Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve been introduced to technological innovations designed to expand the sensory purview of media consumption. In the first instance, I heard an ad on Pandora recommending (perhaps sarcastically?) that I pair my taste in music with my taste in wine. Then on Wednesday, a friend told me that researchers at the University of California were exploring ways to connect televisual phenomena to synthetic smells transmitted somehow into my living room. (As I Google to make sure I didn’t make up this conversation, it turns out that this phenomenon, alongside bronies, was recently covered in Wired.)
Needless to say, these developments excited my curiosity, and inspired me to reflect on the limits of media consumption that I see as desirable. I’m something of a conservative in this area — 3D, for example, holds little appeal for me, and my enjoyment of both music and wine is too great for me to seek out any streamlining of their ideally serendipitous interplay. Perhaps I was influenced at too vulnerable a stage by Theodor Adorno’s anxieties about the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. He feared that such a work, particularly as attempted by Wagner in opera, necessarily sacrificed the vast potential of individual disciplines, like music and storytelling, in the service of an authoritarian fantasy.
My own vision of the totally immersive artwork looks more like Whedon than Wagner, although fortunately, the Buffyverse has altered the politics of sensory overload in the opposite direction, by switching medium from television to comics. The story of the controversial Season Eight, the first comics season, was the most ambitious to date, and in my reading, the most fiercely critical of the authoritarian desires underlying every superhero narrative. This was made possible because the sheer amount of sensory stimulation was pared down and spatialized onto the page, thus laying bare the consequences of every aesthetic decision. While in television, it takes fans creating transcripts, screencaps, and gifs to approach this depth of focus, in the comics, that work is done for us, and we are asked to get straight to analysis.
Comics, I suppose, are my “endgame” medium for 21st-Century storytelling. I’d rather read a comic in my favorite beer and coffee-scented cafe than watch smellivision in a private chamber of the senses, where so many elements of my experience are pre-determined by a media owner. Perhaps this bears a relationship to my fannish approach to texts — I already enjoy my sensory experience of the texts we have, whether it’s the tears that come at those Sarah McLachlan moments (oh yes) or the crackling sound I swear I can hear when I see a young witch tap out on magic. These are the moments that I want to talk about with my friends after I’m finished with media consumption for the day, the moments that help me to anchor my experience of the story, my “gif” moments, if you will.
These, especially ratcheted up to being Sarah McLachlan moments, are manipulation enough for me. I’m not sure that my poor heart could take much more. So, television and music of the future, let me catch up to the emotional stakes currently on offer, before you program my sensory response mechanisms completely. I’ll be over here with my glass of water, the smell of Ohio summer in the air.