The idea of something being “unbearable to watch” and “unbearable to stop watching” made me think of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag talks about how we are becoming a “society of spectacle”, evident in things as common as slowing down to get a good look at the gore in a car accident, or switching on the evening news. Charlotte Brunsdon channels her inner Sontagian when she talks about binge-watching The Wire, and how it can be “a relief to stop viewing” – if you can. Brunsdon talks about the role of the wire dramatizing the viewer. If the viewer becomes fully engaged in the show, he or she is struggling along with the police, trying to understand the vernacular and coded messages being picked up. The viewer becomes Sontag’s “spectator” — to some media/psycho analysts, the “voyeur” — with the television acting as Sontag’s necessary distance between the spectator and the object. Sontag wonders if watching images of pain and violence act to numb the spectator to their true effect. If the spectator is far enough away from the spectacle, the spectacle is no longer tangible, both physically and emotionally. In binge-watching, the viewer consumes an enormous about of information, and in The Wire, a good deal of suffering. Somehow, the experience of binge-watching draws the viewer both closer and further away from the material being presented. Both Sontag and Brunsdon wonder if it is possible to stop watching or change the channel, and Sontag wonders what the effect of this might be – with strong leanings towards over-saturation leading to apathy.
Here’s a link to Sontag’s book, which I think is definitely good to read along with the Brunsdon this week. It’s lengthy, so if you just want a taste, I particularly like chapters 1 (a good overview), 6 (lots of gore here), and definitely 7 where she actually talks about television’s ability to drain images of their force due to sheer frequency of their being seen.