Thursday, October 8, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Netflix

In this post I'm going to return to my "Everyday Phenomenology" series of posts, this time looking at the experience of watching Netflix.

Choosing a show to watch

The first thing I experience when logging onto Netflix is the menu screen, and it immediately confronts me with a wide variety of titles to choose from. And I do mean wide; from TV dramas to foreign films to horror movies, Netflix has more choices than I could ever hope to watch in a year, let alone in a single night. This variety stuns me like a deer in the headlights. When I face this menu screen, I feel almost hesitant to pick something, as though more depended on my choice than a simple night of binge watching. This leads to the many nights I've spent just debating with my friends and family members what we should watch.

Here, I'm actually afraid of committing to a single choice. Staying on the menu screen seems--at least for a time--more desirable than actually picking something. In fact, I feel this way because the menu screen is really just immense possibility, and I give up that potential for limited actuality when I press the remote to choose something. To think: in the next forty-five minutes, I could watch dozens of completely different TV shows! But if I make a decision, I only get to watch one. It might seem silly to think that infinite potential can rival reality (however limited), but it happens.

If you read my tabletop role playing phenomenology post, you might remember my discussion of Ananke, the Greek personification of Necessity as a cosmic principle. Necessity is what must be, that which "is what it is." When I hesitate on Netflix's menu screen, I'm really afraid of Necessity. I don't want to be something specific or concrete, even when it comes to something as insignificant as at TV show--I'd rather have the promise or potential of watching everything. And yet I must choose something, or else I've wasted an evening.

Can we see a parallel to life in a broader sense? If I have a wealth of many different talents, I might be tempted to dabble a bit in each of them without committing to any one. But this would be a mistake. To paraphrase Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, to be something in actuality is to give up being everything in potential. I have to "grow down;" if I want to stay in the "hub" or "menu screen" of life, I'll just end up wasting my energy by spreading out to things too widely to make a difference in the world.

This begs the question: could giving up broad potential for limited reality in this way be a reason we "came to earth" in the first place? As a part of the Mormon tradition of pre-existence, we believe that we abandoned a life with God to inhabit limited bodies on earth. This was necessary to our development--we couldn't have progressed any other way. But perhaps the reason finite earth-life helps us develop is because even finite actuality is better than infinite potential. Instead of living "up there" where we can see everything but participate in none of it, we give up our transcendent perspective to get into the thick of things, to make a difference, even if it's only in a small way.

Binge watching

But there's another aspect of Netflix: binge watching. In a way that would have been impractical for earlier generations, we can now watch episodes of TV shows for hours on end, maybe even finishing a whole season in a day or two. Binge watching has become so commonplace that everyone knows what it means; if it were just one word, the dictionary could have added it by now. Binge watching seems impractical, though. It's not immediately clear why I keep watching episode after episode for hours, even though I know I need sleep for work the next morning? What brings about this lack of self-control?

While a big part of binge watching has to do with cliffhangers and finding out "what happens next," that explanation doesn't get to all of it. I've seen people regularly binge watch story-of-the-week sitcoms, after all. I'd actually argue that we binge watch because the relation between past and future is uneasy for us. When I watch the beginning episodes of a TV show I like, I feel captivated by it. There's an aspect of that show that touches me, excites me, or makes me laugh, and suddenly I think "I want more of that." But I can't just watch that episode again; I know what happens, and re-watching it wouldn't even compare to how new and exciting it struck me when I watched it for the first time. So I watch another episode in hopes that it will give me the same feelings.

Apart from cliffhangers and such, binge watching is really about trying to find old joy dressed in new clothes. I want the same feelings of laughter, excitement, or tenderness to come again, but I want the episode I watch to be just different enough that I can see those feelings anew. I want the same emotional substance with a different form; I want the soul of the experience reincarnated in a new body. But of course this doesn't always happen. A TV show like Heroes, one with a captivating first season that subsequently became lackluster, disappoints me when I try to recapture the excitement I had before. Sadly, the emotional heart of the experience is gone, and I've run out of episodic "bodies" in which it can show itself to me.

Binge watching is therefore a tragedy--whether the TV show ends with a bang or a whimper, it will eventually end, and so the feelings I gleaned from it will eventually disappear, maybe never to return. However, there is at least one way the feeling can come back: re-watching the TV show with a friend who hasn't seen it yet. By watching it with her, I can vicariously relive the joy I experienced when I first watched it, "seeing" that joy through her eyes. This also has a profound corollary in "real life": as poets and songwriters have explained, having a child is one of the ways I can relive childhood anew.

Anyway, that's it for this post. Happy binge watching!

No comments:

Post a Comment