Binge-Watching With Boethius After Dark

Jan 26, 2016

I. Back when I was single, I would regularly watch three or four hours of television a night. Mostly dating shows with titles like Elimidate or Ship Mates.

I once opened a freezer and found an unopened pint of Godiva ice cream. I ate the whole pint while standing with the freezer door open. With every bite, I was on the verge of putting the carton back. I never put the carton back. Even at the time, the fact that I did not close the freezer door seemed important to me.

Like many Americans, I have eaten entire bags of potato chips with natural, accidental ease.

I have watched six or seven or eight episodes of The O.C. in a row. The same is true of The Office. And Lost. And I have stayed up quite, quite late to do so.

In the last several months, I’ve noticed an increasing number of essays and articles about binge watching television shows and from time to time, I overhear a student say, “I watched three seasons of Breaking Bad over the weekend.” I find it strange that anyone could watch that much Breaking Bad over a 48 hour period not because man is finite and limited, but because unlike Elimidate or The O.C. or potato chips, Breaking Bad is actually a fine thing. I think I’d be similarly unimpressed if someone told me they read the entire Old Testament over the weekend.

Long story short, sometimes responsible students grow up to be teachers and sometimes irresponsible scrubs grow up to be teachers and as a clear example of the latter, I have a heart for my own kind, and my own kind constitute a healthy percentage of American teenagers, classically educated or otherwise. It is pretty to think that most of our students are devoted, pious and would carry on with their studies even if they were diagnosed with terminal cancer, but the fact of the matter is that high school is a time for gluttony, acedia, boredom and sloth— and this perfect storm of depressed slacking-off is a collaboration between teachers, parents, students, the government, DNA, chemicals, and no one and everyone is to blame.

I would here like to describe the problem in its particulars, all the while suggesting a vocabulary for teachers to use while exhorting students to prudence, and offer a few takeaways at the end which will hardly begin addressing the problem.

II. He who has much, wants much. Over the early chapters of The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy returns often to the idea that want is painful. Want is emptiness. Want is lack. Want is desire. Want is absence. It is unpleasant to want; it is pleasant to be satisfied. Satisfaction is the abating of want. All wants which are satisfied will later return. “If you drink from this well you will thirst again.” The only way of getting rid of a want for good is to starve it.

The man who eats an entire bag of potato chips might seem to obtain great pleasure from doing so, given that potato chips are tasty. However, the man who eats an entire bag of potato chips does so because he both wants potato chips and because eating potato chips does not satisfy a want for potato chips.

While recent studies have confirmed it, anybody who has read Boethius could tell you that binge-watching a television show leads to depression, ennui, and disorientation. We watch a program over and over again because it does not satisfy our wants. It is only human to want to laugh, to cry, to ponder… God has given us “a time” for all these things (Eccl 3), however, the want to laugh over and over and over again speaks to the impotence of such laughter to fill our desire, to abate our want. And want is painful, which is why “Let’s watch another one!” is a happy enough thing to say once or twice, but beyond that simply betrays slavery and inevitability.

For this reason, it is hard to stop watching something which is truly unsatisfying; confusion sets in when the binge-watched show has actually been completed and there are no more new episodes to watch. The meaning of the show was bound up in its neverendingness and unsatisfactoriness, one quality depending on the other, and so when the material simply runs out, the viewer is left with a profoundly strange want. Want for wine can be satisfied. Want for a good cry can be satisfied. Want for a laugh can be satisfied.

But what the binge-watcher wants is for their want of the show to partially abate, partially return and for neither the want nor the satisfaction to win out. In this way, the binge-watched show is resistant to contemplation. In a condition of full and deep want, the viewer can ponder what they lack inasmuch as they lack the desired thing. In a condition of satisfaction, the viewer can ponder the satisfaction offered by the thing. However, forever caught in the middle, the viewer is incapable of fully addressing his heart and soul to the wanted thing or the virtue it confers. I find that most binge-watched shows are good, though not very good. Were they very good, they would satisfy and binge-watching would not be necessary or pleasant (I’ve never heard of anyone “binge reading” the tragedies of Shakespeare over a weekend), and were they awful, the show could not create a desire for itself (like 7th Heaven or Deal or No Deal).  

When I was in high school and pushed for a later curfew, my father would often reply, “Most of the things you do after midnight aren’t worth doing,” and he said it in such a way as I knew it was a maxim his father had quoted to him when he was my age. In discussions of desire, I have sometimes passed the saying on to my students and they usually flash one another indiscreet knowing grins. It occurred to me once, while watching dating shows until two or three in the morning, that was I merely staying up hoping something good would happen to me. I had done little during the day to satisfy my spirit, and thus I was up late hoping that something meaningful would fall in my lap. I was treating minutes and hours of my life like potato chips. I could not put a day down like the glutton cannot put the bag down. I was human enough to intuitively want spiritual satisfaction, but not human enough to seek it out. It was around this time I also realized I was watching Elimidate at two in the morning while chain smoking, eating cold pizza and wishing I had a girlfriend— and that all the commercials which ran during Elimidate were for Nicorette, weight loss pills and “The Singles Line.” Apparently people who stay up late looking for satisfaction on the television are fairly easy to profile. Most of the things you do after midnight aren’t worth doing because they’re the same things you were doing before midnight, and those things weren’t satisfying or edifying then either.

III. First, there was religion. Then there was politics. Now, there is medicine. Ours is an age obsessed with medicine, health, longevity, preservation of life. I am just such a hypochondriac who fears every twinging jot and painful tittle. If my side hurts, I google "side cancer." I currently have four or five health crises plates spinning.

But the man who constantly fears for his life and is ever trying to preserve it is like the man who must photograph everything. That we photograph everything today and are simultaneously obsessed with health and medicine... this only makes sense. For the person who wants to preserve a thing frequently puts himself outside that thing. The man who tries to preserve Christmas by photographing everything Christmas morning is like the man who tries to live life by preserving it through health and medicine. Medicine takes man out of life like documenting a thing takes a man out of that thing. Orpheus can hold Eurydice or see Eurydice, but he cannot do both.

It is a great irony then that we live so long nowadays. Perhaps we live so long not because our medicine is good, but because our lives are so empty. It takes the modern man 82 years to do what a Medieval man could accomplish in 45 years or so.

Flavor wears out the palate just like meaning tires the soul. Modern beer makers like Coors and Budweiser have purposefully scaled back the tastiness of their beverages so they can be consumed one after another without tiring the drinker. Coors is thus a fine icon of modern life. Meaningless, flavorless work and amusement which fails to satisfy, which is why we keep coming back to it year and year, decade after decade.

I have two practical purposes for teachers in writing this and they both have to do with discipleship. First, it is good for adults to chide teenagers about reading their Bibles more, however, I have often heard adults try to shame teenagers into reading their Bibles more on the grounds that teenagers watch so much television. I am sure the average American Christian spends ten minutes a week reading his Bible and fourteen hours watching television and the spiritual soul of this nation is collapsing like a Styrofoam cup. However, most of the oldest Christian lectionaries call for brief daily readings— often enough, the Church asks for no more than a minute or two a day in Scripture reading. As opposed to finding this a pathetically lean requirement, I believe it speaks to how satisfying holy things truly are. Television is such meagre food for the soul, an honest man would need to watch it for hours and hours on end to find sustenance, and even after all that he would probably leave hungry. Recall Ransom’s hesitance, in Perelandra, when he thinks of taking a second heavenly “toy-balloon” fruit. After deciding that, back on earth, men would fight wars for a fruit so delicious and that it was only reasonable to have another, Lewis writes:

His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again… Yet something seemed opposed to this ‘reason’. It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

The less of a thing which is needed to satisfy, the more powerful that thing is. While Bible reading is significant to spiritual growth, and while American teens ought to read their Bibles more often, too often adults in pastoral roles treat Bible reading as a quantitatively good activity. Further, they stress the quantitative goodness of Bible reading by calling teens to compare time spent in Bible reading with other mundane activities, as though holy things and sacred things existed on the same plane with the same capacity to intrigue and satisfy.

Second, ours is a late night age and we are teaching a late night generation. Waking night is surplus night, fat night, luxury night, needless night, bounty time. Slothful people covet day sleep, not night sleep. The man who loves sleep wakes late, but he does not go to bed early. These are vices typical of youth, but who am I kidding? Half of this article was written between midnight and one, and I had to stay up so long to finish it because I kept abandoning my sentences and paragraphs for Facebook. Without entirely discounting late night conversations about life and girlfriends and music, teachers should call students to reflect on the meaning of their late night work, their late night desire and desire for late nights. We receive our students in the morning out of their late nights, they often daydream of their late nights in class, and we release them back into their evenings— the evening! That narthex outside the late night nave where the worst impulses of the self come out to worship pleasure, vainly searching for satisfaction.   

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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