Smart series and the cognitive turn in serial story-telling (part 2)

The change in the dominant narrative of American series is not only due to the cognitive turn, but also to the need to deal with a major trauma, 9/11, with the knowledge that films that have tried to represent it directly and explicitly have done poorly.  Smart series are a way for American culture to adapt to the post 9/11 environment, to deal with the general feeling of guilt at not having anticipated the catastrophe and to prepare for the new context of intelligent networks in globalization. They come at a time when consensus building in the USA seems more important than dissensus.  By renewing the serial narrative, and displacing it from outer worlds to inner brains, they signify that the enemy is within and Americans have to become aware of it and they have to recognize the signs.

In most of these detection series, the central agency of reference is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in connection with Homeland Security (Fringe) and with occasional collaboration with NSA (Numb3rs). The agency is no longer able to protect Americans with its traditional means of investigation and therefore it has to call on the psychic detectives for external help. Such is the case of Monk, but also of Allison DuBois in Medium, of Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, of Shawn Spencer in Psych, of Charlie Eppes in Numb3rs and of the Bishops, father and son in Fringe.

By establishing a complex and generative pattern of relations, —presented as mental, psychic and spiritual—, these new series show more profound implications of fantasy in real-life, via representation and the way it constructs beliefs and attitudes. This may be due to the need to mourn the dead, an unfinished job in the sequel of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.  They do not mention 9/11 directly but they work on the issue of terror, inner terrors and outer terrors in combination with memory and mourning. Fringe is a case in point where Olivia, the heroin, at the close of the first season, travels to a parallel universe, where the World Trade Center was not destroyed by 9/11 attacks. In Heroes, Hiro Nakamura travels in time to see the future of New York city, destroyed by a nuclear explosion that he can avoid by killing the villain Sylar when he eventually returns to the present.

The emergence of security politics then consists in a background of issues related to terrorism, like the spread of mass destruction and environmental risks and catastrophes as well as the more personal risks of treason and espionage, in strong correlation with the capacity to read and decipher the signs of intrusion. (This compelling narrative can extend to other types of series, including domestic dramas like Desperate Housewives, where each season is based on a mystery to solve in the neighbourhood). The force of attraction of such narratives and situations is based on the composite of ideas and attitudes that it conjures up, as a mix of adaptability to a changing context and of fierce belief in individualism. They convey a two-folded cognitive message: some values are stable like individualism or nationhood; some values are unstable like democracy and family.

Such series and their smart story-telling can also be seen as a means to export American social engineering in the global environment, as they reconcile self-interest and open-endedness, and recombine morality politics and identity politics with security politics.  This process allows for the export of the American model of cognition, not unrelated to some forms of social Darwinism as it is based on fear and terror, while other models, like the French, are based on attachment and resilience. As the viewer is caught in the “global fellowship” of the serial experience, the USA remain a force of proposition for universal values by staying at the cutting edge for shaping storytelling and the agenda of values via entertainment.

Smart series are about smart power, no longer “soft power” as theorized by Joseph Nye in the past, as they construe series into weapons of mass persuasion. They do so without using coercion, much in the same way as emotional intelligence can get you more social success than rational strategies. They work on the recognition that values can be shared, that they correspond both to the way our brain works and to our core desires. Viewer engagement is sought much more than traditional ploys of identification to the hero and projection into a situation, because there is the need to bring the viewer to contribute to the pursuit of these values, their reinforcement, their endorsement or even to resist them as long as their currency is maintained alive, as long as their themes and values continue shaping the agenda and the conversation.

Their international success resides partly in the fact that they address issues that people have to deal with in their daily felt experiences. Experiencing is key. And experiencing is not entertainment: it is knowledge acquisition by other means. These smart series are not about consumption but self-consumption. In other words, they are already engaged in knowledge economies, where the brain and its production will be the major source of activity and revenue. In such complex cognitive framing, manipulation of dreams and desires comes in a different packaging, more difficult to deconstruct because more embedded in our cognitive core of desires. In that sense, these series are more conducive to suspension of disbelief, which is to say to a more and more profound implication of fantasy in real-life, via representation and the way it constructs beliefs and attitudes in the mind and in the media.

Does this mean social cognition and neurosciences are bad? No, but their workings have to be made explicit to avoid the risks of manipulation as their tenets trickle down into popular culture and might justify the return to traditional values and beliefs. Redrawing the mental states related to attachment, fear, risk and moral reasoning can only raise new ethical questions. Social cognition and neurosciences can have a deep impact not only on our way of conceiving social situations but also on our way of questioning responsibility and blame attribution. The risk of a conservative and reductive interpretation of such progress is real, while it opens all sorts of evolutionary and generative potentialities. The communities of interpretation and practice gathered around fans and spectators at large need to remain watchful so that such engaging narratives are not hijacked by conservative ideological concerns that could derail the political and social advances made by research in mind theory.

Contrat Creative Commons
Smart series and the cognitive turn in serial story-telling (part 2) by Divina frau-Meigs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Pas de Modification 2.0 France.
Basé(e) sur une oeuvre à…telling-part-2/.

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