Discover more from Do Not Research
John Menick: The Narco-Image
- Netflix advertising slogan
Until recently media viewers were voyeurs, peeping at televisions and movie screens from a safe distance, their gaze conceptualized as a psychosexual form of mastery. But voyeurism as a model is no longer adequate to understand how viewers consume media. Viewership is no longer distant and controlling. Rather, the contemporary viewer is an addict, and their drug of choice is the image. The mode of desire for the addict-viewer is more: more films, more TV, more clicks, more downloads, more levels, more seasons, more episodes. Unlike scopophilic sadists, today’s viewer-addicts give up control, perhaps even lose control, helplessly spending long nights bent over laptops and tablets, clicking “watch next episode” until dawn. Images are no longer scarce, and the moreish addict-viewer is, in part, a product of this post-scarcity image economy. There is always another season to watch, another show to get into, another streaming service to sign up for, and the viewer is potentially immobilized before all of the choices. (Netflix calls this problem of too much choice “decision fatigue.”) For viewer-addicts, scopophilia has become scopomania, with extreme viewing habits comparable to binging on food or narcotics. (The word “binging” itself, when referring to watching television shows for long periods of time, was borrowed from addiction lingo, replacing the more athletic “marathoning.”)
Meanwhile, images are sold, studied, consumed, abused, discussed, distributed, and fretted about as narcotics would be. This new, narcotic image—a “narco-image”—produces dependency, and sometimes requires detoxification and rehab. In response to this narcotic image, there are Porn Addicts Anonymous, Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, Media Addicts Anonymous. (“We admitted we were powerless over media—that our lives had become unmanageable.”) In the same way that an addict may have to consume larger quantities of a drug in order to experience the same effect, narco-images deliver harder sex scenes, more explicit gore, and more violent action sequences. These narco-images cater to desensitized audiences, whose idea of a good time is watching two hours of simulated torture. The narco-image is loud, big, explicit, close-up, repulsive, violent, high-def, scary, thrilling, pornographic, taboo, muscular, slick, rendered, high-end. Like any successful drug, the narco-image delivers the goods, but rarely satisfies, always leaving room for an even bigger high somewhere down the line.
A small-scale publishing industry now devotes itself to the travails of lives ruined by Internet, phone, and porn addictions. Most of these books focus on attention, its loss and its fragmentation. Paradoxically, though, viewer-addicts suffer from an overfocusing of attention: i.e., the monopolization of attention by specific image regimes. A viewer-addict may not be able to finish a book or pay attention at school, but that same viewer can regularly spend hours gaming or watching the latest season of a television show. One can read of viewer-addicts ignoring their families for e-sports and compulsively watching porn at work. One can read of careers and marriages lost to video game binges, of innocent TV fans landing in media detoxes and cleanses, stories that usually end in self-discovery and twelve-step enlightenment. One can even read of harsh prison camps that beat screen-addicted teenagers into catatonic sobriety. The stories are sensational, verging on moral panic. But one thing is clear: our relationship to the image has changed, and what is feared is not only what people are watching, but how much and how often, and with what degree of self-control.
Addicts, at one time visible only in social problem films (Man with the Golden Arm, 1955; Panic in Needle Park, 1971), have proliferated throughout television and film. Boozehounds, pill poppers, cokeheads, crackheads, tweakers, stoners… all sorts of addicts have come to populate every television and cinematic drama, usually in starring roles. Just as the schizoid hero may enact late capitalist anxieties about the nature of reality (Fight Club, 1999; Mr. Robot, 2015-19), the protagonist-addict embodies the compulsiveness of contemporary viewership. Viewer-addicts can watch protagonist-addicts gamble away their paychecks, get high in shooting galleries, show up drunk to work, relapse and recover, make amends, and break promises. Almost every television show includes one protagonist-addict, and some (Mad Men, 2007-2015; Euphoria, 2019-; etc.) feature whole crowds. Television narrative has changed accordingly, supplementing the usual three-part arc with the up-and-down rollercoaster ride typical of the addicted life. Since, as recovery programs teach, addicts are addicts even when they aren’t using, recidivism will forever be a threat for the protagonist-addict. The struggle of addiction is therefore narratively endless. Against the closure of psychoanalysis is the interminable burden of the protagonist always in recovery. The new hero cycles in and out of rehab, enjoying huge narrative upswings before collapsing in despair.
The ideal capitalist consumer is often imagined to be an individual who exercises free, rational choice in the marketplace, spending the right amount of money on the best products in a reasonable amount of time. The ideal consumer, however, is not free or rational, nor do they spend the right amount of money. The ideal consumer more closely resembles an addict. Like an addict, the ideal consumer should never be satisfied with buying a product once. An ideal consumer should buy the same product repeatedly, every day, for life. Like an addict, the ideal consumer’s brand loyalty should be eternal—even if the brand is inferior or risks killing the consumer. The ideal consumer should spend everything they have on the product. If they run out of money, the ideal consumer must go into disastrous debt for the product. Even when they run out of credit, the ideal consumer should not be able to stop desiring the product. Their relationship to the product should be compulsive and slavish. This means the consumer must confuse want with need, so that giving up the product seems as absurd as giving up water or air.
For much of the twentieth century, this ideal consumer-addict was the tobacco smoker. Marketed as confident, adult, and sexy, the smoker was in fact consumerism’s dark synecdoche. By creating a planet of consumer-addicts, the tobacco industry enjoyed GDP-sized profits while triggering a global health crisis whose costs were paid mostly by the public. But this could not last forever. Even a boardroom sociopath could see the downside of relying on dangerously addictive product to generate profits: if a regulatory agency notices, or enough class action lawsuits are filed, profits would shrink, and the industry would cease to exist. But given large enough profits, moral hazard is an ineffectual deterrent. No matter what the harm to consumers, capitalism will continue to create new addictive industries. The latest example is the opioid industry: although opioids were supposed to be used in a limited medical context, the potential for abuse and the desire for profit was too great.
Unlike opiates and nicotine, there is nothing inherently addictive about images. In order to make images addictive, media and tech companies had to design delivery systems that would encourage a compulsive relationship to their content. This compulsion is largely understood by designers along behaviorist and neuroscientific lines: compulsion becomes a habit through reward-based reinforcement. The reward is the neurotransmitter dopamine, and the delivery devices are our apps. In videogame design, the seeking of rewards through compulsive behavior is called a “compulsion loop,” a kind of neuroscientific hamster wheel broken into three parts: the anticipation of reward, the working towards the reward, and the attainment of the reward. Anticipation brings pleasure and anxiety. The work is often meaningless and can sometimes be random. (Pulling a slot machine’s lever, killing orcs.) Rewards can be in the form of numerical points or in-game currency. The reward is accompanied by a dose of dopamine and then there is a compulsion to repeat the cycle. Soon a player can become addicted, spending long hours chasing payouts or points or in-game cash. This kind of looping anticipation-act-reward cycle has been grafted from game design to all kinds of software design including phone notifications, online purchases, and video streaming apps.
If addiction is central to media narratives and their consumption, it is, in part, because the moving image is now software. This is not the sole reason: cinephilia and other forms of cine-cultism can be found throughout the twentieth century, preceding digital culture by several decades. Likewise, treating television as an ambient “always on” household presence, as well as the marathon watching of reruns and sporting events, existed before digital culture. And as we will see, the food industry, in addition to the information technology industry, is engaged in analogous practices without the use of software. But the digitization of the moving image, along with the delivery of high-quality images via broadband internet, has accelerated and expanded these forms of viewing. This means that moving images are mostly viewed through websites and apps—YouTube, Twitch, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.—all of which are designed to encourage users to keep watching for the longest time possible. With millions of users, a small design change—the movement of a button or a slight change in text color—can produce disproportionate effects on viewer attention. Design changes, then, are oriented around viewer retention and compulsion loops. With Netflix and YouTube, cinephiles and TV fans were converting into software users, and by becoming software users they became trackable, predictable, controllable. By digitizing cinema, a cinema viewer’s mouse gestures, attention spans, genre preferences, critical comments, and even eye motions, could now be captured and recorded. By combining algorithmic recommendation engines with various “dark” design strategies, companies like Amazon and Netflix increase the chances that a late-night impulse purchase of a film would turn into a double feature, hopefully resulting in an all-night binge.
Just as Silicon Valley designed apps as slot machines, food giants like General Mills and Kellogg’s transformed snacks into drugs. As reporter Michael Moss wrote in his study Salt Sugar Fat, in less than half a century and with a trinity of ingredients, corporate food producers set about addicting consumers to seemingly innocuous products like breakfast cereal, crackers, and cookies. To do so, geneticists studied inheritable sweet tooths; psychologists tested self-control; neuroscientists sought “reward centers;” and chemists baked the results. Those results—triple salted, fat saturated, flavor enhanced—created billions in profits while triggering multiple global health epidemics. Obesity and gout—formerly diseases of the rich—were now diseases of the poor, and doctors began seeing nutritional deficiencies in children eating three meals a day. As processed food spread globally, food diversity declined, and in only few decades, much of world’s palates were colonized by a handful of American companies.
Out of all this culinary engineering emerged the “bliss point,” a term of art for an “optimized” taste. Baked goods, for example, can only hold so much sugar. Too little sugar, and baked goods taste bland. Too much, and they are disgustingly sweet. Somewhere in between is a sugar quantity acceptable to the palates of most consumers. But within that range of acceptable quantities is a second value, an “optimized” value: very sweet, though not so sweet to cause disgust. This is the consumer’s “bliss point”—an optimal point on a curve of flavor intensity.
A bliss point is not a biological fact. There is no one amount of salt, sugar, or fat in which everyone finds pleasure. Taste is culturally determined, and changes over time. Although the food industry likes to believe that it discovers bliss points, it in fact creates those points and then manipulates them to maintain “stomach share.” One example is found in industry’s unavoidable creation of baseline acceptable levels of sugar: as each company tries to make its food sweeter or saltier than its competition and win over stomach share, there is a global change in the market of what is considered “normal” taste. Over time, processed food becomes sweeter, saltier, more laden with fat, and palates acclimate accordingly. No one company can deescalate this gustatory arms race, and thus consumers come to expect a certain level of sweetness or saltiness in every corporate product.
But high levels of taste intensity are not the true goal. The goal is to find taste intensities that do not exhaust the consumer, yet keep the consumer coming back for more. The field’s early lessons in what it calls “sensory-specific satiety” were learned in the American military, when researchers tried to get soldiers to eat more of their rations. The problem would become a familiar one: if the rations were too bland, soldiers would not eat them. But if they tasted too strong, soldiers would often tire of the strong taste after several meals. What was discovered was that strong flavor triggers satiety, while bland flavors can be eaten for longer periods of time, though with less pleasure. The food industry that grew out of military food science understood that food should taste intense enough to give pleasure and stand out from the competition, but not so intensely as to satisfy completely.
In Hollywood blockbusters, a similar logic has been at work. As with the food industry, intensity is the thing, an intensity based on sound and light rather than salt and sugar. Every year, explosions must be bigger, louder, more colorful, drag on for longer in more impossible configurations. (An explosion enhanced by computer graphics is sometimes referred to in the film industry as “sweetened.”) On home flatscreens and in IMAX theaters, with greater resolution and more impossible pyrotechnics, audiences have come to expect an image overstuffed with detail and movement. (The IMAX website advertises an “endless sweet spot” where “there are no bad seats.”) But unlike the food industry, the entertainment industry relies mostly on guesswork and audience polling as it seeks out its intensities. There are no scientific labs attempting to design the perfect bliss point image. There is no neuroscience of blockbuster dependency, no scientifically optimized intensity for the right high-speed car crash. But there is a boundary—culturally determined, though unarticulated—that is always being pushed against and redefined. This is how an onscreen intensity is created and felt: like soldiers with their rations, audiences will tire of blandness and give up if the images are too intense.
The Red Queen in the Fog
When director John Carpenter completed his first cut of his 1980 movie The Fog, he knew he was in trouble. The director’s previous film, Halloween, released two years before, was an immensely popular and profitable horror film, a film that would generate a series of sequels and imitations over the next decade. Carpenter’s latest film, based on an original script, was about a fog that overtakes a coastal town, unleashing vengeful undead on its inhabitants. While editing, Carpenter realized that the story and music did not work. But there was another problem: the film was not intense enough. There was not enough gore, not enough of the scares that audiences had already come to expect during the last half of the seventies.
Carpenter was the victim of his genre’s recent success. In only two years since Halloween had been released, horror films had become more violent. With Halloween, he, as much as any director, had intensified movie images. Along with horror directors George Romero, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, and others, Carpenter was strongly identified with a new, extreme form of horror. Often cheaply and quickly produced, the films they directed in the late seventies and early eighties were immensely profitable. But to remain profitable, they could not stay the same. Audiences wanted to see more. If last year’s film had one exploding head, this year’s needed two. After the slasher films of the late 70s, killing a character off screen would be a disappointment—everything had to happen in full view of the camera, no cuts, no looking away. Kill scenes became an end in themselves: lawn tool plus neck, wooden splinter plus eye, power drill plus head. And with every bloody new spectacle came the same anxious questions: Will the censors allow it? Will audiences find it shocking? What taboos are left to transgress?
When watching an action film from the sixties, one is sometimes struck by how quiet the film can be, how slow and deliberate the action is. Horror films are less intense, porn films less explicit. In Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg used two or three jump scares. Today, a typical horror film has many multiples of that. It is just as the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: Here, you must run to stay in the same place. In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen is used to explain why organisms must adapt: because otherwise they would die. Like the Red Queen, a species must change in order to remain the same, and a species that is not constantly evolving will go extinct.
Cinemas of Intensity
The same could be said for what could be called “cinemas of intensity.” It only took a decade or two for the cinemas of intensity—action films, kung-fu films, monster movies, splatter films, hardcore porn—to take over the mainstream. This cinema frames non-narrative moments of “action”—fighting, fucking, bodies turned inside out, the grotesque, what Linda Williams called “the frenzy of the visible”—in an oftentimes flimsy narrative frame. A slumber party becomes an excuse for a massacre (or an orgy), a violent crime becomes a motive for endless, multi-sequel revenge.
During the 1970s, cinemas of intensity played twenty-four hours a day in a few square blocks surrounding New York City’s 42nd Street. For a brief time, these grindhouses were the laboratories for this intensification of cinematic imagery. At the beginning of the seventies, audiences could only see so much: fellatio in big-screen close-up, maybe a quick geyser of fake semen or deep red blood. Audiences endured hours of hazy narrative for a few minutes of action. Over the next few years, porn and grindhouse films, produced by small, international studios, released films of greater explicitness, each a copy of the next. Nunsploitation, biker films, Exorcist rip-offs, sex comedies, and Dirty Harry doppelgangers, were released and screened for audiences who really didn’t care much about plot or acting. They were there for faster car chases, bloodier kills, and ever more explicit fucking. In each new release, filmmakers optimized and intensified their images, asymptotically approaching a kind of ecstatic perfection. Frenzy of the visible, indeed. Horror’s gore became gorier. Porn’s cameras zoomed in closer, every follicle on display. Action sequences ate up entire movies, using enough ammo to wage a war.
VHS was invented, the seventies ended, and the grindhouses closed. Cine-addicts, gorehounds, and porno creeps stayed home, where they built their own pleasure palaces in rec-rooms and basements: the voyeur became a collector, stockpiling hard-to-find director cuts, John Holmes’s entire back catalog, cable-access shows taped in the early morning hours. The far-flung grindhouse genres now had their own mailing listings and catalogues, with their own critical apparatuses and historians. Fetishes beget fetishes, genres beget genres, each with its own aesthetic categories, tropes, obligations, and histories. Horror fans could subscribe to Fangoria and Gorezone, porn fans had magazines devoted to their favorite studios and stars. Eventually these magazines went online, supplemented by user forums and social media groups. A crude accounting emerged: websites listing kill counts, jump scares, anal penetrations, car chases, ejaculations.
As these films chase bigger and more intense extremes, narratives dissolve and lose their coherence. In horror, pornography, and the action film, narrative made possible moments of intensity—the long build to a final shoot-out, the endless foreplay before intercourse—but over time, as audiences came to expect more intense scenes in a greater number, narrative no longer served to generate these scenes. Instead, narrative became an obstacle to pleasure, and over several decades, one can see the emergence of films that are little more than uninterrupted scenes of gore (the Saw franchise) and endless scenes of gunplay (John Woo’s Hong Kong films) or sex without story (gonzo porn).
The cinema that has emerged is one preoccupied with intensities, with surfaces and shocks. Belonging to no one genre or distribution medium, this new cinema is a cinema of action set-pieces, torture porn, superhero battles, explicit sex, CGI effects, glistening bodies, splattered gore, and IMAX scale. It is a cinema of high-end renderings and chroma-keyed backgrounds, both ultra-realistic and highly artificial. It is an industrial cinema serialized out of sequels, remakes, tie-ins, canons, and cinematic universes. Its plots are oftentimes simplistic, verging on non-existent, though sometimes they are so complicated and spread over so many sequels and spin-offs that not even superfans understand what is going on. It is a cinema whose moral worldview is Manichean and oftentimes nihilistic. Instead of dialogue, there are one-liners. Instead of psychologies, there are superpowers.
This new cinema is neither confined to so-called high or low entertainment, nor to any one genre or mode of distribution. It is platform agnostic and always opportunistic, screening in multiplexes, streaming to 8K televisions, downloaded to smartphones, watched in transatlantic flights or from the backseat of an SUV. It makes little distinction between movie theaters and TV, web shorts and 14-episode seasons. This cinema can be felt throughout moving image culture, including Chelsea galleries and arthouse cinemas. As much an attitude as it is a look, this cinema has no one author, no one proponent, no single school. It belongs as much to Martin Scorsese as it does to Pornhub or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cinemas of intensity have their origins in the more misogynistic, down-market genres of entertainment, but as horror films, porn, and action films became mainstream, they also expanded their audiences.
The male libido may have provided the laboratory for cinemas of intensity, but today one can find female-centric, if not feminist, revisions of all grindhouse genres: female-directed porn, female-led action films, self-reflective “final girl” films. More crucially, all of these genres have become part of the DNA of the Hollywood blockbuster, itself the ne plus ultra of cinematic intensity. Blockbusters are like porn, porn is like horror films, horror films are like martial arts films… each is about moments of extreme imagery, the extremeness of which is defined by prior transgressions. If the last disaster blockbuster destroyed New York City, then the next must destroy the Eastern Seaboard.
Because these intensities must always be stronger, in higher definition, with greater bombast and scale, filmmakers often have nowhere left to go, having only recently maxed out with the longest car chase or the biggest sexual climax. Audiences sometimes find themselves similarly stranded: What exactly does one watch after the millionth murder or orgasm? The answer, of course, is more of the same. In a post-scarcity image economy, life for the contemporary viewer-addict is organized around a steady diet of media consumption. The result is not a life of hedonistic pleasure, but one devoted to maintaining a baseline of stimulation. As the viewer-addict is exposed to more images of greater intensity, tolerance builds, baselines shift, and what was once extreme pleasure becomes anodyne. A viewer-addict chases ever-greater intensities, not out of enjoyment, but from a need to perpetuate the norm. Over time, this diminishment of feeling is accompanied by a loss of meaning, and hence, “desensitization,” or what might better be understood as image anhedonia. To feel nothing, enjoy nothing, experience nothing as new or novel—these are the logical and distant ends of the narco-image. Most viewers will never reach those ends, however, and will instead move on to another kind of thrill. But when there are no more bodies to expose, no more blood to splatter, when everything has been seen and done, audiences may experience one last, perhaps terminal state: exhaustion.
Stills from “Autoextinction” by John Menick.