The Absolute Nothing of Binge-watching: A Symptom of an Ascetic Ideal


Former president Ronald Reagan’s FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, once said of television— it’s “just another appliance; a toaster with pictures.” Here, Fowler couldn’t have been any lamer; his problem, of course, was that he didn’t take television seriously enough. In fact, today, there is no shortage of “serious,” devoted television-watchers: according to statisticians, the average American views about 34 hours of television each week. It’s been that way pretty much since the Nineties.

Television has become such a serious thing over the years and, like all “serious things,” it cannot escape the specter of Darwin: in other words, the relationship between television and its viewing audiences has been evolving. So where are we right now; that is, what does this present moment in the ongoing evolution of network programming have the appearance of, and how, precisely, is the modern television-viewer involved? Well…it looks a lot like binge-watching, precisely because…people are binge-watching. And what, exactly, is binge-watching? The L.A. Times defines it as “any instance in which more than three episodes of an hourlong [sic] drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting.”

We’ve all done it, and many of us do it: Why wait an entire week for that next episode of your favorite TV show when you can bang out multiple episodes in one sitting, right? In other words, something alchemical happens when you mix, say, Netflix and a show like Breaking Bad—you can cruise through episodes with methamphetamine momentum. Internet sites like Sidereel, Hulu, and even, among a growing number of others, are redefining the entire terrain of television production and consumption; as Scott Eidler at The Washington Post put it: “No longer do college students and young professionals sync their schedules with network prime-time lineups”; the implication here, is that, not only can I conveniently choose when and where to watch my favorite television programs, I can also choose how much I want to view in one stretch. If I choose to be a recluse for a day and marathon-watch Mad Men, or the British sitcom Black Books, I can (and have).

It may sound unimaginably wild to that great-uncle of yours who still watches late-night reruns of his favorite TV classics on his incandescent piece of square furniture, but in this day and age, you can watch as much television as you can handle, and viciously then some—without actually watching a television. All you really need is a laptop. And so that ingenious totem of modernity—television—has shed its old skin, only to reemerge in excess. We might as well call this new breed of television viewing “telebinging.” This behavior has become so popular that IMDb (today’s expedient of film and television data-basing) now has its own binge-watching canon: “151 Best, Smartest, Most Binge-Watch Worthy TV Dramas Available Online.” (There’s a lot of network pablum on this list, but I was pleased to read that Kieslowski’s 1988 TV mini-series, The Decalogue, was rated number one.)

And so the point is clear: waiting seven days or, god forbid, three to four months, to follow up on a cliffhanger of your favorite television show is outdated; Netflix has even accommodated its own original content such that it conforms to this new “binge-centric” consumption trend, releasing all episodes of its new seasons at once.

And there we have it—binge-watching in a nutshell. The crucial question we should ask is: Why are people binge-watching television? The immediate answer is, of course, because it’s fun. And the reason behind why it’s fun can be happened upon, I believe, by applying something that many today mistakenly deem as being as outdated and nugatory as a TV remote: good ol’ critical, psychoanalytic theory.

Before we jump right in and tackle the question concerning binge-watching, let’s quickly brief on a key theoretical concept of television per se: that its sole function is sustaining one’s pleasure. But let’s play the role of the naïve idiot here; let’s ask the question of why television serves to sustain one’s pleasure? And—as a necessary digression—what is the purpose of pleasure? As Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience and head of the Brain and Creativity Center at University of Southern California describes it, pleasure is what indicates whether one’s “homeostasis” is being threatened or sustained. This theory, of course, isn’t anything new; one should recall what the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus had to say about pleasure: It’s “our starting point whenever we choose or avoid anything, and it is this we make our aim.” And let us not forget Freud’s perspicacious discovery of the “Pleasure Principle”: that locus of mental events “set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, [which] takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension”—thus the production of pleasure.

It’s precisely in this sense that we should conceive of television as a sort of externalized “Pleasure Principle”: it serves to lower that unbearable tension we feel from working our stupid jobs, day in day out. As such, television takes on the medium of the Other. To help further explain this, take an example from Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist, Slavoj Zizek:

let’s remind ourselves of a phenomenon quite usual in popular TV shows or serials—canned-laughter. After some supposedly funny or witty remark, you can hear the laughter and the applause included in the soundtrack of the show itself […] [W]hy this laughter? The first possible answer—that it serves to remind us when to laugh—is interesting enough because it implies the paradox that laughter is a matter of duty and not of some spontaneous feeling. But this answer isn’t sufficient, because usually we don’t laugh. The only correct answer would then be that the other—embodied in the TV-set—is relieving us even of our duty to laugh, i.e., is laughing instead of us. So, even if, tired from the hard day’s stupid work, we did nothing all evening but gaze drowsily into the TV-screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through me medium of the other, we had a really good time.

So how does all this tie into binge-watching? The first thing we should take note of, is that, with regard to binging on television shows (or Netflix, for that matter), the binger clearly has what we could call a “will to enjoy”; a will to enjoy countless hours of television (or Netflix) programming. With binge-watching we are dealing with a phenomenology (i.e., a logic of a given phenomenon) that runs counter to anorexia, for example. To wit, twentieth-century psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, had observed that it’s not that the anorexic subject simply refuses to eat, but that, on the contrary, she eats Nothing(ness) itself; this “Nothingness”—the enigmatic “X” on account of which any item of food can become the object of one’s appetite—becomes an object of desire itself. Thus the anorexic subject desires and “eats” that (no)thing that is in food that is more than food itself: satisfaction qua satisfaction: satisfaction as an object in-itself. Because this object does not really exist (like, say, a buffalo chicken wrap dripping with blue cheese dressing really exists), the anorexic is doomed to eat, literally, nothing in perpetuity, or, until she reaches a critical condition. Binge-watching is the inverse of this. With anorexia, one is dealing with a surplus of nothing that counts for something; while, with “telebinging”, one is simply dealing with an excess of something, which, as we’ll see, amounts to nothing.

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.

Here, it is crucial to think the difference between the satisfaction that is derived from the (incessant) watching of television and, this satisfaction as the object of one’s desire itself; viz., there is the object that is supposed to satisfy one’s desire (in this instance, the object of telebinging: the program itself), and then there is also this satisfaction as an object itself. Of course, satisfaction, precisely as an object, does not really exist; it’s not some material thing, you can’t hold satisfaction in your hand, you can’t toss it in the air… In other words, we “condense,” that is, we redouble our desire as such into a real object, which then in effect issues us our satisfaction.

And so what if binge-watching has nothing to do with receiving satisfaction from a series of shows, but rather has everything to do with the viewer’s attempt to seize upon this satisfaction itself? In other words, what if the viewer is binging because, really, he wants to obtain this Thing that is in the show that is more than the show itself—a Nothingness as such: “satisfaction as object”? Here, we should define binge-watching as being none other than the series of (the viewer’s) attempts to inscribe “satisfaction as object” into the object of satisfaction, which results in an explosion of excess from nothing, which, ultimately, coincides with nothing. I mean, really, does anyone feel fully satisfied after finishing an entire series? Any sense of “accomplishment” is as fleeting as a puff of smoke. It’s not unlike cigarette smoking—if you enjoy smoking, finishing a pack merely leads you to the next pack, and so on and so forth. What we’re dealing with here is akin to Hegel’s famous proposition: “From Nothing, through Nothing, to Nothing.”

To fully understand the phenomenon of binge-watching, it would be best to take a look at where we are today: our late capitalism, one might notice, is distinguished by an unparalleled permissiveness, one that is taken to a hedonistic degree. Now, the rather orthodox critique of this is that, in this all-permissive era, children and young adults are growing up without any set limits, without any substantial prohibitions, and this lack drives them wild with anxiety and discontent and other unpleasant feelings. Frustrated with the lack of a discernible limit in their lives, kids and young adults alike are being driven from one excess to the next, in search of a firm limit, in search of that symbolic authority that will guarantee both stability and, real enjoyment—yes, enjoyment: enjoyment precisely from violating an explicit limit, transgressing a prohibition. That is to say, we are issued our enjoyment when we transgress a principle, when we violate some rule or limit or prohibition. Thus without any limits, there is no real enjoyment to be had.

And there is the paradoxical crux: Rather than the lack of an explicit limit, the lack of a secured figure of symbolic authority resulting in this frustration, it is somewhat more complex: It is, instead, a direct confrontation with the absence of any explicit, discernible limit that reveals the ultimate Limit—the very obstacle to enjoyment itself. Binge-watching seems to follow this perverse logic to a tee: The act of binging itself implies the absence of any limit; thus binging is none other than the series of attempts to reconcile this lack. There is no real enjoyment to be had, but rather the indulgence in pure Nothingness as such.

What this implies is that, in today’s late capitalism—an era of hedonistic permissiveness in which explicit limits are nowhere to be found—our lives are consigned to an endless search for that notional limit, and thus for our enjoyment. Capitalism’s injunction to Enjoy! coincides with our desire, a demand even, for a limit that no longer exists; hence the profligacy, the sheer excess of things like binge-watching. The very dynamic of the capitalist system is propelled forward by, it thrives on, the incessant production and (re)appropriation of this excess—precisely by integrating this excess into the normal, perfunctory functioning of the social field itself.

It is thus from the lack of prohibition—the pure absence of any explicit limitation whatsoever—that an excessive demand for enjoyment explodes; here, less is literally more! This is precisely what it means to say that today’s hedonism is, paradoxically, the appearance of an ascetic ideal.

And so, in today’s (post)modern era of hedonistic permissiveness, there is an asceticism that does not call for a refusal of enjoyment, but rather demands of us a very specific injunction to enjoy. Nietzsche wrote that the ascetic ideal is “employed to produce orgies of feeling.” In the proverbial will-o’-the-wisp search for that “Real of satisfaction”—the satisfaction-as-object—one becomes embroiled in an “orgy of feeling,” binging on everything in search of that something, which is really nothing. What lies at the very heart of the ascetic ideal, then, is a series of “convulsions of an unknown happiness.” Alenka Zupancic, researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Slovene Academy of Sciences, Ljubljana, and author of The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, writes: “the ascetic ideal is about excitement—it is, so to speak, a ‘passion diet’ […] [and] the ascetic ideal is precisely this kind of passion […] What Nietzsche analyzes under the name of ‘ascetic ideal’ corresponds, almost point by point, to what Freud calls the superego, the law of an insatiable passion.” And the more we obey the superego, the more we fail, and the more it wants from us.

The crucial point behind all of this is that, the hedonism of today’s hyper “binge-centric” consumerist society is fundamentally ascetic as such. Capitalism is that universally pervasive ideological medium that specializes in quietly whispering in our ears to desire it all, to Enjoy! Thus the excess of late-capitalism emerges from the latter’s injunction to Enjoy! Recall the classic psychoanalytic hypothesis: that human subjectivity is constantly attempting to overcome a radical lack (specifically, the lack of understanding who and what we are, how and what we should desire, and so on). This lack is a void that inheres at the core of our subjectivity, it is what Lacan called the subject’s “place of inscription.” And it is the medium of the Other that “fills in” this lack; that is, the subject acquires his or her subjectivity by and through the Other as such. (In this case, one becomes a binge-watcher by and through the medium of television). No less important to note, under capitalism, we allow for commodities to supplement our lacks, to cover up our lacks; which is to say: commodity fetishism (e.g., binge-watching) serves to cover up the fact that we’re covering up a lack. And, like the paradoxical injunction of the superego, the more we obey, the more we are guilty; our lacks thereby produce desire, the desire to fill this innermost void…but literally nothing can actually supplant this void. Moreover, we always have multiple desires—so the question we are constantly asking ourselves (unconsciously) is, out of the multitude of our desires, what desire should we desire?

Capitalism, being a function of desire itself, answers this question for us by granting us permission to enjoy everything—i.e., What desire should we desire? All of them! Again, in nuce, this is how capitalism is able to self-perpetuate. Thus, the more we obey the injunction to enjoy, the more we find ourselves caught in the cyclical series of failures which our loyal obedience produces, thereby propelling, more and more, our obedience to the injunction to Enjoy! So reasoned, binge-watching is none other than a symptom of this ascetic ideal.

That said, the hedonism of binge-watching is situated in the very lack from which, and around which, all binge-watching derives and circulates. What this implies is that the viewer, the subject, becomes an instrument of the enjoyment he or she has of the television qua Other. Thus the desire to find enjoyment in binge-watching is none other than one’s full submission to the injunction to Enjoy! To emphasize a point made earlier, the key function of today’s ascetic ideal is not to abandon all satisfaction but rather, to compel us to find the satisfaction-as-object behind all partial satisfactions. As the viewer endlessly attempts (in vain) to find this satisfaction-as-object, in order to inscribe this imaginary satisfaction-as-object into the object of satisfaction, the viewer is thereby propelled to watch show after countless show ad infinitum, resulting in an ersatz enjoyment. Why? Simply because this object of which the subject is in search, is nowhere to be found; it is, as such, a chimerical phantasm. Whatever the viewer is watching at the moment takes the place of this void; as Zupancic puts it, “the object of desire is always twofold, being in itself redoubled into nothing and something—it functions as the envelope of the nothing.” It’s not entirely unlike substances that lack the very thing that defines them: decaffeinated coffee, sugarless candy, beer without alcohol, and on and on. In a sort of hedonistic-qua-ascetic way, these de-substantialized substances exist for the sole hedonistic injunction to enjoy more substances. In this sense precisely, the very lack, the immanent failure of finding that phantasmatic satisfaction-as-object, the utter lack of a discernible limit, propels one to immerse oneself in the full (non-)enjoyment of binge-watching, in order to embark upon the Sisyphean search for this enigmatic object as such.

In other words, it is by dint of fetishistic disavowal that the subject becomes a binge-watcher: “I know very well that the real object of my drive is not this television show, but only the satisfaction that I find in it… Though nonetheless I act as if this is not the case, and I continue to watch copious amounts of this stuff in the hope that I’m able to pin down my satisfaction-as-object; that I will, one of these days, find this elusive object finally at rest, fully inscribed in that perfect, absolutely satisfying series.” Here, we should follow Lacan (who followed Kant), and posit the claim that the “negative magnitude” of binge-watching is none other than the positioning of an object (in this instance, network programming) in the void itself, that is—the “positive presence” of one’s “favorite” show takes the place of this void of Nothingness, so that, in wanting this object, one actually wants—one wills with fetishistic fervor, one demands even—Nothingness.

A veteran of the American underground hardcore and indie-rock music scenes (Drowningman, The Hero Cycle) Smecker’s first book, The Night of The World: Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity, will be out on Zero Books on the cusp of the New Year. His work has appeared in/at: Gadfly, Rain Taxi, Truth Out, The OWS Journal, Counter Punch, The Ecologist, and other places of publication.