Commonplace Newsletter #95
It doesn’t make sense to me, the way people consume misery in their precious free time. Surely life has enough challenges and obstacles as it is without then adding further wretchedness and unpleasantness on top by consistently imbibing bleak, upsetting, sometimes virtually traumatising viewing and reading and audio material. Yet this is what a lot of people seem to do. I just don’t get it. And every time I find an aspect of our contemporary lives as baffling as this I’m compelled to try and make sense of it, at least in some provisional way. And the way I do this, of course, is to write about it, or at least try to write around it. I think with all these things we have to step back, try to detach from the crowd and ask just what is going on here? By pointing trends out, making judgements, naming things, and formulating hypotheses we begin to gather some understanding, as opposed to just imbibing then parroting a talking point and a set of factoids from some given authority figure, publication or influencer.
Now, I’m not here to tell you how to live or how to think and I am certainly not interested in giving advice. But I do think that I can be of some use by posing questions and making observations and highlighting some of the obvious yet overlooked facets of everyday life that often go unremarked upon.
So here we are. And why people freely choose to consume misery, to recreationally devour dystopia is the question we are going to consider.
At this point in time I am largely done with seeing simulated murders and dismemberment on screen. As time has worn on and I have seen more and more limbs fly and heads explode and blood flow by the gallon I have become simultaneously bored and repulsed by it. Repulsed mostly as to why this now passes for cultured entertainment. I’m not precisely sure what has brought around my gradual creeping change of heart regarding this.
Perhaps this shares some similarities with my Finite Drinks Theory of alcoholism which posits that we all have a set number of alcoholic drinks we can sensibly consume in a lifetime and this number operates like a countdown1. For the sake of argument, we have, say, somewhere between 20-40,000 drinks that can be drunk in a lifespan2. This averages out to one or two drinks per day from the beginning of legal drinking age until the average life expectancy age is reached. Now many could stick to that number and be fine. Never have a problem or give it much of a thought. The problem, then, becomes when someone speed-runs through their drinks total and hits their number sometimes as early as their twenties and realises that they simply can’t go on like this any longer. So, to come back to my point, perhaps it’s the same with violence on screen. Maybe I hit my number, my 50,000th viewing of a bullet in the brain followed by a quip- all accompanied by trivialising offbeat musical choices- and realised ‘maybe I’m done with this’…
Now this is not some boycott of mine, some crusade, I’m not saying that I’m now going to intentionally restrict my viewing selection to family friendly animation and Busby Berkeley musicals. What I am saying is that this phenomenon of gratuitous violence along with its often-attendant desaturated pessimism, cynicism and nihilism is something that I have become aware of and now cannot become unaware.
And the violence itself is only the surface detail. Violence, like sex or profanity or anything else is all contextual and can be a great storytelling tool just like any other facet of the human condition.3 If art is to reflect life, then no aspect of it should inherently be off limits. All these things can be meaningful- but in the popular contemporary context I am alluding to here4- to all the witless thrillers and serial killer documentaries and the true crime podcasts and all the rest of it- there seems to be a salacious, gratuitous undertone to the misery and horror and exploitation.
We have become unwitting fans of the exploitation genre. Which might well be fine if these films and series and documentaries weren’t being marketed as having artistic integrity and a deeper meaning. Instead, what we have now is exploitation being marketed as exploration. There is, as far as I can see, no lesson or truth imparted besides the idea that evil is lurking and omnipresent and that any one of us could be a victim.
And so I ask with all sincerity- why do we flock to such material ostensibly under the guise of winding down before bedtime? You might say I’m overthinking this and overstating my case for rhetorical effect5 but I am convinced that on some level this stuff goes in and slowly colours our worldview. It has to, surely?
I wholeheartedly agree with David Mamet’s assertion in his book Three Uses of The Knife that the need to dramatise is a central part of human nature and that we have this innate need and love for taking in stories going back to the campfire days long before our current civilisation’s entertainment options. This seems obvious to me, but then of course I am biased towards any championing of the necessity and centrality of storytelling. I think narrative with its cause-effect-conclusion structure is how we make sense of the world and of our own individual places within it. Which is why the narratives we choose are so important and why the films and series which are currently the most popular and most viewed is something of a concern, at least to my way of seeing things.
When we ask ourselves what is this story trying to teach us, what is the moral, and what can be learned about life from it- and then apply these questions to these trending shows- the answers that come back are surprisingly dark6. Which I think is what’s behind my gradual recoiling from all the needless violence on screen. From what I can see the message behind these programmes is either an acquiescence to an existential victimhood or that rage is the only emotion (and indeed action) that carries any serious weight. There’s something very dystopic about it all whether the story is set in an actual overt future dystopia or set in the present day, which we are also led to believe is a uniquely awful time.
Having pointed this out, I want to not be dragged down by it. I am not particularly interested in speculating as to why streaming services and platforms and outlets are saturated with this stuff and why we all seemingly default to this recreational dystopia while scrolling the menus to find some entertainment. It could be algorithmic machinations, it could be a negativity bias quirk in human nature that’s been exploited for profit, it could be nefarious lizard people who want to demoralise the masses via content7. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.
The point is, is that it only takes a tiny, tiny bit of extra energy and extra thought to deftly sideswipe falling for the default entertainment and culture choices. And they are choices, nothing here is truly forced on us. Dystopia is not inevitable, and bleak and violent entertainment is not the only game in town. There is a whole world of art and literature and audio and stories out there, ones that offer not just hope and beauty but that also make us feel something besides an emptiness tinged with the vicarious thrill of seeing brutal revenge being meted out.
I understand the importance of those Mametian campfire stories, truly. All I’m saying is that we don’t have to keep listening to slight variations of the same miserable, bleak boring tale night after night. We get to choose. And true choice always includes the choice to not do something.
Until next time,
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Not entirely unlike type 2 diabetes and cakes
I am aware that there are many ways to critique and poke holes in this theory. It’s not to be taken at face value as scientific fact, it’s more of a thought experiment or a metaphor really.
For example some films which have been labelled as part of the horror genre seem to have a unique ability to really touch on painful aspects of the human condition. The Swedish film Let the Right One In is, in part, a moving coming of age film about the loneliness of a working-class boy who’s being bullied at school.
I’m being a little bit coy about naming particular shows here as this has a way of instantly and very specifically dating my work if I do so. To see what kind of thing I am referring to simply log in to Netflix (or similar) and see what is (allegedly) the most watched program right now.
I’m an essayist, what do you expect?
Or, at best, laughably mundane if a ‘comedy’ has snuck its way to the top of the algorithms.
The thing about conspiracy theories, no matter how outlandish or legitimate, is that they keep us stuck in a quagmire of /mostly who, partly why, but very rarely and now what?
Because once we ask this we stop being so angry and afraid and unhappy. And more importantly we stop consuming conspiracy content and instead start improving our real-life situation and spending more time with those who are important to us in the real world.