Even the most technologically illiterate understand that the culture industries now store their wares on giant servers where content sits in electronic limbo, waiting to be summoned to our various devices. Time and space-shifting, first heralded by the comically analog VCR, have come to dominate the entire field of entertainment where all is ON DEMAND. How, a poetics might ask, does this scenario impact the fictions that we demand to consume on our televisions, laptops, and smartphones? What fantasies of ontology can be invoked to explain the pleasures of digital content?
Veterans of apparatus theory, that ersatz psychoanalytic contraption of the 1970s, no doubt recall the elaborate schematics of light bouncing from objects to lenses to negatives to prints to projectors to screens to retinas before finally soaking into the spongy tissue of the mind. A half-century later, this machine, stripped for parts, recalls a lost love for a certain type of textual experience—to be in a dark theater, most likely alone, with an audience of fellow cinephiles committed to absolute silence and mutual absorption in the hallucinatory dream unfolding on the screen. When Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and other 20th-century filmmakers bemoan the uncinematic “theme parks” of Marvel and other action-fantasy franchises, they are lamenting the passing of the cinema’s ability to produce such focused concentration, both in the theatre and in the venues of larger cultural consecration (i.e., The New Yorker). Movies once utterly bewitched us, individually and collectively. Now The Irishman (2019), by all accounts a very fine film, is only another square on the Netflix menu, fighting for space alongside a new product category championed by Pete Davidson on Saturday Night Live: “Movies under 90 minutes.”
At mid-century, broadcasting offered a new mode of textual involvement, one that emphasized mass simultaneity and cyclical duration. TV shows arrived in “seasons” that frequently mirrored the daily, weekly, and monthly lives of their viewers. “Watercooler” television, like art cinema, had the capacity to bind a certain taste formation in considering the trajectory of long-running narrative worlds. As the primary conductor of shared time and space, broadcast television orchestrated publics both as living diegetic worlds and “imagined communities.”
In the “society of control,” this massified experience of space and time—once regarded as the bovine endpoint of capitalism—becomes a potential threat to the surgical strategies of “dividuation” that typify our current configuration of capital, entertainment, and digital technology. And so, we have “fluid viewing.” A female sits on a couch witnessing The Avengers (2012). Thor is about to say something Thor-like but freezes as some type of globule escapes the screen, followed quickly by a fusillade of his colorful comrades. The composition of the globules is unclear, but they appear to be pixels suspended in solution, animated bubbles of content that transport the candy-colored garb of the superheroes into the living space of the viewer. But this isn’t the hackneyed device of entertainment spilling out of the screen, long a strategy in promoting hypervivid television screens. Instead, these globules are on a mission to colonize other screens in the house (after first subjecting Delorean Barbie to a quick acid trip—appropriately, the only one “entertained” by this spectacle is a plastic doll). The content globules colonize a tablet or smartphone of some kind, before then bouncing upstairs to reassemble on a second video monitor, where the Avenger crew continues their ballet of magical violence. This, Sky Q tells us, is “fluid viewing.” Access your data globules anywhere, anytime, on any screen. Appropriately, this ad cuts human agency out of the equation entirely. The data-globules will go anywhere at any time as they see fit.
Amplifying this theme, this symphony of “discorrelation” turns to the old Rat Pack standard, “I Gotta Be Me,” as the soundtrack for its campaign of globular domination.
I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be
I can’t be right for somebody else
If I’m not right for me
I gotta be free, I’ve gotta be free
Daring to try, to do it or die
I’ve gotta be me.
Given that there is only one human subject on display in this advert (who remains, one presumes, inert on the couch through this whole process), we can only assume the song’s celebration of rugged individualism refers to the first pixelated globule to escape the screen, a restless soul no longer content to remain trapped on a single monitor. Do or die, it will be free.
In the United States, Xfinity introduced a similar device (Flex!) around the same time. In their ode to multiscreen colonization, a man watches The Transformers in his bedroom, observing the spectacle of a robot fight spilling out into his living space. He hits pause and the robots go inert. Data-King goes downstairs to the kitchen to make a sandwich, hits his remote, and the robots continue to battle for his pleasure in this new arena. The data chain will be unbroken.
Both ads foreground the same logic. When all entertainment becomes information, code that can be shuffled from screen to screen, the older models of spectatorial absorption and simultaneity no longer apply. Dramaturgy, rhythm, identification, depth, tone, and investment, be it in The Avengers, The Transformers, or the Banshees of Inisherin (2022), are meaningless, or at least secondary, to the primary mission of downloading data from monitor to eyeball. Who cares if we interrupt Thor mid-sentence or pause a presumably life-and-death battle between giant robots? All that matters is that the stream of pixelated code can be diverted into infinite tributaries. To have “seen” a movie or television series is now quite literally a matter of completing an information circuit.
The cinema’s dream state: dead. Television’s living windows and publics: dead. Here we see the new logic of digital streaming, where the cybernetic fantasy of ubiquitous access is more entertaining than the “entertainment” itself.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books, 2006.
Baudrillard, Jean, and Dominic Pettman. “Fatal strategies.” (1990).
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” Surveillance, crime, and social control. Routledge, 2017. 35-39.
Denson, Shane. Discorrelated images. Duke University Press, 2020.
Pettman, Dominic. Infinite distraction. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.