The Sopranos: The Passing of Time, the Selling of Crime.

Q. How does the televisual machine commodify time and how might new viewing practices challenge those processes of commodification?

That's the way to do it...

The televisual machine offers us a multiplicity of ways in which to experience time, territory and subjectivity beyond the confines of our bodies, cultures and realities. But, as with any culture-producing machine, television simultaneously works to encompass all, to bring everything within the scope of its capitalist logic. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about territory and time I aim to investigate the deterritorialisations and reterritorialisations enacted by the televisual machine. I will investigate how the increasingly common practice of viewing serialised narrative shows, like HBO’s The Sopranos, in extended ‘marathon’ sessions might alter and challenge the way time is commodified by the more traditional week-by-week routine of watching a terrestrially broadcast show, and consider how the television machine responds to such a challenge. I will attempt to identify the different types of time which are present within the broad category of televisual time, and how DVD and internet download viewing of a series, which this blogger refers to as ‘TVD’, engages with different types of time. I will look at how The Sopranos, and televisual products generally, are both deterritorialised and deterritorialising products, how they are both co-opted and co-opting into the capitalist televisual machine.

Television commodifies time; it is a machine which exchanges our ‘lived’ time for televisual time whilst perpetuating the capitalist logic that everything can be abstracted and exchanged. By ‘lived’ time I mean chronological time what we, however inaccurately, regard as ‘real’ time. Televisual time refers to the types of time within a televisual text. For example, one episode of The Sopranos is 58 minutes of lived time, but could potentially be any amount of televisual time, depending on the scope of that episode. Traditional terrestrial viewing involves dedicated daily or weekly routines in order to follow the narrative, which means story lines develop more slowly and characters age and progress in parallel to our lived experience of time. In this type of viewing the narrative is confined to its schedule, viewers can watch only as often and as much as the networks allow. The viewer is required to stick with the show, and hence the network and its commercials, for years, even decades in order to receive narrative closure. Although, as we have seen with The Sopranos there is no guarantee of what this final resolution will entail. This deferment of satisfaction is far removed from the kind of immersion that takes place during extended periods of TVD viewing. Terrestrial viewing refuses to allow us enter too deeply into televisual time, it continually returns us to the conditions of our ‘real’ lives within the capitalist machine, disrupting the narrative with ads, the gaps between episodes and the gaps between series. TVD viewing is an attempt to disengage with these capitalist modes of time by taking only what is desired from the televisual machine, that is the narrative, and leaving behind the demands and constrictions of terrestrial viewing.

Televisual time is broad category which encompasses several types of time, all of which aid the consumption of the text. Within a 58 minute episode of The Sopranos There is the diegetic time within each shot of the show; Carmella pours a glass of orange juice at breakfast and we judge her time it to be the same as our lived time. But as soon as a cut is made, episodic time comes into play. Time is elided between cuts, it slips away into nothingness. Carmella unwittingly gets into a car with Tony’s mistress and the next shot jumps to the pair driving down a leafy suburban road. The scene continues, the dialogue picks up from the last shot and the extra-diegetic time melts away unmissed. Time is collapsed so that the televisual event can be fore grounded. Yet this elided time is constantly making itself conspicuous by its absence, not only between shots but between scenes, episodes and even whole series. When we watch the Sopranos we are seeing years of the characters ‘lives’ pass before us, years which pass on the actors bodies, even if not on our own, reminding us of the this elided time. Between two series of The Sopranos actors age and aesthetic tastes move on, something which, under the conditions of terrestrial viewing is far less likely to be noticed than during TVD viewing. TVD viewing can become incongruous, jarring even.

 

The Sopranos family in the first season, 1999 … and during the final season 2007

The actors’ bodies are testament to the manipulation of time inherent to these viewing practices. With every cut between scenes, indeed every cut between shots, the promise of ‘real’ time is revoked. We do not require points of congruence between story lines. What is Tony doing while Carmella flirts with her interior decorator? How does meadow spend her days at College? We do not ask, we assume that televisual events have been constructed for our benefit and accept that all types of televisual time are malleable and inconstant, only to be understood after they have passed. As viewers we are content to defer satisfaction in the present for the promise of satisfaction the future, a model familiar to us from every machinic process of our capitalist ideology. We know that we will only gather meaning retrospectively, just as time can only be understood as a chronological progression once we place it into sequence through memory.

At this point we can turn to the Deleuzian concept of ‘sheets’ or ‘aspects’ of past, which offers us insight into these contemporary viewing practices. Deleuze borrows from Bergson’s model of time as an inverted cone …

… in order to illustrate how time is experienced by humans (Deleuze 1989, 98). Deleuze and Bergson are both interested in creating a model of time that explains the human experience of time, rather than a strictly scientific explanation (Muldoon 2006, 67). Bergson offers us the image of the ‘inverted cone’ of time, the most contracted circle of which is the present, which then spreads outwards to encompass all past. The past is conceptualised as ‘sheets’ or ‘regions’ of past. They appear to us in sequential order but only because we view them from the continuous vantage point of successive presents (Deleuze 1989, 99). Deleuze points out that the past is something only understood from the perspective of the present, just as in language, meaning is only discerned retrospectively from the words and phonemes we hear (Deleuze 1989, 99) and in a television show narrative is only created retrospectively by the viewer through the context of memory. The idea that there is a chronological ‘past’ is not what Deleuze is postulating, rather that all past coexists together from the perspective of the present, and when we access the past we are in fact alighting on a particular sheet of past with its own ‘tones’ and ‘aspects’. Consider the DVD menu of The Sopranos, or almost DVD for that matter. The menu screen could be seen as the present, from which point, every instance of the past is accessible. We can go to any moment in any episode by selecting a scene. The scene we select is like the sheet of past that encompasses certain interlinked events, events of the same tone, with the same themes. Or we can ‘play all’ (everyone’s favourite option) and allow the story to play out in a linear form, while we sink into our machinic addiction to The Sopranos, only to emerge hours later, our sense of ‘lived’ time totally superseded by the types of televisual time layered within.

 

 

Anyone who has had this experience emerging from televisual time and space after watching an entire season of their favourite show will be familiar with the deterritorialisation and machinic addiction that TVD viewing engenders. If we accept that TVD is a subset of the televisual machine, then the hours we eagerly dedicate to TVD viewing must surely be viewed as an addiction to the televisual machine, its narrative and its deterritorialising effect. Deterritorialisation is the demarcation of the territory, its subdivision and delineation (Deleuze and Guattari 1977, 1945). When something is annexed from its ties to physical, social, historical and cultural territory it is deterritorialised. Guattari and Deleuze speak of the earth as the undivided whole, the “unique indivisible entity” and “The element superior to production” (Deleuze and Guattari 1977 140) which then falls victim to the deterritorialisations and reterritorialisations of machines. Capitalist machines are expert at de/reterritorialisation, although, as Guattari point out, an ideology is not itself a territory but rather, territories do the work of an ideology by inscribing the permissible cultural identities, artefacts and practices specific to a particular territory (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 508). Television is particularly adept at deterritorialisation; in fact it is television’s central purpose to enact de/reterritorialisation on the viewer. Guattari talks about the ‘polyphonic subjectivities’ which television produces, drawing on Bakhtin’s theories of the polyphony of voices:

When I watch television I exist at the intersection: 1. of a perceptual fascination provoked by the screen’s luminous animation which borders on the hypnotic, 2. of a captive relation with the narrative content of the program, associated with a lateral awareness of surrounding events (water boiling on the stove, a child’s cry, the telephone…), 3. of a world of fantasms occupying my day-dreams”. (Guattari 1995, 16)

Guattari says that to counter this pulling apart of subjectivity he, the subject, becomes the person who speaks from the television. In other words, other identities are relinquished in favour of the central narrative of the text. Television is not just a televisual machine, as Guattari says; it is a ‘machine of subjectivity’ (Guattari 1995, 17). In the intensified circumstance of TVD viewing, the televisual subjectivity machine, which is a de/reterritorialising machine, is faced with fewer competing subjectivity machines (like Guattari’s crying baby) allowing it to function ever more effectively to deterritorialise and subjectify the viewer. This ‘subjectification’ is closely linked to the reterritorialisations enacted by the televisual machine.

TVD viewing enacts a line of flight away from the more usual territories of our existence and reterritorialises the viewer on complex new territories specific to the televisual text involved. Perhaps we’ve reterritorialised upon the territory of a ship in Space or the White House, the old West, suburban Melbourne, a funeral parlour or any number of possibilities. Of course these territories are not just physical or geographical, despite Deleuze and Guattari’s penchant for geological terminology. Reterritorialisations “stand for the lost territory” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 508), they are multiple and faceted, they can ‘land’ on political territories, territories of sensation and tone, territories of cultural identity. So when we reterritorialise on The Sopranos, it is not only the territory of North Jersey we land upon, it is the territory of the late 1990s, early 2000s, American, Noveau-riche, capitalist, mafia, family, gender, suburbia, psychoanalysis, etc.

carmella's territory

(Carmella’s territories, commodified.)

And then again The Sopranos is the territory of HBO, high-production values, subscription service television with its own cultural and social connotations. Television shows are always deterritorialised because they are, by their very nature, removed from the conditions of their production and consumed and appropriated in new territories. TVD viewing is no different. Consider the region classifications of DVDs. The Sopranos is produced in New York and then distributed on DVD around the world. The show can then be bought in Moscow, Mexico City or Melbourne. But that DVD cannot then be returned to New Jersey to be watched by David Chase, at least it is not supposed to be. These region classifications act to deterritorialise and reterritorialise The Sopranos so that it can be commodified, consumed and contained according to capitalist logic.

Watching TV shows on DVD or internet downloads certainly changes the way we engage with the televisual machine but this does not necessarily indicate an ability to escape its capitalist logic. Amongst technology and television-literate (people like us!) it can seem that no-one watches terrestrial TV anymore. While that is something of an overstatement, fewer people are watching terrestrial television, sitting down week after week at a time carefully scheduled by the television network to garner the most advertising revenue. Discussion of this has tended to focus on the idea that viewers will no longer ‘put up’ with commercials and scheduling decisions made by TV executives. The assumption seems to be that audiences are independently minded now; technology is outstripping the old-fashioned capitalist mode of television viewing. But even the most cursory assessment will reveal that when we watch TVD, we are always and unavoidably engaging with the capitalist machine. There is no outside of the system, everything is co-opted back in. We might buy the collectable DVD boxed set of The Sopranos so that we can appreciate the show without commercials or the need to ration our consumption, but in return we sit through increasingly hysterical warnings about DVD piracy (which, unlike anything else on the DVD we cannot scroll or skip past), we pay for slickly designed packaging and collectable souvenir editions and related merchandise.

Smoke like Tony

The Sopranos cigars – smoke what Tony smokes!

Even if we download shows illegally, we must own a computer, pay for internet usage and be subjected to internet ads at least as plentiful and pervasive as any seen on TV. TVD viewing intensifies the de/reterritorialisations which are intrinsic to capitalist processes of commodification (Deleuze and Guattari 1977, 244). A DVD, and even more so, a downloaded torrent, is consumed without the reterritorialisation, the entry into the territory, which terrestrial television enacts to some degree by means of its context. The Sopranos viewed terrestrially on Channel Ten might be preceded by an episode of Thank God You’re Here and followed by Big Brother. Seven episodes of The Sopranos downloaded from uTorrent and watched on your lap top in bed will have no such context. It will remain a commodity divorced from its means of production and be far less susceptible to reterritorialisation.

The implications of TVD as opposed to terrestrial television consumption are many and complex, and it is surely impossible and fruitless to try and conclusively evaluate their relative merits. By viewing a television show on TVD we attempt to disengage with terrestrial televisual time, which structures our televisual machinic addictions so that we may partake of the drug to a degree, whilst remaining firmly within the our local territories of the home and family (recall Guattari’s water boiling on the stove and the crying baby, distractions which pulled his televisual subjectivity in opposing directions). Terrestrial viewing succumbs to capitalist commodity culture through its commercials, product placements and ideological practices within the narratives of the texts themselves. When viewing TVD some of these processes are altered and some even largely avoided, yet other processes of commodification arise to take their place. We are freed from commercials and are no longer at the mercy of network programmers. We can have as much of our televisual drug as we want, we can speed up or slow down televisual time, we can access any televisual event as often as we like or by-pass it completely. But the fact remains that we are consuming a massively commodified product, and this ‘freedom’ to consume perhaps results in even greater susceptibility to the addictive quality of the televisual machine. Yet, as Guattari makes clear in his discussion of machinic junkies, a machinic addiction can be a doping or a revolution; “It’s either miserable prostration or the creation of an unprecedented universe” (Guattari 1996, 104). Perhaps a TVD addiction will result in unexpected and unpredictable flows of energy and creativity. Perhaps we watch the episode of The Sopranos ‘Pine Barrens’, in which Paulie and Christopher become lost in a snowy wood overnight, and then explore our own environment armed with a new set of associations. TVD viewing enacts a deterritorialisation on the viewer which opens the territory to incursion by new states of being, sensations, ideas and practices. At every instant there is the possibility of a change in direction, the expansion and mutation of an idea. Energies might flow and combine in unpredictable ways allowing a repressive machine to become, even if only briefly, a machine for creation, expression and elation.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. London And New York: Routledge, 1993, 29-43.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. London: The Athlone Press, 1989, 99-124.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. “Deterritorialization.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London And New York: Continuum, 1987. 508-510

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: The Viking press, 1977.

Flaxman, Gregory. “Introduction.” In The Brain Is The Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema, edited by Gregory Flaxman. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 1-57.

Guattari, Felix. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Sydney, Australia: Power Publications, 1992.

Guattari, Felix. “Machinic Junkies.” In Soft Subversions, edited by S Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. 101-105

Lavery, David, and Robert J. Thompson. “David Chase, The Sopranos, and Television Creativity.” In This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos, edited by David Lavery. London: Wallflower, 2002, 18-25.

Muldoon, Mark S. Tricks of Time: Bergson, Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur in Search of Time, Self and Meaning. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006.

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2 Responses to “The Sopranos: The Passing of Time, the Selling of Crime.”

  1. […] which relies on a linear model of time based on the construction of memory (see Zoe’s fascinating discussion of this subject). Therefore, as a terrified Bullock flees through his mnemonic territories, he […]

  2. the cone is scary but nonetheless brilliant. i look forward to reading your book someday! fc

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