Friday, August 20, 2010

Mixed Media Emotions

I've just finished watching an episode of Cold Case. I don't like Cold Case -- I was watching it because the crime/detective dramas that I actually like weren't on, and I'm a total mystery junkie. Anyways, this particular episode featured an autistic child whose parents were murdered, and it ends with a particularly sappy, over-blown scene of the autistic boy getting to move in with his big sister to a room decorated with the kind of fish that he likes, and this kid (who can't act very well -- but then, the general poor quality of the acting on the show leads me to suspect that the director may be partially responsible, or that hamming is a deliberate marketing choice) is trying to do an imitation of that wide, blissful, smile that autistic children have when something in their inaccessible world is going just right for them. (Usually, you have no idea what this something might be. Sometimes you can tell -- he just really, really likes the pigs that live in the elephant grass in Planet Earth, or finds Women's Olympic Hockey hilarious.) Overlaying this beautiful cathartic moment is some sort of dreadful rock music in the alternative-goes-easy-listening genre. And I'm angry. I actually went and got a drink of water in the other room to escape this situation, because there's this complicated and absurd set of emotional reactions that I have, and I don't know quite what to do with them, or how to interpret them.
(What does this have to do with homosexuality? Not much -- But with evangelism in this particular culture...we'll get to that.)
The emotional feedback loop generated by a bad, kitschy piece of television:
1. A real emotion is evoked. A positive, personal, beautiful emotion -- the way that I feel about my son.
2. A fake positive emotion is thickly laid overtop. A sappy, clappy, emo-porn sentimentality: a programmed emotional reaction designed to create a certain kind of pseudo-experience in people who haven't had the actual experience.
3. I'm having a Baudrillard moment. I have an emotional reaction, but I can't tell how much of it is my real emotional reaction and how much is the simulacrum. The map is consuming the kingdom. The simulation is effacing the real. (If this doesn't make much sense, and probably it doesn't, read Simulation and Simulacra. That won't make much sense either, but the reference will be clarified.)
4. An intellectual reaction: I recognize that what I'm reacting to is the kitschification of something that is important to me.
5. I want to rebel. I don't want to have the feeling now. The original feeling is mine and it doesn't belong to the realm of kitsch, or to televisual manipulation. This is a usurpation, and I want to be impassive as a form of interior resistance.
6. Although I am capable of suppressing the real feeling if I want to, the combination of visual effects, swelling music, and other media tricks is now forcing me to have the fake feeling.
7. I'm really, really angry. Angry with myself for being manipulable in this way, angry at the show for manipulating me. Just mad.

Now, the thing is that I don't think everyone is familiar with this kind of internal conflict when faced with the cultural artefacts of the media age. Conservative Christians, (if TV programming is anything to go by) generally seem to be willing to put up with unbelievable quantities of sap without feeling that their existential guts are being dredged through razor-sharp saccharine. Liberals, too, seem to be able to handle this -- provided that the sap is properly liberal.
But there are a lot of people of my generation who just won't put up with it at all. Who have been cheated by the emotional pop-corn machine too many times, and who are constantly on guard. Who will react negatively to the portrayal of any strong positive emotion, for something resembling the reasons that I give above. (Oh, here's a glbt tie in: there are a lot of these people in the gay and lesbian sub-culture -- cf. the difference between something campy, like Queen's "It's a Miracle", and something bubble-gummy like John's Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance.")
The point is that the Christian message in its honey-sweet form is repulsive to people who have this sort of ironic defence system. It produces a very short-lived interior glow that is almost immediately replaced with a creeped-out feeling, rejection, and anger. Worth keeping in mind when you go evangelizing in the information age.


  1. That is a very interesting observation.

  2. I could not agree more. This sappy stuff is making Catholic/Christian culture psychologically obese.


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