Tw-Oscar Night

Oscar night has finally descended upon us, friends, and with that, we can all heave a gigantic sigh of relief.  There will be a final riotous outcry of “I can’t believe X won,” (Argo) “X was robbed,” (Zero Dark Thirty) and “OMG, did you see what she was wearing?!” (J. Lo) and then a delightful nine month surcease until the awards season Rube Goldberg machine cranks into high gear again.  But in these final hours before what we know will be an interminable live-telecast, I find myself reflecting on the ways that participation has shifted the experience of awards shows, and the distinctive pleasures (and a few losses) that are incurred.

As I noted a few months ago, I’ve only recently made a return to television, after a two-year break.  My, how the world has changed!  Last year at this time, I would have gone along my merry way today, paying no attention to the official Eastern Standard kickoff time, blissfully unaware of the calculus needed to reckon the best window for red carpet coverage on multiple networks.  I would have gone to bed as happy as a clam this evening, knowing that, come morning, someone(s) (a heady combination of The Daily Beast, E! Online, and The Fug Girls) would have provided a just-meaty-enough curation of the evening’s bests and worsts for me to get the general idea.  Thus, I’d be informed; I’d get the goods.  My, wasn’t I efficient.

What I’d neglected to consider, however, were the manifold ways that participation in social networks expands the experience of “events” like The Oscars.  It’s fair to say, I think, that for all of the attempts at entertainment and concision that the showrunners produce, these shows D-R-A-G.  Four hours of nominees, speeches, musical numbers, montages, held together by an ever-diminishing thread of anticipation—it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration.  It’s no wonder that the show is shedding its audience at an alarming rate, particularly in the all-important “younger” demographic (18-49?  Really?  Younger than what, exactly?).  In contrast to the boredom/rising-annoyance-fest, however, stands the never-silent mob on Twitter and Facebook, a field of voices processing images, statements, and affects in real time. There is a frenetic kind of energy that pervades this participation, for sure, and an intense competitive motivation to say something first and best.  In terms of resuscitating the Oscars (and award shows in general), I’d say there’s nothing like it.  (In fact, a month or so ago, the brilliant writer and effervescent Twitterer Alexander Chee noted something to the effect that Twitter may be the only thing maintaining appointment television viewing, anymore.  I think he’s nailed it.)

There’s no question that this approach, and in particular, the way that it privileges speed over reflection, can allow for some of the worst kinds of responses.  (Self-censorship, self-preservation, and etiquette are apparently second-level instincts.)  I can’t help but wonder, however, if these events—in their online milieu—function as high-stakes training camps for wit: the equivalent of an improv class, where your spontaneous extemporanaeity blasts out to the ends of the ‘Verse.  At its best, event participation fosters a network that rewards the insightful, the funny, the pithy—all linguistic skills that I’m happy to see rise to the top of a discursive community’s values.  And this says nothing of the associated participatory skills of selection and curation via retweets—a analytical and socially generous investment in sharing things that delight you with your own network of followers.

Smarter scholars than I (Jean BurgessJason MittellKelli Marshall?) could say volumes, I sure, about the ways that social networks perform, and the histories of participation in television viewing, and the connections among these trajectories.  While I go look up what they have to say, however, I’ll be flexing my thumbs in anticipation of this evening’s event, more so for its commentary than for its content.

The “Real” and the “True”

I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class.  I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth.  My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me.  Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative?  How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?

To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure.  To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.”  In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both.  Still confused?  (So are we.)  In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut.  Her husband is present, with a bloody hand.  The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it?   The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive.  Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another?  (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)

The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”).   We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings.  What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation.  Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale.  Who designed this class, anyway?

And yet, the question remains.  For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.”  Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?

Stay tuned, true believers.  We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.