August 24, 2006
Getting Lost

I posted this today on my blog but thought I would cross-post it here as well, considering the entries Jason Mittell has made on the C3 board regarding Lost.

I've been sitting out the conversation that Jason Mittell, Jane McGonigal, and Ian Bogost have been having about Lost, Twin Peaks, serial fiction, and puzzles until now. I have had limited time to write new content the past week or so.

One of the thing that interests me about this conversation is that it suggests what ludologists and narrativists can learn from each other if they actually talked amongst themselves. I am finding myself pulled back and forth as I read this discussion in part because both groups have valid points and a lot rests on how one reads the series. I m learning so much by looking at television through the eyes of game designers like Jane and Ian.

Puzzles or Enigmas?

Lost is a series that works on multiple levels:
1) There are indeed puzzles (defective ones, perhaps, but ones that seem engaging to an awful lot of folks who watch the series): what's inside the hatch, what's the status of the Island (social experiment, purgatory, what have you), what can we learn from deciphering the map, what do those numbers mean, etc.

2) There is all of the well-constructed backstory -- with each character allowing us a point of entry into a slightly different genre and into a different world.

3) there is the unfolding life of the castaways and the world they are building for themselves on the island -- all of the interpersonal politics, the stories of redemption or corruption, the issue of how they are going to deal with the Others, etc.

Lost is very very good at pitting these different pleasures and interests against another, with some new information added at each level in any given episode and the satisfaction of one level of interest being used to defer resolution on another level. Lost is a very well constructed serial fiction in that regard. Some of these pleasures are game-like in their dependence on puzzles, mazes, and ciphers; others are narrative in their dependence on enigmas.

The combination of puzzles and enigmas seems especially effective at motivating fan engagement and participation. This accounts for how Lost can work, in my book's terms, both as a textual attractor (drawing together a community that shares a common interest) and a textual activator (feeding that community something to do, some information to process, some knowledge to gather).

Twin Peak Revisited

Twin Peaks keeps getting pulled into this discussion -- rightfully so -- and as it happens, I did an ethnography of Twin Peaks fans more than a decade ago. That essay is reproduced in my new collection, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers.

Here's what I wrote at the time:

Theories about possible murderers emerged with astounding density and even more remarkable diversity within this reception context. In a world where almost everything can count as a clue, including both material explicitly presented within the aired episodes and information from one of the many ancillary texts surrounding the series (interviews, the European release print, the published Laura Palmer diary, the Cooper tapes and autobiography, the Julee Cruise album and music videos, etc), almost any character could become a prime suspect. There were strong constituencies behind Leland Palmer and Ben Horne, characters Twin Peaks seemed to foreground as likely candidates. Others were convinced that Madeline and Laura had switched places and that, as a result, Laura was actually still alive. Another was certain that Josie or the mysterious Asian Man (then believed to be her henchman) was the killer (if only because the series' otherwise unmotivated opening shot - focusing on Joe's enigmatic face - must have some significance.) More ambitious critics developed elaborate explanations for why the killer was Sheriff Truman, Deputy Andy, Donna, Ronette Pulaski, or Doc Hayward, going well beyond possibilities explicitly raised on the program. Consider, for example, the case that one fan built to support his theory....

The formulation of such theories is the logical response to a mystery, part of the typical reception of any whodunit, yet rarely has the consumption of a mystery been conducted in such a public fashion. The technology of the net allows what might previously have been private meditations to become the basis for social interaction. Each case made against a possible suspect represented a different formulation of Twin Peaks' moral economy, a different emplotment of its events, that necessarily changed the meaning of the whole and foregrounded some moments at the expense of others. A world where Laura Palmer is murdered by the kindly doctor who delivered her into the world is a very different place than one where she is murdered by the Horne brothers in their efforts to protect their drug trade or where Laura kills her cousin and assumes her identity. Different theories were grounded in different assumptions about the nature of evil and the trustworthiness of authority. No one was sure how black Lynch's narrative would become.

What these competing theories meant was the continued circulation and elaboration of multiple narratives, each of which could be sustained by the aired information, each of which posed a different way of making sense to the series. Each new revelation on the air produced new challenges for some theories while seeming to add ammunition to others. Each clue was reread multiple times to provide support for each of the metatextual narratives that assumed lives of their own apart from Lynch's text.

In other words, the myth that fans were somehow solving a puzzle proved surprisingly generative, enabling a prolonged process of interpretation -- but I would go beyond this and describe each of these theories as a form of fan fiction. Most of the people who posed these theories -- especially those involving more obscure suspects -- knew they were unlikely to be "right" (predicting Lynch's narrative trajectory). Rather, they were showing off their ability to reimagine the story on different terms and still make all of the pieces fit. They weren't so much interpreting Lynch's series as constructing an alternative version of it. I am certain this is also what goes on with many of the theories around Lost.

There's a problem here: the notion of a mystery or a puzzle puts the focus on the product (figuring out the solution) rather than on the process (enjoying the play with multiple possible versions of the story). So, ironically, the pleasure is greatest in the middle -- once there are enough pieces of information out there to enable multiple competing versions of the story to be placed into circulation and to be debated but before the series starts to close down possibilities. A collective intelligence can generate a richer, more nuanced version of the narrative than a small creative team working within the economic constraints of the American media industry can possibly facilitate. These series are almost certain to end in disappointment, almost certainly going to let their fans down in the end. We've seen this with Twin Peaks and with The Matrix and with Babylon 5 and perhaps now with Lost with varying degrees of disappointment and frustration.

The Trickster Author

That said, notions of authorship play crucial roles in motivating and justifying this activity. These fans needed to see themselves as exceptional readers (going beyond what "Joe Sixpack" was willing to do with the content of popular television) and to justify that, they needed to see David Lynch as an exceptional author (one who was going to flaunt television conventions, one who had thought this through at a deeper level, one who would at any given moment pull the rug out from under his fans):

The fans' pleasure lay simultaneously in their mastery over the text (their ability to successfully predict the next turn of its convoluted plot) and their vulnerability to Lynch's trickery (their inability to guess what is likely to happen next). Matching wits against Lynch became the ideal test of their own intellectual rigor and creative impulses, a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery at a task that refused to yield easily to their probing. While most critics were pushing the producers the resolve the Palmer murder before they lost all of their viewers, the computer net fans only wanted to see the enigmas expand, wanted to forestall closure in order to prolong their pleasure in playing with textual puzzles. One fan posted a joke that perfectly captured their pleasurable agony over the deferral of narrative resolution: "A robber walks into a bank and says to the teller, 'Give me all your money or I'll tell you who killed Laura Palmer.'"

Many of them gained a special prestige from their ability to understand this program that proved incoherent and unapproachable to many of their friends and family members. The fans wanted its complexities to proliferate so they could spend more hours trying to work through the problems it posed.

And as the process continues, as the ending grows closer, there is a panic that sets in that the writer may not be quite as bright as one had imagined. Here's how one TP fan talked about Lynch (the terms are very similar to the way some Lost fans are now talking about Abrams):

Am I the only one experiencing a crisis of faith? I waken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat imagining a world in which no one knows who killed Laura Palmer. I imagine Lynch and Frost just making it up as they go along, snickering about attempts to identify the killer when none exists. I see them ultimately making an arbitrary choice of culprits, a totally unsatisfying conclusion to the mystery. Are we being treated to an excruciatingly slow fuck destined to end in a whimper of an orgasm? Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining, there are worse things in life.

And of course, Abrams faces the added burden, as Bogost notes, of having already screwed over fans of Alias and thus having to escape his reputation for slap-dash storytelling. (Under the circumstances, I've been surprised by how much Lost coheres and yet still manages to surprise).

Here's how I discussed this problem in terms of Twin Peaks:

Paradoxically, the more authority fans ascribed to the author, the more suspicious they become of that authority. So much was riding on their conception of Lynch's masterfulness that their anxiety intensified as the series unfolded. If Lynch as author justified their fannish activity, rationalized the time and attention devoted to his text, what would happen if the text was meaningless - or rather, if they all found meaningful originated within the reception community rather than the author?

We could of course take another perspective -- suggesting that a text should be judged by the generativeness of its content and not by the coherence of its final resolution. A good television show would be one that inspires the most activity within the community and inspires fans to put together the pieces in the most interesting ways. The aired resolution represents one possible way of understanding that material -- given no more or less status than any other interpretation of the fictional world and judged against the richness that the fan community itself produced. Yet, most of us aren't willing to go this far in terms of valuing fan creativity over professional entertainment.

A Corrupted Art?

Let me respond briefly to two other claims that Bogost made in his comments here, since they speak to either a misunderstanding of each other's positions or to a fundamental difference about the nature of popular culture (take your pick):

Bogost writes:

In my opinion (you knew this was coming), this technique is primarily used to hook viewers and insure their commitment to the show in order to increase the value of the broadcast's advertising dollars. Such value is the primary currency of consolidated media, but it also benefits creator JJ Abrams, who gets a cut of the show's value thanks to his role as creator and executive producer. So, there is a financial incentive toward false riddles or riddle simulations, which are arguably easier to craft than real one.

Yes, Ian, I knew that one was coming. I don't totally disagree.

But the same elements in the series can have both commercial and aesthetic motivations at the same time. Every media maker is in the business of making money for the people who finance their work. Every choice has to be justified to their backers as a commercial calculation. Yet, in practice, there are a wide array of different ways one can make money off your consumers and at some point, other kinds of values enter into the choices that get made around the production of a television show. In this case, Abrams seems honestly interested in the aesthetics of serial fiction and seems to particularly enjoy puzzles, ciphers, and mazes (not to mention backstory) as building blocks for television entertainment.

Lost was far from guaranteed success when it launched: there weren't other shows with strong audiences that followed these practices and you could argue that he was going deeper in the same direction that was associated with the critical and commercial collapse of his previous series. No matter how you cut it, Lost was a gamble. Many other television producers have tried to duplicate the formula of Lost and, so far, none of them have enjoyed either its commercial or critical success. Something is going on here that audiences find compelling. And if it were as simple as making the right commercial calculations, then we would see many more successful duplications. To date, Prison Break is the only new series, post-Lost, to succeed on these terms and its success is modest compared to what Lost has accomplished. We will see if any of the new fall serials can break out of this pattern.

I often find myself draw to a quote from Roger Corman that speaks to this tension between commercial and aesthetic motivations:

I think films are a compromised and corrupted art form, a combination of business and art. And I think filmmakers who treat it completely as a business fail. A business-oriented film is too blatant. It must have something more. To me, films that succeed are those that are slightly corrupted, that attempt to be both business and art, knowing they can never be a full work of art and should never be a full work of business.

A Disruptive Audience?

Bogost also writes:

I know that Henry (and you too, from the sound of it) believe that these fan gestures are disruptive to commercial enterprise, but I think the argument for such disruption is much stronger in the case of Survivor than in the case of Lost.

Actually, this is a simplification of what I am arguing about fan's relations to television. It is perhaps a more accurate description of what I argued in Textual Poachers than of what I am arguing in Convergence Culture.

Textual Poachers was very much shaped by the language of cultural studies which at the time was locked into a debate with other theoretical traditions about whether people who consumed popular media were somehow ideological dupes of capitalist patriarchy. The counterargument then necessarily focused on resistance, suggesting that audiences had a largely oppositional relationship to television producers and content. In Poachers, I hint at some flaws in this argument, suggesting the ways that fan activity is motivated both by fascination and by frustration, suggesting that appropriation involves both proximity and distance to the text, and arguing that not all appropriations fit comfortably within the progressive ideologies being celebrated by writers in the Cultural Studies tradition. But, the most oft cited passages of the book celebrate the oppositional nature of fan culture.

The relations between contemporary media producers and fans are more complicated still because of this elaborate courtship dance that is taking place at the moment around relationship marketing, user-generated content, and audience participation. The result may be a broad array of different relationships between consumers and producers, some oppositional, some collaborative, and typically there are shifts in that relationship over time. As I suggest, Survivor fans are not operating outside of the design of the series when they show strong interests in who wins the million dollars; they may become part of the buzz around the series when producers want to talk about the extreme lengths they will go to find answers; the producers may play cat and mouse games to keep them engaged. At the same time, Survivor fans increasingly view the producers as antagonists and producers increasingly feel threatened by their ability to expose what they find to a larger public.

In the case of Lost, there's nothing particularly oppositional about audiences pooling knowledge and debating interpretations. (Indeed, Jason Mittell makes this very point in an essay he recently shared with me comparing spoiling Survivor with spoiling Lost.) This is, as Bogost notes, the mechanism that sustains interest in the series. It is also part of Lost's aesthetic design: there's no question that the producers are factoring internet-based reception into their creative decisions on the series.