Binge-Watching, the New Heroin?

By Zachary Siegel 01/06/15

Six hours slip by in the blink of an eye. Are you addicted?

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I’ve watched a 12-hour, 12 episode-series about the history of film, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” whose narrator had an intoxicating Irish brogue. I’ve watched serial killer profiles of Dahmer, Gacy, and Bundy. I’ve watched documentaries, all of which were terrifying, on China’s global economy, hydraulic fracking, and one that was especially nauseating about an Indonesian death squad that got away with genocide. I’ve watched everything there is about deep space, penguins, and Nazi scientists. I’ve watched movies about Burroughs and the beats, Bukowski, and Salinger. 

And so binge-watching, an excess of stimulation, actually leaves me feeling empty. The show streams so my mind doesn't have to.

I confess, with a body-aching dread, that I’ve watched all the above and a whole lot more between the hours of midnight to six o'clock in the morning, usually on weeknights, in the year of 2014. And, of course, via the pleasure portal called Netflix, a now “big-data” megalith that used to actually send DVDs through the mail. Or do people still do that? 

The LA Times defined binge-watching as “any instance in which more than three episodes of an hour-long drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting." Let this serve as our definition. And by this standard, I’ll confess once more, that I binge every...single...night.

With both the convenience and pervasiveness of entertainment in a society marked by hedonistic “late capitalism,” our pleasure knows no bounds. Freud did not know just how right he was in 1930 when he said, “What decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle.” The 21st century formulation of this statement is: What decides the purpose of life is simply the program I choose to watch on Netflix (or Hulu, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, etc.). And before Freud, there was one Gustav Fechner, a psychophysicist, who first formulated the pleasure principle in the German Lustprinzip. The first four letters of that German word give us a point from which to depart and a direction in where to go: lust. 

If I were to replace “House of Cards” with the word “heroin,” the only substance that I’ve ever truly lusted for, the logic holds up. Just one more “House of Cards” and I’m done for the night. On my bad days, I do “House of Cards” early in the morning. I cannot sleep unless I have “House of Cards.” If I don’t inject “House of Cards” every four-to-six hours I will get very fluish. “House of Cards” can then be replaced with “Arrested Development,” “The Wire,” and “Orange is the New Black.”

But do the programs I binge on even give me pleasure, the same pleasure I once found in heroin? Am I in a lustful chase from episode-to-episode? Or better yet, can such a lame, bourgeois American thing to do at night by yourself be worth any critical investigation whatsoever? Are we that bored and alone today that the newest manifestation of human puppetry is a bedraggled, dreary-eyed bag of meat-bones fixated on a glowing liquid crystal display? Or is it the newest manifestation of an addiction? Or is it nothing at all? 

In an entirely original and engaging essay written by Frank Smecker called The Absolute Nothing of Binge Watching he says, “With the advent of binging on network programming, the relationship between what is telecast and the viewer is no longer simply about pleasure, but rather, about a surplus of the latter—an excess of pleasure: enjoyment.” 

He then compares binge-watching to substances like, “decaffeinated coffee, sugarless candy, beer without alcohol, and on and on.” These substances are mere mimicries of the substances we actually desire. Pouring an alcoholic a non-alcoholic beer is like giving the cookie monster a vegan, gluten-free, cardboard textured blob of “cookie.” And so binge-watching, an excess of stimulation, actually leaves me feeling empty. The show streams so my mind doesn't have to.

With this last season of “Orange is the New Black,” a show adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time served in a women’s prison, I dedicated a weekend to watching all 12-hours, which spanned six-hour shifts over a couple days. My roommate and Barbara (our Corgi) were out of town and I remember holing up in my apartment, shades drawn with pizza on the way, ready for an onslaught of entertainment to hijack me in some transcendent way. But what happened was the Netflix server was bombarded with millions of other human beings doing precisely what I was doing, which resulted in the inability to watch without lag and interruption. Like a shot that missed the vein, I was frustrated and cursing at nobody—or maybe myself. Determined to get my fix, I resorted to illegal measures of downloading the series and on some episodes the tracking was off-sync so I heard the words uttered before the lips made the correct motions. The definition of frustration. More frustration. And on top of that, only two of several story lines in the second season merited any interest whatsoever. Every episode became a crapshoot, a chase, as to whether or not those select stories would develop. The whole frenzy left me feeling like a cookie-less cookie monster, a frustrated puppet, completely empty and unimpressed.

And the whole object of this dreadful weekend was to actively become a passive consumer of “entertainment,” the very definition of which is to be provided with amusement or joy. But I cannot blame “Orange is the New Black” for failing to live up to my delusion: the attainment of some kind of pleasure phantasmagoria. The same kind of specter the heroin-user, to no avail, chases shot after shot—a totally pleasurable, eternal kind of pleasure. Michel Foucault talks personally about this kind of pleasure best,

"I would like and I hope I die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind. Because I think it’s really difficult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it’s related to death. Because I think the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure, would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it. I would die."

The mind-brain of the addict is said to be addicted to the pleasure-chemical dopamine, which may or may not be the whole story. But the “personality” of the addict is often clichéd as, “I want what I want when I want it.” The exabytes (equal to one billion gigabytes) of data at Netflix’s disposal discovered that people prefer to watch TV-shows in long sessions as opposed to several short sessions. The results of this cosmic amount of data led to all the original shows I’ve mentioned in an attempt to give the consumer what they wish for. I got what I wanted. And for the umpteenth time, what I wanted made me miserable. And Big Data, for probably the same number of times, turned me into a puppet. 

My attempt to prove that binge-watching is synonymous with heroin use may sound like needless navel-gazing. The binge-watcher, obviously, is not actively self-destructing or near death, in anyway, at least that I can think of. But in the “human sciences,” especially in America, the tendency to pathologize compulsive behaviors has turned the word "addiction" into a meaningless trope. Sex, drugs, gambling, and drinking occupy the same psychological cluster of shopping, texting, video gaming, Internet, and exercising. Who is to say that any one of these “addictions” is any more real than the other? The phenomenon of binge-watching becomes a natural fit in that list of compulsions. 

So someone schooled in the addictions or in Psychobabble-101 may make the claim that what I have done with binge-watching is merely replace one thing for another. That is to say, my now absent heroin binges have manifested in a new gestalt of binging on network programming. A less serious claim may be that my tendency to binge-watch is some kind of guilty-pleasure-syndrome: an activity I don’t readily tell strangers or even some friends, it is something I do alone, in bed, and sometimes while eating junk food. An even less serious way to describe it is that I am just decompressing. After long days of mining through data, reading difficult text, or wrangling with an idea that can lead to a 1,500 word essay and a check in the mail, that I need some time to “veg out.” Burroughs said that heroin turned him into a plant: a sexless, timeless, state of being. I would say that binge-watching does this to me, but to a far lesser degree than heroin.

For you, binge-watching might create a lifeless vortex that turns you into a puppet, or is actively destroying your life, or is just a way to decompress is for you to reckon with. Like my binge-watching, depending on the day, yours may take many shapes and result in varying degrees of mindlessness and dread.

And binge-watching may very well be a perverted (more boring and corporate) version of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” But whatever it is, with more exabytes of data and more creative teams turning out scripts, like all things Darwinian, it will keep evolving, just as the modern subject keeps evolving, or dying, depending on your perspective. We may see more and more treatment centers sprout up that are havens without Wi-Fi and free of tablets and laptops where people can return to rediscover to whatever semblance of nature is left, if there is any such thing at all. 

Zachary Siegel is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one it's members and interviewed Ethan NadelmannFollow him on twitter.

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