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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

A friend of mine recently wrote about the common habit of “binge watching” television shows.  In her post, “My Lost Weekend Watching House of Cards,” she described the fascination she felt while watching every episode in the newly released season of a series about American politics.

I definitely feel that all 13 hours of the show kept me intellectually engaged and raised some key questions about America, politics and the nature of power. –Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah went on to discuss several of those main questions, but since I haven’t seen the show, I didn’t really read that part. I was more interested in a Slate.com article to which she’d linked — “In Defense of Binge Watching,” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s all about the differences between “mindless recreation” and “restorative experiences,” states of absorption that I guess depend on the subject matter of what you’re watching. Pang (or Soojung-Kim Pang? I’m not sure; I’m sorry) summarized a 1996 study by psychologist Stephen Kaplan on the restorative effects of nature on attention. Pang wrote:

“Restorative experiences, [Kaplan] found, share a few common features. They’re fascinating: Unlike a conference call or spreadsheet, they hold your attention without effort. They provide a sense of transporting you from your normal life and environment. They strike a balance between complexity and compatibility: They’re rich and fully realized worlds, but you can make sense of them.”

So. All of this is reminding me very much of flow theory, popularized by [hang on while I look up how to spell this guy’s name] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And, since I’m on Wikipedia anyway, I’m going to C&P some basic information for you in case you don’t know anything about flow theory. The following quotations are from Wikipedia’s page on flow:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.

  • intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • merging of action and awareness
  • a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience”

According to the theory (and as I scroll down the Wikipedia page), states of flow are usually active, goal-oriented experiences that would preclude watching TV, but I think that there are points of overlap on this. Besides the sense of agency over the situation, merging of action and awareness, and perhaps loss of reflective self consciousness, the other components in the list above could be applied to binge watching.

In fact, I’d like to comment on reflective self-consciousness. Khaleelah’s intellectual curiosity about House of Cards is what interested her in the show and compelled her to keep watching. That interest is the source of the “restoration” that she felt — the value that she gleaned from watching the series. As I think about how I watch TV, I think that self-consciousness, whether actively reflective or not, has a definite role in my viewing choices. This goes beyond relating characters to my own life. I think it’s a recognition of  the plot’s world — perhaps real, perhaps fictional, perhaps completely fantastical — and then positioning the self within it. It’s a negotiation of the self within that world. Linking the emotions drawn, the strategies or ideas followed, and the “what would I do in this situation?” affirms identity traits in the viewer.

I feel like I could /should say more on this in the future but I don’t feel like it right now.

I think there could also be a discussion on the ways in which the constructed worlds of television shows creates identity by contributing to cultural influences, but… that’s another can o’ worms and I definitely don’t feel like that either.

You should just be glad that I didn’t title this entry “Maybe We Binge Watch Because It Shows Us Who We Are.” That really almost happened.

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