Thursday, March 14, 2013

The People Formerly Known as the Audience

What exactly are we doing when we watch something? In these moments, we are the audience, or spectators. Typically this is understood as a passive activity--in fact in many types of analysis, simply being part of the crowd, watching something (a show, a game, a concert) is denigrated as a less productive form of activity than, say, those who are doing the cultural production everyone else is attending.

More recent analysis of cultural production and participation, however, tells a more complex story. Participating in the media we view does not require blogging it, creating art in response, etc. Participation can also include evaluation, appraisal, critique, and recirculation of material. In fact, perhaps to a certain degree, it is necessary that most of us perform our role as audience or spectator in this more "passive" manner because if we were all performers, all producers, there would be no one listening, no one watching, and the noise would be cacophonous.

John Zizioulas, in his remarkable work contemporizing eastern orthodox theology, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church offers an intriguing theology of the "Amen" of the laity in corporate worship.  He says the indispensable role in the liturgy of the people of God is to "say the Amen" as a response to the grace they have received. In the liturgical call and response of worship, the priest or bishop proclaims the word of God and the congregation responds with the "Amen." In Zizioulas's view, this is not seen as denigrating the people of God in any way, as if saying this Amen were somehow lower or more passive than the leader roles. It is simply the important role they play.

I was thinking about this today while reading Henry Jenkin's book Spreadable Media, where he talks about what "audienceship" means in the modern social media era. He writes,

"Some of these processes marked as 'less active' involve substantial labor that potentially provides value according to both commercial and noncommercial logic. Even though we are excited about lowering the barriers of entry to cultural production, we should not assume that audience activities involving greater media production skills are necessarily more valuable and meaningful to other audience members or to cultural producers than are acts of debate or collective interpretation--or that media properties which drive more technical forms of audience creation and participation are somehow more engaging than content that generates discussion and sharing is" (154). 

Placing these two inquiries next to each other--Jenkin's work on participatory culture and Zizioulas's work on ecclesiology and personhood--does not imply that worship is best when it is hierarchical, with clergy leading and the people passively attending it, or that other kinds of culture are best if they also perpetuate this form. But it does offer a more complex analysis of what is happening when we watch something. Perhaps it isn't as necessary as we think to get everybody "doing" something in worship. In many ways they already are. And those who take a more passive mode in worship may actually be cultural producers of more media in other contexts, but faithfully saying the "Amen" in our context.

For Christian life, all this invites us to ask what the people formerly known as the congregation might be in this new media era. Some of those gathered for worship in our communities likely will, and should be invited to, make use of their greater media production skills to tweet, instagram, blog, journal, and spread the content of corporate worship. However, the majority of us will be, rightly, engaged in collective interpretation, which looks a lot like saying the "Amen." Perhaps participatory culture includes really simple but deep activities like assent, disagreement, increased perplexity, clarified thought, appraisal, critique, and more.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! I just started reading Jenkins' book myself (I've read most of his older work, which is quite good). You should write something more lengthy on this for Dialog. They have an upcoming issue on media, religion and culture -- maybe it would fit?