Recently, I was struck by an episode of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs with Poet Laureate Simon Armitage in which he described a teenage encounter with Samuel Beckett’s plays – an encounter facilitated not by a trip to the theatre or an inspiring English teacher, but a Friday night programme on BBC Two. “I didn’t really understand them,” he said. “I just saw them as being other and different, and speaking to some part of me that I hadn’t really come to terms with but that I thought I would meet again in the future at some point.” Am I just incredibly bland, or does that sort of thing not happen anymore? I’m not talking about moments of individual connection with pieces of art, per se, or even about the jolts of true self- understanding that may follow – those I’ve found to be rare, but surely they always were. No, what most stood out to me about Armitage’s experience was its apparently incidental character: a proleptic disclosure of an as-yet-undiscovered self brought on by nothing more outré than a touch of teenage curiosity and a public service broadcaster comfortable enough to trust its viewership to appreciate an undiluted dose of Beckettian perplexity. This was about more than just personal connection or nascent self-knowledge. It was a testament to culture as Event: a casual brush with artistic greatness creating a time and a place that, upon reflection, obviously said something profound about the subsequent direction of his own life.
Armitage grew up at a time when the BBC could still be described as a paternalist organisation, one that believed it knew what was best for its audience and intended to give it to them, whether they liked it or not. This ‘eat your greens’ approach, epitomised by Lord Reith’s mantra that the Beeb should be “the citizen’s guide, philosopher and friend”, looks at face value like the arrogant elitist dogmatism you might expect of an institution dominated by Oxbridge-educated toffs. But, as Armitage’s example shows, it was actually capable of providing moments of cultural revelation, especially for impressionable young people whose lives might otherwise have offered little in terms of the genuinely ‘other’. In an era when channels were few and air time was therefore limited, the decision to fill some of it with the plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, or the televisual experiments of Jonathan Miller, Dennis Potter and David Rudkin, amounted to a cultural program for a generation of youths who unconsciously yearned for a glimpse of this unadulterated otherness. Constructing a picture of what it might have been like, it’s easy for me to lapse into nostalgia for an imagined past. But it really does seem like for those who came of age around the time Armitage did, TV could be a portal into a different world – one of such incomprehensible alterity that it forced its initiates to expand their view of what art could do, even what life could be, in ways they could never have imagined on their own.
Armitage was not alone in registering this phenomenon. Mark Fisher was a cultural theorist whose wide-ranging body of work often turned on his conviction that the era in which he grew up – the 70s and 80s – offered possibilities that seem largely foreclosed today. Another beneficiary of the BBC’s paternalist program, Fisher made no bones about the fact that the trajectory of his own life would have been unimaginable without the existence of the lively and easily accessible cultural milieu fostered above all by Aunty Beeb and the alternative music press: a milieu that took its audience seriously, both as multifaceted individuals and as intelligent consumers. Writing in defence of this paternalist impetus over today’s cult of choice, Fisher was unabashed: “Neoliberal ‘choice’ traps you in yourself, allowing you to select between minimally different versions of what you have already chosen; paternalism wagers on a different you, a you that does not yet exist.” This claim was made in 2010, before Netflix had assumed its position of near-total TV hegemony. Now, when its impersonal algorithms subtly influence our consumption, inviting us to select from a list of options carefully curated to reflect back at us nothing less than ‘what we’ve already chosen’, Fisher’s contention carries even more weight.
This contemporary way of watching might appear intuitively unproblematic: if you enjoyed something, what’s wrong with wanting more of the same? But as Armitage and Fisher make clear, culture has more to offer than simple enjoyment. At its best, surely, it is capable of taking you beyond the pleasure principle, beyond your desires and beyond yourself, of speaking to depths that quotidian life alone could never hope to reach. The only way you can ever truly be changed by something is by losing yourself in it so completely that you are never quite able to find your way back to where you were. Paternalism recognises that, if we want to voyage outside the limits of ourselves, all that most of us require is a nudge in the right direction. Services like Netflix don’t care, as long as we keep watching – and the best way to ensure that is to keep us preoccupied with overwhelmingly mediocre fare, shows that can show us nothing new because they’re hardly different from that which we’ve already seen.
The problem lies not merely with the disappearance of this paternalism, of course, but also with the mode that has replaced it. These days, we’re confronted with an unprecedented array of options in all spheres of cultural consumption. Spotify has reduced music history to a single, ever-expanding menu that runs the gamut from Hildegard von Bingen to Harry Styles, and streaming services have pulled a similar trick with a good proportion of the filmic canon. This might seem like a good thing, and that’s often the way it’s sold to us: drowning in choice, we rarely think to stop and ask ourselves whether something is missing. Is it just my cynicism that prevented even Charlie Kaufman’s supremely strange i’m thinking of ending things (just released on Netflix, no less) from lingering with me beyond the confines of its runtime? Or is it in fact the case that, reduced to a mere option among many, even the most ‘other’, the most ‘different’, is robbed of the status of an Event? Cinemas, in contrast, are epic by nature: their very architecture – the giant screen, the cavernous auditorium, the hushed darkness, all of it intimate and alien at once – can imbue the experience of watching a film with an almost sacramental significance. Sat at home with Kaufman’s film, I could practically feel the weight of the Great Unwatched bearing down from beyond the borders of the TV screen, an unavoidable reminder of the film’s unremitting contingency on my own ‘free choice’. At any moment, I could have switched it off, picked something else instead: Goodfellas, Roma, Shrek. In the realm of streaming, movie magic is dead; we’re not asked to grapple with new worlds, just to choose between moving-picture sequences of various lengths. Brecht himself could not have provided a more effective framework for Verfremdung. How stark a contrast Armitage’s picture provides: an experience that confronted him not as simple ‘choice’ but as genuine discovery, uniquely arresting although incomprehensible, freely embraced yet in some sense unasked-for. Could Netflix ever hope to offer something so unobtrusively sublime?