I largely believe in the everyday critical capacity of contemporary audiences. In many ways, I think cultural consumers today are the most sophisticated in human history. To some extent, that’s because their toolkits, both intellectual and technological, have a lot of flexibility and capacity, but also it’s because the volume, fecundity and range of contemporary expressive culture is so staggering and its interpenetration with everyday life so thorough that people can’t help but know more than they think they know about texts and artifacts.
This is one reason why I am so profoundly irritated by conventional media-effects hand-wringing, which often strikes me as much less intellectually sophisticated in its simplistic ideas about the mimetic powers of representation, the extent to which showing or describing or making an action or an image causes it to happen in the real world, than the average man-in-the-street. (There are other reasons to dislike media-effects research, not the least of which that empirical work in the field is often manipulative or tissue-paper thin.)
That said, I don’t think audiences are thoroughly ironized postmodernists whose multilayered consumption of culture is always knowing and masterful, who are never tricked into taking the wrong text or performance too seriously. That’s how some cultural producers cynically try to talk themselves out of trouble at times, mind you. The hard thing about our cultural moment from the audience perspective is that sometimes we do take our cultural pleasures seriously, sometimes we do expect authenticity or truth, sometimes we don’t want to be tricked. Sometimes we don’t want to wander in a metatextual maze, even if there’s a kindly Daedalus around to provide a thread. When audiences invest in authenticity or expect truth, the last thing they want to hear is a producer or author telling them, “Oh, grow up, this is show business, this is just a product, this is how the game is played”. And when audiences divide on this expection, that’s when you can expect the rhetorical blood to flow–and in some situations, maybe not-so-rhetorical.
Three examples I’ve run into in the last week.
One, the Hexbug Nano. 1) I’ve always been interested in robotic toys. 2) I’ve long argued that the potential “killer app” toy or pasttime for digital-age kids would be a more fully functioning, complex version of something like Pokemon, a collect-them-all world of creatures that had digital genetics and evolution, creatures which could interact to create successive generations of new creatures with new combinations of attributes or capacities. So I noticed the Hexbug Nano in a Toys R Us while we were travelling and my daughter and I picked one up to mess around with.
The packaging suggested to me that this might be the toy that combined 1 and 2, that the little bugs would interact to share some kind of persistent genetic information. (The package suggests that there is a “rare mutation” inside.) What you get instead is an attractively packaged bristlebot. Which is as fun as a bristlebot, meaning, fun for a little while, but nothing like what the packaging implies. I thought this video was especially eye-rolling, as it implies that what the Nanos are doing is intentional, involves learning, or is otherwise responsive to environmental cues, instead of being random motion. What we have here is a digital Sea Monkey, really.
But for at least some consumers, that’s enough: the movement of the bugs is entertaining and they had no other ideas about what they were getting. Or in the case of many kids, their imagination trumps the reality, and they’re perfectly happy attributing intentionality to the bugs. As far as that goes, though, I think they’d be better off just building a maze out of household objects and catching some living insects: the variety of responses will be richer, the attributional fantasy more compelling.
So if it’s good enough for some, why am I crying in my beer? This is where culture’s mysteries arise: why do I invest when others stay safely on the surface, unruffled? Why do I demand something more honest (or something more ambitious)?
A different case where almost no one in the audience is content with taking things for what they are, settling for what producers offer, is this season of Top Chef. Reading across a diversity of fan sites and comment boards, there’s a nearly universal dislike for this season, and some evidence in early falling ratings that this isn’t just a lot of talk. The negative reaction, as I read it, is largely focused on the uncharismatic cast, the lesser quality of the food, and most especially on the editing of the show, which has highlighted gossipy, negative and petty interactions between the cast members.
What Top Chef viewers are saying back to the producers is that they’re not content to watch the show in a deeply ironic, postmodern fashion, knowing that it’s-just-a-reality-show and that whatever they’re seeing is simply the storyline that the producers have decided to show them. Instead, they’re claiming that at least some past competitions have had the virtue of authenticity, that the people and the food and the emotions have been real, and the reputational stakes have had genuine meaning in the careers and lives of the contestants. Frequently, you see self-described fans contrasting the show to other reality programs, arguing that it’s “classy”, “real”, “collegial” by comparison.
In last week’s episode, the editing strongly implied that one chef stole another chef’s dish and presented it as his own, leading to the possible-thief winning that week’s competition. The show’s chief judge and leading spokesman, Tom Colicchio, wrote a blog entry that more or less dismissed the scenario, arguing both that there was no way to know whether it happened, and that if it had happened, it wasn’t a big deal. The negative response has been voluminous, with almost three times the number of comments as for any other episode.
What I find interesting is that almost all the viewers are having the same triple-layered reaction that I myself had to the episode. First, knowing that the editing for the program intended to provoke this intense response, that the producers want people to be involved and angry and blogging and linking, and that in all likelihood, the current episode this week will somehow resolve the narrative line of the theft of the pea-puree rather like the way that old cliff-hanger serials would get their hero out of trouble: by rolling back in time and showing you a scene of his escape that you never saw in the earlier episode. Second, a lot of people are angry not just at what the storyline of the episode contained, but at the violation of the cultural contract between audience and producers. In other words, they don’t want to give the producers the satisfaction of reacting the way that the producers want them to react, because the very fact that the producers are willing to reveal so nakedly the style and technique of their manipulation of events disrupts the investment that the audience wants to make in Top Chef.
So third, a lot of people are trying to figure out what the appropriate metatextual response is: stop watching? Write critiques? Generate negative buzz? Or ignore the show altogether? The problem being, when you do invest or trust in the authenticity of a cultural work, it’s hard to think metatextually, because you don’t want to. But one thing I also know is that the producers of the show are playing with fire: when you force audiences to switch codes, when you pull back the curtain to show the little man playing with levers, when you break those contracts, you often kill your gold-laying goose. The really interesting metatextual question for me is why that happens as often as it does, why producers find it so hard to understand how their audience thinks, what pleasures and experiences and investments they’re deriving from a work of culture.
One more example that I’m planning to talk about in a subsequent blog entry: the case of Andrew Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod. This is a complicated example, already ably dissected by a whole range of online writers and journalists. But of course, also enabled in the first place by online writers and journalists, and that’s the problem in a nutshell with the contemporary American public sphere. What are we to do as audiences when we want to exercise a selective ability to take some writing and reportage as authentic, to really invest in its communicative and factual capacity, and yet we also know full well that virtually no one producing that content, in any medium or any format, cares any longer to make good on that investment? Or, more disturbingly, what are we to do when we suspect retroactively that we’ve never had that capacity? Mooning about for some past moment when reporters dished up the truth, tirelessly and ruthlessly investigating the hard fact, is less credible (and less emotionally satisfying) than believing the tooth fairy left you a quarter under your pillow. Even so, it feels to me that in some past moment, if you’d been caught burning the Reichstag this flagrantly, you would had been shuffled off to some dusty, unpaid corner of the public sphere to edit a hand-mimeographed newsletter for an audience of ten or twenty local cranks. Instead of being rewarded in a world where no publicity is ever bad publicity.
Getting Top Chef back to where its audience wants it to be strikes me as being at least plausible, and whether or not anybody ever makes the digital-genetics robot Pokething of my dreams is not really of any importance except maybe to some manufacter’s pocketbook. The public discussion of the most important questions of our day? Not so much.