In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture

Immersing ourselves in hours of television at a time isn't just a new way to absorb great art - it's the best way to keep up with our increasingly-global shared culture.

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness in their own excrement, blabbering like babies.

As I tore through the entire season of Netflix’s incredible House of Cards this year, I recalled The Entertainment (as the film in Wallace’s book is called), and felt pangs of guilt. Yet I am an avid defender of popular culture. I renounce the Harold Blooms (he hates Wallace) who elevate some privileged canon above the rest of our culture. I regard it as a terrible mistake to disdain or elevate some part of our current culture above another. There are gems at nearly every level, and sure, there’s lots of dregs.

But of course I worry, queueing up the fourth episode in a row of Game of Thrones, that perhaps we are sliding into some sort of dystopia such as Wallace envisioned, consumed by our own entertainment, stifled, pacified, and ultimately useless. So how can we approach this brave new world of readily available, downloadable, easily consumable multi-season packs of our favorite shows without guilt, without falling prey to The Entertainment? Can we become responsible consumers of popular culture, acknowledge its value, and benefit from this emerging new form of entertainment consumption: the binge? I believe we can.

Accidents of history
It is accidents of history alone that cause us to elevate some culture above others. Is Chaucer high or low culture? Surely he is part of Bloom’s “western canon", but The Canterbury Tales abounds with fart jokes and low humour reminiscent of any episode of South Park. I agree with philosopher John Searle, who argues:

In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Chaucer, or Tom Jones (not the curly-headed singer, but the novel by Fielding – though maybe the singer too), and even Shakespeare mix culture both “high” and “low”, appealing to audiences at various levels of appreciation. It is likely, as in every age, that the vast majority of our popular culture, much of which now comes to us in our living rooms through television, will be forgotten. It will not become part of any canon for serious study in the future, nor will it affect broader culture in any lasting way. But there are surely exceptions. Some will. Some have.

Star Trek was conceived as “Wagon Train in space", an interstellar western that would serve as a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future and his commentary on then-current events. It endures to this day, slightly darkened by J.J. Abrams, a current master of pop-cultural entertainment.

But Star Trek is now part of the canon. Spock and Kirk are as familiar as, or more so than, many historical heroes. Everyone everywhere now understands what you mean when you say “beam me up” or suggest moving at warp speed. And this is the most hopeful point. The pop-cultural canon is no longer “western”. Spock and Kirk are known in Asia, and Godzilla and Pokemon are known in Kirk’s home state of Iowa. Popular culture now moves effortlessly across borders, suffusing us with icons and vocabularies that are now common everywhere. This is a great thing. It is a New Canon.

I live and work in a multi-cultural milieu, teaching and living part of the year in The Netherlands, at an international university, surrounded by people from nearly every corner of the world – mostly students. I live the rest of the year in Mexico. Yet everywhere I travel and teach, I can slip in a “they killed Kenny!” reference, or allude to Walter White or Dexter in my discussions of ethics, and everyone (nearly) gets the point - they catch the reference. It is mainly through the popular culture that people of every class and background are able to form some common frame of reference, a vocabulary that can overcome local knowledge and prejudice, and allow ideas to be conveyed more meaningfully and successfully.

Of course, much popular culture still comes from the US, but this is so far mainly because that’s where much of the wealth and tools of production (and intellectual property protection) are. This won’t always be the case. Media production is being democratised by new tools, cheaper HD cameras, and readily available editing suites on PCs. These new technologies are making it possible to enter the popular culture with lower overhead.

In Japan, China, and India, this is already becoming the case and we are already seeing some of these sources of entertainment entering a broader market. The rest of the world will follow. We are all quite addicted to media, everywhere, and the internet now both satisfies and increases demand. This will lead us back to binging, and close up the loop in my argument for responsibly doing so this holiday season.

Saved by the internet
The internet is the medium for our entertainment salvation. Looming as a spectre to the media empires of America’s left coast, it promises to break down the final barriers to the great liberator that popular culture can be, if we let it. Time was, isolated from my ancestral land of 500 cable channels and abundant Walmarts, my access to English language popular culture would have been severely limited. In general, only the blockbusters get to cinema in The Netherlands, and television tends to be limited in its supply of current American shows.

Luckily, downloading a torrent of a season of Weeds in The Netherlands is legal (or tolerated), for personal use … much like the plant after which the show is named. People are able to catch up on shows right up to the present episode, no matter where they are, as long as they have access to the internet. Popular culture has truly been liberated.

Even authors and producers of shows that are frequently pirated realise, as Wilde might have put it, that is it better to be seen than to not be seen, regardless of the “legitimacy” of the avenue of consumption. George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which the show Game of Thrones is based, has said, “I have nothing against piracy, [the] majority of those people wouldn’t buy it anyway. And there are many pirates who will end up buying Blu-ray release because they want to support us.” His is the most pirated show on earth.

After House of Cards, it was Game of Thrones I devoured, catching up on three seasons, prodded by friends and a peculiar article in The Atlantic. That article noted that the U.S. White House had employed a trick to catch a leaker (@natsecwonk on Twitter), and said trick was the one used by Tyrion Lannister. I was sick of being out of the loop, as most of my friends were already fans of Game of Thrones, and now with the imprimatur of The Atlantic, I had to catch up, and fast. And I could. I exercised my legal prerogative of downloaded all three seasons and binged. I am glad I did.

While in the past, I might have felt trapped by having missed the first three seasons, unlikely to try to lock into the next and begin mid-story, I could quickly come up to speed with something that is clearly now an important part of our culture. The New Canon is both unhindered by geography and unrestrained by time. Binging is a legitimate and sometimes necessary way for us to join the broader culture, engage with fans around the world, and perform a new form of communion.

So as the holidays approach, and going to the cinema becomes too expensive for some families, take solace that your binge-viewing of Arrested Development, or whatever part of the New Canon you want to catch up on, is doing great good. You are building your cultural vocabulary, and joining a larger community bound together by characters, themes, and stories both small and epic, lowbrow and high-concept. We can responsibly consume The Entertainment, and put it to good ends, rather than let it consume us.

David Koepsell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

A Game of Thrones box set. (Photo: Idhren/Flickr)
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution