Binge Watching Is Changing Us: Recognizing the Power of Imagination

It may not be one of the great novels of all time, but one of my favorite reading experiences was Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Genre wise, it is a historical-fiction whodunit set in a medieval monastery.  The story and action are great (which the film version attests to), but it also has an intellectual depth that only a professional semiotician like Eco could bring to the table.  As the novel unfolds, Eco probes the deeply symbolic side of our lives, exploring how the categories we think with structure our actions and passions. (Think of the short ancient language and culture sections in Snow Crash, but this time marinating the whole thing, not just peppering here and there.)

Monastery Davidovica

Monastery Davidovica (© Vhorvat)

For Eco, the swirling liturgical and religious imaginations of monks in medieval Europe shaped—for good or for ill—the way that monks understood the world.  Indeed, that imagination, populated by angels, devils, and biblical figures, is almost a character of its own

Looking back, I probably liked The Name of the Rose so much because I read it as I travelled in Europe for the first time. I picked up the novel as I waited for a train in London at the start of a long solo trek to Florence.  I had spent months poking around churches, castles, and museums in England during classes, so my head was full of the images Eco drew upon.  I was in the perfect place—both literally and figuratively—to enjoy the work.

I was reminded of the book as I read an interesting piece by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken in Wired (Binge Watching Is Changing Our Culture) a couple of days ago. He notes:

I believe we binge on TV to craft time and space, and to fashion an immersive near-world with special properties. We enter a world that is, for all its narrative complexity, a place of sudden continuity. We may have made the world “go away” for psychological purposes, but here, for anthropological ones, we have built another in its place. The second screen in some ways becomes our second home.

And if we share that binging with our families or friends, we can make that world — that show — a place of sudden commonality.

Well put. It is important to remind ourselves of the importance of story in our lives.  We hear lots of stories, but we don’t often take them seriously. They are kids’ stuff of the imagination, where “imagination” means positing something unreal. But I like theologian Tom Beaudoin’s description of imagination as:

a power that all humans have to put together our observations and experiences in a particular way, to find patterns of meaning in the observations, insights, feelings, and experiences of everyday life. (Consuming Faith, 47)

Imagination is what enables us to understand anything at all.  It is the mechanism by which we do the human work of understanding.

Stories are central to that human work, for we tend not to create all of our meanings from scratch. More often, we draw upon the work of others to help. We learn from the stories our parents tell and the imagination of our families.  We draw on what happens to our friends and the lessons we memorize in school.  We try to incorporate the words of the wise and stories that ground our religious traditions.  The stories with which we surround ourselves matter because the meanings that we make are conditioned by those stories. (1)

Indeed, it is perhaps religions that understand the power of story better than anyone else.  Storytelling in the form of reciting sacred texts and recounting sacred events is central to rituals in many different religions.  Imagination in the form of song is common to religious worship around the world.

Now, quite a few of my theologian and philosopher friends really dislike Eco’s work. Eco is was one of the central figures in the advent of post-modernism, a meta-ethical relativist who argued that we have no access to truth of any kind and that meaning is entirely constructed in communities. Speaking of his work, a friend complained “Anything can mean anything!”  For a theologian or for a philosopher who uses natural law, that’s a bit of a problem. If you are saying that anything can be God, some might disagree. And if you are starving, hearing that the natural human need for food is simply a social construct won’t be much comfort.

I could see some folks reacting to McCracken in the same way.  McCracken neither valorizes nor lionizes using television shows as a basis for meaning making.  As a good sociologist, his job is describe, not proscribe. But certainly not everything on television is worthy of using as guiding story in one’s life. Indeed, there are some stories out there that would probably mess you up pretty good if you lived that way.

Yet, to brush aside either Eco or McCracken because they don’t critique the media would be a mistake.  Understanding the mechanism of storytelling is critical, even if we don’t always like the stories that are told.  Indeed, understanding the appeal of some of the more misguided stories (and, yes, I do think that some stories can guide us in unhealthy directions) is necessary for telling our own story well. One need not like milk to understand where it comes from.

Information and communication technologies give human beings unprecedented power to curate the stories that they hear. (2) In doing so, we have more power to shape the meanings of our lives.  Good or bad, that’s the reality. Learning how to get your story inside people’s curation filters will be a necessary skill. The fact that you want to do it “for a good cause” doesn’t make it any less true.

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(1) Side note: In light of what I’m saying here, I probably have to admit that The Name of the Rose would have meant as much to me had I not read it amidst learning about medieval European culture. Eco used different symbolic frameworks to tell the reader about the different characters.  Had I not learned a lot about the different imaginations of the time, I wouldn’t have understood the story as deeply. More importantly, perhaps, I didn’t really come to understand that world for myself until I went on retreat to a monastery that had a church decorated with icons.  Over the course of the retreat, my imagination became populated with those images in a way that shifted my thought, if only for a short time.  I no longer simply understood how others thought, but learned to think like them.

(2) For a discussion of curation and Christian worship, talk to a librarian so you can get your hands on a recent article I published in the journal Liturgy.

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