly doing so this holiday season.

Saved by the internet

The internet is the medium for our entertainment salvation. Looming as a spectre to the media empires of America’s left coast, it promises to break down the final barriers to the great liberator that popular culture can be, if we let it. Time was, isolated from my ancestral land of 500 cable channels and abundant Walmarts, my access to English language popular culture would have been severely limited. In general, only the blockbusters get to cinema in The Netherlands, and television tends to be limited in its supply of current American shows.

Luckily, downloading a torrent of a season of Weeds in The Netherlands is legal (or tolerated), for personal use … much like the plant after which the show is named. People are able to catch up on shows right up to the present episode, no matter where they are, as long as they have access to the internet. Popular culture has truly been liberated.

Even authors and producers of shows that are frequently pirated realise, as Wilde might have put it, that is it better to be seen than to not be seen, regardless of the “legitimacy” of the avenue of consumption. George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which the show Game of Thrones is based, has said, “I have nothing against piracy, [the] majority of those people wouldn’t buy it anyway. And there are many pirates who will end up buying Blu-ray release because they want to support us.” His is the most pirated show on earth.

After House of Cards, it was Game of Thrones I devoured, catching up on three seasons, prodded by friends and a peculiar article in The Atlantic. That article noted that the U.S. White House had employed a trick to catch a leaker (@natsecwonk on Twitter), and said trick was the one used by Tyrion Lannister. I was sick of being out of the loop, as most of my friends were already fans of Game of Thrones, and now with the imprimatur of The Atlantic, I had to catch up, and fast. And I could. I exercised my legal prerogative of downloaded all three seasons and binged. I am glad I did.

While in the past, I might have felt trapped by having missed the first three seasons, unlikely to try to lock into the next and begin mid-story, I could quickly come up to speed with something that is clearly now an important part of our culture. The New Canon is both unhindered by geography and unrestrained by time. Binging is a legitimate and sometimes necessary way for us to join the broader culture, engage with fans around the world, and perform a new form of communion.

So as the holidays approach, and going to the cinema becomes too expensive for some families, take solace that your binge-viewing of Arrested Development, or whatever part of the New Canon you want to catch up on, is doing great good. You are building your cultural vocabulary, and joining a larger community bound together by characters, themes, and stories both small and epic, lowbrow and high-concept. We can responsibly consume The Entertainment, and put it to good ends, rather than let it consume us.