We are in the middle of the streaming wars. A boom of content platforms, as entertainment mega-companies like to call themselves, is happening: AppleTV+, Disney+, Paramount+, etc. Streaming has become the standard, and the plus is a major trend in naming these services.[i]
Most content concerns movies or series, harkening back to the time before the streaming era. But a curious new type of content has emerged: gaming streams. A truly 21st-century product that is revealing of the complex enjoyment derived from streaming. The delegation of enjoyment involved in the game stream represents a new stage in its development. Action is twice removed from the viewer, yet it’s not a one-way street. Multiple interpassive relations are layered, tied together by a live script demanding the insourcing of produced reactions.
To make some sense of these game streams, I approach them through the concept of interpassivity, first proposed some twenty-five years ago by Robert Pfaller.[ii] He was the one who developed the theoretical obverse of interactivity. Celebrated as the democratization of art installations, audience participation was seen as a horizontal rendering of the relations between artist and participant. Pfaller’s point was that enjoyment was not inherently tied to (inter)activity but could be found in the guise of delegation: rather than enjoying directly, we – counterintuitively – enjoy the outsourcing of our enjoyment to others. Game streams operate in the same register.
The chorus, canned laughter, and the claque
In his 1989 The Sublime Object of Ideology, about eight years before Pfaller proposed the concept of interpassivity, Slavoj Žižek already observed what would become one of its prime examples: canned laughter. A fake laugh to s(t)imulate a real laugh. It played on the infectiousness of laughter enhancing the viewing experience, itself constitutive of comedy since its inception.
Yet, live audiences posed a problem for television production. They were not ‘smart’ enough for the comedy. Their laugh missed its cue or lasted too long as no audience’s response is perfectly predictable. Television shows like the massively popular 90s sitcom Friends heavily relied on postproduction to correct this.
Canned laughter was not about editing in the biggest laugh. It was about the ‘appropriate reaction’. This also meant editing out laughter that was too loud or long-lasting. Otherwise, the next joke would not be audible.[iii] In other words, the laugh became part of the joke.
Canned laughter is a 20th-century phenomenon, but Žižek’s analysis of it drew upon Jacques Lacan’s understanding of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy. Standing in-between the audience and the play itself, the chorus pre-empted the (appropriate) reaction of the audience.[iv] In fact, it even relieved the spectators of having to react at all. Lacan tells us in the same passage that we therefore should not think too highly of ourselves when attending a play. We were probably not moved by it as much as we thought. But the upshot is that we don’t have to be, since the chorus already was.
The same holds for canned laughter. By insourcing the appropriate response, it relieves the television viewer of having to laugh at the shows and gives the viewer the objective experience of having had ‘fun’. It allows one to laugh, without having to ‘laugh out loud’. As Žižek explains, “even if […] we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time”.[v]
Laughing tracks are out of style. But, in contemporary television production we can still identify their function with reference to Mladen Dolar’s ‘claque’ (‘hired hands’). An off-stage counterpart to the chorus, which also takes on the responsibilities of the spectators, but as spectators: booing, laughing, crying, cheering, etc. [vi] Shows with an audience record, monitor, and cue their every sound or move. Smartened up by directions, the ‘hired hands’ lead the audience like a planted vanguard, playing the ‘smart’ crowd that knows the implicit rules of when to laugh, clap, or chatter.
In comedy television specifically, canned laughter would remain in vogue until the resurgence of single-camera shows in the 2000s: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Community, etc. Each of these new productions showcased mockumentary-style or deadpan comedy, in which silence adds to the ‘awkward’ situation, since no audience is present. Canned laughter would only detract from the awkwardness of the scene.[vii]
Single-camera mockumentaries therefore source in ‘awkward silences’. The correct length and timing of a silence makes the scene objectively awkward, regardless of the viewer’s experience. In this way the format of television made possible, and therefore now requires, the insourcing, and scripting, of the viewer’s reaction.
From the VCR that watches to the streaming platform that consumes
A subsequent stage of interpassivity was disclosed as what I would call the ‘provisional enjoyment’ of postponed viewing. First made possible by the VCR (Videocassette Recorder), it is exhibit A of the existence of interpassivity in Žižek’s The Plague of Fantasies. The VCR could be connected to a television to record it. The promise was to enable people to watch more television by recording something that was airing live but had to miss given other or prior engagements.
The postponement, however, often tended to become indefinite. Recording itself gained precedence over watching; people never got around to actually watching everything they recorded. It granted some immediate objective experience of having watched the shows because, “the VCR stands for the Big Other, for the medium of symbolic registration”.[viii] In a sense, the VCR enjoyed the show.
The moment of the VCR has passed as well. Recording has now been collectivized through streaming. The aforementioned streaming platforms, as well as YouTube and Twitch, provide an archive of streaming consumables through (outsourced) servers. They do this ‘for us’, so that we can view a stream any time we want.
You can now simply click on a show, film, or stream, and ‘add it to my list’. Through the preset path of the platform itself, we list what we want to watch, creating once again a backlog of shows we will probably never watch. It is the list that stands for the Big Other now, for the moment of symbolic registration. Press these buttons, and you will have enjoyed.[ix]
‘Listing’ videos moved interpassivity from the fringe of subcultures where tape-recording, copying, and trading was a technological marvel to a standard function available in every household. And, with the emergence of YouTube especially, dreams of horizontalizing the relation between artists (content creators as they’re now called) and participants resurfaced. Everybody could now be both creator and viewer.
Yet, a peculiar novelty emerged among the lists of content: the gaming stream. Peculiar, because gaming is already a representative act. Instead of driving around Los Angeles myself, I control a fictional character in Grand Theft Auto V that drives around ‘Los Angeles’ (playfully renamed Los Santos). The fictional character (my avatar) enjoys driving on my behalf, while I enjoy having my enjoyment outsourced to that character. Already a formula emerges: press these buttons, and you will have enjoyed.
But in video game streaming the viewer is twice removed from directly acting. Interactivity with the game is itself insourced, confirming an important dimension of interactivity. Interpassivity is not about external conditions – I’ll settle for what is possible – but internal blockages of that which is to be enjoyed: desire itself. It prevents that which is already blocked from appearing.[x] It is not a case of: ‘you would rather play yourself, were it not for x, y, or z’. No, watching others play video games is a different and stand-alone desire.
Additionally, the video game stream is a two-way street. Interpassivity is possible because of what Pfaller has characterized as an illusion of the other. Both gamer and viewer divest part of their psychic energy from themselves and invest it in the other, thereby not having to identify as the carrier of the illusion (in our case: that gaming is enjoyable). It simultaneously legitimates both parts in the relation. A gamer might not enjoy the game as much, but it doesn’t matter because viewers enjoy it. And, viewers might not enjoy the game as much, but they are not the ones playing!
To tie all these elements together, the video game stream requires multiple scripts. A game is already scripted. Both as a coding script that determines every possibility of the game, and a script for dialogue, prescribing set responses for the playable characters. This is supplemented by the produced script of canned laughter, in which gamers respond appropriately to playing the game, and just like the VCR, it also requires a script to ‘add it to my list’.
Watching gaming streams is not a return to a pre-interactive form, but a post-interactive turn to a third-order of delegated, objective enjoyment. Such streams deal in a layered interpassivity. We have an interpassive agent who can subscribe to a video gaming channel having their interactivity performed for them, while automatically listing the videos that can postpone the watching indefinitely. In some sense, I can enjoy the mere existence of a game I have never experienced in any form.
Comparing the game stream to previous forms of interpassivity, we can see that the gamer is already positioned like the chorus: both part of the stream as an actor and engaging with the game from an outside position like canned laughter. The moment of symbolic registration by the VCR is transposed to the watchlist. But there is one final layer unique to the gaming stream: the viewer’s interaction with the gamer.
Whereas the classical chorus cannot be interacted with, platforms like YouTube and Twitch offer chat feeds, insourcing live reactions into the stream. The viewer can propose challenges or actions that redirect the gamer, the playing style, or the appropriate responses. In a dialectical move beyond the outsourcing of registration, the emotional response is reincorporated within the registration. A larger array of interaction is fed back into the product.
We find also a contemporary form of the claque, cheering or booing, in the guise of like or dislike buttons. We are immediately confronted with how liked or disliked a video, post, or comment is. But, as is well known by now, even these interactions are insourced. By purchasing bots (software robots), a (social) media channel can produce views, reactions, or comments, on demand.[xi]
Now, this whole system of layered interpassivity seems to require something I will call, borrowing from Moses Mendelssohn’s depiction of Judaism, a ‘living script’. Needless to say, this is a concept laced with inner tension, given the classical inclination to consider written words as dead. Mendelssohn himself was troubled by the veneration of written religious symbols against the backdrop of the rapidly modernizing world of the 18th century. But it is by grounding Judaism in its ability to prompt reflection in its adherents around a set of required deeds that the Judaic legal system could be understood as ‘living’. Not running counter to the modern world, but evolving with it, updated by the continuous interaction between the script and the religious community.[xii]
But the living script of the video game stream is different. It is interpassive; it relieves you of having to reflect on it. It is even more alive than an interactive legal system, because it prompts contemplation and transformation not in others, but in itself, in our name. With the streaming wars, interpassivity has become a prominent scheme through which to understand our interactivity. It opens up a dimension of investigation beyond critiques focusing on democratization or different modes of distributing activity and passivity (as ‘creators’ and ‘viewers’). It points us to questions such as: when the interpassive agents involved have all delegated their investment to an other, who is enjoying what, and in whose name? Is it the living script that enjoys? What purposes does this script serve then? These are the types of questions we must take seriously in a society, like ours, with a representative division of labor and enjoyment.
[ii] At the conference ‘Die Dinge lachen an unserer Stelle. Interpassive Medien: die Schattenseite der Interaktivität’ in 1996
[iv] Lacan, Jacques. The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Routledge, 1997. p.252
[v] Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989. p.33
[vi] Dolar, Mladen ‘The Enjoying Machine’, in: Penumbr(a) ed. Jottkandt, Sigi & Copjec, Joan. Re-press, 2013. p.87
[viii] Žižek, Slavoj. The plague of fantasies. Verso, 1997. p.145
[ix] With the recent additions to the streaming wars, we are beginning to see the moment of registration pushed even further. Registration is now doubled into the subscription as a whole, mirrored in the language of platforms (on YouTube, one subscribes to a channel). Between different platforms and services, people stack their subscriptions so that having a subscription itself does the work of engaging with the content. And there is now even an emerging market for ‘illegal’ services that give access to multiple platforms or services. Registration, or subscription to a channel/platform/service, becomes itself the thing registered or collected.
[x] Pfaller, Robert. Interpassivity: The aesthetics of delegated enjoyment. Edinburgh University Press, 2017. p.5
[xi] For more explanation on this and the attempt to distinguish between bots and humans, see: Ferrara, Varol, Davis, Menczer, and Flammini, ‘The rise of the social bots’ in the popular-scientific magazine Communications of the ACM, 2018.
[xii] For a more thorough explication of Mendelssohn’s notion of the living script, see: Sacks, Elias. Moses Mendelssohn’s Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism. Indiana University Press, 2016. pp.28-30