Will Hallucinate for Licensed Product
Jeffrey Sconce / Northwestern University

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Orderlies working the psych-ward spend a fair amount of time policing the television set. The psychotic, as it turns out, do not fare well when left completely alone with what remains our most imperious of media. At the center of their difficulties is what psychiatry calls the “delusion of reference”—a belief that the mass media speak directly to you or about you. Is Drew Carey asking you, specifically, to “come on down?” Do “Pop-Up Videos” hit a little too close to home? Do you somehow feel the new 90210 is an elaborate allegory based on your own personal humiliations in high school, possibly stolen directly from your diary or mind? Congratulations, you’ve earned that first round of Thorazine.

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These are not your thoughts.

Like schizophrenia itself, the delusion of reference is liable to become a meaningless category in the near future. Those qualities that have made television so acutely toxic to the psychotic (its simulated liveness, feigned interactivity, and virtual omnipresence) are only getting worse in the move toward convergence. Typically convergence connotes the horizontal and vertical interlocking of various media entities so that a given entertainment product might find more ways to steal our time and money. But to converge also suggests a closing in—the consumer-subject-citizen surrounded and increasingly squeezed by walls of media that move inexorably closer and closer, a once gothic fate of stone and spike now rendered in pixels and the hyperreal. At some centripetal singularity, we will all face the choice of either being crushed; or, in a final act of submission, to become a part of the wall itself—to converge with the convergence. And that will be the end of the delusion of reference. Once the enclosures are complete, the media really will speak to us directly, all the time, the formerly deluded now truly at the center of his or her own media universe. After that crucial tipping point, the delusion of reference will give way to the delusion of non-reference—the as yet unrecognized psychosis of not finding oneself at home in the media, of not obeying the imperative to stitch various media platforms together in order to reveal some industrially planted “secret” content, of not believing that the people who live in the TV are your intimate friends, and you theirs.

Look. NBC is calling you even now:

Hey hardcore Heroes fans, in preparation for Heroes Volume 4: Fugitives, we’re inviting you to share your passion and your storytelling abilities with the world (and maybe even the NBC viewing audience) through Heroes in a Hurry. The idea is simple: ask fans to briefly tell parts of the Heroes story in their own words, on camera.

Wouldn’t the NBC audience be a subset of the “world?” No matter, I get to create on-line property for the network—thousands will be amused by my zany, totally “me” demonstration of how well I’ve been paying attention to the franchise. What do you want me to do?

Because the Heroes story is rich, we’re suggesting that people focus their videos on a single character or idea. For example, tell us what happened to your favorite character this season, or give us your take on what happened during the eclipse.

That’s very helpful, thank you!

Edit something snappy on your computer or use your cell phone and shoot it all in one take. Make it starring you or your Heroes bobble-head collection, or action figures, or your pet iguanas—be creative. Just try to keep it short and focused.

Be creative? Can do, especially with all these terrific suggestions from the producers. Let’s see—keep it short, focused, snappy, character-based, recapitulative, and accommodating of ancillary bobble-head and action figure product lines. Got it! Oh wait, is that the nurse with my afternoon Haldol?

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An NBC-Universal employee demonstrates how you might best demonstrate
your enthusiasm for NBC product.

For now, some may still suffer a lingering anxiety that it might be best to get out before it’s too late–before the Xbox version of the TV adaptation of the movie based on the comic book inspired by a children’s genre born of Depression-era America keeps me in lockdown another two hours a day. Happily, there are product lines for these doubting souls as well. Consider a T-shirt now available for purchase, apparently in quantities sufficient enough so as not to come from the ironing board of a single homebound lunatic. Aimed at members of the Whedon-nation, the shirt reads: “How much Serenity stuff do I have to buy to get a sequel?” The shirt proclaims, in effect, “I’m hip enough to know that the entertainment industry is a ruthless bottom-line business, but I am beyond such exploitation because I have pre-emptively embraced said exploitation as a tactic of self-empowerment. I understand industry strategy, and by performing that “insider” understanding, am somehow inoculated from its effects and implications; or, more radically, no one can escape media exploitation, so why fight it; or, more colloquially, everyone already knows what I would do for Serenity (and Joss!)—all we’re arguing about now is the price.” It is rather like Christians responding to Nietzsche by printing up a batch of T-Shirts with crucifixes on the front, “the Religion of Slaves!” emblazoned proudly on the back.

This sentiment appears fairly common within the Whedon encampment. A website encourages Serenity fans to mail “wavecards” to Universal because, “In the film industry, money talks, so by sending these wavecards, which are officially licensed products, we’re putting money in Universal’s pocket and underscoring the potential for lots more profit.” Such activism, which no doubt goes well beyond the profit-verse of Firefly/Serenity, may well be a first in the annals of corporate protest: let us signify our unhappiness with the studio’s policy by doing exactly what the studio wants us to do—buy more officially licensed crap. A post on a Firefly message board seconds this strategy: “I agree that supporting licensed merchandise is the most straight forward way to support the movie. I’ve bought 8 copies of the BDS and BDM, and a Serenity T-shirt. I also rented Serenity once before I bought it.” Who wrote this, one wonders? A “fan” or a flak in the Universal legal department? Is it a loyalty oath of some kind? Or do these distinctions even matter anymore?

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I hear and I obey.

Twenty years ago, a person who professed a belief that his letters were having an impact on the color of Cliff Huxtable’s sweaters would have been a prime candidate for institutionalization, a delusion of reference par excellence. Today we take such ideation in stride: “Everyone knows producer X reads the Show Z message boards, he even logs in sometimes under an alias!” Therefore, the Show Z community has an impact on the program. As delusions go, this one is particularly sad, like the psychotic alone at a window in the day room who thinks he controls the weather. From Freud onward, theorists have attempted to account for how the psychotic translate internal affect into fantasies of external control, how libidinal energies become literalized as a type of ray that can influence a love object from afar. The entire point of the trolling media God fantasy—even if one knows, deep down, it’s really only an intern assigned to update all the ancillary content—is to flatter and thus further entangle viewers in fantasies of their own creative agency. Not only do the media speak to me, they want to hear from me! That show matters to me, so I must matter to it!

Of course, viewers can’t be blamed for believing they actually have a tangible impact on what direction Chuck might take on NBC, or in thinking that only their credit limit and more shelving space stand between them and a Daredevil sequel—the totality of the convergence enclosure is now set up precisely to encourage such delusions of “prosuming” reference. Captive now for almost a century to the technocratic administration of the imagination, perhaps this variant of Stockholm syndrome is the only possible endpoint allowed us. I want my kidnapper’s attention and approval so desperately that I’m willing to become a model consumer; an accommodating hostage eager to do everything within my corporately sanctioned power to advance the brand—for weeks, months, even years of my life.

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Thorazine: Useful for sedating those who believe the television speaks to them directly, and in the future, for those who believe it does not.

If you find such pro-active corporate obedience to be sad and a little scary, don’t worry. After the convergence converges, after the culture industries perfect a handful of hermetically sealed franchises to better manage any potential eccentricities of affect, and after you discover there are no “licensed” fantasies that speak to your particular structure of desire—the orderlies will be there to provide you with all the Thorazine you could possibly want.

Image Credits:
1. (No Caption)
2. These are not your thoughts.
3. An NBC-Universal employee demonstrates how you might best demonstrate
your enthusiasm for NBC product.

4. I hear and I obey.
5. Thorazine: Useful for sedating those who believe the television speaks to them directly, and in the future, for those who believe it does not.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Kit Hughes / FLOW Staff

    Thanks again for the provocative column.

    I couldn’t help thinking of Obama’s masterfully manipulated campaign, in which each citizen could locate a group—republicans, women, beer brewers (for Obama)—that interpolated them specifically and provided plenty of opportunities to purchase matching campaign gear. Is this just another sign that delusion of non-reference is well nigh? Or is it different, since it lead to the possibility of political change (albeit within the existing political system). What exactly do you see as the alternative to this type of corporate-sanctioned consumption?

  • For me, the most troubling aspect of this kind of convergence creepiness is that sometimes media makers are reading message boards and the like.

    I’ve participated in a small message board community for a number of years. At one point, someone who claimed to be Amanda Ghost was a regular poster. One of the other regular posters, a New York DJ, made it backstage at one of the performer’s shows with another board frequenter.

    They went up to say hi to Amanda, only to find that she had no idea who they were or what message board they were talking about — this was not the first time something like that had happened to her, and as best anyone could figure, her label had been seeking out “tastemaker” communities online and having someone (probably some hapless intern) post as Amanda Ghost to help build buzz, publicity, etc. The fake Amanda Ghost flirted, befriended and generally participated much as the rest of us did. The message board community I’m a part of is one heavily populated by musicians, A&R types, writers and similar — in short, we were a perfect target for the label. That incident is one of the key reasons that the board is now invitation only. I would not be surprised if other labels or producers of other media pursued similar tactics. It’s enough to justify some pretty serious paranoia.

  • Kit and Carly’s comments point out that even though we are most often paranoid about the Internet’s ability to gather marketing information, it also has the perhaps even more disturbing function of generating the ineffable quality of “buzz” around a certain commodity–be it Obama, Amanda Ghost, or a television series.

    In regards to Obama, I would distinguish what I’m talking about in one important way. Political niche marketing is as old as the direct-mail campaigns that helped elect Reagen–we should fully expect that political campaigns would finally merge with the politics of lifestyle consumption and then use every technology at their disposal to hit that target demo. But of course a political campaign has one ultimate goal–to sell you on a candidate for that one crucial product choice on election day.

    What concerns me about the proliferation of “insider” discourse and delusions of reference among fans is the way entertainment franchises now set themselves up to be like a “roach motel” of sorts (fans go in, but they don’t come out). In a longer version of this piece, I extended the schizophrenia metaphor to reference that hoary old chestnut of post-structuralism, Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari. D/G’s goal was to dethrone the Freudian model of desire as based on repression and repetition, offering instead a “schizophrenic” model that operated by following endless seemingly random chains of association in a process of ceaseless production. Put in the more prosaic terms of tv viewing, we have an interesting theoretical dilemma. How should one move through fields of cultural production and affective choice? Is it, in some respect, “healthier” to move from object to object (seeing an episode takes me on-line where I find out about a book that gets me interested in “x” that leads me to other areas of knowledge/pleasure previously unknown); or, to become mired in a single (or maybe a handful) of narrative franchises, repeating their central problematic/formula for months, years, decades, thereby limiting (or even arresting) one’s movement through culture/knowledge/affect/pleasure? Obviously, the culture industries hope that we will chose the latter option: obsessing on a single property and living in that world for as long as possible/profitable. What saddens me in so much of the activity referenced above is this idea that performing one’s understanding of the culture industries provides some type of imaginary inoculation, that it’s fine to be a “hostage” of sorts so long as I recognize my captivity–either through demonstrating insider knowledge, or worse, imagining that one has actually crossed over into becoming a part of the production team in some meaningful way.

  • Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. Would you say that what is happening at present is wildly different from what happened with Star Trek? Or with the branded children’s programming of the early ’80s (Masters of the Universe, My Little Pony, etc.)? Do those earlier fan communities represent a blueprint of some kind for what we’re seeing now?

    Also, I’d be interested to see you engage some with Rebecca McCarthy’s column in this issue, “The Rise of the Active Audience and Stephen Colbert.” It addresses some very similar issues, but takes a very different stance on them.

  • The discussion of politicians generally (and Obama specficially) “hailing” us to promote their product immediately makes me think of “Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle,” which allows you to click through a number of things that Obama supposedly “did’ for you — “Barack Obama drew you a picture in the sand,” “Barack Obama said he really wanted to meet you,” “Barack Obama built you a robot,” etc. etc.

    Obviously this is a joke — someone clever responding to the way that everyone thinks that Obama is their best friend — but it overtly and satirically manifests a very real phenomenon associated with the Obama campaign. Along with millions of others, I received an email from Barack Obama almost daily. Barack Obama’s name, in MY in-box! He even addressed it as “Dear Friend.” He needs me more than ever…to donate 20 dollars!

  • I just wanted to add that Disney is using banal production choices to get their viewers involved in the “production” choices of their programming and films. For example Disney conducted a survey that allowed fans to choose what t-shirt a character would wear, what sandwich they would eat and what Disney star would appear at the end of the High School Musical 2. I’m curious on what Disney’s use of fan involvement means for the fans who will move on to other studios and franchises.

  • A few years back, Disney had a property they were pushing that featured a “tweener” girl living on a space ship (the title escapes me). The ship seemed like a cross between a shopping mall and a high school…except in space. It didn’t seem to go anywhere (not like the High School Musical franchise, anyway), but in retrospect, it may have been Disney’s bid for the perfect self-replicating franchise: capture the pre-adolescent and arrest them at a particular stage of psycho–sexual development, place them in a wholly immersive “space-adventure” universe, and then train them for “older” (yet fundamentally identical) fare on down the road.

    The main difference now, I think, is that producers are getting better at making both the diegetic and the extratextual into immersive, quasi-delusional experiences: I can really, really believe there is a planet Vulcan out there somewhere, and I can also really, really believe that I have some kind of status or influence within the Paramount empire.

    As for Obama, I’m happy he won, but if I get one more “personal” invitation to donate $250 so that I might possibly get invited to dine, shoot hoops, or spoon with our new President, I will seek asylum myself–either at the State Hospital or Disney’s shopping mall spaceship.

  • Jeff – “it’s fine to be a “hostage” of sorts so long as I recognize my captivity” – I meant to post something earlier about your TV-as-gothic-enclosure metaphor. I”ve thought for a while that Big Brother (speaking of roach motels) in some ways allegorizes the processes you describe. Certainly its inmates are also “willing hostages,” but what I’m really getting at here is how the show itself stages the inside/outside dichotomy, enabling the hosts on the “outside” – which is in fact just another “inside,” one level up – to pretend they’re our accomplices, over on “our” side. So the actual viewing audience (i.e. us) is elided with the TV viewing audience. This is where we merge with the media walls you describe, except that we need to turn the metaphor inside out, as the TV walls move outwards, staging the viewing process itself and merging with the audience.

    What I’m really waiting for is J.J. Abrams in the Big Brother house – now that would make for some interesting T-shirts.

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