Binge on a Mood
Thinking about modern day High Times
Last week, we started considering how we think about time and the impact that has on how we think about our world. We looked into two concepts:
High Times (unplotted, background happenings that established the status quo of our world)
Profane Time (our everyday lives, taking place in the world created by high times)
We explored how the Western World’s transition over the past 500 years has been one from a world backed by High Times to one where all time is profane.
We can think of High Times like mythology in a way, and then to a certain extent, we can feel this transition in our own lives. Almost none of our lives are lived with any tolerance of mystery. We study history in terms of a timeline; we want to parse out how many years were between this event and that happening. In our daily interactions, there is not really a sense of mystery in the world and when we do encounter a mystery, it never sounds like a good thing to our modern ears.
And yet, we almost seem to long for mysteries, don’t we? How easily do we get pulled into conspiracy theories? Our minds are pattern machines. Literacy forces a (perhaps manufactured sense) of objectivity on how we interact with our world, but our minds long for those mythology-type narratives, patterns of a story they can easily recognize. Our literary world and all of the metaphors in our media that it spawns do have narratives, but they tend to be much more complex, nuanced, and detailed.
While mythologies have detail and richness, the point of the detail is to paint the bigger picture, not to get particularly hung up on individual words and happenings (see my post Think Memorable Thoughts). There is something about mythology and the feeling those types of stories give us that our minds do long for.
It’s this longing to feel these stories that point us towards some of the modern-day implications of our media ecology thinking. As the speed and fidelity of our communication media have reached greater and greater heights, these mythological experiences can be had again in ways transformed by our current world. But it’s a different type of transformation.
Binging our way to Myth
At the beginning of the pandemic, we streamed so much media, the backbone of the internet is saged a bit. Over the past 10 years, the entire way we consume TV has changed dramatically.
Think back with me to a simpler time: the 1990s. A meme I see spread around the internet every now and then puts it well: there was nothing like the thrill of trying to go to the bathroom during a commercial break. The dash when the program went off. The hurdle jumping back to the couch right as the next episode comes on.
We had some experiences then of what we would now call binge-watching. I remember as a kid watching TNN on Friday nights as they would air back to back to back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would sit and watch for hours because you know, why not? And that experience got me hooked. Thinking back, the individual details of those stories I watched don’t really stick out all that much, but the gist of the overall story and the feeling that gives me is vibrant in my mind.
What was once a rare experience in that world of catching a “marathon” on TV has become new ubiquitous. First, through DVD sets of shows, then Netflix by mail, and now onto fully digital services, we can be immersed in these narratives.
We live in what a lot of commentators view as “Peak TV,” and a lot of that TV comes our way via streaming services. The term streaming is an interesting choice here, as really what these services have championed is not streaming in the live sense of the word, but streaming content on-demand from their servers to our displays.
These services allowed us to experience TV like we never had before. We can become so immersed in the stories that these services have started changing how they tell stories in response. For many shows, entire seasons are treated as the primary unit of plot rather than an independent episode (for better or worse).
James Poniewozik wrote in 2015:
Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock…
…In other words, they schedule their shows like Hollywood movies. Streaming is like a vast multiplex where every screen is playing “The Mahabharata.” It expects commitment — and gets it.1
But it’s not quite like reading a book.
The immersive nature of the visual media overwhelms our senses in a way that a book can’t.
We get sucked into their meta-narratives, the stories about the stories. These metanarratives are not so concerned with the individual plot points but are very interested in the bigger story being told. The binge-watching format of streaming media makes experiencing those metanarratives much more intuitive. We can almost feel them as the mood of the story.
These shows put off these moods as much as the individual points of their story; they create a type of mythology that rises from the individual plot points of the narrative and is more than the sum of its parts. And it’s that metanarrative, that mood, that “suck” that our minds long for. It pulls us in and makes us feel its whole mood.
“The Suck,” this “whole mood,” points us to what may be our digital world’s incarnation of High Times. Remember, the point of High Times is they are the background narrative that establishes our world and gives it grounding. As we absorb these stories and narratives through the media we consume, and they become some of the High Times that ground our experiences.
The question becomes: What are we “grounding” ourselves in? What are you grounding yourself in?
See you next week as we explore more.